For three months I have been exploring the Llangollen canal (“The Welsh”) on my narrowboat, Cardinal Wolsey. Calling this waterway “The Welsh” is perhaps a tad misleading, since of its forty-five mile length no more than about the last five miles are actually in Wales. It is an out and back again canal, it doesn’t link up with any other navigable waterway, so I have slowly, slowly, slowly mooched my way along, explored thoroughly, then explored it all again in reverse. Well, not actually in reverse; I turned the boat around in the winding hole just after crossing the World Heritage Site Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, so we were going forwards again, just back the way we’d come from. Boat life can be terribly complicated at times, stuffed full of forward and reverse and bows and sterns and tillers and concentric crank thrumbles on sonic oscillators. Well, the time came last week to actually leave the Llangollen and to re-join the main Shropshire Union canal.
We have had some distinctly inclement weather hereabouts recently, including winds of sixty miles per hour and more. While a narrowboat may be only perhaps one step up from being Captain of a Bathtub Duck, we are still on water and ruled by the wind – there is little more embarrassing than being wholly unable to persuade your boat across the final ten or fifteen feet of H2O betwixt boat and towpath bank. I know this from personal experience. The upshot of this rambling meteorological discourse is, of course, that if the weather is tame then move the boat, and if it isn’t tame then don’t!
While the gales howled and the rain lashed against the portholes I had hunkered down a few miles from the end of the Llangollen, or from the start of the Llangollen, depending on whether you’re upside down or right-way up, and there I warmed my hairy toes in front of the stove, sipped at bottle after bottle (after bottle) of Hendrick’s finest gin, and read books selected from the Cardinal’s library (some thirty-six feet of bookshelf dotted around the boat). We bounced around, the ropes creaked and groaned, the covers flapped and strained and I slept in half-hour naps through the nights, as everything in the countryside that had not been tied down either flew past or hit the boat, rolled across the roof and carried on to wherever things end up when they’re blown away. Russia, probably. Bits of trees, little old ladies, one or two of the more aerodynamic farmers, a small tractor and at least half a dozen sheep passed us by. Does no-one tie things down properly any more?
There is little more disconcerting to the gin-soaked, book-reading, toe-toasting recumbent ear than the Doppler-effect distorted baaaaa… thud… clonk… aaaaa… aaaaa of a gale-borne sheep approaching, hitting the boat, rolling across one’s solar panels and then fading into the distance. There is a war on, after all, and England’s woollen sock industry needs every fleece. It’s no good bleating about defeat if we simply didn’t tie our sheep down properly.
Even on a small island bobbing about in the North Atlantic ocean there follows after each stormy night some sort of daytime, and a daytime finally arrived when there was just a chance, a slim chance but a credible chance, that a slightly hung-over epicurean bibliophile donnish luminary hedonist with hairy toes and hitherto overlooked by the Nobel Committee, the Olympic Selection Committee and the Tufty Club (that’s me, you fool!) would be able to hold onto eighteen tons of long, narrow boat with no more than a centre-line (and a centre of gravity well above his belt-buckle).
So, bleary-eyed and weak from the weight of my duvet, I put the cork back in my breakfast, flung open the hatches and announced to the world that in the absence of objections from my tailor, my vintner or the Prime Minister’s Office, I would jolly well give it a go.
Routine is the order of the day when moving a boat. There are things that must be remembered. I know this from personal experience. It is inconvenient to push away from the bank only to find that one has not attached the tiller – or started the engine. There is an old and widely-used apophthegm on the canals, and it suggests that if one has been at “ahead; full” for a couple of hours and yet the scenery hasn’t changed, one has forgotten to untie a mooring rope. This too I… well, yes, you guessed as much.
My routine, such as it is, includes a walk through the boat to check that the stove is safe, and that things such as the kettle and my laptop are unlikely to sacrifice themselves to gravity at the first minor rock or roll of the boat. Outside, I attach two centre-line ropes and run them one down each side to the stern, so that I can reach them quickly and easily. I remove the stove flue, lower the light-mast and attach the tiller-arm (well, usually).
Once everything is in place to move and before starting the engine I turn my attention to my moorings. Moorings on a canal can be two ropes or they can be three or four, and they can be attached to mooring pins banged into the towpath, to Armco-hooks (around, yes, you guessed it again – Armco), or to chains. If the ground has dried out then the mooring pins can be the very devil to remove, requiring some belting with a lump-hammer and several incantations from my Big Boy’s Book of Cussing to remove. If on Armco then it is not unknown for the movement of the boat to jam the hooks or chains, requiring similar treatment. Again, from personal experience, tis a tad embarrassing and even dangerous to have the bow of the boat flapping across the canal in the breeze only to discover that the last mooring line needs extra time and a hammer to release it – when time is of the single-handing boating essence, and the hammer is in a locker on the boat, flapping across the canal…
Between the Cardinal and the main Shropshire Union lay a few miles of canal and six locks. Locks are used whenever the level of the canal needs to change to accommodate the contours of the land, and they are effectively a big boat-sized tank with doors at either end and a system to let water in or out. The idea is that a chap motors up, moors temporarily, closes or opens the doors and then fills or empties the lock depending upon whether he is going up in life or going down, takes the boat in and reverses the procedure before exiting. After using a lock the etiquette is to leave the water at whatever level it was at as you exited, to close the gates (the “doors”), lower all paddles (the system of allowing water to enter or leave the tank) and to then to go on your merry way.
As I approached the first of these locks I noticed that I was being not just followed but caught up by not one but two other boats – holidaymakers, doubtless with an ambitious schedule to keep to. Now I am not averse, as the folk from the USA are quite puzzlingly apt to say – and if I’ve heard them correctly – to “putting the petal to the medal” when necessary, but not on a canal. If you’re in a rush on a canal then you’re in the wrong place. In especially you’re in the wrong place if you’re behind me on a canal and itching for me to engage “Speedy Gonzales mode”. I had my rush removed years ago. So, needing the exercise, the practice and the peace, I moored the Cardinal, got the lock ready and saw them both through in front of me and on their way. I never did see them again, not even a glimpse on the horizon, so it was a good decision. They would have been on my heels all the way otherwise.
At the second of the locks I had the world all to myself and could take my time. I bimbled, I bumbled and I generally ambled about – and ’twas bliss. Two miles of putt-puttering then lay before me to reach the main line at Hurleston Junction.
Hurleston Junction is many things. It is a series of four locks in quick succession, with a rise and fall of some 34’ 3” in total (and it looks to be a lot more from the back of a boat). It is home to a large reservoir that is fed by the water from the Llangollen canal and serves the households of several nearby towns and villages (and I have seen what cows do in that water – ugh). The lowest of the four locks is also notorious for being the narrowest lock on the whole canal system. This lock is also being actively monitored and surveyed, movement in the walls and subsidence having been detected. This lock has been the theatre within which many a narrowboat has jammed or hung up on the sides and thus come to some serious grief.
Approaching Hurleston Junction I did what all good and cautious chaps do, I moored up temporarily and strolled along for a look-see prior to entrusting the beast with my home. Well, I don’t mind telling you that I was somewhat chuffed, not to say almost over the lunar satellite, to note that there was on duty that day not only a beefy-looking and practical cove from the Canal & River Trust, but a slack handful of gentlemanly “lock volunteers”, all eager to assist. I owe them each a large tin of biscuits and a Watney’s Party Seven of beer.
It took approximately twenty-six minutes to negotiate these final four locks (and would have been significantly longer had I been working them alone). That is far too long an interval for any modern hominid’s attention span, so the video here is speeded up and we complete the process in not much longer than three minutes forty-two seconds. Being persons of a polite and forgiving nature you will of course not notice the one or three steering errors that I made, my only excuse being that I had, by this time, already worked two locks for other boats, two for myself, and was still only one Aspirin away from breakfast.
The emotion of being released from the lower lock was a peculiar one, an odd combination of having just returned from a journey, the deflation of being back in more familiar surroundings and yet an elation at being on the way to somewhere else. The Cardinal and I pootled on a little farther, accidentally moored overnight outside a pub, the Barbridge Inn (wet ales and fine foods). The day following I procured water, rubbish disposal and many other essentials before dropping anchor, so to speak, at some civilised, longer-term moorings between Calveley and Bunbury, where I know there to be shops and a strong mobile interwebnet signal.
I shall remain here for a week or so, considering my options. To the north lies the ancient city of Chester and the route to Ellesmere Port, within waving distance of Liverpool on the opposite bank of the Mersey. To the east lies routes to the old salt-towns of Middlewich and Northwich, to the Peak Forest canal, or south towards the potteries. To misquote ABBA, knowing me, knowing you, but knowing mostly me, I reckon it’ll take me a month or two to manoeuvre myself into a proper decision. Autumn is upon us and will soon be handing the reins over to winter – winter with stoppages, winter wherein I’ll need coal a-plenty, and to be sewn into my thermals until spring.
Perhaps just a couple of days more in front of the stove, with a bottle of gin and a good book… then I’ll decide. I wouldn’t want to rush things.