This was a dilemma frequently visited over the last weekend on the recent family get-together. Why a narrow boat/barging experience in the rural region of Milton Keynes, I hear you ask? Keep right on asking, cos I ain't too sure either.
The trip started out with a practise run as Mills and I arrived the night before boarding, sharing a matchbox-size apartment in London with his sister, her boyfriend and his parents. We ended up sleeping on a blow-up mattress under the dining room table (not all of us, obviously), which is ironically where his sister and her boyfriend ended up sleeping on the barge (okay, they were sleeping ON the dining room table, but that's just detail).
We were meeting the oldest sibling and his wife on the barge the following afternoon, which would complete the set. Eight noisy, opinionated adults on one narrow barge for three nights.
Before getting on board, we were shown a highly educational video, which included long, drawn-out sequences of happy people smoothly barging through beautiful sunsets, and short split-second shots of random stuff, like the correct knot for mooring the boat and specific technique to rudder steering. The video ended the soothing voiceover, "all you need for a successful barging holiday, is common sense."
And I thought, hmmmm...
All aboard, and there was a mad rush for the bed allocation. Three double beds and one dining table/bed. Being last onboard, Kj and her boyfriend lost that fight. The double bed/dining table was easy enough to construct. All you had to do was take the table lid off, remove the legs, replace them with shorter legs, pull the first cushion out, remove the wooden seat underneath, remove the third cushion to make way for the second cushion, pull two doves out of your right sleeve and click your heels three times. Voila! One times double bed and nowhere to store the kettle, cups and saucers.
With access to the tiny kitchen, the first thing we did was set fire to our afternoon tea. Four-minute croissants become highly flammable when left under the grill. And we hadn't even gone anywhere yet.
After a few false starts, we made it out of our marina and were on the Grand Union Canal. The plan was to potter for a few hundred metres and find somewhere to moor overnight. The instructional video stated, with grand common sense, that you should moor on the righthand side where possible. The in-laws poo-pooed this idea and decided that over there on the lefthand side, next to the pretty horses and on top of the shallow sandbank, was much nicer.
Why go for an easy mooring spot on your first attempt?
So, while the horses strolled up to see what was going, Mills and The Bald Eagle tried to pull the 70-ft long barge closer to the bank in order to moor. Standing on the bank and pulling on one end just meant that the barge was becoming more stranded across the narrow canal. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic at 8pm, but then I wouldn't really know because I was too busy tucking into the gin below deck.
An hour later, we were off the sandbank, back in deeper water, and The Eagle and Mills had shredded several layers of clothing and most of their dignity in order to wade back onto the boat. At 10pm, two hours after 'canal etiquette' suggests engines should be turned off, we finally moored on the right handside of the canal. I would've said, "I told you so" but I was too busy finishing a bottle of rose.
We hadn't even gotten to the locks yet.
The next morning was a much better start. Less bashing into embankments, narrow bridges and other barges and more aiming to the right. I started to relax and eased my grip on the neck of the gin bottle. Common sense, it seemed, would prevail after all.
The Bald Eagle made short work of that confidence, by falling headfirst into the canal - between the narrow gap of boat and bank. He didn't stay in for long as embarrassment and the thought of excrement propelled him out of the canal faster than he fell in.
And then came the locks.
Let it be known, I am a wus. I am claustrophic, agoraphobic, hydrophic and scared of the dark. So when it comes to sailing upstream and facing a wall of water held back by very creaky wooden gates, I was determined not to be on board. We approached the first lock, and I confidently scrambled across the lock gates winding and dropping sluices like a pro. It started to rain, so I ran back downhill and jumped on our barge to get my raincoat. Unfortunate timing, as I climbed onboard without noticing that we were preparing to set off for the lock.
I came out of the front of the boat, just as we were entering the downstream lock. Stuck between two very high concrete walls, and facing a wall of water that was about to be emptied into our cage, I was not a happy camper. Especially at the hands of a family who think that 'protocol' is something that applies to other people. In fact, I think I did very well not to cry. Needless to say, I made sure I was well clear of the boat leading up to every lock after that.
Nightmare of a holiday, right? Confined space, in-laws, shared facilities and treacherous amounts of water.... horror.
Negative, Maverick. I actually enjoyed it. In fact, I would highly recommend it. Yes, the narrow boat is dimensionally challenged, to say the least. And I would avoid sharing this holiday with anyone who vaguely grates your carrot. But, even in the rain, it is a very peaceful means of escaping it all. You cannot rush. Barges are not known for their speed. You cannot make the lock fill up faster than Mother Nature intended. Even if you try to open the lock gates before the water has equalised (as KK did - at every lock), the water pressure simply will not allow it. And KK has Madonna arms, so if she can't do it... no one can.
I never thought I would say this, but I wouldn't mind going barging again... maybe not in the near future (I'm still swaying slightly), but sometime, maybe, again.