Drifting the slow lane on a Welsh canal

Less is more on the canals. At a speed of four miles-per-hour, we travelled less than 20 miles in three days. Yet we felt we had seen and experienced so much and let into the ‘secret’ that is one of the most beautiful parts of Britain’s unique waterway world.

We became very fond of Bronwen, our three year-old cruiser, which was our movable home for a few serene days as we sailed along the Monmouth and Brecon canal in Mid Wales. With home comforts including a fully fitted kitchen complete with gas cooker and ‘fridge, crockery and cookware; comfortable beds; a shower and toilet; central heating and cosy lounge area with TV and DVD player, it is easy to see how some boaters become so enthusiastic they decide to live on them for months at a time.

Any fears we had about taking charge of a 50ft-long behemoth on a narrow canal with its numerous toytown-like stone bridges were quickly dispelled by John of Cambrian Cruisers. He patiently talked us through the boat’s simple controls, how to take on water, work the locks and lifting bridges we would encounter, and even came along with us for the first ten minutes to check w had got the hang of things.

We need not have worried: by the end of our first afternoon of cruising we had negotiated four lifting bridges, one tunnel and five locks, all enough to give my ‘crew’ a hearty appetite to be sated in one of the many canal-side pubs. One of the lifting bridges was electrically powered and my daughters, aged 11 and 15, loved closing the gate across the road to stop traffic and pushing the buttons to make lights flash and the bridge slowly rise.

The 35-mile Monmouth and Brecon Canal is a small, isolated part of Britain’s 2,000-mile (3,220 km) network of navigable waterways, but it is a real gem. Built to carry coal and iron down to the sea, it is an 18th-century time-capsule, now used entirely for pleasure, which winds its way south from the market town of Brecon through the rocky uplands – the highest in Southern Britain — of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It passes through no big towns but has everything else that makes this type of holiday such fun: lovely scenery, friendly people, and a few locks, lift-bridges and a tunnel thrown in for good measure.

Its banks canopied with a wide variety of trees, the canal is constantly twisting, first one way and then another. For much of its length it is on a ridge, high above the foaming waters of the River Usk, whose route is even more convoluted than the canal; while in the distance are sheep-dotted meadows and craggy peaks with romantic names such as Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain. Though our pace was slow in terms of distance covered, it was never boring. There’s always something to see, someone to wave at or talk to, or another brew of tea or coffee to attend to: it is thirsty work!

This being springtime, wild flowers were everywhere – bluebells, daffodils, forsythia and primroses, growing in huge bunches along the banks. Other seasons offer their own delights, I’m sure. Birds spotted ranged from skylarks and chaffinch to pheasants and the ubiquitous ducks with their ducklings in tow and, at one stage, a bat even circled our boat. Farther on, white tree blossom floated down on us like snowflakes – an idyllic scene. Sometimes there was so much to take in we almost forgot to bow our heads for the distinctive stone ‘hump-back’ bridges: so narrow and low they seem to grow out of the banks.

We prepared breakfast and lunch on board using the ample facilities, but when we wanted a more substantial meal there was a good choice of pubs, often with a blazing log fire, in canalside villages such as Talybont-on-Usk. At the Coach and Horses in Langynidr there was a particularly tasty, wide-ranging menu: the Portuguese owner, Abilio, explained that he arrived here as chef but liked it so much he decided to buy the whole pub and settle down.

One of the liberating aspects of canal boating is that you can moor up for the night almost wherever the fancy takes you. We just hammered in the mooring spikes, tied-up, placed a plank across to the bank and our mobile home was all set for the night. We even remembered a torch to light the walk back from the pub!

Brecon is best-known for its annual Jazz Festival (Aug. 12-14, 2005) when the whole town comes to life with the sound of music and of people having a good time. Sadly, we weren’t able to sample the event this time — but we did manage to visit nearby Hay-on-Wye, the fascinating ‘town of second-hand books’ established by Richard Booth in 1961, on our way back to the airport.

The cost of this type of holiday varies according to size of boat and time of year. We rented from Cambrian Cruisers, a friendly boatyard run by Nicola and Bob Atkins using tourist board inspected vessels: the cost is from £480 for a three- or four-night break on a four-berth boat. It is part of the Drifters consortium of award winning holiday boat companies around the UK – prices for short breaks start at £70 per person and the choice of locations is varied.

Websites: www.cambriancruisers.co.uk (tel. 01874 665315); www.drifters.co.uk (tel. 08457 626252).

For other active holiday ideas, see www.visitbritain.com/getactive.