Canals

Last weekend I returned from the most peaceful, relaxing holiday I’ve had in a long time. It featured water, bridges, locks, sunshine, cows, tunnels, aqueducts and far too many ducks for one week – and I loved it!

MacclesfieldLlangollen AngloWelsh baseFour of us travelled from New Mills to Llangollen. It’s a mostly uphill route, with plenty of locks to keep us occupied (I think we had about 20 on the third day – Bosley, just south of Macclesfield has a lot of locks). Unfortunately we didn’t fare too well with the weather at the front of the week – during the 20-lock day we managed to get drenched in heavy rain, including a few short bursts of hail. Still, it was great fun.

Macclesfield was the only real encounter with anything urban and industrial – a few waterside factories, presumably from a time when canals were used for more than pleasure.

Driving a 56′ boat is less easy than it looks. It’s amazing how unresponsive the steering on a 16 ton piece of floating wood and metal is when you’re trying to avoid another craft, or the crazy narrow bridges. Moreso on a strong current and when two crafts meet. The wake of each craft – even when both slow down – has the effect of sucking them towards each other, although towards the end I started using this to my advantage.

I guess as with most things this is something that comes with a decent amount of practise – I couldn’t help but notice the number of paint scratches on other (non-hire) boats, so I’m guessing we’re not alone here!

There are rules to the canal, as you might expect to retain some sense of order – pass on the right; give way to boats coming downstream; try to save water in locks. These all make sense (I assume passing on right comes from international water convention), and a great deal of common sense is required too. After the first couple of days we picked up a great deal of confidence, which I think helped enormously. I can’t help but feel that it must be frustrating for regular and permanent canal-goers when coming across a ‘newbie’ though, particularly if they do something fairly unfortunate like empty a lock without checking for downstream boats – not us, honest! (although we did encounter a couple who did this and weren’t too popular).

Mind you, the atmosphere on the canal is great. Everybody greets you with a smile and a warm welcome, and there is plenty of help and support all round. Part of the pleasure of the canal is in meeting a variety of characters. At one particularly awkward junction (offhand I think it was the Shropshire and Trent & Mersey junction at Middlewich) we had five craft waiting to turn into a lock. In what I like to think is a typically British mannerism everybody patiently queued and chatted while we worked our way through the congestion.
Although we’d stocked up on staple food, like beans and rice, we often kept an eye out for pubs. I guess being used to the naval Portsmouth one-pub-per-sailor density we were a bit suprised by the apparant lack of waterside pubs, but this didn’t put us off finding them.

One particular pub search led us into a field full of sheep. It was somewhere on the Llangollen canal. We passed the pub, assuming there’d be convenient mooring on the other side. Unfortunately there was a marina, with about 600 yds of private moorings. Continuing on we found a mooring immediately beyond the marina, but then discovered that the marina had locked gates blocking our path (fair enough) and the tow path had subsided (more of a problem). The walk was worth it, and we got our pub lunch and a nice walk through the countryside too.

There are plenty of features and scenic locations on the canals, and the modest engineer inside me was also fascinated with trivial things like flood control and lift bridges. The two highlights have to have been the two amazing aqueducts on the Llangollen canal.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct: Wow – just wow. I believe this is either the longest or the highest aqueduct in the British Isles at least. The photo from Wikipedia does this structure much more justice than mine.

Chirk Aqueduct was similarly interesting and picturesque. After crossing the aqueduct we were met with a bilingual ‘Welcome to Wales’ sign and a 460 yd tunnel. There’s not much point showing you the tunnel since, well, it was pitch black.
Chirk Canal and Railway AqueductWelcome to Wales

So concludes our fantastic holiday on the water. It’s definitely worth taking a canal holiday if you want a reasonably relaxing break (not too relaxing – there are locks and bridges after all!). Hope for good weather and just enjoy yourself! We did, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

See also: Our Captain for the journey, Chris has also written his perspective of the canal holiday.
Postscript: Looks like we picked the right week to go. Just two days after we got off the boat they closed part of the Llangollen canal because of a breach!

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