The Owl and the Scaredy-Cat

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

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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.

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Engineering feats

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.

The canal

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In the New Marton Locks

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.

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10 comments

  1. Hi Cathy and Doug,
    What a fantastic adventure even if a bit scary for you Cathy! You have certainly whet my appetite for doing a canal trip. In 1987 I was lucky enough to be in the Vancouver Bach Choir and as part of a tour of the UK and Wales we were guest choir at the International Eisteddfod that takes place annually in llangollen. We sang the Mozart Requiem. I shall put on my bucket list the idea of combining the Eisteddford with a canal trip!
    Thanks for the most enjoyable accounts of your adventures.
    Shaun

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    1. We saw the Festival pavilion while walking up to Horseshoe Falls. Llangollen is very proud of their venue and we could see why. Hope you can make it there again soon.

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  2. Of all the entries I’ve read of yours, this leg is the one of which I am the most envious and admiring. I also enjoyed being reminded of the words to “The Owl and the Pussycat” and about runcible spoons. Had to look that up, and I was pleased to see the “spork” meaning, appropriate for campers and travellers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runcible. And it’s good to know what “gongoozler” is!
    I was in Llangollen in 1973 and have had the International Eisteddfod on my want-to-do list for years. Thanks for the suggestions of other activities while staying there.
    Glad you’re home safe and sound, after such a wonderful trip. Thanks again for sharing.
    Laura

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  3. What an adventure! And the photos are fabulous. Our canal boating experience years ago seems tame by comparison. We had much more than mere inches on either side of the boat and we certainly did not attain such heights. Thanks for sharing and welcome home. David

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