Messing about on... Canals.

Until recently I had always regarded people who pottered around our canals with a sort of vague curiosity. After all, who could possibly want to boat in murky waters at a snail's pace when there are the open seas, speed boats and water skiing?

Well now, after a recent canal trip in the middle of June, I can understand why the world of narrowboats appeals to so many people.

Silhouette moored - 11k

The Silhouette is a 58ft, 6-berth narrowboat built about 5 years ago and owned by a group of canal enthusiasts.

A friend of mine and his wife - veterans of the canalling world with over 25 years experience - invited me to join them on a cruise round parts of the Shropshire Union, Llangollen, and Montgomery canals; and experience the joys of opening dozens of lock gates and performing chores as a member of their cabin staff. I jest!

To be perfectly honest there's not much effort required to open a lock gate, although there are lots of common sense rules. There's also a certain etiquette involved. As you might imagine, this prevents 'lock rage' breaking out when rival boats both want to use a lock which is only able to hold one narrowboat at a time. That's the theory!

Joining the 'Silhouette' in Chester
(a city with a picturesque centre but not so picturesque canal running through it) we headed towards Nantwich and the main Shropshire Union Canal - the Shroppie to its narrowboating admirers.

While a good portion of the thousands of miles of canal pass through some wonderful countryside it's well to remember that the canals are part of our past industrial infrastructure and some portions of the system aren't at all picturesque. Still, that doesn't detract from watching fields and hedgerows gently pass you by when out in the wilds.

Rolling Shropshire countryside - 9k

The canals give you an ideal way to see the
countryside as it gently glides past.

Countryside canal - 10k

Progress through the countryside at a stately 4 mph.

The one thing about travelling the canals which hits you immediately is the speed of travel or, rather, the lack of it. The rules (courtesy of the British Inland Waterways Board, if I have got the name correct) say that boat speed should be kept to a maximum 4 miles per hour. That's the equivalent of a fast walking speed. When passing moored narrowboats skippers are asked to halve their speed because the boat's wash causes motion in the moored boats.

That said, we came across a small minority who blindly ignored the etiquette - either through ignorance or arrogance. Very irritating if you end up with hot tea in your lap because some b*#~ has no thought or consideration for others.

Heading towards Llangollen - 9k

Bridges on small canals permit the passage on just one boat. Many bridges still bears the scars of their industrial past; rope marks etched into the stonework. Some bridges look like they like have been there since Domesday. Others have obviously had to be replaced, and others still are patched up.

Exiting Chirk tunnel - 10k
As a transport and communications network the canal system is a curious mixture of engineering standards.

When Telford, Brinton and others built the canals they appear to have set upon a boat width [beam] of just under 7ft, so that many locks and bridges provide a very narrow passage to boats although most of the 'open' route permits the passage of two boats (the Thames system and some others can take much wider beam narrowboats).

Lock lengths vary around the country. While many will accommodate boats of 70ft in length, a lot do not and, according to my narrowboating friends, a 58ft boat like the 'Silhouette' is the maximum size that can be accommodated length-wise by the whole canal system.

Some locks are double width, so that two boats can share the water (water being a precious commodity within the canal system) yet interestingly the usual average depth of a canal - apart from the locks - is only about 3 to 4 feet.

That Telford and the engineers of his day were talented is exemplified by the aquaduct (pictured right) before the branch to the Llangollen canal. This extraordinary structure is built of cast iron sections which wedge together to form a watertight highway in the sky. Some 200ft below sheep graze in the fields.

Although it provides breathtaking views, and an experience of a lifetime, it is not to everyone's tastes. We met a woman standing at one end of the aquaduct who professed that she neither liked water nor heights! I cannot think of a worse holiday break.

Llangollen aquaduct - 12k

Highway in the sky! The great Llangollen aquaduct.
The canals offer a slice of the countryside - 14k

Although it's not a wilderness, and many canals follow the same geographic contours used by roads and railways, the canals almost put you within touching distance of the animals and plants which fill the banks of the canal.
The one thing I can say categorically about the canals - at least in rural areas - is that they are a wonderful place to see some of Britain's flora and fauna. At one lock I came across a stoat trying to cross over the lock gate, and on numerous occasions we saw herons.

Taking a walk along various towpaths when we moored I found myself passing among numerous deep blue-coloured damsel flies which shimmered in the sun, and bumping into a toad trying to reach the water. And then there were glimpses of the occasional skylark, and encounters with noisy magpies and crows, warbling wrens, and numerous dawn choruses undistrubed by the rumble of traffic. And, of course, every hedgerow and canal bank has its own tale to tell in terms of wild plants and flowers.

Life on board the 'Silhouette', and similar modern narrowboats, isn't a hardship - and certainly makes for a more pleasant experience than living in a tent or out of the back of a car.

From stern to bow, the 'Silhouette' had a main double bedroom area with en-suite shower, a main bathroom/ shower, galley kitchen area with gas cooking, and a 'living space' in which the dining table area converted into a second double bed, and two armchairs which transformed into single beds. And although the 'Silhouette' had a wood burning stove to give it a more cosey feel, a diesel central heating system could be turned on. Hot water was a by-product of running the engine during one's travels with the same charging a series of serious heavy-duty batteries for electricity.

Silhouette shelters from the sun - 17k

Taking shelter from the heat of the midday sun
- when it shone that is!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this was my first encounter with travelling on Britain's canal system. In the ten days away I must admit that I enjoyed every minute, even though the odd creature comfort (like a washing machine) was absent. It's a wonderful unhurried way of life, which is perhaps why there are some people who live on narrowboats in preference to homes made of bricks and mortar. Certainly once in your life this is worth a try, and if you cannot bear the thought of having to make do with galley kitchens and the like there are actually companies which have Hotel Boats. These provide all the services and staff while you sit on the deck and sip gin and tonic or watch the world pass by.Alternatively, you can hire a boat from a number of companies which have fleets of them.
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