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Cruising on the canal
Joan Vandewerdt Oxford Canal

It's not that we are antisocial or have control issues but independent travel may have spoilt us.

Rather than booking a cabin parading as a twin stateroom, we have illusions of taking the whole boat.

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In exchange for a floating metropolis on the high seas playing roulette with possessive deckchair types, there is the prospect of a more intimate scale. Passengers: two. Crew: zero.

Crowd aversion means my husband gets an upgrade without the braid, and I happily take on the role of first mate-cum-cruise director - with the additional bonus that we set the itinerary and route, and terra firma is but a leap away. Our private floating home comes with a double bed, central heating, full-size fridge, kitchen, romantic table for two and separate bathroom with shower.

Capt. Warren is receiving some basic tuition, something about rudders left, boat right.

Then the instructor jumps overboard and we are alone. Ours to command is a 10 tonne, 16.5m narrow boat on the Oxford Canal in the greenest, prettiest heartland of England.

The charming Cotswolds and Chiltern Hills, the city of Oxford, and rivers Thames and Cherwell surround us.

Casual attire for breakfast with self-catered supplies, and I could have dinner at the Captain's table but that would mean cooking.

Instead, proximity to land means we tie-up and have lunch and dinner at amiable canal-side pubs with eponymous names like Jolly Boatman and The Boat. Instead of schedules we moor for as long as we please.

For company, graceful white swans guard a cygnet between them as they glide down the canal ignoring squabbling ducks. Willows caress the smooth water surface, and play across the roof of our boat during the night.

While there are stretches of peaceful gliding, the engineering needs of canals mean that little things like hills and gravity put the crew into motion. As the captain, Warren gets a polished brass tiller, but personally I find the object wielded by the first mate to be far more satisfying - a windlass. "There's an elephant trap ahead," says the captain.

Appetites are built and I am a jolly boatman, aerobically facing the challenge of leaping off the boat to tackle that wonder of engineering, a lock; or when a cluster of them forms on a particularly steep hill, a flight of locks. However, blessed be the narrowness, resulting in just the one lock gate.

Somerton Deep Lock, otherwise known as the elephant trap, is one of the two deepest locks on the entire English canal system at a depth of 3.6m.

To get in the mood, we have strolled along reclaimed towpaths and visited the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne on the Grand Union Canal.

The little model boat going up and down in the lock gates remained mysterious, but now I am controlling the magic. I close the lock gate, watch the boat fall, and then open the other lock gate to release the captain and boat, leaping back on board with my trusty windlass.

This was a way of life and towpaths exist from those demanding times when a horse walking alongside provided the power. Towpaths have not been used for that purpose for centuries and some sections are a tangle of brambles and weeds, but others are serenity in a melange of green.

Destinations and canal systems are not endless but choices are pretty comprehensive with 3000km of navigable canals crisscrossing this green and pleasant land.

There are some surprising city possibilities: London takes on a whole new persona away from its crawling traffic on the Regent's Canal with connections to the Grand Union Canal going all the way to bustling Birmingham; or the alluring architecture of Bath on the challenging Kennet and Avon Canal, or Oxford on the Oxford Canal; regal Richmond, or so many charming English villages.

The Jolly Boatman pub on the Oxford Canal. Picture: Joan Vanderwerdt

Then if we forget to return the boat, the Welsh Llangollen Canal with its soaring aqueducts connects from the Shropshire Union Canal, or at the other end of things completely, the Caledonian Canal cuts from one side of Scotland to the other.

OK, so maybe we are a tad antisocial, but in these ever busier times we took charge and escaped. Captain and crew stand ready for more.