Saturday, 7 April 2007

One way to Llangollen - Chirk to Llangollen

8th April 2007
Chirk to LLangollen
Llangollen Canal (Welsh Canal)

9 Miles
0 Locks
6 Hours

And so the journey comes to an end, but what an end!

The Welsh Canal saves the best till last, and no matter how many times you come this way you can never fail to be impressed:

1. Chirk wharf, very pretty.

2. Chirk Aqueduct - a huge stone structure containing an iron trough. In itself it is an impressive structure stretching over the River Ceiriog, but with the larger railway viaduct running alongside the experience is sublime. All the way across you get excellent views of the Welsh countryside framed beneath the curved arches of the aqueduct's big brother. A picture of the aqueduct and viaduct next to each other must be included in every known photographic record of this canal.

3. No sooner are you off the aqueduct than you are diving into the 459 yard Chirk Tunnel, complete with towing path courtesy of Mr Telford.

4. A short gap exists between Chirk Tunnel and is shorter neighbour, the Whitehouses Tunnel, both of which donated their spoil to the construction if the huge embankment which takes the canal onto is piece de resistance - the massive Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (pronounced Pont-ker-sulth-tee).
Its hard to find the right superlatives for this 1000 years long behemoth of the canal age, carrying the channel in an iron trough 127 feet above the River Dee. This isn't a place for those with vertigo, particularly steerers who stand on the stern of their craft with absolutely nothing between them and the void below.
Put simply, it is amazing. So amazing that even now, 200 years after its construction, visitors throng to see it and walk along its narrow towpath, marveling that the spindly columns can carry the weight of the water filled trough perched on top.

5. You would thank that that is the end but no, just beyond the end of the aqueduct the canal takes a sharp turn left and onto the Llangollen Arm. This was originally constructed as a feeder from the River Dee higher up the valley, but was later widened to navigable dimensions - just.
The last four miles wind up the Dee valley, clinging mid way up the northern slope. The section runs over unstable ground and the gravity defying waterway has regularly succumbed, sliding bodily into the valley below. These massive breaches have been repaired and repaired again, most recently in massive concrete trough sections which reduce the channel to single track operation and necessitate a crew member running ahead and ensure a clear passage is possible on blind corners.

7. Finally, the canal terminates high above the town centre, which has the hustle and bustle of a seaside resort, complete with chip shops and ye olde English (or maybe Welsh) tea rooms. Mooring used to be restricted to the wharf area but the recent addition of a public mooring marina has eased this problem, and is well worth the £5 per night charged by BW. Llangollen is famed not only for its beautiful canal and river, but also for its annual Eisteddfod music festival, which occupies a permanent site immediately below the mooring basin.

That was the end of the trip. Eight fantastic spring days on one of the nations prettiest canals. This must have been my 6th journey to Llangollen but it still enchants me and fills me with enthusiasm to stage a return.

Messrs Whately (Snr and Junior) were spied in the town centre and kit was swapped leaving us with a 2 hour journey back to the Midlands and the lads with a 6 day return journey in WB, retracing our nautical footsteps minus the excursion to Chester.

Friday, 6 April 2007

One Way to Llangollen - Prees to Chirk

6th April 2007
Arm to Chirk
Llangollen Canal (Welsh Canal)

18 Miles
2 Locks
9 Hours

Did I say idyllic? The thing I forget about the peaceful countryside is just how noisy it can be! I think I have been a townie for so long that I have forgotten my agricultural roots.

The Prees mooring is beautiful but those moo's I raved about yesterday turned out to be uttered from the mouths of milking cows and milking cows, by definition, need to be milked. At 4.30 am actually! So what with the cows mooing, the dogs barking, the cockerels crowing, the tractors roaring and the farmers shouting - it was all something of a cacophony first thing. Never mind, it was a lovely mooring and an early start never killed anyone.

Once back on the main line the canal continues its remote wanderings, initially on a long embankment over the Fenn's and then slinking westwards through Bettisfield and Hampton Bank before reaching Ellesmere's "little lake district". These seven lakes (or meres) have no inflow or outflow, having been formed by the retreating ice caps of the last ice age 10,000 year ago. Easter is a good time to pass through as the leaves have yet to emerge on the trees and obscure the delightful views. Predictably, the area is a popular mooring spot for boaters and is well catered for with formal moorings.

There is a short tunnel (87 yards) just before Ellesmere plus a marina with all the usual services. There then follows the Ellesmere Town Arm which should be a good mooring spot. However, the area is undergoing a slow regeneration scheme and, apart from the decaying Shropshire Union warehouse, the area is mainly a demolition site where a creamery once stood. The end result is rather barren so after picking up supplies in the pretty town centre, we winded and made our way back to Beech House, which stands as a sentinel guarding the arm entrance.

Its back to the wild open spaces of Flintshire (its not called that any more but I like the name) and on westwards to Frankton Junction. I had harboured plans for a trip along the restored 7 miles of the Montgomery Canal to Maebury Marsh, but it became a toss up between Chester and the Montgomery. In the end the family appeal of Chester won over, and the Monty has been left as a good destination for a future ten day trip.

Frankton's locks were therefore left untroubled and we moved on to Maestermyn Cruisers base, topping up with diesel, replacing a gas cylinder, pumping out the loo and filling up with fresh water. On our arrival I realised that I had hired a narrowboat from this centre in the early 1980's accompanied by Jon (to be my best man) and Rod and Rita (to become the vicar of Ipswich). That's another trip to record and whilst I know I took some photos, I have no idea what I did with them. Another trip into the loft!

As the afternoon wore on we arrived at the lower of the two locks at New Marton. A ground paddle had broken slowing one lock down to a snails pace, and causing a huge boat jam - about 12 boats long which took about an hour and a half to clear. As with Grindley Brook, one has to adopt a laid back approach to such delays and while away the time chatting to the boaters before and behind us. As it says repeatedly in the Good Book "it came to pass" - and so it did, with the light failing and the warmth of a spring day being replaced with a chilly cold which penetrated even my fleecy trousers and thick coat. We continued on to Bridge 16, near the Lion Quays pub and settled for a less picturesque, but ultimately much quieter mooring.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

One way trip Llangollen - Wrenbury to Prees Arm

5th April 2007
Wrenbury to Prees Arm
Llangollen Canal (Welsh Canal)

14 Miles
10 Locks
7 Hours

A frost start in a wintry mist, but with clear skies above there was the prospect of a lovely day.

We were late off (10.00) and all the boats moored near us had already moved on. The mist looked like lifting so a late start seemed in order and the sun started to make an appearance as we reached Marbury Lock , about 40 mins later. Quoisley, Willey Moor (Jeff liked that one) and Povey's locks followed in quick succession leading to the foot of Grindley Brook. The first three individual locks were fine but as we emerged from the last our delayed departure was seen to be a mistake. The pound to the foot of the staircase three was lined with boats waiting to rise. This bottleneck has loads of scope for water rage, but fortunately the flight is manned by a BW lock keeper who applied a strict three up, three down policy. Sadly, we were boat number four so we had to wait for about an hour but hey, the sun was shining, belle discovered an internet cafe in the tea room half way up and the kids were pacified with ice creams. As for me, I like staircases and it is almost as much fun to watch them being worked as it is to go through them myself.

Having availed ourselves of the rubbish and water facilities above the top lock we moved on past Whitchurch and its diminutive arm. There then followed a remote stretch along the Shropshire / Clwyd border interrupted only by a few lift bridges, now made of steel which replaced the creaking wooden structures I remember from my youth. Finally, as if all this remoteness has to be taken to another level, the canal enters the Fenns, which are now a nature reserve. This is a huge area of peat bog which used to be commercially harvested, causing the land to sink and the canal company to employ a permanent gang of labourers to repeatedly raise the banks.

If you read my accounts of travelling the BCN you will realise that I love side arms, the little bits most people miss out, which are are often gems. The Prees Arm is, by my standards, a huge side arm running on for a whole mile (it used to be four miles) and services Wixall Marina. This marina is on the site of an old quarry and is said to be incredibly deep.

The arm itself is very narrow and shallow after the first of two lift bridges, reducing forward travel to maybe two miles per hour and the reeds on either side reducing the channel to about 10 ft in places. We turned in the marina entrance and went back along the canal for a couple of hundred yards, mooring in a gap in the reeds, leaving just enough space for another boat to creep through (only one did during our stay). This mooring spot goes down as one of the most idyllic I have ever known. It was a clear sky sunset giving a warm end to a spring evening, warm enough to discard coats and fish in fleeces. The undisturbed waters teemed with fish and we settled down amidst the fields and farms, with the cows moo's competing with the evening birdsong.

If you end up in this area when it is time to moor, don't stop as the entrance to the Prees Arm, like most boaters do. Press on for half an hour and moor at the far end. Satisfaction is guaranteed.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

One Way to Llangollen - Egg Bridge to Wrenbury

4th April 2007
Egg Bridge to Wrenbury
Shropshire Union Canal (Chester Canal) and Llangollen Canal (Welsh Canal)

14 Miles
15 Locks
8 Hours

Another fine and sunny day as we passed through the flat and rather featureless area south of Egg Bridge. As you approach Hargrave you pass long lines of moored, mostly older and shorter than those found in the south. The whole stretch down to Chester has an "out of the way" feel to it and attracts a different kind of boater, ones more interested in tinkering with humble craft than owning an expensive recreation of a traditional working boat. In truth I have more interest in this eclectic huddle of craft that the formulaic 55ft trads which are the staples of most marinas.

We made steady progress till we reached the Bunbury staircase where a collection of workboats blocked all the conventional lock mooring bays. After some confusion about who was mooring and who was waiting, three boats approached the bottom staircase with the initial plan that a plastic craft would ascend with a steel narrowboat. It then turned out that they were afraid to share a lock which such a heavy craft so they started up alone. Next we entered the bottom chamber with the other narrowboat whose skipper freaked when he saw a boat entering the recently vacated top lock. I assured him that it would all work out via the infamous Bunbury shuffle but even as we exited he still seemed bemused that we had managed passed another boat in the flight! It's the four boat shuffle that can get really interesting.

From Bunbury its a short trip to Barbridge Junction and the entrance to Middlewich Branch, quickly followed by Hurleston Junction and the initial 4 lock flight onto the Llangollen Canal. I like Hurleston, it is spacious but remote and it heralds the prospect of a trip up this lovely waterway, a destination never fails to excite me. I think I have travelled this route at least six times but still I look forward to our return.
With evening upon us we pressed on through the Swanley and Baddiley Locks arriving at Wrenbury in the last glimmer of twilight. We passed under the electrically operated lift bridge and the ABC hire base, mooring up on the left and setting a good fire in the grate as we pad a visit to the Dusty Miller and enjoyed an excellent evening meal.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

One Way to Llangollen - Egg Bridge to Chester

3rd April 2007
Egg Bridge to Chester, and back to Egg Bridge again!
Shropshire Union Canal (Chester Canal)

10 Miles
16 Locks
6 Hours
A day of effort and toil, only to moor up again in the exact same spot the next night!
Egg Bridge is only a hop skip and jump to Christleton Lock, which marks the final descent into Chester. As with so many towns, the entrance to the ancient town of Chester by canal is an underwhelming experience. The waterway slinks down through post industrial wastelands and gas works, with high factory walls obscuring the view.
Whilst the southern approaches are dull, the final encounter with the town is impressive by any standard. As you finally emerge from bridge 123E you are faced with the walled fortifications rising up from a sheer cliff, through which the canal channel has been cut like a slot. Fern covered rocks and walls hem you in and bridges soar above, drawing you on and on to the top of the Northgate staircase. If you don't fancy the staircase there is a good public mooring bridges 123D and E, but if you do progress there is no winding hole - so you are committed.
The Northgate staircase of three appears to have side sluices capable of absorbing a full lock of water let down from above, without emptying the lower chambers first. Sadly, this is a false assumption and the accumulated debris impedes the flow of water and resulting in an overtopping of water which flowed down the cobbled towpath. This sudden cascade was quickly remedied by the partial closure of the gate paddle, but not before I attracted some baleful glares from pedestrians who had been obliged to take some lively steps to avoid wet feet! I will know next time!
We turned at Taylors Boatyard, which is located in the lagoon which also serves as an entry to the little used Dee Branch with its three locks to the river. We stopped at the public moorings opposite Telfords Warehouse and wandered up onto the Walls and then into the town for a look see.
Chester is a fabulous town which we have visited before. We therefore didn't hang around and instead sought out a Millets for two warmer sleeping bags for Tilly and Jeff, a pizza for lunch and finally a visit to the nearby supermarket for supplies.
With nothing else to do, and no films on at the cinema that we wanted to watch, we decided to set off back in mid afternoon. We passed a working boat in the Northgate flight which was making its annual pilgrimage to the Easter boat gathering at Ellesmere Port. With a shuffle past completed in the middle chamber we pushed on into the late afternoon, finally returning to Egg Bridge as the sun was setting.
Like I said, a whole days effort to go absolutely nowhere! An excellent days boating which left the 8 miles to Ellesmere Port unexplored, and also a potential descent to the River Dee. I can feel a one week return trip coming on sometime in the future to fill in these gaps.

Monday, 2 April 2007

One way to Llangollen - Audlem to Egg Bridge

2nd April 2007
Audlem to Egg Bridge
Shropshire Union Canal

22 Miles
12 Locks
9 Hours

Belle had noticed that the old mill at Audlem contained a canal craft shop and insisted on a delayed departure to review its wares. Sadly, the Mill was closed for renovations and out delayed start was in vain.
Whilst there was very little boat traffic on the Shroppie, things hotted up around the Hurleston / Barbridge section. Lots of boats were moving between the Middlewich Arm and The Welsh Canal.
After Nantwich the canal widens out to broad guage, marking the transition to the old Chester Canal. Its not just the locks and bridgeholes that get bigger, the whole waterway takes on a more substantial feel, being deeper and wider facilitating faster progress. As the canal follows the river Gowy down the valley it meanders to and fro , with river like qualities and very pretty to boot. A highlight for me was the section through Beeston Locks with Beeston Castle glowering down at us from its hilltop location. When we have more time we will stop here and explore.
We ended the day at Egg Bridge, not an ideal mooring as it was a bit shallow and called for the use of a gangplank. Having said that, it was quiet and secure.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

One way to Llangollen - Gnosall to Audlem

1st April 2007
Gnosall Heath to Audlem
Shropshire Union Canal

20 Miles
21 Locks
10 Hours

We made steady progress in good weather, passing through Norbury Junction where we topped up with Diesel and pumped out (£14). It goes against the grain not to fill at Wheaton Aston, but they were closed yesterday.
The plan was to reach Market Drayton and stop, but the weather was splendid, so we pressed on to the top of the Audlem flight and reviewed the situation. It had turned into a perfect spring evening and the Audlem locks were beckoning to us - so we started down. This is a very quick flight of locks and before we knew it we had reached the pound after lock 11, just above the old mill. This is a lovely quiet mooring with the sound of Audlem parish clock just audible in the background.