MENTION the words 'ship canal' and you're not likely to think about taking a comfy cruise, unless you have the wherewithal to consider travelling via Suez or Panama. You could take a trip to Liverpool on the Manchester Ship Canal (not to be taken lightly by Mancunians, mind!), but some travellers reckon this is a bit too close to home to be a 'proper' outing, because it's over and done with in a day.
'It's not the safest place in the world, either, for the tidal race will fill more than your wellies if you're not careful, even on the nicest of days'
So without getting too exotic, it was time to head South for a few days away on a delightful stretch of waterway between the centre of Gloucester and the Bristol Channel port of Sharpness, which turns out to be the oldest ship canal in the country and was once the broadest and deepest in the world, no less.
Dating back to 1827, although thought of much earlier, the canal connects Gloucester to the sea, running broadly parallel to the treacherous lower stretch of the River Severn and built to bypass a dangerous, navigational nightmare, with vessels wanting to reach the important city in days gone by having to contend the Severn's many twists and turns and huge tidal surges.
The Severn brings out the superlatives, because apart from being Britain's longest river, it has the second highest tide of anywhere in the world – and if you've ever seen the Severn Bore, you realise you'd be anything but bored trying to stay in one piece as the awesome wall of water up to two metres high roars along at an average speed touching 10mph.
So the good reason to build such an important watery bypass was also a good enough reason to travel along it, thanks to family-run English Holiday Cruises – and it was a far cry from barging up and down on a scruffy, hard-working former freight-carrier.
Instead, we were indulgently looked after on board the 153-ton, 4* hotel boat Sir Edward Elgar, enjoying great views of the Severn Estuary, the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean as we made our stately progress along a route which also rejoices in immense swing bridges and ornate bridge-keepers' houses.
The 22-berth Elgar was actually built on the Severn at Stourport in 1999 and is the largest hotel boat on our inland waterways, just the right width to fit through the narrowest locks and with a folding wheelhouse roof to scrape under the lowest bridge if it sails as far as Worcester. Cunning, agreed skipper Nick Rose, but a tad exposed if the wind gets up and it's raining.
Mercifully, the smattering of rain on our trip fell mostly when we were out and about on excursions, so there was no feeling of being unduly trapped on board – and we had plenty to see from the moment we got to the historic Gloucester docks to get on board.
We had time to explore our surroundings in the cathedral city because we stayed overnight at the handy 4* Hatherley Manor Hotel in a tie-up with English Holiday Cruises, setting us up for a few days of pampering with dinner and a drop of wine before a night in a four-poster in Room 232.
The hotel is only four miles outside Gloucester in acres of rolling grounds and is said to have been built for the illegitimate son of Oliver Cromwell, but although steeped in history, facilities are bang up to date thanks to a tasteful refurbishment and its popular among locals for dining, weddings and all sorts of 'do'.
A splendid traditional breakfast fortified us before we headed into Gloucester and dropped off our luggage at the boat, leaving us free to explore the docks and its many attractions (with a goodly supply of money-off vouchers) before lunch inevitably beckoned, thanks again to a tie-up with EH Cruises.
The inner man (and woman) was amply catered for at the High Orchard, a Marston's pub just round the corner from the dock, thanks to a menu as long as your arm, a blackboard full of daily specials and a signature chicken rotisserie. There's a fair old selections of beers, too, so it's well worth a look, even if you're not cruising and just want a trip out.
Another part of the deal is secure parking, so with the car out of the way in the Gloucester Quays shopping complex multi-storey, we made our way to the boat for the 6pm boarding, freshened up after stowing our luggage in our cabin and mustered for a welcome drink... and dinner fresh from the galley, followed by a diverting table quiz to stir the introductions and underline the luxury of not having a TV to intrude
A relaxing wind-down in the lounge bar before bedtime, with time to meet skipper Nick and the five-strong crew, then downstairs to the 11 outside twin cabins on the lower deck, all of them en-suite and with a walk-in shower, plus a window around towpath height
Cruises of any sort smack of indulgence, so no excuses for mentioning breakfast as the next highlight, as we cast off from the West Quay and its Oliver Cromwell Riverboat Hotel and Restaurant and headed off under Llanthony Bridge. Then it was on to the upper deck to wave as we reached Two-Mile Cut and the huge swing bridge carrying Gloucester's south west bypass, before meeting many more smaller ones, along with picturesque keepers' houses, on our way to a lunchtime mooring at Frampton-on-Severn
From there, we hopped on a coach and headed past the longest village green in England – duly noting a pub at each end – and made our way to Berkeley Castle to thoroughly enjoy a guided tour of the Norman pile where King Edward II was kept captive before being murdered.
Later, a canalside stroll, captain's cocktails, dinner and another fun quiz, followed by a good night's sleep before we continued our voyage to Sharpness, where a deft about-turn was called for to begin the return trip
Past the remains of the old Severn rail bridge, which was demolished after being damaged in an oil barge collision in 1960, and we stopped to see the Purton Hulks, the remains of at least 80 historic, redundant barges, which have been beached over the years to form breakwaters and protect the riverbanks from the savage tides
It's eerie to see the wooden skeletons of long-dead vessels sticking out of the silt, alongside huge steel and concrete boats left over from the Second World War. It's not the safest place in the world, either, for the tidal race will fill more than your wellies if you're not careful, even on the nicest of days, so we were glad to have the guidance of David Viner, Heritage Advisor with the Canal and River Trust and a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and its not-always-obvious dangers.
Further on 'upstream' and a leisurely visit to the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre founded by Sir Peter Scott – a real 'must see' on any visit to this part of the world. Seen as the birthplace of nature conservation, the Centre is a photographers' dream and a relaxing haven full of wonders where you could happily wander for hours.
Back on the boat for our final dinner and we were joined for aperitifs by owner Richard Clements and his hospitality director wife, Judith, before a hearty three course meal followed by cheeses and coffee.
Caffeine addicts should know that coffee (and tea) is available all day and night, while there is also a 'happy hour' in the bar from 6 – 8pm every day, with great value wine and 20 per cent off all drinks.
Bearing in mind that there is free house wine with dinner and there are very drinkable wines from £13.50 a bottle, along with fizz at £17.50 and champers at £29, there are seriously good times to be had without breaking the bank. A happy and distinctly late final night featured live entertainment from a swing and jazz duo.
Our final morning kicked off with scrambled eggs with bacon or smoked salmon, before we arrived at Saul Junction – a bustling spot we cruised through on the first day to whet our appetite, and well worth stopping in at the Cotswold Canals Trust Visitor Centre for an insight into the project to restore two historic waterways and connect the Severn to the Thames.
Lunch as we cruised through the countryside, then on the upper deck again for grandstand views over the canalside hedgerows until it was back into the heart of Gloucester and the mooring at Alexandra Quay. Voyage complete.
David Graham is member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and on the team of SilverTravelAdvisor.com
English Holiday Cruises Ltd, The Oliver Cromwell, West Quay, The Docks, Gloucester GL1 2LG. The moorings are two miles from the M5 and a mile from bus and rail stations. The hotel boat Sir Edward Elgar operates five different itineraries: a two-night weekend break; three-night historic canal cruise; four night River Severn heritage cruise; a five-night 'cruise to views' and a five-night Heart of England cruise. For pricing details: Tel: 01452 410411 email: email@example.com www.englishholidaycruises.co.uk/
Hatherley Manor Hotel, Down Hatherley Lane, Gloucester GL2 9QA. Set in 37 acres of parkland four miles outside Gloucester and six miles from Cheltenham Spa, just off the M5, but with a helicopter landing pad if you leave the car at home. Many offers etc for dining and accommodation. Freephone 0300 3038302 email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.hatherleymanor.com
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