The Owl and the Scaredy-Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. Skipper Doug loved every minute of it, crew Cathy experienced a few moments of terror, and we learned a new word: gongoozler. Two aqueducts, three tunnels, two locks, three lift bridges, sixty tight-squeeze bridges, two “one-way working” sections, countless blind corners—and that’s just one direction! The Llangollen Canal provided plenty of practice for us novice boaters handling a 52-foot traditional narrowboat named The Owl. Gongoozler? An onlooker who idly watches activity on the canals of the UK.
A contact sport
Doug loved everything about our week on the Llangollen Canal: the challenge of steering in tight spaces, the routine of pumping the bilge, the quiet of gliding past swans, cows, and countryside. Cathy was queasy and braced for impact, especially on the first day. “It’s a contact sport,” we were told by other boat-hirers, but did the boat-owners agree?
Narrowboats are, well, narrow (a smidgen under seven feet in width), but so is the Llangollen Canal. In many places there is less than one inch clearance on either side. It’s hard not to bump a bit, especially for newbies. Doug learned quickly, though. By the time we reached our turn-around point, Doug executed a flawless 360-degree turn and received several compliments on his steering skill.
How did we choose The Owl? Cathy, a lifelong fan of Edward Lear, was attracted to the whimsical and authentic look of the two pea green boats, The Owl (52’—long enough!) and The Pussycat (58′). If you have forgotten Lear’s most famous nonsense poem (hint: it features a runcible spoon), click here for the words.
An exhilarating masterpiece of engineering or 1,007 feet of terror? That depends on your feeling about heights. Doug was fascinated by the Pontcysyllte (Pont-ker-sulth-tee) Aqueduct, an iron trough 1,007 feet long completed in 1805 and the highest canal aqueduct ever built. When you cross it by boat there is a sheer drop on the non-towpath side; just a sliver of metal keeps you from falling to the river valley 127 feet below. Cathy had her eyes shut during most of the transit.
Chirk Aqueduct is less frightening. This one is only 70 feet up in the air over the foaming water of the River Ceiriog. There’s a concrete path on both sides, which provides a sense of security.
Chirk Tunnel is the longest of the three tunnels we tackled. It’s 1,377 feet long and has a complete towpath inside. The tunnel is designed for a single narrowboat, so passing is not possible. Fortunately the tunnel is straight enough to be able to see if a boat is already inside the tunnel. It sure is dark in there, though, even with a head lamp.
Llangollen Canal, (map) which crosses the border between England and Wales, is 41 miles long. We cruised only the easy half, from Whixall Marina to the town of Llangollen and back. This section has only two locks. Like most locks on the UK canal system, the New Marton Locks are user-operated. Not sure how to lock through? Don’t worry, another boater (or gongoozler) will help you.
The canal town of Llangollen is a hub of activity. Visitors can walk the riverside path along the River Dee to Horseshoe Falls, take a horse-drawn boat excursion along the canal, ride a steam train through the river valley, or hurdle down the whitewater in a raft, tube, or kayak. Our recommendation: tour the tumbledown walls of the 13th century Castle Dinas Bran. It’s a steep two-hour walk up and back, but the 360-degree views are worth it.
In Ellesmere, a country town that welcomes visitors, Doug got a haircut. We have met several people planning to vote Brexit (shorthand for BRitain EXit) when the referendum is held on June 23. The barber, however, predicts Britain will vote to remain in the European Union.
Thank-yous and if you go
Thanks are owed to Nic and Mike at Pea Green Boats for sharing their luxurious Owl. And to the skipper of Swansong, for escorting us through the one-way working section.
Contemplating a canal holiday? Canal Junction is a good starting point.