Monthly Archives: August 2016


The Captain has complained that your scribe rather glossed over the last few days on the Montgomery Canal, so here are a few more pics…

Near Queen's Head

Here’s a rather nice spot just up from Queen’s Head. A fine old warehouse building lurks behind the crossover bridge, but it’s followed by a tight bend, and your trusty photographer was too busy steering to snap anything else. If you click on the photo and look carefully, the blemish over the bridge is actually a buzzard.

Low PoundStuck.

The middle pound at Frankton Locks was indeed very low: at least a foot down, and when the available draught is only about two and half feet that kind of matters. The chap behind was a bit keen, and trying to pass the opposition traffic managed to put both of them firmly aground.

Frankton StaircaseCracker

The chief cook wanted everyone to know that she really did know how to work a staircase lock, and Cracker just wanted to say hello again. He was on loan to take a historic boat down to the Canal Centre for their forthcoming canal festival weekend.

Right. Can I go back to sleep now, Sir?

A Clear Roof

Just under Maesbury Bridge was a service point, and we needed water, so we popped over. Having been out since just after Easter, Song & Dance is looking a bit travel-stained, especially the roof, and we were hoping to at least give the top a wash down with a decent water supply. But just as we’d finished topping up the water tank, another boat arrived wanting some, so we did the honourable thing, and moved on without the wash and brush up.

Pottering on from Maesbury Marsh services all of a half a mile, we felt obliged to have Sunday morning coffee at “Canal Central”, and the cook insisted on finding some carrots for Cracker the horse (who incidentally has his own column in Towpath Talk). Then there was a long-haul trek – all of another half a mile for the round trip – to  wind the boat at the current limit of navigation, Gronwyn Wharf, and moor back near the Canal Centre for the night. We did say we were going to chill out for a few days!

Gronwen WharfGronwen Wharf

There’s a rather odd boating bits and pieces establishment at Gronwyn Wharf, but Sir was unwilling to spend any money, preferring instead to audit the winding exercise.

This journey means passing twice in quick succession through a heavy lift bridge with a rather stiff hydraulic mechanism. Having nearly done himself an injury on the way down, the FO decided that it was the perfect opportunity for the head gardener to tone up those core muscles.

Crofts Mill Lift Bridge

Albert Einstein had his own views on tidiness, (sometimes misquoted as “A tidy desk is a sign of a diseased mind”) so we wonder what he’d make of Song & Dance’s clear roof policy. Cracker and his staff take the opposite view. A boat with stacks of wood, coal and washing machine parts on the roof, coupled with a wind turbine mast and a TV aerial suitable for getting a signal from Outer Mongolia is nothing but but a serious pain in the fetlocks. We hope they approved of Song & Dance’s clear if rather unclean top!

Cluttered RoofCluttered Roof

Monday morning was, er, leisurely, and after a late and protracted coffee and cake at the Canal Centre, we bid farewell to Cracker, and finding the service point unoccupied, embarked on a wash and blow dry. Halfway though, a boat heading down to Gronwyn enquired as to our intentions, as they were about to turn round there and wanted water; they arrived back just as we were casting off. Result!

Mooring a little further up, in the middle of nowhere somewhere below Aston Locks, having covered a total of 1.3 miles, there was little inclination do much more.

On Tuesday morning we were relieved to find that all the paintwork at Aston Locks had dried, and decided it would be rude not to at least have a snack lunch at The Queen’s Head at Queen’s Head before heading back to Perry Aqueduct and finding our favourite mooring suitably vacant. Mind you, the chill-out factor was seriously damaged by the complete impossibility of contacting CaRT to book a passage back up Frankton Locks…

And so on Wednesday, our lazy diversion down the Montgomery came to an end as we turned up at Frankton Locks ready to rejoin the hurly burly on the Llangollen again. There was a house for sale right by the locks that looked rather fine, but we’re not sure even Biggles needs seven bedrooms (plus, it turned out, a sizeable brick cowshed/office suite, a private nature reserve, observatory, hide, and 9 or so acres of grazing along the canal). And remarkably cheap: we were sorely tempted…

The lockkeeper unlocked the lock’s padlocked paddles three-quarters of an hour early, and – second in the queue – we were back on the Llangollen at 12:00, despite going aground in one of the pounds which was a bit low. A hour and a bit’s cruise over very familiar territory, and we were once again tied up in Ellesmere Arm, ready for another assault on Tesco. The Captain was most happy.

Yes We Have No Bus Stops

Maesbury Marsh is on the slow and roundabout bus route from Shrewsbury to Oswestry, and as all the tickets for Shrewsbury Folk Festival had apparently gone, we decide to exercise our old-fogey bus passes and have a wander round Oswestry – only about three miles away as the old buzzard flies.

Dr. Google suggests there is a bus stop near the canal called “opposite The Navigation”, but there was no sign of it. Standing opposite the pub would mean you were out of sight until the bus had crossed the hump-backed bridge, and probably fail to see you. So we stayed on the Shrewsbury side of the bridge looking hopeful. A young lady came out of a house opposite, and asked if this was a good place, she said that she only ever caught the bus to Shrewsbury, not Oswestry, but reckoned it was as a good as anywhere.

We never found out. Two minutes before the bus was due, a gentleman pulled over in his car and asked if we’d like a lift into town. How nice.

Oswestry was a much bigger town than we remember from an earlier visit one Sunday many years ago, and proved a pleasant and interesting spot to while away a few hours drinking coffee, browsing and shopping, but the First Officer had forgotten to take a camera. Rather too many shoe shops, though…

Catching the bus back, our passes failed miserably, but the driver said “it sometimes does that”, and let us on. Perhaps it’s technically a Welsh bus service, and not valid for Engish fogeys. Anyway, he dropped us back in the pub car park, then crossed the bridge and immediately stopped again to pick someone up. So we still don’t know where the bus stop is.

Peace, Quiet, Buzzards and “Heritage”

After the hustle and bustle of the Llangollen Canal, and Ellesmere  gift shopping, we’d set our sights on a few days peace and quiet on the Montgomery Canal, which heads for eight (navigable) miles down from Frankton locks. Due to a nasty outbreak of great crested newts, the nature conservation people’s rule is strong, and there are significant restrictions on the number of boats.

Assuming you can actually get through to CaRT – a miracle in itself – passage has to be booked through Frankton Locks in advance, and you have to transit between 12:00 and 14:00, so we left Ellesmere on Thursday morning after another quick whizz around Tesco (the Montgomery’s a bit remote), expecting to get to the top lock just after the initial 12:00 rush. The third trip back along this by now familiar section this year passed smoothly enough, and we arrived at Frankton about 12:45 only to find a large queue of boats. Oh well – lunch on the hoof again, holding the boat on a rope!

Once down the four Frankton locks (the first two are a staircase) and past the Western arm – a favourite mooring spot – the other traffic had seemed to vanish. We suspect most people just belt down to Queen’s Head, have a late lunch or early dinner at The Queen’s Head pub, then head back again. Fools. We pottered gently down a delightfully rural canal with lovely views across the countryside, and moored up at Perry Aqueduct – a favourite mooring spot of ours. There’s only room for one boat either side, and we had the place to ourselves.

Perry Aqueduct mooringPerry Aqueduct mooringPerry Aqueduct

Friday morning, and the sun was shining, so some bramble picking was called for before setting off for Queen’s Head. It’s not all that long since Queen’s Head was the limit of navigation, but you can go a bit further these days. Stopping for lunch, we decided the moorings – next to two busy roads – were a bit too busy for the Captain, and headed off again. One of the roads leads back to what was once Rednal Aerodrome (now an industrial estate, we think),  and on an earlier exploration by road to see if the runway looked useable (some years ago), we counted 17 buzzards riding the sunny day thermals over the tarmac; it’s still seemingly a feature of this stretch of canal that one is never out of sight or earshot of a buzzard or three.

Approaching Aston Locks it was clear that there was a volunteer working party painting everything in sight. With wet paint everywhere, we graciously allowed them to work the locks for us.

Painting Party - Aston LocksPainting Party - Aston Locks

They were painting everything black and white, just like the Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union, so we asked the chap in charge if he knew why the Shropshire Union Main Line balance beams were painted grey. Apparently our wild speculation wasn’t that wide of the mark. During the war, the canal company ran out of black paint, and their sister railway company had a serious excess of grey paint, so they “borrowed” that. There was so much that by the time supplies actually ran out it had already become a “tradition. It’s now part of the canal’s “heritage”, and they have to keep painting it grey.

Not far beyond Aston Locks one comes to Maesbury Marsh: a much quieter spot to pass a day or two.

Maesbury MarshMaesbury MarshMaesbury Marsh

The old warehouse on the wharf is now The Navigation Inn and proved to be a fine homely and welcoming local pub, as well as a splendid spot for a piggy dinner. Or rather a cow dinner – a very nice steak.

An Ellesmere Sojourn

Leaving Wales on the Sunday morning via Chirk Aqueduct, we had a pleasant meander back over familiar territory.

Chirk ViaductEngland

No delays at St. Martins, and reasonable weather, and by Monday afternoon we were toddling into Ellesmere Arm for a quick visit to Tesco, before nipping round the corner (boat-wise) to Blackwater Marina, ready for the engineer to do his oil changing thing on Tuesday morning. With Song & Dance tucked up on the service quay, plugged in to the mains, and Sir happy with the nearby holiday flat garden to explore, we took local advice and toddled down to the new Greek Restaurant Meze, which was indeed most excellent.

A warm sunny Tuesday in a marina must mean doing the laundry (oh the glamour). For various reasons our engineer chappy didn’t finish until mid-afternoon, and so having thoroughly fed, waterered, dieseled and emptied Song & Dance, and dried all the washing in their tumble dryer, we set sail for a long haul cruise back around the corner into the Ellesmere Arm, where the Captain was beginning to feel right at home.

We were going to head down the Montgomery canal after all the boat servicing stuff, and you need to book a passage through Frankton Locks, so we decided to stay another day and chill out before heading out into the fray again. And so Wednesday was spent pottering around the town and the mere, shopping for some birthday presents and so on.

EllesmereEllesmere Churchyard

There are plenty of nice houses in Ellesmere,

DSCF5113Ellesmere Churchyard

the church overlooks the Mere, and down near the water, something stirred.

Buzz OffEllesmere Church from the Mere

One Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the local Indian Restaurant was offering a Starter, Main Course, Rice or Nan or Chips and a fizzy drink for a tenner, so it hardly seemed worth cooking, and for £20 for the two of us the food eminently acceptable. We’ll be returning to Ellesmere again in a week or so: we suspect there’ll be a repeat engagement!

A Worthwhile Welsh Wet Weekend

Bleary eyed Friday morning proved to be a washout. It had started raining early in the morning, making a change from the duck serenade noises, and was forecast to be wet and wild all day, with a slight possibility of a clearance late afternoon. A steam train trip further into the mountains didn’t seem like a good idea, and most of the day was written off to chores around the boat. The clearance never really came until much later – a shame, because you can only moor in Llangollen for a maximum of two nights.

Saturday proved a little less wet and wild, and with Liam Heath paddling solo at lunchtime, we returned to Gales Wine Bar for some fortification, and found someone with a shiny iPad and WiFi connection who let us watch Liam going for gold. Another celebratory lunch, a visit to the next door wine shop for some more Lebanese goodies, and it was mid afternoon before we got back to the boat. We needed to get clear of Llangollen for the night, and there’s almost nowhere to moor between Llangollen and Froncysyllte, so it looked we’d be cruising well into the evening, and hoped Sir would forgive us.

And so it proved. A tortuously slow run down to Trevor Basin, with the predicted hordes heading up to Llangollen for the weekend – it would have been quicker to walk. And then a long wait because there was still a never ending stream of boats coming across The Great Unpronounceable: in the end the Head Gardener had to walk across to the other side and say “Whoa!”, so we could get across. Most of the traffic seemed to be intent on getting to Llangollen that evening: we were seriously beginning to wonder where they thought they were going to moor as we’d left an almost full basin there. Still, SEP as Douglas Adams might say.

And we finally made it back to the Biggles Jump Off spot in Froncysyllte, for a light dinner and an early night. This boating is supposed to be relaxing! Still, a worthwhile visit – think we might have to come back by surface transport and stay for a few days in Gales Hotel: a hotel with the reception in an upmarket wine shop has to be good.

Shut The Duck Up

Determined to celebrate Liam Heath & Jon Schofield’s Silver Medal in the kayaking thing (Liam’s Mum & Dad are good friends of several decades standing), and also to raise a glass to a some very dear friends who had just lost a parent we both knew well, it was probably a mistake to wander into an establishment that (a) butchered and hung their own 28 day beef, (b) had a charming boss man that looked just like a young Ian A Anderson (another dear friend of …), (c) clotted their own cream and (d) had a large back catalogue of Chateau Musar vintages.

After a thoroughly decadent meal at Gales Wine Bar cum Hotel cum Wine Shop cum whatever, including a splendid bottle of Chateau Musar (a favourite world-class wine from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon), we retired somewhat the worse for wear financially for a well deserved night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, the Llangollen Basin is home to an irascible flock of ducks who quack and squawk and fight loudly pretty much all night long. When they do stop quacking, it’s because they are also the kind of ducks that like nibbling at the green algae that inevitably forms along the boat’s waterline. The aquatic pecking sounds like a very quiet pneumatic drill, or someone tapping their fingers quietly on the table, just inches from your head, and is nigh on impossible to ignore. There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep…

A Llangollen Afternoon

With the early-ish start from Froncysyllte, we’d actually made Llangollen in time for an afternoon wander, even though the 6 miles and no locks took three hours – slow going. The walk down to the town from the basin is full of interest…

Llangollen Wharf

The road descends steeply across the canal. You can carry on round some tight and steep bends, and end up on the main road at an amazing taxidermy workshop. Or you can drop down to Llangollen Wharf, where there’s ice cream, teas, and a chance to say hello to Taffy, who pulls the horse-drawn trip boat up to Horseshoe Falls. Then some steep steps down onto the same road.

Llangollen WharfTaffy

Either way you end up the station, and the bridge over the River Dee.

Llangollen StationLlangollen Station & River Dee

With steam engines running every day during the summer, and a cafe on the platform, the station’s a busy spot. It’s a lovely line, climbing up further into the mountains, and we’d had a lovely day trip some years previously. They’ve extended it a little further, but it was a bit late in the afternoon to investigate this – we’d have had to take the last train out and come straight back – so decided to maybe go on an expedition on Saturday.

Committee Meeting?5199Llangollen Station

The crew seemed to be having some kind of committee meeting over the couplings, but the train eventually departed.

More CeilingsRiver Dee

Walking along the river we noticed a family of young rats whizzing in and out of the rocks below the promenade railings. You’re never very far from a rat, but it’s not often you see them so boldly visible when lots of people are around.

As St. Collen’s church here is also noted for its carved ceiling and hammer beamed roof, we thought we’d better continue our exploration of such items even though we were now definitely in Wales. Then a wander back through town, spotting likely places for an evening meal off the boat. There are worse ways to spend a warm if dull Friday afternoon.

Across the Stream in the Sky

Until the Captain had decided for us, we’d originally planned to overnight in Froncysyllte (or Fron as it is popularly known). Having failed to do that, we’d toyed with the idea of walking down and visiting the well know Aqueduct Inn for some evening refreshment, but in the end decided not to. Shortly after setting off again on a gloomy Thursday morning, it was clear that the pub had been painted a particularly lurid yellow colour that would doubtless have hurt the eyes on a sunny evening!


It was also clear that there was quite a queue to cross Pontcysyllte Aqueduct but we snuck on the end of a convoy without too much trouble. Apart from the name (a tautology,  as Pontcysyllte pretty much means Cysyllte Bridge), this amazing construction is rightly a world heritage site. We’ve crossed it numerous times over the years, and it’s always a thrill, whatever the weather, and no matter how busy. And if you want an interesting exercise, and have mastered the spelling of Pontcysyllte, try and find two people who agree on the pronunciation…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Heading upstream against the flow is slow going, and there’s little to stop the driver, invariably on the left, from getting a nasty dose of vertigo: there’s no Elf ‘n Safety stuff at all. Also it’s a bit like steering through a narrow tunnel that’s lost its roof: just as difficult.

Pontcysyllte AqueductPontcysyllte Aqueduct

If you don’t suffer, it’s a good place to watch the local footy team, but the Chief Cook was steering and determined not to look down.

Pontcysyllte AqueductHead Gardner not looking down

Across the other side is Trevor Basin: always a busy nightmare as there’s a narrowboat and day-boat hire base, someone running horse drawn tourist cruises, the hire boaters not going on to Llangollen trying to turn round and go back again, loads of gongoozlers etc. etc. And a very tight turn under a narrow bridge onto the Llangollen arm that most hire boaters take several crashes to negotiate.

Originally just a water feeder, the navigable channel from Trevor to Llangollen is very narrow and shallow with a consequently strong flow, and contours along the side of the spectacular Dee Valley. There are several sections where only one boat can pass, and you can’t see the far end from the start, so the wise boater sends an advance party off on foot with some kind of mobile communication. The unwise can end up reversing a long way…

Llangollen BasinLlangollen Basin

Getting through the final narrow stretch high above the town, there’s a pleasant basin surrounded by the mountains to moor up in, completed with electrics, and tying up there gives quite a sense of achievement. It’s five minutes downhill to the town, and the basin overlooks the Eisteddfod festival site (that’s the permanent marquee in the first picture).

With Song & Dance put to bed, and wired up (good for the batteries), it was time for an afternoon snack…

Paddling Upstream to Llangollen

Most canals are fairly static when it comes to water. Water is poured into the summit pound (and, sometimes elsewhere) to replace that “lost” when passing through a lock. As water is frequently scarce, this is the reason that emptying a full lock or filling a empty lock unnecessarily (e.g. when you’re above an empty lock, and someone is approaching from below but still a few minutes off) is considered very poor form. If you’re moored up on most canals, there is a modest movement of water in the general direction of “downhill”, but not enough to be of any real concern.

However, the Llangollen canal is used to as a feeder to transport water from the Welsh mountains in the Cerriog Valley above Llangollen at Horseshoe Falls, down to a large reservoir at Hurlestone Junction, from where it goes on to Manchester (or somewhere!).

Horseshoe Falls

(This picture of Horseshoe Falls, technically the start of the canal, was taken on an earlier visit in 2007).

This transporting of water means there is a considerable flow down the Llangollen Canal at all times, making it more like a river. There are two significant effects resulting from this. Firstly, each lock has a large by-wash channel which carries water down around the lock when boats are not moving through – a bit a weir on a river. For some reason here, these inevitably enter and exit the main channel just above and below the lock gates (unlike most river locks, which give you much more room), and cause major cross currents just by the lock itself. Just what you need when you’re trying to slot a 58 ft by 6ft 8in boat into a 72 ft by 7 ft brick slot without crashing into anything and destroying all the crockery.

The second effect is that while the canal is relatively wide and deep, the flow is fairly negligible, but when the canal narrows, Bernoulli’s principle means that the flow speeds up considerably. The canal narrows at every bridge hole, sometimes to little more than the width of the boat, and heading up stream you suddenly find yourself going nowhere, halfway under a bridge. And when you finally pop out the other side, the boat suddenly surges forward again.

It’s even worse in long narrow tunnels like that at Chirk, or in long narrow aqueducts. To keep going upstream, you need a significant amount of power to overcome the downhill flow and keep moving forward against the fast flow, but there’s something called prop walk which tries its hardest to screw the boat around, and in a cramped tunnel it can make it nearly impossible to track straight down the middle without scrubbing the front on one wall and the stern on the other. Deep joy. And scraped paintwork. Guaranteed.

It’s a lot easier going downhill! Or if you must go uphill, use a horse.