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Over the past ten years I have been lucky enough to combine my interest in the canals of England and Wales with my new, post-retirement career as a public speaker.

After thirty years as a police officer, I wanted a new challenge and a new way to relax. One of the talks I give is entitled “Gongoozling for beginners” and invariably causes the person introducing me to falter or pronounce the first word in a rather unusual way, often leading to much amusement in the group.

I quickly explain that the talk will be a lighthearted look at the joys and pitfalls of living on a boat: especially when things don’t go exactly to plan. It’s a journey around some of the 2500 miles of navigable waterways in England and Wales, with just a small dose of history, lots of humour, a rather wet puppy and only one broken wrist …….so far!

When I retired from Sussex Police in 2008 my wife and I were looking for an activity that was relaxing, stress free and something new which we could share. Canal boating would also give me the chance to grow my beard and hair (and even get to wear a leather hat instead of a policeman's helmet!) I would be seen carrying a metal windlass instead of a wooden truncheon.

I quickly reassure the audience that I will reveal shortly what “Gongoozling” actually means. Inevitably, there will be some people who have rushed to Google to check out the phrase already.

So, let’s do that right now.

On two separate occasions, ladies have approached me at these talks and asked if I watch a TV programme called “Eggheads”. I had to confess that I didn’t. They then proceeded to tell me that in a recent programme the challengers had beaten the “Eggheads” (expert quizzers) and one of the questions they answered was the meaning of the phrase “Gongoozling”. Apparently, the challengers then won a staggering £18,000.

That fact becomes a very potent “hook” to get peoples’ attention!

A “gongoozler” refers to a person who enjoys watching activity on canals. Its origin is a bit mysterious, but may stem from the boom period of canal building from the mid 18th century to early 19th century. The term Navvy or navigator was coined in the late 18th century in the UK when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations", or "eternal navigations", intended to last forever.

There was no TV, radio or cinema to entertain the local population in those days, so people often ventured out to watch these sometimes, rough and ready men with their picks, shovels and sticks of explosives. It’s thought "gongoozler" may have been canal workers' slang for those observers standing apparently idle on the towpath, whilst they toiled away. Some say it comes from Lincolnshire, where the words gawn and gooze, both mean to stare or gape.

A very brief history lesson.

Let’s briefly travel back to the late 1700s and early 1800s in England. The industrial revolution was in full swing, but the movement of raw materials and finished goods was hampered by a notoriously poor infrastructure.Dangerously maintained roads limited transport to the great ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. Step forward Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736 – 1803). He was a pioneer of canal construction.

As a young man he had undertaken the “Grand Tour” of Europe and, on arriving in the south of France, he was spell-bound on seeing the Canal du Midi and how easily goods were transported between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

He is often referred to as the "father of British inland navigation" as, on his return home, he commissioned the Bridgewater Canal—often said to be the first true canal in Britain. It was built for him in order to service his coal mines at Worsley, in Lancashire. By making coal transportation more efficient, he managed to halve the price of coal and became fabulously wealthy in the process, at one stage becoming the wealthiest man in Britain.

On a recent visit to the Ashridge estate in Hertfordshire, which the Duke also owned, I came across an imposing column known as the Bridgewater Monument. It was only when I entered the local church that I realised the link to the father of the canals. It contains a carved stone memorial to the great man himself. A translated Latin inscription reads: “He sent barges where formerly the farmer tilled his land”

So it is thanks to people of vision like the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, together with canal engineers such as Thomas Telford, James Brindley and John Gilbert, that people like me can enjoy the pleasures of cruising our great canal network today.

Just a few impressive statistics to start with.

And finally, as someone who was born in Birmingham:

If statistics aren’t your thing, how about an amazing true fact about a canal?

In 1912, a cow named Buttercup fell into the Leeds & Liverpool Canal by the southern portal of the Foulridge Tunnel. Rather than wade out as usual, she chose to swim the whole 1,640 yards to the northern end, where she was revived with brandy by drinkers in the nearby Hole in the Wall pub. Pictures in the pub commemorate the occasion.

And finally, in England and Wales there are 1,569 locks, 53 tunnels, 3112 bridges, 370 aqueducts and 74 reservoirs. (source; Canal and Rivers Trust)

How can you enjoy the canals today?

When I retired from the police in 2008 I initially thought I’d like to sell our house in Sussex and live on a narrow boat and travel all around the UK for a few years. It all sounded very romantic and bohemian, especially after the discipline of 30 years in uniform “behaving myself”.

My wife, Julie, asked if I had actually ever been on a narrow boat. When I admitted, rather sheepishly, that I hadn’t she thought the whole plan was verging on madness. However, she agreed to hire a boat for a few days and see if we liked it.

We arranged a five-day cruise with another couple who, thank goodness, had done it before and seemed to know what they were doing. We hired a four berth boat on the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes in Wiltshire. It was April and every day it poured with rain. Being at the tiller most days, I managed to get soaked, but by the end of the week I was hooked. If I liked it in the bad weather, how much better would it be when the sun shone?

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Before you start thinking I am a rich ex-police inspector who pocketed numerous bribes, I must admit we didn’t buy a brand new narrow boat. Firstly, no one ever offered me a bribe and secondly the asking price of around £100k was beyond our budget. We compromised.

We soon realised there was a way of owning a boat without the disadvantages of having to pay all the bills yourself. We bought a share in a syndicate boat. Essentially, twelve couples own an equal share in narrow boat called Ryebank. It was managed by a company and each year we all met up to decide what needed doing, what equipment needed replacing etc.

After buying the initial share, we just needed to pay an equal proportion into the inappropriately named “sinking fund” and we were entitled to at least four weeks aboard every year. I say at least, because in our second year we managed five weeks aboard as one couple were unable to take up their fourth week and we were available (another advantage of being retired).

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With the fall out from the Covid pandemic, shares in narrow boats are becoming more scarce as people are seeing the advantage of both sharing costs and holidaying in the UK. The other bonus is that you are self- contained and can moor (within reason) wherever you fancy. We like to moor up for the night as far away from other boats as possible and where there are good walking areas for Bertie, our eight year old springer spaniel.

If you don’t fancy investing in a shared boat syndicate there are other ways to enjoy life “on the cut”.

As we did in 2007, you can hire a boat for anything from a long weekend to a few weeks. There are numerous hire companies ready and willing to offer their narrow boats for your enjoyment. These range from two berth boats to craft which can sleep ten or more. Don’t forget that a “narrow boat” is just what it says…narrow. It will not be more than seven feet wide (in the “old money”) otherwise it will not fit into a narrow lock.

Think about the optimum number of people you will be comfortable sharing a fairly confined space with. How many loos do you need? How far will you wish to travel at a maximum speed of 4 mph. Don’t forget you need to allow for dealing with the locks, moored boats who don’t take kindly to you racing past them as you are late returning the boat. As the old saying goes “It’s the fastest way to slow down”, so do exactly that…slow down and enjoy the peace and tranquility.

There are companies who will rent you a “widebeam” boat. These can be anything up to twelve feet wide and some are extremely luxurious. However, these craft are only able to ply the wider canals and rivers.

An alternative to crewing the boat yourself is the “hotel boat”. Again, a quick internet search will throw up a number of companies able to provide this service. In addition, the Canal and River Trust has an excellent website with many ideas for enjoying the canals. See www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

I hope this initial article has whet your appetite to explore the canals of England and Wales. They really are a hidden gem and places where you can truly get away from the stresses and strains of modern life.

My follow up article will concentrate on what to do when actually living on a boat. Everything from considering undertaking some form of basic training, to how to steer and what happens when things go wrong! Invariably they go wrong at the most inopportune time and in the most isolated of places. But, worry not, there are ways to get out of trouble and still enjoy your time on board.

Happy cruising everyone.