Express & Star

Travel review: Calm cruising on the canal

When offered the opportunity to take a trip on a canal boat, I jumped at the chance.

Taking in the sights along the way

I’d always fancied a canal holiday, cruising the backwaters enjoying a much slower pace of life.

We took a four-night trip with Black Prince Holidays out of their Etruria base in Stoke-on-Trent.

Black Prince offer holidays starting from a three-night break and have nine bases in the UK from the Peak District to the Midlands, Cheshire, Cambridge, Wiltshire, Oxford, Scotland, Wales and London.

As total narrowboat novices, a four-night trip was perfect for us to get a taste of canal life. What we weren’t prepared for was the steep learning curve!

We’d prepared for our trip by watching Celebrity 5 Go Barging, which co-incidentally featured Black Prince Holidays, and saw five celebrities navigating the nearby Caldon Canal from Froghall Wharf, passing through Stoke and heading north.

The celebs managed to ground the boat and hit the side of the canal several times within hours of boarding, so by the time we saw our boat ‘Charlotte’ at Etruria, I was sure we would be those people stuck on a sandbank or unable to get out of the lock!

The Charlotte was immaculate and had a double bed and two singles, with a shower room, small kitchen area and table and benches. Bedding and towels were provided and the kitchen was equipped with everything you might need, with a full-size fridge and oven. The boat also had a TV and free WiFi, but signal was a bit patchy. However, with a teenager and a 12-year-old on board, we were looking forward to getting them off their electronic devices and to spend time with us and our retriever Molly. More about her later!

After a briefing on how to operate the boat and a quick tour of our six-berth home for the next four nights, we were off down the Trent and Mersey Canal towards Barlaston where we were told was a nice canalside pub with mooring nearby – ideal for our first night aboard.

However, between us and the pub was a flight of five locks and then one more, and we didn’t have much of a clue how to operate them!

Luckily, there was a constant flow of people going up and down the locks more than happy to give us tips on what we needed to do. In fact, that was what struck us about our trip, the people we came across, with one exception, were really friendly and helpful and patient about our obvious lack of experience. Many of them seem to have caught the boating bug and spend much of the year pottering up and down the UK’s waterways. Their boats seem to be a real home from home and we even met one couple who bring their cats along, letting them off the boat in the evening to explore the surroundings.

I had a go at the first lock with number two son and we soon got the knack of using the windlass to lower and raise the paddles to release the water and fill or empty the lock and open the gates. The whole process uses muscles I didn’t know I had and was really tiring.

After making it through the first flight of five locks in one piece, and only being told off once, we started to feel like we were getting the hang of it.

Our destination – The Plume of Feathers at Barlaston – is around five miles from Etruria, but moving at only two or three miles an hour, by the time we got there it was tea time and we were relieved to have moored up safely and if our knots were a little unorthodox, they did at least keep the boat in place till morning. The Plume of Feathers is owned by actor Neil Morrissey – no, he wasn’t there – and boasts a menu offering plenty of choice. Three of us plumped for Rocky Burgers which were delicious. Number one son plumped for the New Delhi Lamb Burger served in naan bread which he said was also yummy. All pub classics were £13, featured plenty of choice for all tastes and were really filling. Puddings included sticky toffee pudding and fresh strawberry pavlova and were £6.

Back to the boat, we had a fairly early night, anxious to get an early start the next morning. Feeling a bit more confident about operating the boat, we really enjoyed cruising down the canal taking in a view of Staffordshire that you don’t get to see from the car or shopping in the town centre.

Our destination for day two was the market town of Stone. Obviously we hadn’t travelled far from our starting point, but we weren’t bothered about long distances, we just wanted to get the hang of the locks and the boat itself.

As big dog lovers, it was important for us that Molly came on our trip. She loves the water and given the chance would have been in the canal constantly, so we had to keep her on a tight lead. But she did really enjoy being out the front of the boat, watching the wildlife go by. We did see quite a few dogs on other boats, but they were a lot more chilled out than Molly.

After negotiating four more locks we reached Stone and moored up to have a look round the market town.

We ate our evening meal at The Star in the centre of Stone and next to the canal. There is a lock right outside the pub and the locals looked on with interest as seasoned boaters made their way through. The pub offered plenty of traditional pub grub and was reasonably priced.

We spent the night moored just above Stone, and the following morning made our way through the town to a turning circle and water point just beyond. We were a bit anxious about turning the boat around, but a man who lives on his boat spotted our nerves and talked us through it.

We’d decided we didn’t want to go too far and as we were due back in Etruria at around 9am on the Saturday morning we thought we’d stock up on provisions and head back towards Stoke. We moored at Barlaston overnight again before heading back through Stoke to West Port Lake, a beauty spot with a café and visitor centre. After a walk round the picturesque lake we decided to head to the nearest turning point so we were facing the right direction for our early start the next morning. This time we found the process a bit more troublesome and again we were helped out by a passing boater with a lot more experience! We missed out on a mooring spot back at the lake, so had to find a spot at nearby Middleport.

We all enjoyed our little trip and would do it again, but maybe next time somewhere with fewer locks!!!!!