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Afloat on England's Back Waters

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.

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