Canals and Rivers Mag - Nov 07

The Big One

Probably the most popular canal on the system, the Llangollen is the ‘everyman' of the waterways. From lock flights to tunnels to huge, spectacular aqueducts and gobsmacking scenery, this one has it all

Photography by Mark Sunderland

Words by Diane Westmoreland

Llangollen Canal Navigation Notes

The Llangollen Canal is fed directly by the River Dee at Llantysilio and there is a noticeable flow of water from the west to east. Navigators whouls allow more time fro journeys to Llagollen – against the flow. The flow can be particularly strong at the trails of locks where bypass weirs discharge and sometimes can make the approach route to the locks from below rather difficult unless the resulting cross-current is taken into consideration.

Length 72ft (21.9m). Beam 6ft 10in (2m). Headroom 7ft (2.1m ) Many boats up to full 7ft beam are able to navigate this canal, but several of the locks are very tight at this beam

Trevor to Llangollen: From Trevor to Llangollen the canal is very shallow, accentuating the flow down-stream. It is not recommended for boats drawing more than 21 inches. It is also, in places very narrow.

Saturday : Here we are on the Llangollen canal; first-timers in a narrow boat. Well almost first-timers. Keith, my husband, had a narrowboat holiday in his twenties, one of a party of six young men. I rather think this holiday will be a little different ! But we (my brother Mark and I) hope that he has remembered the rudiments of driving the boat. Getting used to the jargon is the first thing – is it driving ? When we pick up our boat from Black Prince Holidays at Chirk, it seems it is. Friends who are experienced narrowboaters have recommended the Llangollen canal, for its beautiful scenery and relatively easy navigation. Mark and I are dismayed at first by the choice between a journey with only 4 locks, and the next which seems to have 42 ! We are not sure about this lock business yet – but feel sure that the theory will make more sense when we actually have to open the paddles, swing the gates, mind the cill etc.

Sunday : We sleep in a bit, rising to realise that it's already 9.30am. We are beginning to adjust to the slower pace of travel. We all like walking, and this way we can enjoy the spring flower-filled banks, the growing ducklings, and the occasional kingfisher, together with the comfort of sitting down quite a lot, and making tea when we feel like it.

Despite spotting it on the map, we manage to overshoot the water supply at Frankton and pass through the bridge. Although only a hundred yards away, we decide that reversing a 58footer is not to be advised, especially backwards through a bridge. As there's no winding-hole (see we are learning the jargon!) for ages, we decide to press on, resisting the blandishments of Jack Mytton ( a canalside pub which we'll save for the return trip.) We have been instructed to fill the boat everyday with water, to keep the front of the boat down in the water, and we do this assiduously. We have dreams about waking to find ourselves tipping backwards or coming unmoored ! I read the chapter in the British Waterways handbook on knots and quickly learn how to tie a locking hitch so I can sleep soundly knowing we shall not drift away in the night.

Keith can steer, and despite being a novice, Mark becomes quite the helmsman in no time at all. I , however, struggle to get this right. Somehow I get the idea that if I push the tiller away from me, i.e. to the right, I'll go to the left ; but for some bizarre reason, I think that to go the other way, I push the tiller even further to the right. This results in some comical zigzagging and “drunken” weaving along the straight bits. Mark and Keith are somewhat mystified by my inability to grasp it. I think it's a woman thing myself. “more experience required” is their verdict, but with 2 such competent ‘drivers', it's tempting to take it easy. I am reassured by a family passing the other way, who clearly panic and steer straight at us. Quick thinking on Mark's part (straight into reverse) means that we are stationary when they glide into us, looking stricken. We admit that we are novices too, and it was only a very tiny graze in the end, so no harm done.

After a morning's shop in Ellesmere, where we visit Vermeulen's deli to stock up on yummy things for lunch, we drift into the afternoon towards Whitchurch. I am privileged by the ultramarine flash of the kingfisher across the bow as I sit writing.

We pass under bridge 54 – a narrow entry into a bend. Overhead are a group of walkers who watch as we go under. “Perfect” I tell the crew from the bow. “Perfect”, agrees the man on the bridge. So far, we have found both boaters and towpath people to be friendly and welcoming.

Monday : We press on towards Whitchurch, stopping at the Barn – Mrs G's “Shop in the Garden”. The gardens are indeed a glory, with swathes of lilac, cream, and purple delphiniums, each bed colour themed. It's delightful, well worth the visit and there is Mrs G's little shop with all that you need, including fresh baked bread, homemade preserved and afternoon tea and scones served by Mrs G herself, to us ensconced under an umbrella in a rose and clematis covered pergola. We bump into a TV star – a guide dog puppy-in-training called Zane, who's just been on Blue Peter – and spend a few moments fussing and patting.

On to Whitchurch, where the sign says 10 minutes walk to the town is a trifle optimistic – it takes 20 minutes, but the walk is worth it. The town has some attractive streets, half-timbered buildings, a fine sandstone church and a great place to eat- Elzio's – which we would definitely recommend.

Tuesday : Today we get used to lift bridges – forming a team, one to lift the bridge, one to hop out and guide the boat through. Some ‘thoughtful' people see us coming and leave a bridge up for us, not realising that this means we cannot cross the canal ! Fortunately, the far bank is easy enough for Mark to leap onto the bridge footing and lower it again, thus avoiding having to moor the boat at both sides. We remember this the following day when we pass some familiar faces at Grindley Brook Locks. We've noticed the same people we left with up and down the canal, and it's amazing how familiar people seem. The boat names, the patterns, the ways of greeting etc. Despite the drizzly weather, the pace of life is genteel and the relaxation enjoyable.

Turning round in the winding hole just before Grindley Brook, we discover the lock side shop and café is well equipped at 29 – internet access, cappuccinos, supplies – even the flannel I forgot to bring. We enjoy a morning coffee and watch a few people navigate the staircase lock. On the way back towards Ellesmere, we are plagued by ‘kind' people ahead of us who keep leaving the lift-bridges up – not realising that we then have to leap out on the non-towpath side into all sorts of nettle patches etc. There are reasons for those signs that say' Please leave the lift-bridge closed and we wish those well-meaning people would obey the signs ! It seems there are plenty of novices on the canal, not just us.

As we chug along there is plenty of time to reflect on the countryside around us – a submerged log covered with tiers of toadstools – it looks like a spa for watery insects ! The sadder sights of some neglected boats, rotting by the waterside. Then a narrow section where contractors seem to be building another bridge. It's a bit like being on the motorway, we have passed these earthworks twice now, and the backhoe is still on its mound of earth – no sign of any work being done. Yet our way is unimpeded and today we can smile about it, a measure of how relaxed we are beginning to feel.

There are more beautiful canalside sights – purple creeping vetch, beautiful spires of yellow iris and something that looks like a waterside snapdragon. Finally we see “Ratty”, the increasingly rare water vole – there is a study being undertaken in Whitchurch to check up on their well-being, and Mark is overjoyed to have seen one.

I notice I'm becoming obsessed by tying knots, and have already bought a tea-towel with knots, and now a little handbook called Knots and Splices ! I'm determined our moorings will be good and tight and begin to bore the men with my explanations of how to tie a good knot.

Wednesday : Last night we moored at Ellesmere , where a lovely house overlooks the junction. The arm into the town is sadly dilapidated and there are hopes for its redevelopment. We have morning coffee at Co-co's, and again patronise Vermeulen's (a fantastic patisserie), the Spar and the papershop, and on the way back to the boat discuss how we would develop the ‘marina' area, given a free rein and a bottomless purse. The canal side shops have accurately assessed the boaters' needs – we boaters obviously eat a lot of jam and marmalade ! Today we can see our shadows at last and after a brief burst of rain as we are manoeuvring our way round the Ellesmere basin, we take out waterproofs off and prepare to break out the suncream. Wimbledon on the telly, strawberries and cream in the fridge, the finest Shropshire countryside in view, and Chirk and Pontcysyllte aqueducts to look forward to – what more could one want in a holiday ! I spend quite a lot of time just admiring the view. The towpaths are kept mown, but the fringes are a beautiful profusion of wild flowers – even such everyday things as docks when in flower, look beautiful alongside grasses, vetch, meadowsweet, clover, buttercups, convolvulus, wild roses, brambles, thistles and nettles.

We cross the magnificent Chirk aqueduct with its partner the railway bridge – in late evening sunshine – the view of the Dee Valley is glorious, and the sense of height not in the least alarming. Then, we hit the long tunnel (459 yards) where, almost at top revs, we have to make our slow way against a strong current in the narrow underground channel. Our day is marred by some ignorant boaters at the exit who ask us why we have taken so long. They have clearly failed to grasp that there is a current in this canal and sometimes it's very difficult to make headway in the tunnel at all if you are against the flow. ‘Patience' was the key to narrow boating we were told when handed the keys to our boat. Something, it seems, these middle aged oiks have to learn.

Determined to make it back to Chirk, we are glad to have enjoyed the best of today's weather afloat. Only two locks at Marton, where we queued for an hour at the first. We've done four locks now and are beginning to get the idea.

Thursday : An earlier start this morning to catch the morning sun (at last!) on the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. As the guidebook says, an engineering achievement equal to the Ribblehead viaduct – but little heard of outside boating circles. I wonder why – my theory is the mystery of the pronunciation. No-one talks about it because having seen it written down they feel intimidated – so it becomes that Ponty-thingy aqueduct (apologies to the Welsh who of course know exactly how to say it !) Difficulties of pronunciation aside, the view is stunning and the experience truly unforgettable. The sheer 170 – foot drop from the cockpit to the ground with nothing else in between demands respect, but also appreciation of its grandeur. We plan to return to return to photograph it from the ground. Across the top we can see our small selves and boat in shadow moving across the bridge, dwarfed by the scenery.

Once across, the little marina at Trevor appears – a beautiful sight with the pub and useful supplies all on hand. There's no handy mooring nearby, so we decide to call here on the way back. Passing though 34, we meet some towpath walkers who admire Mark's handling of the tiller through the narrow opening. Not bad for only 4 days' practice. The number and beauty of the bridges is remarkable.

Afternoon and evening in Llangollen. Mooring overnight costs £5 for 24 hours – there's a helpful boatman at the Portakabin. The railway trip to Carrog is worth the time – the restored stations take you back to the fifties and are beautiful and today, sunlit. £8 adult fare – 20 minute turnaround – time for an ice cream and chance to watch the engineer couple up the engine. There are some attractive shops in Llangollen, where they're getting ready for the world famous Eisteddfod next week – good butchers and deli and the tourist info is in the old chapel – a beautiful airy building with a library and art gallery under the same roof.

Friday: Bacon butties for breakfast. Morning coffee in Llangollen, a few photographs and some simple shopping – deli, Spar, butchers, cottage Tea Rooms for a cappuccino – and posting a couple of cards. The town has a festive feel with the Eisteddfod bunting and the posters advertising the arrival of Bryn Terfel and Katherine Jenkins.

Back to the boat for the turn round at Llangollen basin and heading back for another look at the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. It's very important to remember to send someone ahead for the two narrow sections of canal here – I volunteer to walk on ahead to check there is no-one in the channel coming the other way and bump into a very experienced boater who tells me the horror story of some people who thought they could just plough on ahead, and succeeded in grid locking the system for two hours. And we thought we came afloat to get away from traffic queues ! Fortunately there are no such problems today and after a short wait we are underway again.

Back to Pontcysyllte, Mark is photographing the aqueduct – waiting for the light – this is what he does for a living and as he says, landscape photography is 95% boredom and 5% blind panic. He wishes for the sun to come out, some more interesting cloud formations behind the aqueduct and some boats to come across. After over an hour of patient waiting in the increasing heat, the sun burns the cloud off and eventually his wishes are granted and he gets some shots from various viewpoints. We finish our walk from the canal back through Froncysyllte and call in at the Aqueduct Inn , where over a cool pint of Pedigree and a J20 we can look down upon out boat's mooring, and the lift bridge we are about to open. We moor again on a quiet stretch near bridge 27, just two moorings – quite close to both the road and the railway. We cook on board again – lovely fresh veg and fruit we have bought in Llangollen that morning – leeks because we are in Wales of course. And for lunch we share an enormous Welsh oggy – a crimped pastry enclosing beef, potato and onion – very tasty with some salad on the side.

We spend the last evening discussing what we've enjoyed most about the holiday – we agree on the scenery and the wildlife, especially the birds – we've never seen so many herons and feeding the ducks and ducklings and geese and goslings was excellent. Mark thought it not as relaxing as he'd expected – plenty to do all the time, but we agreed that having leaned to crew the boat over the first 3 days, it would be more restful holiday second time around. Keith, however, thought it was a great rest and enjoyed having the tiller and just watching the world go by. For me, it was a blessed release from the demands of the phone and the desk and was great to be outside pretty much all day long. Even the rainier days brought their variety.

Narrow boating brought it's own particular pleasures – freedom, choice, teamwork and shared tasks. The Llangollen canal has some of the best scenery and engineering achievements of the canal network. Our friends were right, a great introduction to the world of the canals.