Shipwreck! Or, to be more precise . . . barge-wreck!
A breakfast-time drama plays out on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, as Captain Adams and his crew set off in the boating equivalent of a long-wheelbase Sherman tank.
Crash! I exit our berth and steer straight into an angry couple’s newly-painted narrowboat on the far bank. Bang! Twenty yards later, we crunch an overhanging tree.
Guy found it tricky to navigate their 70ft cruiser at first but once he got the hang of it, the whole family enjoyed their canal barge ride through the Black Country
Wallop! I run aground. It will take my increasingly-horrified wife, armed with the vessel’s emergency bargepole, several minutes to push us to safety.
The simple charms of a family barge holiday are worryingly complex when you’re a cack-handed novice skipper in charge of The Derwent, a 70ft cruiser with two bathrooms, four bedrooms, and a rudder with a nasty habit of sending you in the opposite direction to the one you expect.
We are just outside Alvechurch, a pretty little village where we’d loaded our belongings on board the monster vessel.
The weekend plans — to chug serenely through the Black Country, stopping at a few waterside pubs and overnighting in central Birmingham — are starting to crumble.
Meanwhile, our three children (William, six, Megan, four, and Henry, one) are delighted: for them, it is turning into a waterborne version of the fairground dodgem ride: the more collisions, the better.
Canal trips create all sorts of happy memories, and this one would bring plenty: the kids hooting with excitement as we chugged into a series of long, pitch-dark tunnels; the fisherman guffawing into his pot of maggots as yours truly managed to get stuck (yet again!) in a smelly reed bed; the white-knuckle drama of letting my son have a go at the tiller.
Guy’s six-year-old son William takes over
The Worcester & Birmingham Canal, built at the end of the 18th century, was one of the great motorways of the Industrial Revolution.
Today, it’s altogether more tranquil, meandering through 30 mostly-picturesque miles of town, suburb, and countryside.
It’s said that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice. But the rest of the UK is hardly short of them, either: by Victorian times, there were almost 5,000 miles of waterways, of which about 2,200 remain today.
At the helm of a narrowboat, everything moves at its own pace. Once you master the controls, everyday cares recede. It’s really quite blissful.
If the sheer quantity of barge-ing venues leaves you wondering where to start, a good option is to use one of the large agencies, which rent out narrowboats from locations across the country. They can advise on itineraries.
Drifters, which controls 580 boats at 40 boatyards, suggested that we should kick off at its marina at Tardebigge, Worcestershire, that’s home to a series of 30 locks which take the waterway up 200ft through the Lickey Hills.
Go north and you’ll zoom into central Birmingham in roughly half a day. We duly arrive at Gas Street Basin, a bustling marina slap bang in the city centre, in the middle of Saturday afternoon, and tie The Derwent up for the night.
Our mooring is right next to the National Sea Life Centre, a large, state-of-the-art aquarium that might have been custom designed for entertaining excitable kids who needed to let off steam.
After dark, Gas Street Basin is the centre of Birmingham’s vibrant nightlife scene, so bedtime is jollified by the succession of stag and hen parties sailing past our mooring on ‘disco boats’, several equipped with karaoke machines. Our kids think it quite the spectacle.
Fortunately, the council requires them to disappear at 9pm, at which point the mooring becomes an oasis of calm once more.
We sleep like logs, before chugging slowly home the next day, thankful that, even in the vibrant centre of Britain’s second largest metropolis, a canal is its own, peaceful world.
Drifters Waterway Holidays (drifters.co.uk, 0344 984 0322).
From £395 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, £625 for a week.
Narrowboats can accommodate up to 12 people.