The Sunday Times - May 06


Sit back with a cup of tea and watch the world drift by from a narrowboat on the Llangollen canal

advises Nick Thorpe.

It is not a face you would instantly associate with the sedate meander of a canal holiday, but there's no mistaking the grizzled visage of Indiana Jones on the tourist brochure. There he is manning the tiller of his narrowboat as he once did the brakes of a runaway railway wagon.
     When Harrison Ford holidayed on the Llangollen canal with his girlfriend Calista Flockhart last summer he did the waterways a great favour. Long maligned by adrenaline junkies for its caravan-club homeliness, the narrowboat is in fact the perfect vessel for those of us desperate to relax and yet somehow uneasy unless going somewhere even if it's only at a top speed of 4mph.
     Before you can settle into this uniquely adventurous form of relaxation, there are a few preliminaries, like learning to steer the thing. "Just imagine there's a pole through the middle of the boat, and swing the tiller the opposite way," says our instructor Gary cryptically, as he manoeuvres the 60ft Joyce out of Chirk marina and onto the waterways of rural north Wales. "Once you've bounced off the sides a bit, you'll get the hang of it. And if the worst comes to the worst and the boat's going up in flames, you can jump off. The water's only waist deep."
     He winks and hops ashore, leaving the four of us to fathom the counterintuitive physics of tiller control, equipped with a week's supplies and a lexicon of exotic new words such as weed hatch and stem gland greaser. After a few collisions we are soon steering under bridges with only the occasional scrape. It's a mark of our growing confidence that by the time we've crossed the Chirk aqueduct into England, our instructions had disappeared.
     "It's like a walking holiday, except without having to move your legs," observes Richard, a delighted narrowboat virgin. This proves to be only half the truth it's surprising how much exercise you get wrestling with mooring ropes or fending off other novice boats, and that's before you've run up and down the towpath to crank open various locks and lifting bridges. However, we've got it easy, with only a handful of locks compared with the 100 or so my parents once managed to clock up on a different circuit.
     Better still, the Llangollen canal is the most beautiful in the English and Welsh canal system (the Caledonian in Scotland still trumps it), with none of the usual post-industrial detritus to mar the 30 miles of pastoral scenery.
     Saving the town of Llangollen until the end, we chunter eastwards past rustic canalside cottages and moor up by a gourmet country pub. Not that you really need to eat out. Our central-heated, four-berth floating caravan has plenty of room for onboard slap-up meals with a full-sized fridge and domestic oven, dining-room table, armchairs for after-dinner naps and even a wee television and DVD player.

The bathroom has a proper shower, along with the Schwarzenegger-esque Macerator, which powers the well-behaved toilet. And the two fixed double beds require none of the usual folding away, though the corridor partition means you'll probably know more than you expected about your crewmates by the end of the holiday. Still, they've come a long way since horse-drawn days when coal-hauling families of 10 huddled round paraffin stoves.
     You can tell the modern-day canal dwellers by the brightly painted door panels, homespun window doilies and piles of neatly chopped firewood on their roofs. One tousled free spirit tells us he's lived afloat for 18 years, while other downshifters have joined the canal renaissance as house prices have shot up. Anna and David retired with their dog aboard the £85,000 Mehalaland.'a sleek limo-black craft, and love every minute "on the cut" (as bona fide narrowboaters call the canal). "I've seen more kingfishers than I have rats," says Anna, wearing a blissed-out smile. The only irritations come from speeding hire boats upsetting the morning cuppa. Taking the hint, we impersonate veteran navigators for the rest of the week immaculately coiling our mooring lines, perusing the pages of Waterways World (foldaway bikes, beds or lifelike ornamental cabin cats, anybody?) and waving cheerily at the sparse canal traffic. My holiday reading remained deliciously untouched, so hypnotic is the simple act of sipping tea while watching fields, sheep and low hills scroll past.
     If you do fancy stretching your legs, there's plenty to see ashore, though it pays to tread carefully at Whixall Moss, an otherworldly wetland reserve which harbours, adders and deep sinkholes.
    The next day, on the seven-mile offshoot of the Montgomery canal where the lock gates open only for two hours a day to protect the rare botanical specimens a lone heron escorts us down a corridor of mist-shrouded trees, farmland striped with oilseed rape and the wet corduroy of ploughed fields.
     The onset of our only rainy day coincides spookily with the border crossing into Wales, but Llangollen provides plenty of wet-weather diversions, with its motor museum, steam train, craft shops and the lovingly converted Corn Mill pub. The best part, however, is getting there on the vertigo-inducing Pontcysyllte aqueduct, Telford's 1805 masterpiece. As we chunter across the Dee valley on a narrow 1,000ft channel propped on 19 arches, there's only the steering bench and the cast-iron lip of the navigation channel between me and a 120ft drop. It's more like piloting a zeppelin than a barge.
     Just the thing for Indiana Jones, you'd think, except that Ford and Flockhart apparently retired to a hotel with the first spots of rain. It makes you wonder what action heroes are made of these days.