Two women on a narrowboat chugging down the canals of England doesn’t sound very adventurous. But you’ll see why it’s much more thrilling than you might have thought.
This article is a departure from my articles about real Amazing Women. It’s about three women in a work of fiction, The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson.
Three amazing women populate this book. Eve is an executive, never married, who is summarily made redundant (laid off, in American English). Sally has left her uninteresting husband and grownup children to find a new life for herself. Both are, I think, in their mid-50s. And Anastasia is older (70s?) facing cancer treatments, who needs someone to mind her narrowboat, The Number One, for the summer.
After a bit of negotiation, Anastasia moves into Eve’s home, then she schools Eve and Sally on how to operate a narrowboat, including the tricky locks up and down the canal system of the western part of England.
Narrowboats in England
Narrowboats are a kind of canal boat used in the United Kingdom (Britain, Scotland, Wales). The canal and lock system in the UK started as a way to transport goods during the Industrial Revolution, but trucks, trains, and planes can get the goods around faster. Since the 1970s they have been used as full-time and part-time homes or rentals.
Yes, you can get an Airbnb narrowboat! The ad I saw said the boat had a double bed and sofa bed, a kitchen, bath with shower, a “pump out” toilet, with both a log stove and central heating. As Eve and Sally found, it’s probably not a good idea to run your electric appliances, mobile devices, and electric toothbrushes on the boat, because the power supply is batteries and they can run down pretty quickly.
There’s only so much space on a narrowboat. The maximum size is 7 feet wide and 72 feet long, which means there’s not a lot of room for what you and I might think we need on holiday. Anastasia vetoed a lot of the the unnecessaries Sally and Eve wanted to bring, like books, clothing, kitchen utensils, anything that could fly about or cause damage in turbulent water.
Life on a Narrowboat – Lots of Work!
As with life in general, there are times when you can just glide along with little to do but steer, keep to the middle and away from other boats, and enjoy the scenery. But then there are the locks, a major physical challenge. And what about fires? Falling overboard?
After reading about Eve and Sally’s difficult experiences working on The Number One, I was impressed with their ability to learn something new and become stronger physically. I watched this video guide from the Canal and River Trust, and I was even more impressed. (Yes, I know this is a work of fiction, but I identified strongly with Eve and Sally.)
The Story of The Narrowboat Summer
Eve and Sally set off, wondering if they can survive the summer both physically and emotionally. They never met before their meeting on a towpath, so they must maneuver gently to see if they will be compatible. They also meet others on their trip, including Tompette and Billy, young people who seem to be living a “hippie” style of life, complete with music and drugs. They also meet others along the way, including and a vaguely mysterious man with some connection to Anastasia. And they find themselves helping Anastasia as she goes through her chemotherapy sessions.
And all the time they are learning the ropes (literally), dangers, and beauties of the narrowboat and the world on the shore.
“The joy of moving all the time, so slowly and without physical effort – leaving aside the locks – is that there is endless time for the mind to wander.”
As Sally said, “…any stretch of countryside with a canal running through it was transformed into a frame of tranquility.”
They were both trying to figure out what they would do in the next phase of their lives in this “gap year.” They read a book called Mr. Luckton’s Freedom, about a man who escapes his life for many years and finally comes back. His story becomes a metaphor for their journey, and their experiences during this summer helped them make the next step in their lives at the end of the summer.
“It was good to leave, but there is pleasure in going back.”
But can you really go back? Every experience, every interaction with others changes you in some way, and you become a different person at the end of the experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who may have a turning point decision in life and considering whether to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” stretching the limits of the possible. I usually skim through fiction to get the plot basics, but I found myself engrossed in the details of their experience, slowing down to smile at the mild humor and linger over the language and the visual images.
More Information About Narrowboat Life
This article from the Inland Waterways Association has some pros and cons of narrowboat life. You may also find a guide to narrowboat living on Amazon. Of course, if you want to take a narrowboat holiday, check out Airbnb or one of the hiring agencies. I Googled “narrowboat holiday rentals uk” and found several. Of course, if you are really daring, try a self-drive narrowboat vacation.
In the meantime, I think you’ll find The Narrowboat Summer enjoyable and thought-provoking. (Note: You may also find it under the title Three Women and a Boat.)