Observer - Feb 06
A Narrow Escape in North Wales
Hollywood hero Harrison Ford famously made narrowboating look sexy. But when award-winning travel writer Tim Moore and family attempted to follow in his wake on the Llangollen Canal, it was a very different story.
Coming so soon after he emerged from his workshop with the top of a thumb hanging off, my father's tour of duty on the langollen Canal in the storm-ravaged autumn of 1973 cemented his new-found status as a man of mettle. As my siblings and I cosied up beneath our narrowboat's decks, racking up the canasta hours and flicking earwigs into the chemical toilet, he maintained a lonely vigil at the tiller, out in the ceaseless, battering rain, his dour heroism only slightly diluted by his sou'wester fashioned from two binliners.
With my youngest daughter now the age I'd been then, and yet to witness any such humbling feats of fatherhood, a revival seemed in order. And, by happy coincidence, the aquatic stage upon which I resolved to reprise her grandfather's derring-do is now Britain's most happening inland waterway.
A verdant meander along the north Welsh border, the Llangollen has long been a popular choice for the 250,000 holidaymakers who hire narrowboats every year. Ever keen to extend its appeal beyond the pipe-puffing Fred Dibnahs whose oily hands grasp most tillers, the canal-holiday industry was beside itself when Harrison Ford pitched up at Chirk Marina with Calista Flockhart and the kids. Their four-day cruise is recalled with a grateful reverence that has endured beyond those 'Riders of the Lost Ark' local paper headlines: as I was told by several cheerful Chirkites who helped us ferry our provisions and luggage aboard the five-berth, 60ft Katheryn, narrowboating has never been as sexy.
Sharing its dimensions with a railway carriage, the Katheryn seemed compact to the point of stooped claustrophobia as a family home, yet terrifyingly vast as a self-drive conveyance. Standing at the back it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than that distant, horizon-piercing bow, to the great detriment of my reassuringly bearded instructor's patient mechanical briefing.
'You've pumped your bilges and lubricated your stern tube,' he said, running through my morning maintenance routine for the third time, 'so you're ready to cast off, right?' 'Right: i said. 'Wrong,' he said. Leaving me to ponder the fate of those who neglect to warm their glow-plugs, he went off to reinforce traditional gender values by talking my wife, Birna, through the galley equipment. When I came down to join them, their heads were in the oven. 'You'll need to keep that depressed,' came a muffled voice, 'until the thermo-coupler kicks in.'
A jolly pilot deftly navigated us out of Chirk Marina, then, with a bracing clap on the back, hopped on to the towpath and whistled away. It seemed an act of gross irresponsibility. Though sensibly endowed with the top speed of a dying walrus, the Katheryn was cursed with the same animal's manoeuvrability; the act of wanly returning the pilot's wave proved a sufficient distraction to set us on a lazy but immutable collision course with the opposite bank.
The family was still settling into its bijou residence - shower, flushable toilet and TV being the most conspicuous barge-life enhancements since my prevlous experience - when I bumped lethargically round a corner and saw the canal ahead disappearing into a hole in the hillside. I recalled the Chirk Tunnel, correctly, as being of minimal diameter and great length.
For a hapless half hour we cannoned from wall to wall through the darkness, like a midnight drunk carrying a long ladder down a narrow alley Relief at emerging into the late afternoon sun was short-lived. As instantly as is possible at barge pace, we found ourselves inching across a towering aqueduct, Offa's Dyke somewhere down there in the sheep-speckled fields far below
Drained to my spiritual dregs by the twin horrors of this baptism, around the next corner - thump, scrape, boom - I was confronted by ayet more debilitating challenge. The oncoming vessel seemed anything other than narrow, and the Dibnah at its helm was already tracking my obliquely wayward approach with something beyond curiosity. Assistance from below decks was summoned by a screech whose panicked reediness wiped out all accumulated dad-points, and with my children on barge-pole duty, bow-to-bow contact was restricted to a glancing blow.
'How do,' murmured my commendably restrained fellow skipper as he glided past. 'Think you might be aground up the front there.' More poling, a furious, churning application of reverse thrust, and at length we worked ourselves free. By the time the Katheryn slammed dully into a vacant berth outside the Lion Quays hotel, you'd have needed the lock windlass to prise my blanched knuckles off the tiller.
Early to bed and early to rise is the boaters' mantra, and that night I had no trouble with the first half. When it gets dark on a canal, you eat, fiddle about with the telly trying to get a decent picture, give up, get cold and retire. Even spinning out the first of these activities at the Lion Quays bar - our first foray into the comforting world of chips and ale that is off-board canal catering - we were turning out the lights by 10.30 . Partly, in truth, to conserve battery power. The careful husbandry of limited resources (you'll need to top up the water tank every day) is one of the more earnestly educational challenges ofashortbreak on a barge.
'Warning: do not throw anything in here unless you've eaten it first.' Not what you want to read on the inside of a loo seat the morning after a pint too many of Bosun's Ruin.
Day two was to incorporate the loss of our lock-gate virginity; but after blearily reversing out of our berth I found us pointing the wrong way and, following much flustered and fruitless to-ing and fro-ing before a level-eyed bankside audience, opted in craven despair to head back towards Chirk. Just past the marina, our aqueduct/tunnel encore was trumped by another pair of the same, most memorably a 1,000ft leap over the River Dee. Two hundred years old, Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte aqueduct retnains the highest and longest in Britain, a majestic work of innovatory brilliance that, with a few more hours of navigation under my belt, I was almost in a position to appreciate. At least until my son stuck his head through the hatch to say that the slender cast-iron trough on which we were floating was held together with ox blood, lime and lead dipped in boiling sugar.
The ruinous cost of Pontcysyllte's construction forced the abandonment of the canal's intended role as a link in the grand scheme to connect Liverpool and Bristol by inland waterway. As a rather desperate face-saver, the skinny, winding channel that had been dug from Llangollen purely to feed the aqueduct with water was swiftly adopted as Britain's narrowest canal. 'Conceived for the mutual benefit of agriculture and trades,' reads the plaque at the base of one of Pontcysyllte's mammoth piers, but with the canal it carried now terminating in the small, Welsh, middle of nowhere, it was hardly that. Yet by virtue of the 50 million gallons of water they still supply daily to the people of southern Cheshire, both canal and aqueduct survive.
'This is a bit like a school trip,' said nine-year-old Lilja, halfway through my beery lunchtime ramblings on Britain's industrial heritage, but not without a certain enthusiasm. The pull-together camaraderie, the sleep-in-your-socks, character-building hardship - I could see what she meant. All we lacked for the authentic experience was a brush with tragedy, neatly announced shortly thereafter by a throat-shredding yell from up the bank: 'Yer kid's in the water!' By the time I'd thrown myself ashore, the hefty mid dle-aged skinhead responsible, for these words had already hauled our aquatically challenged seven-year-old out. Taking her from his arms, sodden and chattering, I remembered my brother falling in during a childhood holiday in the Norfolk Broads. In blind panic, my mother threw him the anchor.
Ambitiously pitched in the literature as 'an aquatic mountain odyssey of unparalleled loveliness', the circuitous stretch to Llangollen did its best to live up to the hype. Outpaced by dog-walkers, we pootled through a realm of coal-smoking cottages and heathery hillsides, the eroded skeleton of an ancient brow-top fort welcoming us into the town that is home to the Eisteddfod.
In the drizzly gloom of our shady mooring, we tied up with the usual football-sized granny knots. 'A pile hitch is what you need there,' muttered a passing towpath Dibnah, before wordlessly refashioning our Gordian rear-end rope-craft with a couple of wristy flicks. 'Now just do the same down the front,' he smiled, and was off. But try as I might, it was never the same down the front. During our after-dinner game of head-banging, elbow-scraping charades, I went out and saw we had already eased two feet from the bank. It was a happy astonishment to awake and find that we had not run adrift in the hours of rainy darkness.
Llangollen was viewed from beneath umbrellas, a grey-slated and very Victorian resort split by a rain-swollen River Dee. After laboriously convincing the children that they were too old, and not quite too cold, to seek shelter in the Thomas the Tank Engine train puffing into the station, we dragged them up the valley to Plas Newydd. A monument to Gothic eccentniclty the house was built and occupied by two unconventional Georgian women, their lifestyle cheerfully related by the Nerys Hughes sound-alike responsible for the audio commentary. The children skipped back down the hill trilling her mellifluous catchphrase:
It all came together on our last day. Between clattering cloudbursts the children emerged to warm me with tea and all-important (patently mother-scripted) words of reverence; Birna leapt deftly ashore to ratchet up the lift bridges; with a nonchalant hand on the tiller, I nodded serenely at the valley-spanning rainbows and exchanged how-dos with fellow boatmen. The catalogue of farce and mishap compiled in our outward trip was gently erased - on one open stretch, I even succumbed to an inevitable male temptation and saw what this baby could do. Very little was the answer, though I did at least get up the breaking wash sternly proscribed in the literature.
'Looks like you've been doing this all your life,' called out a headscarved old dear on a bench as I spanned us gently through the fiendish U-turn required to access Chirk Marina. Forty-eight hours before it had felt just like that, in the very worst way. Yet even now, as I responded with an amiable inclination of the head, I couldn't suppress my small but growing excitement at the family's looming appointment with one of Telford's later feats of regional engineering. The A5.