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.


Locks, Bridges and Storm Callum

By now you might have an appreciation of the roles and responsibilities of our trip on the Lapland Bunting.  Rob pilots for a sound reason: He has the experience and expertise of many years of boating, knowing how to maneuver and take advantage of things like winds, current and the tiller.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t pilot, I did and yes, the boat is a handfull of near-constant corrections, but on the occasions where I was at the tiller, we didn’t hit anything or anyone, so it is considered a win as far as I am concerned.  The duties that did come my way were more of an Enabler of Passage.

Locks have been around since pre-history on the Nile River as a way to get a boat laden with stuff around rapids or to make changes in elevation from one navigable part to another.  Locks rely on gravity to fill or empty the lock chamber. Gates at either end keep water in or out depending on what direction you’re going. The essential operation be it the Wileymoor Lock, Beveridge’s on the Rideau Canal or the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal, they all work the same.  The Rideau Canal, has Parks Canada Lock Keepers who do the work of doors and draining or filling the locks. As a boater you listen to what they tell you and ride the boat up and down as need be. Gatun Locks in Panama are merely orders of magnitude larger.

The Shropshire Union Canal has manual locks, which means someone has to open the doors, close the doors and work the windlasses and winding gear to fill or empty the lock, open the appropriate door to let the boat continue, then close the various doors and windlasses to allow whomever is next do their thing.  Since someone has to pilot the boat into the chamber, that would leave someone else to be the Lockie.

It isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do and gravity being reliable on this planet, means the locks work as they should when operated as they should, which we did about two dozen times.  Up and down, gravity and water pressure being our transportation friend.

Lift bridges along the canal are also a feature.  All but one were manually powered, meaning crank the windlass around 30 times or so to raise the bridge and crank it another 30 or so the other way to lower the bridge, the road being generally a dirt track or cow path from one field to another.  Hydraulics are good, reliable things. Again, since someone has to pilot the boat, that means someone else has to operate the lift bridges. The whole process of locking and lift bridges can be done solo and hundreds do, but it is easier with two people.


Where locking, lift bridges and boating become less fun is in the midst of a named storm called Callum.

We knew going into this trip that there was always potential for less than idyllic weather, the UK being the UK.  There was a cold night in Whitchurch, frost on the Lapland Bunting when we opened the hatch in the morning, but we also knew we had packed rain gear and boots to cope with the occasional downpour and soggy ground.  

In the course of two days Calum dropped a month worth of rain on the part of Wales we were in, along with rather bracing winds. Wind and rain, when you’re in the house is not a problem. On a narrowboat, it is simply miserable, especially since a narrowboat is essentially a 230 square foot, under powered steel sail and the wind is always blowing in exactly the wrong direction on an open tiller deck.  

Rain gear or not, we both got soaked to the skin for two days with a cold Welsh gale. After mooring clothing was hung on the interior radiators in a futile attempt to reduce the moisture content from cold terrarium to only modestly sodden. We did forebear with frequent cups of tea for the pilot and lockie to ward off the chill and the damp, but standing next to the heating radiators after mooring up was very welcome.

We were rewarded for our perseverance with a double rainbow toward evening on the second day of rain.  A good omen.

It was a Dark and Stormy Day

It’s a gray day, rainy and wet the wind blowing hard and making navigation difficult as the boat is pushed into the wall. A challenging day to remind me that boating is not always fun and pleasant sunny days but that there are days you’d rather stay tied to shore and watch the day blow past. And that sometimes that is not any option. We have to get the boat back to whence it came and ourselves off to Dublin for a few days to get adapted back to world time from canal time.

We fight the rain and wind moving off the safety of the mooring and into the channel, looking a little like the Michelin man with all the layers – only in blue as that is the colour of my rain gear. Not on the pull today. As we’ve noted narrowboats are, well narrow, but also they are long. The canals are also narrow, the one we are in now is 14 feet or so wide. We are pointing the wrong way and have the choice of backing out of the section we are on or going to the other end where there is a winding hole – a space large enough to turn a narrowboat using the power of the engine or of the wind or in the day, of horses or of the crew.

On my boat back in Canada this would be a simple matter of putting the transmission in reverse and using proportional thrust to steer out, around the corner and if I’d wanted, wherever we needed to go. Narrowboats don’t reverse that well, I can get it going fairly straight but the precise steering of twin engines is not possible.

We push off and slowly move past all the moored boats, at the speed of a 6 month old toddler crawling. As we get to the end I judge the distance, what I have learned of the boat, slowing to a near dead stop.  I use the prop wash in reverse to start turning the boat around the center. When it starts to move backwards I hard over the tiller and change to forward using the prop in forward with the tiller to continue moving the boat around it’s center. I’m now committed to this process switching between forward and reverse to keep the boat still but moving around its center.

As we pass the quarter turn, the wind comes in to the port side of the boat, I try to hold it but the 47 feet by about 5 feet above the water makes a very good 230 plus square foot steel sail. There is nothing for it, get the horses, oh wait you don’t get horses anymore, and the wind is causing the issue. Muster the crew, Dave. Bravely Dave whose physic is not that of an Olympian but more of a older techie with a mix of writer that smokes too much, tries to use the pole to push the boat against the wind. Wind 1, Dave 0.

So Dave jumps off the bow and tugs the rope much like the small ponies of yesterday would have. He pulls and pulls, I help we the engine a little. At last like the Little Engine That Could he has freed the boat, the engine now able to push us out of the Ellesmere branch of the Llangollen canal. There will be more pushing today a then a little scotch and some food when we find a find a place to moor that is fairly sheltered.


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.

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.

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:

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.