Cadal’s Ma(i)den Voyage

Cadal was Merlin’s dog, and there is something magical about the eponymous narrow boat. It is the product of several year’s thought and work by SImon Boyde, owner of Cadal Craft, (the website has some pictures of the boat).

The Short Version

The East Midlands Circuit of 154 miles and 100 locks was a little too much narrow boating for eleven days.

The nice parts were the more remote canals that wound around the contours of hills, the rivers Trent and Soer, with their rich canalside life of bullrushes, duckweeds, lilies, purple loosestrife, foxgloves, nettles, various worts, overhanging willows, and forests above of beach, oak, sycamore and birch; families of swans, ducks and moorhens paddling past, the route overlooking rolling hills of ripening crops, cattle, sheep and the occasional horse. Of the friendly and helpful people we met on other narrowboats, of whom one went out of their way to give us a tow and many gave us useful tips; and of exchanging news and greetings with many as they went on their way. Of the smaller villages of friendly pubs with local ales and occasionally interesting menus, and of having a beer and wine or two too many on the back of the boat.

The nasty parts were peeling Coventry’s and Leicester’s industrial heritage off the propeller, which got completely snagged up three times with garbage which had been dropped in the canal; of the 27 locks in the two days at the end, and of a nasty bout of covid at the beginning. Of having to do things in too much of a hurry because neither I nor DC had bothered to plan a proper itinerary so hadn’t appreciated that less narrow-boating and more rambling and exploration would have been a better way of setting about things.

Conclusion: plan on no more than 4 hours (about 8 miles) per day, especially where locks are involved. and don’t worry about there-and-back journeys as every canal looks completely different each new day, and from a different direction. And don’t contract covid on the first night.

The Long Version

My previous experience of narrow boats consisted of two day trips, one many years ago with my mother and the other a year ago with Simon. The idea seemed good: a slow, gentle way to progress through the English countryside, with the occasional lock to keep fit and the occasional pub to do the opposite. DC, my old partner in crime from various Himalayan and sailing adventures, thought so too, so we chartered Cadal for its maiden voyage, the East Midlands Circuit.

“Ambitious” mused SImon. A new boat with many innovative features, for a mere 154 miles and 100 locks in twelve days. What could possibly go wrong?

We started on a Sunday: I’d been shown the boat on Saturday and had driven it from its home in Debdale to Foxton under electric power. It handled well, I was able to maneuver it in reasonably small spaces, and received an accolade from SImon for doing so. All good, I went to bed.

I woke up very fatigued, but assumed that was just one of the bursts of exhaustion that I have for being me. DC&wife turned up on time, Simon explained the boat to DC and we set off – but not for long. After a quick burst of reverse, the boat became unresponsive. Confusion all around: the diesel engine (the boat is hybrid) made noise, we could hear the gearbox clunk when we put it in gear, but no drive. Nothing for it: off to the pub. Although I felt much better for the orange and soda, then the subsequent beer, by the time I got back to the boat, I was not feeling better at all: I fell asleep early.

The next morning, a mechanic reattached the propeller. It’s attached to the drive shaft by a clamp, the clamp had come loose, and boat worked much better with the propeller attached. Off we set to Foxton locks, a series of ten locks. With some help from Simon and from the volunteers of the Canal and River Trust, we made it up the locks with no serious damage to Cadal, the locks or us. Off we went and I took my temperature and cough downstairs for a sleep. I resurfaced to find out that we’d covered an epic (by narrow boat standards) 19 miles, largely making up for the distance we’d lost due to the detached propeller. My wife had cooked a very tasty meal, of which I managed about two forkfuls before heading off for more sleep.

The next day, I was starting to revive, but there was coughing all around and the conclusion was that we’d all caught covid from the same person. I took a turn driving the boat. The tiller was much heavier under diesel, which was to become a theme of the journey. We made it to the pleasant town of Braunston, where I acquired some of Farmer Stan’s Pickles. It also had a rather nice traditional English pub – it would have been rude not to patronise it, and we were not rude. We set off again and moored the boat in a wild and abandoned place surrounded by farmland, with cattle munching on grass and doing other bovine things.

Day 3 started with a sudden rocking motion as another boat passed us going so quickly that its wake woke us all up. There was a crash from the kitchen as a drawer opened, and stuff went flying around. DC was eager to be on the move and we’d set off before I’d finished my ablutions; half way through my boiled egg, there was a kind of lurch and a growl. I popped my head up and had a chat – from a static boat – with a cheery fellow in the house next to the Clifton Tea House, who observed that lots of boats grounded going around the corner which DC had just grounded us on. I poled off. We came to our first lock of the day shortly after that: DC’s technique is to hang back at a considerable distance, wait until the gates are opened, take a run at it and then throw the engine into full reverse before crashing into the far gates. More English countryside and a rather disappointing absence of pubs and we moored in Rugby, a working-class town attached to a school for the unbelievably wealthy. I found an independent bookshop and gave them a copy of Price’s Price; three blokes outside were discussing literature, so I gave them one, too. We then drove to Antsy where the local workingman’s club gave us some drinks and a friendly chat, and the Rose and Castle restaurant up the road gave us four portions that were far too huge for us to finish, but which did explain the shape of most other patrons.

Thursday started with another resounding crash of crockery as another hooligan went past too fast. There was a water station a couple of hundred yards up the canal. As we were filling up, a chap came along with four 25 liter plastic jerry cans. We let him fill up and he told us that he used to be a builder; he had more or less retired a few years ago at the age of 45 and decided that instead of cluttering his life with more and more stuff, he’d sold up and bought a boat. He’d just got the permanent permit for the space next to the watering spot. He and his wife, and his unplanned, free-bonus number five child, were pottering along. He picked up two of the jerry cans, now full, so about 50kg, with as much effort as I’d pick up a couple of books, and wandered off. We finished and departed. I drove for an hour through more fields, lowing cattle, etc, then headed below to a morass of emails. There was a lock with a less than one foot drop at Hawkesley, and, after I helped out, I went back downstairs while DC drove us down the Coventry canal. I emerged and took over from a cold and shivering DC (it had been drizzling and cold),who mentioned the prop was heavy. It was my turn to misjudge a corner and ground the boat: when the pole came out, it was covered in black goo. The boat was now very sluggish, so we opened up the prop box and found some laminated industrial plastic wrapped around the prop. That cleared, the prop was clear to pick up the next instalment of Coventry’s industrial past. Fearing a mechanical failure, we stopped, but could not get the boat to the side of the canal. After a fruitless half hour, a lovely couple turned up out of Heaven and towed us to Coventry Canal Harbour. My work intervened loudly, and I disappeared to East Timor for an hour and a half while DC hacked and tugged at the mess around the prop. After he’d done 80% of the work, I spent five minutes and claimed 100% of the glory by turning the prop manually and unwinding the mess: a carpet in a sports bag which was held together with wire.

In Coventry itself, we found a traffic restriction for an event. I asked a helper who was delighted (being bored senseless) to tell me that today was the Queen’s baton something day, the Commonwealth Games equivalent of the Olympic Torch. Further in, we found the Cathedral crowded out by graduates, all full of joy and cheer. I found something very touching about the bombed-out part of the cathedral: there was a bilingual English and Japanese reconciliation plaque, and the vicar of the then church who woke up the morning after the bombing and felt forgiveness, not anger. The city, I found out was also the creation of Lady Godiva and her forgotten husband, king of Mercia. A pub outside the city hall beckoned. Back aboard, I managed to spin Cadal around on the second attempt in a very limited space. DC suggested we have a go at sucking the shit tank dry, but after a free bonus litre or two, the pump asked for money and neither he nor I knew how to supply it, so that was that. We and drove back to Hawksley under electric, which is  a much nicer way of driving after a very tiring day. Moored under power lines just outside Hawksley. Food was last the remains of last night’s monster feed, with an excellent rhubarb crumble from DC for pudding. The moral of the story: if you go to Coventry, don’t go by narrow boat.

The next morning started with a confit of raspberries and pear prepared by DC for breakfast toast, which was a very pleasant change. We puttered along to a boat yard where our man, Tank Technician, sucked the shit out of the boat for a very reasonable fee. We continued through somewhat drab scenery for an hour or two, with DC driving and me working downstairs. I swapped over at the right time, and spent an hour or two (while the others were preparing and eating lunch) as the canal wound along the side of a hill. This was delightful: to my left, uphill, was mature primary forest, dense and with a rich variety of all the trees whose names I should have learnt when I was growing up, with lots of flowers (well, weeds, but they looked very pretty) and very few other boats. I’d become fed up wrestling the boat under control with the diesel going flat out, so dawdled along at a much slower pace. We stopped at Asherbury, which looked pleasant but on inspection turned out to be lots of quite modern brick houses built around a town centre of half a dozen old buildings, a main street (Long Street), St Margret’s Church, and a building which has stood for a long time with a tunnel through it for traffic, but which the sign assured me had never in its five century history been wide enough for two-way traffic. I was relieved at that. Back to the boat and DC, who had driven for most of the day, suggested I take the next series of locks. These eleven locks were quite spread out. My maneuvering skills have improved somewhat and I slid into the first five locks with hardly a bump. A pub offered itself between locks five and six, so we did the decent thing. Boaters coming the other way had told us that there was limited water at lock 7, but, although the bottom grounded with a lurch, it wasn’t enough to stop us. With a sigh of relief we came to lock 9. I moored with great professionalism and panache as the upcoming boat waited for the lock to fill. When it came my turn to go in, I nudged the bow out and stopped dead. No amount of engine power or brute force could make Cadal go an inch further forwards. DC worked it out: while I’d been dicking around fighting the situation, the water between locks 8 and 9 had sunk by 2-3 inches, and that was enough to ground us. My crew returned to lock 8, filled it, emptied it in my direction, and the boat floated off. All good – but while I was waiting for lock 9 to refill, the boat drifted to a place that saw it grounded once more. I cracked open a bottle of Asahi and was considering using it to christen the boat when a kindly lady came past and, after I’d outlined my predicament, told me that the motor pulls the boat down at the stern, which is what causes the grounding. Instead, I should pole off at the back and get the crew to pull from the front. That turned out to be the lifesaver. A few minutes later we were through. Two locks later, DC had produced a mushroom risotto that would not have been out of place in an expensive restaurant in Rome, and we had opened the box of white wine. This canal boating thing was turning into a learning experience.

Saturday was a sleep in after a disturbed night sleep of having to get rid of 6-700 copies of Price’s Price, ten at a time, when Gardners (its UK distributor) finally runs out of patience (which turned out to be prescient). The boating went smoothly. We were already underway by the time I was functioning, and, after my single fried egg on toast had augmented itself with marmite on toast, we were soon in Polesworth, a very pleasant little village with a 10th century abbey, a lovely vicarage and garden, an ancient house with a horse entrance which, according to a couple who DC and my wife had bumped into, is now an AirBnB. There wasn’t much else that met the eye, so onwards. After getting back on the boat, I opened the email to find that we’d have to finish the trip a day earlier than planned. That was now 154 miles and 100 locks in not twelve (as planned), not eleven (after the busted prop), but ten days. DC recalibrated and we ended up doing a 21.5m day, much of it very pleasant (being further and further away from Coventry) through winding canals, etc. The only blight was a very aggressive boater who followed DC quite closely. When I took over the helm, I let him pass. He mumbled some excuse, which I couldn’t be bothered listening too.

One aspect of Cadal (that has since been fixed) is that it’s necessary to run the engine quite fast to recharge the batteries. This forces bad driving upon me: at one corner, I thought about slowing but dithered, only to see an oncoming boat, mid-stream, coming under a low and narrow bridge. My eternal apologies to the helm I spooked. Late in the afternoon, for we didn’t step off the boat until then, we came to a series of locks. Several had been left open at the bottom, which slowed us down. On the fourth, we saw the preceding boat about to pull away without having shut the bottom gates: it turned out to be the aggressive boater whom I’d earlier let pass. I hailed using my loudspeaker voice (it’s pretty good), and got a passive yet aggressive response from dad, and a shy look of apology from son. They made some excuse but shut the gates and hurtled off once more.

Lichfield, where we passed the night, was a prosperous village of obviously wealthy retirees, managers and yuppies. Two pubs, one church, a cricket ground and an Indian restaurant that turned out to be quite okay. Tomorrow, Barton upon Needham, which DC said was a major brewing town. Oh dear.

I started the day with a spectacularly inept pull-out that saw me not quite perpendicular to the canal. Then it was a mad and very impolite dash to the locks. At first we thought there was a queue so pulled in. When we realised it wasn’t a queue, I barged out and made the locks first. The fellow was politely pissed off. There followed some nice, albeit rather flat scenery, and a brief overlap with a river (the river what? I don’t know). We pulled up at Barton upon Needham which turned out not to be the brewery town. We wandered around for much longer than planned, returning through a gated community designed around a narrowboat marina: lots of shiny new cars and nice red brick houses, and no character. We found a water point, and I was pleased with the maneuvre I did to get the boat back by two lengths, past a boat that was already there, with no drama, surprises or shouting. We lunched while we filled the boat up with water, then off again. It took DC and me both a while to realise that the reason that every lock had a queue was because it was Sunday: lots of day-trippers on there-and-back trips. As a result, by the time we got to Burton, which is the home of a beer museum, it was too late to risk a visit. We piled on into Willoughby, had two pints at a gastro pub, an excellent spaghetti a la DC, and bed.

Monday started with work calls: my wife cooked me a lovely scrambled egg and mushroom on toast between calls one and two. After call three, I drifted on to the aft deck but wasn’t much needed. We had pulled up behind a single-handed boat, and he knew his stuff. The locks today were all double-width, so DC drove through the first four locks in parallel with the single-handed guy, while I ended up on the fifth and final. The countryside was nice to travel through: rolling farmland with lots of sheep, ripening crops, and canal-ly bits. The action started after lunch: the weather welcomed me with a swift but brutally cold and windy shower that left me shivering while everyone else was downstairs and warm. The only thing I remember of the last of the six double locks was that a lady in another boat who said “avoid Leicester.” When I asked why, she said “rough.” We passed a marina that claimed to de-shit boats, but a sycamore had dropped a branch (a very large branch) across the river at that point, and it was too difficult. We encountered our first flood locks, which are open unless there is flooding, so are easy. We turned on to the river Trent, went through a very boated-up riverside where Cadal’s high sides made maneuvering difficult. DC phoned the marina and was told to park at the deshitter next to the fuel pumps – by this time, the high windage was becoming tiring and I was very close to people who seemed remarkably unconcerned given the stern of a 19-ton boat was a foot away from their windows. After some very powerful reversing, I parked at the fuel-side deshitter only to be told by DC, after he’d been inside the chandlers to enquire, that it was the deshitter in the middle of river that I hadn’t been able to get anywhere close to. The canal gods smiled, and I made it in one. Cadal deshitted, DC and my respective wives were delighted by the hydraulic locks that didn’t need them to do anything. Sailing up the river Trent was a delight: wide waters, open skies, and nothing on the horizon but a huge power station. A couple of left turns and we found the river Soer, which we followed until the day’s final comedy: we came to the mooring point off some locks and, after the boat there kindly moved forwards to make space for us, the helm told us the lock was broken. Just as we’d give up hope, the breakage was fixed. The other boat moved off, but his dog leapt to the shore and refused to re-embark. Given the very difficult wind and current, I was pleased that I sidled up next to him in the lock without so much as a bump – and he was kind enough to compliment my driving. His wife fooled the dog into getting back on to the boat and off they went. Another 30 minutes of a delightful river, and we arrived in Ashton, the entertainment Mecca of the northeast Midlands. I stayed behind on the boat to work. By the time I was off the boat, the other three had been up and down the length of the town and found no pubs which served both food and drink. It turned out that the one nearest the canal did serve both: good pub food and not expensive.

The following day we all woke up late. We even had breakfast together (I think for the first time on this trip). I was all set to push off, but some rain arrived and DC suggested we wait for half an hour to avoid get wet doing lock work. I gave my crew 5 minutes, told them 20 had passed and we pushed off. The first lock took me by surprise (not the only thing): at first I thought it was a flood lock, a something lock and – oh yes, huge wall of wood. Sudden reverse, parked the boat. Oops. After the lock, I received a text from a friend asking if I was enjoying the narrowboating. I replied “dull.” After that, delightful 3-4 hours on the river Soer. There was a rather sharp left turn in Loughborough, which I overstepped and rescued. I was about to award myself Heroic Corner-Turner of the Year Award when Dean pointed out that such awards are reserved for those who don’t miss the corner in the first place. We both laughed. I caught up with work while the others went shopping, then more locks, etc. We found a place with water and, while Cadal drank her fill, we popped over to The Navigation Inn to keep a careful eye on it. Later, after the last lock of the day, DC and I misunderstood the suggestion of a friendly man who appeared from nowhere to help Ching Yee close the lock gate, told her to moor “behind the second boat.” Dean went hurtling off into the distance, and had to reverse a lot – to much amusement and consternation – to find a berth. I made macaroni cheese, we went to the pub for dessert (mirangue rolade) and walked around the town in the gloaming. During the second half of the day, when the sun came out and it was England at its most beautiful: big open pellucid skies, warm, friendly, and a pub full of convivial people, I reconsidered the “dull”.

Day 10 started with a fried egg surprise for myself, followed by a quick cuppa and the inevitable work calls, somewhat interrupted by several locks and a rather loud altercation between Dean and a tree he’d driven the boat into (while trying to photograph something or other). On my brief glances up,  the scenery looked quite pretty in a rather flat kind of way. We moored at a suburb of Leicester and got to the bus stop just in time to miss a bus. Leicester city centre, when we arrived, was vibrant in a somewhat down-at-heel way. The city is very proud of having found the remains or King Richard III, who died in the battle that ended the War of the Roses, clearing the way for the Tudor dynasty and modern England. It was a nice museum, well presented, and extracted maximum value from the very limited material available. We got to the bus station just in time to see the bus pull away, and had to wait 40 minutes. More calls and whatnot, DC cooked the remainder of the supplies into an excellent spaghetti surprise, and we found the comfortable and well-appointed The White Horse pub. Tomorrow: 9 miles and 16 locks. It will be a long day.

The next day was indeed a long day. I walked the last half dozen or so to get some exercise, set the locks up and speed our progress, and because our wives were exhausted. The prop got clogged somewhere in Leicester, so I spent an hour after lunch unclogging it: this time the culprit was some kind of garment and it turned out that kitchen scissors were the most effective tool. By the time we got to Wigston, I was completely pissed off and went to the Navigator Inn pretty much without stepping on board. Five pints later, Dean had ordered a curry, but I was too tired to eat more than a token bite or two and fell into bed exhausted.

DC and his wife jumped ship as planned the next morning, and Simon came aboard. With only three of us, I walked ahead to set up the locks and left the rest to Simon and my wife. At some point, he and I swapped over – I was more than a little deflated, especially after his extravagant praise of my maneuvering skills while teaching me the boat on the first day, to find out that he said to my wife that watching me drive was like “watching a blind man drive.” But I was also a little too tired to care.

It’s a shame that this experience has put me off narrow boating, but it did. The last two or three days, especially, were just a long, exhausting blur of locks and waiting, and, because we raced around the course, we didn’t have time to do the things that I’d hoped we could do: go for walks, explore places in a little more depth, perhaps spend a night here and there at an inn. That the boat itself had one or two (now rectified) issues didn’t help. Perhaps in some distant future, I’ll give it another try, but I need more from an adventure than locks.