Want a Small House— Think Narrowboat… A Trip on the Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 2

Swan in black and white on Trent and Mersey Canal

Graceful swans share the Trent and Mersey Canal with narrowboats. I decided to render this fellow in black and white to emphasize its feathers and show how swans tuck their wings over their backs.


This is my second post on the Trent and Mersey Canal. My first post took us from Sawley to Burton upon Trent. In today’s post, Peggy and I, along with her sister and brother-in-law, Jane and Jim Hagedorn, visit Burton on Trent and return to Sawley. 


Josiah Wedgewood’s concern about his pottery was a driving force behind the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal in the 1770s. Too many of his fine dishes were being broken when they were transported over the bumpy, rough roads of the time. A canal would provide for smooth sailing, or, at least smooth boating, and every industrialist wanted one to connect his plant with growing markets. For a brief period of time in the early industrial revolution, canals were the in-thing. Hundreds were built throughout England and Europe— as well as in the youthful United States.

Jilly Dee Narrowboat

This painting on the Jilly-Dee narrowboat spoke of earlier times on the canals when manufactured goods were carried on barges towed by horses and mules.

The painting reminded me of Erie Canal in New York state and one of the first songs I learned in elementary school. Here it is:

I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
We hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal and hay
We know every inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge, we’re coming to a town
You’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

It was one of my favorite tunes, right up there with Old Dog Tray. I was particularly enamored with the idea of having a mule as a pal.

We passed under several low bridges during our trip, but none made us duck. Fortunately, our journey didn’t involve any of the long, low tunnels located on other parts of England’s canal system. I read that the earliest tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal was so low that the boatmen would lay down on their backs and push the boat through with their feet, using the top of the tunnel for leverage— for a mile! The mere thought of this sent claustrophobic twinges through my body!

Low Bridge on Trent and Mersey Canal

“Low bridge, everybody down!”

Railroads and modern highways made canals obsolete for transporting goods and would have spelled their doom except for the interest of historians, hobbyists, and the recreational industry starting in the 1950s. Recreation is booming today and numerous people have also discovered that narrowboats can provide the ultimate in an inexpensive, small house lifestyle for those with a gypsy nature. Sounds good to me. Most of these homes are uniquely decorated and come with interesting names like Belly Button, Idunno, and In the Mood. Others, such as Nomad Dreams, Sacagawea, and Gone Roaming, suggested the wandering nature of their owners.

Belly Button narrowboat on Trent and Mersey Canal

Narrowboats that people use for homes are often gaily painted and uniquely named!

Narrow boat dog on barrel on Trent and Mercy Canal

One of the boats had this painted barrel sitting on top…

Narrowboat dog on Trent and Mercy Canal

And then we spotted the model!

Peggy, Jim, Jane and I explored Burton upon Trent, spent the night, and then began our journey back on the Trent and Mersey Canal to the Sawley Marina. Once again, we enjoyed the challenge of piloting our 65-foot boat around obstacles and through locks, while appreciating the beauty and peace of the British countryside. Our most exciting moment was when Jim decided to park our boat up on the bank…

View near St. Pauls in Burton upon Trent

We wandered around admiring buildings in Burton.

Gargoyle on St. Paul's church in Burton on Trent

And found this gargoyle with its tongue sticking out at St. Paul’s Church.

Row houses and chimneys in Burton upon the Trent

Row houses, chimneys and threatening skies provided a photo-op…

Marston's brewery in Burton upon Trent

Marston’s original brewery is located in Burton on Trent and has been a longterm mainstay of the city’s economy. I went onto Marston’s website and found this quote: “No Marston’s, no beer, no beer, no Burton.”

Bargain booze in Burton upon Trent

Of course beer wasn’t the only alcohol available…

Carved kingfisher sculpture with fish in Burton upon Trent

Walking back to the canal, we were reminded by this carved kingfisher of the birds that make the canal their home.

Swan profile on Trent and Mersey Canal

Including swans and their Canadian Geese cousins.

Mallard moves along on Trent and Mersey Canal

A mallard moved along on some important mission…

Swans mating on Trent and Mersey Canal

While a pair of swans decided to make babies.

Baby ducks on Trent and Mersey Canal

Of which the mallards had already contributed a substantial number. There was no lack of baby ducks on our trip back…

Swan and narrowboats on Trent and Mersey Canal

Or swans.

Resting cattle along Trent and Mersey Canal

Cattle enjoyed a moment of sun…

Peggy Mekemson enjoying sunshine on Trent and Mersey Canal

As did Peggy!

Scenic view along Trent and Mersey Canal

We all continued to enjoy the scenery and serenity along the Trent and Mersey.

Buildings along Trent and Mersey Canal

Including the buildings.

Narrowboat with rain cover on Trent and Mersey Canal

And other narrowboats. This boater had created a canvas pilot house as protection from the elements. There were occasions when we were envious.

Poling narrowboat off shore on Trent and Mersey Canal

Our progress was delayed when Jim decided to park us on the bank. That’s when we really learned just how heavy our boat was.

Double-wide lock on Trent and Mersey Canal

Locks continued to slow us down as well. This was a double-wide. Just barely.

Church near Sawley Marina

When we spotted this steeple, we knew that we were close to home.

Sawley Marina

And thus we arrived.

Intrepid narrowboat crew in Burton on Trent and Mersey Canal

A final shot of Peggy, Jane, Jim and our moored boat.


SATURDAY’S POST: It’s back to blogging my book on MisAdventures. This time I hire the family pets to protect me from the dangerous ghosts that live in the graveyard next to my childhood home.

MONDAY’S POST: Peggy and I return to our before-Christmas adventure along Washington’s coast.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: A photograph essay on Scotland, which is where we went after our narrowboat trip.


39 thoughts on “Want a Small House— Think Narrowboat… A Trip on the Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 2

    • “Legging” sounds appropriate, Andrew! Sort of reminds me of the term ‘hoofing it’ to describe hiking fast. If not for the claustrophobia, I probably would have been good at legging after my 10,000 mile bike trip. 🙂 I enjoyed reliving our adventure. Thanks. –Curt

      • In wider tunnels a plank was laid down across the barge and a man on each side would do the legging. Not a job that I would have enjoyed but I loved the canals. I remember once we came across an unattended British Waterways dredging boat and we commandeered it for an hour or so. We got into a lot of trouble about that when the boatman came back from his lunch and finally caught up with us!

      • Laughing out loud, Andrew. Good for you! We used to commandeer rail cars in a lumberyard and go for rides. The watchman had a bad leg and couldn’t catch us, however! Once we crashed one at the end of a rail line. That got people excited. My dad worked for the lumber company and we had to carefully explain how it was kids from another town. 🙂

      • Nothing wrong with our imagination in those days, Andrew. If there was a way to get into mischief, we probably found it… usually under the influence of my older brother.

      • Lucky you. My sister was seven years older and my brother three. Nancy had her own mischief to get into. I was a willing accomplice to my brother, but he really was the leader. Even he admits that! My mischief quotient dropped several points when we stopped hanging out together. 🙂

  1. Blimey, the boat really was parked on the bank!! 😀 Curt, I’ve loved reading these two posts and they’ve brought back memories of my own canal trips. We’ve gone through some of those very low tunnels and yes, they were claustrophobic… in the middle of them you feel quite far away from the world! You’ve captured the wildlife, boats and area beautifully…even the terrraced houses have a certain charm. It’s been a delight to read of your more gentle adventures here in the UK. Looks like you all had a wonderful time.

    • The narrowboat tour was one of my favorites, Annika. With the exception of the initial learning curve and the ‘boat parking’ incident, we found it to be a wonderful, peaceful way to travel. And we really enjoyed the lovely countryside. The small towns and pubs added their own flavor. Thanks! –Curt

  2. Perhaps you should suggest the canal boat idea to HGTV for a tiny house! Looks like a fun and educational trip in a lovely countryside.
    Had to laugh – I didn’t think anyone remembered that Sal and Erie Canal song!!

    • Gupta mentioned the similarity between the tiny house and the narrowboat as well. Our 22 foot van fits the description as well.
      Sal and the Erie Canal was burned into my memory banks at an early age, G, never to be dislodged! 🙂 –Curt

  3. That painted barrel reminded me of a travel trailer I encountered near Port Orford with its intricate painted design. It had a spirit of gypsy caravan to it (I posted it). I can’t help but wonder if some of those narrow boat dwellings aren’t inhabited by the Roma… or those with a gypsy spirit. What a lovely way to add a bit of distinction to a home. I’ve noticed now and then that the tiny home trend seems have an artistic flair to it. No more of this little ticky tacky stuff? 😀 It’s these tiny glimmers of pendulum swing that give me hope.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised by the Roma inhabiting some of the boats, Gunta.
      I, too, like the personalization that gave the boats character. It’s too bad we don’t do something similar with our RVs that are rather lacking in personality!
      Peggy and I like the tiny home trend. We could do it, considering that we existed quite happily while we wandered for four years in our 22 foot long van-motorhome.
      Our present home has 1500 square feet and seems big.:) –Curt

      • I’m not sure I could do four years in a motorhome. Heading out in the pop-up camper for maybe a month is plenty enough get-away for me. I’ve narrowed down my exploration urge to anything between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi (or perhaps Rockies -that boundary keeps shrinking). Last time I returned to the East Coast, the traffic was so insane I couldn’t wait to get back to the boonies here.

        Only traveled abroad twice (I guess Canada and Mexico don’t count as abroad). First time when I was 5 and arrived in NYC as a refugee. Then returned to Latvia in my later years to check out my “roots”. 🙂

        Eric is using his artistic talent to give our camper some personality. You’ll likely see it show up in the blog once we hit the road. Getting anxious to be hitting those crooked trails soon.

      • We are definitely Western type people, Gunta. My daughter tried to talk us in to moving to Tennessee and Peggy was wavering. I had to be strong. (grin)
        A refugee from Latvia— there has to be an interesting story there. Peggy’s grandfather came from Lithuania.
        I was amazed at how easily we managed to live in 160 square feet. I am looking forward to seeing what Eric does to your camper! –Curt

  4. How interesting is that tidbit about Josiah Wedgewood! Who would have thought a concern over artistic creations could cause such a movement! Love your photos of the buildings since I’m crazy about old brick warehouses, abodes, etc. Would love to duplicate this route for myself!

    • Josiah was obviously something of a visionary.
      I suspect you and Bert would love the experience, Rusha. Another plus is that it easily walkable or Bike-able since a good trail runs along the whole canal. –Curt

    • Do it! Peggy and I loved the experience. It’s also a good trip to experience with another couple. I guarantee the visitors would remember it and the chance to see English countryside. –Curt

      • Piloting a 60 foot long boat takes a little practice but the fact that you are traveling three miles an hour gives you lots of time to learn, and to correct any mistakes you might make. And there are several great pubs to stop at. 🙂

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