It wasn’t a complete disaster.
We spent our second night moored alongside the idyllic Blackmere Lake, which Roo had been looking forward to photographing. She wasn’t disappointed – the leaves were turning for Autumn, making for some gorgeous pics. They were also falling into the canal by the bucketload, fouling our propeller and slowing our already agonising crawl to the speed at which dinosaur turds fossilize.
Having reached the southernmost point of our journey, we now had to turn the boat around. Canals being somewhat narrow, this can only be accomplished at specific places, called ‘winding holes’. Apparently this is not a place you ‘wind’ like a watch (which would make sense), but rather a place you ‘wind,’ like the stiff breeze that we’d been battling since Llangollen. This one was a semi-circular bite out of the opposite bank, into which we guided our nose. Between the boat’s somewhat delayed reactions and my Dad’s instinct to do exactly the opposite of what was required, I think we turned that boat around by the power of swearing alone.
Then it was a fairly pleasant cruise back towards Trevor. Dad and I were getting much more confident, slipping the boat smoothly beneath the bridges with hardly a bump. The current, which had been against us the whole way down, was STILL against us even now we were going the other way. Friggin’ witchcraft, I swear.
Roo took over, spending several hours at the helm, and steering the boat over one of the two spectacular aqueducts. But she handed it over as the shadow of Chirk tunnel loomed in front of us. Over two centuries old, 420 metres long but less than two-and-a-half metres wide, it’s a dark, dank stretch of stone-shrouded claustrophobia.
We’d had a slight altercation on the way down, when a boat coming towards us seemed to get stuck in this tunnel for over half an hour. Roo had gone to see if they needed help, and got chewed out by a sour old lady who demanded we turn our headlight off because it was blinding her.
“It’s a bloody searchlight because we thought you’d died in there,” was my retort, when her boat finally emerged. Under my breath, of course.
Now, following in her boat-steps, I realised what the problem was. That bastard current was fighting us, and funnelled into this narrow tube of bricks it was going faster than we were. At full-throttle we inched torturously forwards, reaching out to push ourselves hand over hand along on the tunnel roof.
After twenty minutes at full-throttle, the massive diesel engine belching fumes in a very confined space was making us feel sick. And we weren’t even halfway through. There was only one thing for it – I passed the tiller over to Dad, climbed over the railing onto the towpath, and stomped up to the front of the boat. Roo tossed me the mooring rope, I wrapped it around my shoulders, and like a skinny version of Hercules I hauled the boat out of the tunnel.
Our speed increased significantly, as I leant all my weight onto the rope. It was like dragging a dead rhinoceros uphill through thick mud – but it was working.
Readers of my books may remember me mentioning a pair of very expensive sailing gloves I bought for my ill-fated career in yacht delivery. I’ve carried these gloves in my rucksack constantly for the last ten years, in the misguided belief that just having them makes me a sailor. In that decade, I’ve used them precisely once – for climbing a mountain in Borneo. So when we planned a week on a canal boat, those damn gloves were the first thing I packed. But where were they, as I wound the mooring rope around my hands and strained with every fibre of my being to haul the boat along? Still in my bag, damn it!
I didn’t care. It was worth a bit of lost skin to get through that bloody tunnel. I was starting to feel we were going to die of asphyxiation in there. Or possibly boredom. And I have to admit, pulling the 18-tonne boat along by hand did make me feel rather manly.
At least for the next half an hour. After which, we arrived at the second tunnel…
We found a different pub to moor up by that night. Ironically, after counting our way under more than thirty numbered bridges, this pub – called The Bridge – wasn’t anywhere near one. Instead, it took its name from this view of an aqueduct and a viaduct together – the only one of its kind in the world:
The next day’s highlight was a familiar one. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was every bit as spectacular the second time around as it was the first. More so, actually, as everyone was a lot more relaxed by this point; no-one even complained at me for seeing how far out I could lean. Score!
We passed the boat hire company, choosing that precise spot for an embarrassingly high-speed collision with the concrete dock whilst making a 90-degree turn. No-one seemed to notice, so we made our escape up what they had told us was the ‘expert’ section of the canal…
And they weren’t kidding. It narrowed to the point where I could quite easily have jumped across it.
Passing other boats now appeared impossible; it wasn’t, it just involved a fresh change of underwear each time. Literally, credit cards could have been swiped down the gap between us – but this being the ‘expert’ section of the canal, these boat owners all felt confident enough to attempt such a manoeuver at full tilt. Which, granted is only 3 miles an hour, but it still made my balls shrink back into my body a bit the first few times it happened.
And then – when we didn’t think the canal could possibly get any smaller – we hit the narrow bit. Seriously! This was one boat at a time, for half a kilometre – but with no way of knowing if another boat had already entered it from the other direction. Roo jogged off along the towpath, waving an all-clear every few minutes. All I could do was set off into the narrows following her. Even if she got all the way to the end without seeing another boat, by the time she got back to tell me about it, someone else could easily have entered. We thought this was possibly the stupidest system in the world – until Roo met an elderly lady scouting for her own boat. “My husband’s driving,” the lady explained, “and we’ve got our mobile phones. If it’s clear, I’ll call him from the other end.” It was a face-palm moment. We got schooled in modern technology by an octogenarian.
At the end of the canal – literally, where it ended – there was another turning spot. In this case, the ‘winding hole’ was also a private mooring for several boats, the closest of which stuck out in such a way as to give us very little room to manoeuver. This led to a highly-charged debate about how to proceed.
Me: I’m not sure we can make it around here…
Roo: Yes, look, there’s plenty of room…
Mum: If I pull on this rope…
Me: NO! We’re TOO CLOSE!
Dad: Hey look, we’re turning a bit. Do that again!
ME: NO! We CANNOT just ram another boat and use them as a fulcrum to turn ourselves around on!
We did though. It worked pretty well, too. But I’m kind of glad the owners weren’t aboard…
Our stately and triumphant procession back into the boatyard was only marred by a massive collision with the very last bridge of the trip. In full view of the rental company, we looked sheepish – until their engineer boarded, to turn the boat around for docking. He achieved this by bouncing it off every fixed piece of concrete in the yard, with such force that everything fell of the shelves below. It occurred to me at this point that perhaps we’d been a bit too precious with The Henley – it’s owners obviously treated it like a floating battering ram.
And with that, we were done. All limbs still attached… barely… I had a few rope burns, and had narrowly avoided being crushed by a bridge whilst hanging from the side of the boat. We were all partially asphyxiated from the diesel fumes, and knackered from the constant effort.
Basically, we needed a holiday.
All we had to do now was unload the microwave, toaster, kettle, a dozen other gadgets we’d been unable to use, and about a tonne of assorted food, clothing and reading material.
“In fact, as holidays, go,” I told Mum, as she struggled to haul our collapsible sofa over the side, “that was the least relaxing holiday since being chased down a train platform by Chinese policemen armed with machine guns.”
We’ve booked again for next year 😉