Page updated 13 October 2020
This is the tale of my first canal holiday taken with my family in 1963. It was first published here on 1 May 2008, so many of the details are a little sketchy and subject to my memory. I hope others will correct and expand these notes and provide more of the story of the canal at that time.
I don't know what led to my father booking a canal holiday in 1963. Up till then family holidays had always been a fortnight at the seaside, traditional bucket and spade stuff to keep the children amused. Our boating had been restricted to taking a picnic on a punt at Henley on Thames or a skiff at Godalming. Although my sister was an avid reader of Swallows and Amazon books, when she later discovered the reality of sailing - that things tended to tip up and act generally too much like a fairground ride for her comfort, she went off it all. Perhaps father's thought was that the advantage of a canal was that there is always firm ground accessible in an instant.
Whatever the inspiration, in August that year the whole Chapman family, which included my brother, Mike, my sister, Gilian, and our dog, Toby, packed themselves into a 24' plywood-built cruiser, called "Margaret". We spent a week making our way to Llangollen and back.
I don't remember much about the boat. I do recall that under the central cockpit floor was found a single cylinder 4hp Stuart Turner engine. I believe it was a petrol engine, rather than the diesel that might be expected today. Even in 1970, when I next took a canal holiday the advertisements in the British Waterways guide books had boatyards proudly proclaiming "Diesel Powered Cruisers" as if that made their boats a cut above their competitor's offerings.
© Dean's Pleasure Boats
"Margaret", the plywood cruiser hired for the family's canal holiday
Facilities on board were crude, nothing like a modern hire boat. It was a scorching week and a lack of a refrigerator or even an ice box meant packs of butter became liquid in a morning, and milk curdled still quicker. Meals for five were always going to be a trial on board as there were only two burners and a grill on which to cook and, back then, canal-side pubs were not the kind of place to which my parents were prepared to take their children. For Mum the holiday was a nightmare, but I was hooked on this kind of boating!
While I don't remember it, our starting point will have been the "Dean's Pleasure Boats" yard at Christleton, on the Shropshire Union Canal just outside Chester. I know it wasn't in the built up area of the city and that we had a reasonable run before encountering the Beeston Locks. These days the Nicholson Guide doesn't show any other boatyard on that stretch of canal and it turns out that "Margaret" was one of their boats.
The first few miles along the Shropshire Union were an adventure. There were floating islands of weed with tall slender leaves floating steadily down the canal. We had been warned not to allow these to foul our propeller. Mike and I, doing our best to fend them off with our boat hook, treating them like some mine that might explode should contact with the boat occur.
Although I recall the excitement of waiting to encounter Beeston Iron Lock as we had been told it would be different to any other we would see, I don't remember what must have been our first staircase lock at Bunbury. Eventually, however, we reached Hurleston and made the turn onto the Llangollen Canal.
I think father chose the Llangollen for the holiday as all the literature would have described it as one of the prettiest on the network. Guide books still tend to agree on that. It has just about everything a canal can have, except for urban areas of decaying industry. The scenery changes from rolling countryside, to flat fen-like areas, and finally the steep-sided welsh valleys with the canal clinging to the side of the hills rather than following the river at the bottom. The canal also has a full range of features, plenty of locks, including one triple staircase, at Grindley Brook, many lift bridges and three tunnels. Finally there are a couple of impressive aqueducts, including the stunning example at Pontcysyllte.
There was always plenty to do. As well as the locks one expects on canals there were plenty of Lift bridges too!
The first of the lift bridges would have taken us by surprise as the British Waterways guide books shows the first at Bridge No.20. The guides then available used a strip map system. However, there were gaps in the representation of the canal, where the text had nothing to say about a length. One of these gaps covered the length that included bridges No.18 and No.19. In fact 19 is a lift bridge.
Big sister Gilian had trouble getting Michael to smile!
Grindley Brook would have provided the next challenge, but I have no special memories of that. I do remember being expectant of interesting views across the meres at Ellesmere, and that they were a disappointment.
The first of the tunnels to be negotiated is the shortest. Ellesmere is 87yds
Returning across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The tow-path was in terrible condition
When we first crossed in August 1963, the hand rail was distinctly wonky in places. The tow path had a heavily potholed shingle surface that was overlaid with walking boards. The shingle had holes in, in places. The only relief was that it is built inside the edge of the cast iron trough that holds the water, so if you fell through it would be into three foot of water rather than anything up to 120 feet into the river below.
I can't image the aqueduct being so empty in August these days
Given it's state, it is small wonder that the structure was completely empty when we crossed. It was on our return too. These days the place never seems to be photographed empty. When we did it, canal boating was completely new to us. Yes we had a guide book, but that had only a few words about its builder, Thomas Telford, the superb workmanship of his masons, and a few stark figures. Certainly, as a lad just turned fifteen, I was not prepared for what we encountered. There was no mention, for example, of the complete lack of any guard rails on the off-side. If you stepped off the side deck - it would be straight down to your doom.
A view through the cabin window on the return journey near Llangollen
It seems I took no pictures at Llangollen. The photos below are taken on the return journey. In the last few miles the canal clings to the steep hillside following its curves. The channel becomes narrow and, in places, the edge is reinforced with concrete. This made passing other boats difficult even in those days. These days, in busy periods, progress can be still slower. With longer boats much more popular and frequent rocks protruding into the channel it really can be a case of shot dashes from one passing point to another, and then a long wait till the next boat comes from his previous passing manoeuvre.
Views across the valley get increasingly dramatic as one approaches Llangollen
Included in the caption of the photograph above used to be, "I can find no record of a breach in the canal in the canal in the early 1960s but the area in the foreground suggests a major repair had recently been completed." Now I know different! I have even found a report, that includes the photo below, by someone cruising on the canal at the time of the breach.
© Canal and River Trust
A photograph from the CRT archives showing the 1960 breach near Llangollen
Having discovered this I can imagine that Dad may have been aware of the breach at the time he booked the holiday and rather than the magnificent view the gap in the trees provides that the reason I took the photograph was to show how the breach had stripped the hillside of all vegetation.
It turns out that most of the images shown in this article, if not all, were taken on the return journey to Hurleston. So, at least we'll end this report with the final image in its correct position within the cruise.
Near the end of the holiday. The Chapman family are back at Hurleston.
Some would say that the "out and back" nature of a cruise on the Llangollen Canal is one of its disadvantages but the way the modern hire companies promote "cruising rings" seems to me to defeat some of the slow speed appeal of canal cruising. Yes, you do retrace your steps, but coming from the opposite direction, and at a different time of day, does literally cast a new light on the sites you see. A missed opportunity for a photograph remains missed on a ring. In the days when you only had eight frames available on your roll of film and it had to last the week, out and back journeys really did make sense. It meant you could often wait for a better lit subject on the return leg.