A boat trip in Cheshire that’s an education for the whole family
“Left a bit, now a bit to the right, OK, straighten it out”.
With these instructions delivered with confidence, we navigated safely past our fellow canal boaters as we emerged from the second tunnel of the day.
The orders are given by my second. He is nine years old and assumes his new role like a duck in water.
Black Prince Holidays state on their website that no previous experience is necessary to hire a river boat – so it seemed like the perfect adventurous getaway for beginners like our group of three adults and three children.
The company, which has nine holiday rental bases in England, Scotland and Wales, promises a British Marine Federation-accredited transfer before setting us off on the water.
Ian our guide is a former river boat dweller so we are in good hands. His ex-military background also means his hour-long initiation is thorough but engaging, firm but with a humorous overtone to temper our nerves.
He assures us that everything will be fine as he waves us off – the adults slightly worried, the children bursting with excitement.
Our weekend from Acton Bridge begins with a two and a half hour journey along the Trent and Mersey Canal. Standing at the back of the boat, one hand on the long handle – or tiller – we stay in first gear while orienting ourselves. Even when we go into top gear, we’re going about four miles per hour.
Ian advised us that a good gauge is to travel at about the speed of someone walking along the towpath – a canal boat holiday is meant to be enjoyed at a slow pace.
We get off to a shaky start as we find ourselves with the stern of the boat stuck in the shallow edge of the channel – causing a rush to the long poles stored on top of the vessel, which we use to push ourselves out of the bank. It’s the first of a few days on this day as we get to grips with steering (move the bar left when you want to turn right and vice versa), negotiate tight turns or pass other narrow boats along the way.
By day two, with better spatial awareness and steering, we realize the turns aren’t really tight and there’s plenty of space between us and the other boats.
There’s a blissful serenity at points where we seem to have the canal to ourselves, lush green foliage on either side, reeds so tall we’re kidding, maybe that’s what it’s like to travel through the Amazon rainforest, and silence but for the chirping of birds and the soft background hum of our engine.
The tunnels – some that you can see through and some that are timed, meaning you can only advance at a certain point in the hour – are daunting at first, but quickly become the most anticipated part of the day for the youngest on board. Pitch dark but for our headlamp out front, they provide a spooky enough backdrop for telling ghost stories, as well as contests to see who can produce the best echo.
It hadn’t occurred to any of the adults that traveling during the day would always require one of us to be in the back at the helm. It is therefore advisable to have a good adult to child ratio on your voyage – with supervision fore and aft of the much needed outdoor areas, and of course someone on hand to make tea for the Captain .
Our boat ‘Duchess 6’ is called Jessica Ellen – much to the delight of the children who affectionately declare at the mooring that “Jessica needs a rest for the night” and excitedly exclaim “there’s Jessica!” when we approach him on the way back from our meal at the pub one evening.
Measuring 69 feet long and 6 feet 6 inches wide, it can accommodate six of us in three compartments, but can accommodate eight when the dining room is converted into another bedroom. Narrowboats are aptly named, so it might not be for the claustrophobic, but I’m pleasantly surprised at how spacious it feels, and with the heater on in the evening, it’s cozy. We have two toilets and a shower, a small kitchen and a table with a seating area for meals, the board Games and lots of coloring.
The company has a handy guide on its website of what to bring in terms of food, clothes, and maybe less obvious items like a big umbrella (a godsend if it’s raining while you’re leading) and a torch for the evenings. Also, don’t forget the food for the ducks.
It is advisable to plan your route: have an idea of how long it will take until the next attraction and, above all, time it to dock before dark.
Although the boat’s kitchen is well equipped, booking in advance at a pub en route for at least one evening is a pleasant change of scenery and allows for a well-deserved drink after a day as captain.
A must-see on our route is the 147-year-old Anderton Boat Lift, where visitors can take a guided boat tour of the River Weaver before a journey into what the Canal and River Trust describes as an “edifice unbelievable”, comparing it to a “giant three-storied iron spider”.
The lift, celebrating the 20th anniversary in 2022 of its restoration and reopening, was built in 1875 to move 50ft boats between the River Weaver and the canal – a job it still does today. It is one of the seven wonders of the UK’s waterways and known as the Cathedral of the Canals.
The Visitor Center, Playground and Labyrinth are a great place to spend a few hours off the boat. The cafe also has great margarita pizza and a gift shop.
Dutton Stop Lock is the only lock on our route and is described by Black Prince as “the perfect practice lock”. With only a few centimeters of difference in the water levels, we had fun opening the doors and getting in and out of the chamber without the risk of sinking.
It helps that we also have a friendly riverboat local who is nearby and interested in talking to us through the process.
Along the route, we are greeted by waves and smiles from fellow vacationers and fellow canal dwellers. The sweet life is certainly appealing, and we all feel like we’re getting into the rhythm when we reach the last day of our short journey.
It was both an action-packed and relaxing break, allowing one to master new skills but settle happily into life on the slow lane.
Back at the base, I ask the children to give their verdict. All three burst into big smiles, the eldest proudly proclaiming: “I loved giving orders!
How to plan your trip
Black Prince (black-prince.com; 01527 575 115) offer a three-night break from £1,175 for up to six shares, from their base in Acton Bridge, departing in April. Diesel costs around £15 per day.
Black Prince has a choice of nine holiday rental bases, from the Peak District to the Midlands, Cheshire, Cambridge, Oxford, Wiltshire, Scotland, Wales and London. Recommended itineraries for families include High Life – a short break in the Dee Valley in Wales; Chocs Away, which is an attraction-packed option from Stoke Prior in Worcestershire, and Going Potty from Stoke on Trent and along one of the UK’s finest canals to Alton Towers.
A trip on the Anderton Boat Lift and a river tour costs £13 per adult, £11 for under-25s and children under three are free. It’s £37 for a family ticket (two adults and two children or one adult and three children). The visitor center and play park are free.