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Afloat on England's Back Waters

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.

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