Trip on Scops Owl starting 2022-04-25 in BSAMay22
Four Days on a Boat--- but not as we know it ! – report by Ian Collins
April 25 – 29 on board ‘Scops Owl’, a 70 foot Narrowboat,
The Passage Plan, From--Blackwater Meadow Marina, Ellsmere, Shropshire. To-- Llangollen, Denbighshire, North Wales. (and back).
After a journey from the West Country through the Black Country to the Borders of England and Wales, closely following Offa’s Dyke. Our two cars arrived at the Marina around 1400. Our home for the next 5 days was still being valeted allowing us time to be briefed on the boat and its contents and given a demonstration on the intricacies of Canal Locks using a model. Ready to go and our instructor piloted the barge from the Marina as it required a very sharp turn to starboard and we were informed that hirers are not insured to enter or manoeuvre within the Marina. 20 yards into the canal at the first bridge, he jumped off.
Reality struck. There were seven of us, committed to five days, in a seventy foot converted bathtub weighing 20 plus tons sharing four cabins, two bathrooms and very much a galley, galley. The way was winding, with obstacles consisting of bridges, locks, aqueducts and tunnels, but in our favour the sea state was calm, and with only the lightest of winds there was no need to shake out the spinnaker.
We had set our first waypoint at “The Narrowboat Inn” but alas on taking charge we almost immediately strayed. To port was a turn into a stretch of canal seeming to lead to a repair wharf. Ahead was a wider canal filled with moored Narrowboats. We chose the more populous route and ended up in a dead-end outside Tesco’s. We turned the monster and chugged back. ‘Twas then a gentle meander through the softly undulating Shropshire countryside to the Narrowboat Inn. Being Monday we were informed the kitchen was shut! Our genial host however had a solution, the local Indian restaurant offered a takeaway service with delivery and he would provide us with cutlery, crockery and condiments. The meal duly arrived and was excellent. We all agreed that with this level of hospitality here would be our final nights stop when we would check out the kitchen.
Our first full day and the plan became “how far could we get”. And so it was that we wound our way beneath bridges, excepting the one that required winding up. Were raised aloft through two locks and then bravely traversed Chirk viaduct, crept through Chirk Tunnel and once out into the daylight motored on gently through more very English farmland. There were sheep with young lambs. Wooded banks reaching down to the water, and fields with cows chewing contentedly. Then into the damp darkness of the Whitehurst Tunnel. This time a mere 197 yards, nothing compared to the 459 yards we had travelled through at Chirk. With three more bridges, a bend to starboard and before us was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. At 127 feet above the valley of the Dee, and over 1,000 foot long. Built in 1805 and despite the efforts of a multitude of amateur bargees, still standing. The views are amazing, the fear tangible and the vertigo ever present as we crept across.
At the end you enter the Trevor Basin. Directly in front is plenty of water and numerous narrow boats. To starboard is a signpost advising that Llangollen is to port, and then you see the small low bridge spanning what’s best described as a gulley. A quick squint at the guide book; your heart sinks. It strikes home that this is the way to your destination and you must swing this 70 foot of unforgiving steel through 100 degrees then squeeze it under the bridge and into this impossibly narrow channel. You succeed and proceed hardly believing a) you did it. b) you’ll ever manage to pass if anyone comes the other way. And of course they do. You breathe in, you hold your breath, you brace for the impact. It’s close, but not actually touching and on you go, wending along the side of a hill in a beautiful wooded valley.
It’s at this point the impossible becomes the impassable and even the Canal Trust agree. The culvert you’re creeping up is about to shrink. Notices advise you and common sense convinces you that you “Heave to” at a passing place and send a walker ahead to warn and hopefully stop a collision with any oncoming vessel and clear the way. We proceed with caution and considerable care, this is definitely not the straight, but it is the narrow. So slowly we close on our target. On a stretch of canal wide enough for two barges to pass, and cut hard into the hillside looking down on the town roofs, we moor up. Later in a rush of European fever most of us enjoy an Italian meal, others more local fare, and Sonia the waiter, but though handsome and charming he was not on the menu.
The following morning full of pride at having achieved our objective we made our way to the basin where we turned Scops Owl for the return journey but while mooring to a pontoon for rubbish removal Richard tested the water but unfortunately forgot to remove his shoe. Our return journey mirrored or outward venture, with our walkers in the narrows but this time with a confidence, misplaced no doubt, but bred of limited experience and it was relatively trouble free. Arriving at Trevor Basin we found confusion reigning amongst the barges piloted by the inexperienced, unlike us of course who had navigated the narrows, and with patience the situation resolved itself and once again it was into the breach and across the Aqueduct. This part of the canal was the original Ellesmere Canal designed and built on a much grander scale than its miniscule offspring to Llangollen. Again we dealt efficiently with narrow bridges and locks to arrive at a safe mooring above the Bridge Inn at Chirk where from the garden you have a magnificent view of both the canal aqueduct and the rail viaduct.
It was here at the Bridge Inn that we had our evening meal with the offer of Bingo (this being Thursday) as dessert. I was deeply worried when between Richard and Jess, who had acted as Galley Chief during our voyage, scooped three of the prizes. But mob handed. being seven of us, we managed to exit without fatalities. The following morning it was sightseeing in Chirk then a short run to The Narrowboat Inn for a meal cooked on the premises. We rose early Friday for the run back to the Marina to return Scops Owl and take the long drive home.
It was fun but not frenetic; seldom have I been overtaken by mature dog walkers but on this trip it was the norm. It didn’t rain and occasionally the sun shone. We laughed a good deal of the time. We were well victualled on the journey and well fed at our evening venues. There was a plenitude of Vino to fill the empty moments between the laughter. The Crew were excellent and the challenges completed. A thoroughly good time was had by all.
Just a shame about the spinnaker !