“Would You Do It Again?” – David

The title of this post is a chance to sum up the trip and answer the question that you are always asked by people who have heard of the trip.  It can’t be a one-word answer as no trip is ever perfect in every way, all the time, in every context.

Would we fly Business Class both directions?  Hell yeah, if only to avoid being on a 737-MAX H8te ever again. That aircraft is just horrid in Economy.  Even SeatGuru.com says the “Premium Economy” seats are as bad as seeing  Death Himself walking backwards out of an outhouse reading MAD Magazine with his pants down and shit on his shoes.  

Boat.  The Lapland Bunting was a fine boat, perfect for two blokes, but converting Rob’s bed each night was an annoyance.  Perhaps a slightly longer one, that has two berths that we could leave as berths and a sit down ‘salon’ as the Brits call it.  Maybe even the womenfolk would come along for at least part of the trip. We know them well enough that the day and half going through the Mere district wildlife reserve might bore them a bit, but then there is always wine to be consumed before it goes bad.  One does not want wine to spoil and we know the womenfolk would attack that task with their usual devotion and dedication. We did ask them about participation in another adventure of this ilk and their consideration is that going two days without a shower is not going to happen. There would have to be hotel rooms on the route and a ‘wider fucking boat’ to quote one of the spouses.

We’d probably skip the Irish Whiskey Museum tour in Dublin  And skip a hotel in Temple Bar. There were a couple of hotels we eyed near Grafton Street in Dublin that looked appropriately plush, yet modest in price and near all kinds of things like pubs.

Taxis.  No walking from Wrenbury to the Marina.  Book a taxi at Crewe to Wrenbury with a stop at the local provisioners before reaching the marina, so one can take the training, sign the papers, load up and get motoring to Wileymoore Lock for opening time and a pint of real ale.

Weather.  I think we chose the right time to go.  We both opined that in the high summer season that traffic on the canal would be near-oppressive and unpleasant.  Off-season was just right, with exception of Storm Callum.

Storm Callum.  Yes, it was windy and rainy for two days or so.  We did get soaked to the eyelids, but it was a challenge, not a bad thing.

Provisions.  We would know more about our consumables habits and provision appropriately with an emphasis on things that can be consumed with one hand whilst piloting.

Bacon Sarnie and Chips with a Salad – Ellesmere Pub

Bacon Sarnies:  Yes, yes, yes, ohgawd yes!

Oscar in the pub at Wileymoore.

Dogs in Pubs.  Eminently Civilized.  We ate well, especially the Sunday Roasts, but also Gammon and Chips, Yorkshire Puddings the size of a cat’s head covered in lovely gravy and steak at the Tomahawk Restaurant finished over a wood fire on our last night in Dublin.  

People.  To a person they were polite, friendly and  often curious why two blokes from Canada would make the effort to come this far to drive around in a narrowboat in October.  A common theme we did hear was “Ahh, Canadians, so you’re not Americans then.  What do you think of the Yanks down south?”  Our answer was usually, “The neighbours?  Oh well…”

One trick we learned many years ago from work travel to foreign climes was that a very modest Canadian Flag pin on your collar opens a lot of doors when they recognize you’re not American.  I always has a half-dozen in my pocket and would give them to folks who engaged with us, especially if they said they had family or friends in Canada. You can get them, free, from your Member of Parliament and they are only available from Parliament.

One little girl of perhaps six was with her grandpa at Wileymoore and she had never seen a narrowboat, or a lock.  Grandpa was explaining how it all worked and she was fascinated.  It turned out that Grandpa was in the Royal Engineers as a sapper, as was Rob, in the Canadian reserves, so the doors of welcome were opened and Grace got to see the boat with her Grandpa.  Both walked away with a tiny Canadian flag pin as a memento of their impromptu visit.

Walkie-Talkies.  If you have two, testing the flotation abilities of one of them makes the other one of no use, when you discover that a walkie talkie does not float.  That and a tea cup were the only victims of our adventure.  The broken tea cup was kept as a place to put tea bags when the brew reached the correct potency.

River Liffey in Dublin

Dublin.  Probably an extra day there, mayhaps even a bus trip down to Cork, if only to see the place.  Trinity College, housing the Book of Kells is a tourist spot that we semi-wanted to see, but then again, we also wanted to hit other places, so it was left off the list.  

 

Rob contentedly piloting a narrowboat

Company.  I couldn’t imagine doing this trip with anyone else but Rob.  We both mesh in attitudes and tasks, getting things done and enjoying each other’s company.  Adding the spousal units would be the only thing that would have made it better.  Trip of a Lifetime?  No trip, except the last one to the hereafter is a Trip of a Lifetime, but this was most certainly in the top five.

And not flying on at 737-MAX H8te ever again

 

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.

 

The Pace of Peacefull

When we are questioned about the pace of a narrowboat there are a few things that we can compare it to: Walking slowly.  Walking at a medium pace. Walking with a minor irritation and a dash of determination. The speed limit of the Shropshire Union Canal, for that matter all the narrowboat canals, is 4 miles per hour.  And that is about all a narrowboat can do, the little four-hole Isuzu diesel can muster pushing 4 to 5 tons of steel narrowboat and the passengers along with their suitcases, food and drink provisions.

For those of you familiar with boats, or imagining the idea of a high winding speedboat slashing through the water, a rooster-tail of spray soaking the air, and a wake flooding the shore, you are wrong. The Shropshire Union Canal was laid out by getting a dairy cow piss-drunk, then following it across the fields.  Sir Thomas Telford then said, ‘Dig the fucking canal there then!’

Actually is was more complicated than that, more of an actual feat of Victorian engineering before the railways.  The canal does meander a great deal, the longest semi-straight section we’ve encountered has been about a half-mile.  Towards Llangollen the canal is actually half the way up the side of a mountain, overlooking a valley that near as dammit looks like Mont Tremblant in the summer, the village of Llangollen falling down the hill from the canal along the river.  

Dairy and sheep farms butt right up against the canal, one side the former horse-drawn towpath, the other side unimproved scrub bush, bits of swamp and the occasional minuscule watering hole for cows and sheep.  Ducks abound, along with herons and the occasional grey squirrel grabbing up the last of his horde for winter.

There are rules of velocity of course, slow to a dead crawl passing other boats, under bridges or approaching lift bridges and locks.  Dead crawl in a

narrowboat is the pace of a leisurely stroll with no particular place to go while dragging a bale of hay on a rope. Invariably, when passing other boats there is a friendly hello, or good afternoon exchanged with the other boaters, an insider code that tells the others we know exactly how much fun we’re having and the rest of the humans have no idea exactly how satisfied we are with our lot right now.

The canal system is set up under the assumption that as a boater you have at least the sense to not look into your gas tank with a lighter and wonder if the tank is full.  This system would not work in North America, as we must be protected from all potential possibilities of using anything more than the simple brain-stem functions of respiration, elimination and an occasional heartbeat that seems to be the lowest common denominator that lawyers and lawmakers have decided we must have to be a society.  

There are tradeoffs of course.  Our boat, the Lapland Bunting, is 47 feet long, has a galley, a head, shower and a dinette that converts to a twin bed, as well as a twin bed forward.  The passageways between sections are not much more than 18 inches wide. You pass along sideways, trying not to hit your head on things like the ceiling, or a light fixture.  A certain piece of interior trim has tried, almost successfully twice now, to rip my right nipple from my body, as I scuttle along. If you have any time in a small recreational vehicle, you have the drill and the scale is readily apparent.  

Technically the boat sleeps five, but it would have to be two grownups and three children under the age of 6. For two strapping Canadian lads it is enough space but only just. Four grown up couples? Space is at such a premium that you would essentially be committing adultery every few minutes performing such mundane things as getting a cup of tea.  Had we brought out significant others along, there would have been a real and apprehended insurrection, possibly by the first lock on hour 2 of Day 1. It is not roomy. Roomy was never the objective.

Peaceful?  Oh yes. We’re not entirely certain as to what day of the week it is and we don’t particularly care and that is the true objective of the holiday.

Understanding English Lit

England has created some really great literature, from wonderful stories about bears named Winnie to the Hounds of the Baskervilles and to dragons such as Smaug. What has inspired these writers to create such wonderful works and build such grand worlds in which their stories take place? Stories filled with life not just people but with fairies, elves, ents and all manner of folk and beast.

I think it has to do the land. We crossed a wildlife preserve a few days ago and seeing a fairy or a even a dragon in those woods would not have been surprising. We have now have reached Llangollen and to do so have flown over a vast valley in a boat in an aqueduct. Most people looking at such a task, moving boats across a valley, would have taken the boats down in a series of locks and then backup on the other side. Thomas Telford not so much, he built a whacking great aqueduct so the boats “fly” 126 feet above the valley. Then build the canal on the side of the mountain so as people travel down the canal they can look down from the canal into the villages in the valley. Not something you would normally expect from a canal.

The woods here are somehow both wild and tame at least here outside of the major cities. Unlike bush in Canada where there is growth and undergrowth and then rot under all that, the forests we’ve seen in England and Wales along the canals are neat. They lack the same level of undergrowth and rot and seem somehow cleaner.

I know that sounds crazy but that’s how things are from what I’ve seen. Whether it is some sort of trick of nature, or perhaps there are fairies that keep the forests tidy, however it happens, it leads to places where imaginations can run and play and dream up worlds that are disk shaped  on the back of a turtle support by five large elephants. Perhaps just have things like an aqueduct in the sky lets you see big boxy boats floating overhead in exactly the way bricks don’t.

As I sit here though and peer through the window into the woods that take up the other side of the canal I’d like to think there are little folks in there, ready to inspire another great writer to wonderful flights of fancy and imagination.

Something folks on these isles are very good at.

What The Heck is a Narrowboat?

Think back before railways.  Britain was an economic powerhouse, with all kinds of imports coming in and exports going out via ships large and small.    Internally, Britain had to get things from where they were produced to the cities and the ports for consumption and export to their far-flung empire.

Conventional horse-drawn wagons worked, but were not very efficient at moving tons of bulk material like coal, bricks, slate, gravel, grain and such.  A team of horses could only pull so much on the uninproved roads of the time.

The horse-drawn narrowboat and canal system was the transport system for Britain.  Coal from Wales, or cotton from Liverpool, lumber, slate, grain, hay, agricultural products, you name it, it was likely hauled in bulk on a narrowboat over the inland canals of England.

By definition a narrowboat is no more than 6 foot 10 inches wide and no more than 72 feet long with a shallow draft.  You can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrowboat

When steam railways came into more common use in the Industrial Revolution, the narrowboat became less and less important to commerce as it was cheaper to send coal to London by the trainload, instead of the slow moving narrowboat.  By the 1950’s most of the commercial narrowboats had gone, a few becoming recreational boats, powered by small diesel engines.  By the 1980’s a lot of the canals and locks were in disrepair.

This video with Timothy West and Prunella Scales called “Great Canal Journeys” Episode 3, tells you a lot of the story of the restoration and return to pleasure boating.  Yes, it is that Prunella Scales, Sybil from Faulty Towers.  We’ll recommend you watch a few of the episodes of the series as it is wonderful to watch and learn some of the history and the current state of the narrowboat.

We will give credit to “Great Canal Journeys” as their films are charming and do capture the experience and history behind our little boating adventure.