Travel at a Natural Pace; Enjoy the Journey

Narrow boat, River Trent, Nottingham

 A Short Story by the Novelist Alan Dance

"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive"

(Robert Louis Stevenson)

In the early 1980s, some friends and I, having explored most of the canal network from the Thames to the Leeds & Liverpool, decided that it would be interesting to venture further afield and explore the uncharted waters of a canal not connected to the rest of the canal system. The Brecon and Abergavenny Canal, having some years earlier been rescued from creeping dereliction and restored for much of its length, was our chosen destination, and I was given the task of finding a suitable boat for hire for a long Easter weekend cruise. About 22 miles of this canal, which runs through the magnificent scenery of the Brecon Beacons National Park, had been reopened from near Pontypool in the south to Brecon in the north, and the plan was to cruise the full navigable length.

The number of hire boats available on the canal was limited, not only in number but, as we were to discover, in reliability. After much delving and perusal of various waterway magazines, (the world-wide-web was yet to take over our lives and the founders of Google were still merely young schoolchildren) I managed to find some possible hirers and sent off for their brochures. After much study one was selected, and a 'phone call soon established that a boat was available for the required dates. A deposit was sent and all that remained now was to read as much as possible about this canal and look forward to a well-earned break.

The first hint that not all was, perhaps, as straightforward as it might have been, came about a month before Easter. I received a call from the Boatyard asking that the cheque for the balance be sent to a Mr Smith (the name has been changed to avoid any possible embarrassment to him, or me being sued) at an address other than the boatyard. It was quickly explained that since making the booking the hire business had been sold, but not to worry, everything would be OK. The cheque was duly sent and promptly acknowledged. About a week before Easter I received a letter asking that on our arrival we should report not to the boatyard but to Mr Smith's home address, which was close to the canal.

Straight after work on the day before Good Friday, two cars set off from the East Midlands. We followed instructions and arrived 'chez Smith' at about half past eight. It was, of course, getting dark. The Smith residence was a delightful Georgian country house, originally built, we were informed, for a former South Wales Iron Master. We were met by Mr Smith, a very enthusiastic and well spoken man in his late thirties, who displayed all the characteristics of a privileged upbringing - public school, Oxbridge and a commission in the Guards, followed by a stretch planting tea or rubber somewhere in the Colonies. His duties to the nation now completed, he informed us he had now returned to the old country to settle down and 'do something different.' The boat hire business was to be his chosen profession.

The introductions completed, we were instructed to follow Mr Smith who would take us to the boat. Into his Landrover he climbed and we followed. After a couple of minutes drive along deserted, narrow and ever darkening lanes, we came to a stop just before a humpback bridge. Mr Smith got out of his car and vanished over the wall. It was as well that we were all young, fit and able to follow suit. Luckily, the drop down the other side of the wall onto the towpath was not too far, and with careful dexterity we had soon transferred bags, boxes of food and drink, etc. from our cars and over the wall. Alongside, rocking gently in the water, lay our home for the next four nights. Mr Smith had purchased the boat hire company, but obviously the boatyard itself was not part of the deal!

Mr Smith suggested that he should show us over the boat the following morning when it was light, to which we all heartily agreed. In any case, it was now well after ten and we were all desperate for a pint or two and something to eat, so we set off for the pub, agreeing to meet Mr Smith bright and early the next morning. It was at this point that the next portent of disaster appeared, although it was not obvious at the time. Mr Smith asked at what time we hoped to set off and we said by about nine o'clock. He then explained that this was the first time the boat had been out that season, and consequently they had given it a test run that afternoon. Everything was OK, he said with a smile, but there was just one minor bit of work required on the engine. 'Not to worry,' he assured us, 'my man will have it fixed in no time at all.' On enquiring exactly what had to be done, he nonchalantly told us, as he climbed into his car, that the engine needed a new cylinder head gasket. Oh well - off to the pub.

Moored Canal Boat, NOT the subject of the story!The next morning Mr Smith and 'my man' appeared bright and early, so we all got in our cars and headed off for the nearest Little Chef for breakfast, leaving them to get to work. We got back an hour or so later and, low and behold, the engine was running, although it did sound a bit rough. Now, at that time I had covered about 3,000 miles cruising and liked to think that I had acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of what's what on a canal. But there was just something about Mr Smith which made me suspect that perhaps he didn't know too much himself. This was confirmed when it was politely pointed out that this particular boat appeared to be provided with only one windlass for operating lock paddle gear, but no boat hook, no boat pole and no plank. Now, this particular canal is rather narrow and shallow in parts making cruising and mooring difficult, and a strong boat pole, boat hook and plank are a necessity.

With a somewhat chastened look on his face he politely suggested that if we would accompany him back to his house he would provide these missing items. On arrival he vanished into a large outhouse to re-appear with a bow saw and the lid of a large oblong packing case. 'This'll do fine for a plank, and if you hang on a minute I'll just go and get you a pole.' Off he shot to the bottom of his large garden, saw in hand, and we watched with a mixture of amazement and admiration as he proceeded to cut and trim a long branch from one of the trees. With pride, he handed over our individually hand-crafted boat pole - a service not many other hire firms offer! Ten out of ten for improvisation. His time in the Colonies had obviously not been wasted! We did manage to get a second windlass but never did get a boat hook. 'No demand for them on this canal' Mr Smith assured us. We decided it might be imprudent to pursue this point, and that we were not going to let a few minor hiccups upset our holiday, so off we went, minus a boat hook, back to the boat. Two of our crew had stayed with the boat so the engine could be kept running, as advised by 'my man'. We were soon to find out why this advice had been given.

Off we set. The sun shone, the birds sang, the scenery was delightful and all was well with the world. We found a nice pub for lunch and two hours later returned to the boat. Now, most boat engines, sturdy things that they are, usually start first time; not this one. It was with great difficulty that we managed to get it going. The batteries were less than lively and the more we pressed the starter the worse it got. We cursed, we prayed. Which of these was successful I don't know, but suddenly the engine sprang into life, or, to be more accurate, limped. If only we had known what was to follow, we would have savoured that rare and not-to-be-repeated moment.

The engine sounded distinctly ill and had no 'guts' whatsoever. We could only manage about 1mph. But, so what? We were in no hurry and our proposed evening destination was only about three miles away. So on we chugged. Soon, on passing a point where a narrow lane ran adjacent to the canal, we were surprised to see 'my man' standing next to his car. As we past, we waved a cheery greeting, which was acknowledged. 'Just thought I'd pop along to see if everything's OK' he said, and seemed very relieved to see us actually moving.

About a mile before our night stop was an acute bend at a point where the canal was very shallow. This meant pushing the tiller hard over and just as we rounded the bend - CRACK - the wooden handle of the tiller snapped clean off just were it joined the metal tubular section. This left approx. one foot of tiller with which to steer, giving very little leverage. Eventually we reached our destination, where the first task was to 'phone Mr Smith. Now, it being Good Friday, Mr & Mrs Smith must have gone out for the day as there was no answer. Of course, this was all before the days of mobile phones, so there was a constant toing and froing to the only phone box in the village. Several repeat 'phone calls were equally unsuccessful. Never mind, the village had two pubs to be sampled, so we decided to enjoy ourselves and 'phone him the next morning.

Every so often one is lucky to find a gem of a canal-side pub. This was even more true thirty years ago, before the multi-national brewery whiz-kids arrived with their 'knock all the small rooms into one big one and get rid of the dart board and ban all the old gits who want to play cribbage and dominoes, and replace cask ale with fizzy lager' etc (You may add your own personal grievances here). I often imagine how much more pleasant the world will be when the last whiz-kid finally stops whizzing.

Anyway, that night we found just such a gem of a pub. Better still, it was all of twenty seconds walk from the boat! Consequently, the next morning, dawn had well and truly broken before we saw the light of day, and it was mid-morning before we made our first (but not our last) emergency 'phone call for help. Before going to the 'phone box however, we thought it might be a good idea just to check that everything was OK with the engine, particularly since the lights had been rather dim the previous night. Let the engine run for a while and give the batteries a bit of a charge, we thought.

I will not labour the point, but suffice it to say that whatever repairs had been carried out the previous morning had been short-lived. There was no compression; the engine would not start, the batteries were getting flatter and in any case we could not steer the boat properly even if we could start it. So we went to the 'phone box again. In fact we went to the phone box more times than enough. I imagine some of the locals began to suspect something funny was going on and that we were, perhaps, itinerant drug-dealers organising drop offs.

It was not until about five o'clock in the evening that our emergency call was answered. 'I'm so sorry we've not been here to answer your call, we've been out - it's Easter weekend you know.' Yes, we knew! Unfortunately, 'my man' was also taking a few days holiday, so Mr Smith himself promised to come to our rescue. Unfortunately, he could not get until the next morning. We made sure he understood that a new battery was needed, as by now the lights were very dim and the water pump was now of the non-pumping variety. Never mind, every cloud has a silver lining. Ours had arrived at about 10.30 that morning when the landlord of the pub came out and placed a sign on the towpath indicating that the pub was to be open "ALL DAY". I should explain, we were moored on a small embankment and that the pub was directly below, with steps down from the towpath to the pub's back door. Now this was long before the licensing laws had changed and we could not understand how he could legally open all day. Not that we cared as it also happened the next day (Sunday) and the next day (Easter Monday).

Lest it be thought we were just a bunch of dipsomaniacs, I should say that most of the day was spent exploring the surrounding countryside. But it was extremely useful to have such a facility, literally on one's doorstep, available all day. We were fortunate to be marooned in a most beautiful part of the country, somewhere where many people choose to spend a holiday.

The next morning Mr Smith arrived as promised. New batteries were fitted but there was nothing that he could do with the engine as 'my man' was not, of course, available. In any case, we were to return home the following evening. So we resigned ourselves to staying where we were. In all, we had travelled about six miles. An agreement was quickly reached as to how we should be compensated for what had happened, which in effect resulted in the return of our hire fee. So here we were in the Brecon Beacons, our own floating holiday home, a pub on or doorstep (OPEN ALL DAY) and money to spend!

The next day was a Bank Holiday and point-to-point races were taking place just outside the village. What more could one ask for?

We never did reach Pontypool or Brecon (that was achieved some years later) but of all my many canal journeys, this one stands out. I believe that the hire company concerned is now well established and thriving. I often wonder whether the new proprietor gained as much experience from that, his first venture into Canal boat hiring, as we gained in lasting memories of an eventful four days.

His novels have been reviewed by Martin Wilson:

A R Dance's publisher:

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