25 February 2012

Ellesmere to Llangollen on a Canal Boat - Going slowly!

Everybody I have ever met, who has done one or more canal boat trips, simply raves about the slow pace of life to be enjoyed on a narrow boat in the canals of Britain. Did I believe them? Not entirely! This is something that has to be experienced - it is just incredible how one slips into the slow pace of travel and it has to be one of the most relaxing ways for a "slow down and smell the cows" type of holiday. Although the experience was not totally stress-free - getting a narrow boat through a narrow bend with another one approaching from the other side, is STRESS!! Especially when the man steering seems to be intent on a head-on collision! Or waiting to go through a very dark tunnel only wide enough for one boat.... or going over the high aqueduct with no room for error........or getting the locks working quickly enough so that the boat does not get damaged.......who said there was no STRESS???? It's one of those myths that circulate the world!!

We arrived in Ellesmere the night before we could collect our narrow boat and stayed in the Red Lion. It's an ancient hotel which was not very clean but the pub restaurant was very busy with a funeral tea and later with many patrons for supper. They also have an over 60's Club so appear to be well patronised by the locals. The rooms are obviously not their main source of income. An interesting experience and a good people watching pub! Ellesmere is a tiny, friendly village with a lovely walk along the lake where you can watch the swans swimming along so gracefully.

We checked in at the Marina but had an awfully long wait before the boats were ready and then another long wait for the chap to come and give us our briefing and "sample" ride. It looked so easy when he did it.........!! Narrow Boats are so-called as they are extremely narrow - we had to ditch one suitcase and lock it in the boot of the rental car as there is truly no space for bulky luggage on board. That would not be an issue if you live locally but, as we had to have summer and winter clothes for our holiday, all the way from South Africa, it was a problem. Travelling light has never made it into my vocabulary, unfortunately, and I am the very worst when it comes to packing.  

With the very late start, we had to carry on until 19.00 when it was likely that we would arrive at an overnight spot with a pub for our evening meal. James managed the very scary start on the canal with many boats heading our way which had to be dodged. Yes, you have guessed - we are total novices at this art of narrow-boating! Thankfully we reached the Jack Mytton Inn at Hindford without mishap and enjoyed a lovely lasagne with a mountain of chips. Who serves chips with lasagne?
Safely moored for the night, I was very apprehensive about the narrow confines of the boat, being extremely claustrophobic. However, I need not have worried - it's cute and cosy and we both slept very well! 

The next morning dawned and after our cereal and tea, we set off to face the first of the only two locks on this canal. STRESS again!! Would I get it right? Luckily for me, everybody on the canal was so very helpful at all times and the New Zealanders who had followed us the previous afternoon, assisted me with the lock and we got past without mishap.

The countryside is beautiful, open fields with lovely views and just the sheep and cows for company. Very peaceful but could I relax?? NO! Chirk Tunnel was upon us and at 420 m long it's dark and scary and you have to pray that no other boat enters from the other side when you are just into the tunnel yourself. It seems easier from the other direction so let's hope for the best on the return journey. 

The aqueducts were more fun as I walked them.The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (please don't ask how on earth one is supposed to pronounce that!) is 126 feet above the River Dee and was built between 1795 and 1805 by Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834) This amazing feat of engineering came out of the Industrial Revolution era and remains as a monument of a bygone era. The aqueduct is 1000 feet long and is now a World Heritage site. It stands proud on it's many pillars.

This aqueduct on the canal is busy and carries many boats across daily, some just on short day trips to view this masterpiece! It is a humbling experience - this magnificent example of fine engineering. The Llangollen Canal is a branch of the Shropshire Union Canal and is rated as one of the most scenic and spectacular of the canals in Britain and we were starting to count ourselves extremely lucky to be enjoying this experience. 

We moored on the tow path outside of Trevor and enjoyed a leisurely lunch before walking back into the village to check it out. They have a number of moorings and it's quite a busy spot on the canal. We set off again and yet more STRESS! The channels are so narrow in parts that only one boat can go at a time! So I walked along the tow path to check that nothing was coming before waving James on! He thought this was all rather fun but I must say I was very relieved to reach Llangollen and tie up in the Marina there! One has to pay to moor in the Marina and the chappie at the kiosk on the canal was very helpful. He advised us not to tie up  at that point as it was close to the highway and would be noisy. He recommended we enter the marina where it would be quiet and also close to town with water connections. So off we set, having paid for 2 days moorings. James filled up our water tanks so I could have a lovely LONG shower as we knew that more water was on hand. We had been saving water along the way with very skimpy showers as we did not know how long the water would last. Bliss!!  

We wandered into town and Caesars Restaurant caught our eye so we enjoyed a late supper overlooking the River Dee.
Thankfully, we both enjoyed a good nights rest and I was more relaxed being in an open marina with no dark tunnels, narrow channels or bends!

Llangollen is the Welsh Festival town with the Musical Eisteddfod, Food Festival and Christmas Festival all contributing to many visitors flocking to this very pretty and welcoming town.
The last steam train to enter Llangollen Station was in 1968 and then the railway tracks were left abandoned until a group of enthusiasts decided to revive the line for steam enthusiasts and this opened again in 1975. Running between the River Dee and the Berwyn mountains, this is a wonderfully picturesque trip invoking thoughts of a bygone era. The trip ends at Carrog Station and you can either return on the train or walk back to Llangollen.  

The Steam Train to Carrog is lovely, very old carriages, nearly as old staff and a fun ride. We didn't find Horseshoe Falls but walked back along the town path on the way back and saw the horse-drawn canal boats filled with tourists! In the olden days the boats would have been laden with goods. We were blessed with a lovely hot day so it seemed as if the entire population of Llangollen was out and sunning themselves in the River Dee. It looked like a day at the seaside only it was a day at Deeside! Sorry - that was far too corny.

After a day's enjoyment, we popped in for a good pub meal at the spot of the old mill. Tables are large and were at a premium given the hot day so we were joined by some hikers who had just completed the 24 hour 3 Highest Peaks Challenge - Scotland (in the snow) England and Wales. Climbing even in the dark and in such a short space of time? Crazy stuff but they were all still smiling. When a table opened up to take them all, they left us and we were joined by a lively group of 3 ladies who had just completed their 6 hour walk and were now sitting down to enjoy their drinks and some refreshments before heading off home again. They were most jolly and apparently join up once a month for a lengthy hike and drinks....afterwards! All in all, a great stay in Llangollen.

We woke to the sounds of boats getting ready to leave so we decided to fill up with water and set off as well so that we could follow them all through the narrow channels and not have to wait for oncoming traffic. I think these were all experienced narrow boaters who knew something we didn't! So at 07.30 hrs we set off - a miracle for me! I set off along the tow path and walked all the way to Trevor where James was supposed to moor up and wait for me. But he somehow missed the turning (shades of Spain??) and went merrily on past Trevor! So I had to cross the canal at Trevor and waltz over the aqueduct before I could get back onboard! Who knows if he did that on purpose? But I did enjoy the walk and the stop along the tow path in the shade with an ice cold beer more than made up for my extra mileage!

Somehow or other I was suddenly much more relaxed on the return journey and no longer stressing about anything! Perhaps it was just the unknown at first? Now the narrow bends and dark tunnels didn't phase me at all - piece of cake, I said. Just look at those novices getting stuck in the mud! The scenery is so peaceful with sheep and cows grazing, lovely houses alongside the canal, farmers fields in green and gold, rabbits frolicking in the distance and the tow path to moor along whenever the mood takes one. The farmers along the canal have an ingenious method of keeping their cows and sheep from falling into the canal yet giving them an unlimited supply of water!

Our next mooring was at Quirk we planned to meet up with family for Sunday lunch. The name seems to be either English corruption of  "church" but the Welsh meaning is "the moor" so take your pick! Quirk is a border town between England and Wales. We decided to explore the surrounding area and chanced upon a lovely walk through fields which ended up in Olivers Wood. This 3.2 acre of woodland was planted by the Woodland Trust, members of the community and pupils of Weston Rhyn Primary School in 1994. Named after a former pupil whose family had sold the land to the Woodland Trust, this woodland includes many local trees such as oak, ash, cherry, willow, alder and maple. It was a gorgeous spot which we came upon only by going off the beaten track.

 On the way back we spent awhile chatting to an elderly farmer who was busy fixing his stile. At 72 years old with a tractor of 40 years old, both are still going strong! A lovely gent who knew Africa and reminisced about his time there.When I politely asked if he would mind posing for a photo, he was horrified "Ooch, I dinna have me teeth in" he said - this after chatting merrily for over 45 minutes whilst keeping us enthralled with his stories! We had not even noticed he had no teeth until he mentioned the fact! But he graciously agreed to a photo - with his mouth closed! So he looks rather unfriendly in the photo but he was anything but! A wonderful interlude in Quirk.  His parting words to us were "There's no sunset like an African sunset" We tend to agree with that statement!

The next day we met the family and enjoyed a roast lunch at the "Bridge Inn"  Lovely to see them all!

The leisurely pace had by now crept into our bones and life on the canal was proving to be everything everybody always said it would be. NO STRESS!!!

So we meandered back to moor again at the Jack Mytton pub but first had to get through the 2 locks. Luckily for me, again, a British Waterways guy was around and happy to assist me. Again such a friendly chap who had also visited Cape Town while on a yacht race and loved it there. He now work on the canals and simply loves his job! Who wouldn't?

We made a slow start to our last day and stopped on the tow path for our last lunch - it was very hot but there is always a shady spot to bring out the camping chairs, the beers and the lunch. After lunch we decided to walk into Ellesmere thinking we were not very far away!! We stopped to chat to a gent mowing his lawn at his beautiful house right on the canal. I offered to but it from him (with Monopoly money!) but he was adamant it was not for sale! With his wife still working during the week in London, he handled the household chores and what a pleasure in such a fantastic spot. He told us we still had another 40 minutes to walk. Oh my, in the heat?  James wanted to see where we had to moor the boat later so we pushed on.

Once in town we headed for an early supper which ended up being an "All Day Breakfast" which we thoroughly enjoyed as we had not had eggs the entire week. The cafe was full of cat pictures and the owner is obviously very much a cat lover. A very busy and popular little cafe, well patronised by the locals.

Back to the boat - I cheated and stopped at "my" canal house (the Monopoly one) then waited for James to get the boat and pick me up. George came to take us back into the Marina - he drove so fast after the slow pace we had been going at, that my eyes nearly popped out of my head. He moored us 3 deep and there it was - our last night on our faithful narrow boat!

We still had some time to explore so took off along another branch of the canal which was so beautiful we just wanted to hire another boat and set off again! With a lake next to the canal it's the most perfect spot to moor up - the purple haze of flowers glinting in the sun on the far bank, the water lapping gently on the shore - oh my - it's a poets dream!

There were many boats moored and I just had to stop at one, covered in tons of badges. The owners were relaxing on their chairs but came to chat to us when they saw us looking at their badges. Their boat is 11 years old, they love the life and have explored all the canals in Britain! Their favourite is the Oxford Canal. Retirement Bliss!! Except maybe in winter?

The fisherman were also out and we came across one very excited chap who had just caught a bass! He wanted his picture taken so that his mates would believe him that he had actually caught this very big, prime specimen! As we has no pen or paper to take down his e-mail address, he dashed off to the next boat to find somebody with a cell phone. He was over the moon as this was only his 4th catch in as many years! All fish must be returned to the lake so he had it in a net in the water and was very mindful of it's well-being.

Back on our boat, we got "shouted" at by the ducks who wanted to be fed but there luck was out as no feeding is allowed in the Marina. They sat on the roof of the boat and clacked away at us for ages before eventually going off in a huff! We had enjoyed feeding the ducks along the canal, their antics were so special as they dashed to get the crumbs we threw overboard.

Our last night was very sad and even more smelly as the nearby farmers had thrown slurry on their fields! So we ended up being packed and ready to roll by 8.30!

A truly wonderful trip on this magnificent canal Ellesmere to Llangollen and back.

© Judelle Drake


No comments: