A canal boat trip is on the wish list for so many people I know. It was definitely on my want list and it was great to finally get the chance to take a break, but also to do so on one of the stunning waterways of Britain, the Llangollen Canal.
Welsh views from a whole new perspective. Historic and marvelous engineering to navigate and a whole lot of learning to do on a, new to us, mode of transport.
The Llangollen Canal is 46 miles long and connects England to Wales. It starts at Hurleston near Nantwich, Cheshire where it connects from the Shropshire Union Canal. It meanders into Wales where it stops in the wonderfully picturesque town of Llangollen, Denbighshire.
Originally called the Ellesmere Canal, it was part of a plan, mooted in 1791, to connect the Rivers Mersey, Dee and Severn. The canal engineer was William Jessop and work was started in 1792.
Within 10 years, in 1801, work was stopping as industry had moved on. There was no need to connect up to Chester or to further Denbighshire coal mines, as it had all become cheaper to purchase and transport from elsewhere.
The section from Llangollen to Ellesmere was actually built as a tributary to bring water from the River Dee down to what was the Ellesmere Canal. This explains why the width was not made for regular big boats in its time. More on the fun of that later.
Though work was stopped on this canal we are grateful they completed some huge feats of engineering. The cream of the crop being the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Plenty more on that later too.
How to Book
This trip was kindly arranged by Drifters Waterway Holidays. If you have ever wanted to do your own Canal Boat Holiday then definitely check them out.
In the UK they have 45 bases on the waterways with over 500 boats to access. With canal boats ranging in size from accommodation for 2 people all the way up to capacity for 12.
We are blessed to have a huge network of wondrous canals in our country and we must also thank the Canal & River Trust for all the hard work they do in enabling access.
The boat that Drifters had organised for us was tremendous. It was a long, long boat for sure! 65 foot long!
Anna was her name. With lots more space than you imagine. A spacious 4 berth boat that was made up with 2 x double bedrooms, 2 x shower/WC, a well equipped kitchen and living space.
Certainly dog friendly and plenty of room for us both together with the 2 dogs.
Navigating a canal boat has always looked so peaceful to me. Travelling at a slower pace than walking you get to take the relaxing slow lane through the countryside.
We started in Trevor at the basin a few miles east from Llangollen. We received a very good and in depth briefing on the boat, the quirks and how to steer it. You don’t need a licence to take a narrowboat on the canal but if you are first timers it is always good to note as much as possible. Believe me haha.
When I have watched people on the canal, it always looks so calm. The polite nod and hello from towpath walker to boat steerer. The dream of being on the water one day was here.
The first thing Paul and I learned, very fast, is there is always something to do, no way do you just sit back and glide along. Steering as a newbie is a whole new world! Left becomes right, overcompensation, bumps, avoiding boats and bridges is an art you soon have to learn. And reversing or turning round? That, you will find out, is a whole new world of fun!
Leaving the Trevor Basin you are literally, very literally, straight into your first obstacle. But what an obstacle, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. A wonder of our waterways.
This aqueduct is 126 ft (38 m) high and 1007 ft (307 m) long. The longest aqueduct in Britain and also the highest canal aqueduct in the world.
It takes the canal over the River Dee beside Trevor. Originally the plan was to use locks going down in the valley then locks up the other side. The canal engineer William Jessop brought in Thomas Telford who thought up a plan to build an aqueduct across the valley to allow uninterrupted boat journeys.
In those days you can imagine this was a huge undertaking and many were skeptical. However it was duly completed by 1805 and even today it is navigable as well as a wonder to behold.
If you are really scared of heights you may want to stay off deck when crossing. On the walking towpath side there is an iron fence to keep you from the drop down below. However on the canal side it is literally a sheer drop down from the side of the boat. The canal part being literally the width of a boat.
When half way across you can look all around from directly above the River Dee and take in the wonderful Welsh scenery here. This was starting the trip with a great bang for sure.
On To Chirk
This was day one of three and as we were setting off in the afternoon we needed to get to somewhere, get moored up and get some dinner.
After crossing the aqueduct the obvious destination was Chirk. And as we found out, not only were we learning the ropes on the go, we had a few obstacles to navigate along the way as well.
Paul T was enjoying some skipper time….
Before getting to Chirk before darkness we realised soon that although it does not look far on a map, this was narrowboat speed, plus we were newbies, plus we had tunnels and another viaduct to pass through and over, fun! Game on.
This canal is very popular, and when you have been on it you certainly see why. Even in October there was good traffic and other newcomers to canal boating. That leads to the odd little bump and apologies all round.
A great thing, work wise, is the fact there are so few locks. However that loss of adventure is made up for in lift bridges and tunnels.
A lift bridge is where a track passes over the canal but at ground level so it needs to be lifted up. With a tool on the boat someone has to get ashore ahead of you and start winding the handle to lift it all the way up. I was lucky, I was steering at this point so other Paul had to do the hard work.
Then onto the tunnels. The main one being Chirk Tunnel. It is 421 metres in length and only has the width of one boat.
This is were you need to start looking all the way through the tunnel to see if somebody has started coming through the other way. No traffic light system, first come first served. Then…… commit yourself.
Headlight on and go for it. Another surreal new experience most definitely. We had only been boating for an hour or two and had done and experienced so much!
Chirk Tunnel was one of the very first canal tunnels to have a towpath within. So be ready to be spooked when a figure comes out of nowhere beside you haha.
Out the other side, polite waves thank yous to any boats waiting to go through the other way. Canal boat people are the politest, most patient and calm people you may come across to be honest.
We had another aqueduct to cross yet too, Chirk Aqueduct. Again designed by Thomas Telford it was completed in 1801. Not as high as Pontcysyllte at 710 foot (220 m), but it is a wondrous sight in its own right.
It stands beside a parallel railway viaduct that was built later and higher so it is very unique in a great setting.
Thomas Telford was still cutting his teeth so to say when he was building these aqueducts. Hard to believe really. They are all super structures and even more so for when built.
Prior to Chirk, he had only designed and had built the Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct on the Shrewsbury Canal, then after Chirk he went on to the big one at Pontcysyllte. Amazing really.
Moored At Chirk
Not long after the aqueduct it was getting dark and we were getting hungry. The beauty of the canals is that pubs and restaurants have been built over the centuries for passing trade by road but also by waterways at the rear.
There are 2 options we found at Chirk. The Poachers which is literally by the moorings. Or a good tip we were given was to head to the Bridge Inn. A fantastic tip in fact. A great vibe and wonderful staff.
Refreshed, we were shattered after a first day on the water and all that learning, experience and exertion. A good nights sleep aboard was needed for a new day.
Back And On To LLangollen
The next morning we had choices. Either head onwards the way we were or head back on through Trevor to LLangollen. We chose the latter for time and experience reasons. A great choice it would turn out to be.
That meant the morning was back through tunnels and over great viaducts. We had experience, some anyway, plus it was great fun as well.
After passing back through Trevor we were back into new territory to discover. I could see another reason this stretch of waterway is so popular. The landscapes were amazing. Autumn was in full flow and as you head to Llangollen you are heading to the mountains.
Walking The Dogs
The boat was really dog friendly but of course they need to stretch their legs and toilet etc. This is so easy on the canal. You have a dog walk beside you at all times, the towpath.
Plus with two of you, you can keep going. It is hardly as if you are boating faster than walking pace, so you can walk along the towpath whilst the other steers the boat and hop on and off as you wish, a breeze.
When on board the dogs loved to watch us from below deck, ready for action.
And believe me as you get nearer to Llangollen, it is good one of you is walking anyway. Remember this canal was built as a water supply more than a 2 way boating system.
That is because you have 2 long sections that are literally only wide enough or one boat. Haha, adds to the fun for sure. These sections are up to half a Kilometre so you don’t want to meet people coming the other way.
Best bet is one of you goes on ahead to see if it is clear or keep clear.
Once moored up in Llangollen there is the quaint and beautiful town to explore itself, with plenty of places to find a bite to eat or to get a drink or 2. Take the time to explore this little place.
Welsh Oggie Shop
Now then, a treat you must try when in Llangollen is a Welsh Oggie from the Oggie Shop.
Like its smaller cousin the Cornish Pasty, a Welsh oggie was originally designed way back to feed the local tin miners. Lamb, leek and potatoes wrapped in a pastry crust so that the filling is kept clean and can be hand held down below.
Oggie Oggie Oggie (Oi Oi Oi) is a familiar chant at sporting occasions and the origin of the first part of it is lost in a lot of mystery and intrigue. It is perhaps Cornish in origin with one story saying the miner’s wives used to shout it at meal times down the shafts when the oggies were ready. Another story is that it was the call of the oggie sellers passing through the streets.
What A Trip
Before we headed back the next morning to Trevor we reflected on what an experience we had undertaken. Paul and I were first timers who had always wanted to try a canal boat holiday.
It is an experience you shall never forget and will forever change your perception of people who live and work on the canals.
It can be totally relaxing, a slow pace through great scenery at whatever pace you desire. Stop and chill when you desire or go explore ashore so to speak.
But especially as newbies there is fun and excitement that you don’t think of with obstacles, bridges, aqueducts, one way systems.
And, erm, we still never mastered turning around or reversing properly. We gave many a giggle to those passing on the towpath. Great fun.
Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely, in a heartbeat. We are blessed with these historic waterways and what a great way to explore and learn about them.
The Llangollen Canal has opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on the land and how history has made it.