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Messing Around in Boats, Narrowboating in the United Kingdom

Visit the United Kingdom's Charming Waterways

by Amanda Castleman

The train moans and so do I, biking parallel to the tracks. Sleet hisses through the dark countryside. My tires slide on mud: to the left lie bramble whorls, to the right, the inky Oxford Canal. I race the last quarter mile home.

But home is not where I left it. The houseboat is adrift 15 feet off the weed-choked bank.

Here's the downside of a quaint, romantic existence on the English waterways. I've worked a long day, commuted eight miles by cycle and now the bloody barge is bobbing offshore, smugly outside the range of flailing boat-hooks. It's 11pm and I'm playing rock, paper, scissors to determine who gets naked and swims through the frigid, filthy, postindustrial canal.

Narrowboating in Oxford

Fast forward to summer. The steel hull noses through the River Thames, swooping along the grassy bends of Port Meadow, the grazing commons outside Oxford. Friends lounge on the roof, chatting and swilling champagne. Soon we moor, unloading blankets, a small barbecue and barrel-thick Sunday newspapers. Quiche crisps in the oven, a solar-powered radio trills into the balmy air.

Like picnicking pashas, we lounge and laugh. Afterwards, we cannonball off the roof, then swarm up knotted ropes, poorly impersonating Johnny Depp's Captain Jack: Arghhhhhh, matey. The boat life be good! More grog!

Narrowboat life is good. Excellent, in fact. About three months of the year, it's paradise. I awake to squiggles of sunlight, bouncing off the canal onto the golden ceiling. Voles splash, swans glide and sapphire kingfishers dart under weeping willows outside the kitchen window. Crackling fires, candlelight and gentle rocking lull me to sleep, mere miles from the loud traffic and smeary city lights of a cosmopolitan center, home to 140,000.

So here's my advice: rent a barge. Take the idyllic holiday sans responsibility. Avoid poling a broken-down 16-ton steel vessel - gondolier style - in a gale-force headwind. Don't bother troubleshooting a Lister diesel engine twice your age. Skip the episodes where I spill a crucial 50lb coal bag into a puddle, wheelbarrow the toilet bucket past outraged anglers and hammer a wrench around rusted bolts, changing the shower gas canister before work, still in my satin pajamas. (

Really, pay for the highlights - with happy perks like central heating, endless hot water and flushing loos - and savor the fragrant memories of summer sunshine. Because a British narrowboat excursion certainly ranks among a few of the world's favorite things, along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.

Tie your brown-paper packages up with strings - or load the Louis Vuitton, as the case may be - and head over to old Blighty and its 4,000-miles of waterways. As the Water Rat proclaims in the The Wind and the Willows: "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Narrowboating in the United Kingdom

Oxford is a great place to start, as author Kenneth Grahame well knew. The green and pleasant Thames Valley inspired his 1908 children's classic, interspersing aquatic idylls with Mr. Toad's blustering and legendary wild ride. This serene stretch also sparked the imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and Jerome K. Jerome, who penned the wry travelogue Three Men in a Boat.

This Victorian trendsetter enumerated the charms of pottering on the river: "We should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds; and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well."

Indeed, cruising is hearty, healthy and dotted with the harmless mishaps that brighten postcards home: knotted ropes, broken coffee cups, the near-inevitable slip into the water. And, of course, the square-peg, round-hole spatial excitement of squeezing a 6'10"-wide boat into a 7' lock (that's a sort of hydraulic elevator, for all ye landlubbers).

Long and thin like Jodie Kidd, narrowboats are true to their name. Rushing to expand the network, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century canal builders skimped on size, hence the waifish dimensions. Horse-drawn vessels hauled coal, building materials and goods throughout the nation. Entire families dwelt in six-foot-square cabins. Tragically, children rarely learned to swim, so fatalities were common.

Though poor, these nomads were house-proud. Geometric patterns and floral motifs enlivened their boats. Today the gypsyish decorations continue: brass fixtures, painted watering cans and overflowing flower pots are common. Much of the canal kitsch is textbook twee - affectedly dainty and saccharine - but the bright, traditional colors charm even the hardest hearts.

Highways nearly ruined the derelict and disintegrating canal system 40 years ago, until Brits rediscovered the joys of messing about in boats. A few working barges still ply the system, but most of the 25,000 licenses go to pleasure crafts or houseboats. Over 400m people visited the inland waterways last year, as the UK poured funds into a much-heralded canal renaissance.

The revival isn't always welcome. "Condominium creep" threatens traditional communities, as developers take the plunge. "When I first arrived in Oxford on my narrowboat in 1995, the canal was a different world", muses Benji Ming, the Guinness World Record holder for narrowboating. "You stepped off Hythe Bridge into a semi-wild corridor, full of birds singing. All that's being ruined."

Not all, thankfully. The Oxford Canal - however gentrified in the city - winds 77 miles north, contouring around lush hills and untrammeled pastures. The waterway flows past Blenheim Palace, Sir Winston Churchill's birthplace, to the medieval market town Banbury (of "ride a cock horse" nursery rhyme fame). In the opposite direction, Old Father Thames stretches south towards London and the Atlantic.

Yet plenty of beauty remains. And here's even better news for dabblers: Cruising is pretty easy ... trickier than, say, a pedal boat, but requiring none of sailing's finesse. Anyone capable of changing interstate lanes can master the basics in a quarter-hour. Harrison Ford was spotted at the tiller last summer, shepherding sweetheart Calista Flockhart through the Shropshire countryside. He did his own stunts - and so can you.

The terminology is even straightforward. No stern-and-starboard nonsense here. Right and left, front and back, thank you very much. A pilot steers the boat - up to 4 mph, to avoid damaging the fragile banks - then moors to pins, hammered into the soil. Turn in a winding hole. Lever open a lift bridge. Drink at a waterside pub. And, no matter what, hold onto that lock key, the crucial bit of Open Sesame at unmanned water gates.

Narrowboating: so fun, so simple, until the dark and stormy night when the house floats away. But even that story has a happy ending. As I persuade my companion that - feminism notwithstanding - it really is a gentleman's duty to swim starkers across an ice-fringed canal, the wind shifts. The rogue vessel swings two feet, just within reach of the boat hook.

Ahhhhh ... truly, there's no place like home.

Travel writer Amanda Castleman no longer lives aboard Narrowboat Harmonia. However, she's staying soggy, based in her native city of Seattle.