Now, far be it for me to deny that an integral part of any holiday is taking some snaps — whether it be photographs of the distant horizon, an image depicting a local custom, or a shot of a loved one pointing at a landmark. But anyone who has holidayed with a keen photographer will be familiar with being held in the utmost respect — as they are always walking behind you! I have had many a solitary ramble, looking back over my shoulder to see that, yes, he is still adjusting the lens and waiting for the crowd of tourists blocking the Mona Lisa to shift, just so he can get his shot. Equally, I have accidentally conversed with many a stranger, or just myself, as I comment on the scenery only to discover that he has wandered off to capture some exquisite detail. Also, the photographer tends to forget that the camera gives them a legitimate excuse to loiter with intent, while I have been eyed somewhat suspiciously by the local gendarmes for pacing the backstreets of Paris with no obvious purpose.
So this year I decided we would try something different from the standard city break. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of a canal boating holiday and imagined it would offer more of an 'experience' than the ﬂight and hotel package we were used to booking. I liked the novelty factor of travelling by boat and imagined that it would be considerably more relaxing than stomping along ticking off a list of 'must-see' attractions. Most importantly of all, the husband had no escape!
Gliding along at the regulation 3mph, there would be plenty of opportunity for him to take photos of the scenery, plus we would be at liberty to moor up and explore further aﬁeld. The gentle pace would mean that the view would be constantly changing but there would be time enough to snap away and capture it all. So we decided that we wanted to explore a particularly scenic and photogenic waterway, and after reading numerous back issues of Waterways World and conducting some online research, we plumped for the South Oxford Canal. We booked an extended weekend break with Napton Narrowboats, and, although there were just the two of us (plus the dog) we opted for a six-berth boat so that family members could join us at a later stage.
We arrived at the boatyard on a Friday lunchtime and upon seeing the boat, nerves set in. Were we being too optimistic thinking we could handle a 70ft craft? Our lovely lady, Rosanna, dwarfed most of the boats around her and we began to question the wisdom of diving in at the deep end. However, our fears were soon allayed by the staff and we were genuinely relieved to see that they were not at all fazed by handing over a newly refurbished, luxury boat to a pair of rookies.
We were given a thorough introduction by John, who explained everything we would need to know, including some pointers on negotiating locks (my express concern) and steering such a huge vessel (the husband's assigned role). Having been assured that boating is a 'contact sport' and that nothing can go drastically wrong at 3mph, we were given the most important piece of advice of all - take it steady, no need to rush, and enjoy it!
So off we set, having decided to follow the itinerary detailed on Napton Narrowboats' website. Heading off from Napton Junction, we would moor up for the night near a pub en route, continue on Saturday to Fenny Compton, before turning at Cropredy and heading back towards the junction ready to return the boat on the Monday morning.
The initial phase of the journey went smoothly and we tackled our ﬁrst lock near The Folly pub. On this occasion there were other boaters around to help and, thankfully, they were able to ﬁll in some of my mental blanks on how to proceed and when to raise or lower a paddle. This assistance, although much appreciated, did lull me into a false sense of security. Once I was left to tackle the rest of the Napton ﬂight, I realised that boating could be an excellent substitute for attending the gym! The opening and closing of the gates, combined with the raising and lowering of paddles, followed by a stroll to the next lock, was more taxing than I had anticipated and led to several cups of tea getting cold as I optimistically made a brew before realising I needed to hop off and dash ahead, windlass in hand. However, once we had made it through the ﬂight, we were home and dry (at least for the next 9 miles) as the summit section of the canal is lock-free. As such, this proved to be the most relaxing part of the holiday.
Our guidebook described how quiet this section of the canal could be and indeed it was remarkably tranquil. We seemed to be the only boat on the route. Apart from the gentle chug of the engine, the only sounds were birds, insects and the occasional bleat or whinny as we passed ﬁelds of farm animals. We spotted sheep, cows, bulls and some water buffalo that were knee deep in the mud and seemed to be contemplating a dip in the canal. All of this provided great photo opportunities, although steering the boat with one hand and taking snaps with the other did prove tricky for the husband. However, our blissful reverie was somewhat disturbed by the arrival of heavy rain. Having braved the downpour for ten minutes before realising that it was unlikely to stop anytime soon, we decided to moor up. Much squelching in the mud and retying of the rope later and we were at least sitting in the warm and dry and able to make yet another cuppa. This delay meant we were eating into our schedule and I worried about having time to meet family members in Fenny Compton and journey onwards to the turning point at Cropredy. So, at the ﬁrst sign that the rain was letting up, we set off again. Thankfully, the weather held for the rest of the weekend. We encountered ducks and their ducklings, swans (who judging by the vicious hissing weren't best pleased to see us) and even a brave soul paddling his way through a downpour, balanced on a canoe. All of this meant the husband was clicking away at regular intervals and we spent many a happy hour just watching the scenery glide by. The beautiful décor of some of the boats proved particularly photogenic too, and, of course, we spent some time just reading the various names. As the husband hails from County Cork, he was pleased to see a narrowboat called Irish Spirit, complete with the obligatory leprechaun at the helm.
Family members jumped aboard at Fenny Compton and made much lighter work of travelling through the locks. This was a great help to me and allowed the husband to hand over the steering duties and indulge his passion for pictures. Rosanna has a very large cruiser stem with an outdoor seating area and table, and it was fantastic to sit around, watch the View and delegate some of the hard work to the newcomers. Along the way We were privy to some beautiful lock-keepers' cottages, as well as some wonderfully maintained permanent mooring areas — a real sense that boating isn't just a novelty holiday but a way of life.
At Cropredy the husband had to put down the camera to turn the boat with 4ft to spare. We then had to start heading back and quickly, as we had fallen behind with our schedule and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t give ourselves too much to do on the Monday morning.
In retrospect, the holiday was much more active than we had initially thought and we were kept fairly busy as we manoeuvred through locks and the twisty bends on the summit level. We were also conscious of the time and wanted to ensure that we could reach a winding hole and make it back to base over the course of the weekend.
Next time I think we will holiday for longer, make frequent stops, and visit more pubs and villages. From the husband's perspective, having more time away from the boat would allow for a more varied selection of pictures; there's only so many shots you can take from the tiller. That said, on the Sunday evening, we moored up for the night by Marston Doles and, in the course of tying the ropes and ensuring we were secure, he snapped the most glorious sunset, the silhouette of trees and the lock in the foreground. He looked back over his shoulder and it was there, just waiting to be photographed.
We would like to thank Napton Narrowboats for the use of their lovely hire-boat Rosanna for the four days of our trip. The boat was clean and beautifully presented, the staff were kind and friendly, and the training we were given stood us in good stead for the trip. The company has two bases, on the Oxford and Shropshire Union canals, and offers an extensive range of boats. We have no hesitation in recommending their hire-boat holidays to Waterways World readers.
For more information, visit www.napton-marina.co.uk, or call: 01926 813644.