Our first night in England was spent at the Pear Tree Inn in Hook Norton, a pretty little 18th-century pub that serves the local brewery. We stayed in a spacious suite above the bar, had a delicious dinner, good ale, and then a good breakfast the next morning. The first pints of bitter and the first full English breakfast of the holiday were very special.
From June 22 to July 9, my partner and I were on our annual trek to the homeland; that is, the United Kingdom. There are a few people we try to see every summer, family and friends, and we also like to visit a mixture of favorite spots and new sights. This year was a very successful trip, focused on the south of England for the most part.
On Saturday morning, we toured the Hook Norton brewery; it is a wonderful old Victorian gravity brewery that still uses some equipment from the 19th century. They even have a steam engine that can power the entire brewery, although it’s currently not in use due to the price of fuel (electricity is cheaper).
That afternoon we drove to Lower Heyford, on the southern section of the Oxford canal, and picked up our 58-foot home for the next week from Oxfordshire Narrowboats. It was a lovely boat, very clean and well-appointed, and the whole rental process was very smooth and pretty efficient.
We didn’t go far the first evening, just to Enslow Bridge and the Rock of Gibraltar pub. It is owned by a very friendly family (Dad is Greek, which influences the menu and the flavor of the hospitality), and we had a good evening. It rained, but we were warm and well-fed. Plus, more beer.
I should clarify that there were four of us on the boat; my partner and I, and his sister and her husband. The latter two are much more experienced boaters than we are! On our second day, we were scheduled to meet up with friends of theirs who were driving to see us and have Sunday dinner on the boat. It proved to be more difficult than anticipated to find a spot where they could park their car and get to the boat; in the end it involved quite a trek on their part, but they were good sports about it.
Complicating matters, we had come down the Duke’s Cut, a short canal that links the Oxford Canal to the River Thames, bypassing the city of Oxford. We planned to spend most of our week on the Thames itself. However, the lock keeper at King’s Lock advised us to turn back, as the rain the night before had put the river into a state of caution for boats (“yellow boards”). If the water flow got stronger, the red boards would go up, which indicates dangerous conditions in which we should not travel. Not wanting to risk being stuck on the Thames and unable to move the boat, we took his advice (and his help turning the boat around!) and the six of us went back up to the main canal, moored up and had a nice roast dinner.
Not being able to go where we’d planned, we headed north instead. We made a brief stop in Banbury for some necessary shopping, and I was really struck by how well the town has incorporated the canal. There’s plenty of boat mooring, and you can easily walk to quite a few shops, banks, pubs, and so on. The whole area around the canal feels new and vital, including some nice housing units.
Over three days we went north almost to the Claydon locks before deciding to turn around again so we could be sure to get back on the Saturday morning to return the boat on schedule. There are only certain places you can turn a long boat in a narrow canal, usually wide spots in the canal called “winding holes” (pronounced like blowing air, not like rotating, even though rotating is what you’re doing….). We then made our way back in two days and a bit.
It’s amazing how peaceful and satisfying a canal boat holiday can be. Part of that is the pace — top speed on a canal boat is only about five miles an hour, so the world goes by very slowly. There’s plenty of time to see the scenery, appreciate flowers and plants, and watch for birds. In this part of the country, the scenery is bucolic, with a restful beauty rather than a dramatic one. Sitting with a cup of tea, or a glass of beer, it was incredibly relaxing just to watch the world go by, or to sit with my crochet or my Kindle. (I saw several Kindles on the canal, and had one rather long conversation with a couple in their 70s or so about how much they loved theirs. It was like being in a special club; we’d spot each others’ Kindles and gush “Isn’t it great? Don’t you love it?” Such fun.)
Of course, the restful aspect of canal boating is balanced with some activity. There are locks and bridges to operate, although not nearly as many this trip as our epic week two years ago on the Leeds & Liverpool, Ayr & Calder, and Calder & Hebble canals. A crew of four meant that no one had to work every lock, but we all got our share of labor in. It keept me from feeling lazy, and it also provided opportunities to meet and chat with other boaters as together we waited for locks to fill or empty. Most people on the canals are courteous and friendly.
We were quite lucky with the weather this trip. The others assure me that boating in lots of rain is a completely different, less enjoyable, experience. We had only a little rain, and we weren’t on the kind of schedule where we had to press on when a shower came up. I heard a few horror stories, and I feel fortunate to have so far been in mostly good weather on the canals of England. (And yes, I realize that I have probably just jinxed our next trip.)