We are chugging steadily down the canal, passing picturesque villages and bucolic countryside at a pace no quicker than strolling. Brightly coloured narrowboats line one side of the waterway as we pass a series of landmarks with ever-more idyllic names - Warleigh Manor, Claverton Down, Brassknocker Hill. Occasionally, a swan or a family of quacking ducks floats by us. Inside the cabin someone is boiling the kettle for a cup of tea. Save for some quiet chat at the other end of the boat, all is quiet.
The calm is broken by a cry: "Look out! There's a boat coming!" Another narrowboat is approaching in the opposite direction and the atmosphere of tranquillity is thrown into disarray. Slow and clumsy, longboats are not easy to steer and evasive action to avoid the approaching craft proves counterproductive. We swing further into its path, overcorrect, and slam into a particularly decrepit white boat moored to the side of the canal. Luckily, there is no one on board to reprimand us. The approaching boat passes and one of our party calls out in apology: "Sorry, inexperienced driver . . ."
"Inexperienced" is an understatement: until an hour ago, none of us had set foot on a narrowboat before, let alone driven one. I'm here with my boyfriend and his family: mum, dad, brother and girlfriend. We're visiting the latter two, who live in London, and we have decamped to Bath where we've hired a narrowboat for the day.
Throughout the English countryside there is an extensive network of canals left over from the industrial revolution, when they were used to transport goods. Today we're navigating a small section of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which was operational from 1810, transporting mainly stone and coal until competition from the railway rendered it increasingly unprofitable, leading to its slow decline. A long restoration process has transformed it into a popular recreation spot for locals and visitors alike.
Our journey didn't get off to a particularly auspicious start. Arriving at Bath Narrowboats to collect our craft, we realise we've left our highly anticipated picnic of cheese purchased in London at the renowned Neal's Yard Dairy in the fridge at our bed and breakfast. A short delay and a run back to the room, supplemented by a quick trip to the supermarket, and we're ready to go. We push off and swiftly crash - hard - into the balcony of a home overlooking the canal. The owner, who is standing on the balcony in question at the time, is not impressed.
It's certainly not the last of our crashes - there's a particularly memorable moment when someone unsuccessfully attempts a 360-degree spin in the narrowboat, which is akin to trying to do a burnout in a semi-trailer - but gradually we get the hang of the clunky steering. We putter through a series of tunnels in the outskirts of Bath before we reach the village of Bathampton.
It had been our intention to stop here for a late-morning pint at the historic George Inn, but our desire to start drinking before lunch on a weekday is thwarted when we discover that the pub hasn't yet opened for the day. At a loss, we wander across the road to a picturesque church named for St Nicholas.
As we approach through the churchyard, we notice an Australian flag flying from the steeple. It turns out that Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, came to live in this area after his retirement and is buried here. Inside, he is commemorated by an Australia Chapel, which is paved with Wombeyan marble and furnished with blackbean wood, both from Australia. The windows show the Australian coat of arms and those of the six States. There's also a plaque honouring Phillip, which is decorated with flowers and wreaths, evidence of the recent ceremony to celebrate his birthday, which is performed each year by the High Commissioner for Australia.
Pleased at the coincidence of finding this unexpected connection to our own national heritage, we clamber back aboard our boat, the prosaically named Avon. Most of the narrowboats on the canal have names painted on their sides which range from the unremarkable ("Bird on a Wire") to the light-hearted ("Senior Moments") and the vaguely surreal ("My Newt"). They also generally bear the name of the city where they are registered, with some having come as far as Liverpool and even Glasgow, and are in varying states of repair - some neatly tended with cute pots of flowers and herbs on the roof, others a little mouldy with peeling paint. A couple even have solar panels on the roof, suggesting they're perhaps permanent residences.
This stretch of the waterway is notable for its lack of locks, which is handy for novices but doesn't mean that the canal hasn't challenges for the first-timer. Not long after we leave Bathampton we come to the first of the two swing bridges that we will encounter. We cruise through the first - a helpful person has already opened it for us - but at the second, one of our party needs to disembark, struggle clumsily to swing the low bridge open so we can pass, swing it back into place so cars and pedestrians can cross over the canal once more, and then return to the boat. The boat must be manoeuvred to and from the side of the canal before and after the bridge: a not-inconsiderable challenge.
Our gate opener is lucky to avoid falling in as the skipper struggles to hold the craft steady by the bank.
By now we are in open countryside and approaching the halfway point of our trip, the Dundas Aqueduct. Built at the turn of the 19th century, the three elegant arches of the aqueduct pass over the River Avon and a railway line, and are apparently home to a colony of bats. There's no sign of them today, though, just a few narrowboats cruising along the waterway or moored along either side.
We leave our boat here and walk along a short, tree-lined branch of the canal known as the Brassknocker Basin and on to the village of Monkton Combe, which seems to consist of little more than a posh boarding school and a lovely pub, the Wheelwright Arms, where we have lunch.The sun is setting when we arrive back at Bath Narrowboats. As we gather up the remnants of our onboard picnic and set off back to the centre of town, I'm reminded of that classic line uttered by Rat in The Wind in the Willows: "Believe me, my young friend: there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
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