27 JANUARY 2001, Page 40

Messing about in a barge

Michael McMahon

THERE are many interesting travel opportunities on the Internet, and le-guide.com seems to offer one more challenging than most: 'Be seduced by the Canal du Midi, built from 1666, by up to 12,000 men', it begins. But it wasn't the idea of being honked bank-side by bargees that persuaded my family and I to book a cabin cruiser on the Canal du Midi for the last week of last October. The pleasures we looked forward to were rather more subtle and various — and, for that matter, less arbitrarily limited. For a start, we wanted to snatch a little more summer from the fast-fading year. The thin, north Norfolk daylight was already draining drably away when we fled from the incoming tide of cold and darkness to the far south of France. The chart in the brochure promised daily averages of 19 degrees centigrade at that time of year, and, whatever that might mean in real terms, we guessed it would be pleasantly warm. So we each packed light clothes and some sunglasses, and took a sweater and a Barbour just in case.

In the event we wore our woollies and waterproofs very little, for our holiday was just on the right side of the seasonal cusp. It was all the more magical for that. The 240-kilometre canal that connects the Mediterranean to the Garonne (and thus to the Atlantic) cuts through some of the most gentle, sleepy countryside in the south of France, a landscape that is almost painfully beautiful in high autumn. Vineyards are reddened, browned and burned, and paper-dry leaves shuffle waterward from the 300-year-old plataniers that stand sentry-go along the banks. Forever fore and aft is the defining line of the canal itself, absorbing and reflecting the images of endless rows of trees that face each other like an exquisite symmetrical inkblot. Sunlight plays on the water through leaf-losing branches, and sunsets throw up silhouettes that are cleaner-edged than those of the summer.

We more or less had the waterway to ourselves, which was another reason for choosing to go at the very end of the season. We wanted restorative calm, not debilitating excitement. Those we met who make their living on or beside the canal told us that we had chosen just the right time to enjoy it: in July and August, they explained, tempers as well as temperatures can run high as the waterway bustles with stressed-out families in neurotic pursuit of fun.

Which is not to say that our own holiday did not have one or two awkward moments. The first came at the 'staircase' at Fonserannes, a flight of seven locks that we would have coped with more confidently had we not had to do so on a Sunday afternoon, when the whole town of Beziers takes a promenade along the bank, and congregates on the little arched bridges over the ecluses to watch embarrassed novices like us struggle, scrape and bump their way through the system.

Overheated by my exertions and desperate to appear calm as the lock-keeper shouted basic instructions ('Monsieur! Accelerez et toumez au meme temps), I reached the uppermost lock with relief and, not having a handkerchief with me, I mopped my brow, face and the back of my neck with a moistened towel from a sachet in the first-aid kit. The spectators' politely sympathetic interest in my struggles (which had, after all, been no greater than anyone else's) turned to broad grins, which I proudly returned, thinking them to signify congratulation on having made it through my ordeal; but, when my daughter appeared on deck and screamed, I realised that those onlookers were smiling at my appearance. Unknown to me, the 'serviette impregnie a l'iosine' that I had used to freshen up with had coloured my skin with a deep-red dye that left me looking like a lobster. It took some time — below deck —to scrub it off.

But there were more pleasant surprises, too. When we moored where the canal is nearest to the sea, unloaded our cycles and rode them the couple of miles to a finesanded beach, we found that we had it entirely to ourselves. We swam and then dried ourselves in the sun. This, only a few days before Bonfire Night. We were also alone on the Etang de Thau — a vast, inland salt lake studded with oyster beds, whose flat surface seemed to resonate with an almost audible blueness as we sailed over it towards the fishing port of Marseillan. We shopped, we pottered, we dined out in our shirtsleeves on deck, and we smoked as we watched the sun go down over the Mediterranean on the other side of the lake. And we phoned home, to hear that rain was running down the windows and that the first fires of winter had been lit.

We followed electrically coloured kingfishers darting through the reeds, and watched elegantly pink flamingos assembling on the horizon. We pottered along without impatience, stopping when we felt like it and enjoying the countryside from a calm and steady perspective. We began to look upon the locks not as difficulties to be overcome, but as experiences to be enjoyed. The roar of the waters rushing through the sluices as we rose or fell became a comfort rather than a threat, and we greeted lockkeepers, bystanders and gawpers with confidence. And then it was time to go home. Winter comes, even to the south.

As we sat in still strong sun outside the airport, we agreed that it had been the best family holiday that we could remember, and attributed it to any number of factors. The place, the season and the weather had all played their perfect parts. But the key element had been the Canal du Midi itself, and when I got back to my study in Norfolk I knew which book to reach down to explain why. In The Wind in the Willows, Ratty tells Mole just what it is that makes boating like this irresistible:

Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not.

When I first read those lines as a child, I recognised in them a poetic truth that I wanted one day to experience. Now I know for myself that 'there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats'.

Michael McMahon and his family spent a week in a six-berth cruiser on the Canal du Midi as the guests of The Crown Blue Line, Norwich (Tel: 01603 630513; www.crownblueline.com).