Page published 16 February 2015
After my introduction to canals in 1963 with a family holiday on the Llangollen Canal, boating had not been forgotten. I had spent days on the River Wey and on a friend's yacht in Chichester Harbour and had holidays on the Norfolk Broads, in 1965, 1966 and 1967. However, by 1970 it was time for a return to the Llangollen Canal. With my brother, Mike, his girlfriend, Mary, now wife, and a couple of friends we hired a narrowboat.
Graham (with hat) and Mike (my brother) stand beside my fully loaded Austin 1100 ready to leave home.
This report is being written in 2015 and that 45 year delay will mean that much written here is likely to be revised over the coming months as those involved in the trip struggle to recall the details. Indeed it probably wouldn't have been written at all if it hadn't been for Graham. We both worked at the same bank which I had joined when I left school. We'd been in touch again and he sent me a set of scans of the photographs he had taken on the trip. That finally inspired me to complete the report, which for the last seven years had been nothing more than a holding page with a couple of small photographs on it.
The photographs I had that recorded the trip, were in an old album. The first shows Graham and my brother standing by my car ready to leave our family home in Crawley. The picture reminds me that Mike was in the process of restoring a Bond Mk.F at the time. He'd esprayed the body in a "go faster" yellow. The bonnet was matt black and tied down the leather straps, in the fashion of a rally car of the day. Even then he could dream!
I see no evidence of Graham's car in the photo. The Fiat 500 is my sister's car and the Austin Maxi is my parents. I wonder if that means he had been given lift from Horsham or had stayed overnight at our house. The only other detail I seem to recall is that my fully laden 1100 had been in the garage overnight.
© 1970 Graham Polley
The sign indicates this is M6 Junction 15. About the only thing that looks the same today is the bridge.
After leaving the Chapman home, our first port of call would have been Guildford, where we would have picked up Mike's girlfriend, Mary. The fifth person to be with us and complete our party was a college friend of Mary's, another Mary, whose surname I cannot recall. I suspect that she may have made her way to Mary's home and we picked them both up from Guildford, but that is another of those details of which I have no memory.
© 1970 Graham Polley
No idea where this is!
Could it be where we had lunch on the way to the boat?
Once our party was complete our route took us via the M1 and M6 towards Chester. Graham supplied a photograph showing the approach to Junction 15 of the M6, taken from the front passenger seat of my car.
That junction has been radically reconfigured since 1970 and the road has been re-numbered. One of the things that confused me in trying to identify the bridge was that it is not shown on Google Maps. However, Google's satellite images reveal that the bridge provides private access to the Trentham Estate. The area is far more heavily wooded today and, of course, there is now a barrier on the central reservation.
Another of Graham's mystery photographs shows my car parked outside an imposing building. My best guess is that this is where we had coffee or lunch on the way to the boatyard. It shows the same luggage label hanging from the centre of the case on the roof rack so it's hard to believe the image comes from the return trip when, surely, the roof rack would have been packed slightly differently. (See more Mystery Photographs.)Our target, I am sure, was Dean's Pleasure Boats, at Christleton, on the outskirts of Chester. This was the same yard that Dad had booked our boat from for our 1963 trip up the Llangollen. The one distinct memory I have at our brief time at the boat yard was seeing someone I believe was Gerald Harper, who was also taking a boat out from the yard. His face was familiar to me from the TV series "Adam Adamant", which the BBC now describe as a "Cult Classic".
Other than an encounter with Gerald Harper, my memory of the business of picking up the boat has been lost. However, assuming we arrived mid-afternoon at the boatyard, then we'd have had a couple of hours, at least, of cruising time before we would need to consider mooring for the night.
A sunny morning, but I can't locate this photograph. My best guess is that it's Sunday morning and we're still on the Shroppie. well short of Barbridge Junction.
The first few miles down the Shropshire Union Canal towards Hurleston Junction are lock free, so you should be able to cover something over six miles in a couple of hours. However, trying to place where we moored on that first night is tricky.
Luckily, I still have the negative strips for the three films used on this holiday. Only the final three frames of the first roll were taken on this holiday. The first being the laden car and the third undeniably taken at Ellesmere Basin. That means the second shot could either have been taken on the Sunday morning on the Shroppie, or the Monday morning on the Llangollen. For the moment I'm backing the Shropshire Union as the canal looks relatively wide.
© 1970 Graham Polley
No clues about this one - other than Graham never travelled anywhere without a Union Flag!
In his collection of photographs, Graham has an almost identical shot of the bows of Lauriston as mine. The only significant difference is that I am seen climbing from the forward well, my camera in hand. Another of his shots shown aboveis of the aft deck which I believe was taken at the same mooring.
Surprisingly, neither of us seem to have taken any shots of either Hurleston Junction, or the flight of locks there. Such shots would have been an obvious introduction to the main leg of our journey. Perhaps exhaustion had set in! If we did stop on Saturday where I assume we did, Sunday would have involved tackling around 15 locks, with the turn at Hurleston tackled mid-morning and the day finishing somewhere near Wrenbury.
© 1970 Graham Polley
Not much has changed about this location judging from recent photos found on the web!
The first easily identified landmark amongst both our photographs is that of the house that guards the entrance to Prees Branch on Whixhall Moss, some nineteen miles from the start of the canal. I can be certain that Graham's would have been taken on the Monday. I have a shot which my negatives reveal were taken on the return leg. Mine shows the other four crew members sunbathing on the top of the cabin and no anglers outside the house.
I remember that we moored in Ellesmere Basin on Monday night. To be honest I don't remember that it was Monday, but logic determines that it must have been or the schedule for the cruise would not have been achievable. I recall that we were short of milk and probably some other provisions. Whether we went shopping for them before breakfast or after, I am not sure. I remember being concerned about whether we'd find the quickest way to the shops as, from the basin, Ellesmere appeared appeared to present you with a maze of narrow streets with no obvious route to the main shopping area.
© 1970 Graham Polley
It seems to have started out sunny at our mooring in Ellesmere Basin.
I suspect it was relatively late in the morning before be finally left Ellesmere on the Tuesday morning. My first image after the mystery shot of either the first or second night's mooring shows us making our way out of the Basin and along the channel to the main line.
By the time we'd done our shopping we appear to have lost the sun. Graham is at the helm.as we depart Ellesmere Basin.
Five minutes later we would have been at our next port of call - the Water Point. Graham's Union flag seems to go up and down at an alarming rate. It's flying while we make our way from the basin but down again, while filling at the Sanitary Station.
Graham is seen filling our water tank while Mike seems to be still sorting out our mooring lines.
The "other" Mary takes the helm.
Finally, with the shopping done and water tank replenished, we are properly under way, and the flag one more is flown with pride from the boat hook. While the sun may not be out, it is clearly reasonably warm as both Mary and Graham are in short sleeves and Graham has changed into his shorts since we left the Sanitary Station.
There don't seem to have been any rules or conventions about who took the helm. Certainly, the photographic evidence records "other" Mary was on the tiller shortly after leaving Ellesmere.Between Ellesmere and Frankton Junction the canal meanders a little more than it does earlier. The land around is very much mixed farming country. I thought I remembered the cattle from the family's 1963 holiday but, looking through the photographs still in the family album, again, there is no evidence to support that. However, Google's satellite imagery reveals that the land is still used in the same way today, so it is likely we did pass cattle fields in 1963 as well.
Graham's collection of photographs reveals that there were other breeds of cattle to be seen from the canal and maybe in the same fields as his also show telephone or electricity poles in the background. However, two photos was cows is quite enough for our purpose!
Perhaps the only other comment to make is how shallow the canal seems at the edges, although I don't recall ever running aground.
First one cow...
... and then lots!
When you reach Frankton Junction the canal reaches its most southerly point. From Hurleston it has travelled in a broadly south westerly direction. Now it turns north westwards. Our 1970 guide book records only the initial two locks on the Montgomery Canal are navigable, though these days there are some seven miles and seven locks that are passable.
After Frankton Junction there are only two more locks to negotiate before you reach Llangollen. I am surprised that I did not take a single photograph of us negotiating a lock on the outward bound journey and, as we shall see, apart from the staircase at Grindley Brook, none on the return.
© 1970 Graham Polley
I know this location too! :-).
Perhaps the reason for not taking photographs of the two locks at New Marton is that it was raining. Like almost every other boater, both Graham and I took a number around Chirk and they show puddles. As we start across the aqueduct, I can be seen on the tiller as Graham takes his first picture.
After a Shower
Then it appears we all got off the boat and I take a group photograph. By this time Graham has changed again. Now he is wearing a T-shirt and trousers. Perhaps he was the one who had to brave the rain at the New Marton locks?
On the aqueduct, approaching Chirk tunnel
I must assume that we stopped for several minutes. The next image shows the cruiser ahead of us has cleared the aqueduct and a group of cyclists have arrived from the direction of the tunnel. We are now on the move with Graham steering.
A short goods train passes over the viaduct beside us.
My next photograph shows Mary steering and Graham attending to his camera. He had just taken what turned out to be a rather blurred silhouette of the guards van centred perfectly on one of the arches of the viaduct. Luckily,I feel my picture turned out rather better.
In those days if you put Mike in the dark with Mary the kissing started!
Then it was into the tunnel. It looks as if we may have had to wait a while before making the passage as back at the entrance you can see the back of a boat that must have just come through.
© 1970 Graham Polley
Somehow, it seems that I managed to negotiate the towpath hand rail and climb aboard.
Mary and Graham
I had thought that the picture of me holding my camera might have been taken inside Ellesmere Tunnel. I had seen photographs that suggested it has a light panel of bricks at the apex of the bore similar to those seen in this picture. However, given that Mike and Mary are in the forward and all the gear on the cabin top are in exactly the same arrangement as shown on the aqueduct, it must mean that the image does belong to Chirk.
Looking at the background on the final Chirk Tunnel image and you see that the cruiser is now pulling away from its position immediately outside the portal. A further suggestion that we nay had had to wait for our turn in the tunnel.
At first I had been puzzled by the the presence of the other boat that can be seen outside the portal in the first tunnel mouth picture. The tunnel mouth aligns exactly with the track of the aqueduct and the photographs taken while crossing the aqueduct show no signs of a boat moored just outside the portal.
However, I now realise that while the southern portal may align with the aqueduct, the tunnel itself runs at a different angle. Indeed, it turns at a greater angle than the railway line passing over the hill, which takes advantage of the canal's sharper turn to pass over the canal while it is in its tunnel.
Washing up after our evening meal.
The photographs of the outside of Lauriston reveal a lot about hire boats of the period. You may have noticed that there are no vents! That means the boat has no gas fired water heater, which many might have expected, certainly no central heating and if there's a fridge on board then it was either run from a battery or not vented externally as would be required these days for a gas appliance.
What is clear from the the picture showing the two Marys wiping up after our evening meal with Mike (you can tell it's him from the jumper!) doing the washing, is that while Lauriston may have had a steel hull, its superstructure was built from a combination of plywood sheets and tongue and grooved board.
That means there was no insulation. The weather on our trip was variable and I don't remember the excessive heat that the family experienced in 1963 but, in combination with no heating, this certainly is not a boat for winter cruising and confirms its hire boat status.
Such an approach to boat construction and fitting out is virtually unknown these days, even for a hire boat, with steel being the norm for both hull and superstructure with, it seems, ever greater thicknesses being specified by those commissioning craft. Having steel superstructure means that some insulation becomes a requirement of the fit out and, of course, these days even hire boats would be fitted with heating, a fridge and facilities for constant hot water available for showers.
The uninsulated wooden cabin shows this is a typical hire craft of the period.
Something else the external photographs give little away about is the internal layout of the boat. You'll have noticed that both sides have four similar windows. The images above do very little to help my recollection of Lauriston's various cabins.
There is no water heater over the sink in the narrow galley seemingly confirming that all hot water would have been provided by the engine. Of the doors opposite the cooker and sink, one must surely be to a toilet compartment. As we'll see later that contained an Elsan bucket, which suggests that we are also in the days before showers became the norm aboard boats.
This suggests that the overall layout was a dinette with adjacent galley admidships with other cabins forward and aft. What my memory does not tell me is how these were fitted out. It is quite likely that both these cabins had single berths to each side so that either could be used as a saloon. It is even possible that bunks were fitted in one or both cabins to maximise the numbers that could be accommodated, but without a second toilet compartment that would seem unlikely.
Placing the primary sleeping cabins in the bow and stern of the boat would also be seen as useful for families so young children could be put to bed early while their parents could retire to spend the evening at the far end of the boat.
© 1970 Graham Polley
Mike and Mary are still together, after marrying in 1972.
With the late start on Tuesday morning and perhaps a little time spent taking photographs around Chirk, we didn't keep up with the schedule that we might have aimed for if our plan had been to spread travelling time out evenly. It seems that Tuesday night was spent between Chirk and Pontcysyllte.
I suspect that by Tuesday evening we would have passed the final two locks at New Marton and it would have taken only a little time to reach Pontcysyllte from our overnight mooring with only Fron Lift Bridge to slow progress.
The only thing we may not have allowed for was the additional traffic since Mike and I had last been on the canal. I'm not talking about numbers. one of the problems would have been bigger boats. In 1963 the five Chapmans and their dog squeezed onto a 24' boat. By 1970 larger boats were common and, as we were to discover, the narrow stretches above the Trevor Arm could make passing difficult for them.
Wednesday seems to have dawned warm and bright and we still found time to have some fun! I had certainly forgotten all about the "Loo on the Towpath" incident until Graham sent his photograph. In spite of appearances I'm sure Mike had on more than his flip-flops!
After a brief wait for approaching boats to clear the aqueduct, we started our own crossing.
It's well known for the huge drop to the valley bottom and the complete lack of any parapet on the off-side.
I spent most of the crossing on the towpath rather than on board.
I wonder if Mary still has her photographs.
It is clear that it was still relatively early in the morning when we reached the aqueduct, as can be seen from the shadows of the towpath railings.
It seems I spent most of my time on the towpath, just hopping on the boat to get a better view of the drop to the valley floor. It still amazes me that the health and safety lobby haven't insisted on erecting rails on the off side.
After the loo incident Mike did get dress to make the Pontcysyllte crossing. Clearly, Mary was taking photographs. I wonder if she could find them now?
I forget the story behind the "On Tow" sign in the window of the aft cabin. All I can say is that I remember buying a tow rope pack from Halfords after having to use a friends with one with cars I had before the Austin 1100. The package included that sign, and I carried it in the boot of subsequent cars for a good number of years. However, why it was dug out of the package I kept it in in my boot, and why it was stuck to the window oI doubt that crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct would ever leave you without a sense of awe. Its reputation is fully deserved. This time it looked in a lot better condition than when Mike and I had crossed in 1963.
Having crossed the aqueduct you turn left. The canal then gets progressively narrower during the final four miles to Llangollen. For us the weather got warmer too and some of us stripped down to our underwear!
These days you can compare the appearance of of the canal as it was in 2012, when Google's Street View cameras were taken on cycles on the towpath. (In fact, you can follow the approach to Llangollen all the way from the other side of Chirk!)
Having taken relatively few photographs earlier on the journey, perhaps because of the showery weather, I now take pictures of every bridge we pass, some of them several times!
Approaching Bridge 43 and I spot ducklings sitting by the garden gate.
Disturbed by the boat and my approach the ducks move to the middle of the towpath. Meanwhile our boat has nearly disappeared through the bridge...
After taking my photograph of the ducks I have to run to catch up and even go ahead in order to wait at a suitable place to jump aboard.
Bridge 44 looks as if it should have been left open, even then.
After the sequence of photos of the ducks at Bridge 43, I had to run to overtake Lauritson. Meanwhile, Graham and "other" Mary carried on walking. I can't recall whether I had to walk all the way to Bridge 44 in order to get back on board. I suspect not. My hazy memory is that the bank on the towpath side was quite shallow and Mike's first attempt to come alongside for me to jump aboard had to be aborted.
The 1970 guide book we were using makes no mention of whether Bridge 44 is normally kept open, although more recent Nicholson Guides do tell you that is how it should be left. As I appear to be in the forward well in my photograph soon after passing the bridge, to my mind that suggests that we did indeed pass straight through.
My next photograph confirms that Graham and "other" Mary carried on walking the towpath - another indicator the the bridge did not need attention - as they were still missing from the boat as we rounded the following bend and encountered another boat returning from Llangollen
While approaching Bridge 43 it was clearly sunny enough, you have to wonder if it was really was as warm as "other" Mary and Graham might have you believe as, on this part of the canal, the trees exclude the sun much of the time and both Mike, aboard our boat, and the steerer of the other were not even in short sleeved shirts!
Beyond Bridge 44 the canal make a long sweeping turn as we finally approach Llangollen
Perhaps this is the point where I should report that I remember being quite disappointed with the photographs when they came back from the developers. I recall that the dimpled rubber sheeting on the cabin roof was grass green, but all my photographs gave it an almost blue colour.
As we pull into Llangollen, Graham and Mary have obviously decided that it is not as warm as a while ago. Now it is my turn to be on the towpath. These days, the wall that blocks the view of the castellated mansion and looks in poor repair has almost entirely disappeared. These days there is only a short length that is clad in ivy.
It's only a few minutes since we passed the other cruiser and now Graham and Mary are wearing a little more!
I cannot recall where we moored at Llangollen. My 2003 edition of Nicholson Guides suggests that you moor east of Bridge 45, saying that "a mooring basin is planned" a little beyond. The 1970 British Waterways "Inland Cruising Booklet" that we were using gave no advice at all on where to moor, saying only "Lovely Llangollen, 44 miles from Hurleston ", is virtually the destination of the trip" as it explains that the channel continues a further two miles before reaching the Horseshoe Falls.
Passenger services ceased in 1965, freight in 1968 when the track was removed
Other Mary takes my photograph, while my brother and Mary are snogging again!
Those who have only visited Llangollen recently may be surprised to see that the railway was well and truly derelict with the track removed. By the time we were there in 1970 it had been five years since the the last passenger train had used the station. The track had been gone two years, having been taken up immediately after the last freight train to work the line in April 1968.
These days the line has been restored and there's some 10 miles of track, making it the longest standard gauge steam railway in Wales.
We will have crossed the bridge and made our way to the town centre where we found bought various provisions including some buns from a bakery. I recollect that when "other" Mary took my photo we were still outside the shop where we'd bought them, though on the full frame of the photograph you can clearly read the word "Dispensing" over the window. I can only think that the rest read Chemist! Could the shop have been both a bakersand a chemist? Stranger things have been known!
While I may be vague about the shops, I do remember feeling over-dressed in that lightweight anorak. With whatever shopping we had, we made our way back to the boat.
I wish I could remember what happened next. We should have been a little concerned about being behind schedule for a return the Christleton. We were perhaps half a day late in reaching Llangollen. If you had asked me I would have said we spent no time in the town and once back on the boat set off again immediately, though where we winded and whether it was before or after we moored, I have no idea.
To continue with this story visit the page about our Return to Christleton. Alternatively, if you think you might be able to help identify some locations visit the page of Mystery Images that were taken on this same cruise.