Afloat on England's Back Waters

Afloat on England's Back Waters

Fiorenzo Borghi
Fiorenzo Borghi
Along the canals of Avon, the landscape is the same as it ever was. Take a barge and drift past the Georgian houses of Shrewsbury and Upton, tie up near Shakespeare's mother's house, and step ashore for a cream tea. Just watch out for the goslings

You never forget the first time you drive. It was the summer of 1977 and I was 14. Feeling cocky, I pushed down on the gas and roared into the distance. I didn't ease up until I hit the speed limit: a blistering five miles an hour.

It doesn't really matter what you drive when you're a restless teenager. Even though we hardly outstripped the cows grazing on the banks, I was deliriously happy maneuvering a lumbering, 45-foot, two-ton canal boat through the murky green water.

As kids, my sister and I spent several summers boating on the waterways of England and France with our parents. Cleaning the boat, working locks, running errands, somehow added up to bliss. Though no match for France's elegantly landscaped Canal du Midi, the British waterways were, well, more British—a little dowdy, a bit reserved, but very welcoming. Charmingly decrepit, often bucolic, they offer a kind of neo-Romantic industrialism worthy of Turner.

Two decades ago, I couldn't wait for life to speed up and get going. Now that things are quite fully—sometimes madly—under way, I felt an increasing urge to revisit those languid canal days. Yet in the process of escaping from the frenzy of New York's dotcom mania, I found I was navigating the detritus of another century's equally dramatic—and frenetic—transformation. England's canals, after all, are where the revolution that launched Britain as a great manufacturing power took place. Everything from coal to timber, from pig iron to grain to Wedgwood china, was carried on this new system of waterways, sparking a speculative furor. "Canal mania," which peaked in 1793, transformed England as thoroughly as the Internet boom has 21st-century America. Canal company stock issues were wildly oversubscribed, with investors sleeping on line (the real, not the virtual) for a chance to buy shares. Vast fortunes were made and lost overnight, and in the 1830's canal stocks were paying dividends of an astonishing 48 percent. The shares of Birmingham Navigation, originally priced at 140 pounds, soared to 1,150 pounds in a matter of months.

Not everybody embraced the new technology, though. It sparked riots as well as parliamentary debates, such as the one in which a member remarked that he hoped his "grandchildren [would] be born web-footed, that they might be able to live on fish, for there will not be a bit of dry land in this island to walk on."

Though most of us have yet to grow webbed feet, the canals have found a second life in Britain's tourist boating culture. After years of neglect, nearly the entire system has been resurrected through the efforts of the British Waterways Board. With my wife, Helen, her sister Julien, and Julien's boyfriend, Jeff, I set off to open Britain's "back door" onto a middle-distance view of the present and the past.

The Avon Ring is one of the oldest and most varied sections of Britain's canal system. It also runs through a series of gorgeous "lost" towns—Upton, Tewkesbury, Evesham, Bidford, Pershore. You wouldn't ever see this particular group of villages unless you were traveling on the canals; founded around these once-thriving waterways, they have lain dormant since railroad and highway planners decided to pass them by 150 years ago. What was a disaster for economic development has been a boon for architecture: the Norman abbeys of Gloucester, the Georgian elegance of Shrewsbury and Upton.

And, as we discovered, the aesthetic pleasures of canal boating extend to the boats themselves. Long, narrow, and lean, canal boats are masterpieces of micro-design that make you feel like a child playing house. Hidden compartments pop out; seats become beds; not an inch is wasted. The boat my parents first rented had the only three-burner stove I've ever seen, neatly wedged into a corner barely big enough to hold two small pots. Our mighty craft, the 45-by-7-foot Astwood, is luxurious by comparison: a tiny bathroom and narrow double bed at the aft, a kitchen in the center, and a larger bed (the sly merger of two couches and the dining table) at the fore. The largest canal boats reach 70 feet and comfortably sleep as many as 10 people.

When we arrive at the Tardebigge boatyard south of Birmingham and 100 miles from London, we find the Astwood stocked with the groceries we had ordered, ready to go. After checking our route and receiving a 20-minute lesson on how the motor operates, we push off down the canal, smugly self-sufficient in our floating fortress.

The closest you come to exercise on a boat is while working the locks—the devices that allow the canals to run through the hilly British countryside without turning into streams. Essentially, locks are small, man-made compartments that you fill up and drain in order for your boat to go up and down a hill. The routine is roughly the same at each lock: one person gets off the boat, pushes open the enormous wood-and-steel doors, closes the doors once the boat is in, uses a winch to open the paddles that send 50,000 or so gallons of water into the basin, and then opens the doors at the other end to let the boat out. Given the century-old doors and sticky paddles, the routine can be exhausting, especially if you have to do it over and over again through a long flight of locks.

To avoid working too many locks during our first few jet-lagged days, we modify our trip on the Avon Ring with a brief northwest detour through some of the longest tunnels in Britain. I get up early, untie the lines, and push the boat away from the bank while the others sleep. The dew hangs heavy on the grass and the murky green canal brims with water from last night's rainfall. We glide silently by the cathedral-like façade and towering smokestacks of Birmingham's Bellis & Morecom High Efficiency Gas and Air Compressor factory (all 180,000 square feet "For Let"). I had forgotten how suddenly one passes from lush greenery to these forlorn brick hulks.

The pace of canal life, somewhere between a brisk walk and a slow jog, takes a little getting used to. Other than the vigorous breaks to pass through locks, boating is a complacent sort of activity: not much happens and it is difficult to keep track of how far you've gone or what time it is. When our bilge pump fails after four seemingly long days on the canals, I'm stunned that the repairman catches up with us in less than an hour, but then I realize we've traveled only 30 miles.

The narrow Staffordshire & Worcestershire is one of the prettiest stretches of canal in all of Britain. Rain only enhances the damp beauty of woods so dense you expect Robin Hood and his Merry Men to ambush you. Endless stands of majestic firs tower above us on one side; on the other are acres of meadow, which the abundant rainfall has turned an almost surreal shade of green.

Coots, magpies, moorhens, ducks, and swans flutter about, scurrying across our bow or hanging in our wake, scavenging. Rabbits dash through the underbrush. Turning sharply near Stourbridge, we come upon a hillside so thick with grazing sheep it looks as if it's shadowed by a white cloud. Wherever we go on the ring, we see hundreds of "huts"—rickety wooden platforms where fishermen sit for hours, their long poles extended into the murky canal. They are patient men indeed: of all the fishermen we see, not one has caught anything. As we pass, they nod slowly and draw their poles back, like an honor guard.

Heading south toward Stourport, where the canal feeds into the Severn River, the locks appear more frequently. By the end of two weeks we will have worked through 140 of them over the course of 150 miles.

Perhaps because canal boating combines a taste for both rain and pub fare, it seems peculiarly suited to the English. In two weeks we meet only one other boat with Americans. Five days into the trip we glide through Stourport's busy marina, teeming with hundreds of small boats, as well as dozens of larger vessels on their way down the river and out to sea at the Bristol Channel. The town of Stourport hardly existed before it was chosen as the spot where the canal would meet up with the Severn. In 1772, when the two bodies of water were joined, it suddenly became a major inland port, the gateway to the British Midlands. The port is immense, with three locks and four connected basins, dominated by the massive Clock Tower and crisscrossed by elaborate wrought-iron footbridges. Today it is used almost exclusively by pleasure craft. The stretch of the Severn to the north of here is so silted in, it is impassable.

Steering a long boat on a canal usually requires little more than nudging the rudder a few inches one way or the other, but navigating the Severn makes me feel like a minnow in the Atlantic Ocean. With swift currents and a water level that occasionally rises high enough to flood entire towns, the Severn is Britain's longest river, and as wide as a football field. Fortunately, we're heading downstream, which allows us to cut our engine and simply drift past boats struggling upstream. Our boat sits so low in the water that we are barely able to see over the banks until we reach the clearing that precedes the enormous, 40-foot steel doors of the automated Holt Lock, large enough to hold six boats at a time. The lock keeper, perched in a high-tech tower, flashes a green light as a signal for us to enter. Once in, we cling to the thick chains bolted to either wall and watch the water rush beneath us.

Since our progress down the Severn is so swift, we stop at midday to look at riverside towns. In Worcester, Pitchcroft Racecourse is being readied for the annual canal boating convention (typically held in August). Hundreds of boaters set out weeks in advance, from all across England, to look over next year's boat models and gossip about the routes they plan to travel. It sounds like a cross between a trade show and a sewing circle, so we head as fast as possible in the opposite direction, toward Upton, whose New Street is lined with white-columned Georgian houses. We stop at the Old Bell House, a lace-besotted tea parlor. The twee factor is more than made up for by the airy scones swathed in sweet clotted cream the consistency of spun cotton. In the next town, Tewkesbury, where the Severn meets the Avon, remarkably long 17th-century alleyways connect block after block of perfectly preserved thatched-roof timber buildings. It's Elizabethan England, captured in amber.

Just 10 miles farther down the Severn is Gloucester, home to one of the largest dock complexes in this part of Britain. There is also a very comprehensive canal museum. Pathetic as it may sound, I'd been waiting years to visit a museum like this. The routes my parents chose always managed to bypass Gloucester, and I suspected they were doing it on purpose. Now that I'm here I realize that this youthful aspiration, like so many others, was misdirected. Not that the museum isn't magnificent. It is. On floor after floor interactive screens dramatize every stage of waterway history, from the digging of the canals to their use for heavy industry. Outside, by the docks, are several generations of canal boats: a grain-carrying long boat, a monstrous dredger that resembles a multilimbed beast from a Stephen King movie. But having spent so much time actually on the water, I find the museum to be kind of a letdown, its trappings of "real history" much less compelling than the thing itself.

Once through the Avon lock, we are delighted to discover that, compared with the Severn, the river Avon is a cozy and intimate affair, lined with languid eucalyptus trees and dense river ferns. All along the shallow banks we see cranes and the occasional heron hunting for fish among the reeds.

Known as the "fruit belt," the hills sloping down toward the canal are covered in apple and pear trees, as well as bushes full of ripe blueberries and blackberries. Past the manicured hedges of a steeplechase course, we begin to see boats with names like Puck and Lady Macbeth, a sure sign that Stratford isn't far. Now associated primarily with Shakespeare, Stratford was originally conceived as an inland port along the model of Amsterdam. Where timber wharves and tanneries once stood are souvenir stands and quaint tea shops. We park across from the church where Shakespeare is buried and walk under the leafy lime trees lining Stratford's wide marina. After a daylong "Shakespeare tour"—the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the playwright's birthplace, his mother's house—we've experienced enough Elizabethan kitsch to last a lifetime.

As we approach the lock connecting the Avon River to the Avon canal, Helen and I fall into what has by now become a routine: opening the gates, cranking the floodgates, guiding the boat into the narrow lock. A crowd of silent gawkers assembles to watch us perform a ritual that hasn't changed since the 18th century. Faux Elizabethan villages are great, but this is more my kind of history.

The Facts
The Avon Ring can be circumnavigated in a week, but two weeks gives you a chance to get out and tour the towns and countryside. Most boating companies will buy groceries for you, so you can leave the docks with a full pantry. There are numerous opportunities to purchase fresh produce and other supplies along the way.

Anglo-Welsh Waterway Holidays ( is the largest operator of canal boats in the U.K., with more than 170 boats and 10 centers throughout Britain. Book through the Bristol office, at 44-117/924-1200.

Boats can be rented mid-March through late October, for anywhere from one night to several weeks. The weekly cost depends on the season, but in high season—the end of July until the first of September—a boat that sleeps four costs just over $2,100 (off-season, it can go for half that amount).

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