I feel a bit guilty for not dedicating my Memorial Day post to the many brave souls past and present, military and medical, who’ve done and continue to do so much for us all, but I’ve become so worn down by the current situation I’ve decided to focus instead on the nostalgia of the not so distant past, when traveling and vacationing safely were still possible. If you’ve been following my MCW posts, you’re already aware that my husband and I spend summers living aboard our sailboat as we travel the coast of Maine, but some years back my in-laws (good, old fashioned Anglophiles) introduced us to their own favorite cruising style: narrowboating in Wales.
The rich and complex history of the British Inland Waterways—with their accompanying flights of locks, swing and lift bridges, tunnels, and canal-side pubs (ah, those pubs!)—would require a separate post or three to adequately explain the whole thing, so should the concept interest you I suggest you check it all out on Wikipedia. For now, a bit of history to whet the appetite.
Designed and built before the advent of railways, and as a network for ferrying goods and services throughout the land, these shallow, narrow canals are today home to a unique kind of tiller-steered watercraft sporting a nominal beam (about six and a half feet) and length of up to seventy-two feet that now crisscross the region in a strictly recreational role.
Originally pulled by horses along the towpaths paralleling the canals—paths used these days for walking and cycling—today’s “narrowboats” are mostly diesel-powered, with interiors as comfortably fitted-out as many summer cottages. And while the kitchens (galleys in boat-speak), are more than adequate for pretty much anything you’d care to whip up, we choose to pub it whenever possible.
Our preference is to arrive in country mid to late May, before the start of British tourism’s “high season” and just as the year’s crop of lambs and goslings are first making their appearance along the more pastoral routes (our favorites). In spring, the rural towpaths are bordered by a mix of rustic fencing and rambling stone walls wildly ablaze with the gold of Scotch Broom, riots of wild lilac and clematis blooms the size of dinner plates. In many places, these towpaths are just a few miles’ walk from publicly accessible castles, ancient bridgeworks, aqueducts, and the cobbled streets of centuries old villages such as Ellesmere, where kerchiefed grannies still wander with basketed arm to do their marketing.
UK canal routes range in flavor from the urban to the rural, as well as in length and difficulty of terrain—utilizing a system of locks that enable the boats to change elevation along the way. This can be a slow and arduous process during the busier months, resulting in impromptu cocktail parties and barbecues breaking out along the towpath as travelers meet and commiserate with others in the queue for the flights (series) of locks. Rather conveniently, locks are often found cheek by jowl with canal-side pubs serving much needed sustenance.
The best boat hire company in the UK, in our view, is Black Prince Narrowboats (https://www.black-prince.com), with bases in England, Scotland and Wales. We like to rent from their Chirk base in the Ceiriog Valley of North Wales, a few hours’ train ride from Manchester airport, which provides easy access to our favorite canal route: the peaceful and bucolic Llangollen Canal (or The Welsh as it’s known to locals)—arguably the most beautiful in Britain. Pronouncing this properly is tricky, and when done correctly sounds as if you’re hocking up a fly from the nether reaches of your throat.
Forty-one miles in length, the Llangollen dips through hillsides thick with sheep, cows, and wildflowers. A real highlight is traversing the navigable Pontcysyllte Aquaduct over the River Dee. This 18-arched stone and cast iron structure (completed in 1805) is the longest aqueduct in Great Britain and the highest canal aqueduct in the world. Check out this video for a taste of the experience: https://binged.it/3fYbwbq
From here, it’s maybe an hour farther on to the where the canal dead ends in the town of Llangollen itself with its many shops, quaint tea rooms (a full English Cream Tea can be had here for a song), and, yes, more pubs. The Robin’s Nest is a particularly good one in town, its claim to fame being the coronary-clogging “Cumberland sausage and egg stottie”—a kind of savory pastry that’s the hands-down favorite of the men in our party. Others worthy of a stop at various points along our route include The Romping Pig, Dusty Miller, Cotton Arms, the Royal Shepherd, The Brown Cow, The Black Lion, and my personal favorite, Darcy’s Pub (yes, it’s a real place). The drinks are large and the food generally excellent. Be sure to try the Spotted Dick somewhere along the way (no worries…it’s a dessert pudding). The entertainment is, well, eclectic.
Llangollen “attractions” include Chirk Castle—a magnigicent, 700-year-old marcher fortress built by King Edward I—and the remains of Castell Dinas Bran situated some 4000 feet above the verdant Vale of Llangollen and 800 feet above the town itself. Built in the 1230s by Madog ap Gruffyd Maelor, a nemesis of LLewelyn the Great (who was, interestingly enough, an ancestor of mine), the ruins are a good 45 minute uphill climb. Trust me; the view is worth it.
After all this hiking and pubbing, you’ll no doubt be ready for a rest. Simply pull your boat to the side of the canal anywhere you fancy, drive a stake into the towpath, and tie off for the night. Drinkies are at six. Okay, five-thirty.