Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Because it's there

Another view of the famous aqueduct
There we were in Nantwich a couple of weeks ago wondering where to head next. We'd come round the Staffs & Worcs (yet again) and up the Shroppie; entertained our daughter and her dotty dog Ziggy – who scared her, me and probably himself when he dived in and swam for the boat from the towpath where they were walking while I was putting it into a winding hole.
We'd also met up with our old mate Brian Jarrett and finally got to look over his interesting boat Autarky, but then Olivia went home, Brian moved on and we wondered where to go. Somewhere different, somewhere we hadn't been for a long while.
The Liverpool Link, I suggested, or even the Llangollen. We'd thoroughly enjoyed both in Nb Star but we'd tried the Llangollen in Harry a couple of years back and hadn't enjoyed it at all. It beat us; we had to turn round and retreat after Ellesmere when Bridge 61 proved an impassable obstacle. We even got stuck several times on the retreat. (Turns out they'd opened the tap a bit more at the reservoir end and lowered the canal levels by 3-4 inches, which was enough to stop us.)
So what did we choose? Why, the Llangollen of course. Unfinished business. Because it's there. Because other three feet deep boats have done it. All that sort of daft stuff.
A reminder that this is one special canal came right at the start – we caught the tail end of a queue up Hurleston Locks. A boat had been stuck for several hours in the bottom lock which is getting inexorably narrower due to subsidence issues.
But we got through and chugged happily along through pictureseque Shropshire cattle country. The first dozen miles hold few fears: a scattering of locks and the occasional lift bridge. The Llangollen is generously endowed with 48-hour visitor moorings (complete with rings). We stopped the first night on one in the middle of nowhere then moved on to the six locks of Grindley Brook – three closely packed, snaking round a couple of corners to a three step staircase. There's a lockie on duty here which was lucky for the German crew behind us as the Kapitan couldn't grasp the procedure at all despite, or maybe because of, my efforts to explain. Grindley has the feel of being a pretty canal oasis but put your nose through the hedge and there's a thundering A-road just feet away.
We reached Whitchurch in time for its annual boat rally. It's a little bit of a cosy, village fete affair compared with the likes of Braunston or Audlem but homely and friendly, with a collection of boats down the short canal Arm and stalls selling the usual nick nacks, home made cakes and bacon baps. The newly formed Chamberlain Carrying Company was there with Mountbatten & Jellicoe which Richard and Ruth will be running up and down the canal selling fuel.
By now in a state of mild but growing anxiety, I quizzed Richard relentlessly about getting a deep boat down it (as I had been anyone who appeared along the cut in something that might have been more than rowing boat deep.) He had plenty of tips and reassurance and if a bloke could do it dragging a butty then so could we.
Whitchurch town is a 15 minute walk away down the unrestored remainder of the canal arm. We went there on Saturday to find that the 'artisans' had arrived in Shropshire: the main street was closed for a bustling market where bushy-bearded young men and their pretty girlfriends sold exotic food products and artistic artefacts amid the usual pork pies and cheese stalls.
It's a really appealing little town is Whitchurch and well worth the walk - we went back and forth several times over our weekend.
But, come Monday, Ellesmere beckoned and, en route, our encounter with three old foes which had beached us on the last trip. The scenery changes curiously on the way; cattle country suddenly gives way to eerie and almost prehistoric flat, low lying scrubland that is the remains of peat bogs. After that come the forest lined 'meres' - large lakes formed after the Ice Age. And in between is Bettisfield where silting up around the long line of moored boats leaves only a narrow channel which we managed - just - to negotiate. Last time we spent the night marooned on the silt bank here. And then a huge winding hole – which is actually a lake of mud where we had been trapped as well. This time we inches through.
After the meres, the short Ellesmere Tunnel did bring us to a halt at its mouth – it always seems to – but poling soon got us off.
We squeezed into the Arm – the canal was getting noticeably busy now – shopped at Tesco which seems to have done what Tesco does and sucked most of the life out of the drab town centre and had a substantial and sound meal at the Red Lion where most of the big pub seemed to be full of people from the visiting boats.
Already we were realising that the Llangollen is as much a river as a canal: it flows down to the Hurleston reservoir at 2-3mph and this flow plus the heavy boat traffic create a channel that often wanders like a drunk around the route. But let the boat nose its way along and you've found the main secret to keeping going.
This time it even got us through the infamous Bridge 61, though the build up of silt there pushed us right to one side of the bridgehole and we only just squeezed by. The same again, though never as bad, happened at almost every bridge as we kept going and going until mooring in virtual darkness outside The Poacher's Pocket pub and almost in Wales.
No pub visit tonight, though, the Chirk Aqueduct and Tunnel beckoned, both notoriously slow in any boat. Would we get stuck again? We set the alarm for 6am, I woke at 5 in a cold sweat, and we were on our way before sunrise. I'd marked our boat hook at our maximum depth and stood in the bows like someone from Moby Dick, prodding it into the water and signalling the route to Mrs B.
The handsome Chirk Aqueduct and railway viaduct
In the end, both Aqueduct and Tunnel were fine - just really, really slow. (You're fighting the water flow, remember). It was the shorter Whitehouse Tunnel a mile further on that nearly did for us. The route in was badly shoaled and we almost stopped. In the narrow, shallow tunnel we never really got moving again and I was pulling from the towpath to help the straining engine. Now I know what a poor ruddy boat horse felt like!
But from there, all went swingingly. Much of the channel is now concrete sided and deep, though narrow. Having left at 6.15, we crossed the Pontcysyllte at 9.00 while everyone was still having breakfast. It was as awesome, as glorious a piece of engineering as ever.
We didn't do the left turn to Llangollen but moored straight ahead at Trevor basin and gave a collective 'phew' that must have been heard in Hurleston. The rest of the day we spent either napping or exploring - including a walk down to the river at the base of the Aqueduct. In the evening we went across the basin to The Navigation to try its 'famous' pies – which sadly proved to be more like infamous.
Almost there - the final narrows
Another early start at 6.30 the next morning saw us head up towards Llangollen. This was the summit assault. There was no turning back. The run into the town has one turning point midway: after that if you can't go forwards you could be reversing for four miles back to it! With a string of hireboats trying to avoid you. Worse there are two long sections of 'narrows' which are only one boat wide. Get stuck there and you've screwed everyone up. And don't ask CRT for help – the 'official' depth is 21 inches.
That proved nonsense: the channel is mostly man-made in concrete and while we scraped the bottom here and there we were never in real danger. Only at one point, near the start, where older and newer sections meet at a short narrows does the depth lessen and we were still okay.
Much relieved, we reached the Basin, moored at nine and headed straight for a monster Full English Welsh breakfast at the horseboat cafe. And wonderful it was too.
We spent the weekend in the busy, touristy little town watching the Harleys at a HOG weekend rally, walking to Telford's ingenious Horseshoe Weir where the canal is fed from the River Dee and taking a ride on the great steam railway.
Then it was time to return and, yes, yet another early start at 6.30. We crept out of the Basin and down the channel, thinking everyone else was still asleep. They weren't – pretty quickly we were heading a line of about six boats.
Where it all begins - the Horseshoe Weir
All went swingingly, running with the flow now, across both aqueducts and through both tunnels until we reached Bridge 19W at Poacher's Pocket where we graunched to a halt on the exit in a channel that appeared little more than ankle deep! We were eventually pulled through by helpers from the bank and discovered that the deep channel is barely a boat wide – and the line was blocked by a moored boat.
From there on practically every bridgehole was a challenge: those which weren't silted had a boat coming the other way. We got through but it wasn't much fun. At the end of a long and tiresome day we just wanted a pub and a pie but the moorings at the canalside Jack Mytton were more than full so we pressed on to the Narrowboat at Maestermyn. Only to find that this was the one day it wasn't open with an apologetic note on the door!
Next morning we set off toward Ellesmere fearing the worse after our earlier exploits but all was fine - even the dreaded Bridge 61. Seadog Brian wasn't: he'd started several worrying days of illness by being sick on our bed! Fortunately Ellesmere has a launderette. Washing done, we headed onwards through the little Tunnel without grounding (a first, hooray), got ourselves briefly stuck in the notorious winding hole near Bridge 50 – the right 'line' coming back taking us a completely different way across the middle of the hole than the bank hugging route down – then eased successfully by the moored boats at Bettisfied, passing the cheery coalman on Mountbatten as we went. "You deserve a medal, doing this canal" shouted Mrs B. He does indeed.
We moored in the weirdness of Whixall Moss and moved off the next day at a more sane hour. The worst was behind us: a night at Wrenbury and then a final run to the locks at Hurleston where the Llangollen said goodbye to us with a ferocious wind and hailstorm.
Had it been worth it? Yes it had. Harry has now been everywhere. And in truth the challenges were no harder than we'd faced on other shallow canals. Llangollen is a great destination, too. Next time we will probably go well out of season – in summer the canal is like the M25 at times (except that learner drivers are allowed).

The bent stick test. Is it deep enough here?

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