Locks, boats and drifters

New skipper Kathryn Heyman takes the ups with the downs as she barges her way, slowly, along the canals.

Up a creek without a paddle? This is worse. Right now, I'm stuck up a canal bank without a barge pole. And, wouldn't you know it, I have a small audience of helpful men, all shouting encouragement from the towpath and not one of them actually being useful. The 16-metre canal boat I am skippering is firmly wedged in the mud.

Behind me the weed and water of the Shropshire Union Canal churns as I rev the engine to full capacity, a racy six kilometres an hour. Eventually, I spy the barge pole, cunningly concealed right in front of my eyes. I wedge it between the wild flowers on the bank, lean against it and, amazingly, the barge floats gently free so that I am back in the middle of the canal heading towards the low bridge that got me into all this trouble in the first place.

In the years between 1760 and 1820, more than 100 canals were built in Britain. Devised to carry goods-laden vessels inland, the network of waterways forms an intricate map across a vivid green patchwork of fields and woods. It depends on an ingenious piece of engineering: the lock. To have water-roads running through the country, industrial pioneers such as Thomas Telford needed to solve the problem of getting water to flow uphill. And they did. Locks are a big kid's version of bathtub toys: large wooden gates enclose the canal boat at the foot of the hill. The boat bobs about in its enclosure as water from above is released to raise the level. The gates open and the boat is at the top. Genius.

Originally, horses pulled the narrowboats - so called because they are, erm, narrow - from place to place. Because of that equine technology, one of the great gifts of the canals is the towpath: a stretch wide enough to walk, run, cycle or ride a horse on. When the newfangled steam train eventually killed off England's canal transport, these masterworks of engineering languished for a century. In the past few decades, though, canals have found new life as a centrepiece of heritage and recreation - folk fish from them, families picnic on the towpaths, walkers, joggers and cyclists make great use of the paths. And then there is the glory of the recreational canal boat.

With a top speed slower than a brisk walk, the canal-boat holiday is not a high-adrenalin activity, although the heart can get a good start-up when you're trying to get around a bend with another boat coming at you and an audience of onlookers shouting from the bank. Not that I'd know.

As British Airways flies direct from Sydney to Manchester, we plan to arrive and head straight from the airport to the canal boat hire company, thinking that a week pootling along on a canal boat on the Shropshire Union might be just the decompression chamber we need to deal with jet lag before launching into work and family commitments. Our plan is to travel very slowly through the Cheshire countryside on the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Middlewich Branch and the Shropshire Union Canal, as far as the village of Bunbury - about 80 kilometres there and back. We arrive at Manchester, jump in a taxi and, less than 20 minutes after leaving the plane, step aboard the quite luxurious narrowboat (two bathrooms and leather armchairs) that is ours for the week.

It may be narrow but it's very, very long. So long we actually need Black Prince's office manager, Tim, to show us around. I've ordered groceries online and Tim has already unpacked them. We get a quick guide to working the locks before Tim fires up the engine and we zoom off. Well, not zoom. More of a chug. The sun beats down

(I know, in Manchester!) and the children call out with delight from their bunks as they realise they can see straight out to swans floating gracefully by, mere centimetres from their noses. Over the thrum of the diesel engine, I find I am singing with pleasure.

John, my father-in-law, has joined us for a couple of nights and he plants himself at the open bow, waving to right and left and shouting instructions. "Boat, Kathryn! There's a boat!" And he points, apparently unaware I can see the highly polished private narrowboat I'm about to plough into. I just can't seem to make ours move in the right direction to avoid it. Finally, in a panic, I flick the motor into reverse and churn the waters, revving backwards into the opposite bank. This becomes my signature move.

The highly polished boat chugs past, skipper waving indulgently while I pretend that the place I most wish to be is wedged into the bank. Yet the gentle suck of propulsion pulls us free and we have learnt the first lesson of steering a canal boat: do nothing in a hurry. Generally, when panic and speed are removed, the risk to elaborate paintwork is fairly low.

The children, Seren and Tali, lie on the roof of the boat, sunning themselves like lion cubs. Still dazed from the flight, I turn to tea-making duties while (partner) Richard takes over at the helm. At the front, John lets out a bellow, arms flailing right and left. Ahead lies a tunnel that cuts through the hill. The tunnel roof is so low that we have to duck to avoid knocking our heads. For 400 dark metres we run our fingers along the cool ceiling and realise we are travelling backwards in time.

Beyond the tunnel, the towpath has shifted from urban to rural, from the 21st century to the 18th, just like that. This is another glory of the canals: you can be within two minutes of bustling cities, yet surrounded by lush countryside and the technology of another era.

We're beginning to settle into the rhythm of the canal when we hit the first lock. We jump off the boat, lock-keys in hand, ready to wind the winches that open the sluice gates.

I'm quaking slightly with the thought of opening the gates the wrong way and draining the canal, or perhaps of pushing the water in too fast, destroying the boat and drowning my husband. Needless fears, of course. Some local children have gathered, ready to push the gates open; two boats coming down towards us are full of students celebrating the end of their exams. Seeing my face, they talk me through the locks, the gates and the steering, then wave me off with a beer, shouting: "Just remember to understeer. Understeer."

We moor for the night in deepest countryside and drink wine during the midsummer dusk. It's the easiest arrival after a long-haul flight I've ever had. Ducks gather at the back of the boat and the children scatter a handful of oats, coaxing the ducklings closer and closer.

The next day, we call in to the Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich - an enormous aquatic elevator that links the canal to the river 50 metres below. It's impressive to watch. Richard and I take turns steering the boat while the other jumps off and walks or runs. Seren and Tali stroll alongside the boat, lie on the roof and read or sit at the bow, chatting. I'm surprised at how much I like skippering, at how competent it makes me feel. Which is, of course, where I come unstuck. I send everyone off for a walk and insist I'm already a dab hand at slipping under bridges and around bends alone. And I am, until I hit the bank. Again.

After a couple of days, though, we are all skilled at opening locks, manoeuvring around bends and - on one rather glorious occasion - managing to change direction magnificently by "winding" into the bank. We stop when we like, wander into villages, picnic in the grass or eat in cafes. We each do, in fact, whatever we feel like.

Our trip coincides nicely with the annual narrowboat and folk festival in the market town of Middlewich. A posse of local families watches us move down the locks and I manage to moor right in front of the beer tent. Perfect. We lie on the grassy banks listening to live music and stuffing ourselves full of ice-cream and Dutch pancakes. It dawns on us as we hop on and off our beautiful boat that to the landlubbing festival-goers, we are part of the attraction.

Though it's easy to plan a circular trip, we return the way we came, as though for the first time, stopping at new places, picnicking in new fields, eating dinner in pubs we didn't spot before. By now each of us has got doing what we please down to a fine art - reading, walking, running, making tea, sleeping, steering the boat. By the time we arrive back at the Black Prince base, we are thoroughly unwound, unjet-lagged and delighted. I would happily do this every year. And with canals criss-crossing most of the country,

I could do just that.

The writer was a guest of Black Prince Holidays and travelled with the assistance of British Airways.

Trip notes

Getting there

British Airways flies direct from Sydney to Manchester, priced from $2483 return. 1300 767 177, britishairways.com

Boating there

Black Prince Holidays leases six- to eight-berth canal boats from £1500 ($2281) (high season) and two- to four-berth boats from £1000 (high season). Boat hire, gas, car parking, tuition on arrival, buoyancy aids, bed linen and towels are included in the price. The cost of diesel is extra and is charged on return of the boat. The company advises diesel costs about £10-£12 a day, based on normal usage. This will increase slightly if you use the vessel's central heating system during colder periods. Vessels with four to six berths and eight to 10 berths are also available. You can begin and end a narrowboat journey from seven locations in England. +44 152 757 5115, black-prince.com.

While there

Most narrowboat hire firms provide information on pubs, restaurants and produce stores along routes. To plot your own gourmet trail see the guide to canalside pubs, canalsidepubguide.co.uk. For grocery delivery before you set off. tesco.com, asda.com.

More information

Inland Waterways Association UK, www.waterways.org.uk.

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