Certainly, there are more efficient ways to get from the English village of Wrenbury to the Welsh town of Llangollen. Driving, for example, takes but two hours. We opted, however, for three days in a rented "narrowboat," which we steered along the 19th-century Llangollen Canal. Why? Because the watery highway reveals vistas that the macadam highway simply doesn't reach: ancient market towns, pastoral rolling hills, lonely stretches of peat bogs and mosses. Even better, we were able to sample firsthand the small pleasures of village life.
The Llangollen Canal is one small arm of Britain's 2,000-mile inland waterway network. The canals, built to transport goods during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fell into disuse with the coming of the railroads. In recent years, many have been restored and have become popular ways to see the country. Indeed, canal boating is now a substantial tourist industry in England.
My husband, two college-age daughters and I arrived in Wrenbury, near Crewe in the English county of Cheshire, to find our boat, the Golden Kestrel, ready, waiting and well-stocked with several days' worth of provisions. The 55-foot narrowboat -- a long, skinny craft specially designed to navigate England's narrow canals -- was comfortable and cleverly arranged, with two double sleeping cabins, a very manageable kitchen, a dining area that could have been converted to another bed and a small outdoor deck area with two wooden benches.
A friendly fellow from the rental company helped us load our luggage aboard the brightly painted boat, showed us how everything worked and stayed with us for the first hour of our voyage, teaching us how to steer with the tiller and providing tips on how to pass oncoming boats and how to avoid running aground at the edge of the often-shallow canal. We moved along at the maximum cruising speed of 4 miles an hour -- going faster is considered bad form. Before long, even the most unmechanical of the four of us -- me -- had no trouble managing the boat.
Our guide accompanied us to the first lock, so he could show us how to operate it properly. Canal guidebooks rhapsodize over working the locks, but we found them as much an obstacle as a delight. Lockkeep-ers are not usually available, and the mechanisms -- which two of the passengers must go ashore to open and close -- can be heavy and awkward. Moreover, there were sometimes long queues before the boat could pass through; the interconnected series of three "staircase" locks at Grindley Brook, which we reached on our second day, was very slow going indeed.
At the same time, the locks are crucial to giving canal boating its special rhythm. They provide a series of goals and are a regular reminder that you are using part of a remarkable interconnected network through which much of Britain's goods were once transported. The locks are also one of the elements that help make canal boating a good family vacation, by providing a job for everyone. (A 12-year-old could easily work the locks, and an 8-year-old could help; indeed, kids might well get more of a kick out of it than older passengers.)
Finally, we were through our first lock and on our own. The adventure had begun.
One of the special joys of canal travel is that there is always plenty of room to stop, wherever and whenever something strikes your fancy. Our first afternoon on the canal, we glided along until we came to a cheerful-looking canalside pub. The setting was inviting, and we took out our stakes and hammer and tied up. We cooked dinner in our little Pullman kitchen, went out for a walk and an ale, and settled down for the night, bobbing peacefully on the water.
We spent the next 2 1/2 days cruising serenely up to Llangollen through a changing world. The earliest section of the canal, in Cheshire county, contains a number of heavy old lift bridges that boaters have to crank open and closed. Most are passed over by farm roads, but sometimes crabby motorists, far removed from the leisurely pace of canal boating, wait to cross to the other side. The scenery here is tranquil, with gentle hills and prosperous farms.
After lunch on our first full day, we left Cheshire and entered a rather odd part of Shropshire, the Whixhall Moss, a deserted and romantic stretch of peat bogs, tall grasses and abundant wildlife. The mosses were succeeded by the country of the meres, rather austere, dark green glacial lakes within view of the canal that were surrounded by vast clumps of purple rhododendron just coming into full bloom. We moored near the town of Ellesmere, at the edge of the mere country, for our second night.
The Shropshire scenery that we glided through the next morning seemed the quintessence of England. Unendingly lovely from the boat, the bright green hills were marked with hedgerows of flowering white hawthorn and large patches of yellow mustard. Flocks of spring lambs and herds of Hereford cattle nibbled in the meadows; other cows stared from the water's edge. Salmon-colored Shropshire brick houses and occasional church steeples, pointed and square, appeared in the distance. This stretch of the canal winds beneath a number of old stone bridges, which frame one pretty scene after the next.
When the canal crosses the border into Wales, the countryside becomes progressively hillier and less benign. We crossed the handsome Chirk Aqueduct and moored near the town of Fron Cysyllte for the night, saving for the morning the most famous landmark on the canal, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. This 1,000-foot span, which carries the canal 120 feet above the River Dee, was designed in 1805 by British engineer Thomas Telford and is considered one of the world's masterpieces of canal architecture.
The canal crosses the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in an iron trough just slightly wider than the boat, and I had expected to be terrified by the view of the drop from the non-towpath side, which had neither a sidewalk nor a railing. Instead, I was too busy to be frightened: It was a blustery morning, and we were going against the current. The Golden Kestrel could barely move forward; I had to hold the tiller and do what little steering was possible while the rest of the family walked the towpath and dragged the boat across the aqueduct with the mooring ropes. (For reasons that even the best guidebooks found difficult to explain, revving up the engine of a large boat in a small amount of water does no good.) It was both ignominious and funny, not quite the soaring experience promised in the canal guides.
From Fron Cysyllte on, the scenery became quite dramatic, with steep hills, some heavily wooded and some bare and moorlike. As we entered the final narrow and shallow stretch of the canal, the ruined 13th-century citadel of Castell Dinas Bran, which once helped protect Wales from English invasion, came into view. We reached Llangollen in the early afternoon, turned around with surprising ease at the canal's last "winding hole," or turnaround point, and abandoned canal boating until the next day.
Exploring British towns and villages was a special pleasure of our trip. Llangollen is a fine old slate-roofed town, laid out on the banks of the River Dee. It is a center for walking and pony trekking, and boasts a number of good shops, both for restocking provisions and for buying Welsh woolens and other crafts. It also offers a variety of easy excursions, and we took off on foot for the remains of the Cistercian Valle Crucis abbey, in a fold of the hills. The buildings date from the 13th to 15th centuries; portions still stand, the ruins stark against the sky.
We also were captivated by the quiet canalside market town of Ellesmere, with its dignified red-brick Georgian buildings, and the bigger town of Whitchurch, about a mile from the canal near the Shropshire-Cheshire border. The path into Whitchurch leaves the agreeable canal landscape to cross through dreadful modern suburbs, but it ends up at the town main street, a gem of Georgian and half-timbered 15th-century houses. At the top of the street is a large, early 18th-century church, with earnestly polished brasses, poignant war memorials and a vicar right out of a Barbara Pym novel.
Even more compelling than the towns was the abundant wildlife along the canal. Birds appeared everywhere. The stretches past the Whixhall Moss and the meres were especially wonderful, with so many species stationed at regular intervals that they seemed to have been specially planted for our pleasure. We saw swans with cygnets, Canada geese (permanent residents, not strays) with goslings, mallards with ducklings, and moorhens still sitting hopefully on nests. An occasional water rat swam by; once a kingfisher flew overhead.
Best of all were the herons, which play a game with canal boats, posing elegantly a bit too far away to photograph and then, just as you've approached and gotten your camera almost in focus, taking off down the canal and posing once again. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the thriving canalside vegetation, gorse and hawthorn and tall reeds that were beginning to produce yellow iris during our return trip. As we rolled along, low in the water, we seemed to fade into a scene from "The Wind and the Willows."
What about the food? Surprisingly, we ate very well throughout our trip, and with little effort. The food with which the boat was initially stocked -- we had sent in a grocery order form in advance -- included delicious (and cheap) little lamb chops, chicken far more flavorful than what one usually finds in America and wonderful new potatoes.
We bought similar provisions when we restocked in Llangollen, and we supplemented them through a most welcome cottage industry. At several points along the canal, signs for prepared foods were posted on bridges, beckoning us to tie up at places with names like Ye Olde Well and Broome Farm Kitchen. We did, and bought terrific chicken and mushroom pies, steak and kidney pies, fresh scones and uncut loaves of whole-wheat bread. Shropshire also produces a delicious cheese, blue-veined on a rather fearsome-looking yellow base, and a variety of good farmhouse cheddars.
After dinner, we frequently went out for a walk in the twilight and a stop at a local pub. Maps of the canal posted in the boat show where to stop for provisions, eating and drinking, and we used those in deciding where to tie up for the night. (So did just about everyone else, which is why canal boats tend to moor in groups.) The mix of pubs provided an instructive glimpse into the variety and class structure of British life.
Two of the pubs -- the Willeymoor Lock, where we stopped the first night, and Mad Jack's, near the village of Oswestry -- were right on the canal, served food and catered to boaters and the local gentry. The Red Lion in Ellesmere was a town gathering place, with a garrulous Irish landlord who was tickled to have an American family appear out of nowhere and questioned us at length about U.S. politics. The Aqueduct in Fron Cysyllte was pure working class, loud and smoky, and the pub in a hamlet called Platt's End had an elderly clientele who spoke as if they'd spent every evening there for years. At the last two of these we were treated as invisible once we were given our pints. Being ignored was an anomaly on a trip that was otherwise much more notable for open friendliness. Most people -- from the ubiquitous towpath dog-walkers to our fellow boaters -- seemed unendingly good-natured.
Canal boating does have some drawbacks. While the four of us got a kick out of operating the boat, it might seem like tame busywork for accomplished sailors. The one day of heavy rain that we had made it clear that the fickleness of British weather renders a canal trip somewhat risky, not least because you do have to return the boat on schedule. And traveling by boat is not ideal for certain excursions, because you can't regulate your speed significantly. The handsome iron gates of a 13th-century National Trust property, Chirk Castle, are less than a mile from the Llangollen Canal, but we were unable to tour the castle because we arrived too near closing time.
Still, we would take another canal trip in a minute, and an enormous variety beckon. One can visit Stratford-on-Avon by canal, or Oxford, or cross England coast-to-coast. The canals are linked; you could spend months moving through the network from Yorkshire to London. You can also hire a cruiser in Scotland to cross the Highlands through the lakes -- including Loch Ness -- that are connected by the Caledonian Canal.
Next time we'll choose one of these possibilities, rather than duplicating our trip to Llangollen, but I doubt we'll find a better spot on any canal than the village of Marbury, about two miles southwest of Wrenbury. We moored just below the village on our last night and walked up after dinner. The old pub, the Swan, was the most congenial we visited, with friendly proprietors, boaters and locals mixing easily, dart games and good ale "on pump." The village itself was tiny. All the buildings were lovingly kept, and English gardening genius was reflected in the glorious herbaceous borders of several old brick and timbered houses.
At dusk we wandered onto the grounds of the Marbury church, a beautifully proportioned 14th-century building of faded reddish stone decorated with endearing stone gargoyles. The church stood on a knoll overlooking a mere where waterfowl slept and green hills stretched away beyond. Some of the gravestones were so old that the names had long since faded away, and the wooden gate to the churchyard was dedicated to the 14 men of the village who had been killed in World War I: "Those who live midst English pastures green, remember them, and think what might have been."
There was something infinitely touching about all this, tying us to the long history of the village, a place we would never have found if we hadn't set off on our little canal journey. We walked back to the boat in the final light of a long day, feeling privileged indeed.
Carolyn Mathiesen is an editor for the Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center.
WAYS & MEANS
Canal boating is a substantial tourist industry in England, and the British Waterways Board publishes a comprehensive catalogue of rental agencies. We used the catalogue first to order information describing the canals and then, when we had settled on the trip we wanted, to select English Country Cruises, a rental company with headquarters on that canal. We then reserved a boat for a week by calling a U.S. travel agent that was also listed in the catalogue.
Once in England, getting to the boat was similarly straightforward. We took a two-hour train ride from London's Euston Station to the homely town of Crewe, a major railhead in the English midlands. From there it was a half-hour trip by taxi to the village of Wrenbury, where our boat operator dispatches its 16 carefully kept narrowboats for Friday-to-Friday or Saturday-to-Saturday rentals. The boat company pays the taxi fare both ways.
UK Waterway Holidays Inc., a consortium of the British Waterways Board and Association of Pleasure Craft Operators, is an umbrella group for most British companies that rent self-drive boats on the nation's 2,000-mile inland waterway network. Its booklet, "UK Waterway Holidays," provides details on 29 companies that rent self-drive "narrowboats" -- long, skinny, somewhat unwieldy crafts designed to navigate the narrow canals -- and, occasionally, cruisers throughout Britain.
A few of the self-drive boats sleep up to 12 persons, but the majority sleep four to six. Fares range from $427 to $1,393 per week, depending on the size of the boat and the season. "Economy" season runs from March 20 to May 7 and from Sept. 18 to the end of October; low season is from May 8 to June 11 and Aug. 28 to Sept. 17; midseason is June 12 to July 2; and high season is July 3 to Aug. 27.
We paid $804 for our boat, which could have slept five to six people, at the end of the low season. The same boat would have cost $1,073 in the high season. The price included everything except the food we had ordered, towels and bedding, engine fuel and bottled gas for cooking, and insurance.
The booklet is available from the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700 (in Washington, 554-7969). You can also get the booklet from, and make arrangements through, several U.S. travel agencies that act as representatives for UK Waterways Holidays. Among them are Dial Travel, P.O. Box 1034, Hunt Valley, Md. 21031, (800) 424-9822, and Ambassador Travel, 3030 S. College Ave., Fort Collins, Colo. 80525, (800) 234-8040.
-- Carolyn Mathiasen