Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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Ventnor Farm Marina

Situated in the heart of the peaceful Warwickshire countryside, Ventnor Farm Marina easily lives up to its reputation as one of the country’s leading marinas. {{{0}}}

Offering permanent moorings with excellent service and maintaining a high level of security at all times. Landscaped promontories divide the marina into little bays, each containing around a dozen berths. This promotes privacy and allows a neighbourly relationship with the owners of the adjacent boats.

Situated in the heart of the peaceful Warwickshire countryside, Ventnor Farm Marina easily lives up to its reputation as one of the country’s leading marinas.Offering permanent moorings with excellent service and maintaining a high level of security at all times.Landscaped promontories divide the marina into little bays, each containing around a dozen berths. This promotes privacy and allows a neighbourly relationship with the owners of the adjacent boats.

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Wigrams Turn Marina

Wigrams Turn Marina, at the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, was built and completed three years ago and can accomodate 220 narrowboats.Wigrams Turn is probably the best mooring site in the country. At a canal junction choices abound going North, South, East or West. The marina is within 20 minutes drive of the M40, M42, M1 and M6.

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Wigrams Turn Marina

Wigrams Turn Marina

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Warwick Ring

The Warwickshire ring is a connected series of canals forming a circuit around the West Midlands area of England. The ring is formed from the Coventry Canal, the Oxford Canal, the Grand Union Canal, the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. It is a popular route with tourists due to its circular route and mixture of urban and rural landscapes.

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The ring totals 106 miles and has 115 locks, although there are two alternative routes through the southern part of Birmingham – from Kingswood Junction one can travel via the Grand Union Canal to Aston Junction, or via the Stratford Canal (north) and Worcester Canal to Gas Street Basin in central Birmingham. The latter route is slightly longer and has more locks, but many consider it to be more scenic and interesting.

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Route

There is something of everything, in canal terms, around the Warwickshire Ring. There are wide beam and narrowbeam locks; there is idyllic open rolling countryside, and the grimness of industry, some of it removed, some of it improved, and some of it still there in all its awfulness. There are tourist honeypot sites, like Warwick Castle, and there are world class attractions like Drayton Manor Theme Park.

 Grand Union Canal

Starting at Braunston, the route heads west along the Grand Union Main Line for five miles to Napton Junction, through pleasant farm land. At Napton Junction, or Wigram’s Turn, it turns to the North to the first of the locks at Calcutt. The original narrow locks, replaced by three wide beam ones in the 1930s, are still there alongside.

Turning westward, the canal heads towards Stockton locks. These eight locks carry the canal downhill to Long Itchington. After few more isolated locks, there are the Bascote four, with the top two being operated as a staircase. Three more locks take the canal on to the floor of the Leam (pronounced “Lem”) and Avon valleys. Royal Leamington Spa and Warwick both have major tourist attractions.

The climb out of the Avon Valley begins at Cape Locks, where the Cape of Good Hope pub serves a locally brewed ale called Two Locks, on account of the brewhouse being two locks down from the pub. The locals call it “Twollocks”.

The route then turns right onto the line of the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, later forming part of the Grand Union Canal. To the left Saltisford Basin is run by a Canal Trust: this is the nearest point to the town of Warwick.

After climbing a few of the 21 Hatton Locks, the view opens up to show the enormous locks climbing the hill in an unbroken line skywards. Although heavy to operate, the locks fill and empty quickly.

From Hatton top, there is a ten mile respite from locks. At Kingswood Junction, there is a choice of route. For those intending to go to Gas Street and Birmingham city centre, the narrowbeam Stratford-on-Avon Canal offers fewer locks and a quicker passage, but for boaters going straight round the ring, the main line route is shorter and quicker.

Keeping to the main line, Shrewley village sits on top of the canal above a tunnel, with a horsepath which comes up to the surface right in the middle of the village.

The five locks at Knowle raise the canal to its summit. The journey through Solihull is in a deep leafy cutting, shielding the boater from urban views.

The Camp Hill locks are narrow beam and the canal is surrounded by urban traffic. At the bottom, the Warwickshire Ring turns right at Bordesley Junction. Ahead is the route to Digbeth Basin: in the 1930s it was the Birmingham Hub of a national canal transport system. There are bonded warehouses, an ice house, a major Fellows Moreton & Clayton warehouse, a banana warehouse and in Typhoo Basin, a tea warehouse.

From Bordesley Junction, Saltley Cut was reviled as the filthiest place on the whole canal system, with gas works, a power station, railway works and a chemical works all generating or receiving cargoes, and discharging waste into the canal. It has been cleaned up now, and there is new housing facing the waterfront.

After crossing an aqueduct over the River Tame, the Grand Union Canal reaches Salford Junction, where it meets the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the Tame Valley Canal, underneath the road decks of spaghetti junction piled high above the canal.

Birmingham and Fazeley Canal

This section uses first-person (“I”; “we”) or second-person (“you”) inappropriately. Please rewrite it to use a more formal, encyclopedic tone. (September 2008)

You turn right on to the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, the canal squeezing manfully through an impossibly narrow gap between the motorway and the backs of factories. A major electricity high voltage distribution centre, flashes and buzzes fitfully beside you, making the whole surface of the boat fizz. The gap gets even narrower, and the canal eventually gives up and dives beneath a factory seeking refuge in the noise and the dark. They build Jaguars here, and they used to build Spitfires. Mr Dunlop built himself a Fort!

Eventually the canal re-emerges into the comparative calm of Minworth – a place whose historical claim to fame is that it was the largest sewage farm in Europe. Oh really? How fascinating! People have written books about it.

The M42 motorway holds your hand through Curdworth Locks. Here, there is an amazing water park, and a children’s farm – PYO? At Fazeley, the canal runs right alongside Drayton Manor Theme Park. If you have children on board, you will be hard-pressed to pass this one by.

Coventry Canal

In the shadow of a mill that makes red tape, we turn right onto the Coventry Canal and head south. They used to build the Reliant Robin at nearby Tamworth, right alongside the canal, but all trace of the activity has gone. It is almost as if they are ashamed of it. Tamworth has a Snowdome where you can ski on real snow, and a castle with a fantastic garden and a big shopping mall.

A big flight of narrow locks lifts you up to Atherstone, the hatting town. They made hats here from Tudor times and at one time, every army in the world was wearing Atherstone hats. Towards the end of the last century, hats went out of fashion, and the town just died. They are still in mourning for it really. Everyone either worked at the hats or knew someone who did. They used mercury to make certain types of felt. It is very toxic, and destroys the brain. The expression “Mad as Hatters” was based on truth.

It is hard to imagine now that all the marinas through here are occupying what were once the loading basins for collieries, for we have now entered the Warwickshire coal field, which has been completely cleaned up. Coal blackened boats with coal blackened men and women would barge and bang each other out of the way, cursing, in the clamour to get cargoes to carry to London or to Birmingham. This was the infamous “bottom road” out of Birmingham. Polesworth, a once proud mining community is now a rather characterless commuter town.

Approaching Nuneaton, the canal skirts around huge holes in the ground left by quarry workings, and is criss-crossed by now silent stone conveyors passing overhead.

The old engine house, the gracefully curved bridge and the Greyhound pub tell us that we are now at Hawkesbury Junction. All we need is some smoke wreathed around the boats and we could be back in the nineteenth century. For the Warwickshire Ring, we should turn left here for the Oxford Canal, but we are going to make a short detour down what the locals call “The Five An ‘Arf”, the five and a half miles of canal into Coventry. This is a flagship of urban regeneration. The towpath has been cleaned up, resurfaced, lit, policed, purged of drug dealers and addicts and adorned with sculptures and other works of art, and is now a thoroughly pleasant place to walk or cruise. The journey is like a catalogue for a historic vehicle rally, for manufactured here were Daimlers, Rileys, Hillmans and Humbers – and a Coventry Climax is not at all what you might think.

An impossibly tiny bridge hole admits you to Coventry Basin, beautifully and sympathetically restored, with new retail units blending seamlessly with buildings from another era. But somehow, it does not quite seem to have worked. There never seem to be any shoppers here other than those who arrive by boat and the retailers have a general air of desperation about them. The focal point is a more than life sized statue of James Brindley standing in the centre. It is a powerful piece of work, and he seems so real, you almost think he will answer you if you talk to him.

Oxford Canal

From Hawkesbury Junction, the Oxford Canal twists and turns while generally heading south east. This was a canal that followed the contours of the land. In the 1830s, it was straightened and shortened by creating cuttings and embankments to make it a better competitor to the railways, and the route to Braunston was almost halved. Where the original meanderings remain, the towpath is carried over the junction on exquisitely engineered cast iron bridges, made at Tipton in Staffordshire.

At Newbold-on-Avon (yes the same Avon as Stratford) there is a new 1830s tunnel. Someone in sandals in head office has evidently thought it a good idea to install some pretty coloured lights through it.

The canal keeps the town of Rugby at arm’s length, circumventing it on a huge embankment that never approaches closer than a mile, which is a shame because it is a nice old town.

There is quite a community of boaters and businesses at Hillmorton Locks, that were duplicated in the 1830s to alleviate congestion. The 820 feet high Hillmorton Wireless Aerials, built in 1924, had global capabilty in the days before satellite communication. They are a significant landmark for miles around.

The next significant landmark tells us we have completed our trip around the Warwickshire Ring. It is the very distinctive spire of Braunston Church that has been a homing beacon for canal boaters since the canals were first opened.

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Learn the art of tying knots for boating

To knot or not to knot… that is the question! Do you know the difference between an albright and a woggle or an alpine butterfly and a west country whipping? Probably not. The good news is that you don’t need to. As a traveller of the inland waterways there are really only two knots you need to know, but you really do need to know them. Let me give you an example of what can happen when you don’t.

When I was seventeen (I know, I must have a very good memory – three male friends and I drove to somewhere near Great Yarmouth to the start of our week long narrowboat holiday. After half and hour’s instructiion we were allowed out on the Norfolk broads on our own.

By five o’clock we thought we had travelled far enough so “parked” our new toy along a canal bank near a likely looking pub. Six hours later and a little the worse for wear, we staggered through the driving rain through the pub garden back to where we were sure the boat was moored.

It wasn’t there!

Of course we weren’t thinking straight so after a brief panic and a longer shouting match we raced up and down the bank searching for our new home. After ten minutes we found the boat. Actually “found the boat” isn’t quite right. We hadn’t lost it at all. The idiot responsible for tying the stern mooring line (me) hadn’t done a very good job so the boat had swung one hundred and eighty degrees downstream and had come to rest alongside another narrowboat. Of course it was very difficult to see it in the driving rain.

The essential narrowboat knot

The essential narrowboat knot

If I had known either of the two most useful narrowboat knots we would have been spared the heartache all those years ago. Of course, my experience resulted in nothing more that a minor irritation but there have been countless cases of boats drifting away from their moorings because of poor knot tying… sometimes with disasterous consequences. Fortunately for you, it’s now very easy to learn these knots.

The two essential narrowboat knots are “the round turn and two half hitches” and “the cleat hitch”. The former is shorn on the left. The latter is below. The one on the left is for attaching your mooring rope to a post or a ring and the cleat hitch. The cleat hitch, strangely enough, secures a rope to a cleat. As you will invariably tie your narrowboat to or from a post, cleat or mooring ring these two knots will keep you out of trouble.

narrowboat cleat hitch

Essential knot number two

You can probably work out how to tie the knots just by looking at the diagrams but, to make life even easier for you, there’s a marvelous website which demonstrates how to tie every knot you’ve ever heard of . In fact, there are 120 knots listed. All of them are animated and very clear and easy to understand. It’s a great site… and it’s free.


 

 

Update 9th March 2014

I wrote this post just over four years ago. It was one of the first on the fledgling site. Since then I’ve often been approached with offers of new information to add to the site. About a month ago I realised that site subscriber Colin Jarman was the author of two books about boating knots. I asked him if he would like to write an article for the site describing the best knots for narrowboat owners. He kindly agreed. Here it is….

We handle ropes and lines most frequently on a narrowboat when mooring or getting underway. Mooring lines have to be fastened securely to stop your boat wandering off on a cruise of her own, yet they need to be easy to cast off and clear away when you want to leave your berth.

This means you need to know a few good knots that will hold securely until you want to undo them and that will then be easy to release, even under load. I emphasise that bit – even under load. If, say, the water is draining from a lock and there’s tension in your lines, but you can’t free them, because the knots have worked too tight … well, you get the picture.

The commonest ‘fixing points’ for mooring lines are bollards beside a lock, mooring stakes in the bank, a ring in a lock wall and a dolly or T-stud (cleat) on the deck. The knots I would recommend to cover these situations are the Round Turn and Two Half Hitches, the Lighterman’s hitch and the Cleat Hitch. You should know how to tie a Bowline too, because it forms a useful loop in the end of a rope, but it’s not the best knot for mooring purposes, because it’s hard to undo when under load and to lift it off a bollard means gaining some slack in the whole line so that the loop can be lifted up and off – not something you can do under load. If you need a loop, though, or need to join two lines together, a bowline (or a pair of bowlines with their loops interlinked in a Bowline Bend) can’t be beaten.

ROUND TURN AND TWO HALF HITCHES – bollard, spike (stake), dolly, ring

This is a long name for a simple way of fastening a line to a ring, a mooring stake, a dolly or a bollard. The name is also a perfect description of the parts of the knot. Begin by passing the end of the line round the bollard, dolly, mooring stake or through the ring so that it comes back towards you. Now take it round again so that it again comes back at you and completely encloses the object in a full ‘round turn’. Next pass the (working) end across the (standing part of) the line and wrap it round, poking the working end through between itself and the round turn. That’s the first half hitch. Take the working end on round the standing part, tuck it through between itself and the first half hitch and you’ve formed the second half hitch, completing the whole ‘round turn and two half hitches’.

Pull everything tight and it will hold as long as you want. Importantly though, it will also be easy to undo even while the boat is pulling hard on it. Just pull the end back through the two half hitches and either unwind the round turn or hang on to the working end of the line and surge it round the bollard (or whatever it’s round) and control the boat. If you try to stop a moving narrowboat by just holding the end of a mooring line you will soon find yourself swimming in the canal, but take a round turn on (ideally) a bollard and the friction of the rope round the bollard will help you to slow her down and hold her.

LIGHTERMAN’S HITCH – bollard, dolly

It’s much harder to describe the lighterman’s hitch than it is to tie it, but here goes. Use it for securing a mooring line to a bollard or dolly – if the rope is thin and the dolly tall, otherwise go back to a round turn and two half hitches.

Take a full round turn on the bollard, then pass a loop (bight) of the free (working) end of the line under the standing part, up and drop it over the head of the bollard or dolly. Drop a second loop of the working part over the bollard, then pass a third loop under the standing part, up and over the head of the bollard. That’s it. Job done. No ‘tying’, nothing to jam, just a round turn and three loops. It will hold securely and to undo it, just life each loop off until you are again holding the boat with a full round turn on the bollard.

CLEAT HITCH – T-stud

Like the Lighterman’s Hitch, this avoids any ‘tying’. Take a full round turn on the upright ‘neck’ of the T-stud with the working end of the line. That gives you immediate control, because you can surge the line around the neck of the stud to control the boat. To secure the line, next cross the working part over the T and pass it under one horn. Cross over the top again and pass the line under the other horn. Now take a fresh round turn on the neck of the stud and that’s it. The line is secure, but can be undone under load, just by unwinding the line to the first round turn.

The easy way to remember this round, cross, round pattern is with the word OXO. For a round turn (O), then cross, under one horn, cross and under the other in an X pattern, and finish with a round turn (O). If you are worried about security with a slippery rope, put two XXs on – think of kissing the missus, is one kiss enough?

Follow the links on each of the knots to see an animated demonstration of how to tie them or see demonstrations of other knots not listed here on my YouTube channel.

If you want to read more about simple knots and splices I can’t help but recommend ‘Knots In Use’ and ‘Knots and Splices’ (both published by Adlard Coles Nautical), because I’m their author.

Good luck!

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living-on-a-narrowboat

To add an excerpt to a post, simply write one in the Excerpt field under the post edit box. An excerpt can be as short or as long as you wish. Usually, given its purpose, a couple of Continue reading

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