The beginning of the Llangollen Canal
The restored Shropshire Union boat Saturn and her guiding committee continue to do their educational and campaigning work around the North West, the fifth year of operation since her restoration, and May this year saw a nice concentrated week’s worth of school work at the top end of the Llangollen canal. We had school visits arranged at Trevor and Chirk as well as in Llangollen town itself, with lots of cooperation from British Waterways and the operators of the wharf.
But first we had to get there. Saturn was not really the problem, it was the Canal Junction tug that moved her that was a bit deep for this bit of canal. The Greenman draws about two foot nine inches of water – a bit more pottering along – but she is a graceful boat and quite round bilged which helps a great deal in shallow water. We rumbled over the bottom in lots of places, but with three extra crew members right up on the foredeck for the notorious shallow section above Trevor to keep the stern up we had a satisfyingly trouble free trip. We came to dead halt once but the flow of water coming down from the Dee floated us off within a couple of minutes.
This trip was a highspot for Saturn in two separate ways. It was the first she has made to Llangollen since she was a hotel boat butty behind Jupiter back in 1987 which seemed significant to us. But it also gave us a wonderful opportunity to try for some serious publicity by attempting to take her right up to Llantisilio. This is where the water supply comes in from the River Dee at the Horseshoe Falls a length of very shallow canal that is normally forbidden to any craft except the horse drawn passenger boats that operate from Llangollen wharf. So with trepidation, and with gloomy forecasts of disaster from Carl, the long-time manager of the horse boats, we set off uphill on Friday afternoon. We were using Geordie, one of the trip boat horses with one of his regular drivers to pull the boat, with Carl on the towpath giving precise and invaluable advice to Sue Yates who was steering Saturn with intense concentration. We made good progress against the current and the mood lifted as each shallow or narrow was passed. By the time we got to the Chain Bridge Hotel Carl was nearly smiling and I expected him to unhitch the horse there and call it a successful trip. But no, we managed to get the line under the messy steel footbridge outside the pub and Geordie carried on pulling towards the Falls. A hundred yards or so short of the valve house there has been a serious rockfall which even the most optimistic of us could see was going to be a major problem but this amazing narrow boat slid past with only the slightest graunching under the water. With a slight bump we were there — tied up against the wall of the valve house, the furthest west Saturn would ever have been in her life, and the highest bit of the Shropshire Union network. That is some highspot! As they used to say of certain Thames barges, “she’d go anywhere after a heavy dew”. And Carl was properly happy, and rightly proud.
After some congratulatory photographs we then had the problem of getting her back to Llangollen, backwards. The actual pulling wasn’t too hard as we were now floating down with the current but our steering had to be just as precise to protect the rudder. If the blade of the rudder were to catch the bottom at an angle the momentum of the boat would immediately twist it round and split the stock in one expensive second. So we were very careful, using lots of people with shafts to hold it out and ropes to hold it in as we travelled downstream, with one person pulling and another holding back. In only slightly more time than we took to get there we returned to moor Saturn in the corner of the marina to commence her schools work the following week, a very satisfying little escapade followed by a little celebratory beer. Well then, where next? Up the Severn to Bridgenorth, or up the Dee to Bangor where the earliest Mersey flats were built? Unfortunately we can’t even get down the Dee branch at Chester at present due to silting and a damaged river lock.
The above article is an abridged and amended version of a piece first published in the June 2010 Saturn Project newsletter. For more details follow the link www.saturnflyboat.org.uk.