It does take your breath away

Liz Fullick reviewed her Drifters’ canal boat holiday from our Blackwater Meadow base in the Scottish Daily Record, published 29 March 2014:

Cruising the Shropshire Union Canal at 2mph and into Wales past some amazing scenery in beautiful weather makes for a relaxing narrowboat trip.

A self-confessed speed freak and a sports-mad teenager who goes stir-crazy if he doesn’t exercise for a day are either unlikely candidates for a leisurely pootle on a canal, or perhaps the very people to benefit from the experience.

I’d have said the former, especially when our boat was overtaken by walkers ambling along the towpath.

But we soon became firm fans of this slow pace of holiday.

We headed to the canal boat hire base at Blackwater Meadow Marina in Shropshire to pick up our boat and meet our travelling companions, my friend Lesley and her son Fred, old hands who raved about how much we’d enjoy it.

Fuel paid for (about £50), insurance forms signed, maps purchased and cars unloaded of food and clothing, and Lesley, Fred, Nick and I, plus Herbie the excitable cocker spaniel (also a seasoned narrowboater) welcomed on board our tutor Michael for a lesson in operating this 66ft gentle giant.

Our boat, the Tawny Eagle, is an Alvechurch Eagle class that sleeps up to seven people in a number of bed layout arrangements.

We opted for two rooms with two singles in each. It had two bathrooms with showers (who wants to share a bathroom with two teenage lads?) and a well-equipped kitchen with table and cushioned bench seats, as well as seating outside at each end of the boat. It’s a real home from home, with all mod cons and even an umbrella and waterproofs.

Our narrowboat holiday began when Michael jumped off the boat after navigating us round the tight bend out of the marina.

It was early evening, at the beginning of one of the hottest weeks of the year, a perfect time to head to Wales at a leisurely 2mph.

With four nights on board, we had plenty of time to head towards Llangollen and back.

The boys took the helm and expertly manoeuvred the boat, while Lesley and I opened a bottle of wine and relaxed.

I’d brought enough food for all meals and plenty of snacks to ensure two lads could be catered for as soon as the call for sustenance went up, but the canal-side inns look so tempting, we soon abandoned ideas of self-catering and moored up alongside a suitable hostelry and ordered fish and chips.

More through luck than judgment we picked the perfect moment, as a number of boats behind us failed to find a mooring and had to meander further along before finding a place to tether for a bite and a bevy.

Unlike planes, and the majority of train travel, being on board a canal boat is not merely about getting to a destination.

Although we had an endgame, the few miles between Blackwater and Llangollen were our holiday, not Llangollen itself.

This may seem obvious to some, but to me it came as a revelation.

I also learned boats don’t always do what you ask. It’s counter-intuitive and turning the tiller one way makes it go another.

This created consternation when the boys, directing from the front of the boat, gesticulated left.

I wasn’t sure whether they meant point the boat to the left, or the rudder, and as they were 66ft away and I couldn’t hear over the gentle hum of the engine, it was only when I grazed the bank I realised what they meant.

So I was more than happy to hand over the captaincy to those more capable and do what I’m good at. Cooking is one of my joys in life, so to have hours to sit in sunshine at the pointy end of a boat, waving to passers-by and chatting to my friend, interspersed with preparing meals, was the height of indulgence.

There were just two locks and two aqueducts along our stretch of the canal.

We floated through the gentle countryside and crossed the border into Wales via the Chirk Aqueduct.

This was awe-inspiring in itself but paled in comparison to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct a few miles further on.

It is an incredible feat of engineering and when Thomas Telford finished it in 1805, it was the highest canal boat crossing in the world. In 2009 this, and 11 miles of the canal, including the Chirk Aqueduct and Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio, were granted Unesco World Heritage status as experts called it a “masterpiece of human creative genius, illustrating a significant stage in human history”.

Breathtaking is a cliched way to describe the 1007ft long structure, but looking over the narrow iron side rail to the valley 126ft below gives an idea of perhaps where the description originated.

It does take your breath away.

Everyone stops to chat and help at the locks and we encountered people from all over the globe. And the same was true in Llangollen. Again we were lucky to arrive just in time to snap up a mooring right in the marina itself.

It was the perfect spot, and brilliant timing, as the Eisteddfod was under way and from the comfort of our temporary home we were serenaded into the night by beautiful voices from around the world.

Much of the next day was spent enjoying the many choral performances, followed by a mooch around the lovely town, so we stayed an extra night.

The circular shape of the marina made exiting a precise and laborious endeavour.

With most of the boaters enjoying the early morning sunshine on their decks, there were some worried looks as the boys steered back and forth to get into position for the bottleneck, but they graciously accepted the applause when they mastered it like seasoned boat hands.

Our return journey meant a long day at the tiller for the boys to ensure we got the boat back on time, though they were having such fun being in charge they might have stayed at it indefinitely.

Our last night was spent moored just outside our final destination, and in the morning, we patiently waited for Michael to climb aboard and steer the boat home.

It wasn’t until we were driving back up north that we became aware of the very short distance we had travelled.

Our five days aboard would have taken about half an hour by car.

But it’s not merely about getting from A to B – it’s about enjoying the stunning scenery, meeting new people, the camaraderie, learning a few navigational skills and benefiting from a truly relaxing experience.

Mother and son Fullick are now fans of a much slower pace of fun.

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