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  Boozing and Boating  

Last Updated :31/05/04


by Steve Westby

ím not just a Beer Festival Cellar Man you know, I have another string to my bow. Not many people know this, but I am also an accomplished sailor!

What?! I hear you exclaim, the man who pebble-dashed the side of the ferry on his last trip across to Guernsey? Well Iím not that sort of sailor, I donít go near any water that goes up and down, it makes it too difficult to hold your ale in. No, my sort of sailing is different.

About twice a year a crowd of 11 of us used to hire two narrow boats for a long weekend out of season. These are 72ft luxury jobs complete with central heating and the most vital ingredient, two toilets! Now when we go on these boats I have the most important job to perform. No I donít steer Ė they wonít let me do that Ďcos I keep crashing into the bank. My role is much more important, I am the liquid intake adviser. You see a canal boat holiday in England has two major advantages, first of all they used to build pubs at the side of canals and secondly you cannot get done for being drunk in charge of a narrow boat.

Let me tell you about one adventure a few years ago which took us up the Bridgewater Canal from Acton Bridge in the middle of nowhere up to Wigan. When we picked up the boat on Friday morning the owner said, "Youíll never get to Wigan and back by Monday, it takes most people a week! Well that was it then, the challenge was on, we had got to do it hadnít we? First of all though we had to load the boats up with essential provisions, mainly a polypin of Tom Kellys Stout from Hoskins & Oldfield Brewery in Leicester, a whole stilton cheese, some bacon and eggs and about two dozen toilet rolls.

Right, we were ready for the off then. But first this is where I come into my own "where is the first stop?" asked the navigator. This is a coded message meaning "where is the first boozer on the canal that sells decent ale", having done my research thoroughly, I am able to answer that and off we set.

Now we have a problem, itís two hours to the first pub and we are already getting thirsty. Alright we spent two hours in the pub while we were waiting to pick up the boats but we were only drinking Boddingtons, so it didnít count. To make the problem worse, Tom Kellys Stout being real ale hasnít settled yet so it meant the indignation of supping canned ale, but somehow we coped. Any way the pub soon arrived and even though it was only a Banksís house we managed to spend a happy hour and a half before we steamed on up the canal to our overnight destination.

We just made the evening stop-over pub before nightfall, you are not allowed to travel on the canals in the dark, and it was a near thing. Unfortunately, I had dropped a right clanger this time, yes the pub did sell food which we definitely needed, but the ale was only Courage Directors and Johns Smiths Bitter so I was not a popular man. Anyway after a mediocre meal and 7/8 pints each, we returned to the boats for a well deserved kip.

When I awoke at 7am to get up and see to the engines a disaster was revealed Ė the boatís batteries had gone flat, some prat had left the fridge switched on all night and we were without power. Anyway I managed to get the engines going to generate some electricity and to warm the boat up whilst one of our crew who had been up since 5am had already been and fetched the morning newspapers and was cooking sausage, bacon, egg and fried bread Ė "delicious!"

We had a long haul in front of us if we were going to make Wigan by that night, so while the others were still in bed, or in two cases on the bog, off we set at about 7.30am. They let me drive this early on Ďcos there arenít many people about, so with bacon butty in hand we bombed up the canal at 4mph. By now we realised there was an electrical fault on the boat, so we had got to phone the Boat Yard, but it was too early, there would be nobody there. So stick to the first rule of canal boating Ė if in doubt head for a pub.

But first things first, by 9am we were getting a bit thirsty and the Tom Kellys Stout was ready! Se the male members of the party spent a happy couple of hours at the back of the boat with pints of stout and great big wedges of Colston Bassett Blue Stilton Ė absolute bliss. It was no good stopping before 11am Ďcos the pubs wouldnít be open so at about that time we found a place to fill up with water adjacent to a pub. The bad news was it was another Boddingtons House, but we would cope.

We filled up with water and phoned the Boat Yard who said they would be with us in half an hour. We suggested to the ladies that as our lunchtime destination [a pub with 6 or 7 real ales] was only a mile up the canal according to our navigator, they should set off and walk. Well the repairman never showed up and after several pints of Boddingtons, we got fed up and rang the Boat Yard and told them to meet us at our next destination.

So again, we set off up the canal. Eventually the man from the Boat Yard crossed on a bridge and flagged us down, heíd been stuck in a traffic jam on the M62. He checks the boat out and can find nothing wrong; it is something we have done apparently. We are getting desperate now as we have got to get to Wigan and more importantly the our lunchtime pub will be closing.

An hour later we eventually get there, it is a cracking pub with good food and several beers including Holts. The trouble is that the women are not happy; they have walked for about 7 or 8 miles, when we told them it was only a mile. But never mind, if they are tired it will reduce the volume of the nagging.

Suitably refreshed we set off on the long haul to Wigan Ė we are determined to make it. By 5pm it is getting very dark and we are still not there. But just round the next bend we spy the top lock on the Bridgewater canal, just one short canal pound to Wigan. Itís pitch dark now but we manage to work our way through the lock along the pound which is about a quarter mile long to the lock at the entrance to Wigan.

As we are going through we realise one of our crew is missing, I go back to find him and discover that he cannot close the top paddle on the lock gate, it is too damn dark to see. "Sod it," I say, "it wonít make any difference, nobody else is coming up tonight and we will be the first ones back down again in the morning". We thought no more about it and moored up in Wigan overnight.

At this point, we were very thirsty, having not had a pint for at least an hour as we have to ration the Tom Kellys to make sure it doesnít run out before the end of the trip. We decide to walk the few hundred yards to the famous Wigan Pier. We enter the pub on the Pier and discover to our horror that it has only got Tetleys on. Eagle eyed as ever I spotted a bottle of West Coast Yakima Grand Pale Ale, after enquiring with the landlord the source of this gem, he realises we are real ale fetishists. " Hang on a minute, I have got a cask of that in the cellar, no need to drink the bottled version" he says, and promptly goes and connects a spare handpull line to pull us several pints of Dobbinís Manchester brewed nectar.

We spent several happy hours imbibing before deciding to explore the other pubs of Wigan. Several pints and a curry later we return back on board ship for some supper, tots of whisky and a few more Tom Kellys.

I awoke the next morning at about 6am to a strange clanking noise. What the hell is going off? I leave my berth at the rear of the boat to walk along the top to the front, but hand on a minute, its freezing cold and the top of the boat is covered in thick ice. When I get to the galley at the front our intrepid chef is doing his nut! There is "no chuffing gas left", "the chuffing central heating has gone off", "we canít have a cup of chuffing tea" and he canít "cook the chuffing breakfast". What a bloody disaster. We wake up the others boat and demand they put us a brew of tea on and start to fry our bacon.

Again its no use ringing the Boat Yard at this early hour so the two of us head for the top lock to get moving back down the canal. In a daze, I started to fill the top lock and just happened to glance to the canal below. My bowels turned to water! The chuffing canal is empty, oh my god weíve emptied the entire canal pound by leaving the gate unlocked!!

I dashed down and closed the paddle gate. In a desperate panic, we start to open both ends of the lock so the water flows right through into the canal pound. After about an hour the canal starts to fill up but it only looks a fraction of the level it should be and we are frightened to death in case anybody comes along and finds out what we have done. Too late a boat approaches the bottom lock so we go down to talk to them. Before we can say anything they take a look at the canal, decide there is nothing wrong with it, go through the lock into the bit we are still filling, we watch their progress with anguish but no they donít get grounded anywhere and manage to make it all the way through.

At this point an employee of British Waterways turns up. "Sod it, we will get found out" I think to myself, "bound to get fined or banned from the canals for life". But No! "I have just come to check whether the canal is empty again" he says "it does it every morning and my first job is to come and fill it back up again." What sheer relief it wasnít us after all!

So an hour late we set off down the canal. There is only one thing for it, points of Tom Kelly stout and wedges of stilton to ease the nerves. We have still got the problem that the boat is freezing cold and we have got no gas for cooking. The other boat keeps passing us cups of tea and bacon butties but itís not the same and the women are moaning again Ďcos its cold.

Our progress is impeded by the fact the canal is frozen over in parts and we are having to break ice as we go, still we eventually reached the Boddington pub again and our chef gets on the phone and gives the Boat Yard a right mouthful "Fancy letting us run out of chuffing gas" he shouts, "five chuffing bottles and they are all chuffing empty". After about 5 minutes of verbal abuse the lady from the Boat Yard manages to get a word in and says "There are not five bottles on the boat there are seven". Our chef goes quiet and pretends to have been cut off and rushes back to the boat. We investigate further and sure enough there are two full gas bottles waiting to be switched on. We have endured all of the cold and the nagging for nothing! Never mind lets have some Tom Kellys Stout to celebrate.

Back down the canal again we go, but not for long as we soon arrive at our next port of call. You guessed it another real ale pub. Two hours later we returned to our boat and head for our destination for the night, a little town called Lymm. Once again it is nearly dark by the time we arrive but not to worry because its Sunday and the pubs donít open till 7pm anyway. It is a superb little town, not least because it has two excellent pubs, one selling Hydes Ales and the other selling Lees. We spend the night swapping our custom between the two pubs and as usual telling dirty jokes. The Lees pub sold their powerfully strong Moonraker, we finished off with a couple of pints of that before repairing to a Cantonese restaurant for supper.

The final trip back to base was fairly uneventful. The highlight being when our tillerman bellowed for help from the back of the boat as he approached a tight bend. Our vociferous chef got off at the front and bend down on the bank to fend the boat off. What he didnít realise was that the fence behind him was electrified and as he bent down he got 10.000 volts up his rear end, which caused him to leap back on the boat in one single motion.

It was a good job the weekend had come to an end as we had run out of Tom Kellys and the two toilets on board were showing signs of not coping with the overload situation they had to cope with. When we arrived back at the Boat Yard our chef mysteriously disappeared so he didnít have to apologise for his abusive phone call about the empty gas bottles and we met up in the pub across the road to finish the superb weekend off with a few pints of Burtonwood Ale.

This is definitely an excellent way to spend a relaxing uneventful weekend particularly if you are nearly teetotal like me.

The Irritable Cellarman