Relax, and enjoy the adrenaline

Simon Bebbington reviews his canal boat holiday with Drifters in the Sheffield Star

I’m not one to rest much on holidays so had never really considered a narrowboat trip.

I like a challenge and their reputation for slow-paced relaxation is well known.  But when the chance came to take a canal holiday and to see a world heritage site that would give me an adrenaline rush – thanks to my fear of heights – I had to sign up.

The route along the Shropshire Union and Llangollen canals would see us chug from close to the Cheshire border into Wales, crossing two aqueducts en route. Steering the boat a hundred feet in the air would test my mettle.

We picked up the 70ft sixberth narrowboat Baldrik from the marina in Whitchurch, north Shropshire. After only a brief instruction we started up the engine, and set off on our adventure at 3mph.

I managed to ram the first bridge we encountered, just outside the marina. I looked back, but the boat man seemed unperturbed.  From the number of lumps taken out of the brickwork, I guess it was a fairly common occurrence for narrowboat newbies to drive into the bridges.

I made a hard right turn to follow the canal and then settled down at a slow plod, getting a feel for how the boat handled as we wended our way through woods and fields, accompanied by the sound of bird song and the chug of the engine.

While I was taking it easy, the kids had other ideas. They scooted along the ledges that run along the sides of the boat, ran back and forth along the top (on the premise of telling me things I didn’t really need to know), then I settled down on the roof with a book.

The only disruption to their reading being sudden lurches as I made a quick change of course, and the need to duck tree branches hanging low over the water.

 

While the kids kicked back and enjoyed the simple pleasures in life (I had banned all electrical equipment), I gunned the boat to its maximum permissible speed. Which wasn’t much faster than my wife could walk with the dog.  But I needed every half-mile per hour – I’d decided to try for Llangollen – a long way off for a boat with such a low cruising speed.

After only an hour one of my sons weaved his way through leaves of a branch trailing over the top of the boat to tell me what I really needed to hear – that (even without electronic games) this was the best holiday, ever.

I took chunks out of another dozen or so bridges before dusk, when we moored up and cooked tea before turning in for the night.

On the second day we encountered the only two locks on the trip – which the kids loved, but left the dog fairly spooked. Late in the afternoon we reached Chirk, the picturesque last village in England before we crossed the border into Wales as we sailed over its aqueduct. The thick, stone sides made the canal feel secure and solid as we sailed above the treetops, barely giving my tummy the flutters I usually associate with heights.

The aqueduct feeds straight into the Chirk tunnel, which was not easy to negotiate, as the 2 mph current that flows from Llangollen into Shropshire gained power in the narrow channel of the tunnel, making steering tough. I sat back in the boat and enjoyed a beer and we cooked pasta for tea in the small galley after we moored for the night on the part of the canal that clings to the side of the valley of the River Dee.

Within half an hour of setting off on the third morning, I faced my biggest challenge. I edged Baldrik forward into the metal trough of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which carries the canal higher than any other in Britain. And I suffer from vertigo. Dog, wife and kids could walk along the towpath, but I had to stay at the tiller, the side of the boat only an inch from the low metal side of the trough – then nothing until the playing fields on the valley floor, 120 feet below. Gulp. But the metal trough was tough enough to have been in use for more than 100 years, so me bumping the boat into the sides had no detrimental effect, and my fear of heights proved irrational once again. As we left the aqueduct my heart rate slowed to normal and we swung left into the last miles of the waterway to Llangollen.

The final outbound leg of our journey was as uneventful as canal boat holidays are reputed to be, the only excitement being when one of my sons fell in as we turned round at the town’s marina. We made great time on the return journey, the current caused by the inflow of water into the canal at Llangollen adding a couple of miles per hour to our progress.

We made such good progress in fact, that we spent most of the afternoon of the fourth day lunching at a pub in Ellesmere.

The only panic of the trip came on the last morning. I woke as the first boats of the morning sailed past our mooring, their wash gently buffeting the Baldrik. One went past faster than it should, making us rise and fall with the waves it created. Another couple of boats went by, but the effect of their wash didn’t feel right. I pulled back the curtain – only to realise that the bank was getting further away by the second. I jumped out of bed, pulling on my jeans and shouting up the kids before leaping onto the bank. I made it with dry feet, but only by an inch. I grabbed the stern rope just before it slipped through the mooring peg – the prow by now almost touching the far bank. I pulled hard, slowly bringing the boat close enough for the kids to throw me the middle rope, which I used to bring the Baldrik fully to our side of the canal.

As the kids held the boat to the bank, I retrieved the bow line from the water – still tied to its mooring pin. The movement of the boat under the wakes of the early starters must have tugged the pin out of the soil left wet by the overnight rain, the backwash of the waves from the fast-moving boat pushing Baldrik out into the middle of the canal. After the final adrenaline rush of our laidback holiday had calmed, we sailed back to Whitchurch with some great memories and a pledge to ourselves to take a trip

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