Just like riding a bike

Swopping my laptop for a narrowboat on a Monday morning

Last week my colleague Sarah Rudy and I were lucky enough to join Trustee, John Dodwell on his gorgeous boat Helen. John is cruising as much of the inland waterway network as possible this summer and he very kindly offered to take Trust staff when possible. We jumped at the chance.

John bought Helen about ten years ago. She is a 1941 BCN tug built of riveted steel by Harris Brothers at Bumblehole, Netherton. She is 51ft long and draws 3ft so John knows immediately when ‘the bottom is too close to the top’.  When cruising, John keeps the side doors open so that people can admire the powerful three cylinder Bolinder engine – and they do, frequently. He picked Sarah and me up at Cosgrove Lock on the Grand Union Canal and was immediately asked by passers-by on the towpath to sound the hooter. This was the first of many expressions of interest during the day (including one young chap who, just as I was taking Helen out of lock 22 at Fenny Stratford entreated me to ‘gun’ the engine so that he could hear it. I declined of course.)

Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to go out boating for a while and I had never steered a traditional narrowboat with a throttle wheel and long spindly brass gear lever. A quick lesson from John and we were under way. Getting used to a new boat takes a couple of ‘oversteers’ before getting the measure of how responsive she is (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) but John was encouraging: “Don’t worry, it’s just like riding a bike.”  I didn’t like to say that getting back on a bike after a long absence can be a bit wobbly! Everything settled down after a few minutes and we made good progress. (John was extremely tolerant – it must be hard letting other people steer your pride and joy – and it was just my luck to meet an oncoming boat as we were coming through a bridge on a blind bend...)

I was thrilled to go over Iron Trunk Aqueduct, whose success in the Historic Environment category in the Waterways Renaissance Award I had just written about for The Source. The blossom on the hawthorn trees was spectacular (ne’er cast a clout till may be out has never been truer than this year – we wore our winter coats all day) and we saw six herons but unfortunately no kingfishers, voles or otters. The wild flowers along the banks were gorgeous (is it my imagination, has this year’s late onset of spring made them better than ever?) and it was hard to believe we were in the suburbs of Milton Keynes all day. After a quick stop for lunch at the Black Horse in Great Linford where John shared some fascinating reminiscences of his IWA days, we did the final leg to Fenny Stratford and our day on Helen was over all too soon. Thanks John, we had a lot of fun.  

Last date edited: 18 June 2013

About this blog

Liz Waddington

Liz Waddington is editor of The Source, the Canal & River Trust’s monthly staff newspaper. She has been in love with canals and their industrial heritage since her first holiday on the Grand Union Canal when she was 10 years old. Liz likes nothing more than getting out and meeting her colleagues on the cut. 

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