I was nervous as my family and I were shown to our boat, Pontcysyllte.
In Chirk Marina, among scores of other boats, she didn’t look that big. But, as we were given a tour by Pete from Crest Narrowboats, we realised that we were staying on the canal version of a floating palace, complete with superb facilities.
“Crikey, this is big,” I said to the driver, who was taking us out of the marina and teaching us the basics of driving the boat. “It’s as big as they come here,” he replied, “any bigger and it wouldn’t fit in the locks.” At this point I’m sure I gulped loudly and my face went a little pale. “So how long is she?” I asked. “69 feet,” said the driver. Oh dear.
If Chief Brody from Jaws had said the famous line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” at this moment, he would have taken one look at Pontcysyllte and said “not that big!” I was concerned. Not only would I have to safely navigate this boat along the canal, I would also have to take it over its namesake aqueduct, with its famous 38m (126ft) sheer drop down into the River Dee. I felt ill-equipped for this mission. I didn’t even own a captain’s hat, let alone a white beard.
In at the deep end
Soon, were heading for Whitehouses Tunnel. At 170m (558ft) long, it wasn’t the biggest tunnel we would face on this trip, but it was pitch black. The driver left us to it. After a couple of minutes’ tuition, he left us in charge of a 69ft-long boat. He must be mad. Still, we made it through the tunnel in one piece and we were on our way to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
A World Heritage Site built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop in 1805, the aqueduct is a truly stunning place, with magnificent views of the Dee below, but I didn’t enjoy driving over it. I was too busy trying to safely steer our behemoth.
Thankfully, we had decided to turn around at the other end (we turned successfully thanks to a helpful lady from British Waterways) and cross the aqueduct again; this time I could enjoy the view and the magnificence of the journey. Tired and happy, we found a quiet spot on the canal and moored for the night.
Take it slow
The next day we decided to head into England to explore the beauty of Shropshire. Surely our handling couldn’t be as bad as yesterday?
The thing to remember when it comes to driving a barge is that you steer from the back of the boat, but it’s the front that moves. Oh, and you have to steer in the opposite direction to where you’d naturally steer, which takes some getting used to. The other thing to remember is that this boat doesn’t move anywhere fast. The best way to get yourself out of a tight spot is to not get yourself in it in the first place – slow and steady wins this race.
But just as important as taking it slowly is steering with a smile on your face. This is the most popular canal in the country, so most new boat skippers here are at least as bad at steering as you, and those that aren’t are well used to having their boat nearly bumped by somebody who’s still trying to get the hang of it – there’s no road rage here.
Soon we were headed through Chirk Tunnel and over Chirk Aqueduct, another Telford construction that is surely one of the greatest border crossings (Wales into England) in the world.
After several hours of cruising, we made it to the Salopian town of Ellesmere, where we tried to find a mooring. Initially, however, we couldn’t find one, which meant we had to turn the boat around. Without the lady from British Waterways this time, it was a traumatic experience, but we eventually found a lovely mooring spot, and the next day we strolled into the pretty town, with its excellent local shops.
After a decent night’s sleep, we had to start heading back towards Chirk, but not before stopping off at the Jack Mytton Inn for a meal and a night mooring. As we headed back to the marina the next day, we were left to reflect on an amazing adventure, filled with laughs, new skills, truly beautiful scenery and the odd bump of another boat.
HOW TO GET THERE
Chirk is just off the A5, between Oswestry and Wrexham. The marina is well signposted off the A5, next to Chirk Golf Club.
FIND OUT MORE
The Jack Mytton Inn
Hindford, Whittington SY11 4NL
Moor up for the night and enjoy great food in this friendly, award-winning pub.
Lion Quays Hotel
Moreton SY11 3EN
You can moor up outside this waterside hotel, which also has a restaurant, gym and spa.
Chirk Marina, Chirk LL14 5AD
Prices depend on the size of
boat you wish to hire and the
time of year and length of time you hire it. Once aboard, you can cruise the Llangollen Canal at