I was the one man in a 70’ long Narrowboat, with my wife and an American lady Marcia with whom we had been friends for some years. On 2nd August 2016 we set out on a short break on the Llangollen (Pronounced THLAN-GOTH-LEN) Canal in the aforesaid boat. You may ask why we had such a stupidly long boat for just three people: fair question. There were going to be two others, but they decided to drop out. Still, it did mean we had plenty of room!
The phrase “plenty of room” has to be taken in the context of a typical canal narrowboat only 6’ wide. So we had plenty of room in a kind of stretched out sort of way. My wife and I were veteran narrow-boaters of many years standing (and floating) so all this extra space was a bit of a luxury. On the other hand, Marcia had to learn what I call the “Narrow Boat Walk”, something quickly learned whilst walking through the boat’s interior from stern to bow, especially if in a hurry.
The technique is to turn the body slightly sideways, so that one shoulder faces the direction in which you are moving and the other shoulder points to where you’ve been, and with your head turned to look where you are going, off you go! This way you avoid smashing your hands and arms against bits of wood, towel rails, radiators and so on.
We had intended to spend Monday to Friday on the boat, but thanks to an inconsiderate burst of bad weather on the far side of the Atlantic, our friend’s series of flights being delayed, missed, and generally messed up, with the added bonus of luggage disappearance courtesy of Air Lingus she arrived a day late, minus her possessions and in dire need of an emergency clothes shopping expedition. So we took over the boat on the Tuesday, meaning our Short Break was now a Miniature Break, but we made the best of it.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft gang awry” and this particular mouse did a spot of re-programming of our cruise.
We took over the Black Prince narrowboat “Evie” at Chirk Marina at about 1 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, and a very nice man showed us over the craft and its facilities. After he had explained fifty different ways we might die, (gas explosions, suffocation, falling into locks, being crushed by 20 tons of steel hull, getting the stern of the boat caught on the sill of a lock whilst emptying, leaving the weed hatch open, and so on) I started the engine, took hold of the tiller and we were on our way at a stately 4 mph, secure in the one piece of cheerful knowledge that (excepting locks) if someone fell into the canal, all he or she had to do was stand up, looking slightly ridiculous.
We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising south, in the direction of Ellesmere. The first bit of excitement was encountering the Chirk Tunnel (459 yds long), followed by the Chirk Aqueduct over the river Ceiriog, which ran parallel to the adjacent Chirk Railway viaduct.
When we reached New Marton Locks there was a long queue to get through, so we spent about an hour standing on the towpath, holding on to the centre line, and gradually nudging the boat along towards the lock as each boat in front of us entered the lock, in turn allowing boats coming in the opposite direction also to get through the lock.
At last it was our turn. There were so many people milling around that we got off very lightly in terms of physical labour winding paddles and pushing gate beams, as plenty were volunteering to do most of that. My job was basically getting the boat lined up and aiming for a space only a few inches wider than the boat. The words cork and bottle spring to mind. We descended, left the lock and headed for the queue at the next lock.
By the time we had passed through New Marton Locks it was clear that we would have to abandon any thoughts of reaching Ellesmere, and settled instead for mooring outside the Jack Mytton Inn at Hindford. This would be both our overnight mooring place and our place to get an evening meal. The name of the pub derives from an eccentric 19th century squire known locally as “Mad Jack”. The pub restaurant was pleasant, most of our food was good, some bad, and the service was abysmally slow. My good lady complained about her fish being tough, and for this she was provided with the most expensive dessert free of charge. The other two meals were quite acceptable. Later we settled down for our first night’s sleep on board. When we woke up the next morning we hadn’t sunk, so all was good.
My intention now was to cruise back to where we’d started, and then beyond, continuing to Llangollen by late afternoon. There was one small problem: we could have turned around at Ellesmere, but we didn’t have time to get there. However, according to our canal handbook there was a 70’ turning point about two miles further on from Hindford. (These turning points are known as winding points .. as in “wind”, because in the days of horse-drawn narrowboats, they were turned into the bank on the widened section, and in theory the wind did the rest. Of course that assumes there was a wind in the first place, and blowing in the right direction!)
Sure enough, after a couple of miles we found a point where the canal had been widened into a kind of V shape on one side and I duly pointed our bow into the V and swung the tiller right over. It was at this point that I realised the handbook’s use of the term 70’ was a touch optimistic! It may have been a 70’ turning point at some time or other, but because of silting and vegetation growth, it was now more accurately described as a point at which one could completely block the canal with a narrowboat straddled across it. With the nose hard in I only had about one inch between the stern and the canal bank behind me. The propeller was turning this part of the canal into a frothing brown gravy as I tried to get the stern swinging round. I walked up to the sharp end armed with the boat’s pole, found our American friend sitting there enjoying life in general, and narrowly avoided decapitating her with my pole as I swung it into use against the unyielding bank. I managed to manoeuvre the bow a few inches to the left, finding a bit of extra wiggle room. I returned to the stern, swung the tiller again with the engine screaming on full throttle and the stern slowly began to move towards the centre of the canal, at which point I could reverse out of the V and resume our journey in the opposite direction.
By the time we had reached New Marton Locks again (this time we were going “uphill”) the queues were shorter. There was a hell of a wind blowing and as soon as I brought the boat into the side to disembark it was blown out again. Eventually the ladies managed to jump off, grab the ropes and hold the boat into the side against the raging wind. Anyway, that was their workout for the day!
We went through the tunnel again, cruised past Chirk Marina and onwards through the Whitehouses Tunnel (191 yards) then on to Froncysyllte. (Welsh names are difficult to get your mouth round, suffering from a surfeit of consonants and vowels that have no resemblance to English. Why would they? They’re Welsh. This one is pronounced Fron-ker-sulth-tee.)
It was now lunch time, and having negotiated our first lift-bridge, our plan was to moor for lunch at the Aqueduct Inn, until we discovered it was looking down on us from the top of a steep hill. As the combined age of me and my crew added up to a rather large number and one of us had creaky knees, we chickened out and had a snack on board our boat.
Setting off again mid-afternoon our next exciting experience lay just around the next bend .. the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (Pronounced Pont-ker-sulth-tee) This is an 18th century testament to the imagination and expertise of Thomas Telford and associates: faced with the problem of a steep-sided valley and the river Dee, their solution was to “fly” across the top of it using a cast-iron trough, just over 6’ wide, supported by stone piers just shy of 130’ in height. Completed in 1805, it’s just under ¼ mile long, the longest, highest aqueduct in the UK, a Grade I Listed Building and World Heritage Site.
Those of a nervous disposition retreat into their cabins, but if the man on the tiller feels that way he needs to look firmly ahead, because if he looks down on the side where there is no walkway, all he sees is a 2-inch wide trough edge and then .. empty space.
We had to wait about half an hour to get on to the aqueduct because of the volume of craft coming the other way. As you can see from the picture it is clearly a one-way working operation! Because of the difficulty in seeing what is happening at the far end of the aqueduct, as each narrowboat came off the aqueduct we had to ask, “How many boats behind you.” The response, “About eight” seemed to be the recurring answer for some considerable time!
We eventually got on and enjoyed (I think) the exhilarating experience before reaching a place called Trevor on the other side, at which point it's necessary to make a right-angled left-turn and pass under a bridge right on the corner. I should explain that canal bridge “holes” are only just wider than the boat, because most of them accommodate the towpath as well for the benefit of the horses pulling the original commercial boats. So each bridge is a choke point. Combine that with a sharp bend and a 70’ long boat that clearly doesn’t bend, then you have a somewhat challenging mix of circumstances! Some discreet bumping along the way is unavoidable, and one is grateful for the strong steel hulls of these boats.
From this point onwards the scenery became even more beautiful as we gently glided on towards Llangollen (the end of the canal .. or the start, depending on your point of view). The increasing impact of the scenery was matched by increasing challenges in the shape of two long stretches of narrow channels requiring one-way working (as with the aqueduct).
The Captain’s wife volunteered to walk ahead to check for oncoming craft, and depending upon how far we had travelled, would then either give us an appropriate signal or persuade some other hapless soul coming the other way to back up. The system worked well, and by tea time were inching our way into Llangollen, and the relatively wide open space of the Llangollen Marina (where we would be charge £6 for an overnight stay).
The beauty of man-made canals is that they defy normal expectations; one example is the ability to go up and down hill (and even through hills) whilst on water. Another is being on water and viewing a town that is below you rather than beside or above you.
Our revised plan was working out well, and we had arrived in Llangollen on the intended day and at the right time.
We would spend Wednesday night moored in the marina, then spend Thursday morning browsing around the town, and taking a trip on the Llangollen Steam Railway in the afternoon.
A word about communications: the boatyard had naturally given us a phone number to call in the event of an emergency or problem with the boat. This was fine, but for the fact that for almost the entire trip, we were unable to get a mobile phone signal.
At the one point I managed to get a signal we did get some good news .. a text from Aer Lingus that the missing baggage had been found and despatched to my house.
After we had moored in the marina I volunteered to take the 12-minute walk into town (via a steep hill) to check out the restaurants for our evening meal. I found a nice looking Italian café bar (Fouzi’s) and asked if I’d need to make a reservation. They said I should, but I couldn’t make one there and then without reporting back to the ladies on what I had found. I couldn’t phone them, so had to walk back to the boat. They agreed to my choice, but of course I couldn’t phone the café bar so had to walk back to it again to make the reservation in person, after which I walked back to the boat again to freshen up for dinner. By the time we were ready to walk into town I felt able to do it with my eyes closed. Still, with the steep hill, it was all good exercise! (And the café bar didn’t disappoint. I’d recommend it.)
We walked around Llangollen in the morning peering into many shops, and our American friend was able to buy a selection of gifts to take home. Then it was back to the boat for a midday snack.
Thursday afternoon saw two of us returning to town for a trip on the Llangollen heritage railway for a delightful ride through the spectacular scenery of the Dee valley. Half-way through the return journey we had a pleasant refreshment stop at Carrog Station where we sat in the sunshine at picnic tables on the platform drinking coffee and eating delicious sponge cake.
At about 4.30 pm we said goodbye to Llangollen Marina and began our journey back, encountering no difficulties on the two one-way working sections and getting straight on to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, through the lift bridge (keep on turning, girls!) to find an idyllic mooring spot for our final night on the canal.
We had a meal of Lasagne & chips on the boat and we sat on our folding chairs at the side of the canal basking in the early evening sunshine, drinking wine.
This was the point at which I told Marcia I did believe in Heaven, and this was it!
Behind our boat there was another similar craft moored up, and the occupants were trying to start a barbecue. The ensuing smoke and the rays of sunshine through the trees conjured up the ideal atmospheric photo opportunity, so I got the camera to work.
We were up with the birds to make an early move (without breakfast) in the direction of Chirk, back through Chirk Tunnel, reaching the Marina at about 8.30 am.
The man who had told us how not to die was there on the canal side waiting for us so he could jump on board and help us get the boat through the somewhat difficult entrance to the marina.
We were looking forward to breakfast in the Boat House Restaurant behind the Marina which was advertised in the boat’s handbook as offering food all day, including breakfasts.
Which was why, of course, we were told on our return that the Boat House Restaurant didn’t open for breakfast!! The marina guys were duly embarrassed and I suggested they consider the simple solution of removing the advert from their handbook! But they did, however, recommend a “greasy spoon” about a mile down the road, so that’s where we went .. the Limekiln Café at which we got a substantial breakfast in decent surroundings for an insubstantial amount of money, so we were satisfied.
Then it was back to the motorways and 70 mph instead of 4 mph. I think I preferred the latter!
The UK canal network totals about 2,000 miles. They date back to 1750 and were the answer to moving large tonnages of commercial goods around the country for which the roads were totally unsuitable. It wasn’t long before the railways came along, and so the canals’ profitability was relatively short-lived, and indeed many were bought up by the new railway companies for the express purpose of allowing them to run down to the benefit of the railways. Thanks to a bunch of enthusiasts in the mid-20th century most of the network became fully restored as a valuable contribution to the leisure industry.
(This is from a BBC website) .. Llangollen Canal - formerly called Ellesmere Canal - was first mooted in 1791 at a public meeting in Ellesmere on the Wrexham-Shropshire border to plan a canal linking three rivers: the Mersey, the Dee and the Severn - helping industry and linking into the Denbighshire coalfields.
A year later work started on its meandering route starting west from Nantwich, Cheshire, to Whitchurch and Ellesmere in Shropshire, and ending in Cefn Mawr and Llangollen, on the Wrexham-Denbighshire border.
It made it no further. The planned route through the Denbighshire coalfield, past Wrexham and on to Chester, was too expensive.
In 1801 William Jessop the canal engineer recommended abandoning the canal. Chester and Shrewsbury had found cheaper, closer supplies than Denbighshire coal. Jessop, instead, focused on developing a tramway system to connect local industry to the canal basin at Trevor, Wrexham.
Despite the failure to build the canal to Chester, the completion of the now famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by Thomas Telford, an agent to the canal company, proved to be a major success for the local economy. Industries in the Ceiriog Valley used the Glyn Valley Tramway to carry freight to the canal.