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Taking it slow in a narrowboat

September 07, 2003|Karl Zimmermann | Special to The Times

Abergavenny, Wales — For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by Britain's extensive canal system, largely intact and navigable by passenger narrowboats. These brightly painted boats often flashed by my train windows as I journeyed around Britain. Last March, Rich Taylor, a friend, joined my wife, Laurel, and me to plan a narrowboat cruise for July.

When Rich opened his briefcase, out tumbled dozens of brochures from boat rental operators. Choosing one seemed impossible, but we soon established criteria.

Rich and I wanted a trip with historical and engineering aspects: some locks, perhaps a tunnel or aqueduct. Laurel didn't want too many locks, which can eat up time and become tedious to navigate. She favored a rural setting over an urban one. And she figured four nights aboard would be plenty.

Weighing all those preferences, we hit on what turned out to be an ideal choice: a rental from Beacon Park Boats on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, or the "Mon & Brec," as it is known to its devotees.

The waterway in southeastern Wales was built 200 years ago. It languished in the early years of the 20th century. In 1970 it was reopened to navigation for its entire length by British Waterways, a nonprofit agency funded by the government, which maintains canals, towpaths and related infrastructure. It traverses or abuts Brecon Beacons National Park, a bucolic setting for most of the canal's 33 miles.

Aboard our hired narrowboat, the Kite, we journeyed through miles of gentle, peaceful countryside, interlaced with scenery and history. We awakened to the bleating of sheep or the squabbling of ducks. In the misty stillness of morning, we sipped coffee and contemplated the myriad pleasures and modest challenges of the day ahead: locks to negotiate, certainly bridges to slide beneath, threading the boat between towpath and arch.

A tranquil world afloat

When we arrived on a Monday afternoon at Llanfoist Wharf for the handover of the narrowboat we had booked through e-mail, we were immersed immediately in the serene world of the Mon & Brec. As our taxi from the Abergavenny rail station crested Tod's Bridge over the canal, I saw a beautiful boathouse of gray stone and a cluster of cream and green narrowboats in the basin. One of them was the Kite, our floating home for the next four days.

Sarah Kirkpatrick, who owns Beacon Park Boats with her husband, Alasdair, introduced us to the Kite, which is 40 feet long and, at 6 feet 10 inches, of traditional narrowboat width. At the forward end was a cockpit large enough for two folding chairs and behind it a spacious saloon with broad windows, an L-shaped banquette (which converted to a double bed) and a dining table. At the back end was an open kitchen with refrigerator; sink; stove, oven and broiler; and cupboards holding the necessary cooking and dining utensils. Behind that was the head. Far aft was a fixed double bed. The afterdeck, slightly raised for visibility, was where the helmsman would stand, hand on shiny brass tiller.

Sarah explained the boat's safety features. "The canal's only a few feet deep in most places," she said as she pointed to an orange life ring. "But if you fall in, close your mouth. All kinds of slippery things live in there."

Alasdair took over to explain the throttle, ignition and other mechanics of boat operation and handling. Under his watchful eye we cast off and began to putter north toward Brecon, the end of the canal, 22 miles away, which we would reach on our third day. Once we assured Alasdair we felt comfortable with the Kite -- and once he assured himself we could steer straight -- he hopped off. We were on our own.

Immediately we were embraced by the lush greenery along the canal. The Mon & Brec is fed by the River Usk, and for most of its length, it hangs high to the west of the river valley. Because it follows the ridge rather than scales it, the canal has, at 23 miles, one of the longest lock-free sections of any of Britain's canals.

In the early years of the 19th century, the Mon & Brec's heyday, the canal toted produce from farm to market. It carried coal, iron ore and limestone -- for fluxing ore in iron furnaces and for burning in canalside kilns to make agricultural lime. With the other canals and rivers in Britain's vast waterway network -- 4,000 miles long at its peak -- it provided the transportation that made the Industrial Revolution possible.

After World War II, highways began to replace the canals for hauling freight, and many canals lay abandoned until volunteers and the government stepped in to restore them for recreation. The current national system of canals, more than 2,000 miles, is operated by British Waterways. Although the Mon & Brec belongs to the network, it is disconnected from it, which means moderate traffic, particularly midweek.

At Govilon, an hour or so into our trip, we met our first boat.

"Have you been through the Zed Bridge yet?" called a man standing in the forward cockpit. "That's an interesting one."

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