The most spectacular feature of Britain’s canal network is surely the 1007-feet long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct which takes the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee near Chirk. Narrowboats cross it in a metal trough which has a towpath on one side and a sheer 126 feet drop on the other. No matter how many times you do it, the journey is always an exciting experience, as Gillian Thomas discovered.
Canalling was a favourite holiday pursuit with our three children, and now we are grandparents we were keen to introduce their children to it too. So as a family treat my husband hired a 70-foot boat - the longest you can get - which was big enough to cater for us all: 5 adults, 4 grandchildren (aged from 6 to 10) and a dog, Willow.
A linear route from Trevor
The boat’s base was at Trevor on the Llangollen Canal, a canal particularly suitable for small children. The aqueduct is of course its highlight for crew members of any age but other interesting features include tunnels, lift bridges and a few locks - and it runs through quiet countryside.
A linear route enables you to simply turn round half-way through your holiday. By comparison tackling a canal ‘ring’, of which there are several on the 2000-mile waterways system, means you have the pressure of having to complete it on time. With children it is better to be flexible in order to have time for off-boat distractions like playgrounds and sorties for ice-creams.
Accommodation on board Tanglewood
Having boarded Tanglewood at Trevor we planned to head westwards to Llangollen, then turn round and head back past Trevor towards Ellesmere. To avoid arguments on arrival we had pre-allocated the beds, a mixture of single bunks and a double that had to be made up each night. Partitions enabled us to divide the space into four bedrooms and there were two small bathrooms, one with a shower, plus a kitchen/dining area. Essentials from groceries to games had also involved careful pre-planning.
We decided that heading straight across the aqueduct would be the most exciting way to start the voyage - even though it meant having to turn around immediately to come back again. So after making sure that the children were wearing their life-jackets and sitting down at the front supervised by a parent, my husband carefully steered us towards the narrow strip of water ahead.
Sailing the aqueduct
First he had to make sure that no one was coming in the opposite direction. The trough is not wide enough for boats to pass each other. And as the river and fields below are a long way down, steering across is not a job for the fainthearted. Safely across without a bump he immediately had to turn the boat at a ‘winding hole’ where the canal is just wide enough to do so. It’s a tricky manoeuvre especially with such a long boat but he handled it so skilfully that we all clapped.
After heading back over the aqueduct with equal excitement we had a meandering two-hour voyage with beautiful valley views all the way to Llangollen for our first night aboard. In a couple of places the canal becomes so narrow that boats cannot pass so we needed volunteers to jump off and go ahead to signal round the bends. Useful exercise for young legs!
Supper in Llangollen…
After mooring in the large marina where the canal comes to an end, everyone was keen to set off in search of supper. Dropping sharply down to the River Dee on either side, Llangollen is a lively little town, well used to catering for visitors because of its annual Eisteddfod. Consequently it offers a good choice of places to eat - cafes, pubs and restaurants.
We finally settled on the wood-panelled wine bar in Gales Hotel which provides small and large portions of its main dishes so was ideal for our group. But usually we ate on board.
…and a ruined castle
The children had spotted castle remains on a hillside as we sailed in and wanted to climb up to them next day. The clearly marked path which led there from the marina proved to be a challenge for 6-year olds and seniors but we were rewarded at the top by ruined walls to climb over and hide behind while grown-ups enjoyed the mountainous panorama.
As we chugged along, winding through remote countryside past the occasional farm and village, we got off for spells of walking along the towpath with Willow. The children fed ducks, helped operate the locks, shopped for souvenirs at a moored ‘boat shop’ and played games inside 10-year Calypso was tall and strong enough to steer the boat - always a challenge as even small movements of the rear tiller can soon lead to zig-zags. Less popular, but a parental requirement, was writing up daily logs.
In addition stretches of the Llangollen Canal are particularly shallow so it’s all too easy to get stuck on the bottom requiring a team effort to push the boat free with the barge pole. But that’s all part of the adventure.
… and places to visit
Altogether we negotiated four tunnels, the longest at Chirk stretching 459 yards and immediately followed by a short aqueduct. Nearby, the town’s fine medieval castle is worth a visit. Still lived in, it has a dungeon and beautiful gardens.
Old warehouses at Ellesmere are a reminder of the days when the canals were busy with cargo boats. Today this little town’s shops are very handy for holidaymakers. It also has two ancient meres - lakes - noted for their wildlife. One is right beside the canal with woods and trees for climbing, while a larger one nearer the town centre has a play area, gardens and sculpture trail.
A lesson in water management
All too soon it was time to think about where to turn back. But first there were a couple of lift bridges to operate and 8-year old Herc was keen to be in charge of these, getting off to wind them up and down (with a little adult help) to let the boat through.
Shortly after came several locks including a complicated ‘staircase’ of three at Grindley Brook. Because these are linked, operating them is overseen by a lockkeeper to ensure boaters fill and empty them in the right order to avoid flooding or potentially emptying the whole canal; a useful lesson in water management.
Indeed, I’m sure our grandchildren will remember not only all the fun they had, but also the science they learned while cruising the Llangollen Canal.
A 12-berth narrowboat on the Llangollen Canal costs from £1159 to £2134 booked through Hoseasons 0345 498 6464; www.hoseasons.co.uk