England: Rule Britannia (+photos)

By Michael Brown

"It's a contact sport," jokes Nick as the canal boat I'm driving nudges the side of the narrow waterway under one of the hundreds of stone bridges near Macclesfield in England's north west.

You can't really call canal boating through England's myriad waterways a contact sport, but there can be a fair bit of argey bargey, even if it's not intentional.

Navigating a 12,000kg, 20m-long canal boat through narrow gaps, especially under bridges or round tight bends (or, thanks to the curious sense of humour of Irish construction workers, under bridges built on tight bends), can feel a little like trying to thread a needle with a rope, but the boats' steel hulls are more than sturdy enough to handle a few nudges against the sides.

The fact you're travelling at a leisurely 6 km/h (locals get quite agitated if speed demons travel faster and throw up unnecessary wash) also means you're unlikely to end up in a mangled mess.

The United Kingdom has some 3500km of canals, in a complex network of locks, aqueducts and tunnels, built in the 18th century to transport goods from town to town.

While the arrival of the railways supplanted the waterways less than a century later, today they are proving ever more popular with holiday-makers looking for a relaxing, slow-paced way to see the countryside.

Macclesfield Canal, in County Cheshire, is widely touted as the country's most scenic canal, taking in as it does several old, well-preserved Victorian textile mills, Tudor homes, castellated ruins, abandoned coal mines, woods, rolling farmland - and of course, those picturesque, if tricky to navigate bridges.

As you putter along admiring the views, or occasionally going ashore to stroll around the villages and towns, it often feels as though time is standing still - although that could have much to do with your speed limit.

Everybody on - and even around - the canals is forced to slow down and watch the world go by, peering into the many large estates or watching the joggers as they pound the bank-side tracks, once used by teams of draught horses.

The pace is so appealing, many have taken to living on canal boats rather than using them just for holidays.

Given that some houseboats are outfitted with central heating, DVD players, a fridge and shower it's easy to see why. They might be narrow, but they have most of the comforts of home and some hold up to six people. They're also very easy to drive.

Other than those darn curved bridges, navigating the locks is the trickiest aspect of canal boating - but also the most fascinating. The boat is eased into what resembles a holding pen.

Then the lock is opened at one end to let water either in or out, depending on the direction you're travelling, so you're raised or lowered to meet the level of the canal on the other side of the lock.

It can result in a traffic jam as boats wait their turn, but it's a lot more enjoyable than being stuck on Auckland's Harbour Bridge in rush hour.

In fact, the social aspect of canal boating is one of its highlights. While you're waiting your turn in the lock, chat with neighbouring boaties.

Or hop off and slake your rising thirst in one of the countless pubs lining the canal banks. You won't have any problems with drink-driving with the boat tied up safely outside overnight.

Oh - that's the other tricky bit - stopping, particularly in the dark. Just take it slowly, after all, it's not like you can put the handbrake on.

Never mind, what's one more "nudge" against that sturdy hull?

- Michael Brown travelled to the UK courtesy of Flight Centre.


Canal boating is best done in the summer as canals, often barely a metre deep in places, can freeze over in winter. That said, some parts of Macclesfield Canal, near to England's Peak District include the highest points of the whole canal system. This means water levels can get pretty low in summer, forcing the closure of some locks. Check conditions before planning your route.

For more information on canal boat hire on the Macclesfield Canal visit freedomboats.co.uk

For further information on the Cheshire-Macclesfield region visit visitcheshire.com

- Detours, HoS

- Herald on Sunday

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