If you have never been on a canal barge, then I can recommend it heartily. At a maximum speed of 4mph, you go where you like and moor just where your fancy takes you just about anywhere along the towpath. You need no experience - the company from which you hire your craft will give you a tutorial on dealing with locks, bridges and tunnels - and there is ample opportunity to see wildlife and feed stale bread to the ducks. British Waterways (BW) invests millions of pounds each year on improving the towpaths, dredging and maintaining the locks along the approximately 2,000 miles of canals under its protection. With so many to choose from, we opted for the Llangollen Canal, said to be the most picturesque in Britain.
In the 1790s a plan was proposed by the Ellesmere Canal Company for a canal linking the rivers Dee, Mersey and Severn, passing through Chester. Its purpose was to transport iron, coal and limestone. It is a common misapprehension that railways killed off the use of canals, in fact they co-existed until the coming of road transport. After a thorough tour of our narrowboat Kathryn, which is seven feet wide and 60 feet long, we leave our base at Chirk marina and head north. The Llangollen is a narrow canal, like most in Britain, but it is fed entirely by the River Dee and so has a current that increases in narrow sections, like water going through a funnel. The first excitement is Chirk tunnel and, as we come out of it, we are met with an impressive vista of the rolling wooded hills of north Wales and, just ahead, the famous Pontcysyllte aquaduct. Scottish engineer Thomas Telford was the County Surveyor for Shropshire in 1793, working on the Ellesmere Canal. The company ran into problems when they had to cross the deep valley of the River Dee, and the cost of building a progression of locks was considerable. In addition, locks waste time in commercial terms and they also use up water. Thomas Telford's ingenious solution was to design the largest aqueduct in the world, constructed of cast-iron troughs mounted on masonry arches. At over 1,000 feet long, it would stand 126 feet above the river.
"One can hardly imagine," says Nicholson's Guide to the Waterways, ""the utter amazement felt by people of that time as they saw boats moving across this beautiful, tall and unique structure." Back on course, I discover it is a tight 90-degree turn under Bridge 32. Watched by an amused audience, I need a couple of goes at it. Navigating a 60-foot boat weighing 30 tonnes is not like driving a car: like ferries, expensive boats have bow thrusters for manoeuvrability. Now, the canal gets narrower and shallower, and very pretty as we chug up the Vale of Llangollen. We moor for the night at the popular inn called the Sun Trevor. Most canal-side restaurants have a quay, with mooring-rings -effectively customer parking - and many have gardens and children's play areas as well as catering for vegetarians and non-smokers. British Waterways has built a brand-new marina at Llangollen - demand for moorings in summer is considerable. We take on fresh water - tanks hold about 100 gallons, which anyone with a water meter will know is not a lot, so it is best to do it daily. BW has points every five miles or so, usually with refuse facilities which, recently, have included recycling and bottle banks. We moor and walk through the town of Llangollen to Plas Newydd, the black-and-white timbered house where Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, popularly known as the Ladies of Llangollen, lived from 1780 until 1831.
Now a museum, this former home of Wales's celebrated female eccentrics was a humble cottage which the Ladies turned into a Gothic house, with dark oak panelling and wood-carvings in every room. Here, they entertained illustrious visitors in a constant stream - guests included the young Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Lady Caroline Lamb. You can look around the house by yourself, provided with an explanatory audio cassette, and it makes a delightfully low-key tourist attraction. The two ladies also created beautiful gardens, including a lawn complete with a stone circle. Back on board the Kathryn it is time to journey south. Passing Chirk we come to our first lock. This invention, 200 years ago, is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. You fill or empty the lock as circumstances require by opening paddles, wound up and down with a windlass (but do not drop your windlass in the canal as they don't float). Then, you open the gates, let the boat in or out, close the gates, open the others, and off you go, closing everything up behind you. There are usually other boaters around to help, indeed there is camaraderie among canal people. We have a choice at Frankton junction: follow the Montgomery Canal, or continue to Ellesmere - both are areas of outstanding natural beauty. We opt for the former because it promises more interest with locks and bridges. There are four locks at Frankton first - unusttally, they are guided by a lock-keeper, then, goodness it is quiet compared with the bustle of Llangollen.
The Montgomery Canal originally went all the way to Welshpool, but the final stretch is still to be restored (estimated completion date is some time in 2007). Now, the end of the line is just beyond Maesbury Marsh, where I despatch two of my crew to nearby Oswestry for revictualling. Meanwhile, we water up, and have to turn round at Gronwyn Wharf limit of navigation. This involves operating a lift bridge with a windlass and oh dear - in the winding hole (a specially widened section of canal to permit turning) someone has parked their boat: probably illegal, certainly ignorant. With an arduous 27-point turn I eventually get round and, with full crew back on board, we head north. Coming back up Frankton early in the morning, we annoy the lock-keeper by going through early. We have closed the gates behind us (which is normal to save water), but this action has apparently flooded his neighbours' garden.
The final night we moor at a pub called The Poacher's Pocket. The sun is still shining, it is a beautiful evening, the food and service are good. What a great end to a memorable and highly enjoyable trip. What more could we ask for?