Canal boat cruising - grey nomad style

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Well I've finally recovered from all the boozing this trip seemed to entail, as well as an onslaught of work that was waiting for me on my return, to find some time to write up the recent narrow-boating challenge. Apologies to my distinguished co-pilots for the wait, and also thank you guys for inviting me on such an enjoyable sojourn pootling along the canals of England and Wales, travelling through magnificent Welsh countryside to see some true marvels of Industrial Revolution-era civil engineering.

I must admit I was a little anxious at the thought of a week in confined spaces with my retired parents and some equally retired friends of the family, Pam and Graeme (an avid long-term reader and supporter of this blog by the way). Narrow-boating probably surpasses caravanning in the UK as the premier pursuit the 'grey nomads' - independent travelling retirees roaming for long periods of time in very compact mobile accommodations - so I figured it was an even money bet whether I'd thoroughly enjoy my week in confinement, or go mad and jump ship part way through. Call me a hippy but I went the distance and it was definitely a case of the former, not the mad latter!

The basic plan was to meet at a little place called Wrenbury Mill (just south of Chester) and take a 65 foot/22 metre long x 7 foot/2 metre wide canal boat up the Llangollen (approximate pronunciation: "Clanclocklen") arm of the Shropshire Union Canal. The goal was approximately sixty kilometres yonder, to the source of the canal at a beautiful little town in Wales that gives the arm its name. This would be achieved in three to four days, after which we'd u-turn and head back down the canal to return the boat from whence it came - all within a seven day hire window.

Sixty kilometres doesn't sound like much, even if the tub you're riding on can only manage six kilometres an hour. But soon after getting underway the first of the obstacles started getting in the way. Locks are the means canal engineers dealt with larger undulations in the path of the water flow when there was no alternative (flat) course to steer it through instead. We'd hit three in the few hours sailing on that first day, with more the day after - including a 'staircase' of three locks joined together that elevated the boat about 15 metres up a particularly steep hill. Locks take a while to get through, especially if you're queued behind other boats, which brings the miles per hour way down. Pam is engrossed in steering us up and through this staircase behemoth in the photo above (far right).

The locks eventually gave way after the first day and a half, to flatter land at the western edge of England that is bordered by the hills of Wales beyond. It's striking how green and productive the land is in this region when you see hundreds of head of cattle or sheep grazing contentedly in a single field here, or dozens of hay bales waiting patiently for collection in the field over there. It may rain a lot in the UK but that is one of the main reasons why the country has been so successful in the past - it can feed itself any year.

Even though the canal had leveled out there was plenty of traffic and various forms of canal spanning bridges to keep as alert and occupied at the helm. Late summer/early autumn is obviously prime cruising time for the grey nomads, so the Shroppie, because of its fine scenery and relative lack of locks (only nine in total on the stretch to Llangollen) is a very busy waterway at this time of year. So when ordered to take the wheel at various times, Graeme, Pam and I had a hard time steering our tub around moored and oncoming traffic, as well as negotiating scores of extremely narrow bridges we kept encountering the further we went upstream. I for one was surprised we hadn't shortened the boat a couple of feet after a number of teeth-rattlingly solid hits the hull withstood on the base of various stone bridges. But despite a disconcerting wreck or two passed along the way it seems narrow-boats are made for nudge parking/driving and it all ends up a bit of a hoot once the bone-jarring subsides!

Speaking of hoots, before long the familiar rolling fields gave way to densely wooded hills and we were approaching the border with Wales. On a foraging pit-stop (well, a search of a supermarket at least) some strange locals and wildlife made an appearance, when a couple of guys appeared who were out walking their birds of prey. Absolutely magnificent creatures they were - one an African Eagle owl (no hooting unfortunately) and the other a beautiful Saker falcon. Anyway, they immediately ranked as some of the more fascinating folks we met along this particular waterway.

This is when the first of the aqueducts came into view as well - big news because these massive yet graceful structures are the main attraction along the Shroppie. You really have to see to believe these, but along the upper reaches of this canal system a number of expansive arched viaducts (for trains) and aqueducts (carrying a canal-full of water) combine with seriously long tunnels (one is almost 500 metres in length) to keep both forms of transportation running smoothly through this mountainous landscape.

Legendary civil engineer Thomas Telford was responsible for both the vision and execution of these grand constuctions, and when you realise it was his first major project it drives home what a genius he was. The largest aqueduct - Pontcysyllte - was built over a 10 year period from 1795 and comprises of no less than 18 stone arches towering at its highest approximately 50 metres above the River Dee in the valley floor below. Also consider that it is around 350 metres long and holds both the canal water and the potential for maybe a dozen 40 tonne narrow boats at any one time, it's would have been the type of construction that hadn't been seen since Roman times when it was built. Telford was a hero of the time, but the thousands of Irish 'Navvies' (navigational engineers) who constructed the aqueducts and hand dug the entire length of the canal also deserve a special mention too I reckon. Beats starving in a potato famine any day.

Amazing. Even so we were just glad the sun had come out by then so we could enjoy the expansive vistas laid out before us as we stood atop this mighty structure. If you've been asking what the Industrial Revolution has done for you lately, this is certainly a worthy answer.

Just beyond Pontcysyllte (pronounced something like "Vroncasalthte" by the way... what the?) and as we neared Llangollen that third day, the canal became much narrower and shallower, making for some interesting navigational hazards. For long stretches at a time there was only room for one boat travelling in either direction, and few places to park in order to let oncoming boats through. This meant that the troops had to walk well ahead and advise boats about to enter one of these narrow passages to wait, or they'd soon have to attempt the impossible in these narrow-boats - reversing one in a straight line for long distance to get out of the way.

Fortunately traffic was light up here, meaning that we were the only boat travelling for long periods of time through some lovely wooded areas in the hills around Llangollen. Like the rest of this waterway at this time of year, beyond the odd bunny or two there wasn't any of the wildlife mum was hoping to see, however the landscape made up for it in them there hills and the run into this pretty town was very peaceful indeed.

The source of the Llangollen arm of the Shropshire Union Canal is the Horseshoe Falls on the River Dee, situated a coupe of miles further west of Llangollen. On the way up to see it we saw how the canals used to work, before the boats were fitted with engines, as a horse pulled a large boat in front of us without great effort and at well faster than our walking speed. Gives old meaning to the term 'horsepower' I suppose. Up here it is very tranquil and once again you get a sense of the lushness of the forest surrounds and the sheer volumes of water that flow through the area. Coming from a dry and generally barren Australia, it could well be argued that this is the real lucky country.

It was fitting to see the end (start) of the line before retracing our steps and heading back downstream. Each night it was a pub dinner with local ales on tap, before hitting the hay early which would ensure an early rise the next day. Pam, Grady and I even snuck a round of golf in on the way back, just before leaving Wales, at Chirk (pron. Chirk) which was great. All performed admirably around the Chirk GC short course and I learned that it is wiser to leave golf balls in the nettle patch than attempt to find them whilst only wearing a pair of shorts. There's a potential quote in there somewhere I guess...

Travelling with these grey nomads was hilarious and a real pleasure because I hadn't seen Dad for 18 months or Mum, Pam or Graeme for more than 2 years. It was great to see you again guys. And because of the canal's remoteness, the people and sights seen along the canal are often quintessentially old-world British - something you don't see much in modern cities like London or Edinburgh today and which added to the experience too.

I was happy to get off the boat in the end, but I'd do it again without hesitation. So all I can say guys is thanks for having me along and bring on the next canal-boating action - I'll be there with bells on!

Additional photos compliments of Mum and Graeme respectively - when will I learn eh?


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Sheila on

How wonderful this looks - you have some very amazing pictures here. Thanks for sharing them.

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