I had some great news last night – my piece on the delights of travelling (and attempting to navigate the Shropshire Union Canal, or The Cut as it’s known in these parts) has been published today by the Daily Telegraph as the winner of its weekly Just Back competition.
The piece – A crash course on the Shropshire Union Canal – is published here.
I’ve had some success with the Telegraph before. In 2009 I won the Just Back travel piece of the year with The Great British Seaside. In 2011 I had a piece published about exploring beneath Edinburgh’s streets.
The Telegraph is a great opportunity for travel writers with a weekly (£200) and annual prize (£1,000) in the currency of your choice. Why not have a go?
The piece in full:
Long Joe Silver, Cut-throat Jake and One-eyed Eddie brandish foam cutlasses, plastic daggers and muskets as we set sail for Shropshire.
We’re a motley crew spanning three generations, but the boatman has seen it all before – the boys’ eye-patches and stripy jerseys, the inflatable parrot and the skull and crossbones that will strike fear into passing ramblers and birdwatchers.
‘I’ll just see you through here,’ the boatman says as we squeeze under a stone footbridge. ‘That’s you right then,’ he says.
I’m about to thank him when he hops onto the towpath. He raises a hand, but doesn’t glance back. The narrowboat lists a little as I grab at the tiller.
‘Full steam ahead,’ Joe shouts. He’s waving his cutlass at a bored-looking collie on the towpath. I take a drunk’s meandering course for a few hundred yards before the boat swings left, pitching toward the bank. I turn the tiller to the right and this is where it all begins to go wrong.
The boatman taught me, while smoking cigarettes stinking of creosote, that left really means right. Years of driving has hardwired my brain to steer left when I want to go left, but narrowboats don’t work like that.
So I panic and steer hard to the right, forgetting my comprehensive training and sending the boat into the bank with a thud.
‘Dad,’ Joe says. ‘You’re not meant to hit the side.’
I jump off and tie up crimson-faced, looping the mooring ropes round the hoops on the bank.
‘We haven’t gone very far,’ Jake says.
Little pirate faces, smeared in chocolate, poke out from the cabin door, grinning.
‘You need to keep it straight,’ Nanny says, seriously.
Shafts of sunlight break through the tree canopy. It is damp and cool like a rainforest in the cutting, surrounded by banks of glistening, dripping bracken. The Shropshire Union Canal is beautiful and tranquil, especially if someone else is doing the driving.
I loosen the ropes, jump aboard, take a deep breath and turn the engine over. The narrowboat won’t move.
‘You’ve left the handbrake on,’ I tell them.
We’re turning up silt. We’ve travelled a quarter of a mile, crashed and become stranded on a sandbank. It isn’t a promising start and there are mutterings from my mutinous crew.
I rock the narrow boat back and forth, jolting it free and we’re away. Granddad takes the helm as we enter Shropshire.
‘Get your passports ready,’ he says.
We stop at the Wharf Inn – our turnaround point – sipping juice and munching sandwiches and watching ducks ripple the waters. But there isn’t much time left to get the boat back and keep the deposit. We give it full throttle, hitting three miles-per-hour. We’re growing in confidence when we’re overtaken by a girl on a Little Princess bike with stabilisers. It’s tense, but we’re back in port with three minutes to spare.
I hand over the keys, leaving the parking to an expert. I’ve earned my shore leave.