28 - Wintering on the Llangollen Canal
November 2005 to March 2006
Having put FRILFORD into Blackwater Meadow Marina at Ellesmere on a couple of occasions so I could drive south, for unexpected funerals as it happens, two of them, I realised it was a pretty good place to be. Several old canal hands sucked teeth and tutted when I mentioned leaving the Llangollen Canal and taking my chances around The Cut that winter and as British Waterways were about to shut a lock for maintenance to the east of Ellesmere, thus locking us boaters into the Llangollen Canal until the end of March, my winter plans were looking unlikely.
Another plan was to moor in the branch at Ellesmere. I talked to British Waterways about doing that and they said I could, if I paid them about £420 for the right to stay there. Several boaters were doing that and several more were tying up along the length of the canal and moving about a bit to charge batteries, get water and all that sort of thing. I liked the idea of doing that but realised that if I wanted to leave FRILFORD for a bit, there’d be no specific security. Moving ever further back from original water gypsy idea I went to speak, again, to Neil, the manager of Blackwater Meadow Marina.
Blackwater Meadow Marina was full, it is always full, but Neil, bless him, can ‘work things’! He had a berth that belonged to someone else who would not need it until the end of March ’06. Did I want it for the winter? “Yes,” I said, and we did a little deal. More expensive than doing a deal with British Waterways but the difference was that FRILFORD would be behind locked gates and had access to shore power, a laundry, showers, toilets and a chandlery. Also I could bring my car up from the south and have it with me, and I would run FRILFORD like a country cottage for a few months.
“Ah,” said an old boater I’d got to know a bit, one who was to spend the winter in Ellesmere Branch, “that’s letting the side down…!” “Is it?” I replied, a little embarrassed. “I think so,” he came back. As far as he was concerned I had committed the cardinal sin of paying more for something than I needed to. Money is a big issue for most people on The Cut and whilst it should have been for me too, considering I was spending the bank’s money not mine (that’s right isn’t it? It is their money – I don’t have to worry about it…!) I have always been prepared to pay for something that rendered a quantifiable service, and I reckoned I’d be alright in Blackwater Meadow Marina.
I was. Winter there passed in a series of not-unattractive incidents! Early on a man brought a brand new highly-painted and polished 60 foot boat and mooring in the berth next to FRILFORD and me. Not long afterwards, returning from a cross-marina movement to pump out my slurry tank and get some fuel, I managed to put a light six foot long ‘scuff’ along his highly-glossed top panel of his hull. He was furious and sent me a bill for repainting the entire panel, about £350 plus VAT. Later, I returned from a weekend in Liverpool to find he had spent the weekend on his boat and had unplugged the shore power from my boat to plug in his. I had a word with Neil; Neil had a word with him. I moved to another berth. Eventually I had a word with him (let’s call him Derek) and slowly, oh so slowly, we established a more friendly relationship. He polished out most of the scuff on his hull, which, anyway, was nothing compared with the lumps of paint the crane had taken off the boat when they put her in the water.
Blackwater Meadow Marina is a bit of a ‘closed society’. As an ex-boarding school type I know a bit about such places. The relationships people have with each other are a little more involved than they might otherwise be, and incidents and happenings take on a greater importance than they might otherwise do. Take John and the gate, for instance. John is a lovely chap; an ex-accountant. Lives on his boat alone in Blackwater Meadow Marina. He has no other family and no property ‘ashore’. Perhaps due to his accountancy training he is very precise in the way he lives. He is the unofficial/official ‘warden’ of Blackwater Meadow Marina.
Every such establishment needs a chap like John. He walks around the place checking that everything is how it is supposed to be and if it isn’t, he tells someone about it, frets a little, and makes some sort of amends. He closes and locks the main gate each evening. There is a barrel bolt, a top bracket, a chain and a padlock. John likes it all put together in a certain way. This is not perversity; it is reckoned that put together the way John puts it all together means it all can be taken off quite quickly. Once upon a time long ago someone had been taken ill at Blackwater Meadow Marina and an ambulance had been called. It arrived after lock up and several minutes were spent unlocking the gate, hence the ‘quick’ system now employed.
Whilst I was there John’s life was very much taken up with the fact that someone (“…and we know who it is – we’ve even spoken to him about it…!”) had taken to opening the gate late at night, usually en route back from a local hostelry, and locking it again in a non-John way! It was the chain and padlock, you see. Not fed through the barrel bolt but wrapped round the gate itself… Many were the mornings when a simple “Morning John…” greeting from me became several minutes of intense talk about the mis-locking of the gate again last night.
John doesn’t buy coal at the marina because he can get it cheaper at the coal merchants ‘down the road’. Cheaper because you take your own bags, fill them yourself, hump them into the back of your car yourself and hump them out again yourself back at the marina. Cheaper the coal might be, but all that humping and getting the car filthy, not to mention the fact (well, I just am of course) that ‘down the road’ is about six miles away in the middle of a wood, and with petrol the price it is…, means that I buy coal at Blackwater Meadow Marina. I gave John a bag of coal once. I can’t remember why I did, but I did. He smiled but looked a bit perplexed. “Is that a problem?” I asked. “I suppose not,” replied John amiably, “but how am I going to account for it in my records?”
Bruce and Eve I met very early on. A charming couple and real characters, both of them. They live on their boat in Blackwater Meadow Marina and Bruce also ‘keeps an eye on things’ round the place. Bruce is a real gentleman and introduced himself to me almost as soon as I first arrived. He is always ready to help with anything, and always ready to offer advice. Eve is as warm and friendly as the day is long, and they are both as warm and friendly as the evenings are long, and I should know – many are the evenings that they have asked me onto their boat for supper. Eve doesn’t drink. She’d like to but she has to cope with something which does not allow her to drink. Bruce, on the other hand, enjoys a drink. “Come for supper later,” Eve would say to me during the day, “Bruce is out doing a few jobs for a friend and he’ll want a couple of glasses of something when he gets back. He’d love it if you kept him company.”
We are neighbours on the marina and not needing to be asked twice I’d present myself on board Edelweiss, their boat, bottle or two in hand (“You didn’t need to bring those….!” was always the response!) and whilst Bruce and I laughed away the evening, for we were always laughing it seems, Eve would produce plates of good food from the well-stocked galley. Next day the exchange would be something like “Cor, mornin’ Adrian; got a slight head on me today. What time you leave last night? I fell into bed and was out like a light. Must have got up for a pee at some stage but don’t remember doing so…!” “About midnight.” “About midnight – what? That’s when you left? Blimey! How are you this morning?” “Fine, thanks…” “Well, course, you’re a lot younger than me…”
Bruce and Eve know a lot about life on The Cut. They sold up several years ago and their boat and what goes on in and around it, is their life. They are not in the least bit sedentary and make long trips during the summer months, only returning to Blackwater Meadow Marina to winter and be ‘at home’. In the winter, wood is their great thing. Bruce doesn’t reckon to spend much on fuel but he likes to have a decent amount of it and, like others, but never in company with others, with whom he is in not friendly but amiable competition, he’s out and about to see what wood might be found along the banks of the canal. There are rules about what one can take and not take. British Waterways are okay boaters doing some modest wooding but they are not happy if the boaters get too bold. Bruce is very respectful of the rules and, bold fellow though he is, does not get too emboldened whilst wooding. ‘Chain Saw’ – those are the bogey words of The Cut wooding fraternity. People have them but they are not to be flaunted. I don’t have one!
Bruce and Eve went wooding up near Chirk one day – in the bit I call Lord of the Rings. Invited me to go up and join them. I made it a two half-day trip to find them up there. I had not been out for some time and it was nice to get out of the marina and be by myself for a night. When I met Bruce and Eve at Lord of the Rings they were already chopping rings into blocks, a lot of which they insisted I have. Suddenly my previously-clear foredeck was piled with wood and I looked like a ‘real’ live-aboard. “If anyone asks, you were given it…” smiled Bruce, conspiratorially. Apparently in the wooding scheme of things provenance is everything and my having wood with no provenance was easier than my having to explain. “Fine,” I said; “you have just given it to me!” “Yes, but don’t mention me…!” “Right.”
Another time I met Bruce and Eve up there, their wooding had come to a halt. British Waterways appeared from around the corner with a work barge. They’d come to clear a fallen tree out of the canal, ironically. Been there for ages, but it was increasingly getting in the way of boaters. Bruce had been perhaps a little bold in his wooding that day and the British Waterways Line Manager had hailed him in a friendly but rather determined way. Bruce got the point immediately and stopped what he was doing. He knows all the BW people and they know him. No-one did anything to embarrass the others but Bruce did not get his wood, either! This irked him and he talked about little else as we made our two day trip back to Ellesmere, picking up bits and pieces of wood as we went.
There is an order to things on The Cut, however. A day or so later a British Waterways crane lorry pulled into Blackwater Meadow Marina. It was carrying a large tree trunk. “Bruce,” they cried out, “this is what we hauled out at Chirk. We’ve nowhere to put it. Can you use it?” Bruce could, of course. Before two days had passed that tree truck was neatly chopped blocks of wood for burning, and a goodly amount of it was on my foredeck! And in my stove.
The winter months were punctuated with enjoyable trips up the canal towards Llangollen with various friends at various times. My cousin Christopher from Liverpool took to bringing members of his family down for trips on the boat. We established a bit of a routine. They’d drive from Liverpool to Chirk Marina and I’d meet them there in my car. I’d drive all of us back to Ellesmere where we would board FRILFORD and spend the rest of the day meandering up the canal back to Chirk. Christopher is a great one for creating meals on board so we’d stop somewhere for a tasty something which I’d leave him to create in the galley. All of his family have now been on FRILFORD, that’s three boys and his daughter, and his wife Angela, although not all at the same time. He clearly enjoys being on the boat and I suspect we will do more of this in the future.
Another time I took FRILFORD to Llangollen then came back with the Bunning sisters, Christine and Annette, and Christine’s son Matthew. Having crossed the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct we then walked under it and over it. Boating it is one thing, walking on it is another! Anyway the weekend was good and when we got back to Ellesmere on the Sunday and I drove them back to Llangollen to pick up their cars, the day was still quite young, so we entertained ourselves by walking up the steep hill to Llangollen Castle. From there one can see the Llangollen Canal snaking its way back down the side of the valley, with the River Dee meandering its turbulent way along the valley floor. One gets a good view of the castle from the canal so it was good to turn the scene round and see it from the other way.
This was not the first time I’d walked across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. On 26th November 2005, some time previous to the Bunning visit, I had taken FRILFORD up the canal to attend the celebrations to mark the bicentenary of the opening of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805. I had a good run up there and was able to moor very close to where I needed to be. Later other boats came and had to moor further away. I’d done rather well, it seems. The day was cold, grey and wet but cleared up later. Military men in historical uniforms provided an honour guard and Thomas Telford himself (at least a chap dressed just like him) made a rousing speech. A musket-fired salute rang out and the large crowd busied themselves with enjoying the exhibitions, the musical shows and the military mock battles which took place in the field close by. The adjacent Telford pub did very well and all in all it was a very good day. Steve Phillips, his wife Wendy and their son Lloyd joined me in the evening to watch the fireworks. They were magnificent and fitted perfectly to the rousing music to which they were set.
I think we did the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct justice on its birthday. During the day, as the weather required coats to be fetched, worn and then returned to FRILFORD, I walked across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct about eight times. The last time was after it had got dark as I was returning to FRILFORD after a couple or three bracing drinks. I called a friend of mine who also has a healthy regard for the aqueduct. “Where are you now?” he asked. “Walking rather carefully across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the dark. I’m right in the middle as I speak,” was my reply. “Get off the bloody ‘phone and concentrate man!” was his to me. Next day, rather than winding FRILFORD on the other side as I could have done, I went across the aqueduct, winded on the Trevor side, and crossed over again. Crossings 9 and 10 for me, according to my logbook.
Another time a friend of mine, Gwen, and I set off from Ellesmere, had a few St. Patrick’s Day drinks in Lion Quays, ate the dinner which Gwen cooked on board (with a little help from the kitchen at Lion Quays – “Have you got any……? What about …….? No? I’ll pop into the pub: I’m sure the kitchen won’t mind!” Gwen’s lovely so of course they didn’t mind. Would have been different if I’d been doing the asking.”), then planned our assault on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct the next day. Which we did (crossings 15 and 16 for me) before settling down in the basin at Frontcysyllte to watch some quality TV: qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix and the Commonwealth Games. The next morning we watched the Malaysian Grand Prix live then set off back to Ellesmere. Watching 200 mph cars in Malaysia one minute; conning a 3 mph boat on a canal in Wales the next. Life is full of contrasts!
One time a freighter, the ‘Hudson Firth’ turned up in the marina. Sailed right past FRILFORD! She used to carry freight round the coast of Britain and Europe and here she was, in Blackwater Meadow Marina. It might be that she was a model, built by Gordon, another of the berth holders at Blackwater Meadow Marina. It might be – but it might be that the world suffered a Douglas Adams-esque crisis of scale for a few minutes.
Another time I woke to find my little world under nine inches of snow (okay – 5 inches of snow, but…). People often ask me how I keep warm on board. The stove I have in FRILFORD is too big for the boat and when burning nicely kicks out enough heat to warm a boat twice the size. A nice problem to have – I have never been cold on FRILFORD, and I doubt I ever will be whilst Bruce is close by!
‘On shore’ perhaps the most enjoyable experience of the winter was establishing a friendly relationship with Andy and Elaine, publicans at The White Hart pub in Ellesmere. Reputed to be the oldest pub in Shropshire it has a wonderful atmosphere and a most enjoyable clientele. Andy is the perfect host, knowing everyone’s name and greeting them using it, always having a word or two to say, and keeping a Cask Marque cellar of top quality. Elaine, too, is a genial and welcoming hostess. She works full time in Oswestry so how she finds the strength to work behind the bar in the evenings I don’t know. Except that I do, actually. Andy and Elaine are not in the first flush of youth but are not long married. Second time around for both of them and, as they are pleased to tell whoever will listen, they are very happy together. She supports him and he supports her. No wonder there is such a welcome at The White Hart. Sunday music sessions, Folk Night, the Quiz Nights, I have been lucky enough to get involved in all these things. Even made the Inner Circle. Once a month or so Andy and Elaine go out to dinner somewhere. They grab a few friends to make up a table and took to grabbing me. A privilege for an itinerant, soft-handed southern Englishman. The Welsh border is a mile up the road from Ellesmere, less maybe, and Andy is a keen Welshman!
It was actually 13th April before I finally got away from Blackwater Meadow Marina. ‘Got away’ sounds like I was keen to break out. No, although when I got east of Wrenbury and into a bit of the Llangollen Canal which I had last seen when entering it with cousin Christopher back in the previous September, my pulse did quicken a bit, and quickened some more when I got through the locks at Hurlston and out onto the ‘Shroppie’. But that’s for another day.
I had not planned to spend a whole six months on the Llangollen Canal, but I am not at all sorry that I did. Mind you, one can get drawn in. Take my friend Bill, for instance. Something of a Renaissance Man he had arrived at the Blackwater Meadow Marina some time the previous year, bound for Chirk, some 12 miles or so further up the canal. For reasons I don’t think I have ever discovered, not that I’ve asked, he tarried a while. He’s known as Steamboat Bill as he has a lovely steam open day boat which he has used to take admiring guests (I suspect they admire both him and the steamboat but I am not going to tell him that) up and down the canal on trips. I met him when I first went into the Blackwater Meadow Marina for all the usual services and he did the necessary for me. We got talking and he happened to mention that boaters enjoy a pint in The White Hart. Many is the time he and I have enjoyed a few in there, for he is a musician and plays harmonica at the drop of a hat, especially if it is dropped in The White Hart. Added to which he now actually works at Blackwater Meadow Marina. Started off a bit ‘casual’ but recently he seems to be ‘on the strength’. There’s more – his, apparently, quite complicated love life appears to be concentrated on the town of Ellesmere these days, at one address in particular. If that is not enough he had bought a small place along the canal next to Colemere. It needs work so he’s not going anywhere in a hurry. So he got thoroughly ‘sucked in’ by Blackwater Meadow Marina, Ellesmere and all that therein is. And do you know…. he has yet to get to Chirk!
I didn’t get sucked in to that extent. Mind you, as I write this in Abingdon on the River Thames I am about to set off on FRILFORD to go non-stop back north to Ellesmere. Reckon it’ll take me about three weeks if I am not delayed. Need to get there before the British Waterways Stoppages Programme for 2006 kicks in, and it starts on 6th November.
There is some symmetry here and I fancy a little more of what Blackwater Meadow Marina, Ellesmere, The White Hart, the Llangollen Canal and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct have to offer.
“The usual, Andy, please… Hi Elaine..! Yes, fine thanks, and you…?”