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A Side Trip via the Shropshire Union to the Llangollen and Montgomery Canals
Introduction: This was a side trip of a week on the way back home from the Pennine Extremes canal trip. Currently this section is mostly a set of images of the Llangollen & Montgomery Canals. I have also transcribed Pauline's ships log and may add a bit of text on the Montgomery which we liked and thoughts on the Llangollen which is very busy and atypical of the rest of the canal system in many respects - it has been ten years since we last visited and only plan to return if and when more of the Montgomery is re-opened.
History and background: What is now known as the Llangollen Canal started life known as the Ellesmere Canal and the Montgomery was the 'main line' as is evident from the bridge numbering which follows down the Montgomery whilst the stretch to Llangollen starts afresh at the junction. It became part of the Shropshire Union Canal System. The bit which everyone now regards as representing the best of Llangollen from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct up to Llangollen was actually built as a feeder for the canal supplying water to the canal and on down to the Hurlestone Reservoir for the Shropshire Union Canal System. The feeder was designed to be navigable, although with difficulty, up to Llangollen beyond which there is no possibility to wind. The supply of water comes from the River Dee where a weir was built which is called Horseshoe Falls and is worth the walk up the towpath of the final section. The feeder is said to provide up to 75 million litres (circa 450 narrow lockfulls) a day accounting for the slight flow on the canal most noticeable at bridge holes and in the new narrow channels, aqueducts and section into Llangollen and of course is the cause of the fierce bywash weirs.
The canal is now one of the most popular and busy canals in the UK and has found its way into tourist books giving the most popular 100 holidays in the world. This, of course, brings a different sort of person often without any background knowledge or real interest in the canal system, boat handling or etiquette, none of which can not be instilled in a short briefing. The upside of this is that it has become the high profile canal to British Waterways and it is well maintained and free of the obstructions and debris that are affecting many canals. The traffic was uncomfortably high when we made this trip although it was out of the main season and booking for normal will become inevitable if it is to exploit its tourist position - it already has the feeling that one is in a theme park in a copy of the real canal system at times and people behave in that manner. In order to handle the traffic and keep it open the lower part has sheet steel piling on both sides and gives the feeling one is in a ditch through rather mundane countryside, one seems to have even lost some of the classic lift bridges I recalled in the past and others have been replaced with steel copies - hopefully they will be restored. Towards the end of the canal in the feeder section it is even less typical and one is travelling in narrow concrete channels with passing places.
What ever ones feelings about the changes nothing can detract from the two majestic aqueducts at Chirk, and in particular the one at Pontcysyllte. You need to not only experience it from the boat but also to walk down and round it. We did that on a trip by car, fortunately in somewhat less bleak weather. The countryside on the upper part is also much better than below although it was overshadowed by our earlier experiences in the Pennines. It is countryside which does not suffer in poor weather and arguably is at its best with the cloud low over the hills and seen in mist and drizzle.
The Montgomery is a complete contrast to the Llangollen at present. One needs to book in advance to go down the locks which are manned between 1200 and 1400 every day. The boat movements are limited as it is an SSSI for much of its length. The limit is currently 2500 a year which is interpreted, we understand, as a maximum of 12 boats up or down through the locks every day. It is a slow peaceful canal with a recommended speed of 3 miles per hour and only 2 mph on some sections. If you have been to see the aqeducts in the past and if forced into a choice then explore the Montgomery, especially if more as opened up than the 7 mile stretch to Gronwen Wharf.
30th June 2007: Llangollen Bridge 3 - Blakemere. We were unmoored at 0745 and found the Llangollen canal very busy but there area lot of nice moorings put in by the Shropshire Union Canal Society. Paul from the society has given us a list of their moorings. There were queues at the 4 locks up to the Grindley Brook Staircase Locks but very fast through the staircase where we were assisted by the lockkeeper and we were out of the top by 1430. We rang and booked passage onto the Montgomery for the following morning. We had intended to moor at Cole Mere as on the last visit but it was covered in no mooring signs so we continued to Blakemere where there are nice views although the rain was falling heavily and the towpath covered in huge puddles.
1st July 2007: Blakemere - Frankton Junction and Montgomery Canal - Gronwen Wharf - Queens Head. We left at 0805 and moored at the junction with the Montgomery at 0950 waiting for the entry at 1200 as entry is for pre booked boats and only between 1200 and 1400. The number of movements is limited to 2500 per year as the area has been turned into an SSSI and in practice this is interpreted as 12 movements up or down the locks per day. The top locks at Franfton are a double staircase then two slightly separated locks. There is then a fair distance to a single very shallow lock which is new and put in to deal with the shrinkage of the surounding peat areas lowering the canal banks. There is then a long run down past the Queens Head where there was a canoeing competition which we slipped through.
There were then three locks to the current terminus at Gronwen Wharf. We turned after the lift bridge and backed up to the 'dam' and moored at 1530. Pete walked down to look at the section which is currently out of water and under restoration to take some pictures and we set off back after a half hour stop. We moored at the Queens Head at 1745 and had good food and Theakston's Old Peculiar which was as good as any beer we had this trip.
2nd July 2007: Queens Head - Frankton Junction and Llangollen Canal - Froncysyllte. We left at 0700 to get to the junction at about 0900 hoping to be first in the queue when the locks opened at 1200. Most of the other boats were moored in a side arm which has moorings and a facilities block about half a mile from the junction and we slipped past quietly without waking them and secured our position as we had hoped. We were out by 1230. We were quick through the next two locks before catching up a very slow Black Death after Lion Quays. It was a very slow passage over the Chirk aqueduct and we spent long times stationary in the Chirk tunnel as the boat ahead was extraordinarily slow and we finally stopped at 1700 just short of the Fron lift bridge.
3rd July 2007: Froncysyllte- Llangollen Marina Basin. Left at 0645 in mizzle rather than rain for a change. The narrow part by the Sun at Trevor now has white poles to indicated where the passing places are located and one could always see ahead. The very narrow stretch into Llangollen itself is still a problem as it is blind and 500 metres long and in addition there is a current - one is supposed to go and check but without radios there is now way of communicating it is clear - there should be a timed passage up and down. We moored at 0945 on the pontoons in the new marina section which holds 32 boats on pontoons for up to 48 hours. There is a charge of £5.00 but you have water and electricity on the pontoons at no additional charge, surprisingly there were about 6 free slots.
We walked into town and found a Welsh Oggie for lunch, a sort of Cornish pasty with attitude. There were also several good butchers, we bought lamb from one and port garlic and black pepper sausages and some Welsh Black Rump Steak from the other. Having stuffed ourselves on the Oggie we staggered back into town for a steam train ride at 1300. The journey was foreshortened because of a landslide caused by the heavy rain but still enjoyable. We got off at Berwynn on way back and walked to Horseshoe falls on the Dee which is the feeder for the canal, or more precisely the Shropshire Canal system as it fills the reservoir at Hurleston. In the evening we set out to find a beer, most of the town is a desert but we eventually located the Sun pub which is in Regent's Street, Llangollen; we had read about it in the 2001 Good Beer Guide.
The Sun was excellent with a slate floor, oak beams and old school benches - it was full of local beer enthusiasts, probably bikers at one time and their pets - dogs and cats. It did not do food but the locals shopped at a nearby Sommerfields and then sat at the bar - the pub provided plates and condiments and everyone tucked in - we drank too much beer and decided it was a good thing we did not live in the area. We recall the White Monk from the Phoenix Brewery, the Kingston Flier named after a single track railway line to Oswestry, the Farmers Pale Ale and finally Jungle Jim. Good job they were not all pints!
4th July 2007: Llangollen - Prees Arm. The first boat left at 0630 and we left shortly after and were back to Frankton Junction. Very slow and got to first lock at 1145 where there as a queue of 12 boats. Operations were very inefficient with lock turns taking 15-20 minutes. After a while Pete could not stand it any longer and went down and organised things and got us through that, and the following lock which also had built up a queue, in just over two hours. We passed Frankton Junction at 1515 and finally moored just off the main line by backing into the Prees Arm at 1845.
We have decided the Llangollen is not for us - too many boats, too many unskilled skippers who have now idea of canal etiquette. It is to be expected as many of the hirers are from abroad and have been attracted by the knowledge that hiring a boat on Llangollen is now in some of the top tourist attractions in the world.
5th July 2007: Prees Arm - Hurleston Junction. We left at 0600 and met an other boat after the first lift bridge which was very slow but let us past, he was single handed and said he was just idling and waiting for the pub to open! We got to Grindley Brook and into the staircase at 0800 followed by two others who unmoored as soon as we passed, we assume they were waiting for someone to lead them through it. We moored at Wrenbury for shopping at 1100. There was a scarecrow trail as part the next weekend's festival but unfortunately we had not taken the camera in with us. Onwards at 1145. Watered at the top of locks and at Hurleston and were quickly through them and moored just outside at the bottom on the main line in torrential rain.
5th July 2007: Frankton Junction - Middlewich. Overnight the winds came up to gale force and we found we were scraping on stones on te bottom so we left at just after dawn whilst we still had some Comastic left. The canal was quiet at that time and we moored above the last lock to walk into Middlewich for shopping and stayed in the same place overnight.