Posted on 16/09/2019
We’re 20 minutes early, and the barge is already full. Stepping down, we sidle past families and tour groups, searching for a place to sit. My partner and I end up separated from our friend, scattered to opposite ends. Horseboating is more popular than I realised.
We’ve driven to the village of Kintbury to take a ride on one of the last horse-drawn barges in the country. The crowd hums with excitement as Steve Butler, the owner of the Kennet Horse Boat Company, delivers a well-rehearsed routine about what to do in the event of rapids. Then Steve steps out, walking up the towpath to where a stocky horse, adorned in canal colours of red, green and gold, waits patiently in the shade: Drummer, a six-year-old Clydesdale Cob who’s only recently finished learning the ropes.
Gradually, we glide down the Kennet & Avon, until we’re cruising around the canal limit of four milers per hour. We’ve been lucky with the weather, sunlight glinting off the water as ducks follow like dogs chasing cars. We’re assured this is light work for the horse, and Drummer certainly seems unfazed by the 44 people he’s pulling as Steve gently nudges him down the dusty towpath.
Before we’ve had a chance to let the experience sink in, it’s time for tea and cake, and the boat bustles with people lining up for freshly baked lemon drizzle, walnut and Victoria sponge. Amid the clatter of saucers, I find myself juggling a cup of tea and a generous slice of cake on my lap, feeling a little less relaxed than when I arrived.
But soon people finish their refreshments and the cabin falls to a murmur. I deposit my dishes at the bar and climb the steps to poke my head outside. I begin to understand the magic of traveling by horse-drawn barge. Our boat slips soundlessly through green water. The towline drips in ripples while dappled shade from weeping willows flickers on my skin. On the path, Steve pauses for pedestrians, distracting Drummer from the cow parsley he wants to eat – his favourite.
I get chatting to Dave, a retired banker who now works for the company. He proudly points things out en route: a good place to spot kingfishers; a five-hundred-year-old oak; a groove in the brickwork of an old shepherd’s bridge, caused by ropes from other barge horses through the ages.
For over two hundred yearsmuch of their history, all canal boats and barges were towed until engines and railways introduced more efficient and faster ways to travel. Horse barges are even responsible for giving canal towpaths their name. Now, the Kennet Horse Boat Company is one of only a handful of horse boat operators left in the UK. The boat I’m on has been in service for 49 years, originally built for Steve’s father.
We come to a lock, disembarking to stretch our legs while it’s filled. Drummer takes a break on the opposite bank, his foppish fringe and flared hooves giving him the appearance of a Regency gentleman. When the barge is ready, we’re ushered aboard and lowered in the lock until the slimy canal walls surround us.
We’re being pulled through the strata of time. Second World War pillboxes pepper the path from here, the canal once forming our last line of defence if Germany invaded from the south. A cargo train speeds by on the Penzance to Paddington line, the progress of history taunting us. I realise I’ve been rocketing past on that route for years, never knowing this other world was here.
By the time we’re heading back, everyone has acclimatised to a gentler way of life. A hush descends. The percussion of Drummer’s hooves drifts from behind tall reeds. The sun shines on sleepy hay bales. A heron flaps past, then a bright blue kingfisher, exactly where Dave said it would. Elaine behind the bar lists the fish beneath us – catfish, pike, roach, chubb – and points out the purple flowered comfrey lining the bank that can be used as an anti-inflammatory for animals.
As we step off the boat at the end of our journey, Steve tosses us a carrot, and we take it to Drummer who accepts it with relish. Other passengers gift him a few Polos – rare treats. We stroke his nose in gratitude. As we walk back to the car, I anticipate the drive home on the motorway, and think back to an exchange I overheard on the boat between two women who had just met.
“In a modern world, this is a luxury,” said the first, a visitor from China.
A lull followed, a moment of silent agreement between them, before the other replied: “Life isn’t so bad when you’ve got this.”
Kennet Horse Boat Company run public horse-drawn trips seven days a week from Easter to the end of September, leaving from Kintbury and lasting 2-3 hours (starting from £11.80 adults, £10.80 children). There are also 2.5-hour one-way trips from Kintbury to Hungerford or Hungerford to Kintbury. Group and school bookings are also available.