A canal boat holiday along the Shropshire Union Canal
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 June 2016 | UPDATED: 13:57 23 January 2017
We're going nowhere...slowly. That's the joy of a canal boat holiday close to home in Cheshire, writes Louise Allen-Taylor
One hand is on the tiller, the other is on my smartphone, frantically googling up nearby pubs as the light fails at the end of a long day on the water. I don’t think the rules of the road about mobile phones apply to driving a narrowboat, chugging, as we are, at less than walking pace through the Cheshire countryside.
It’s dusk by the time we tie up, and darkness falls as we yomp the mile and a half from the canal along unlit rural roads to the Farmers Arms, Ravensmoor, hungrily hurrying to get there before the kitchen closes. A sigh of relief as we enter the busy pub to see a table for four with a ‘reserved’ sign on it, and a specials board replete with hearty fare. Pork fillet with black pud in a pepper sauce? Yes, please!
And this is the pattern of our sojourn on the Llangollen Canal: no deadlines - apart from last orders in the pub kitchen - no firm destination, just a determination to pass through life-enhancing landscapes and end the day in conviviality. At times we wouldn’t quite know which county or indeed which country we were in; as the canal snakes hither and thither across borders, we literally go with the flow. Is it England or Wales now? A shrug of the shoulders.
Aside from the ability to google up the nearest cosy pub, it’s a voyage you could just as easily have taken a century and a half ago, although then you would have been sharing the waterway with dirty barges engaged in bulk transport rather than leisure boaters with the luxury of time on their hands.
It’s our third holiday on the Shropshire Union Canal and its associated waterways, and familiarity breeds contentment rather than contempt. The perspective you get from the deck of a narrowboat continues to enchant. We pass through lush pastures where cows and sheep graze down to the waterside. Ducks and swans scud by, while birds of prey hover above, eyeing their prey.
We pass through thick woodland, marshy dells and rolling arable acres. Most striking of all, we cruise through the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses - a vast wild bogland straddling the English-Welsh border near Whitchurch. It’s an ecosystem which supports many varieties of moss, 29 species of dragonfly and damselfly, adders and lizards, raft spiders, water voles, 166 species of wetland birds and 670 species of moths. That landscape looks empty as you cruise through it, but there’s plainly lots going on in the undergrowth.
We set out from Middlewich, cruising ten miles to the south west along the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union, then up the Llangollen Canal, beginning with four locks at Hurlstone. There are various intriguing obstacles ( you have to stop the traffic and electronically lift a section of road out of the way at Wrenbury). The locks come thick and fast for a 12-mile stretch, culminating in the Grindley Brook Staircase Locks - three locks together in which the top gate of one is the bottom gate of the next, all of which had seemed daunting but is, in fact, a doddle. But after this, there are only two locks in the 33miles to the end of the canal at Llantisilio. That stretch includes the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Thomas Telford’s masterpiece which flies the canal 126 feet above the Dee valley in a cast iron trough, with a sheer drop to one side of your boat as you cross.
Dawdling along at snail’s pace, we don’t have enough time to reach that aqueduct...or perhaps we are just leaving ourselves an excuse to do it all over again.