Do the Strand

Ice cream before I go? Don’t mind if I do. Rum and raisin of course.

Goodbye Llangollen Canal. We were sorry to leave you. You’ve been amazing. You’ve given us some knocks, frustration and you’ve taught us a lot. But most of the time you’ve been picturesque, charming and beautiful. We hope we’ll be back.

Hurlestone Junction and a lovely volunteer lock keeper. Off we go.

Do you remember when you were little, playing outside with your friends and Mum called you in for tea? Remember how sometimes you’d stay out for just one more game of Block, or Tag, even though you knew it was naughty? That’s us at the moment. We decided not to turn left towards home at the end of the Llangollen, we went right down the Shropshire Union for just one more adventure before the long winter

How now, brown cows
And an ovine intruder

We ended up in Audlem. The journey down was a bit of a trial. One of the locks at Hack Green wouldn’t fill. It took four boat crews on the balance beam and the gentlest of nudges from Beau Romer to get it open, then we had to repeat the process for the boat behind us. It was worth it though. We had a couple of nice evenings in the Shroppie Fly and it was an excellent place to wait out yesterday’s foul weather, the aftermath of Storm Alex.

This is the offending lock with all the gates and paddles closed

This morning we set off in the sunshine, looking forward to a nice cruise up to the pretty town of Nantwich, a meeting with another Bickerstaffe boat, and with the bow pointed towards home.

We got half a mile.

The offending lock at Hack Green that was so difficult is, well – locked. We’re back on our mooring in Audlem. The problem is the cill liners have failed. As I write this, we have no idea how long it’s going to take to fix. I’ll call the Canal and River Trust tomorrow morning for an update. Then we’ll have to make our plan. Do we wait it out here, where we have all facilities, a shop and even pubs, or do we go home the long and more difficult way, completing the Four Counties Ring? We have to be back on the Rufford Branch on or before 2 November, or we won’t be able to get home until Christmas. If the lock isn’t going to be back in service quickly we don’t have long to decide what we’re going to do.

I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.

Thank you Audlem, but we’d like to go now.


I’m doing better than Martyn when it comes to dropping things in the water. I confess to a handcuff key. So far he’s tossed overboard:

  • One handcuff key (OK, probably doesn’t count because he fished it out)
  • One slipper in Llangollen Basin
  • One glove at the top of the Frankton Locks
  • A microfibre cloth at the same location
  • Plus a Fitbit!
  • And the chimney. We got it back with the boat hook, but I guess that’s put paid to his habit of laying it on the roof while we’re cruising!
Martyn and Beau Romer coming out of the Chirk Tunnel with me happily on the towpath

It’s hard to believe I haven’t updated this for a week. We’re now nearly back at the beginning of the Llangollen Canal. None of the landmarks that gave us grief on the way up seemed as bad on the return journey, although I walked through the Chirk Tunnel on the pretence of telling Martyn it was clear to proceed! The narrows? No problem. All those impossibly tight bridges on bends? We sailed through them with aplomb. I even bossed the lift bridge at Wrenbury and it’s antecedent tight turn feeling very smug.

Someone’s fixer upper?

We moored up one evening at the top of the Frankton Locks, and walked down the next morning to have a look at the Montgomery Canal.

Maisie enjoying a run along the banks of the Montgomery Canal

The lock keeper at the Grindley Brook Locks advised us not to venture down because of the combination of overhanging vegetation and shiny new paintwork, but we’ll have a go next time.

You can even watch cricket from your boat moored on the Ellesmere Arm

En route we spent a very pleasant couple of days in Ellesmere (not to be confused with Ellesmere Port). Ellesmere is the type of town I could happily live in, small, rural and where residents appear to know each other. Jenny introduced me to Ismay’s, a shop that sells comfortable ladies clothes I can happily wear on the back of the boat, or out and about when I don’t want to look like a feral boater. There’s a nice coffee shop-cum-delicatessen called Moolah staffed by a couple of boaters, an excellent butcher, and a Tesco that doesn’t mind you pushing your bottle-laden trolley back to the boat (as long as you return it afterwards).

Beautiful Blake Mere

According to my guide book there are seven meres close by. Although we wondered after Pennington Flash whether they were the remnants of an industrial past, they are shallow lakes formed at the end of the last Ice Age. Shropshire’s own Lake District as it were, and very pretty.

Another glimpse of Blakemere through the trees

We made good time through the long stretches of the canal with Wales on one side and England on the other, and then the locks that start with a bang at Grindley Brook with the staircase and become more friendly and better spaced apart afterwards.

Sometimes I drive and he does the work. I’m not sure about his fashion choices though!
Autumn’s on the way
Yes, Autumn is definitely coming. Do you see the spider’s tightrope between Beau Romer and the opposite bank? Just how do they do that?

Today it’s raining, so it’s the perfect day to hunker down in front of the fire and take stock before we leave the Llangollen Canal tomorrow.

Will this be the final towpath drink of the year?

Terror at 127 feet

We made it. We crossed the Pontcysllte Aqueduct without incident. It is absolutely awesome, and definitely one of the wonders of the canal system. It’s also blooming scary, as you look over the edge, 127 foot down at the highest point, and there is no safety rail. The boat is in a trough, so there’s no way you can fall out of it, but facts never stop the mind playing tricks.

Martyn crossing the Pontywhatsit. That poor girl was so terrified she insisted on keeping our boat between her and the drop at all times.

The views over the River Dee and the Welsh Countryside are awesome. If you ever have the chance to make this trip, grab it with both hands.

The bird’s eye view over the edge

The Llangollen is the canal that keeps giving and keeps challenging. The Chirk Tunnel was far worse than the Pontcysllte Aqueduct. It’s only 420m long but it meets my private definition of hell. I’ve never been in a tunnel before and felt it was never going to end – until Chirk. I don’t think I’ve ever nearly cried in a tunnel either but Chirk very nearly broke me. The problem was we couldn’t get the boat off the side. The Llangollen flow had us pinned, and also because of the flow, it was such slow going. We pushed forward, inch by painful inch. I’m still traumatised by the memory.

Crossing the Chirk Aqueduct, looking calm and unruffled. This was before the tunnel!

In comparison the Narrows were a doddle. They are three stretches of canal where the cutting has been blasted out of solid rock, and the Llangollen, hardly a wide canal at the best of times, reduces to the width of a singe boat. If you’re travelling with other boats, or you have crew it’s a simple matter to send someone on ahead to check the way is clear, but if you’re a solo boater … well, I don’t even want to consider how difficult it must be to reverse.

Frolicking foals

And then we got to Llangollen, an absolute jewel of a town nestled in the Dee Valley. Apparently it’s called after Collen ap Gwynnawg ap Clydawg ap Cowdra ap Caradog Freichfras ap Llyr Merim ap Yrth ap Cunedda Wledig. Try saying that after you’ve had a couple. Whatever the origins, Llangollen is charming, pretty, interesting, and well worth the trip. We moored up in Llangollen Basin for the permitted 48 hours.

Quite the feat of engineering
Breathe in

In the unseasonably warm autumn sunshine, Martyn and I walked right up to the source of the canal at the Horseshoe Falls, beyond the limits of powered navigation. So we can now say we’ve navigated the entire length of the canal. We’re happy with our achievement.

Horseshoe Falls
Llantisilio Church is just above the falls. This is Thomas Jones of Llantisilio Hall’s tomb. He died in 1744 with no will, so his grave was robbed – twice – by people looking for one. The second time the Church Warden caught the perpetrators in the act and summoned the police!

When you cruise the canals you take the beautiful scenery and the fun of boating for granted. But one of the highlights of this trip has been meeting Jenny and Trevor. We first came across them at Grindley Brook locks, and have been travelling together almost since then. Two nicer people you couldn’t meet. They’ve done this trip before, and know all the perils and pitfalls, as well as the best places to moor. We’re enjoying their company immensely and while the weather holds the evening ritual of a couple of drinks on the towpath is a little treat we look forward to.

Trev making a good point

Fuel and Unusual

Through another narrow gap

We’re in Wales. Two days away from Llangollen basin by my reckoning. We haven’t had a day off this week. The state of the world being what it is we don’t want to risk not getting there because Wales goes into lockdown again, so we’ll dawdle and stop to smell the roses on the homeward journey. That said, we don’t do long days on the tiller. Yesterday we travelled a bare 4 miles and that’s good enough.

Martyn’s checking the map and helming the boat. I’m just taking photographs

The Llangollen is unusual in canal terms. Narrowboating is shuffling down a muddy ditch in a tin bath. The Llangollen is more like a river, it has a flow. The canal draws its water from the River Dee and was built to feed the Shropshire Union Canal and the Hurleston Reservoir in Shropshire. Apparently 6,000,000 gallons of water a day flow out of the river and down the canal. We’re pushing against it, which makes progress slower than usual, and the further we get towards the source, the more noticeable the flow is. It also doesn’t help that we’re in a 20-mile pound and water levels are low. Travelling in the other direction, especially with the narrow bridges, could be a bit of a white knuckle ride.

Marbury Lock. Another bywash

We got on to the Llangollen late on Monday. On Tuesday I decided I really disliked it. If Martyn had said let’s turn around I wouldn’t have argued. I just had a bad day. We queued at the Baddiley Locks for well over an hour because a paddle was out of action, the lift bridges are heavy and I managed to cut my finger on one, and for some reason I lost the ability to tell my left from my right on the tiller. Add in the fearsome bywashes at the locks and it seemed everything was out to get us. By the close of play on Wednesday harmony was restored. We’d had a lovely meal at The Swan in Marbury on Tuesday night, we’d been up the Grindley Locks and our first staircase for years, and met a lovely couple, Trev and Jenny on their boat the Life of Riley. Sitting on the towpath sharing a drink and a good conversation in the evening is part of canal life.

And the Llangollen is charming and beautiful, as well as a bit of a challenge with its twists, narrow bridges and blind bends. There are plenty of really beautiful places to moor – with rings mostly – and we haven’t had a day when we haven’t passed a water point. They seem to breed on the banks, there are four in a line at the top of the Grindley Locks. Plus we keep seeing people we know. We passed Fran and Rich on Constanze who YouTube as Floating Our Boat. They feel like old friends to us, although we don’t know each other in real life. I shouted as much in passing, and Rich replied: “No, but we know your boat”. I’m wondering how?

Beautiful Blake Mere

Now, you might wonder how we get the diesel to power the boat? Usually we drive up to a fuel pump in a marina, just like taking the car to the garage. But sometimes the fuel comes to us. There are fuel boats and other roving traders on the canal, which all add to the flavour. Yesterday in Ellesmere Martyn heard a put-puttering coming up the canal behind us and flagged down a fuel boat.

£5 of 4 star please. Those were the days

While Richard filled up Beau Romer I had a lovely chat with Ruth on the butty behind. A butty is an unpowered boat, so it always makes a pair and is towed along behind a powered one. They’ve been plying their trade on the canals for 12 years. It must be hard work, but Jenny says Richard used to be a lorry driver, but really he just likes messing around on boats. We’re very happy to support them and their diesel was considerably cheaper than the marina just a couple of hundred yards down the cut (which was full of returning hire boats – I’ll write about them some other time).

Ruth also sells her canal art

So onwards. By the next time I sit down to write we will have crossed the Pontywhatsit aqueduct. Or fallen over the edge. I like to leave the blog on a literal cliffhanger.

Hail Fellows, Well Met

So. Narrow locks.

From the helmsman’s perspective, they look horrendous. Narrow – obviously – so tricky to enter and exit. And they are fierce! No matter how gently you, as the lock keeper, raise the paddles, the water comes gushing in towards the back of the chamber. It bounces off the rear gates and the undercurrent then pushes the boat forward – hard. To make sure the boat doesn’t bang into the lock gates at the other end the helmsman has to keep it in reverse gear, all the time, and rely on the lockie not to be too gung-ho about the process. It looks terrifying, especially as the first ones we’ve been through have all been really deep. I haven’t been brave enough to take the tiller yet, but I will.

Turbulent water in our first narrow lock

It’s a lot easier if you’re the one with the windlass. They’re like toy locks compared to the big double ones we’re used to. The bottom gates are so light you can practically move them one-handed, and there’s only one top gate – bliss!

Leaving Middlewich yesterday, we turned right onto the Wardle Canal. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the shortest canal in the country at 154 feet. It’s there only so the Trent and Mersey could control the junction. Canal operating in the 19th Century was a jealous and lucrative business. After that short stub and its lock we were on the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. And we hadn’t gone very far when we spotted a very familiar boat belonging to Mark and Debbie. Their YouTube Vlog, Well Deck Diaries, is one we’ve watched since they started and here’s the link:

We stopped, star-struck, and went to say hello. Next time I will take beer, and photographs.

The West Coast Main Line crosses the Middlewich Branch. Sadly there are no traaaains, but if you look closely you might spot a couple of socially-distanced herons

Our impressions of the Middlewich Branch are that it’s very pretty, very rural, very windy and with bridge holes so narrow they made our eyes water. We couldn’t help but instinctively breathe in as we slid through them, both shouting instructions at whoever happened to have the tiller whether they were needed or not.

A tight squeeze
And another. They’re ALL like this, apart from the ones that also throw in a bend for good measure

We found a lovely wild mooring last night and slept like logs.

Misty morning mooring. Autumn is on the way

This morning we went on a goose hunt. We knew we’d be passing Venetian Marina, and that’s where David Bramley, who we know from #boatsthattweet on Twitter, lives on NB Snowgoose. Dave collects YouTube vloggers’ mugs and sightings of Bickerstaffe boats. We’d have hated to disappoint him. He’s also well known for helping boaters through Cholmondeston Lock. This time I was really happy to return the favour.

Snowgoose in Cholmondeston Lock

After meeting Dave we left the Middlewich Branch and enjoyed a short cruise on the Shropshire Union Canal. It’s different again, wide and welcoming. We’re learning every canal has its own particular flavour. All too soon we turned right onto the Llangollen Canal. It has the reputation of being crowded and the domain of hire boats with incompetent crews playing dodgem cars. So far we haven’t met a hire boat whose crew don’t seem to know exactly what they’re doing. I wonder what challenges the Llangollen Canal has in store for us?