Sunday, 17 June 2012

Buttington Bridge to Llanymynech

Susan by the Montgomery Canal

After re-crossing the dangerous bridge on the A458 it was across a few fields along the West bank of the River Severn to rejoin the Montgomery Canal. Mostly it was sheep, but this is a fertile flood plain and there were also wheat fields with easy tracks along their edges. The river itself was well up, and the colour of milk chocolate. Offa’s Dyke is still in evidence, but at this stage is no more than a minor ridge and furrow across the riverside fields. It takes an act of faith – and map reading – to be sure that it actually is the Dyke.

The first stretch of the canal was parallel with the busy road from Welshpool to the North. However, the canal soon bears away from the road, and for the rest of the way it ran through open country.

At Pool Quay, a couple of miles out of Welshpool, it was decision time. The Offa’s Dyke Path goes back across the road, and then shares the next few miles with the
Severn Way
along the river before bearing off to the North towards Four Crosses and Llanymynech. The Montgomery Canal winds further to the West, but again becomes part of the Offa’s Dyke Walk as it approaches Llanymynech. Leaving Susan at the last lock of the Pool Quay flight, I enquired of a fisherman – the first I had seen on the canal – whether the towpath was continuous and open. It was, so we elected to follow the canal rather than going across the open country by the Severn. There’s no great difference in the distance, but the canal promised to be more scenic. And so it proved.

A lift bridge over the Montgomery Canal
The canal skirts hills to the West, and then a river valley where there used to be a spur of the canal to the West, and then skirts more hills before crossing the River Vyrnwy, which flows from the huge reservoir in the hills to the West and eventually joins the Severn to the East. This is quiet, pleasant country. But though the locks theoretically still work, there is no boat traffic. Indeed, all we saw was one further fisherman, and a half dozen walkers. Every couple of miles there would be a couple of swans, mostly with flotillas of cygnets in attendance – now the size of ducks, but still covered in grey down.

All the dozen or so locks we had passed so far saw us going down a level – six feet or so for most, with one or two dropping a good ten feet. But after Wern you reach the two Burgedin locks, where you go up a couple of levels rather than further down. There are other canals such as the Kennet and Avon where you reach a summit after climbing and then start descending, but there must be relatively few cases where there is a low section with higher stretches in both directions.

Canal Reflections
At Ardllean we found that the canal suddenly became impassable. The main road crossed it on a bridge that provides only eighteen inches of clearance. This was our predetermined lunch stop, and we planned to stop at a pub marked as being on the East side of the canal. But the beer mug symbol was misleading, we learnt: the pub was actually in the village on the West side of the canal. We also learned from the dog walker who put us right that the aim eventually was to drop the canal level six feet or so with locks either side of the road, and that it had already been cleared to a depth of eight feet to permit this. However, our informant told us, this would be very costly, and he didn’t think it would happen for years, if at all.

The road obviously prevented any navigation, so the three or four barges we had seen on the Welshpool side must have been physically hauled out, carried overland, and re-floated on the “navigable” stretch. It is obviously the reason – or one of the several reasons, it subsequently transpired – why there is so little canal traffic. In practice it’s restricted to kayaks and canoes that can be carried past these obstructions and indeed past the locks. It seems a great pity. Huge effort has been put into making much of the canal navigable and a potential for leisure activities, but this and subsequent blockages render the effort somewhat futile. It’s a pity, because the canal goes through lovely country, and making it more accessible would be a huge benefit for the boating community and the area in general. Much of it looks pretty well ready for boats, with fifteen or more expensively refurbished locks, but nothing of any size can get to the best bits without being hauled overland. According to the excellent book on the canal we were to see at our B&B that evening several hundred thousand pounds – if not millions – had been spent on improvements over the last couple of decades, and Prince Charles had shown a healthy interest in the project on several occasions, but the investment that would really unlock its potential has still to be made.

Another mile completed!
This was further underlined by the fact that there is another road bridge a mile further on where the canal just disappears, a system of aqueducts over the Vyrnwy that are in need of serious work, and a “dry” section beyond Llanymynech before the Montgomery Canal reaches the Llangollen Canal at Lower Frankton.

After rejoining the Offa’s Dyke Path a half mile to the West of Four Crossed, there’s a final loop to the West before it reaches Llanymynech. One old building was obviously some kind of warehouse, still with the hoist for loading and unloading barges. Then there are the splendid aqueducts across the River Vyrnwy, unfortunately partially dry. This is real canal engineering – perhaps not as grand as the metal aqueduct across the Dee at Chirk on the Llangollen Canal, but impressive nevertheless.

The real owners and their family
Llanymynech was little more than a crossroads with a few pubs, various unprepossessing buildings and new estates and a rather decrepit petrol station. There we found our B&B, and the ended the fifth week of the walk. I had originally intended to walk on for a further day to Chirk, but we had a lot of things to do in London and decided to head back to London from Welshpool the following morning rather than spend another day walking. Besides, the 50km Sue had walked had not been without cost: two blisters, and a limp as a result.

Cloudy, with occasional spells of sunshine; reasonably pleasant. Temperature 14 to 18C. 18.49km; 47m ascent, 42m descent. Virtually completely flat, except when level changed after locks on canal.

So far – 31 days. Total distance to date – 766.15km; total climbs 17,229m. One blister; one night of moderate cramp, but otherwise I’m pretty fit.

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