A trip along England’s historic canals takes you back in time.
Chester, England - The plank is a mere 2-by-4 painted a cheery red, looking more child's toy than potential death trap.
"Sorry, mate, shore's uneven so this is as close as we get. You'll just have to walk the plank."
John and Emma, the boat's owners, extend the wood from the side door of the boat to the tangled brush of the shore and scurry over easily, in defiance of their physique. I, the sporty young Canadian, am left to turn away and panic.
I stare into the brown water of the canal, smelling its overwhelming reek of rot and algae. For over an hour we've passed no other boats, or indeed any civilization. It's just us and the primordial landscape: the ancient leaning willows, the electric-green hills, an occasional tree so bare of of leaves and crooked of branch it looks an apocalyptic omen.
Suddenly, I have a the sense that we've slipped back into another time, and if I don't fall off the plank and drown, at any second a horseman will race across the dark green fields to shoot us for trespassing on the queen's land - or worse, a prehistoric animal will devour us.
"You coming, mate?" asks John.
I teeter across the plank, on this, my first adventure of hotel boating on England's historical canals. Born to be a pirate! The reward is a pub lunch of pot pies and beer.
After lunch we reach the first lock. The canals were dug in the 1800s as a system of trading routes, and the locks were designed not only to move boats across the hilly landscape, but also to separate canals owned by rival companies.
John swings open the gate, winding a turnstile with a large metal crank, to reveal what feels like a large steel box. Water gushes out past the boat, which is tied to a mooring and held still with a pole managed by Emma.
When the lock is empty, we untie and she pushes us into the lock, the gate clanging shut behind us. And now it's not just a box; it's a claustrophobic rusted boat coffin with gloomy old walls crawling with moss and bright green slime that stinks like my mother's cabbage rolls.
The shore is a good 8 feet above my head. It's hard not to feel trapped. But before I can panic again, I'm surprised by a waterfall exploding from an opened square in the gate ahead, where John now winds another turnstile that lets in water from the canal above.
The boat reaches the right level and, with the shore again firmly to our right, the gates are wound open. Everything relaxes into a lovely Disney ride, and I half expect to see little statues singing It's A Small World as we float into serene waters.
Five more locks to go today, my hosts cheerfully inform me.
Our boat consists of a lounge area, a kitchen that fits one, two single suites and one double. I'm in a single, which comes with its own facilities, albeit not in a separate room but squeezed in right next to the end of the 2-foot-wide bed, so one wakes up with an eyeful of toilet.
The rest of the first day passes without incident and, knocked out by the British dinner of lamb and homemade Yorkshire pudding, I sleep surprisingly well under my goose duvet. Awakened early by the morning bird chorus, my grumpiness dissipates at the romantic sight of mist undulating up from the water just as I always imagined mist should rise when I was a child reading books about Camelot.