I follow the A5 north from Staples Corner in London to reach the Shropshire Union Canal, a watery spinal cord up the centre of England from Birmingham to the Staffordshire potteries. From there I rent a narrowboat, from Countrywide Cruisers in the pretty village of Brewood (pronounced brood).
This canal trip, lasting a week, is an exercise in ‘forest-bathing’, the Japanese ritual of walking amongst trees and immersing oneself in greenery. Chemicals called ‘phytoncides’, emitted by trees, have an anti-microbial effect on humans and boost the immune system. I’ve never felt more relaxed. There is little internet or phone signal, so it works as a digital detox too.
On a canal, time is counted in bridges, as maximum speed is 4mph. Bridges are numbered, swooping brickwork arches, marking progress. On a narrowboat, you move slowly within a green and terracotta channel. Through verdant tunnels, trees growing towards the light in the middle of the canal. Teal-backed ducks, enormous grey herons, hanging caterpillars on cobwebs, on the water; daisies, buttercups, three cornered leeks crowding in from the banks; emerald fields of sheep and cattle just above the hedgerows.
Our boat weaves between the Shropshire and Staffordshire borders. Everyone has a Midland accent, a softer Brummie. Fishermen lift their rods and wave as we pass.
When you drive a narrowboat, you do it from the back. It’s a game of opposites: you move the brass tiller bar (which must be unpinned and removed in the night as people nick them) in the opposite direction from where you want to go. It takes getting used to. If the wave formation behind you creates froth, you are going too fast. Parked boats shout at you if you do that. Notices pleading for boats to move at ‘tickover’ speed are everywhere.
Slow travel calls for slow food. I try local asparagus, simply griddled in butter; rhubarb, which I make into a crumble; radishes, which I eat smeared with salt and butter in the French style. I’m not really a beer drinker, but my mind is blown by the Pure Blonde beer, light yet hoppy, brewed with Shropshire mineral water, from Joules brewery next to the Red Lion pub in Market Drayton.
A narrow boat is one of the few methods of transport where you can drink and drive. Passing boat drivers were notably holding glasses of wine while gliding through.
My only complaint? It all goes too fast. I needed two weeks at least. When you come from London, or perhaps any city, it takes you four days just to settle down.
During the trip I visit the Sloane designed Chillington Hall, only open 28 days a year. John Gifford and his wife, whose family have lived there for 800 years, still resides here. Capability Brown landscaped the gardens, ruthlessly demolishing a whole village that stood in the way of the view. John Gifford isn’t a lord: one of his forebears were given a title by Henry VIII but it wasn’t hereditary. My favourite room is the ladies tea lounge which has antique turquoise ‘Bath’ glass in front of the gilt mirror.
Drifters’ 2019 Fact Box Info
Drifters Waterway Holidays offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales.
There are over 3,000 miles of waterways for you to discover, all at your own pace and you don’t need to be an expert. Tuition is included as part of Drifters’ holiday packages.
Drifters’ 2019 hire prices start at £495 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, £705 for a week.
Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate from two up to 12 people.
For more information visit https://www.drifters.co.uk/ or call 0344 984 0322.
For more information about visiting the canal network www.canalrivertrust.org.uk
Drifters Waterway Holidays is made up of a consortium of nine hire boat companies: ABC Boat Hire, Anglo Welsh, Black Prince, Countrywide Cruisers, Foxhangers, Kate Boats, Napton Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Union Canal Carriers.
These are very different from their Scottish counterparts, being more like an oat-based pikelet. People from the area have them for breakfast, often with melted cheese, sausages, bacon and eggs. A more modern filling would be melted cheese and avocado, rather like a burrito.
My advice is to make them the night before and leave the batter to rise slowly in the fridge, ready for the next morning. As for yeast, I often keep blocks of fresh yeast in the freezer which I defrost. Otherwise feel free to use fast action dried yeast.
Count two per person. Three for big eaters. This recipe makes ten. You will need a flat cast iron frying pan or non stick pan.
- 225 g oat flour, You can grind up porridge oats in a high speed blender
- 100 g wholemeal flour
- 100 g strong flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 400 ml milk
- 400 ml lukewarm water
- 10 g fresh yeast or 2 packets fast action yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- Grated cheese or other toppings of your choice.
- In a large bowl measure out and mix the different flours and salt. In a jug, add the milk, water, yeast and sugar. Leave for ten minutes or so until frothy. Then combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients. Cover and leave overnight in a cool place.
- The next day, retrieve the batter and melt a little butter, not too much, on on the pan on a medium heat.
- Add a ladle of batter to the pan and tip the sides until you have a thin 10 inch/20cm circle. Let it bubble and pop in a crumpet like fashion. Do not hurry this process, and only turn the oatcake towards the end when the top is set. Then add the melted cheese.
- Don’t worry about the first one, like pancakes, they always go wrong.
- Oatcakes can be served with sweet fillings, such as blackberries and cream.
- Oatcakes can be made in advance and frozen.