Epiphany's Travels: A Winter's Tale
By Fiona and John Slee
Some boaters say the Llangollen Canal never freezes because of the continual flow downstream feeding Hurleston Reservoir with water from the River Dee. Perhaps because of this, a number of liveaboards retreat to it in the winter months. Speaking to a winter moorer at Llangollen who has returned for the last 10 years, it did freeze in winter 2009/10: the winter we all remember for a white Christmas. We were iced-in on the Oxford Canal for seven weeks that year, fortunately among boating friends and near a pub!
The danger months for ice seem to be November to February, so we have been in "winter saving mode" for a while now. To be prepared for not being able to move, we take certain precautions. We save water (our tank lasts nearly three weeks if we are extremely careful). We collect the run-off from the hot tap whilst it warms up, this can be boiled in the kettle or used down the loo. We wash in inches of water instead of taking showers and save clothes washes for just before we know we can fill up.
We ensure we have a good stock of solid fuel stored on the roof - which I struggle to peer over when on the helm. The thermal underwear (very glamorous) comes out of storage and we layer up - sometimes I have up to six or seven layers of clothing on when we cruise! With a full tank of diesel, two gas bottles, larder, fridge and freezer full to bursting, our winter duvet on the bed, we can survive anything Serbia or Russia sends us in the way of cold weather. In reserve are hot drinks, hot water bottles and an extra blanket. Living aboard in winter can be hard work; it is not for everyone.
After surviving six winters on the cut we hope to have many more. Our raison d'être while living on a boat is to be cruising, so we continue to do so as much as possible. However, it is not all doom and gloom. There is nothing better than winter cruising in the special light created by winter sunshine, blue skies and water, with the canal all to ourselves (well almost). Lovely long evenings in front of our warm stove are welcome after a few hours' cruising.
Continuing our cruise from Llangollen, we were "going with the flow", saving a bit of diesel as it helped drive us eastward. We stopped at our favourite places again although we were sad to leave Llangollen by the Dee: an interesting village with small shops catering to the tourist trade but with local produce sold in butcher, baker and almost a candlestick maker (called a hardware shop in modern parlance). The weather was on our side as we journeyed back on the feeder branch up above the River Dee to Trevor.
Trevor Basins are a "secret" mooring, or at least they are in the winter, when the hire fleet hides the way in and only leave a one narrowboat-wide channel to negotiate. It is so peaceful, and handy to explore the World Heritage Site of the Basins and the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Walking under the aqueduct and down to the Dee Valley gave us a different perspective on Thomas Telford's pioneering methods of construction. We had a meal in the very house that the great engineer may have stayed in: Scotch House (now the Telford Inn). We could have stayed for days, but more sights beckoned.
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Chirk Tunnel and Aqueduct are also part of the linear Heritage Site. The railway is very much a part of the history and scenery as it comes alongside the canal and crosses the River Ceiriog Valley on a sister viaduct. The Bridge Inn below, by the river, claims to be the "first" and so "last" pub in England - it is best accessed from Chirk Bank which runs above the valley on the south side. We crossed into England on the aqueduct and met up with the very pub landlord who had looked after us so well in that white winter of 2009/10. As he was a Llangollen "virgin", we had a long chat, passing on tips and places to visit as he cruised on his narrowboat.
We could not resist booking to go down onto the Montgomery Canal again as it would be in winter mood this time. We enjoy the changes due to seasons, even if we are familiar with the canal. No two cruises on the same canal are identical and we are never bored. The lovely Monty did not disappoint, but encountering ice we stayed put at Maesbury Marsh for a few days. It was really another excuse to sample the wonderful hospitality and food at the Navigation Inn. We enjoyed a visit to the border village of Llanymynech, further south on the unrestored Monty and inspected the interesting industrial lime works heritage there.
We were impressed by an early morning phone call from the Canal & River Trust, asking if we wanted to leave the Monty that day. Apparently, the ice had cleared further up and they would be seeing another narrowboat up Frankton Locks, but if we were late, the lock-keeper would wait. We estimated a 2pm arrival at Frankton but in fact made it by 12.45, all the way from Maesbury. We did not break the speed limits but it showed how slowly we had cruised previously, savouring the delights of the rural canal.
Stopping on the main line at Ellesmere - a precaution against the Arm freezing - we stayed a few days and then cruised on through the meres and mosses. Hearing via Twitter that the ice on the Prees Branch had melted, we turned down to fill up with diesel at Whixall Marina. Returning to the main line, we made for Whitchurch. In total that day, the Skipper lifted and closed eight lift bridges (two on Prees Branch, both ways, and four on the main line), but he kept going as the internet signal is not good from near Ellesmere to Whitchurch. It was a long cold day. We thought, rightly, that there would be ice on the Whitchurch Arm, so moored on the main line for a few days.
After a quick visit by train to Lancaster for medical matters, we resumed our descent of the Llangollen again: down Grindley Brook staircase and locks (no lock-keeper in the winter) and the four following, isolated locks. We had a couple of those wonderful sunny winter days for cruising, stopping in Wrenbury for a couple of days. The Dusty Miller beside Wrenbury lift bridge had one of the skipper's favourite beers on tap, so a visit for a meal was necessary.
Before we arrived at Hurleston and the flight down onto the Shroppie, we left Epiphany in the security of Swanley Bridge Marina for a few days, to visit family. On our return, we were really looking forward to cruising on new waters: the Shroppie beckoned. But which way should we go, north to Chester or south towards Audlem?