Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Chirk canal tunnel, the Bala steam railway, and lofty Welsh hills

Bear in mind that, at this late stage in my big holiday in May and June, I was suffering from hay fever and I had to push myself to do holiday things! Ironically the weather remained very good - amazingly warm and sunny.

Having left Galloway, I stopped off in the Lake District again - this time for a couple of nights - and then turned decisively south towards the Welsh Border at Chirk. The Club site there was on the edge of the Chirk Castle grounds. It had been repeatedly recommended to me during the previous year, so it was time to check it out. And indeed, as sites went, it was pretty good - the usual high-class facilities and the pitches were arranged around a central wooded knoll, and the entire site was surrounded on all sides by tall trees. A bit like the face of a clock. At some time of the day, you'd get bright sunshine; at another time, welcome shade. No good if you wanted a view of the countryside from your pitch, of course. But I'm not one who insists on that. For me, it merely has to be green and pleasant, and immaculately kept.

Anyway, I soon realised that the Llangollen Canal ran through a tunnel close by, so I went to take a look. I'd seen derelict canal tunnels before, of course (and a few days later, inspected the Sapperton Tunnel on the Cotswolds, with Angie and S---) but this one was very much in use by narrow boats on their way to and Llangollen and back. Only a few miles further on was the famous Pontcysyllte Viaduct, which carried narrow boats high across the valley of the River Dee, a dizzying experience. I'd visited the viaduct in 2014, when pitched at Chester, daring myself to brave the height and walk across and back again. But before boats could reach the the viaduct, they had to negotiate the tunnel, a different test of skill and nerve.

I arrived as a boat emerged from the tunnel, with two others waiting to make their way inside. It's one-way, of course, and you must take your turn. Fortunately the tunnel is straight, and you can see someone coming in the other direction. But occasionally there must be the odd idiot who won't bother to look, and will try to enter the tunnel when someone else is already inside it. If this impatient idiot is also a macho man, then having to concede the right of way must be an almighty slur on his manhood! But it would be their own fault, if they find themselves obliged to reverse out and await their proper turn. Nobody was so badly behaved when I was there. In fact it all looked terribly serene and civilised and cheerful.


Hmm...that boat there needed a bit of a shove from a pole to clear the tunnel entrance! Which suggested that some (most?) of the skippers were strictly amateurs. Not that I'm any kind of expert. I decided to follow him inside. You can - there's a walkway, which presumably once allowed a horse to tug the boat right through the tunnel, so that the crew didn't have to pole it through, or - if the tunnel roof were low enough - 'leg' it through, by lying flat on the roof of the boat and pushing with the feet. (A most tiring business, I'm told)

Mind you, I didn't go too far in. This wasn't because it quickly became too dark. Given a mobile phone, and a torch app, darkness is absolutely no barrier! No, it became uncomfortable to breathe, because of the diesel fumes being emitted in the boat's wake. Presumably it wasn't too good for the people on the boat either, bearing in mind that the fumes from the previous boat to come through the tunnel wouldn't have thinned out much. Here are some shots, anyway.

In the bottom shot you can just make out the stern of the boat I was following. 

Next day, I set off west into the Welsh mountains, with the town of Bala as my first objective. Bala stands at the eastern end of Lake Bala. Frankly neither town nor lake are really going to take your breath away. But the town was pleasant enough. There were the usual coffee shops and gift shops along the main street. They did not get my custom. For me the only thing that caught my eye was this statue of a local nineteenth-century politician, Thomas Edward Ellis, who had apparently been a great orator. The sculptor certainly made him look wild-eyed and visionary, catching him in the middle of some impassioned speech.

I soon sped on. I made for a place at the other end of Lake Bala, Llanuwchllyn, which was the HQ of the Bala Lake Railway. This is a narrow-gauge line that runs along the south shore of the lake back to Bala. The line was however originally part of a through route to the Cambrian coast, with trains from London Paddington via Shrewsbury, Ruabon and Corwen, going onward to Dolgellau and Barmouth. So in fact this preserved section was rather a comedown from past standard-gauge glories! And indeed the narrow rails and diminutive locomotive and carriages looked slightly odd against the full-sized trackbed and platforms. Nevertheless, this immaculately-maintained little line was still well worth the visit. The hilly countryside close by made a wonderful backdrop. 

As you can see, I was able to see the little locomotive run in reverse along the passing loop, then come forward to be hitched to the carriages before departure. I was also able to inspect the signal box, before the train hooted and then puffed away towards Bala. I wasn't on it. I was here for a pit-stop. I'd eschewed the overpriced tea shops in town, reckoning that I could get a nicer and cheaper cuppa and slice of cake out here, at the station buffet. Preserved railways are generally pretty good for refreshments - and for toilets! I wasn't disappointed, even though the local girl who served me had problems with my accent. 

From here, I headed south into the higher hills, fetching up at a pass called Bwlch-y-Groes before heading back to Chirk. The views were magnificent. I had never been in this part of the Welsh mountains before. Clearly an area worth further exploration!

And that just about deals with the holiday. I've got the next coming up from mid-September. I'm just beginning to think about my preparations - such as where to safely stow my new Ruark radio while travelling along. At least hay fever won't be a problem. I've been taking a course of prescription tablets (Cetirizine, 10mg, one per day) since early June, and they have done the trick.

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