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A Cruise Along
England’s Canals

A narrow boat chugging at walking pace down a former industrial waterway: it may not be efficient, but England’s Grand Union Canal will lead you from West London to central Birmingham, past all that is green and pleasant about this isle. Words by George Upton. Photography by Alexander Wolfe.

For centuries, Britain’s waterways were the vital arteries of a rapidly industrializing nation; an ingenious solution to the difficulty of transporting heavy goods between cities, factories and ports. By the 1960s, however, the rich culture of those living and working in boats on the canals had all but disappeared. The slow decline began with the emergence of the railways in the 1830s. The waterways became unprofitable, poorly maintained and increasingly unnavigable. The unique, nomadic way of life on the canals looked as if it would pass quietly into history.

Today, however, the canals are thriving. With the official recognition of their use for leisure in 1968, the canals found a new generation of enthusiasts. The long, thin “narrow boats” that had once ferried coal, raw materials and finished goods around the country were converted into floating homes, and over the course of the next fifty years, the culture of the canals would be continually reinvigorated by those choosing to cast off from dry land.

“It’s a very simple life,” says Alexander Wolfe, a photographer who has been living on the Grand Union Canal—which runs for 137 miles (220 km) between London and Birmingham—for over a year. “Rather than find a flat in London, I decided to buy a narrow boat and have a bit of an adventure.”

Wolfe is one of an increasing number of young boaters who are discovering the appeal of life on the water. At the London end of the Grand Union, the population has doubled in the past five years. At the height of summer, the canal, once the central trunk road of Britain’s canal network, is busier than it ever was during the industrial revolution.

It is perhaps peculiarly British, the desire to eschew mod-ern conveniences and personal space to travel, at walking pace, along a relic of the country’s distant industrial past. Yet the canals offer a living connection with Britain’s history that is as much for those fascinated by the customs and technology of the day as it is for those who prefer life out on the water. There is even a name for the people who have made a hobby out of watching activity on the canals without participating in it themselves: gongoozlers.

Some 2,700 miles (4,345 km) of canals, or more than half of Britain’s network, are connected, allowing you to travel from Bristol in the southwest to Ripon in Yorkshire via nearly all of the major English cities. You are, however, limited by the speed of the boats—around four miles an hour (6.5 kph). To get a taste of life on the canals, and to take in the changing scenery, Wolfe recommends hiring a boat from Kate Boats, who have bases on the Grand Union in Stockton and Warwick. Beginners are given a crash course in driving the boats and negotiating the locks; and, if you just want to try out a boat for a day, short hires are available. MK Afloat in Milton Keynes has a fleet of shorter boats that are easy to operate, and electric GoBoats can be rented for a few hours from various locations in London.

Most of those living on the canals have residential moorings, but many, like Wolfe, opt for a more itinerant life. His continuous cruising boat license requires him to travel at least twenty miles (32 km) a year, though the restlessness brought by a life spent on the move is eased somewhat by the leisurely speed of the boat. By train, the journey between London and Birmingham can be done in an hour and a half, but the two weeks by canal allow you to really take in the slowly changing landscape.

“It might not always be the most beautiful canal,” Wolfe says of the Grand Union, “but it is definitely the most varied.” From London it takes about a day to reach the patchwork of gently rolling hills and farmland, the quaint villages and post-industrial towns that continue until the outskirts of Birmingham. Despite the canal’s industrial origins, it is a quiet, tranquil journey, and even the great engineering achievements that made the canal the wonder of its day possess a slow, stately elegance. The Cosgrove aqueduct, for example, carries the canal over the River Great Ouse via a flight of twenty-one locks at Hatton that enable a boat to climb 148 feet (45 m) up a hill (in around three hours); and the 13/4 mile (2.8 km) tunnel at Blisworth that, before boats were fitted with engines, could only be passed through by legging—lying on your back and pushing off against the underside of the bridge repeatedly.

“There is a great sense of independence on the canals, and a real community,” says Wolfe. “For me, it’s been a slower way to experience what England has to offer, to connect with its heritage. It can be hard work at times, but you become emotionally attached to your boat. It becomes something more than a home.”

This story is from Kinfolk Travel

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This story is from Kinfolk Travel

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