Stephen Bleach keeps to the straight and nar­row on the world’s long­est nav­i­ga­ble aqueduct

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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