Thomas Telford was a Smart Guy

There are smart guys all along the narrowboat canal, but the smartest one was Thomas Telford, the Scottish lad who engineered the parts of the canal that we’ve run on.  Some context is in order. Telford died in 1834, or about two years after the Rideau Canal was opened here in Canada.  Various parts of the Shropshire Union Canal were built and running commercial traffic before work even started on the Rideau Canal in 1826.

We’ve explained earlier why there are so many canals in the UK:  Canals were the superhighways of their day, lugging large quantities of goods from place to place as horse drawn wagons could only pull a limited quantity of something a short distance on the unimproved roads of the day: A horse-drawn narrowboat could regularly ship 20 to 30 tons of something along the canals simply because a floating boat has almost no friction.  It isn’t fast, but it makes up for the lack of velocity with the increase in capacity.

Telford started out as a stonemason’s apprentice at the age of 14, learning how to bash rocks, then through various contacts in London became an engineer and surveyor eventually winding up in Shropshire. In 1790 he built his first Iron bridge, iron being the modern building marvel of the day, much as we look at carbon-fiber today.  

Telford was a bit of a maverick in that he tested things.  Would this kind of casting in this dimension, stand up to this kind of load?  We are talking before super computers. Telford’s tools were paper, pencil, perhaps a rudimentary slide rule and keen observation with a nimble mind.  Victorian-era high technology.

On our trip we got to try out a few pieces of his craft, the top three being the Chirk Aqueduct, the Chirk Tunnel and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  You could argue that almost all of the canal system we traveled from Wrenbury to Llangollen was his work and you might not be far from wrong, but we’ve picked the more impressive pieces.

The problem with canals is water doesn’t run uphill very well.  The idea behind the canal is to have the least number of locks on a route that is not always a straight line from one place to another.  

Where it gets complicated is the land.

Unless you’re on a perfectly flat geography, there will be things that get in the way like rivers, valleys, hills, towns and fields. To change heights or to detour around things like rapids and waterfalls with a 30 ton load of slate or coal on a horse-drawn boat takes some engineering.  Locks work and in the day that was the choice. Wales, however, is hilly and there is no escaping it.

The River Dee cut a swath through the route for the canal, making things difficult.  If Telford had done locks there would have been at least a dozen, six down the valley, a short canal, then another six back up to where the canal would run, essentially a staircase on either side and at least a day or more to pass going up and down in 20 foot increments.  

An aqueduct was a wiser choice. It took ten years to build the stonework and put a cast iron canal trough on the top of aqueduct, to allow boats to pass in 20 minutes, instead of a full day. Telford then did the same thing at Chirk, not quite as long, or as high as Pontcysyllte, but the same concept of an aqueduct topped with a navigable canal.  In between? The Chirk Tunnel, 460 yards of hard work, lined by bricks containing the waterway and the towpath to pull the narrowboats through.

Crossing the Pontcysyllte and Chirk Aqueducts is a marvel.  There is a fenced walkway on one side, the former towpath for horses, but the other side is a sheer drop to the valley below.  We’ve included still photos for now, as the real-time video shot in high-def is too large for WordPress.  We’ll add links to a Youtube source later so you can see the whole thing as we transit.

A fun aside, on the outgoing trip a charming couple said they had never crossed the Pontcysyllte on a boat and could they come along?  There was plenty of room on the tiller deck so Rob had company on the journey as they marveled at the view and thanked us profusely for our hospitality when we made the other end.

Today, the whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very impressive memorial to the days when engineers used their minds and hands to solve problems.  Thank you, Thomas Telford.


Tour the Lapland Bunting

This is more of a photographic tour of our boat, the Lapland Bunting, so you can appreciate the dimensions and location of the features. Yes, we are messy, no there is not a lot of storage space available.

The Pointy End, or as the more nautical call it, the Bow. There is a small well at the bow and there are two doors that lead to it from the forward berth




The Arse End, or the stern








Moored up just below a lock at dusk.  Consider it a picture of the side





Engine, lights, horn and gauges at the stern in easy reach of the pilot







The little Isuzu diesel lump under the floor at the stern






Scrim at the tiller, the Isuzu lump and weed box are under his feet along with the engine batteries, blackwater tank and fuel tank







Entrance to the galley from the stern.  Wellies were important during the storm.  The shot of Scrim at the tiller was shot from the top step of the stairs to the stern




Reverse view into the diner area






We do insist on certain luxuries






The diner area that converts to Rob’s bed and the flip up and down seat that always provided Rob with amusement.  It was designed specifically to catch your kneecaps or arm with a spring-loaded latch much like a sofa-bed convertible circa 1958 before Health and Safety lawsuits





Diner area looking forward. The way forward makes you scuttle sideways like a crab and that piece of bloody trim almost always tried to rip off my right nipple






Head and lavatory.  There is a blackwater tank on the Lapland Bunting from the head only.  Greywater, meaning shower, galley sink or lavatory water goes out the side






Shower opposite the lav and head.  It is scaled to allow you to wash and rinse one ball at a time, but nothing else







Forward berth, technically a twin bed if you’re 9 years old






Reverse of the forward berth, the extra cushion is the second half of Rob’s bed in the diner.  Stowing it ‘correctly’ was a pain in the arse, so we just put it on top of the forward berth.    The doors lead out onto the smallish well on the bow.



And that’s the tour!





Life on a Narrowboat

There are many people that live on narrowboats on the English canals year round and year after year. I cannot pretend to have the experience of these and folks and having watched many of them I’d say the long term effects affect both the happiness and sanity of people. In other words the experience tends to leave you slightly crazed but in a good way, one that makes you happy and allows one to generally ignore most of the rest of the world.

For myself I’ve enjoyed being on a boat, the specific type of boat matters less to me, I simply like being on the water. It calms me. Always moving from place to place like a vagabond of yesteryear meeting new people and moving on. People on the water are mostly friendly unless they are heading to divorce court like the one couple we passed the other day; another holiday boat, probably picked the wrong captain. Certainly on this boat I am happy Juudy isn’t here – she could take it for a few hours after that she would be as frustrated as the two dimensional beings in Flat Land on finding out there is a third dimension (or 3 or 4 dimensions if you want to worry about time). Our friend David was a much more suitable choice a he can be a bloke and blokes can make small spaces work. And is it a small space, I’m six foot and if there was a cross bed on this one I’d just be able to sleep crosswise.

Head space is fine but hips and shoulders are tight. Moving from the aft area which first houses the galley, small but workable, and then the L space dinette / bed. There is a flip up chair opposite the fixed seat. This has become a source of amusement and frustration for us. I am amused as David tries to get the thing open and he is frustrated with the warped and sickened mind that created such a horrible apparatus. The walls in this section are light fake wood, the type not out of place in the North American basements in the 70’s. From there the corridor is on the left and the head on the right with the door to the head about halfway along the corridor, I don’t fit. At least I don’t fit if I’m walking normally, I shuffle along the corridor crab style until I reach the door and then I can step in. Not as tight as an MRI machine, but still could be engineered better. Finally up front is the cabin where we were suppose to have two single beds. Just as well they didn’t as there would be no room for sleeping as 4-5 inches of the 24” mattresses are not usable due to the shape of the hull.

The rental boat we have has leisure batteries, in our part of the world these are called house batteries. There is just about but not quite enough charge in the batteries to keep my CPAP going all night. Other than that we charge batteries during the day and have two laptops. For me this is using just about no power. And yet I wake up in the wee small hours of the morning gasping for air that is no longer being feed by the CPAP machine. Note to self, buy the backup battery next time. Given the small number of amp hours the battery holds we leave the engine running most of the time. This is good as the engine provides power to our electronics as well as hot water. The diesel is also used to heat water in a boiler system for the radiators on board. So at 8:00 PM the power goes off and we start draining the batteries. If we need hot water – wait till morning or boil the kettle, leave the heater on and you’ll drain the starter battery and with all batteries drain, well, you could try push starting the motor but boats don’t really work like that.

In the world of narrowboats this is like the small cabin in the woods, the rustic option. But for two blokes to get away from the hectic world for a while, rustic is working just fine. The galley holds the Scotch bottles fine, there are places to make both tea and coffee and making of sandwiches. The rest of course is handled by any number of pubs with real ales and good food. And since at 8:00 PM it’s getting dark, we go to bed, waking up early with the sun and starting the engine and the heat. Pushing off down the river to meander through tremendous vistas and to find the next pub that will for a while be the best pub in the world.

As I write this the rain has stopped, we’ve seen a double rainbow and the villagers are coming out and about with their many dogs. Through the window I see some shrubs wet from the rain sparkling in the sun and past that a large green field dappled in sunlight. I think I’ll pour another Scotch and sit outside for the pipe.

The Fun of the Irish Ferry

The original plan was to arrive in Dublin overnight, then have some lunch at a pub and show up at the Dublin docks for an Irish Ferry to Holyhead, on a ship called the Swift. As the saying goes, in order to make God laugh, make a plan.

The day we were leaving, we receive an email from Irish Ferries saying due to rough weather tomorrow, the Swift would not be sailing the afternoon of our arrival.  Our options, according to Irish Ferries were twofold: Take the late sailing on the Ulysses, or go fuck yourself. We chose the late sailing (2055 hrs) on the Ulysses. Irish Ferries, to their credit, did upgrade us from Club Class to a free room for the crossing.

The problem became evident when we showed up at the Dublin Dock terminal for Irish Ferries five hours before our sailing, the objective being a little lunch, perhaps a pint, maybe a snooze on a waiting room bench for a little bit with our luggage stowed safely around us.  This was the plan and it was a good one to kill five hours waiting for our ship.

For those of who don’t know, the Dublin Ferry Terminal is set up like a prefabricated air terminal for a city of 2500 people.  Everything is shiny and new, stainless steel and indestructible plastic designed to handle the wear and tear of thousands of ferry passengers every year for the next 75 years.  There are ticketing kiosks and clearance kiosks, with the requisite veal-pen straps to guide the hordes to the right counter at the right time in as seamless a process as can be designed by bureaucrats taking common-sense suppressants.  There are restrooms for the usual genders and levels of ability, clean and aseptic, untouched by vandals, or footy hooligans. The Men’s sported two Dyson hand driers that could blow a 747 off the runway and we suspect the Women’s is the same. Although we did have five hours to burn, we considered investigating the Women’s bathroom as not on.

You will notice that there is no note of foodservice or other creature comforts before the ticketing and clearance kiosks.

This means you are now trapped in an industrial wasteland on the docks, next to the Bitumen plant, across the road from the oil terminal and next to the transport truck ferry with its happy load of placarded hazardous cargo being kept away from any boat that also serves regular citizens.  There was a sign that said “Nowhere At All 2 kms” with the arrow pointing at the Dublin Ferry terminal.

There were staff.  Two as best we could see, one in a high-visibility vest with an impressive ring of keys and one lone damsel behind the Ticketing counter.  We asked if we could check in early for a ship. She bashed the computer for a moment and said “No. Preboarding does not commence until 7 pm”  Is there some place we could get a coffee? More keyboarding and suddenly she burst out, “There’s vending machines over there!” as if it was the first time she had been asked about any customer services.  We rolled out luggage ‘over there’ and discovered that unless you had Euro coinage, you were shit out of luck. The fine damsel could not make change.

The lack of coffee was not that bad, but what was hideous was the actual structure of the furniture.  Humans sitting tend to correspond to a few positions, mostly within a few degrees of each other.

The designer of the chairs and tables was given a specific remit:  Make the position of the back be exactly wrong. Make the seat precisely too small for an average arse.  Make the furniture out of artificial stainless steel, as the real stuff is too expensive, but we still have to be able to pressure-wash everything in the interests of Health and Safety.  Make sure that there is no possible way anyone can stretch out, even slightly, under any circumstances, by positioning he back support exactly where the Irish Chiropractic Association (Eire dir Achinback) says one should never put undue pressure.  Make everyone want to avoid actually using the seating under any circumstances.

This remit was fulfilled in every way.

By the third hour the ostensible Manager of the Terminal allowed us to pass unescorted up past security to the ‘restaurant’ on the second floor, handing over a dog-eared “Unescorted Visitor – Not for Ship Access” pass which allowed us to get a coffee and a bacon sandwich from the sole person on the second floor, complete with hair net and white ‘chef’s’ coat. She ably reheated the sandwich.  Rob had something to eat that was so exciting he has absolutely no recollection of what it might have been except that it wasn’t vegan.

An hour later we descended and awaited the opening of preboarding.  

Precisely ten minutes late the kiosk was opened for preboarding and we were duly cleared through to wait on the second floor.  The number of foot passengers crowding around was astonishing. There were six of us total, penned into more of the ghastly furniture, waiting for someone to come down from the ship and let us in.  About ten minutes before sailing, a ship person beckoned us to ramble through a labyrinth of ramps and stairs to the check-in desk. We will give Irish Ferries their due, as the service was quick and efficient: They live and die by commercial truck traffic and automobiles, so those who want a room get one promptly.  As did we, somewhere on deck 10, a twin bed with a shower and toilet that was clean and serviceable.

However we did require food and drink, which meant a hike back towards the center of the ship where the various food service options reside.  A quick reconnoiter and it was decided that beer was more important than food. Following beer, a quick pass through the Pizza Bistro confirmed that the Irish do not know what a pizza is.  The quick service restaurant at least offered sausage and chips, which were consumed with gusto. Then, back to the room for a couple of hours of blessed sleep, the first horizontal sleep since Montreal, more than 24 hours previous.  Were there astonishing views of the Irish Sea while we were underway? No, it was a dark and rainy night, rain lashing the windows. Plus, it was blacker than a well-diggers arse at midnight, so there was nothing to see, as the Irish Sea does not have streetlights.

Things improved on the Ferry.

Compare and Contrast

I have been on boats in a canal for a large part of my life, specifically the Rideau Canal as well as the St. Lawrence and part of Lake Ontario. This was on a house boats that belonged to family friends and four different cruisers. I have some experience with a boat going through water. So the chance to boat in England’s canals as a holiday was something long overdue, something I probably inherited from Father – if one can inherit such things.

The two very large differences from a North American boat and a Narrowboat are simple – the Narrowboats are slower and the steering is more precisely vague. When I say the boats are slow, the 4-5 ton boat we are pushing further into Wales has enough power to overcome the current in the canal, mostly. When the canal narrows for a bridge, every bridge nearly (and there are a lot of them) the boat is barely able to make way all the way thru. A small child walking beside the boat would stick it’s tongue out and give us the raspberry – thankfully we have not met that child yet. There was a delighted youngster at one bridge that declared she found a boat.

The other major difference is the steering. Here I am spoiled, the last two boats I had have both been twin engine and when both are working you don’t even need a wheel as using differential thrust is enough to maneuver and dock – I know this as I lost steering once. Actually twice, the other time though was the wheel coming off in my hands with only one engine working. That was also with David … hmmm.

Steering a narrowboat should be simple; going port, push the tiller to starboard, and frequently that is enough to get you through. However, a narrowboat pivots around its center and if you are against the wall you cannot really pivot. This means having to pull out the ass end using thrust to the side and/or backing out of the mooring before pushing forward and generally smacking the ass end against the dock.

Add a complications like high wind into the mix and the process becomes a frustrating and tedious matter of making headway but in reverse until you pull the entire length of the boat from the side of the canal and then manage to get enough forward momentum to prevent the wind from pushing you back to the wall.

Believe me it is annoying.

The steering overall on the narrowboat should be simple and precise – there is a large rudder behind the prop directing the force left or right and thus pivoting the boat on its center. All the other boats I’ve dealt with once they were going straight you can sit back and relax, not for the narrow boat. We discovered this yesterday as I tried to the take a few pictures while piloting (the correct term for steering a boat). To say we were all over the place would be an understatement. It was a strange case of click, click, click and then oh dear get back on course, click, click, click, shit have to get back on course. Thankfully these boats are made of thick steel and the odd bang doesn’t really hurt.

Is the Llangollen better or worse than the Rideau? In a word no, both have there charms, we are running from postcard level beauty on this canal and if the other 2,000 or so miles of British canals are as lovely then simply by volume the British Waterways would win. I still haven’t done Trent Severn and hope to someday. But I think I will have to plan more trips on the UK canals.

Rescue By A Cab

Trains in England are a little different from Canada. In Canada if there is a station there are people there and there are cabs and phones etc. At least for the parts of Canada I’ve seen.

In England this isn’t always the case. We catch the train from Holyhead to Crewe and manage the change to the Wrenbury train – more of a truck on rails serving the smaller communities.  Three cars, comfortable enough, with a diesel engine that they wind up to 1200 rpm, then release the brakes to roll away.

Getting to Wrenbury there is nothing there, barely a station, no people and no phones. So we are two Canucks stuck in the middle of Nowhere with rolling luggage.

Cell phones point the way and we begin to walk, I’m fat, I don’t like walking, I complain a lot. We carry on for short while and I being looking on the phone for a cab from Wrenbury. Nope. There are no cabs in Wrenbury. We continue the walk, there are cabs in Nantwich and in Whitchurch that service the area but, as optimists, we figure we can cover the rest of the journey. Plod, plod, plod one foot in front of the other moving slowly forward. I scan my phone again, should we just call and have a cab get us. Plod, plod, plod ever on like true Canadians without complaint.

A car passes and then another and finally a taxi enroute somewhere else.  We flag it down, it is divine intervention. No. The cab has a passenger and is on it’s way from A2B – can we share for the short while? Some discussion and then a discussion. Rescue, they will take us up the main road to the marina. A few quid pushed in the hand of the passenger at the end ensures all are happy and we’ve made it to the marina.

Just in time for the health and safety briefing we are duly trained on what to do at locks and where to find things on the Lapland Bunting.  It isn’t any more complicated than a recreational vehicle that floats.  We will post more later about life on a narrowboat, but for the time being, we find the pointy end and the arse end, two somewhat informal nautical terms.

Our next stop, since we’re both running on only a few hours sleep, is to regain some strength for our mighty toils on the waterway.  A short stroll into Wrenbury and we find The Cotton Arms Freehouse, a CAMRA-award winning Pub and Kitchen.  The sign outside says it all “Children and Dogs Welcome”.  Real ale and roast beef dinner with some of the locals who welcome us to their village.

One small issue we had the foresight to plan for was provisioning.  The marina provides you with fuel, water, a boat and the equipment to operate the boat.  They do not provide provisions, meaning things like food.  We both like food and consider food to be almost as important as drink, air, or spouses.  You decide which order these should be in.      

We wander a little further into Wrenbury, finding the local convenience store and obtain important things like coffee, milk, bacon, bread, cheese, hummus, croissants, butter and crisps.  And liquor, specifically a blended malt scotch whisky called Sheep Dip.  Neither Scrim or I are abstemious, so yes, there is drinking on the boat, but both Scrim and I are responsible boaters.  Drinking is only permitted after we dock for the evening.  Or if it is really, really chilly.  Or if the name of the day of the week has the letter Y in it.  

A long walk back to the boat and we sign off the documentation adding our own uniquely Canadian touch to the registration number of the boat.  Lines off and the Lapland Bunting is pointed in the direction of Wileymoor Lock. 

We are underway.



The 737 Max-8

Boeing’s much vaunted 737-800 Max is a delightful aircraft.  Air Canada touts it as the most efficient, most comfortable, most delightful, yadda, yadda, yadda.  We’re certain the airlines love it, because it’s good on gas, the major expense for airlines.

We were on one for our flight to Dublin, out of Montreal and discovered something Air Canada doesn’t mention in the brochures:  You must be only 5’ 8” and a max of 120 pounds to actually fit on the damn aircraft. Anything larger or taller and you don’t fit.  Scrim is 6’ 2” and I’m a 6-footer, which means our thigh bones are more than 30 inches long. The seat pitch on the aircraft? 30 inches.  Exactly long enough to wedge your legs into place and cut off the circulation on a ten minute flight. For a five and half hour flight you are risking permanent paralysis, pulverized kneecaps and/or the lower four vertebrae in your back compressing up into your kidneys to make room for your skeleton.

You try using the lavatory with two vertebrae pressing a kidney up into your liver.

Seat width is 18”  Scrim width is 24” For the math-impaired that is 6 inches less than is required for Scrim-width.  Fortunately there were only two of us in a row of 3. Had there been one other person seated in the row, there could have been charges of adultery brought.

Seat recline?  It does. About as much as an old-school Voyageur Colonial Intercity Bus, which is exactly not enough to either be comfortable, or bolt-upright.  Just enough to strain your neck and cause you to wriggle around to find that extra 1/8” recline that would actually feel acceptable. But you can’t wriggle around because your thighs are locked into place and you can’t feel your feet anymore.

The party line is the passengers love it because the screen on the in-flight entertainment is so big, the aircraft smells new and it has a ceiling like a 787 Dreamliner.  If we’re playing “mine’s bigger” sure, the screen is big. Yes, the aircraft smells newish. Ceiling like a Dreamliner? Who gives a dancing damn as long as it doesn’t have a ceiling like my parent’s recreation room from 1971 and the ceiling keeps the pressure in the cabin at flight level 34.  We don’t want to be trying to suck air through the combination aquarium hose and empty margarine container that is supposed to drop down in front of your face.

We checked with those who are truly in the know, crew.  The general consensus is the aircraft was not designed by anyone with any flight attendant experience.  You get a counter about big enough to set down one (not two or more) boxes of in flight service orange juice.  There isn’t enough room for cabin crew to sit and the lavatories (two at the back) are exactly wide enough for nobody.  Much like the Concorde, you decide if it’s a standing or sitting performance and move into the lav pointing the right way.  You can’t change your mind once the door is locked.

There are benefits to the aircraft.  The Thwates seat-back entertainment unit has a remarkable air route display that you can shrink or change perspective on so you can see a cartoon icon of your flight going over Sodomy Bay in Newfoundland.  There are musical choices, movie choices and even an entire channel devoted to “Hinterland Who’s Who” documentaries from 1965 (“The loon is a native bird to Canada…”) but all this falls to the wayside because your entire body from the nipples down has been so compressed by the shitty seats that you can’t even tell if you’ve soiled yourself until you stand up.  Then you fall over because your knees are suffering from hypoxia.

Five hours later we descend into Dublin