Staff Narrowboat Makes a Splash

As you may have read, Postcode Anywhere is soon moving to a new office overlooking Diglis Basin Marina, Worcester. With the office located right on the junction of the river Severn and the Worcester and Birmingham canal, we thought we’d get into the spirit of the new locality by purchasing a narrowboat and letting it out, free of charge, to staff members.

Having suggested the staff narrowboat idea during a brainstorming session for new office ideas a year ago, I feel partially responsible for this turn of events, and so I felt it was my duty to be the one to take it out on its first week-long shake-down. Making the most of the extra jubilee bank holidays, I persuaded my wife and daughters (7 and 6 years old) to hop on board.

The boat itself is a 70 footer with semi-traditional stern (that term means something to narrowboaters). Officially named “Jokery”, but more affectionately known amongst staff as the “Guytanic”, it sleeps 8, and comfortably accommodated the four of us. Inside is a cozy sitting area with TV and DVD player, a galley with fridge, gas oven and hob, a dining area, a bathroom with shower cubicle, a bunk beds area and a main double bedroom at the back.

Having stowed our luggage and wrapped the girls up securely in their life jackets, we were soon off up the canal with a vague idea of heading in the direction of Birmingham. This thing is pretty tricky to drive – with a fixed propeller and a rudder behind, operated by a tiller. The whole thing rotates from its middle, so when you steer to the left, the back end kicks well out to the right, so it took a bit of practice at gauging the wide-berths you have to give each corner, and as the canal tends to follow the contours of the land, there is often more corner than straight. A further complication comes when you realise the boat only steers whilst the propeller is accelerating you forward, pushing water over the rudder. This means when meeting a boat, if you put it in reverse to slow down, or just ease off, you suddenly become totally unable to steer; this gave my wife a few panic-moments. Thankfully, we avoided any collisions, and soon became proficient at slowing down using a short sharp burst of reverse, followed by a slow forward thrust to keep the steering responsive.

We soon hit our first lock (not literally). With the exception of the first two between Diglis and the Severn, the locks on the Worcester to Birmingham are all narrow-beam, meaning that the lock is about two inches wider than the width of the boat. Steering was a bit tight, and on several of the first few locks, we resorted to doing a last-second full-reverse and taking a second run-up to avoid getting a dent.

Rite of Passage

barge1 barge2 barge3 We soon became extremely proficient at locks – for just a few miles up the canal we encountered our first major challenge: Tardebigge. Our Pearson’s guide book, rather ominously describes it thus: “Tardebigge represents a boater’s Right of Passage. Once you have tackled this flight, which, coupled with the neighbouring six at Stoke amount to thirty-six locks in four miles, other groups of locks, however fiendish, however formidable, pale into insignificance.”

That afternoon, the weather deteriorated, and most of the rest of the week was constant rain, with a bit of wind thrown in. To drive a narrowboat, there is no choice but to stand outside and bear the brunt of the weather, so I spent many an hour stood out there while the rest of the family sheltered inside.

Pesky youths and anti-vandal devices

We moored up at Brindley Place for a brief respite, visiting the Bull Ring shopping centre (it was my daughter’s 8th birthday and she had some cash she wanted to spend at Build-a-Bear Workshop).

On return to the boat, we followed the Birmingham Canal Navigations “New main line” – a supreme feat of engineering completed in 1838 that replaced a busy and congested meandering canal. This canal is wide and straight for miles, very different in character to the Worcester and Birmingham. Passing under Netherton Tunnel and along the Dudley canal, we soon reached Brierley Hill, where a posh new Marina awaited our overnight stay, albeit with a few dubious-looking youths hanging around smoking. There then followed a catalogue of setbacks.

When we went to bed, my wife commented that she thought she could hear someone outside the boat – I reassured her and said it was just the wind, which was picking up that night. At 2:30 in the morning, I got up to get a glass of water and glanced out of the window to notice, with horror, that our boat had been untied and had drifted diagonally across the width of the marina. Cue waterproofs and a ten minute battering of wind and rain! I really do hope that the fun the youths’ little jape gave them measured up to the effort it took to get us tied up again. I expect it really was quite amusing to watch us drifting away, so I’m not too angry.

The next day, we reached a lock with a curious device attached to it. It was preventing the “paddles” (the metal gates that let water in and out) from opening. While very successful at stopping vandals from draining the entire canal for a laugh, it also prevented us from going through, as we had no anti-vandal key on board. Cue two hour delay in obtaining one.

When we got going and onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal, a sofa cushion that someone had helpfully discarded into the canal had become wound round the propeller, and it took an hour with my hands in the underwater propeller to free it. Finally arriving in Stourport, the propeller got tangled again, this time someone’s puffer jacket.

Abandon ship

Looking forward to our final leg – a three hour cruise down the river Severn back to Worcester, our hopes were soon dashed when we discovered the river locks were closed to traffic by British Waterways. It seems the constant rain had made its mark on the river levels, and the Severn was so high as to make it unsafe to travel. (Although that didn’t stop everyone from giving it a go that day, as this article demonstrates.) We had no choice but to cadge a lift back to Worcester and abandon the boat moored up in Stourport.

Overall though, despite the setbacks along the way, we all had a really great time. I’d probably class it as more of an ‘experience’ than a ‘holiday’, but it was good fun nonetheless and I’d recommend it to anyone, especially now some of the common pitfalls have been found and can be avoided. I certainly am looking forward to our next trip out in it, hopefully with slightly better weather.