THERE can’t be many white-knuckle rides that take you hurtling along at barely 1mph. But then there aren’t many that are more than 200 years old.
Welcome to Pontcysyllte aqueduct, the 900ft canal bridge high over the river Dee that is easily the most Instagramable highlight of a barge trip along the Llangollen Canal.
As you chug along here at the tiller of your barge, there is a railed walkway on one side of you but an arm’s breadth to the other is a terrifying sheer drop of some 126ft.
The viaduct is your introduction to canal life as you have to cross it immediately on picking up your boat in Trevor, a sleepy town on the Welsh side of border country as you head out of Denbighshire towards Shropshire and England.
Like many newbies to the canals, we were drawn in as fans of Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys. In this sublime slice of slow TV, older theatrical couple Prunella Scales and Timothy West alternately bicker, reminisce, drink wine and occasionally prang their way around scenic waterways by narrowboat.
We were keen to give it a go ourselves, though wary of the strain on our relationship. As Pru and Tim demonstrate, the more technically challenging aspects of canal work can put a couple in danger of a row.
We had our breakdown on the way down the fifth of sixth consecutive locks at Grindley Brook. A kindly lock-keeper had helped us negotiate the first few and by now we were overconfident. Until suddenly the front part of our boat had somehow wedged itself into someone’s back garden.
No one could go up or down.
Thankfully, a small army of kind onlookers helped and we were soon free before a blame game could begin. Thanks to the support of enthusiasts like these helpers, the Llangollen is a superbly well-run resource — with mile after mile of neatly finished tow paths.
And this is one of my favourite things about the trip. At almost any point on your journey, if it starts to bucket down, or the light is fading, or you’re tired out — or just because you come upon a stunning view — you can just stop.
Hop off your boat and tie it to the side and you’re good for lunch, for the afternoon, for the night, whatever you wish.
As well as the aqueduct and those locks, there are other obstacles to navigate — several bridges you need to raise and lower yourself, a couple of long and atmospheric tunnels, another aqueduct — as you wind your way through Shropshire towards Cheshire.
At one point, I realised I hadn’t allowed in my route plan for turning around — and going down far enough to turn off and coming back again took three hours. If I’d missed a junction on the M25 in my car and not been able to come off again until Birmingham, I’d be a mess of stress. On the canal it just became part of a gentle afternoon.
And this is the charm. You may be powering a massive, 20-tonne, 65ft monster vehicle down a narrow channel. But it all happens so slowly, with that seductive chug, it’s never alarming, always a pleasure.
The meandering route takes you through some stunning countryside and skirts the edges of pretty market towns like Ellesmere and Whitchurch, which cry out for stops.
Inside, you have everything you need for a very cosy night. Fears of a damp, cold interior were totally wrong — it was toasty. Our boat, Lily, had two bedrooms with a double and two singles, both with en suite shower, a kitchen diner and lounge built around a wood-burning stove.
The evenings couldn’t have been more peaceful, with a glass of wine a book and a log fire. Perfect.
GO: CANAL BOAT
STAYING THERE: Drifters Waterway Holidays offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales. Four nights is from £133.75pp, based on four sharing a boat. Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate from two to 12 people. See drifters.co.uk or call 0344 984 0322.
MORE INFORMATION: See canalrivertrust.org.uk.
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