Stephen Bleach keeps to the straight and narrow on the world’s longest navigable aqueduct
IF you wanted to sort out a lot of the world’s problems, you’d take George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and send them on a Welsh canal holiday. As a recipe for world peace, you could do a lot worse. There’s something about narrowboats that makes you incapable of doing an unkind thing or thinking a negative thought.
In the first two hours on the Llangollen Canal, I am wished good morning 23 times. As most people go on to comment, it is indeed a very nice day, unseasonably mild, with intense splashes of sun between the scudding clouds. But that isn’t the point: I get the feeling I would receive the same treatment in the January sleet.
All this bonhomie is an unexpected bonus, because my brother-in-law and I haven’t ventured to Chirk Marina, on the north Welsh border, to have our faith in humanity restored. We have come to see one of the unheralded wonders of the world: the Pontcysyllte aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal is going to be Britain’s nomination for UNESCO world heritage status next year, which would put it in the same league as the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.
Ambitious stuff for what is, after all, just a bridge with water in it. But in its day — it was completed in 1805, having been 10 years in the building — Pontcysyllte was the toast of Britain. It was then, and remains now, the longest and highest navigable aqueduct in Britain, a technical marvel that nobody believed the engineers would pull off.
It is 300m long and 38m high, and the ribbon of water it hoists miraculously above the flood plain of the meandering River Dee is contained in a vast cast-iron trough, produced in sections sealed with Welsh flannel boiled in sugar, bedded into mortar made of lime and ox blood.
It all sounds fantastically unlikely but, 200 years on, it is still doing exactly what it was designed for: carrying a canal through midair. We are both schoolboyishly keen to try it out but first we have to get under the bridges.
Leaving Chirk Marina with Pete the boatman’s baffling volley of operating instructions still ringing in our ears (‘‘It’s imperative that you grease your nipples morning and night,’’ he tells us, a ritual we observe religiously), we start getting to grips with the steering. A narrowboat is, in essence, a 12-tonne bathtub with a motor at the back, and its handling characteristics are everything you’d expect: it doesn’t have any.
Pootling up and down the Llangollen Canal takes us through some lovely countryside — rolling moorland, looming Welsh hills, that sort of thing — and most of the time we can just relax, watch the kingfishers darting and chat to the sheep. But every 20 minutes, we will meet a cutesy humpback bridge, where the waterway narrows sharply and there’s only a couple of centimetres clearance on either side of the boat.
It is tricky. Approaching at the speed of a gouty stick insect, we squint down the length of the boat to judge we are a smidgen too far to the left, and adjust the tiller accordingly. We wait for a bit and nothing happens. The bridge is quite close now, so we wrench the tiller savagely, hoping for some effect, and a second later the thing spins irreversibly clockwise and, with a gentle 12-tonne crump, the prow dislodges a piece of crucial masonry, bringing the entire bridge down on top of us.
Well, OK, we don’t actually demolish any bridges, but we come pretty close. So it is something of a relief when we round the corner to approach the aqueduct.
In front of us stretches a ruler-straight strip of water. To one side, strollers clank along a metal walkway, holding tight to the guard rail. And to the other? Nothing. Air. Standing on the gunwale, we are just a step and a few seconds free fall from the tumbling, spuming River Dee.
We cross slowly, taking turns to hang off the side over the sheer drop, like the stupid teenagers we have suddenly become. Embarrassing, but worth it: the view down the valley is stunning, the sense of space and air overwhelming. No wonder that, at the time, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct was touted as the closest mankind had got to flying.
On the other side, I have a chat with Peter Birch, the local heritage and environment manager for British Waterways. This was the first structure engineers had built that caught the public imagination, he says. People came from all over the country to marvel at it, artists travelled up from London to paint it. It was so audacious, it gave British engineers tremendous confidence: they thought, well, if we can do this, we can do anything.
It is that marriage of efficiency and aesthetics that really makes the aqueduct so thrilling. The 18 tapered stone piers that stride across the valley dovetail perfectly with the 19 cast-iron arches, gleaming in their black paint, which carry the canal.
The elegance of form and line is born of slide rules and equations, rather than some wild artistic vision, but it is no less lovely for that. This is engineering as sculpture.
There is a final irony to the tale of Pontcysyllte: really, it should never have been built at all. Buoyed by canal-mania, overoptimistic investors pumped the vast sum of £45,000 into a bridge that, in the words of the architecture critic of The Sunday Times, Hugh Pearman (another Pontcysyllte enthusiast), went ‘‘ nowhere much and then stopped’’. It was a financial disaster. Until now. Ten thousand boats and 25,000 pedestrians crossed the bridge last year, not as part of the commercial traffic it was designed for, but simply to experience the wonder of the thing. In the process, they brought £66 million ($150 million) to the local economy. The Pontcysyllte aqueduct is finally earning its keep, not because it does anything useful, but because it looks so damned splendid while it doesn’t do it.
It is time to turn back to Chirk, and proudly display our well-greased nipples to Pete the boatman. Confident I’ve now mastered the steering, I sling the stern of the barge out and go for a three-point turn in the tiny marina at the north end of the aqueduct.
With the benefit of hindsight, the result is predictable. In the half-hour it takes to get the thing pointing the right way, we cause a narrowboat jam that stretches back for 300m. Finally, a head thrusts out from the window of the boat behind us, and I steel myself for the tirade of abuse. ‘‘ Not to worry,’’ I hear. ‘‘ I’ll put the kettle on.’’
Politeness and tolerance. Narrowboats and tea. Forget the UN, the key to averting a third world war is a nice weekend in Pontcysyllte. If it is declared a world wonder, maybe world leaders could hold a summit here. Only one problem: they would never be able to pronounce it. The Sunday Times
Drifters has three-night short breaks in a four-berth narrowboat moored at Chirk Marina on the Llangollen Canal. The aqueduct is off the A5, just north of Oswestry. More: www.drifters.co.uk. Australian operators such as Footsteps Holidays also take narrowboat bookings. More: www.footstepsholidays.com.au.
Tight squeeze: A barge passes under an old stone bridge along the Llangollen Canal in north Wales; negotiating such obstacles is all part of the fun of a holiday aboard a narrowboat