A little while ago, myself, my partner and my (elderly) dog spent a week on board a 60 ft narrowboat wading our way slowly through the leafy Oxfordshire countryside.
It was the fastest way to slow down I have ever experienced.
“If you are going faster than the walkers on the towpath, then you are going too fast” we were told in our induction. Not just permission – instruction – to slow down.
For those of you who have never been narrow-boating, as well as being a lovely way to spend a few days going from one place to another and then going back again, it also offers transportation back in time to an almost forgotten age, preserved now by the passion of a few people who have made a home and a life along the routes of Industrial Age canals that once connected the country. Once bustling networks, used daily to carry tonnes of goods to trade, the canals now feel like a silent, hidden world, shaded by the canopy of trees that help to muffle the sounds of the wider, faster, world that they helped to build.
To move the boat, you steer from the back. By the time you get where you are going, the boat has already been. Moving just above the surface of the water, you are invited to feel a small part of something much larger than you. If you look directly ahead you see the gentle parting of the otherwise still water in front of you. The canals have no current, the waters are undisturbed until you wade through them, slowly enough that water birds, unflustered by your presence, glide alongside. If you look up, you feel shrouded in the shelter of trees, invited to study their shape, experience the light through their leaves as you move below them.
You can cruise slower than walking pace for hours, traveling, in reality, no further than a few miles. At that speed you are invited to savour the idiosyncrasies of the landscape which is moving, almost imperceptibly, around you. You can hear the sound of the water rippling below, the rustle of leaves, take in the sight of a housemartin skimming the unbroken surface of the water before you. There is the smell of damp ground, earthy water, thick with the remnants of its former days. The backs of disused factories host bird nests made from gathered twigs foraged downstream. The flow is broken only by meeting a boat traveling in another direction, passing each other at a pace that ensures you have time for a cheery hello.
The connection between the canals and their industrial heritage is most tangible when you arrive at one of the many locks that punctuate the waterways. Giant cogs turn wheels that open sluices and enable water to pour in. You literally have to pause and go with the flow as the boat is lifted to higher ground by the weight of the water or taken underground as it empties beneath you.
You can moor the boat anywhere along the towpath, providing it isn’t already marked as private, and spend an afternoon with your feet in the grass or while away the evening immersed in the sounds of nature, watching the sun go down as you prepare for the most peaceful nigh’ts sleep you’ve had in a long time..
We hired our Narrowboat for a week from Oxfordshire Narrowboats and sailed from Lower Heyford to Banbury and back again. You can find out more here – https://www.oxfordshire-narrowboats.co.uk