Forty years ago, Jim and Karen did their first OE as a couple of 20 year olds. With their trusty Kombi van they spent close to three years on the other side of the world. For over 20 years they planned to head back for another OE, and following kids, mortgages and careers (and 40 years), they’re back on the road (or rather the water – as they’re currently canal boating in the UK). It’s 40 years on … take two! In this instalment, they get off the rivers and into the waterways of Wales.
From river to waterway
Well what a week or so it’s been here on the waterways of the UK.
We got back to Worcester after the flower show with our good friends Cathy and Maurice in tow. Once back on board and having got ourselves sorted we continued blasting up the Severn river basically heading north till we turned off at Wolverhampton into the Staffs and Worcs canal.
The rivers still offer great stops in picturesque towns and villages but the canals are definitely where it is all at and the reason you are on a canal boat.
We were heading to the Llangollen canal and a rendezvous with the famous Pontycysyllte aqueduct. Got to say it felt great to get off the rivers and back into canal travel again. The rivers still offer great stops in picturesque towns and villages but the canals are definitely where it is all at and the reason you are on a canal boat.
The trip up the Staffs and Worcs was really refreshing. The canal offers brilliant scenery and was a delight to boat with some very close banks alongside massive rock faces.
Along the way we had a few more locks to traverse but now it all seemed a bit easier as we had a couple of extra helpers on board. The extra pair of hands really quickened up the whole process as it enabled one person to walk the towpath and prepare up to two locks in front of us when they were reasonably close together.
The Llangollen canal
Eventually we had to turn off the Staffs and Worcs and into the Llangollen canal. This turnoff involves a flight of five locks and are manned by the local canal and river trust. Luckily we arrived there at five minutes to five, so we were the last boat through for the night before the lock system was shut down for the day. Because it was a one-way system, the two boats at the top just had to wait for us, and they were not happy when the authorities just closed the system for the night and walked off, meaning they were stuck there till the next day like it or not.
It took us a good couple of days to travel the Llangollen canal to get to the actual town of Llangollen, but it has been one of the best yet.
Because this canal is so good it was noticeable there is a lot more activity on the canal, and also a lot more moored boats along its length so the going was a bit slower. However, overall views from this section definitely made up for the slower progress. Along the way we also encountered some new lifting bridges crossing the canal. These bridges typically provided crossing points for pedestrians as well as livestock. These were hydraulically operated lift bridges but to operate they still required my lock winders to wind them up and put them back down after we had boated through.
By far the best and biggest lift bridge occurred in a small village and carried the local road traffic across the canal. This one however was electrically operated by a special control panel so for once the girls were fighting to open this one. First off, they had to put the barriers across the road on both sides. As soon as you moved them the warning lights started operating and then they had to open the bridge so I could boat through. All very exciting at 8.30am in the morning, but not so much for the 11 locals driving to work at that time and all had to wait for us to boat through.
The Llangollen canal is a dead end canal fed from the River Dee in the Welsh valleys. As we got further along the canal we started experiencing two interesting and unusual things. The canal was continually climbing as it wound it’s way into the Welsh countryside and this rise in elevation was definitely noticeable. With the rise in elevation and because it had so few locks on it, there was a real current heading downstream to boat against, especially noticeable when you got to the tight pinch points.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The main reason we were on this particular canal, is so we could see and cross the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. This was a must do as far as I was concerned.
Opened in 1805 it was the tallest navigable aqueduct in the world at just over 1000ft long and towering some 126ft above the river valley below that it crosses. The aqueduct is basically a cast iron trough set atop the towering arches. When you cross it, one side is completely open to the view and the drop below; the other side has a towpath with a side rail so the pedestrians/horses don’t fall off either when they walk across. It is an interesting feeling boating across an iron trough with a side wall just 8” high that’s been sitting in water for two centuries while keeping you 126ft up in the air.
It’s an amazing piece of engineering and my heart was in my mouth all the way across. The worst/best part is that we have to cross it again when we go back.
Once across the aqueduct we spent a couple of hours wandering around the villages on either side of the structure. As you can imagine this has become a must-do canal crossing for people in this part of the world as well as quite a tourist attraction. There have tour boats operating at the villages taking people over and back just so they can experience the aqueduct. For others they are just as happy to walk across the aqueduct following the towpath. Either way the views are amazing even with the heart hammering away in your chest.
From Poncysyllte it was another hour to the end of the line at Llangollen, a truely delightful Welsh village and another major tourist destination. Along the way the canal continues to rise, and seems to get narrower and the turns tighter the further you go. In fact in two sections you actually have to have a walker going in front to ensure there is not a boat coming downstream as there is no way to pass. On some corners the front and back of the boat are touching the canal sides as you inch your way around a corner. All along the way I kept thinking I still have to boat back down this thing and do all this again when we head back to the real world!
In Llangollen you got a real feeling you had stepped back in time.
Llangollen as I said was a real delight to visit. It was great to have hills and valleys around us again, but I have to say you got a real feeling you had stepped back in time. The history of the area (as with all the UK) was stunning. Some of the local attractions aside from the canal are a functioning steam engine ride up the valley, and horse-drawn barges cart people to the very end of the canal, all adding to the feeling we had stepped through time.
This feeling did disappear one day when I walked in to have a look round a local festival that was happening in the town. I thought it was a music festival, but it turned out it was a vegan/spiritual healing festival. If I had previously thought we had stepped back in time coming to Llangollen, now I thought I was on another planet. Think a British version of deliverance. We stayed three or four days in the area. It was actually great just to park up for an extended period.
Back across the aqueduct
However as with all good things it had to end. Eventually we had to put Cathy and Maurice in a taxi and send them off on the rest of their holiday to Ireland, while Karen and I have started back down the Llangollen so we can finish the last couple of weeks on our boat hire. Just our luck the weather gods decided to shower us literally this week, so we have spent the first day boating back down in heavy rain before we will eventually turn and head towards Chester. So today back across the aqueduct we went. It was no easier on the heart the second time across as the weather and the breeze helped elevate the pulse for us both.
We are one day into what will be a three day trip to get to Chester. The locks are up to Karen and I now, and if we are honest mostly Karen, but we are well used to everything and we have even got better at reversing the beast.
Canal boating: An extreme sport?
After just over six weeks the boat has a few more scrapes and scratches but I have to say there are some really rough boaters out there. We had just come out of a canal side pub the other night to see a boat load of three couples blasting down the canal and heading towards a bridge crossing. The women were sitting in the front drinking bubbles & the guys were at the back (typical Kiwi party type setup). One was working the throttle, one steering and one entertaining the other two. A recipe for disaster.
No one was looking, no one paying attention and consequently the boat went straight into the side of the bridge. Now bridges are set on very solid stone with a lot of Mother Earth behind it, so it doesn’t move much. A 15 ton steel boat stops really quickly in these situations. Woman and their drinks nearly fell over the front, and the back of the boat literally looked like it lifted out of the water. Did they care? Not a bit, once they were all standing again it was back to the same thing, one man on the throttle still with a heavy hand, another steering or trying to. Don’t know how the trip finally ended up for them but it’s good to know they were heading the opposite way to us.
Right that’s it for this post. Next stop Chester possibly with a side trip to Liverpool and a bit of Beatlemania. Will keep you posted.