Travel: Why a scenic narrowboat break can also be a daredevil adventure
Ben Mitchell and his family follow a route through time and nature on their first canal boat holiday
I call out from our narrowboat to a man on a mobility scooter who is overtaking us on the towpath: “Is that the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct ahead?”
“Yes, don’t worry,” he replies. “There’s a pub on the other side!”
As I edge on to the magnificent bridge, barely wider than our boat with no barrier to my left, I look down over the 126ft (38m) drop to the River Dee below and feel the butterflies gathering in my stomach. I quickly realise this daredevil crossing is enough to turn even a teetotaller to drink.
“Straighten up, you’re going to hit the side,” my panicked partner shrieks at me while my daughter laughs with glee, although I notice she’s standing on the side next to the towpath so she could easily step off if a calamity should actually occur.
We edge forward slowly – the narrowboat equivalent of tiptoeing – across the 1,007ft-long (307m) aqueduct which, built in 1795, is the highest and longest in the UK and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, until we finally reach the canal basin of Trevor and I feel palpably relieved.
But if I thought this was time to relax, of course I was wrong; despite crawling along at an average speed of 3mph, there is always a challenge ahead when narrow-boating.
I am now faced with a 90-degree turn to go under a bridge with only inches to spare on either side, which requires me to utilise my hitherto unused – by unused I mean non-existent – reversing skills to manoeuvre and line-up into position, and move forward into the impossible-looking gap.
We (somehow) make it and, as I adjust the tiller to prevent the rear end scraping the bridge walls, I allow a moment of pride to bubble up inside me. I feel I am gradually getting the hang of steering Amelie, our 62ft long Lautrec Narrowboat.
Just two days earlier, I had stepped onboard a canal boat for the first time and despite a thorough briefing from Paul, one of Chirk Marina’s enthusiastic and highly-expert team, I had set out with a huge feeling of trepidation, borne out by my initial attempts at navigating this behemoth.
To say this floating house steers like a brick would be insulting to bricks, and using the tiller is completely counter-intuitive to a car driver – a turn to the right takes you to the left and vice versa.
I soon learnt that you should not steer more than a gentle push, as it will easily send you veering off, requiring you to urgently correct your course – and narrowboats do not do ‘urgently’.
You have to try your hardest to straighten up, which sends you veering off in the other direction, a situation that can leave you weaving back and forth across the canal until you finally manage to straighten up.
All this is manageable, unless a boat is coming towards you and then all manner of panicky adjustments are needed to get in a position to let them pass, preferably to your left (port-to-port) as per The Boater’s Handbook.
Surprisingly quickly, though, I start to get a feel for it and begin to relax and take in the beautiful views; at every bend I am taken aback at how picturesque the countryside is, every bridge a potential Constable painting.
The canal not only cuts a line through the countryside, it feels like it cuts a line through time, transporting you into a different dimension, away from the roads and hustle of modern life – the prison of lockdown quickly forgotten.
It brings you within brushing distance of cows dipping their nose in the water, sheep nursing their lambs, herons standing statuesque on the bank.
We set off from Chirk, just across the border into Wales, for this new High Life route planned by Black Prince Holidays, which takes us along the Llangollen Canal to Ellesmere, before retracing our path and up to Llangollen itself.
We successfully pass through the only two locks on the route with the help of a couple of live-aboard boaters and my daughter’s energetic enthusiasm for turning the windlasses to raise the paddles – as well as learning new driving skills you also pick up a whole new vocabulary while boating.
I had never imagined that a short canal boat trip could take me to such remote and different locations, from the rustic farmland of Shropshire to the rugged Welsh hills of Llangollen, and the huge bonus is because you are fully-equipped onboard, you can moor up wherever you want – close to a pub or as far from one as you like.
After picking up supplies at the finely-stocked Vermeulens Delicatessen in Ellesmere, we stop for the night alongside the majestic Blake Mere, a tranquil lake reflecting the forest that surrounds it, with the only disturbance made by the splash-landing of geese and ducks.
Our boat comes complete with two bedrooms, shower, two toilets, lounge and fully-equipped kitchen, as well as central heating and hot water, allowing us to enjoy the dying light over the still waters as we eat our home-cooked dinner.
But all this tranquillity does not equate to boredom for any junior sailors on board; my daughter is engrossed in spotting wildlife, fawning over ducklings scampering out of the way of the boat, or creating her own artistic masterpieces for her scrapbook.
Black Prince also provides a Towpath Activity Guide to provide further inspiration for younger crew members.
The final waypoint of our voyage is Llangollen, where we climb to the 13th century ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, which overlook the town like a giant silhouetted sheep, before we walk to the manmade Horseshoe Falls.
We finish our day with an ice cream in the town, where I feel jolted back into the 21st century, having to negotiate the bustle of cars and supermarket tills once again.
But we are soon back on the water, negotiating the notorious narrows which lead out of Llangollen and back into the timeless countryside.
How to plan your trip
Black Prince Holidays (01527 575 115; black-prince.com) offer a four-night midweek break from Chirk from £989 in May, based on up to four sharing and including one dog. Diesel is extra and costs around £10 per day.
Black Prince has created a series of routes that are recommended for families and first time narrowboaters, departing bases in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire.
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