A few days before setting off for northern Wales, we stumble upon a BBC television program starring Prunella Scales and her husband, Timothy West (who, incidentally, is nothing like her screen husband, Basil Fawlty). The two, now in their 80s, were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary and had decided to take a canal boat to the historic Welsh town of Llangollen, where they spent their honeymoon.
The Llangollen canal is where we, too, are headed and while it is said to be one of the most scenic in Britain, it’s also famous for its hair-raising passage over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which opened the year Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar and soars more than 36m above a valley and the mighty River Dee.
The mere thought of managing a 20m narrow boat onto a ribbon of water in the sky sparks vertigo and high anxiety, plus the most unsympathetic guffaws from my husband. In his world, if Scales, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and her octogenarian husband could manage the trip, it will be a doddle for us — slow, safe, easy.
A few days later, with our bags and food supplies safely stowed onto the narrowboat at the pick-up base just inside the Welsh border, we are given a tour of ‘Cassandra’, our floating home for the next five days: two cosy bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchenette, a small but perfectly formed dining area and sitting room complete with four comfy armchairs and TV.
Back on deck, we are given a brief navigation lesson, which takes us through essentials such as how to start (and stop), lights for tunnels, how to fill up with water (daily for both ballast and human use) and a gazillion other things we fear we will never remember. Then, just as quickly, our instructor shoots us a big smile and hands over the tiller.
Suddenly on our own, we feel like kids in command of a semi-trailer without brakes. Thankfully, canal boat etiquette imposes a 6km/h speed limit (brisk walking pace) and as we slide into the rhythm, passing the first of the several hundred new duck families we will encounter on our way, the magic of our new surroundings begins to envelop us.
In spring time, this part of England and northern Wales is storybook perfect — gentle hilly pastures, hedgerows fresh with new growth, sheep grazing contentedly as their newborn lambs illustrate that word “gambol” and flocks of fluffy ducklings speeding madly behind their attentive mothers.
It still feels exotic to we expat Aussies and just as I drift into a Wordsworth reverie as we float past a bank of glowing daffodils…Smash! And then, a juddering, jolting stop as Cassandra’s bow collects the bank.
And so begins a comical (in hindsight) few hours. I won’t bore you with all the things we do wrong that afternoon (a 30m watery dodgem trip is as close a description as I can bear) nor the shrieking horror of coming too close to a gushing lee or the nail-biting moment when I take the tiller for the first time to ensure the boat’s stern stays inside the line to ensure we don’t go tumbling over the edge of our first lock. Nor will I describe the swearing when one or the other of us realises just how slowly 20m of boat travelling at 6km/h responds to commands and how quickly you’d like it to when you are headed straight at another vessel.
Luckily, British canals are splendidly served by myriad pubs and as soon as the sun is over the yard arm we seek solace in the hamlet of Hindford at the Jack Mytton Inn, apparently named after a local, 19th-century eccentric.
A couple of drinks (the barman is pretty eccentric, too) followed by a hearty dinner of sausages and mash takes the edge off our nerves while back on the boat, we fire up
the central heating and cosy up to read books to the sound of the water lapping and the low mooing of cows in nearby pastures.
The next morning things take on a vastly different and rosy hue. For a start, we have sunshine (which continues pretty much every day). We marvel at the intensity of the greens, the meadow flowers, puffy cartoon clouds and nesting birds. As we putt-putt along the canal, myriad stone bridges marked with a letter and numbers to help navigation propel me back to Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore playing pooh-sticks.
We pass old train lines, canal boats with perfectly buffed brass portholes and names such as No Worries and tiny veggie gardens on their roofs. Slowly but surely, as we become familiar with Cassandra and its rhythms, we relax. Phone coverage in this region is patchy but after 24 hours of internet withdrawals, we begin to breathe more deeply and differently.
That evening we moor in Ellesmere, originally a mining community but now dominated by a hot chocolate factory and eat well and cheaply at the Black Lion on Welsh lamb, homemade crumble and real ales.
The following morning we are up at sparrow’s while the kids sleep. Steaming cups of tea in hand in the cold light of the dawn, we set off, motoring pretty much all day through a pastoral interlude punctuated by farmhouses, canalside inns and the occasional village, negotiating dozens of tiny bridges and a long, dark tunnel cut beneath woodland to serve 19th-century mines.
The last challenge that day is my dread of that aqueduct. Pronounced pont-kur-sulth-tee, this legendary feat of 19th-century engineering is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List and has to be seen to be believed. A nearby railway viaduct is the first structure to come into view over the Dee Valley but by the time you clap eyes on the 304m-long Pontcysyllte — an iron trough seemingly floating free from its support of stone piers — there is no way back.
You just have to continue on to what they call “the stream in the sky”. I confess that on the way over, I spend more time with my head under the duvet than marvelling at the scenery. However the next day, on the return journey at dawn, I sit at the stern, lean over, look, breathe, marvel and even shoot a video. Inching across with a small iron lip between you and oblivion, the crashing River Dee on one side, dawn birds singing and the deep, green valley below, will remain in my memory as one of the greatest of travel experiences.
At dusk, we moor in the picturesque canalside community of Trevor and retired to the Telford Inn for dinner. Here we join locals as well as boaties for a convivial feed and chat, later learning how to do a U turn (a lot of barge poling, reverse engines and the odd curse) to ensure we are facing the right way for the early start on the next leg to Llangollen.
You’d think that anything after the dramatic beauty of Pontcysyllte would be a disappointment but not so. The Vale of Llangollen and its entry are spectacular and silence descends over ‘Cassandra’ as we pass great limestone cliffs, pine plantations (ah, the smell of Christmas) and rugged green ridges. Here, the canal narrows to single file and we’re told that in summer it can be madness as people wait hours to get through.
Chugging into Llangollen we are delighted by the sea of salt glazed chimney pots and slate roofs glinting after a shower. This little Welsh town is where the Eisteddfod traditions where born and has been famous with travel writers since the early 18th century when they discovered the wild beauty of the river valley.
Of course the literary-minded will want to visit the home of the Ladies of Llangollen, two aristocratic Irishwomen who ran away together in 1778 and created a home and literary haven that in its heyday hosted such greats as Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth.
By the time we return Cassandra to its dock the next day, it has become our floating friend. We would do it all again.