The perfect introduction to narrowboating

As well as travelling the Stourport Ring this summer, two years ago The Countryman magazine editor Mark Whitley took a canal boat holiday with Drifters on the Llangollen Canal. This time heading out from our narrowboat hire base at Trevor, here’s Mark’s review:

The Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the landscape of Britain, and central to this was the development of canal network. Between 1760 and 1830 over a thousand miles of canals were built across Britain, providing a new means of inland transport and helping to shape the landscape of today.

The coming of the railways and then the development of road transport led to the gradual demise of the canal network, and by the mid-20th century it might have been regarded as being in terminal decline.

It was the voluntary sector that helped bring the canal network back to life, through organisations like the Inland Waterways Association (founded in 1946) and seminal figures like Tom Rolt, who in 1946 wrote Narrowboat, “a long, delicious hymn to the waterways [and] the book that, more than any other, made the modern canal possible” according to poet Jo Bell.

In more recent years the canal network has been undergoing a renaissance as it finds a new role as a place for leisure activities, whether that be strolling along a towpath or enjoying a canal boat holiday.

One of the most beautiful and most popular canals in Britain, an exploration of the Llangollen Canal is the perfect introduction to the pleasures of Britain’s waterways.

Starting at Trevor Basin near Llangollen, a there-and-back trip to Ellesmere takes three or four days by boat, and takes in some of the best sights of this World Heritage site; a day’s excursion could take in a trip to Llangollen and back, or crossing the ‘Stream in the sky’.

The Llangollen Canal was constructed between 1793 and 1805 as part of a wider plan for linking the River Severn to the River Mersey, and to service the coalfields, iron fields and limestone workings in the borderlands of England and Wales.

This was where Thomas Telford, then aged 36, cut his teeth as an engineer. The 11-mile stretch of the Llangollen Canal is now a World Heritage site because of the feats of construction that Telford created here, including Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Chirk Tunnel, Chirk Aqueduct and Whitehouse Tunnel.

“In this beautiful landscape, Telford created dramatic structures that were really challenging in engineering terms,” says Kate Lynch, heritage adviser for the Canal & River Trust.

“If you think that the canal took 10 years to build, all by hand (there was no heavy earth-moving equipment or anything like that), and during that time only one worker died — that’s incredible.”

Our exploration starts at Drifters’ boat yard at Trevor Basin where staff member Rob Southan gives us an informative and helpful overview of narrowboat Henley’s fixtures and fittings, and instruction in boat handling and steering, then we are ready to set off towards Ellesmere.

And what a start to our journey: crossing the ‘Stream in the sky’. The stunning structure of the Pontcysyllte (pronounced ‘Pont-cuss-ulth-teh’) Aqueduct was built in 1805 by Thomas Telford to carry the canal at a dizzying 126 feet high across the River Dee. Telford channelled the canal through an iron trough just 5′ 3” deep, made in sections jointed together with flannel dipped in boiling sugar, and supported on 18 elegant stone pillars spanning a total of 1,000 feet.

On one side is a towpath and cast-iron handrail (note the grooves on the first upright made by the ropes of the horse-drawn barges years ago); on the other side, nothing but spectacular views over the treetops and then the river below.

A stroll along the towpath is exciting enough, but crossing the aqueduct by boat for the first time is an exhilarating experience, if a little nerve-wracking — as you approach, the cast-iron trough looks too narrow for the boat and, once crossing, there seems to be nothing between the side of the boat and the valley far below. Those of a nervous disposition might like to remain below deck during the crossing, but do try to take in the views through the windows.

Once across the aqueduct, it’s time to practise one’s boat-handling skills. The narrowboat is 60ft long and, steering from the stern end, the bow looks to be a long way away. The narrowboat’s pivot point is in the middle, which takes a little getting used to, but we bear in mind Rob of Anglo Welsh’s advice that “slow and steady are the key” as we progress through Whitehouse Tunnel and Chirk Tunnel (459 yards long and taking ten minutes to go through) to Chirk Aqueduct. This aqueduct is spectacular in its own right, particularly with the railway viaduct running alongside.

One option is to moor up at Chirk Basin, between the tunnel and aqueduct, and explore Chirk and its castle. We decide instead to moor up for the evening alongside the Poacher’s Inn, a little further on.

The next day dawns bright and early as we cast off and head towards Ellesmere, about five hours’ steady cruising. On the next stretch we encounter our first locks, but there’s no need to be nervous as there are usually other canal boaters on hand to offer advice and lend a hand (literally); they are a friendly lot on the waterways. Soon we are mooring up at Ellesmere, opposite Beech House (built by Telford in 1806), with plenty of time left in the day to explore the handsome town of Ellesmere and its Mere, the largest of the nine glacial meres in north Shropshire.

We return to Trevor Basin, again crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (it’s just as impressive an experience the second time), to continue on to Llangollen. This section of the canal is very narrow, and one section is one-way traffic only, so it’s advisable for one of the party to disembark and walk ahead to check for oncoming traffic.

Some of the bridges run at an angle to the canal, creating a tight dogleg that really tests one’s boat-handling skills.

Mooring up at Llangollen Basin or on the canalside (with lovely views over the town), we can take a horse drawn boat or stroll along the towpath to explore the final stretch of the canal, passing the Eisteddfod site and the Motor Museum (well worth a visit,) to finally arrive at something rather unusual: the birthplace of a canal. For it was here that Telford built the Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio to divert part of the River Dee to form the start of the Llangollen Canal.

The canal was actually saved from closure due to an interesting quirk of history: it also supplied drinking water for Crewe and Nantwich along this arm of the canal. There’s actually quite a strong current because of this pull of water, which you can feel as you navigate the canal, particularly on the stretch between Trevor Basin and Llangollen.

Returning to Trevor Basin, I meet and chatted with Brian Gore and Ruth Pease, experienced boaters but here on their first canal boat holiday, who tell me about their time on the canal.

“Seeing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct for the first time is a little like seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Brian says. “You have seen it in photos and on film so it is familiar, but when you actually see it in the flesh there is that same ‘Wow!’ moment. When you are crossing way above the treetops, the sensation is more akin to being in a light aircraft than a canal boat — scarily exhilarating.

“The scenery on the stretch from Trevor Basin to Llangollen is stunning with long-distance views of the hills, and wildlife is much in evidence — we even saw a family of weasels playing on the canal bank.

“Being courteous and slowing right down when passing moored boats was usually rewarded by a cheery wave of thanks. Some of these boats are people’s homes and needed to be respected as such.”

“Your hire boat quickly starts to feel like home and, on a personal level, we’ll be reluctant to hand it back.”

Britain’s waterways have so much to offer, and thankfully their future looks promising as they continue to navigate the transition from industrial to leisure usage, aided by the Canal & River Trust and companies like Drifters.

“Though there aren’t cargo boats on the canal network and it is mostly used for leisure nowadays, this is still a working, living heritage here – one you can experience,” Canal & River Trust heritage adviser Kate Lynch concludes.

More about The Countryman magazine at www.countrymanmagazine.co.uk or follow Mark on Twitter @countrymaned

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