Peace and Water Lilies

Ah, the season of mellow fruitfulness and people discussing where they’ve been boating this year.


“Oh, we did the Kennet and Avon before going to St Ives” or “well, we went to York and back over the Huddersfield. You?” Yes, we took a few days and went to Berriew. There’s a pause while they scan their mental canal maps. “Isn’t that in Wales somewhere?” Yes, on the Montgomery canal. “But doesn’t that only go as far as Maesbury?” Ah, you’re forgetting the isolated Welshpool section. That is part of the problem—forgetting it, forgetting to use it and losing it again if we are not careful.


We started at Crowther Hall lock, second down on the Pool Quay flight, intending to boat up to Belan locks for the night. Our vessel was the Rennie a venerable old steel hire boat very generously lent to us by a member of the Friends of the Montgomery Canal, well worn but well loved and perfectly comfortable and efficient. We set off carefully, crept into the top lock under the very low lock tail bridge and rose slowly in the lock. Very slowly actually as there is only one top gate paddle to fill each lock. Although the handsome cast iron gear for the characteristic Montgomery Canal ground paddles are in place they are all firmly chained up and apparently unusable. They operate a sliding horizontal paddle in the bed of the canal, dropping the water directly into a culvert below and it would be interesting to know how fast they filled the lock, and what effect it had on the boat in the lock. However we were in no hurry and we certainly knew we weren’t going to hold anybody else up – there‘s only eight other boats on the whole length. One’s sunk and we had a good idea where all the rest were so we pottered on, quite sure we wouldn’t meet anyone else that evening.


The first section into Welshpool is easy going because it is the length used almost daily by the two trip boats run by the Heulwen Trust from Buttington wharf, in craft specially designed for wheelchair users and the elderly. Deep enough and weed free, we slipped past the rather dull backyards of Welshpool and into the lock. Only when the lock was full did we realise that the pound above was at least a foot below the weir. We made a pitiable attempt to leave but were immediately aground right in the middle and were clearly not going anywhere that night. With some difficulty we backed down the lock, turned in the short arm by the main road bridge and went and tied in Welshpool’s custom-made mooring basin. It sounds good but of course it is entirely disused and at the end of a supermarket car park and tends to be the gathering spot for the local drop-outs and winos. Piles of empty bottles and rubbish round the public benches didn’t offer much reassurance either but it isn’t really a desperate centre of disadvantaged urban Britain, and we spent a perfectly quiet night in the centre of town. We were woken rather earlier than we might have chosen by the heavy lorries leaving the car park where they’d spent the night. However, it was a nice morning and a quick walk up to the lock showed that the water level had more or less made up to normal overnight. We set off early without trouble, and breakfasted at Belan.


The canal above Belan locks is quiet and remarkably pretty but it was awfully slow going. It was built small anyway and lack of use is allowing it to silt up steadily. Weed is very prevalent in the open sections, further restricting the flow of water round the boat and progress was slow, with much ‘chucking back’ in reverse to clear the weeds from the propeller. But the really serious problems were caused by the scours of mud and gravel that had built up where drainage streams enter the canal on the offside. It is not soft mud – in fact you can stand ankle deep in the middle of the canal in places – whilst the remaining ‘channel’ is just a seven foot width against the towpath piling. At present this is only kept open by the regular passage of the one big boat that regularly uses this section, the horse drawn passenger boat Sian operated by Steve Rees Jones of Bywater Hotelboat Cruises. However that boat’s draught is about 1 foot 6 inches. Rennie draws 1 foot 10 inches so we had a serious struggle to get through in places. What this means in practical terms is that the available cross section of the canal is down to about 14 square feet in places, barely enough to pass the volume of water needed to keep it topped up. Using the analogy of a chain only being as strong as it’s weakest link this restored section is getting breakable; some heavy rain this winter will effectively close it again unless some serious spot dredging is undertaken soon.


Or unless more boats use it – deep draught boats that move the mud around and control the weed growth. The dinghy dawdlers do their annual passage from end to end but they are really only keeping the principle of open-ness alive. In reality this top end of the Montgomery is close to closure. But it is a delight to travel on, brushing through the overhanging trees, past grazed meadows that run right down to the water’s edge, through handsome locks complete with lock-keeper’s houses and huts. After a challenging but very satisfying day we turned in the reedy basin at Refail and tied up in the rushes near the old Shropshire Union warehouse at Berriew for the night. Here we received the surprised compliments of several Berriew dog walkers who were all pleased to see a visiting boat, despite having decimated their water lilies, twice.


We dawdled downhill ourselves next day, stopping wherever we fancied, painting pictures, walking the dog and encountering less trouble with the scours. Was this because we had helped to clear the channel the previous day or because we knew what to expect, and where? A night below the immaculately picturesque Belan locks, a visit to the Powisland Museum in Welshpool warehouse – full of interesting things and refreshingly free of computer and televisual quackery – and a potter back to Pool Quay completed a very satisfying canal trip. It is surely one of the most unspoilt bits of canal in the country. Visit soon, by boat or on foot, because it will change eventually and I am unsure whether it will be for better or worse.

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