In his delightful little book for children of all ages, writer Kenneth Grahame has Rat tell Mole, ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ During our holidays in Wales, we imagined we heard the wind singing through the willows as we cast off from Lanfrynach after a hearty bacon sausage and egg breakfast.
Our Narrowboat Holidays in Wales
The going along the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal is mostly easy, with the greatest challenge being nudging past swans and other waterfowl gathering round for a slice of bread. The pace is a little slower than walking at two miles an hour, so there is ample time to open up conversations with ‘what a lovely dog you have’. From time to time a lock or a low bridge comes in view. Then it is time to tie up at the towpath and do battle with century-old technology.
Locks – The Key to Canals
The designers of the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal system built it on the premise that horses would tow barges along waterways naturally replenished by local streams and rivers. For this to work, they needed a gradually sloping incline. While this may have been a cakewalk in the Cambridgeshire marshes, it was a non-starter in hilly Wales.
They solved this with a system of giant liquid steps. The general idea was when going up you dammed the flow behind you to lift your boat to the next level. When going down, you released it to lower you. This is all fine and dandy in principle. Fortunately, during our narrowboat holidays in Wales, there are enthusiastic volunteers to help.
‘Steam’ Gives Way to ‘Sail’
Canal boats have priority over cars in the UK, despite the fact that there are many more of them. If you come across a low road bridge you simply crank it up with a low-geared ratchet, which can take longer than you think. British motorists are generally a patient lot – although we did encounter a blonde bombshell who thought we were being unfair.
Once we started cranking, the cars had no option but to obey unless they wanted to end up in the Brecon and Monmouth Canal, which might have made a few waves. Canal boating is definitely a two-person affair when it comes to bridges. It would be a bit much to expect the cars to wait while you sailed through, moored the boat, and then returned to let the bridge down again.
Ahoy! Is That Brecon?
After a pleasant day of cruising our destination Brecon hove in sight. This is the upper terminus of the Brecon & Abergavenny Canal system and the site of a Roman military base. The stone town walls date from 1240 and originally had four gatehouses and ten semi-circular bastions. These were to defend one of the few places where it was possible to cross the River Usk.
Brecon is also the gateway to the undeniably lovely Brecon Beacons National Park, which balances recreation, conservation and responsible living. As we arrived in the turning basin to find a busload of Japanese tourists clicking away at us, the most remarkable thing happened. At my command our County Fair narrowboat obeyed the tiller, turned on her axis, and came to rest against the quay as if she knew she had arrived in good company with her stablemate Country Lass.