Taking the slow boat down the U.K.’s Llangollen Canal

It was my second attempt to manage the tiller of the 61-foot-long narrowboat. The first one hadn’t gone especially well. It felt like pushing a fully grown Douglas fir down a slalom run with a pool cue. My brain couldn’t seem to process the fact that swinging the tiller to the left made the boat go right, and vice versa. I’d get the hang of it for a while, but as soon as things went wrong, I would panic and swing the tiller the wrong way. The first time I tried, we ended up grounded and had to use a long pole to dislodge us from the mud.

If truth be told, I would have been quite happy sticking to the unofficial division of labour that, despite some exceptions, seemed to operate on the U.K. canals: women on the locks, men on the tiller.

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The tiller demands some concentration. It’s also at the stern, where the motor noise is. The lock job, by contrast, requires only occasional light duties and a chance to talk to humans other than one’s travelling companions. You can also get out and walk along the towpath when you feel like it. Since that was the exact reason I’d chosen this form of vacation — so I could walk while the lazy-arse members of my family sat on their duffs — I figured I was in the clear on this lock/tiller question.

However, my husband had other ideas — he was determined that our two daughters — age 10 and 12 — and I be able to operate the tiller, which seemed fair enough.

So I took my second turn. All went well for a bit, until I realized we were heading too far to the right. On U.K. canals, unlike the roads, traffic moves on the right, but you don’t want to hit a hard bank, or get stuck in a soft one. As I predictably panicked, I steered us even farther into the bank, where a tree branch was hanging over the water. Friends who were travelling with us for the day had stored their rental bikes on the roof of the boat, and as we all watched, the overhanging branch casually swept one of the bikes into the canal.

It’s worth mentioning that although the canals are only about chest deep, the bottoms are thick with murky silt. Also, while sewage is generally kept in holding tanks, grey water goes directly into the canal. So you don’t particularly want to have to get into the water if you can help it (although people do, inexplicably, fish in the canals).

Luckily, our hired boat was supplied with a long pole with a hook on the end, so, after much delicate manuevering, we were eventually able to fish the bike out, clots of mud and dead leaves clinging to the pedals. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was not asked to take the tiller again, so a good outcome for all, really.

As stressful as that was, it wasn’t nearly as taxing as driving on the motorway or dealing with cancelled or delayed trains.

This two-week family narrowboat journey on the Llangollen Canal in north Wales and England had had a tense launch. We were due to pick up the boat in Trevor, near Ruabon, Wales, on a Saturday afternoon in mid-May. The plan was to take a train from London to Birmingham, then Birmingham to Ruabon. Only when we walked to the nearest Tube station with all of our luggage, we found it closed for engineering works. With the help of a London Transport worker, we found a bus that would take us to another Tube station to get to Euston Station, but the journey took a sweat-inducing 70 minutes and we barely made the train. (U.K. trains are notoriously expensive if you don’t get an advance deal).

Then when we arrived at Ruabon, the local bus to Trevor never turned up. After half an hour, a kind local offered to drive us to the boat base, but we were so late, we got a somewhat fast-forwarded orientation to the boat.

Later that day, after crossing the stunning Pontcysyllte (pronounced pont-ker-sulth-tee, don’t ask) and Chirk aqueducts and traversing a seemingly endless 459-metre-long tunnel, we moored the boat near a pub a little north of the village of Chirk. On one side were green fields; on the other, a towpath and hedge. After we tied up, I went back into the boat to get my wallet to go to the pub for dinner. As I walked along the narrow corridor between the two cabins, I happened to glance out a canal-side window. On the other side of the glass was a mallard duck. We stared at each other for a while, nose to beak, and for the first time, I truly appreciated the fact that after all the stress of the day, we had entered a new world: the anything-but-fast-paced world of narrowboating.

Narrowboats are required to keep to a speed — and I use that term loosely — of under four miles an hour. Walking speed, essentially, although ours travelled rather more slowly, since I regularly outpaced it while walking the towpath.

This slow rate of travel allows the boater to fully appreciate the passing scenery and hold somewhat fulsome conversations with those passing by in the opposite direction. We received tips about upcoming locks, points of interest and eating establishments just in the time it took to pass a boat.

On the whole, we found narrowboaters to be a helpful and friendly crew. Rare is the one who doesn’t offer a friendly greeting. There are always a few who drive too fast and don’t respect the various protocols about lock use and bridge raising, but in our experience, they were in the minority.

As J.M. Pearson writes in my well-thumbed Canal Companion — a comprehensive guide mapping out journey times, visitor moorings, attractions and where to find groceries, pubs, pumpout facilities and water — a “certain degree of unwritten protocol and etiquette should be displayed if tempers aren’t to fray. ‘After you, Claude’ is the best approach.”

It helps to remember that you’re actually on vacation and have nowhere particular to go and a lot of time to get there.

At a lift bridge one day, we met Dan and Caro Parry, a couple who have lived on their boat since 2014, who told us a story about a boat that was following them closely — tailgating, in effect. The woman in the bow called out to ask if they were planning to pull over. No, replied Dan.

Then why are you going so slowly? asked the woman. Because this is narrowboating, said Dan, who eventually pulled over to let them pass after the woman’s husband honked at him. As they sped by, he noted the name of their boat: Tranquillity.

Tranquility was what we were after when we picked the Llangollen Canal for our inaugural narrowboat expedition. While it’s not a circuit route, the Llangollen largely runs through rural rather than suburban or industrial lands, which makes it popular with those who like to wake up to the sound of blackbirds and baaing sheep (my journal entry for Day 3: The sheep were there when we went to sleep and they were there at 5 a.m. — do sheep sleep?). The goal, inasmuch as we had one, was to make it to Chester and back via the Llangollen and Shropshire Union canals, dipping back and forth across the English/Wales border en route.

The U.K. canal system was largely built in the 18th and 19th centuries as a key transportation route during and for the Industrial Revolution. Long, skinny boats carrying raw materials such as coal or finished goods were pulled by horses walking the towpaths (we saw a living example of this at Llangollen, Wales, where visitors can take a ride on a genuine horse-drawn narrowboat). Each horse was reportedly capable of pulling 30 tons. At the height of 19th-century canal-building, there were more than 6,400 kilometres of canal.

As time passed, however, the system couldn’t compete with the speed and carrying capacity of railways, then with roads, to the point that there was little use of the canals for industry by the mid-20th century.

Canals fell into disrepair or were filled in before a few bright minds realized the potential to exploit the system for holiday excursions. For the last few decades, many previously abandoned or neglected canals have been slowly restored, with much of the work done by volunteers.

Several companies now provide holiday rentals from various bases throughout the country from which travellers can access a variety of canal systems. Boaters get a rudimentary lesson in boat operation and are sent on their way to hone their skills through trial and error — and hopefully not too many bumps and scrapes.

Locks, intimidating at first, proved to be easy peasy once we got the hang of them and travelling in May we had to deal with little in the way of queues, which can be up to two hours long in high season at busy staircase-style locks.

One lesson we learned early on is that it’s amazing how many boats can fit side-by-side in what looks like a pretty narrow canal. It’s easy to spot the newbies — they’re the ones thrown into a panic when facing an oncoming boat next to a moored boat. Experienced boaters often pass with mere centimetres to spare — others just accept that it’s a contact sport.

The main thing to remember is that every move will be painfully slow — as a wag on the towpath quipped one day, there might be getaway cars, but there are no getaway narrowboats. We often travelled for a whole day and covered fewer than 20 kilometres. It’s truly the longest, shortest ride.

We were cruising in the Welsh part of the canal one day when we noticed, up ahead, an older gent in a cloth cap sitting in a folding chair on the towpath, his fishing rod suspended over the entire width of the canal. We slowed to a crawl, but as we inched closer, the man made no move to remove the rod, although he briefly glanced in our direction. Finally, I called out: “Is this one of those games where we have to go under it?” “Aye,” he said calmly.

At the last possible second, he gently flicked his line up, out of the way. “They don’t usually slow down,” he added, as the stern of our boat passed by.

The other basic truth of narrowboating is that every move you make will be on display for fellow boaters, towpath walkers and canalside pub goers to critique. Docking in the mooring basin at Llangollen village at the end of our journey, we were trying to back into the mooring spot when a sudden wind pulled us in the wrong direction. Of course, it was the cocktail hour and every boater who wasn’t already on deck with a drink in hand materialized to ensure we weren’t going to conk into their vessel.

We ended up going in bow-first, sheepishly.

Every day of our narrowboating journey we had two important decisions to make: which idyllic pastoral scene was worth stopping for a picnic and which was good enough to moor for the night. You can moor anywhere you like, as long as it’s not private land or otherwise specifically prohibited because it would obstruct traffic, although you’re generally restricted to 48 hours in one place in high season.

And you don’t have to limit your daily activities to staring at sheep — you can walk to various attractions en route via footpaths or rural roads that run from the canal, usually starting from a bridge, all of which are conveniently numbered.

We took one path to the ruins of the 13th-century Beeston Castle, near Bunbury in Cheshire, and others into the town centres of Ellesmere, Whitchurch, Marbury and Bunbury, for sightseeing and groceries. Outside the Spar store in Wrenbury, there was a small raised bed of herbs, including rosemary, mint, sage and chives, with a pair of scissors tied to wooden box and an invitation to help yourself.

At Llangollen, we climbed a steep path through pastures with vistas of velvety green folding hills dotted with sheep to the ruins of the 13th-century Castell Dinas Bran.

In the pretty village of Bunbury, there was a wedding going on at the imposing 14th century St. Boniface’s Church, whose windows were damaged by a German fighter dropping excess bombs on the way back from a night raid on Liverpool in 1940. The bellringers were having a field day with the wedding bells, perhaps over-excited by the fact that it was also Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding day.

While taking shots of bridesmaids, the photographer for the Bunbury wedding called out to the Dysart Arms pub across the road: “Can I borrow your Harry and Meghan?” and two life-sized cardboard cutouts subsequently joined the local wedding party.

Aside from wedding bells, the soundtrack for our journey was birdsong, baaing and mooing, although one night in Cheshire we were near enough to a train line to hear passing carriages every quarter hour until about 10:30 p.m. Sometimes, there was the distant hum of a motorway, but even that was rare.

One day, we followed a circuitous path on the edge of farm fields for a good 20 minutes to reach a farm reputed to sell ice cream. When we finally arrived at the gate, it was somewhat shocking to find a large car park where streams of passengers were regularly disgorging with the same goal in mind. It didn’t seem possible that the motorway could be that close.

I started to wonder what it would be like to live in this parallel, watery universe, to be a liveaboard or “continuous cruiser,” as they’re called, spending my days watching grazing sheep, darting black moorhens, mallards splashing and fighting and herons quietly fishing. Setting up a table and chairs on the towpath and enjoying a bottle of wine at sundown.

Names of the boats we saw held out the tantalizing promise of this life: Far From the Madding Crowd and Narrow Escape.

For the Parrys, who met working in a cafe in Swansea, Wales, it was a way to live cheaply with, as Caro put it, a minimum of indoors and maximum of outdoors.

Selling an inherited house helped them buy their 1997 bespoke-built boat for 25,000 pounds. They survive on Caro’s disability pension and Dan’s work writing pieces for canal-themed magazines, but also by keeping their outlay to a minimum.

In the off-season, continuous cruisers with a licence can stay for up to two weeks at one mooring for free, although that drops to 48 hours during high season. (The non-profit Canal and River Trust, which manages the canal system, has a reputation for more strictly enforcing the rules than the previous government-run British Waterways.)

Some, like Caro and Dan, opt to pay for a private mooring where they can stay as much as they like in return for a modest rent to the landowner and the CRT, along with the cost of a boat licence. The Parrys have a very basic mooring deal, but others pay a little more for electricity, parking and the right to build storage sheds and small decks.

The Parrys heat their boat with a wood stove and scavenge wood along the canal in the summer, lining the gunnels with it until it’s needed. They’ve learned how to order food and other supplies online, using the address of the nearest house, but providing a mobile phone number so they can redirect the delivery to the canal.

Some with bigger budgets keep their boats in small marinas with more services — still cheaper than owning and maintaining a house, in many cases.

Besides the logs, continuous cruisers can be identified by the planters on their boat roofs, blooming with flowers, vegetable plots and herbs, sometimes in old boots. Caro, who has a background in horse training, and Dan also travel with a small menagerie: two dogs — Molly, an eight-year-old Jack Russell, and Buddy, an eight-month-old Lurcher, budgies Little Walter and Gorgeous George, who travel in a birdcage on the roof of the boat, and a mouse called Mouse. (Two years ago, a hard landing bumped Molly out of her basket on the roof of the boat and into the canal, where Dan had to rescue her, swimming frantically.)

The space is small and they don’t have a fridge, but they don’t mind. Dan points out that prior to the narrowboat, they lived in a camper. “Live in a camper van in a field for a while and this is a palace.

“The real appeal of this life is being nomadic.”

One benefit, Caro says, is that it’s impossible to be acquisitive with such a small space, although she has hung antique plates and decorative mirrors on the walls to make the living area feel cosy.

For just over a year, Dan has been writing a book about the liveaboard life with a “dinosaur” laptop, plugging in an inverter when he wants to work. “I charge up my laptop and I’ve got two hours to write as many words as I can.”

While Dan’s writing helps keep them afloat, he’d like to eventually supplement his income by servicing narrowboat engines, based on what he’s learned from his own boat.

It’s not uncommon for continuous cruisers, who keep in contact with each other via Facebook forums, to offer onboard services to support their lifestyle, selling everything from books to massages.

One couple from Cornwall whom we ran into at Hurleston Locks, where the Llangollen Canal joins the Shropshire Union, had that very day launched a business selling wood-fired pizza from a clay oven in the bow of their narrowboat. One was a hairdresser while the other worked in the hospitality industry — before arriving at pizza, they briefly considered opening a combination tea-shop/hairdresser’s on their narrowboat, before ruling it out as impractical.

At 51 and 28, Caro and Dan — along with the 40-50-something couple from Cornwall — were among the younger people we met. Most narrowboaters we encountered were baby-boomer age, and almost all were British, with the odd American or German thrown in. There were few young families, and I quickly discovered why: School was still in session and in the U.K., if you take your children out of school, you face fines — up to 60 pounds per child per day.

Yet it’s a perfect family activity: you don’t have to hassle your children to get dressed in the morning — you can take off while they’re still in pyjamas. The only stipulation is that they have to work when called upon at a lock or bridge, pyjamas or not.

Travelling in May, we often found ourselves playing chicken with duck families with up to 12 young, which always generated a stampede to the bow. My 10-year-old even got a “duck spotter” button from a store where we stopped for ice cream. When there were no distracting waterfowl, the kids did their homework on the bow.

On our last full day of narrowboating, we walked from the mooring basin in the delightfully scenic town of Llangollen — where a river cleaves through steep hills — to the start of the canal on which we’d spent most of the last two weeks.

You can’t take motor boats up this section — the only vessels that make the journey are horse-drawn tourist boats, so we had a chance to see the original form of canal transport in action. The horse, accompanied by a handler, pulled the boat using a harness wrapped around its belly and connected to a long rope. Only a handful of tourists were inside, so the load wasn’t that heavy, but it was easy to imagine how much work it would be for an animal to haul a heavy load of coal or other goods on a long journey.

The canal is narrow here and the water is clearer, less murky brown than in sections where motor traffic is permitted.

At Horseshoe Falls, fast-flowing water from the River Dee is diverted and funnelled into the canal system after passing over a wide, crescent-shaped four-foot-high “falls.”

There are interpretive signs that explain it would take 20 men a year to dig out just a mile of canal.

The men of industry who paid for such an ambitious venture — and profited hugely from it, at least for a few decades — probably never contemplated that their grand scheme would turn out to be largely a playground for pleasure seekers. And yet I hope they would be pleased to see the canals being used so many years later.

After we turned in the boat and returned to London, we took a walk along the Regent’s Canal near the London Zoo. It was a warm evening in early June and countless small groups of young people of every ethnicity were sitting dangling their legs over the edge of the canal, talking, as a group of Hare Krishnas chanted and danced nearby, at Camden Lock. A few small, open boats drifted by every now and again, their passengers enjoying a picnic around a table. One boat’s crew was using the lock, and it was hard to resist the temptation to jump in and help.

Narrowboats here have become homes for people who otherwise couldn’t afford a place to live, harkening back to the waning days of commercial canal use, when canal transport became so ill-paid that whole families had to live aboard.

In Europe, out of economic necessity, many canals were widened to accommodate larger boats that could carry more lucrative loads. That never happened in the U.K. — perhaps because some canal systems were owned by railway companies that didn’t want the competition. Whatever the reason, that very narrowness makes travelling by canal feel old-fashioned and quaint, like taking a trip to the era of stagecoaches. Tying up by a bridge and arriving in a village by footpath rather than motorway. Buying provisions at the butcher’s and baker’s while exchanging civilities — it could be 1880, not 2018.

For someone with a hate/tolerate relationship with the car, it’s the perfect slow-motion holiday.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. As long as I can stick to the bow.

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