The ducklings were everywhere. Dozens of them, little balls of fluff furiously paddling away while their mothers brought up the rear. “Ducklings!” I called out to my husband, but he had other things on his mind. Trying to steer a 62ft two-bedroom narrowboat when you’ve never done it before takes a fair amount of concentration.
We had had a lengthy briefing from Dave at Black Prince Holidays when we picked up the boat from Chirk Marina in North Wales just over the Shropshire border. Another staff member steered us out of the marina, showing us how to use the tiller. Then he nimbly jumped off, leaving us on our own. They say you can drive these boats even as a complete novice, and we were about to find out.
Slowly and unsteadily, we glided along the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal under a bright green canopy of trees, just about getting the hang of it when the Chirk tunnel appeared – all 421m of it, and more than a bit spooky. The Chirk aqueduct and adjacent railway viaduct swiftly followed, taking us over the border back into England and into a narrow, twisting stretch of the waterway. It was as if the canal couldn’t wait to fling its greatest hits at the novices.
“Want to have a go?” my husband asked. My initial efforts brought to mind that line from Father Ted: “You let Dougal do a funeral??” I was better later on, but for now it was best to leave the steering in more competent hands.
Meandering along at a languid 3mph – slower than my walking pace – we had plenty of time to absorb our surroundings as we spotted herons and steered under pretty arched bridges. The air was heavy with the scent of springtime blossom mixed with the occasional whiff of cow and sheep – a not unpleasant combination. I could feel the stresses of lockdown melt away in the midst of all this beauty, even though we had locks of a different sort to contend with the following day.
In the meantime, we had the lovely Poachers pub to moor beside for the night, with a waterside terrace and decent ales on tap. Bats swooped as we had an aperitif on our small bow deck before heading inside to cook dinner. Setting the pattern for the rest of the trip, we had a post-dinner torchlight stroll along the towpath before flopping into big leather armchairs and watching a film, never quite staying awake long enough to reach the end. A feeling of calm, of pure relaxation, had taken over completely.
Even the next day’s rain didn’t dampen our newfound enthusiasm for narrowboat life. We soon reached the first of only two locks on our trip, and immediately forgot how to work them. Luckily Roger the lock-keeper was around to give clear instructions on how to open and close the paddles, which we put to use on our own at the next lock – and on the return journey. I was overjoyed that I mastered this thing that had always put me off canal holidays.
The market town of Ellesmere was our goal for the afternoon, where B Hawkins butchers were closing but not before they sold us some local lamb for our dinner. “Ellesmere is lovely,” they told us in Chirk Marina, “but if you want somewhere more remote, carry on to Blake Mere.” The idea appealed: we had become used to feeling cocooned in our boat bubble. It’s a funny thing being in a floating home. Everyone you pass says hello, but it’s a sort of antisocial sociability – quite apt for these times. In Blake Mere, two other boats were moored by the forest-fringed lake, and carp fishermen were determinedly holed up in their tents. Owls added their hoots to the birdsong soundtrack. It did feel remote, deliciously so.
On our return journey to Chirk, we felt like old hands at boating, even though the weather refused to behave. Just after Chirk tunnel, we moored in a deep green gulley before walking into town, not realising that the smell of chocolate in the air was caused by the nearby Cadbury factory. By chance, we were in Wales the week the pubs reopened, and the lure of comfy sofas under a canopy in the Hand Hotel’s garden was too strong to resist. Later that evening, we discovered why the gulley was so vividly green: both slopes were smothered in wild garlic, and the scent of it soon filled our boat’s little fridge.
Before we set off on our last full day of boating, we followed the footpath through a bluebell wood to Chirk Castle, a medieval fortress now run by the National Trust. While we loved being on the boat, it felt good to have a good yomp through woods and fields just as the sun came back out.
The climax of the trip was meant to be a nerve-jangling journey across the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, a Unesco World Heritage Site that soars 38.4m above the River Dee. With only one side – the towpath – offering any barrier, it’s easy to get the heebie-jeebies just looking at this magnificent construction. But we breezed through it, delightedly lapping up the views. (Turning the boat around in the heavily congested Trevor basin just beyond was much trickier.) On this restful journey of quiet marvels, it wasn’t a case of saving the best for last.
Black Prince Holidays offers four nights’ boat hire from Chirk from £989 for two people. Diesel costs about £10 a day, and other trips (and boats sleeping up to 10) are available from bases in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Cambridgeshire and Falkirk, Scotland.