Adventures, misadventures traveling through England and Wales on canals

Gloria Maschmeyer
The Llangollen Canal flows under many ancient bridges as it meanders through the English countryside.
Crossing over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
Photo by Gloria Maschmeyer
Lift bridges allow vehicles and walkers to cross over the canal.
The newest addition to Maestermyn Cruises' fleet of narrow boats, our craft the Romantic Princess.
Photo by Gloria Maschmeyer
A pair of Mallard ducks hang out on the bow for a handout as another canal boat passes by.
Photo by Gloria Maschmeyer
Locks along the canal are a little over seven feet wide which restrains the width of canal boats also called narrow boats.
Photo by Gloria Maschmeyer
Long and narrow, canal boats are mini homes with full-service galleys.
All the comforts of home.

Our train from London pulled into the tiny Gobowen station at exactly 2 p.m. on the button. After 20 minutes a lone taxi appeared and took us three miles to the Maestermyn Cruises rental office along the Llangollen Canal.

Here we are picking up the company's newest addition to its fleet of narrow boats for hire. She's called the Romantic Princess and is 48 feet long and 6 feet 10 inches wide. We will float her west along the canal from England into Wales.

Princess was ready and we self-loaded our luggage hopping between boats trying not to slip in the crowded mooring space. One of the company's boatmen whisked us through the introduction process concentrating on safety features while pointing out functional items like pots and pans and extra bedding. When he finished, he plopped a reference guide on the galley counter.

"Any questions?" he asks.

Given my husband is a waterman, canoeist and rafter, and I a pretty good helmsman, we say no, but we did inquire as to when we would encounter the first locks.

He tells us they are about 30 minutes up the canal adding that if we get confused as to their operation to refer to the diagrams in the manual.

We're off.

The canal is much narrower than I had imagined, but it is wide enough for boats coming from the opposite direction to pass. It's single file going as the maximum speed on the canal is only three knots.

We reach the first pair of locks, reduce our speed and aim for the side. I jump off and my husband flings me a hefty rope. I pull with all my might to slow Princess down. He jumps off and joins me. Now what?

We check out the locks, but the diagram in the book proves useless. Fortunately another boat moors behind us. They are veterans and walk us through the process. We had been told that the locks would be no problem as they are all located near villages and that young boys hang around to help people like us. Not. This was the first reality versus expectation of the trip.

Not afraid to admit our ignorance of canal savvy, we team up with the other couple and because food has not been provisioned decide to stop at the nearest pub for dinner. The literature says that pubs and taverns are numerous, dotted along the countryside. Not!

A good two hours later we find a hotel restaurant and clumsily maneuver our lanky boat into a slip. The joint is closed. Backing out we get stuck in the sludgy, gooey bottom on the canal's opposite shore. My husband grabs the boat pole and tries to push us off as we slowly rotate straddling the canal.

The pole slips out of his hand and cements itself on the bottom like a flagpole. An approaching boat motors up and effortlessly nabs the pole returning it to us. The embarrassed greenhorns finally get on their way as the smirking world watches.

At 9 p.m. we find another restaurant and moor out front for the night squeezing in among an armada of narrowboats. We walk into the pub just as the cook is leaving and the servers are delivering the last portions of steaming, sumptuous legs of lamb.

With saliva nearly dripping out of our mouths, our friend volunteers to pay the chef triple if he will cook for us. He won't. We are directed to a hotel about a half mile up the road. By 11 p.m. we've been fed.

The next morning our friends get a head start. My muscles are complaining after a day of jumping off Princess and pulling her to shore plus cranking, un-cranking, cranking, un-cranking the blasted locks and lift bridges. Sleeping on a four-foot wide bed wedged between a wall and another body didn't help either.

This trip sounded wonderful in the literature. "Enjoy your very own narrowboat meandering along the picturesque Llangollen Canal passing through sleepy villages and England's lush pastoral rolling countryside." A smiling photo of Harrison Ford at the helm of one of the company's canal boats highlights the text. Maybe that version lies ahead I surmise.

The Llangollen Canal is known as one of the most scenic canals in Britain. There are thousands of miles of canals in the United Kingdom. Navigable canals were first used to transport goods in the mid 1700s during the industrial revolution.

The canals flourished for about 60 years until newly built rail lines started capturing the transportation market in the mid 1800s. Their use dwindled until the 1960s when they were revitalized for pleasure cruising. Today some retired couples live on narrowboats year-round going from one canal to another, the English version of America's RVers.

Our 48-foot narrowboat is beautiful and private, but small by comparison. Many go up to 70 feet. It even has a jetted tub. Two leather recliners make watching TV at night relaxing, if one can get reception. We didn't. There is a small deck forward and aft deck for the captain and spotter.

It's April and the tourist season is not in full swing. As narrowboat recreation is increasing exponentially and canals are finite, I wouldn't want to be here any later with increased summer traffic.

Today we enjoy the tranquil landscape as advertised. Rolling hills, grazing sheep and one of the highlights, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a masterpiece of engineering and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Completed in 1805 it is a daunting, narrow eleven-foot wide trough of water and walkway suspended 127 feet up and stretching over 1,000 feet in length.

After a boat coming from the opposite direction completes its sojourn, we're next up. Princess is launched. There is no need to steer, as the trough is so narrow she just floats along bumping along the sides. My husband jumps out onto the adjacent footpath running ahead to snap photos.

I look to my left from my seat on the bow and nearly faint. There is no guardrail of any sort and it is absolutely straight down. I later find out that the aqueduct was drained a few years ago and engineers found it was just as strong as the day it was built. No metal fatigue whatsoever.

The Llangollen Canal dead-ends in the town of the same name. A marina hosts about 20 boats for a maximum of three nights per visitor. Here we meet up with our lock friends and enjoy a bottle of wine. They are on the canal for a week opposed to our two.

Neighbors moored on both sides of us are narrowboat aficionados owning their own boats. One fellow shines the coal burning brass smokestacks from dawn to dusk while the other hoses off every speck of dirt collected on the trip.

We are the oddity, the newbees. The old hands take us under their wings and try to determine why our gas heater is not working properly. They recommend that for what we are paying in weekly rent ($1,000) that we call the home office. We do and they send Mr. Repair guy over promptly, after all he's only 12 miles away.

Llangollen, North Wales is a quaint walking town of 3,000. Expectation met. We lunch overlooking the River Dee which runs clear over boulders and rocks while watching old steam engines on the other side come and go, taking tourists on short jaunts.

My husband orders bangers and mash, a U.K. tradition, fresh sausage and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. Afterwards, we visit the local butcher loading up on Welsh pork and leek sausages, farm raised chicken, delectable lamb chops marinated in mint and free-range eggs for our return trip.

After three toasty nights we reluctantly head back to Ellesmere. It's so much easier this time as the terrain is familiar and we have gained confidence in our boating skills.

The canal just below Llangollen village is narrow with some stretches only wide enough for single boat. So what happens if you meet another boat, a walker asks me, as I run ahead on the path scouting for an oncoming traffic.

"Well someone has to backup," I tell him.

Later we moor for the night in a remote section of the canal with the place all to ourselves, if you don't count cows and sheep. We chain to the side of the canal without getting too much movement from passersby, except for some people who think they own the canal and speed by creating waves that violently bang our boat against the bank.

The following day we leisurely float our way back past the rental office and into new territory for our last week. It's not as pretty as where we have been, but we did find a couple of quiet places to rest and contemplate this unique adventure.

Outside of the quintessential English town of Ellesmere, we find a beautiful mere. One of nine in the area, Blakemere is a lake formed by a glacial depression in the land during the last ice age. It is serene except for a few persistent Mallard ducks that jump on the bow in search of a handout.

After two weeks we feel like veterans, almost, and would like to stay longer. We have traversed some beautiful landscape sandwiched between less desirable areas, but hey, that's travel. Would I go again, "you betcha."

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