A surprise birthday treat saw me and a few amigos hop aboard Queenie for a couple of days in mid-September, an elegant canal barge managed by Star Narrowboat Holidays and based at the Bridgewater Marina near Worsley. This is something that has appealed for years, and our party was not disappointed as we took on a good stretch of the Bridgewater Canal that runs 39 miles between Leigh and Runcorn.
Our first stint at the tiller took us over the Ship Canal (incredible, btw; engineering that leaves you gasping at the industrial heritage below) and past the Trafford Centre. Nerves quickly gave way to confidence and enthusiasm as our craft pootled along at a very sedate four miles per hour, and into the heart of Sale.
We moored alongside the King’s Ransom pub, the hustle-and-bustle of city-suburb life in stark contrast to the tranquillity of the canal vibe just a few metres away. We bobbed up and down on the water, watching the stars and supping a late-night glass of vino as occasional revellers made their way home down the tow path.
From early morning time stands still. Birds twitter as the mists slowly lift, fish gently nudge the surface, smoke billows from log-burning stoves, and a riot of wildlife dances in the hedgerows as you pick your next spot to pull over. Invariably there’s a pub, often with delicious home-cooked food (The Vine, not far from Dunham Massey, was a real gem). There is always banter, smiles and a few raised glasses.
What grabs you is the camaraderie of canal life. The first-timers are made most welcome by seasoned travellers, and also by those who have made the narrow straights a more permanent home. Their vessels come in all shapes and sizes; some decorated, some overflowing with greenery. For them, popping out for groceries means a gentle glide a few miles towards Altrincham, or further down to the picture-postcard village of Lymm. There they swap goods or buy local produce from farmers or quaint businesses dotted along the route.
The only disappointment was turning round and heading back to base, knowing that our all-too-brief jolly was coming to an end. The lock-free stretch that was our home for the weekend was the perfect introduction to barging. The magical mix of ancient and modern, urban and rural backdrops amazed at each turn, with hidden treasures around every corner.
Canal life… oh yes, I’d certainly recommend it should you wish to cast aside the stresses of modern-day living if only for a few days.