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Narrowboat Anniversary Trip

We planned our trip around spending a week narrowboating on the Llangollen Canal in England and Wales. We took two weeks to allow us some time to get over jet lag before learning to pilot a 52 x 7 foot narrowboat.

We flew into Manchester on Thomas Cook Airlines, landed Sunday morning, and took the train directly to Chester where we spent the first three nights. Compared to Heathrow or Gatwick, Manchster Airport is a breeze. We landed at 7:30 went rapidly through boarder control and had a huge but pricey buffet breakfast with made to order omelets before boarding the train at about 10:30.

Filled with eggs, coffee, sauteed mushrooms, ham and cheese, we felt pretty human on the train and good enough to walk the 10 minutes to our rental house despite our third bag (stuffed with gear for narrowboating). We showered then made a grocery store run for the following two days. Our landlady recommended Marks and Spencer, which we cased, but we found better meat and produce at the Tesco. We bought a variety of cheeses (Double Gloucester, Lancaster, Cheshire, Red Leicester, Stilton), salami, sliced locally cured ham, lamb steaks, and duck breast, not to mention lettuce and veggies.

We feasted on a late lunch salad with ham, cheeses, and lovely tomatoes our landlady left us. Then we spent the afternoon walking off jetlag on the Chester city walls. It was a glorious walk with views of the River Dee, the racetrack, The Rows, and the Cathedral.

Back at "home" I grilled the lamb and dressed it with garlic chutney, and served it with sauteed onions and mushrooms (another welcome present from our landlady).

We looked at the weather forecast and decided to spend the following rainy Monday in Liverpool (as opposed to Chester or Port Sunlight). We got tickets for an early departure and collapsed into bed early.

After a ham and cheese scramble and coffee we felt pretty good Monday, but it was indeed rainy, so we didn't spend much time on the Royal Albert Dock Instead, we began at the Western Aproaches Museum, which was both very good and rather empty. It's set in the battle command center, and does a beautiful job of explaining both the living conditions, and the work done there. It reminded me of the Churchill museum in London, minus the the interactive section i the middle.

We followed that with The Walker Museum which does have a great Pre Raphealite collection, even if the people in charge of lighting should be shot--the upper paintings are all but lost in florescent lighting glare. We had coffee there I lieu of lunch.

We went on to do Saint George's Hall, a very nice varied stop with a neo-gothic (spell check would like that to be neolithic) concert hall and a depressingly period jail and courtroom.

Then we did the Maritime and International Slavery Museum. After which while the sun didn't come out, it at least stopped raining, so we walked the Royal Albert Dock.

It was a fine day, for which I owe Emma and a couple other people thank you's for good reccomendations.

Back in Chester we had duck breast for dinner in with broccoli, salad and a cheese plate.

Tuesday was sunny and we spent it in Chester. The Cathederal is grand and views from the bell tower are lovely. Saint John's Church is interesting, and the ruined portion behind is beautiful. The colosseum is interesting, and was made extra fun by a school group going by in full Roman soldier regalia. We enjoyed walking through The Rows, but the highlight of our day in Chester was The Falcon Experience. It's located on the Cathedral grounds and gives twice daily falconry demonstrations. They are very hands on if you want them to be. We both got to launch, a kestril, two kinds of falcon, a hawk, and an owl. The kestril perched on everyone's heads without invitation. It was an amazing experience.

To be continued...

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Late afternoon we grocery shopped again, this time for dinner and the first couple days of narrowboat groceries.

I don't know how much I need to explain narrowboating. They are as the name implies, long narrow boats. You can rent them all over the English, Welsh and Scottish canal system. The system was built to haul freight by horse drawn boat and went defunct when it was eclipsed by trains. The boats were and are narrow because the locks on most of the system will only accomadate a maximum width of seven feet.
These days the boats are recreational and powered by diesel, though they still only go about four miles an hour. Think of them as very long skinny houseboats.

We thought of it as a floating cabin and an ideal rustic anniversary location for our 25th. We chose the Llongellen Canal because of the Pontcysyllte Aquaduct, an amazing piece of 1800 engineering. We rented from Black Prince Holidays out of Chirk Marina.

Chirk Marina works a little differently than the other rental places in that you pick the boat up on the morning of the first day and drop it off on the afternoon of the last day rather than picking it up in the afternoon and dropping it off in the morning. So we took an early taxi from Chester to Chirk. What with groceries as well as luggage, that was a good decision. The taxi driver was older, friendly, liberal, and not afraid to talk politics. He's anti Brexit, and anti-Trump. He likes New Orleans. We found him entertaining.

The first day's boating was an adventure. With just a hour of show and tell they are willing to let rank amatures like us loose with a 16 ton, 54 foot long boat. They will send a crew member out with you for the first mile if you really want them to and we really, really did. I piloted on the way out somewhat successfully, our teacher demonstrated how to turn in a winding hole (a notch in the canal making it possible to reverse course) and my husband more successfully piloted the crew member back and turned around in the marina.

Then we headed out. We were just about an hour from the Pontcysyllte, but on the very good advice of the marina, We headed back towards England and saved the big Aquaduct for the return journey. We had plenty of excitement the first day anyway given that Chirk Aquaduct is only a half hour from the marina and is followed shortly by the Chirk Tunnel. Both the tunnel and the aquaduct are only wide enough for one boat (that's true of most of the bridges too). This isn't a problem with the aquduct, because even though its over 100 feet long, you can see if another boat is crossing it, but with the tunnel someone (usually me) must walk ahead through the tunnel on the tow path to make sure no one is coming. I met a number on English women at tunnels and other narrows.

After the first terrifying hour or two we enjoyed ourselves and the countryside. We moored up for a picnic lunch, and again that evening just a few hundred yards before the first lock.

I had brought a book of walks from the Llangollen Canal, and we tried our first walk that evening, but got lost and dead
ended in a cow pasture. We met a lost couple of British narrowboaters trying to follow the same path. It was a muddy but scenic adventure. We consoled ourselves with lamb cutlets.

Next morning, we intended to wait for the first boat to go through the locks so we could watch it before trying it ourselves. But they encouraged us to go first and helped us through. It turned out to be easy. We went through the second lock on our own after helping an oncoming boat through. Two days later we helped a new crew threw thier first lock, and I worked the locks for a solo boater.

Narrowboaters are friendly, helpful, and talkative. If you want to meet Brits go narrowboating.

To be continued...

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We moored in Ellesmere for a late lunch and groceries. Then moored just east of Elesmere opposite Blake Mere for the night. We walked east on the two path to and around Cole Mere and didn't even get confused let alone lost. Both lakes are beautiful and feel remote.

I should add here that while we moored pretty rural most nights, but most but hardly all, boaters choose to moor in clusters near pubs. And we missed a certain amount of pub culture by choosing woods and fields over close proximity to beer and pub food.

Next morning we headed on past Cole Mere before turning around in a winding hole and heading back. We moored that evening near our first mooring. This time we found the path and went for a nice cross fields walk ending in a bit on dirt road walking.
To be continued.

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9774 posts

Thank you for sharing this. I have always wanted to rent a canal boat in France, but my husband has been watching YouTube videos of people who narrow boat through England. I'm thinking that being able to communicate in English in the U.K. might trump my desire to do this in France. An interesting prospect for a future trip.

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We did this trip just last week, i.e. mid September.

The following morning, we intended to go all of the way to Llongollen via the Pontcysyllte Aquaduct. By this time we were feeling very confident at the rudder, and bridges and tunnels felt easy, so crossing back through the Chirk Tunnel, and the Chirk Aquaduct felt triumphant as did the next, rather longer tunnel.

At the Pontcysyllte, we had to wait for just one boat crossing towards us before entering the Aquaduct with a group of three boats. It was easy. On aquaducts, the rudder is irrelevant. It's like being on rails. What makes the Pontcysyllte exciting is that there is no railing on the boat side, just a drop off into the valley. The towpath is almost level with the water and full of pedestrians who actually walk a little faster than the boats. My husband took the rudder and I stood on the bow taking photos.

Once over, we switched positions as we headed up towards Llangollen. And that's when life got stressful. The first bit was narrow and twisty with many blind turns and blind bridges. There is barely room for two boats to pass most sections, and here and there there isn't room for two. Some of the turns are tight for one boat. To add to the stress the area is popular with kayaks. Imagine sharing a narrow channel with small fiborgess or plastic boats when you weight 16 tons and are made of iron.

Then the canal widens before a 1/2 mile of one way traffic. I ran ahead with cell phone on foot, and once it was clear my husband brought the boat forward to me. He arrived a stressed wreck. So we moored and had lunch. There was one more one way section before Llongllen, but Llongollen was easily walkable from there so we moored for the night and walked to town for groceries and general touristing.

Our plan was to get up early, and to take the boat to the Llongollen Marina early the next morning. But at 6:30 am we were already seeing boats coming out of the marina through the one way section, so we took the day off to hike instead. We walked up to Dinas Bran Castle in a light rain, to the Abby ruins, and up to the canal head. By late afternoon all the traffic, and there wasn't much, was headed towards the marina, and the rain had lifted. It was Sunday night, and the marina which had been crowded Saturday night, was practically empty. So we took the boat up to the marina, and walked into town.

The following morning we headed back down early. We only had to wait for two boats coming up the first narrows from where we moored Saturday, before heading all the way down to the Pontcysyllte. Without kayaks, or boats heading the other way, the narrows weren't so bad. It was a wet morning though and we were glad we brought rain slickers.

This time I piloted us across the Aquaduct and we moored just past the village on the far side.

We spent the afternoon walking over the Pontcysyllte, visiting the TI which has an interpretive exhibit about the Aquaduct, walking down to get a better view of it, and finally walking to Trever for cash and groceries.

We took an evening walk on the Offas Dike Trail which crosses the canal a bridge down from our mooring. The light was fantastic and walking through the fields was beautiful.

The boat was due back on the following afternoon and we were just about an hour and a half from the Chirk Marina, so the next morning we packed, and took a last walk on the Offa's Dike Trail before returning the boat.

To be continued.

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We taxed to the Chirk Railway Station, and took a train directly to Conwy, passing through Chester on the way. Our house in Conwy was just blocks from the station, and everything else really. We grocery shopped and found a fantastic butcher, were we got meat for our anniversary dinner the following day. The butcher recommended Lamb Welsh Henry, a boneless rib cut, I'd never seen before. We got it rolled into a roast, and pre seasoned with mint sauce.

Then we did Rick Steves introduction walk to Conwy before making dinner.

The next morning we walked over the bridge to Llandudno Junction to pick up our rental car. We'd reserved a subcompact, but all they had were compacts. We expected driving on the left would be difficult, but my husband did just fine with that. The part he had trouble with is the narrowness of many of the roads. My job was to navigate and tell him how far from the wall, hedge, or parked cars our passenger side mirror was.

We drove straight to Harlech Castle, a personal choice having to do with our anniversary. It did not disappoint. It's an empty ruin, but a very picturesque ruin with great views.

After touring it, we decided to visit the Llechwedd Slate Mine on the way back. We took the 3 hour tour of both the quarry and the tunnels. It was a good decision. The views of Snowdonia from the quarry are grand, and the underground part is fascinating.

We stopped at a Tesco in Llandudno Junction for vegitables and anniversary wine. Our landlord had candles everywhere, so we had a candlelight dinner. The Welsh Henery was fantastic.

The next morning, we drove to Beaumaris and did the castle, courthouse, and jail. We also shopped a little. The castle is another beautiful ruin. The courthouse and jail are both well presented and interesting.

The next day was our last in Conwy. I had booked the house for an extra night so we could use it all day. We intended to tour Conwy Castile, but it was unexpectedly closed for a tv or movie shooting. We toured Plas Mawr which I think is under rated. It's the best medieval house tour I've ever taken. We also did the Aberconwy house which was less interesting.

We gift shopped, and my husband got me a antique Art Nouveau pendant for anniversary. I adore it.

After a very late lunch we packed and dropped the car off in Llandudno Junction before taking the train back to Manchester Airport where we spent the last night.

Early the next morning the shuttle bus driver told us about Thomas Cooks imminent bankruptcy. We had been blissfully ignorant of it. However, our plane was still scheduled, and full of Brits headed to Las Vegas. They seemed unconcerned, and we didn't worry, as it was clear nothing would happen until Monday and we were flying Saturday morning.

The trip home was uneventful.

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I'm so glad to bring back happy memories. And I do thank you again for all the information over the years about Chester. It was a great choice, and we might have stayed somewhere else before boating were it not for your posts

* * *

I thought I was done with this trip report, but I want to give some general impressions about narrowboating. First of all, we loved it and we are already talking about when we might do it again.

Being on the canal is endlessly scenic, and idealic. You don't think about anything but the canal when you are on it. And it's a very friendly place. Boaters wave and exchange news. They help each other at locks and lift bridges, and take turns nicely at narrow places. They exchange news of conditions up and down canal. I've never had so many pleasant conversations with strangers.

The tow path is pleasant to walk on, and often intersects with public right of way trails through the adjoining fields. We brought a trail guide for the canal which we found very useful. A canal map showing bridges, narrows, groceries etc. is a necessity. You can't get lost on the canal but you can be unpleasantly surprised. Also you need to know where the next turn around point is.

It is a drinking heavy culture. Not only do many boats run from pub to pub, but the bows of many boats are crammed with people drinking. We drink very little so we missed much of the pub culture. And to be clear, while drinking appears to be a large part of narrowboating, we did not see anyone drunk. And while foreign, it was not problematic.

Piloting a narrowboat is not that difficult. But the boat is ungainly, long, and very slow to respond. It is rudder steering so you move in the opposite direction of the tiller. Also 16 tons gives it enormous inertia. Everything happens in slow motion. If you think out what you are going to do in the two minutes before anything happens, it works just fine. We got in the habit of sending the non pilot to the bow to direct through narrow places the first day. This was very useful, and we kept doing it long after it ceased to be necessary.

The boats are iron and pretty much impervious to bumping into concrete or metal, which give the narrowness of tunnels and bridges is just as well. We did not ever see boats scrape each other, but that too would not do any real damage. However, the fronts of locks and especially wood or fiberglass boats are very easy to break with a narrowboat. It's a little like being in an unarmed floating tank.

Inside the boats feel like cross between an RV and a cabin. It varies, but in our case, the hot water for our showers (yes there is a real shower and a flushing toilet too) was provided by the engine. Best to shower at night while the is still lots of hot water. Electricity is stored in the batteries while the engine is running. You must use the inverter to get enough pair for hairdryer or electric razors. If you don't go far enough you might run out of electricity while moored. The refrigerator is an electric mini. The stove and range are propane. There is no dishwasher, but there is a good sized sink. There is also a surprising amount of storage.

Chores include, turning a pump to grease the engine, cleaning the propeller, and refilling the water tank (usually a social event and often done while queing for locks, tunnels, or aquaducts).

It's worth paying attention to boat layout before you rent. Our boat was traditional layout meaning the galley and saloon were in the bow and the cabins in the stern. We would have preferred the reverse. It's easier to get the pilot tea, coffee and snacks that way.

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Theoretically there is also WiFi. Besides the rural problem for both WiFi sign a and cell bars, every time the boat rocks the WiFi router has to refined the signal. We walked into villages to do things like set up the taxi to train station or send emails home.

Like an RV, there is a lot of condensation overnight inside. Our heater also ran off the engine, so we turned the engine and the heat on first thing every morning, not just because we were cold, but dry out the boat. There is no thermostat, the heater is either off or on. Fortunately, the engines are really all that loud. In the bow you don't notice the sound at all.

All in all, I highly recommend the experience to anyone who likes the countryside, slow travel, or the outdoors.

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All best wishes, emma, and condolences.

Loved the sandbag story. I completely understand your dad's unhappiness at a plastic bag in the water. I would probably have done similar. But no kids to blame it on.....

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I know there isn't any obligation to drink, and we do drink once in awhile ourselves. But, we avoid soft drinks, and we are on a Keto diet that makes pub food less interesting than what we cook ourselves. We do visit tea and coffee shops.

My point for others is that while we enjoyed the social aspects of narrowboating, we are aware we missed a major part of it. And pubbing is a major part of it for many boaters.

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681 posts

I enjoyed reading about your trip. We have thought about doing the narrowboat trip and this just might make us do it.

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9774 posts

I've very much enjoyed reading this and appreciate the additional details. This time of year is our favorite time to travel. Our anniversary was just a few days ago and we like to celebrate by traveling when possible. I am bookmarking this for future reference.

I do have a question though. You mentioned packing a third bag stuffed with gear for narrowboating. What kind of gear is necessary?

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31060 posts

I don't know about others but when I go narrowboating I take some extra clothes. Wellies because the towpaths can be muddy, my rain hat because it invariably rains, and tunnels drip, waterproofs - most boats provide but I prefer my own - and most importantly regardless of weather or hot or cold I always take my lock gloves. My lock gloves started life as medium heavy leather railroad (US) crew gloves which have over the years met enough grease and oil and dirt to have developed a lovely shiny smooth palm and flexible fingers. When winding a lock paddle up or down I don't want to get messy and I want the windlass to slide though my hand. And I always throw in an extra windlass (the tool used to wind the paddles up and down, the hire boat will have a couple on board but every once in a while one winds up in the canal and having a spare is a way to avoid a problem).

Mucking about on boats is a lovely slow way to while away a week - good on the muscles too.

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For narrowboating we packed these necessities:

Canal map.
A full set of rain gear, paints, hat, and jacket each.
One semicollapsable golf umbrella.
Sun hats and sun glasses.
Two head lamps for tunnels (unlit) and walking back to the boat in the evening. Flashlights would work.
Work gloves for engine chores.
Bicycle gloves for the windlass and ropes.
A car type 240 volt usb charger.

Because we had an extra bag checked bag, we also brought:

Waterproof seat cushions for picnics on the bank
Silver hot/cold bags for transporting groceries to the boat
A sharp medium sized kitchen knife
A few spices
Trekking poles
Two different jackets each rather than just one.
Extra shoes in case we got wet.

We should have brought a pair of binoculars for bird watching.

All of that didn't fill our checked bag, so we filled it the rest of the way with groceries before boarding the narrowboat. We then used it to get the leftover groceries to our apartment in Conwy. After that we bought slightly bulkier souvenirs than we usually do.---We bought a wooden model narrowboat.

We didn't bring waterproof boots because the Llangollian towpath is mostly paved. But I can see that if it were not, we would have wanted them.

Whatever you bring, bring it in soft sided suitcases or packs so you can stow them onboard. There is no room to packaway hard sided luggage.

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31060 posts

jen, didn't your boat have a spotlight on the roof?

There should have been a switch near the helm.

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Nigel, it had a light on the bow roof which was good for letting others know you were in a tunnel or approaching a bridge in the mist, but not for seeing anything while walking inside a tunnel, and of no use for walking back to the boat after dusk.

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7008 posts

Thanks for the great review.
I researched doing the boat trip in Britain where you navigate your own canal boat. It seemed like it would be interesting, but what caused me to not do it was that we could visit more places and cover more ground with a rental car. Also, we had less flexibility with a canal boat.