Life on the Trent and Mersey Canal… A Narrow Boat Tour in England

A pilot’s perspective on a 65 foot long, 6 feet wide, 16 ton narrow boat.

This is my final post introducing new readers to they type of stories they can find on my blog. This tale takes you off to England and a journey on a narrow boat tour of the Trent and Mersey Canal. As I note below, this was my first experience at piloting a 65-foot long, 6-foot wide, 16-ton vehicle. If you would like to learn more about this adventure, go here:  I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip back through history. I guarantee that it is just a small taste of what you can expect to find on these pages. Next week, I will continue my PCT series and likely start working in a few Mexico posts. 


I never imagined (even in my wildest dreams) that I would someday pilot a 65-foot long, 6-foot wide, 16-ton vehicle. But that’s what I ended up doing last week.

Peggy and I, along with her sister Jane Hagedorn and her husband Jim, did a seven-day narrow boat tour on the Trent and Mersey Canal out of Long Eaton, England. If Long Eaton doesn’t ring a bell, think Robin Hood. Nottingham is nearby.

The prince of thieves was one of my all time childhood heroes. I knew the location of Sherwood Forest long before I knew the location of London.

Jane and Jim stand in front of the Sawley Marina office. Note Robin Hood on the right!

Jim and I had pilot duty. Our job was to stand in the back with tiller in hand hoping that the boat would go where we wanted. This included not running into other canal boats, avoiding overhanging trees and mudflats, navigating under watch-your-head, boat-wide bridges, surviving locks and learning the delicate art of mooring our not so delicate craft.

Is our narrow boat narrow enough and low enough… is the question.

I park the boat kitty corner in a lock. Maneuvering back and forth is necessary to keep the boat positioned.

Two boats in a lock at once. Jim is up to the challenge.

Peggy and Jane were in charge of locks plus a certain amount of backseat driving. For example, they would point out boats coming toward us that we had been worrying about for five minutes.

Lock duty was not easy. Heavy cranking was involved in opening and closing the paddles that let water into or out of the lock. Full body strength was required to open and close the gates. The women quickly became lockmasters and I am sure wowed the English males with their prowess. (Honey, can I have one of those?)

Jane cranks open a paddle to let water out of the lock.

Peggy demonstrates the importance of ‘butt’ power in opening a gate.

Other chores included muscling the 16-ton boat into shore and filling the craft with water. Getting from the aft to the bow of the boat for work or pleasure involved maneuvering along a narrow gunnel.

Jim muscles the boat into shore.

Peggy hangs over the edge while filling the boat with water.

Jane walks the gunnel.

Upon arrival at Sawley Marina we were provided with two hours of training for our adventure. That was it. Afterwards we were turned loose with the 16-ton barge for on-the-job training.

Canals are found throughout England. Once upon a time they were vital to the nation’s economy as transportation corridors. Reflecting the good taste of the Brits, beer was one of the major items transported over the Trent and Mersey.

Now the canals are mainly used for recreational boating… primarily by brightly colored, cleverly named, narrow boats. We also talked with a number of people who live on their boats year around.

Owners work hard to give their boats individual personalities as is demonstrated here by the Molly Rose. Bright colors, flowers and names such as Belly Button and Simmerdown add to the character.

Boats were found wherever mooring was good. (And a pub convenient.)

Although we came uncomfortably close to hitting a couple of boats (give or take five inches), banged into the shore several times during mooring (as expected) and grounded the boat three times (Jim won 2 to 1), the adventure was quite enjoyable.

“Mudflat” Jim grounded the boat. I work hard to pole it off.

Picturesque countryside, abundant bird life, and attractive villages entertained us along the way.  Pubs served surprisingly good food and even better ale. I worked hard to sample all of the local brews. Even Peggy developed a taste for dark beer.

There was much beauty along the way as this tranquil scene shows.

Peggy loved the brightly colored flowers that were found in both fields and towns.

And I have always had a weakness for reflection shots…

Bird life was abundant along the canal. We took photos of this nesting swan coming and going.

This Mallard Hen was one of many with babies. They would wait for our boat to pass and then swim along behind us. I wasn’t sure whether they were taking advantage of food we stirred up or drafting, like bicyclists do.

We always found colorful pubs with excellent English beer and good food.

Several small towns along the way provided an interesting contrast to the rural areas.

Accommodations on the boat were quite comfortable. There was sleeping for six, a gallery and two bathrooms.  Jane and Jim’s beds were a wee bit narrow, however… make that body wide, and one of the bathrooms required a shoehorn for entry.

Jane’s narrow bed…

You learn a lot about each other on a small boat. For example, Jim likes coke and peanut butter toast for breakfast. The only exception was when he substituted a mixture of orange juice and beer for his coke.

Jane believes it is totally uncivilized to use paper towels at meals, period. Those who know Jane will understand this. She began to ‘borrow’ napkins from the pubs. Peggy, in order to keep her sister from a life of crime, started neatly folding our paper towels to look like napkins.

I didn’t ask Jane and Jim what they learned about us…

Time slowed down on the boat. It had to considering out top speed was three miles per hour. We arrived at Burton on the Trent and turned around to return to Sawley Marina. Scotland and dead ancestors were waiting.

A final view of life on the Trent and Mersey Canal.

23 thoughts on “Life on the Trent and Mersey Canal… A Narrow Boat Tour in England

    • Yeah, the pubs were great. (grin) And the scenery wasn’t bad either. I can understand why so many people choose to live on the canal. I visited you blog and enjoyed your photos. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      • Actually I love the idea of living on a boat. It is soooo not German way of life. I like the idea of not having much things to carry around with you (so honestly: what do we REALLY need in life to make us happy) and that you can move everything in a view hours if you start to grow tired of your neighbours. 🙂

      • Kind of like a gypsy. I once spent 6 months bicycling around North America and carrying everything I needed on my bicycle. It is truly freeing. My brother travels full time with nothing but his pickup and a tent.

  1. This has been standing open in my browser awaiting my comment for over a week now. I have read the first half quite a number of times and am just finally getting the last couple of paragraphs in WITHOUT INTERRUPTION.

    Thanks for digging it up for me. Nice to have a view from another first-time canal boater – let’s me know what to expect. Are you ok with pinning on pinterest for this one?

  2. another interesting travel post! I especially liked this challenge: “Our job was to stand in the back with tiller in hand hoping that the boat would go where we wanted. This included not running into other canal boats…”

  3. We’ve been considering a canal boat as a vacation, so this is very interesting. Several bloggers who were live aboard have complained about canal maintenance and the huge jump in marina fees for the locals.
    A step back to slower – and more physical transportation with the sadder bonus of scenery. Excellent!

  4. In another life I’m sure you could have made a good living working for the English Tourist Board, Curt. This amusing, atmospheric and well-illustrated account certainly prompts memories of my own canal holiday, the most relaxing one I ever had!

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