‘The kids look like it’s the Pantanal’: a cool canal break in Worcestershire | boating vacation

II first wrote about “cool canal boating” a decade ago. I stayed on one of the first design-forward barges on London’s Primrose Hill and explored the canal cafes of East London, joking that even seedy canal boat holiday company Black Prince might be bang on trend.

Well, a decade later, with Hackney Wick’s canalfront now as lively as Ibiza, it finally seems to be. Black Prince’s new Signature range has been upgraded, with orange woodwork traded for cool gray tones, modern black radiators replacing perfunctory white, Scandinavian furniture and kitchen nooks reconfigured with sleek, modern appliances. A new exterior paintwork conjures up a folksy gypsy caravan atmosphere.

Boats are available from two of Black Prince’s nine bases: Napton in Warwickshire and Stoke Prior in Worcestershire, which is where I take my family to go for a (cozy) splash.

This location is attractive because it is the only loop of the canal network that can be completed in a weekend: the Mid-Worcestershire (or Droitwich) Ring, which is 21 miles and 33 locks.

The author's children aboard Ivy.
The author’s children aboard Ivy. Photo: Gemma Bowes/The Guardian

Except when I speak to Black Prince, they tell me that since the rental starts from 2pm on Saturday, we would have a hard time completing it even though it is a public holiday.

“People always ask how far they can go?” says spokesman Daniel Johnson, “but you have to get out of that mindset, relax and take your time. Canal boating is about slowing down.”

He recommends a shorter round-trip route to Droitwich instead. But he doesn’t know us – we like a challenge.

It’s a beautiful sunny day as we board our 20 meter Ivy alongside a happy group announcing they’ve come all the way from Canada for the experience. I ask if they’ve done everything else in England before, but no, it turns out that boating the Midlands canals is on the world’s bucket list, and indeed much of Black Prince’s business comes from overseas.

We made our way south down the canal from Worcester and Birmingham fresh from a 90 minute briefing which at the time seemed extremely thorough and covered everything from cleaning the weed hatch to working on the new blue mood lighting. But now, as I steer toward an oncoming boat, I realize we’ve missed a few key details, like which side of the canal to stay on.

Cheese chips for pirate Heidi in the guest garden/
Cheese chips for pirate Heidi in the guest garden/ Photo: The Guardian

“Keep to the right!” shout the laughing boys on board as we just miss them and crash into overhanging branches opposite.

We soar past fields and houses, get used to the steering and locks, and after two hours arrive at Hanbury Wharf’s Eagle and Sun, our first suggested stop. A pint in a waterfront beer garden is always good, and I’m introducing my children, Heidi, eight, and Hamish, six, to the delights of cheesy fries, but rather than mooring nearby for the night as recommended, we’re staging our first Rebellion further south into more rural terrain.

Trees grow taller, towering so miraculously that children gaze as if it were the Pantanal, dangling their fishing nets over the bow as the sky darkens. Somewhere behind a field full of alpacas we moor in the pitch black night. Then it’s time for decisions. Do as advised and return to Hanbury tomorrow for pottering to Droitwich and back, or continue to Worcester and the full loop? We look into each other’s eyes. I think we know that the decision has already been made.

Interiors on the boat Black Prince
The new interior design of the Black Prince boats makes it a pleasure to be below deck.

Waking up in the rain feels like a justification as the original plan involved Droitwich Saltwater Baths. But with almost 20 hours of boating, we have to keep going. I make breakfast along the way, boil eggs and watch the water world go by, ducklings hopping past the kitchen window. The new interior, while still playing it safe, makes staying below deck a pleasure.

I sprint to each lock, gathering strength to turn the windlass and raise the gates, grateful when the kids bother to help which, despite their size, speeds things up.

They are too happy to relax on board, read, play Top Trumps, be entertained by wild animals: herons flying away, wings flapping like newspapers tied to an arrow, swans perched on giant branchy nests. Once we hear the rare call of a cuckoo.

Black Prince partially recommended the shorter route so kids can stop often to use up energy. Although older couples are their main customer base, families have become more of a focus following the pandemic-driven trend towards holidaying in the UK. The new boats are designed for families, not young hipsters, with blackout blinds, comfier mattresses, suggestions for kid-friendly stops, and a downloadable activity guide that inspires me to keep a captain’s log and dress up as pirates.

In Worcester, we’ll moor just seconds from the high streets and zip around the Cathedral grounds, stocking up on M&S and Americanos and Rocky Road supplies at the Commandery Coffee, a stylish towpath cafe attached to the Commandery Museum, which was once the Civil War Headquarters.

We pass the vibrant Worcester Marina and descend the locks of the Diglis Basin to the River Severn, leaving the industrial canals for a wider, wilder, green Eden that makes us sure the Ring was the right choice. Aware of missing the lido, I even jump in for a cold, velvety dip before we dive back into the canal system.

Six-year-old Hamish in a tunnel
Six-year-old Hamish proves he’s not afraid of the dark. Photo: Gemma Bowes/The Guardian

Next the loop follows the Droitwich Barge Canal, which reopened in 2011 (along with the Droitwich Junction Canal) after 80 years of disuse. Dating back to 1771, when canals were a major artery of the Industrial Revolution, this was built to transport salt from the Roman spa town of Droitwich, famous for its natural brine springs.

People always turn up at the locks to help and chat, some volunteers from the Canal and River Trust, other boat owners with tales of sinking and accidents. “I’ve fallen in so many times I’ve lost count!” giggles one. The conversations are a pleasure, as are the names of other boats – “Simply Luvleh”, “Bez” – and I can’t resist peering through their glowing windows into the interior of their dollhouse until a naked man scowls at me.

The Journey is a tableau of nooks and crannies and hidden scenes – a mother and daughter scouring metal in a garden, a foal nursing, a lonely teenager smoking at dawn.

It’s not always pretty – we pass under the M5 several times, the rumble of speeding cars rumbles across the bridge – and the hip canal boat scene is noticeably absent, but it’s never boring. Although we completed the route in one big bite and boated for 12 hours on Sunday, you really can’t hurry even if you try. We have slowed down to a pace of life that notices every detail without even wanting to.

For a final stop we moor near Hanbury Hall, a National Trust mansion, and picnic in its pretty formal gardens, but no one wants to linger long. As my daughter says, “I just want to get back to the boat where you can relax and do whatever you want.”

The journey was made by Black Prince (01527 575 115), operating canal voyages from nine bases across the UK. Short breaks from three or four nights on the new Signature range from Narrowboats starts at £729this is for a duchess 2who sleeps up to four. Diesel is extra and costs around £15 a day

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