Cruising the canals

There were swans

I have found it difficult to write about my recent canal trip on the Oxford and Grand Union Canals in England. There are a few reasons (besides general laziness and procrastination). First, the minute we got home to Lummi Island (and a mountain of collected mail) we were plunged into the morass of legal difficulties in our ongoing will dispute. We had two days at home, then we were off to San Juan Island for two tense days in court. The result of that was another postponement until March of next year.

The trip itself was a peaceful interlude, filled with beauty and interest, but without much in the way of big events or great excitement.  My daughter and Jerry and I coexisted for 3 weeks in the close quarters of her narrow boat with uninterrupted good humor. And I got to see 3 beloved grandchildren that I have not seen for 3 years.

Catherine, the captain's youngest

Liz, older sister, Captain's second child

Thomas, between Catherine and Liz (with his mother)

The other significant event of the trip happened at the point in the cruise  when we turned around to go back to Oxford; I met for the first time a blog friend whose writing I admire, Dick Jones of Patteran Pages. He drove to the Canal to meet us and we had a pleasant lunch in a country pub.

Captain and Dick mooring boat

He turned out to be more jolly that I had imagined from reading his often serious poetry. But in many ways I felt I already knew him well.

As I look back on the canal adventure my thoughts are mostly about my daughter, who lives on the narrow boat, Pangolin, and who captained our 3 week cruise. Of course I have always known that she was super intelligent and capable. She is a literary sort of person (and lovely to look at) who has degrees in English (creative writing, old and middle English, etc.) from Harvard and Oxford, but after 3 weeks on the boat I have a new admiration for her resourcefulness, self reliance and versatility.

The boat itself, 7 feet wide and about 65 feet long, is comfortable, well equipped, and attractive.

Pangolin under way

Pangolin interior

It has a fully functional kitchen, a bathroom with tub and shower, a bedroom, a sitting area and dining alcove (which converts into a second bed). There is a TV and wireless internet is based on cell phone reception.  Electricity is from batteries that are charged by the engines. Bathroom waste is collected in a sort of plastic suitcase and is carried to and emptied at stations provided by British Waterways, a private non-profit that now owns and maintains the canals

The captain and Jerry on the way to the elsan with the toilet contents

. There is a big water holding area in the hull that is filled periodically by connecting a hose to a water supply near Pangolin’s permanent mooring, or while cruising at water supply stations along the canals. The boat is heated by a tiny coal and wood burning stove in the sitting area.

My daughter manages and maintains all this, and in addition she understands how to navigate this craft, which is driven from the stern. She knows about engines. She cleans debris tangled on the propeller.

Freeing the props from debris

She has mastered the rules and regulations of the canal system, the lift bridges, the locks. And she lives this life enthusiastically year round. Mostly she walks to the shops she needs, though she has an aging auto which she parks about a quarter of a mile from her mooring.

The canals are full of boats.

Boats in a marina

Boats at their moorings

Many people live on them, either full or part time, and like my daughter have permanent moorings where they prettify the area around the towpath. My daughter has potted plants and bird feeders at her mooring in an Oxford suburb. Other boats on the canals are privately owned but used only occasionally for recreation. Moorings are regulated. Some are 24 or 48 hour, others 14 days. There are businesses that rent out boats for short periods. You can tell those because they don’t have the variety of roof ornamentation and utilities that residential boats have.

The roof of the boat is important

Sometimes these are “party boats” with a lot of drinking. They tend to drive fast (more than 4 miles per hour) and they often ignore canal etiquette like slowing down when passing moored boats .Stag or hen parties are popular.

Our original plan was to cruise the Thames to London, but we were thwarted in that by the weather. While we were in England the weather was not bad, but it had rained heavily just before we got there and the Thames was so swollen that it was not safe to take the narrow boat on it. The locks were “red boarded” — dangerous to navigate and “at your own risk.” Thus boats were uninsured using them.

Swirling waters of the Thames

So we decided to cruise up the Oxford Canal to the Grand Union Canal (one that my daughter had never boated on) and then back. We spent a few days in Oxford before we started.

From our mooring in the center of Oxford

Daughter and Granddaughters went shopping and Jerry and I went to the Ashmolean museum and looked at antiquities.

Then we embarked on our cruise. For 17 days we slid through the murky, glassy waters of the canals. Jerry and I worked more than 100 locks, and he operated a number of lift bridges.

Pangolin in a lock

Jerry lifting a lift bridge

Many of the lift bridges remained open but had pull chains that walkers who needed to cross could pull down the bridge with. The weather was sometimes fine, sometimes overcast, and occasionally light rain fell, but for the most part is was good.

Autumn sunshine

We passed through areas where trees made a sort of arching green tunnel over the canal, other places where we looked over the lovely well tamed British countryside.

Open country

There were many swans.

Swan begging at the passing boats

At one part of the Grand Union there was a real tunnel, narrow and spooky that took about half an hour to traverse. It was just wide enough to pass another narrow boat, which we did one time.

Passing in the tunnel

We passed through one largish city, Banbury,

The Banbury locks

and many pretty small country villages. We saw swans (I took hundreds of pictures of swans), ducks, geese,

Geese on the canal



herons. Sometimes there were accents of clear yellow autumn trees or bright red hanging vines. And there were red berries everywhere, rose hips and hawthorns. Sheep ran away as the boat passed near them, cows watched with interest.

Watchful cow

Pigs just kept on eating. There were many walkers with every breed of dog on the tow path beside the canal. And there were swans.

The pretty arched bridges, some brick, some metal, were numbered and the captain had a guide so we could tell where we were.

View under the bridge

They created framed vistas and graceful reflections on the mirror of the canal surface. Everything was reflected: trees, sky, clouds, grasses and boats.

Moored boat reflected

Sunset reflected

As Pangolin glided along at about 3 miles and hour, trains, passenger and freight, suddenly streaked across the fields and through the woods.

Fast travel

Traffic rumbled across the bridges and beside the canal on highways. We often chatted with other boaters at the locks and one gentleman remarked to me on the contrast between 18th century and 21st century transportation. And there were swans.

A swan family

Sometimes Jerry and I walked along beside the boat when the locks were very close together — there were flights of up to 8 in a row. We raised or lowered the paddles that held back the water and opened and closed the gates to let the boats pass in or out. It was often hard work and we got exercise. In some places the locks accommodated two boats at a time and our captain maneuvered with great skill as she slid our boat into place. Turning points for boats are infrequent and in some places where the waterway widens because of a business or a marina (many boats stay in marinas) there were signs that said “no turning.”

Most of our meals were on the boat, but every few days we moored up and walked to a country pub, sometimes in a village, sometimes along the tow path. The food in these pubs is variable, but can be good.

At one point as we were gliding through an open country area our captain spotted another boat approaching and gleefully called out, “It’s Dusty!” Dusty plies the canals with fuel which he sells to boaters, so we got a new supply of coal (he heaved the bags onto the roof) and filled us up with diesel.

The captain and Dusty

He recommended mooring places and delivered the latest canal news. Soon after that we moored up and there were swans.

Jerry and me helping to moor the boat

At the end of our trip it was getting cold. And it rained from time to time. We were glad to get back to the Oxford mooring.

The captain in her city clothes, ready to shop

We ended by visiting with old friends from the days my daughter lived in the little village where my grandchildren grew up– friends who had visited us here on Lummi last summer. They took us out to the pleasant pub near the Oxford mooring and we had a good dinner. The next morning we flew away to our home in the Pacific Northwest. There won’t be any swans here until mid winter when they start migrating north to Yukon.

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20 Responses to Cruising the canals

  1. Hattie says:

    Oh, how wonderful! I was worried about you, and here you were having all this fun!
    Sorry about the mess at home, but I know you will figure it all out.

  2. Marja-Leena says:

    Looks like it was beautiful and very unique and personal canal cruise, mixed with family, some friends and even a blogger. (I also met Dick back in ’09). Love your photos.

    I’m only sorry coming home was so stressful for you both. Hope all is calm and lovely at home as we move into winter.

  3. Annie says:

    Lovely holiday for you, and I envy your daughter her wonderful home and lifestyle. Wonderful photos, as usual! Sad that you must hit the ground running upon your return, thanks to legal unpleasantness. Courage Anne, I hope this resolves soon.

  4. dale says:

    🙂 How wonderful!

  5. Cathy says:

    Anne, your recap of the canal trip and visit with Julia, grandkids, fellow blogger is delightful. It helps one truly appreciate the canal lifestyle and it appears Julia does it with skill and panache! Your pictures are beautiful. Thanks so much for taking the time to put it all together.

  6. Ernestine says:

    How wonderful.
    Your daughter and granddaughter’s are beautiful.
    What an adventure
    to remember over and over again.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Love the images….

  7. Mage B says:

    What a lovely journey with magic views and family. Thank you so for sharing it with us. I’m so sorry you came home to the will and attendant mess. I hope it all can be taken care of next march.

  8. Freda says:

    What wonderful photos, especially the sunset reflection. Thanks for sharing the story, it is very special to be able to spend quality time with loved ones and it looks like you had a great time. Every blessing

  9. Loved reading this Anne, and reliving memories from the trip my husband and I took on Pangolin last year. We did make it onto the Thames and into London, and it was the experience of a lifetime. But we really loved the part where we meandered along those lovely canals. Your daughter was a terrific captain and my husband great crew. I was just ballast mostly, although I did discover a hidden talent for rope-throwing in locks!

    I’m glad you enjoyed your trip, but sorry to hear you came back to more sturm und drang on the will. I hope it is sorted out to your and Jerry’s satisfaction sooner rather than later, and doesn’t become a marathon, a la Jarndyce v Jarndyce.

  10. Thanks for coming by to say Hello, so I could know you were back home. Your notion of the marvelous canal trip as “not much excitement” is at odds with my delight in reading about it–swans and all. How amazing for all of you to spend that time in tight quarters in an altered universe and have so much pleasure with your adventures. Seems quite adventurous to me!

    Now that you’ve had this magical experience with family, friends, another place, it would be lovely if your stateside issues would disappear in a pouf. Just wishing.

  11. Anne, I’m so sorry you didn’t make it to London. I was hoping to see you and Jerry on this trip but it looks like your time in the UK was really busy and well-spent. I saw Dick’s mention of meeting you along the way and wished I could have been there too. Your photos and comments about the canal trip are great and I really admire your daughter for her choice of lifestyle and her skipper expertise. During my week in Wales in September I walked along the canals there and wished I were on one one of those boats that I saw slowly passing by.
    Wishing you all the best with current legal problems and hoping it will all be sorted out satisfactorily.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    Beautiful travelogue, Anne, thank you for taking us all on board. I loved the photos and your writing of it.

    I do hope the US matters clear up and fast, it is an unnecessary drag on your energy.


  13. pauline says:

    What a wonderful trip – love traveling along with you this way. Lucky you to meet Dick. His blog site has always been among my favorites. Hope the battles over the will end soon and in your favor!

  14. Sharyn says:

    So, how do you turn a 65 foot long boat in a canal around if you decide you need to? Just wait for a turning place?

  15. Old Woman says:

    That’s about it. You don’t want to be in a hurry to do anything on those canals. Of course, people do turn where they aren’t supposed to.

  16. Dick says:

    Damn! I thought I’d commented already. So sorry, Anne – it was such a lovely day and I’ve been waiting for this account and the pics. Beautiful pictures too – so redolent of the unique canal territory. I hope that Pangolin and her skipper are coping with the current weather conditions. A firm mooring and plenty of coal for the stove, I should think!

  17. Deborah says:

    I am fascinated by your daughter’s life on the boat, Anne, and thoroughly enjoyed reading about it from your persepective. It does seem like you had a wonderful and unusual trip, but that’s all relative – the unusualness, I mean – since you seem to generally lead an unusual life anyway. And like mother, like daughter…

    I wish you well in your court case and hope that in the intervening months you can put it to the back of your mind.
    All best wishes to you and Jerry.

  18. Good lord! You and Jerry and the Duchess continue to amaze me.

  19. Lucy says:

    Really wonderful account, and gorgeous pictures. The life your daughter leads may look carefree, but I’m sure it has many challenges of its own. I hope such a change, which must surely be as good as a rest, helps a bit with the strains back home.

  20. Patty says:

    I am so amazed and intrigued by this post! I am so glad you shared these fascinating pictures because I could never have imagined this life otherwise. I hope I get to see these canals one day.

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