Afloat Mag - Sept 07

Cruising the Fast Lane
by Carole Obre

Narrow-boating at 4 mph, it’s not for speed demons, but beware, once you’ve tried it, there’s a good chance an addiction could develop.

We hired a 52ft boat from Black Prince Company, Stoke on Trent, England in late summer for four weeks and headed off to explore the Trent and Mersey, Shropshire
Union, Llangollen and Staffs and Worts Canals. Our hire started somewhat nervously. Day one was raining and blowing and the nose of a narrow-boat does not go where you want it to in the wind … oh, for a bow-thruster.

We learned quickly not to mention the ‘thruster’ word as it bought terrible reactions from the purists. One little old lady nearly had an apoplectic fi t when I made the suggestion and she went on to quietly explain to me that narrow-boating was considered a “contact sport” and assistance in the form of a thruster goes against all that is traditional. Two narrow bridges and bends after the hire base, we came to the Harecastle Tunnel, a mile and a half in darkness with limited headroom along an 8-foot wide trough that allows four boats in before the door is shut loudly after you. What an experience!

The Trent and Mersey canal to Chester highlighted the English sense of humour, particularly the early engineers. The many bridges are extremely narrow with bare clearance and naturally, they are all positioned on a bend with limited vision of oncoming traffic. You could go hours without seeing another vessel until you came to one of these blind spots and then it was a case of one of you reversing. We met some Aussies who had renamed the sport ‘Dodgem Boats’ … just as well they
are all steel.

Heartbreak Hill is the affectionate name for 15 locks one after the other but the prize at the end was the wonderful pub, the Romping Donkey. Trying to get to the pubs on their quiz nights became a challenge, not sure why as we were totally hopeless at the ones we attended, make sure you hone up on your British TV programs and music.

We left the Trent and Mersey Canal and joined the Shroppie to continue to Chester where we had a great few days tied up alongside the Frog and Nightingale pub. The Albion pub is a must, with its war memorabilia and distinct sign “No chips, No children”.

We left the Shroppie Canal to head to Wales on the Llangollen Canal, a stunningly beautiful canal and countryside. It was at the Dusty Miller pub in Wrenbury that
an Irishman told us about Steve Irwin’s sad death. It was also in Wrenbury that we helped a local look for his missing black and white cow, not easy to isolate since all the cows in the Welsh hills are black and white!

The town of Ellesmere on the Llangollen was crowded with narrow boats for a Festival so it was three abreast across the canal and cramped locals. We crossed the very impressive Chirk Aqueduct and cruised the Chirk Tunnel – a pussy after the Harecastle.

We continued to our destination, the town of Llangollen. This section of the canal has a few stretches of one way passage only and I realised why people were wearing walkie talkies. By the time I walked the 500 metres to see if anything was coming and got back to advise the skipper, it was an exercise in futility.
Not far from the town of Trevor, we crossed the amazing Pontcyslyllte Aqueduct (only the Welsh can pronounce it). This aqueduct consists of a 7-foot wide trough that is 120ft above the River Dee, a sheer drop on one side and a path and fence on the other, a marvel of Telford’s engineering. We made the crossing early morning so the light was stunning but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Llangollen is a delightful picturesque town, notwithstanding the names of the shops sounding like a bad scrabble hand. We tried to time our trip back from Llangollen to rejoin the Shroppie to make nightfall at all the pubs we missed on the way up. The Poachers Pocket and Jack Mytton’s were standouts.

Back on the Shroppie, we continued the rounds of locks with the Audlem fl ight of 15 only manageable after a few pints at the wonderful Shroppie Fly pub. We continued on around the Four Counties via the Staffs and Worts Canal and then back onto the Trent and Mersey. All too soon we were at Stone and heading for the base at Stoke on Trent, now old hands at aqueducts, viaducts, tunnels, narrows, swing and electric bridges and all types of locks, deep, single, double, staircase.

Besides the charts provided by the company, we purchased some Pearson Canal Companion books on the specific canals we cruised. While these books were of some help, they were written by a poet rather than a practitioner. Some of the more memorable phrases were “… a huddle of houses, gathered reassuringly together like something out of Van Gogh’s early potato fi eld painting” and “… the chemical works with its phalanx of flaring chimneys appear to move about you, teasing you into geographic insecurity”. All we wantd to know was where the nearest laundromat (or pub!) was situated.

For the most part, the towpaths are in good condition for both walking and cycling and in one case, a wheelchair that we couldn’t keep up with.

The boat itself was very comfortable with a well-designed galley and bathroom and very comfortable fixed double bed. Once you got used to the notion that there is no passing in the corridor, there seemed plenty of room.

Many of the narrowboat owners we met have sold their houses and livepermanently on the boat with their dogs, and in most cases, their spouse. The English love their dogs and avoiding doggie doos on the towpath coming back from having a pint at the local was probably the most challenging task.

It’s hard to single out a highlight. Visually the Welsh countryside, the Llangollen canal and Pontcyslyllte Aqueduct were the standouts, but socially, I loved the locks. It was great fun winding up the paddles while chewing the fat with people from all over the world. The pubs were great fun and there always seemed to be a Yorkie or a Scot to have a yarn with.

Anyway, it’s off to plot another canal trip to feed my addiction.