The Llangollen Canal is a great place to get away from it all.
Travelling at around 3 miles an hour, narrowboating in Wales gives you plenty of time to get a real good close look at the countryside you pass through, and the wildlife you encounter along the way. Unless you’re in charge of the tiller, of course.
Canal boating has enjoyed a dramatic renaissance in the UK in recent years. A TV programme called ‘Great canal journeys’ aired in 2015 featuring actors and canal enthusiasts Timothy West and Prunella Scales (‘Sybil’ from Fawlty Towers). Tim and Prue explored various British canals on their narrowboat, including the Llangollen Canal where they spent their honeymoon. The show was an unexpected hit and a further 8 series were made.
Since then, people have taken to the slow life on the water in droves, some choosing to live permanently on their houseboats. All this has fuelled the restoration and re-purposing of around 2,000 miles of Britain’s industrial waterways. More restorations are planned.
This trend has even impacted on waterways in Europe, where demand from British canal holidaymakers has led to similar waterway restorations in countries such as France.
A mini break with a difference
Despite all this, in all honesty my husband and I might never have come up with the idea of narrowboating in Wales when we were living in London a few years ago. It was our visiting family members from New Zealand who were dead keen, having seen episodes of ‘Great Canal Journeys’.
So we hired a car and my Kiwi brother-in-law bravely navigated us through the heavy traffic of south west London and onto the motorways heading north west. The satnav worked really well until the last couple of miles outside our destination, Chirk Marina near Wrexham in Wales. The roads became narrower and more countrified, and we lost our way. A friendly local put us right, and finally we saw a large brown sign pointing to the marina.
Day 1: learning the ropes
We checked in, carried our belongings on board our boat, and settled into what would be our home for the next 3 nights. Our boat had 2 double bedrooms, kitchen, dining area, lounge and shower room. As you might expect, it was not spacious but was very comfortable.
We nominated my brother-in-law as our skipper and waited for our induction session. No previous experience is required to be able to sail a narrowboat, but there’s quite a lot to take in. Not just boat-handling and navigating, but safety procedures, canal etiquette, how locks work and how and where to moor up for the night.
Our instructor stayed on board to help us make our way out of the marina and into the main canal, just to give us an extra little bit of confidence. Thankfully there was an informative manual on board to help us remember all the points that we subsequently forgot after he left!
Aqueducts and tunnels
The manual proved to be very useful for reading up on how to handle aqueducts and tunnels. For our first outing, we chose Chirk to Llangollen – a route deemed to be suitable for beginners as it had no locks. What it did have, however, was the heart-stopping Pontcysyllte Acqueduct – a World Heritage site.
Navigating this narrow stretch of water with dramatic 120 feet drops above the River Dee on either side is a bit scary for first-timers! But it was worth it for the incredible views. The countryside of the Dee Valley is stunning.
Just north of the aqueduct is another challenge for the newly-inducted skipper – the 421 metre-long Whitehouses Tunnel. There’s only enough room for one boat to pass through at a time, but fortunately it’s straight enough to see whether anyone is already in there before you start! The tunnel is dark, damp, musty and just a little bit creepy. It was a relief to get out into the warm sunshine at the other end.
We only cruised for a couple of hours on that first afternoon, getting the hang of the boat and relaxing after our journey from London. After finding an attractive canal-side pub to stop at for dinner, we decided to moor nearby for the night so we could enjoy a beverage or two with our meal.
Life on a narrowboat
Our first night’s sleep wasn’t the best. So many strange sensations when you’re not used to being on a boat! Even the inky darkness and dead quiet were a little discomforting for a city girl like me. But it didn’t really matter, given the sedate pace of life that the new day would bring.
It goes without saying that despite the segregated areas, there really isn’t much privacy on board a narrowboat, so you have to get on pretty well with your fellow travellers – which fortunately we did. Facilities are simple and basic, but they’re all you really need. And if you don’t feel like doing much cooking in the galley kitchen, there’s no shortage of attractive hostelries to stop at.
We soon got used to our new, slow pace of life. I loved watching the landscape glide by, with plenty of time to take a good look at the scenery and admire the pretty canal-side cottages. Sometimes I would jump off the boat and walk along the towpath, just to get some exercise and enjoy watching canal life from the land. My husband and sister-in-law took their turns at the tiller, but I passed. I reckoned I was better at making teas and coffees than driving.
Day 2: Llangollen
After a leisurely breakfast we headed off towards Llangollen, an attractive and historic riverside town dating back to the 7th century. We decided not to disembark to visit at this stage, but did so a couple of days later. Instead we turned the boat around – a considerable challenge for our new skipper, which he accomplished admirably – and headed back towards Chirk, this time navigating the tunnel and aqueduct with greater confidence.
After another gorgeous day of cruising and admiring the Welsh countryside, we by-passed Chirk Marina and headed in a new direction. After deciding on what we thought would be a nice quiet place to moor for the night, we cooked a simple dinner on board. Luckily the weather was perfect and we enjoyed a beverage or two outside on deck, waving to fellow boaters as they passed by. We were starting to feel like we were part of the canal community.
Day 3: Ellesmere – and our first locks
Next morning we were unexpectedly woken early by the mooing of cows in a nearby field – something we had not considered when choosing what we thought was our quiet place! Never mind, it was a beautiful morning and we cooked up some bacon and eggs before heading on our way to Ellesmere.
This section of the canal was a little more challenging in that it not only had another aqueduct – the less scary Chirk Aqueduct – but also, two locks. I jumped off to watch. It’s a strange and slightly giddy feeling to see your boat sinking slowly downwards as the lock is emptied, or rise upwards when it’s filled.
Locks can take a long time to get through when there’s a lot of canal traffic. You just have to queue and wait for your turn and sometimes this can be a long, long time. Canal boating is definitely slow travel!
Ellesmere is over the border in Shropshire, England. We moored near the town and spent some time there doing grocery shopping and looking for somewhere to enjoy our last dinner together. We eventually found an atmospheric inn – the White Hart – close to the canal, which was cosy and very enjoyable.
Day 4: one last lock
After breakfast we negotiated the locks and aqueduct one last time before heading back to Chirk on the final leg of our short holiday. The whole round trip, Chirk-Llangollen-Chirk-Ellesmere-Chirk, had taken about 17 hours of cruising in total, allowing for waiting times at locks. Now it was time to hit the road again.
Before returning to London we made brief stops in Llangollen and Ironbridge near Telford – both well worth spending time in. This area is rich in industrial heritage and is viewed by some as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Some of the feats of engineering, like those we encountered on our canal trip, are truly mind-blowing.
We all really enjoyed our narrowboating in Wales and we’d definitely do it again. It’s the perfect way to relax and de-stress. All of us had busy jobs in public service and this was the perfect way to chill out.
Most other boaters were friendly, helpful and tolerant of beginners. We only encountered one – a tour boat operator – who was a bit stroppy and yelled at us when we inadvertently got in his way.
You can do holidays of 1 or 2 weeks and more. For me, 4 days was about right, however. I don’t think I would have wanted to spend any longer than that in such a small, cramped space. Then again, maybe I could get used to it. I do fancy the idea of a trip down the Canal du Midi in France.
More about Britain’s waterways
The Canal and River Trust manages canals in England and Wales. Their website has lots of information about the different canals, types of holidays and activities offered and the latest news and events. In Scotland, the equivalent organisation is Scottish Canals and in Ireland it’s Waterways Ireland.
If you’re interested in the UK, you might enjoy my posts on Wimbledon, Northumberland, Barnard Castle, the Isle of Skye. the British Pullman, Steam railways of England and Hogmanay in a Scottish castle.
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