Quirky fact: the former industrial city of Birmingham in the Midlands of England has more canals than Venice.
Britain’s canals are the country’s best-kept secret. You can step from a busy traffic junction choked with fumes and suddenly find yourself in a peaceful corridor of water, banked with trees and flowers. Birds chirp, butterflies flutter, swans hiss when you get too close. It’s beautiful.
We picked up our traditional narrowboat from Alvechurch Marina, a few miles outside Birmingham. They give you a careful briefing and have training videos online but there really isn’t much to it. My steering was a little shaky for the first few hours but you soon get the hang of it.
In any case there are few things more relaxing than chugging through the beautiful rolling countryside with the promise of a beer in a traditional canal-side pub at the end of your journey. It’s enough to soothe the most nervous first-timer.
We did face a challenge on the morning of our second day though, as our route took us through the Wast Hills Tunnel.
The tunnel is one of the longest in Britain’s massive canal network at around 2.5km or 1.5miles – or 30 minutes of sedate motoring. Built in 1796 and straight as a ruler, it’s a triumph of canal engineering.
And as you plunge into the pitch darkness, steering a 66ft long boat through the blackness feels a lot like threading a needle while blindfolded. Once your eyes adjust to the gloom, you see the light at the end of the tunnel, like looking at the moon through sunglasses.
Is it a light though, or another boat steering straight at you? Panic. Quickly you steer away from the oncoming boat. And promptly crash into the tunnel wall. Then you realize it really is the light at the end of the tunnel.
When another boat did finally approach us it happened with such comically slow timing a sloth could have prepared. It had felt like there was barely a few inches of clear water on either side but suddenly there was ample space for two to pass.
We relaxed afterwards with chocolate. Bourneville, Britain’s most famous chocolate factory and home to Cadbury’s, is right next to the canal. Chocolate crumb was originally delivered there by boat. Even if you don’t want to visit the ‘experience’, which is a bit of a tourist trap, you can stock up in the factory shop.
After that point we were well out of the country and rapidly approaching central Birmingham. But you would hardly know it. The canal sits in a green wildlife corridor overhung by trees – you barely notice the homes and warehouses. Handsome joggers running on the toe-path provide a fun distraction.
We stopped for the day at Gas Street Basin. This was once the Heathrow Airport of the British canal network – a vast interchange full of boats loading and unloading coal, iron, glass and more. Now it’s the perfect place to sit out on the deck of your narrowboat with a glass of prosecco in your hand, enjoying the evening sunshine.
The basin was regenerated in the 1990s, protecting what was left of its industrial heritage and adding restaurants, bars, shops and a cinema. Birmingham’s cool Mailbox mall, with its branch of Harvey Nichols is here.
It’s just five minutes walk from Hurst Street, the city’s gay village. You may think canal holidaymakers are a little old for a night’s clubbing but so many 20 and 30-somethings use them for boat parties. Britain’s waterways tend to run through the heart of our cities, so a boat is a perfect base for a night out.
After a few relaxed drinks at The Loft bar we headed on to the region’s most famous gay club – The Nightingale – three floors of music and a crowd that’s half-local, half-student, slightly merry, totally fun.
I much prefer a homemade fry-up to a hotel breakfast. And our boat had everything we needed; a well-equipped galley kitchen and even a good filter coffee machine.
The boat comes with a few unexpected luxuries too – free wifi was a surprise and very handy for Spotify as we cruised along. It was surprisingly comfortable too. The sitting area was more spacious than I expected, there were full-sized double beds and a decent shower.
Rather than returning to the marina, we stopped for the night outside Hopwood House, one of the pleasant canalside pubs. It seemed the perfect way to end our weekend trip, with just an hour’s cruise to take us back to Alvechurch the next morning.
We couldn’t have known what was about to happen.
As we meandered towards the marina the next morning, we were waved down by a couple who had moored their own boat ahead of us.
The problem was around the next bend. It seems a boat owner had argued with his wife and burned out his boat some time before. During the night, someone had set it adrift. It had swung across the entire width of the canal. And then sunk. There was no getting past and it was hard to imagine how they were going to pull it out – it was certainly going to need a heavy-duty crane.
Suddenly the marina staff appeared. They couldn’t have been more helpful. They brought trolleys to transport our bags. And when they found out we had a train to catch they dropped us off at the station. They would take our boat back themselves, when the canal was finally cleared. What would have been a holiday nightmare with anyone else turned into the easiest check-out ever.
In three days on the canal, we had probably gone as far as you’d manage in half an hour by car. But what you lose in speed you gain in time; friendly people, beautiful surroundings and a sense of adventure.
ABC Boat Hire has bases around the country alongside Alvechurch Marina. Visit their site to choose your base, your route and your boat and get inspiration about canal trips across the country.