Canal boat: An alternative way to see England and Wales

It's day one of our weekend canal boating experience and so far if we're not bumping off both banks we're zig-zagging along the canals like a drunk stumbling between bars. "Courses various," as my friend Ron describes it. Experienced boaters call it the Snake.

Of the three of us it's Ron who gets the hang of it first. He spent years working on HM Customs and Excise boats around the British Isles and instinctively understands the anti-intuitive nature of the tiller (push right to go left, left to go right). He also coils a mean and terribly neat rope.

The canal system in Britain  – the first country in the world to build a national canal network – was created as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution's manufacturing boom. Suddenly new goods and raw materials needed to be moved, and moved fast. Unfortunately, the roads were mostly medieval mud traps and not up to the job.

Hence the canals, which grew with astonishing speed throughout England and Wales – at first just simple cuttings through the countryside but soon improved with tunnels, embankments and aqueducts.

I'm reading about this on the pointy bit at the front of a canal boat gliding gently along the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. I have a cup of tea to hand, feet up, two good friends at the tiller and a sense of real relaxation and contentment. Through the trees by the towpath there are glimpses of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the reason we're here in the beautiful border country straddling England and north Wales.

I first came across Traphont Ddŵr Pontcysyllte (for all you Welsh speakers out there) years ago on a walking holiday in the pretty town of Llangollen. Seen from afar the aqueduct was elegance itself, its 18 elongated arches soaring ethereally across the Dee Valley.

Designed and built by civil engineer Thomas Telford and finished in 1805, it is still the oldest and longest navigable aqueduct in Britain and the highest of its kind in the world. It's made up of a single-lane, cast-iron trough 1.6 metres deep and 307 metres long. There's a pedestrian pathway on one side but surely, I thought at the time, a narrowboat is the only way to go.

***

We pick up our boat at Chirk marina, a 40-minute drive outside the old Roman city of Chester, on a wet and blustery Friday afternoon. The drive takes us from England into Wales – a distinction evident in the bilingual road signs. Really, the Welsh need to buy some vowels. Get an O or two from the Italians, maybe?

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There, Dave from the marina gives us a short but extensive overview of the boat, calmly pointing out various dos and don'ts with a relaxed charm that makes me think "yeah, we can do this". Because, let's be honest, I took one look at Mary (our Black Prince company craft for the weekend) and thought "this is a 15-tonne, 19-metre disaster waiting to happen".

Not that it's not a nice craft; there are two double beds, a small kitchen and a dining area that converts into another double bed if needed. There's central heating, Wi-Fi and pretty much all the mod cons you could want.

Later, when I try to remember what Dave said, all I can dredge up is that we have to fill up on water regularly and do something daily with the stern flange greaser. Which sounds like a joke but isn't.

As he deftly manoeuvres the boat out of the marina for us Dave has one last piece of boating wisdom to impart: "Remember that you're already in the place you want to be – on holiday. Take it easy; there's no rush."

And with that he steps off into the trees on the starboard side (that's the right to you landlubbers) and is gone. We are alone; three men in a boat stocked with bread, bacon, eggs and a fridge-load of beer. It's a far cry from boatloads of Staffordshire pottery, that's for sure.

***

We discover quickly that there really isn't much to driving a canal boat as long as you can resist the urge to over-compensate on the tiller and bash off the sides like a ball on a pool table. There is a throttle, of course, but even at top speed you're only ever going to be doing 3-4 miles an hour.

We chug slowly along through bosky green tunnels of overhanging trees that smell weirdly of wet dog, past sections where the land flattens out to reveal striated fields of wheat, petite cottages, country pubs and curiously incurious cattle.

We pass over the Chirk Aqueduct, a 220-metre long single-lane canal above the sheep-dotted Ceiriog Valley between England and Wales. This was also built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1801.

Not too much further on we come across our first wendell. Now, remember what I said about not remembering what Dave said? So far our hive mind has done a good job on most things (with help from the paperwork in the boat) but with the wendell we are flummoxed.

We know it's a place on the canal wide enough to turn a barge around but we don't know why it's so called – unless it's named after the trolls waiting in the shadows of the charming hump-backed brick bridges under which we slip.

We Google it. Nothing. Wendle? Still nothing. Later research reveals that Dave said "winding holes'' but, as Londoners all, we just couldn't understand his accent. No matter. To us they will always be wendells.

That night, in a move that quickly becomes habit, we moor up (most canal-side spots outside of official marinas are free) by a pub for dinner and a beer or three.

The next two days are bright and warm, with startlingly clear blue skies and fewer and fewer bumps off the sides. We chug back past Chirk marina on the way to Llangollen, navigate another tunnel and pop out the other side in Offa's Dyke country.

Crossing Thomas Telford's masterpiece is, as expected, a highlight. There's something quite marvellously bizarre about piloting a canal boat into a narrow channel that has a footpath on one side and a 38-metre drop straight down to the tumbling River Dee on the other. It's like flying, but very slowly.

The section after the aqueduct is awkward and involves several tight turns, blind spots and one-way sections where you have to give way to boats coming the other way. It's not too bad but we imagine it would be a nightmare at the height of summer.

On Monday morning we reluctantly give the boat back. It's a wrench because we've become very fond of Mary. Ron and Barry are even looking through The Tillergraph (''the free magazine for Britain's waterways'') to get an idea of how much one would cost. They've even picked out the curtains. It's got to be love.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/wales

visitwales.com

waterways.org.uk

STAY

Drifters Waterway Holidays is a group of 10 hire boat companies that includes Black Prince Holidays.  No previous boating experience is necessary but a minimum of two people is required.  Hire prices for 2017 start at £395 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, or £625 for a week. Most first-timers start with a short break but seven, 10, 14 and 21-night hires are available. See black-prince.com or drifters.co.uk

Keith Austin flew to London at his own expense and was a guest of Visit Britain, Drifters Waterway Holidays and Black Prince Narrowboat Holidays.

MORE CANALS ON STREAM

With the advent of a decent road network in the 20th century the canal system eventually fell into disrepair. By the mid-1960s there was little traffic left and many canals were left to silt up and became dumping grounds for rubbish (many a supermarket trolley has ended up in a canal). In the 1970s, though, a slow resurgence began and the canal leisure industry – helped by enthusiastic volunteers - managed to stave off closure of the network. 

Today, there are more than 30,000 canal boats on Britain's inland waterways, more than at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and planned projects now include building new canals to expand the 3500 kilometres of navigable canals and rivers. In the last 15 years more than 300 kilometres of waterways have re-opened and more than £1 billion has been invested. According to Drifters Waterway Holidays, 379,000 people went canal boating in Britain in 2015 – up from 261,000 in 2005.

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