CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX – "Ellesmere, the Llangollen and That Aqueduct..."
Jayne called at some stage post-Ashes excitement. She was in Ellesmere, preparing to go on up across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct to Llangollen. For some reason I thought this something of a daunting prospect; odd considering some of the experiences I’d had to date. I’d read things in Nicholson’s about the depth of the water from Trevor to Llangollen and had started to convince myself that I’d have to hire a shallow-drafted boat in Trevor and navigate the last few miles to Llangollen in that. FRILFORD, at 2ft 1 inch draft would, it seemed, be just too deep to get there herself. In fact Aubrey, one of the British Waterways lockkeeper at Hurleston Locks, had put me right when I’d come through there a few days earlier with Christopher. British Waterways have worked on the canal to Llangollen and FRILFORD would now make it, it seems.
That left the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, however.
I was both excited and somewhat concerned about the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. I knew it was one of the wonders of the cut; I knew it had been maintained and preserved over the years and was as good as it was when opened in 1805; I knew going over it would be exhilarating - yet I was worried. I suffer from vertigo and the prospect of being 128 feet above the River Dee with nothing beside me and FRILFORD to one side, and only a narrow path to the other side, concerned me!
But I get ahead of myself. Jayne suggested I do not do washing and other domestic chores in Whitchurch, but move up to Ellesmere and join her for lunch. This seemed like a good idea. What also would have been a good idea would have been for me to study the chart a little more closely before I set off. Had I done so I’d’ve realised that it is just on 13 miles from Whitchurch to Ellesmere, and that when I left Whitchurch at twenty to ten in the morning, I had not left myself enough time to get there. Also not in my reckoning was the abundance of hire boaters on the Llangollen. There are no locks between Whitchurch and Ellesmere but there are several lift bridges and numerous small brick bridges, so the likelihood of making a smooth and ‘efficient’ (not fast; never fast!) passage to Ellesmere was slim. In the event I got stuck behind a large friendly hire boat which bumbled along without a care in the world, taking in the lovely scenery. This is exactly what life on the cut, especially a holiday on the cut, should be like, so I ‘phoned Jayne, told her I’d be too late for lunch but would see her for afternoon tea, and settled down to enjoy the trip.
So what of the Llangollen Canal? Although now a canal in its own right, and rightfully considered to be one of the most beautiful in the UK, it was, and really still is, part of The Shropshire Union Canal, or ‘Shroppie’, a generic term for an extensive network of over 200 miles of waterways once owned by the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company. The Llangollen Canal runs from Hurleston Junction through the town of Llangollen and on to Llantysilio and its history is inextricably linked with what is now known as the Montgomery Canal. The Montgomery Canal, which spurs off the Llangollen Canal at Frankton Junction, to the west of Ellesmere, was supposed to be the main line into Wales and although it is some 32 miles in length various schemes to enhance its importance failed to materialise. What is now the Llangollen Canal was seen as something of a feeder canal and survived being abandoned in 1944, when some 175 miles of The Shroppie network were closed, because it supplied water to Hurleston Reservoir. A breach in 1936 had isolated the Montgomery Canal so it was the Llangollen Canal which came to be seen as the main line. Today the Llangollen Canal still boasts wonderful scenery and placid navigation despite getting pretty busy, it being very popular in the high holiday season.
I found Jayne moored in the Ellesmere Branch, a short arm which terminates in the town. The Branch was busy but I managed to get into the last remaining space and made FRILFORD secure in what was obviously a good place to stay. Yes, there was the odd gaggle of youths for whom ‘entertainment’ was to continue the destruction of the derelict milk products factory which presently sits beside the Ellesmere Branch, but they’ll be gone when the place is finally developed along the lines of the hoarding which promotes what might one day be a fine collection of restaurants, cafes and ubiquitous ‘shopping opportunities’. That is if the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister can overcome the torpor it brings to the project. ODPM have ‘objections’ apparently and local people have been fighting for some time to let the developer with the vision get on with what will be a transforming project. This is unusual, of course. More often local people are fighting developers but not in this case. Last heard of the ODPM were looking at it again. Maybe the DPM is colouring in the plans with some new crayons. At least that would be something…
I was right about the “good place to stay” for whilst I did not know it at the time, I was to spent a lot of time in and out of the Ellesmere Branch and would, in due course, find a winter mooring in the excellent Blackwater Meadow Marina a few yards back down the canal. “Wintering in a marina?” the old lags would mutter, “letting the side down a bit…” The idea, apparently, is to winter on the line, moving a few hundred yards here and there, it would seem, to charge batteries and take on a different view. My different view was to consider FRILFORD a small country cottage and enjoy all the facilities of Blackwater Meadow Marina whilst still being able to throw off shore power cables and mooring lines when the mood took me, or someone suggested a pint in a pub two days steaming away! I fixed it so I got my car at the marina and I travelled to places at speeds above 3 mph and spent time back in Abingdon with my elderly father when he needed a bit of company. Yes, old lags, I did rather change the emphasis of my water-borne life once I got to Ellesmere, but I never planned to be an archetypal boat gypsy anyway.
Jayne and I had both tea and supper that day then she went off to Llangollen. A couple of days later I followed her, taking with me an old friend who lives at Chirk. The idea was to get as far as Chirk as see what happened after that. Our trip together started well enough, and included a pint at the welcoming Jack Mytton Inn along the way, but thereafter things went a little awry. I took a phone call from my father who told me shocking news of the tragic and untimely death in a freak accident of a person with whom I once had a special working relationship and whom I much admired. That knocked me back rather. In truth I wanted to be on my own and should have said so. As it was a dinner with my friend from Chirk disintegrated into a filthy row about something; I walked out and hid, effectively, on FRILFORD. All rather unseemly and something from which we have both made efforts to move forward.
So it was in a state of some disarray that I turned FRILFORD’s bows back towards Ellesmere early the next morning. I wanted to put distance between me and the place, both physically and intellectually, in which I found myself, and that, for me, meant going back for once, not going forward.
Jayne found me the next day, tied up at Frankton Junction at the top of the Montgomery Canal. She was full of stories of her trip to Llangollen and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and had arranged to take her boat Sunrise down the Montgomery. She suggested I join her. One has to book a passage down the Montgomery so I could not take FRILFORD this time. Telling Jayne I would join her the next day was actually quite a big deal. I was about to leave FRILFORD tied up unattended on the line. I would be away for a night, which would be the first night I had spent not on board FRILFORD since leaving Abingdon on Thames back in March.
Jayne and I had a good trip down the 7 navigable miles of the Montgomery, but I was pleased to get back on board FRILFORD. I wanted to get back to Ellesmere and prepare for a visit by my cousin Christopher again, but this time bringing with him his wife Angela.
So what of the singlehanding? you might ask. Well, my over-wintering sojourn on the Llangollen Canal changed the character of my time on FRILFORD not only because I was moored in a marina; I also spent a lot more time with other people on board. All were, and are, very welcome and good times were, and are, had, without question. Not for nothing, however, am I a singlehander. I have my little ways and am, no doubt, a nightmare to live with. Christopher can produce a gently sardonic wit and against my, albeit self-mocking, protestations at his handing me a mug of coffee made in a mug from which I only drink tea, or when placing a windlass on the roof near the hatch in a place other than the place where I put the windlasses, he is likely to come up with comments like “You have been on this boat alone too long, Adrian…!” or “Try being a family man, Adrian. With four lively kids and a vibrant Irish wife I’ve long since given up trying to keep what might be my idea of order in my life…!” And he’s right, of course, all things considered, but FRILFORD is not a boat so much as she is my home. The living space of that home is only about 40 or so feet by 6 feet and the actual saloon bit, where one does the living, as opposed to the cooking, sleeping or one’s ablutions, is probably not more than about 10 or 12 feet by 6 feet. Guests on board change things around and whilst I am anything but a fanatically tidy person I like my mess to be both my mess and messy in a way of my choosing! But then I like having people on board too…
I particularly liked having Angela and Christopher on board that day. The weather was glorious and despite, as always, fighting debilitating illness, Angela was relaxed and happy and on good form, as were we all. Angela is a bit of a narrowboat old hand, having had holidays on one years ago. She was completely au fait with everything about FRILFORD and settled down to enjoy the day. Christopher did his usual reassuringly cautious good work on the helm which left me free to wander about enjoying the day. After a few miles of cruising down the cut, away from Ellesmere, we stopped and set up a table on the towpath. Rolling, cattle-filled, meadows fell away to a farm and to trees on the bluff beyond that. We drank chilled wine, ate fine cheeses with ‘slices of delicious ham’ (an old family quote from back before memory) with pickles and fresh bread. Ellesmere boasts a fine delicatessen, Vermulen, and we were enjoying the fruits of their well-stocked shelves.
On the way back I got off FRILFORD and walked their dog along the towpath. I was more than a little nervous about leaving Christopher and Angela to bring FRILFORD home, but I reckoned they’d all look after each other. They all looked very well together as they passed below me at several small bridges and Christopher was quick to point out that he knew he’d got it wrong as he approached Ellesmere Tunnel when explaining the brick chippings and dust by now scattered on the foredeck. “He hit the tunnel entrance…” explained Angela sheepishly as I swept the evidence into the canal. Actually there was a bit more evidence to be sorted out the next day. Where there should have been paint on the corner of FRILFORD’s roof there was bright, shiny, bare steel. It took no time at all to repaint, but how did Chris manage to gauge out a piece the size of a postage stamp which none the less required all three of the paints which make up FRILFORD’s colour scheme to fix?! A cream trim line came together with a red feature and a blue panel at exactly the point where the tunnel was hit. One brushstoke of cream and clean the brush; then one brushstroke of blue and clean the brush before one brushstroke of red. By holding my breath I was able to get the lines right without using masking tape. I am bloody hopeless with paint normally but I was rather pleased with that little repair. I was also rather pleased with the fact that I could take FRILFORD sustaining a little bit of damage to the superstructure (the hull inevitably gets knocked occasionally, but it is unfortunate to scrape the topsides) without having apoplexy. I have since met plenty of people who would have seen such damage to their own boats as being close to a major disaster.
It was with Christopher, this time without Angela but with his daughter Beatrice, that FRILFORD and I made Llangollen, taking in the wonders of Chirk Aqueduct and Tunnel, Whitehouses Tunnel, the awe-inspiring and somewhat daunting, as I have mentioned, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and the delightful three hours or so of canal between Trevor and Llangollen. All capped by the pleasure of arriving in the new British Waterways basin in Llangollen where, for a modest and appropriate fee, one can tie up in peaceful surroundings, plug into shore power, use the facilities and make a short walk into the alluring town of Llangollen. Quite what the place must be like at the height of the season I am not sure, but I have an idea it’d be rather busy. Tranquilly busy, maybe, but busy none the less.
There are several narrow sections of canal on the approach to Llangollen, one being about 500 yards long. They are not policed. In the off season they are easy to transit for there is little or nothing coming the other way. In the high season, I understand, such transits get interesting. British Waterways have resisted calls to develop a ‘traffic light’ system. They consider, rightly I think, that such a system would not work. From talking to a British Waterways linesman in the basin I understand they leave people to get on with it. One boater or another usually ‘takes charge’ and before long a loose system of a few up and a few down establishes itself. It’s the old, old, thing – if you’re in a hurry you are in the wrong place being on a canal.
We had none of that. As we approached Llangollen, variously Christopher and Beatrice were dispatched to run ahead, check the route was clear then report back. In Christopher’s case he ran back with the news. Beatrice, a really super 12 year old born and raised in Liverpool, making her quite different in outlook from her Gloucestershire and Home Counties father, rang in the information from her mobile phone. Mind you, in the world of pay-as-you-go time is money so we got no more than a hasty “All clear” before the line went dead! We rang back for confirmation…
Christopher was keen for Beatrice to spend some time on FRILFORD to see a life style alternative to being an almost-teen in Liverpool. It worked. Within half an hour of leaving Ellesmere, which we did at 0830 hrs it being 19 miles from Ellesmere to Llangollen and a nearly nine hour non-stop trip if one wants to do it in a day, which we did, I put Beatrice on the helm. There were a few moments of “Hey – I can’t do this…” before it became apparent, to Beatrice, most importantly, that actually she could do this. The first time another boat came in the opposite direction we got the “I can’t do this, I can’t do this…!” excitement again, but as I explained to Beatrice, as I do to everyone who calls out so, if they, she in this case, used as much energy doing the helming as they did crying out that they couldn’t do it, all would be well. And so it proved to be. I did not actually leave Beatrice alone helming on the back of FRILFORD, that would have been a bit unfair, but once she realised she could helm and that I was happy for her to do so, she took to it easily.
Mind you, for an almost-teen brought up in the online, wired world of cyberspace, instant appeal, instant gratification and constantly-evolving lifestyles, things have to have their own appeal, their own source of gratification. The knowledge that she, Beatrice, could, with no previous experience, helm a 49 ft 12 tonne narrowboat with competence clearly was not enough for her. Within a few minutes I was invited, politely, to take back the helm so she could go off and do something else. She helmed several times in the two days she was on board, and did a fine job when so doing, but apparently the achievement had little appeal to her, although the general concept of being on a narrowboat seemed to be very acceptable, particularly one with a DVD player on board!
And the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct? Beatrice seemed to love that. Christopher was more cautious and fretted a little as Beatrice leaned over the bows to get a better look at the River Dee, sparkling in the sunshine 128 feet below with nothing between her and it! He preferred to stand back and hang on to something solid, with a rather fixed expression on his face. Me? I was at the stern helming, which going over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct actually means trying to find a way, and failing most of the time, to stop the boat nudging the side of the narrow iron trough which carries the canal across the brick piers. Why? Because it looks so thin, that’s why! And it’s iron, not steel! Isn’t iron a bit brittle? If I were to make FRILFORD hit is hard enough, would it not break?! Probably not but this was another bit of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct transiting which made for an exiting time. I actually stood in FRILFORD’s after hatch and closed the doors behind me, so that I was relatively secure. “Afraid of falling off…?” I was asked by a walker on the narrow towpath beside the trough. “No,” I replied, “more worrying than that… I’ve got a bit of a fatalistic urge to jump off….” “No, surely not…” “Yup – a bit…”
We got to the other side and the sense of achievement and relief was palpable. Christopher and I exchanged over-excited exaggerations, shouted from either end of the boat, about how much we’d both enjoyed and been alarmed by our trip and Beatrice looked at us as if we were mad. “Okay – but never again….” I told myself, “well, not until tomorrow, that is…!”
I have now been over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct some 16 times: more than once in a full gale (over 35 knots of wind) and it gets no easier. Indeed for various reasons I have now walked over it about 12 times. You’ll know which one is me walking: I’m the one walking with small steps and with my head down, all the while brushing my hand along the top of the handrail. It is still exhilarating, it is still marvellous and I will pass that way many times again. Everyone should experience a trip over Thomas Telford and William Jessop's awe-inspiring edifice, by boat or on foot. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument; a candidate for World Heritage Status; and a Grade I Listed structure.
Having got back to Ellesmere (back to the Branch, that is) with Christopher and Beatrice the next day I went back to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, via Chirk, and brought my friend back over it. Phillips and I, for it is he, had spent the previous evening having drinks and attending Harvest Supper in the church next door to where he lives. A fine night was had and I was able to swell FRILFORD’s larder with jars of all sort of things raffled off by the church. A few days after that I met my sister Felicity and my father, whom Felicity had driven up from Abingdon, in the Ellesmere Branch in preparation for our own trip to Llangollen. Father had expressed a wish to see both the canal and the aqueduct and, now that I was an old hand of some four Pontcysyllte Aqueduct transits and a previous visit to Llangollen it seemed a good idea to make use of the fine autumn weather. We did the trip in one day as I had with Christopher and Beatrice.
Father missed a lot of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the way up because he fell into a photographer’s trap. He ran out of film, unfortunately, soon after we got onto the aqueduct so went below to get another one and put it in his camera. I had another boat behind me so could not stop, not that I would have been keen to stop in all that high open air! Father is not as young as he was so by the time he was back on deck we were almost across to the other side. So almost no photographs and few memories of views either.
Father is a keen photographer, as I am, but one has to watch oneself. I, too, have fallen into a photographer’s trap before now. Not the no film, no pictures, no memories trap but the take-pictures-of-everything-but-actually-experience-nothing trap. Sometimes one can be so keen on getting pictures of everything that one does not actually see anything, and certainly don’t experience things as they are supposed to be experienced. I have looked at my own pictures of an event and thought to myself “I have the pictures but I don’t feel as though I was actually there…”
Father didn’t miss out, of course. We were going back over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct again the next day, I reminded myself. Not that I needed reminding.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – it became the signature for my winter sojourn on the Llangollen Canal. Three weeks after having crossed with Father and Felicity (making six transits by then) I was back, this time in the company of John and Elizabeth Boland, Americans from San Francisco on a hire boat, and Wes and Sharon, new old friends I’d met on the cut, on their boat Simba Dada.
We had some times on that trip, including the John Boland Ceremonial Llangollen Basin WaterFest.
“Film at Eleven…”