Sailing on a cloud – a family holiday on a canal boat

Broadchurch star Matthew Gravelle was at the centre of the biggest TV whodunnit since 'who shot JR?'. Now the versatile Welsh actor takes his wife and kids on a true-life family adventure to North Wales. Ready and … action!

For a small country, Wales is actually – well, quite big – as we're discovering on our epic journey from our home in Cardiff to a family weekend in North East Wales. We've both travelled around Wales quite a bit for work, and recently Mali has been spending a lot of time on the west coast filming the dark cop drama Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, as it’s known in Welsh. But this top corner remains an enigma to us, and we're looking forward to getting to know it a little better. We've got lots of adventures planned – canal boating, archery, fishing, heroic amounts of eating and drinking, etc – on top of the adventure of the journey itself. The drive takes four hours, which is weird, when we could drive to London in half that. But what a drive! The road rises up through the Brecon Beacons National Park  skirting along the English border before striking west into hills that soon turn into mountains. The roads twist and turn through villages hewn from granite and slate. Just to remind you where you are, big red dragon flags flutter from some of the houses. Historically, Bala was a centre of Welsh political and religious fervour. In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones walked 25 miles (40 km) to Bala from her farm, barefoot, to buy a copy of the Welsh bible, thereby becoming the pin-up girl for Welsh Protestantism.

Do Trout like sweetcorn?

After a comfortable night at a welcoming village inn near Bala, we are on the road early, winding our way up into the Clwydian Range. Tomi is desperate to try fishing, so we're heading for Llandegla Fishery, where a very patient young coach called Jamie teaches us the dark arts of angling. Tomi is at the age when his attention span can flit a dozen ways in a single second, and yet under Jamie’s guidance, Tomi is totally engrossed in learning how to bait his hook with sweetcorn, to cast properly, how not to get his hook caught in reeds, how to watch the float for signs that a fish is lurking below.

Fishing is a very calming activity, we learn. We spend a very Zen two hours, catch absolutely nothing – maybe the trout are bored of sweetcorn – but weirdly, it really doesn't matter. It’s a lovely place to spend a couple of hours, and besides, there’s plenty of home-smoked rainbow trout for sale in the café.

Llangollen
Llangollen, North East Wales

It’s time for us to move on to Llangollen, a handsome market town that’s thronging with visitors to the Fringe Festival, an offshoot of the famous International Eisteddfod. We're heading for the Llangollen Canal, built as part of a network of waterways to connect the coalfields and limestone quarries of Denbighshire to the Midlands. Its most notable feature is Thomas Telford’s Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the highest and longest in Britain, 984 feet (300m) in length and soaring 98 feet (40 m) above the River Dee. We arrive at Trefor Basin to collect our boat, a traditional barge called Brenig, which appears to be painted in British Racing Green (odd, since the speed limit is 4 mph (6.4kph)). The children scramble on and explore, while I get an hour of instruction from the nice man from Anglo Welsh on how to skipper the thing. By the time we push off from our mooring, I know the theory, but actually steering this immense beast – it’s got an old-fashioned tiller, rather than a wheel – takes some getting used to. Crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is  the easy bit. Telford thoughtfully built it in an arrow-straight line, and the cast iron walls are only just wide enough to pass through, so steering isn't an issue. Instead I can take in the exhilarating views as we float serenely in mid-air.

I was enjoying the ride so much I didn't really think about how it was coming to an end. There are two barges coming in the opposite direction and I seem to have forgotten everything I learnt about steering. I bump into a poor unsuspecting barge owner, causing him to throw his supper into his lap. Oops. Sorry.

The mystery of canal boats

Back at our mooring, we feast on Llandegla smoked trout, with broad beans and new potatoes from my dad’s garden. After supper we do old-fashioned family stuff – play cards, draw pictures. As night falls, the children settle into their cabin and enjoy the best night’s sleep of the trip. It’s a really cosy and comfortable place to sleep, like a stretched caravan, except better insulated, with its own wood-burner. A new day dawns and this driving lark seems much easier today. It gives us the opportunity to relax and spot nooks and corners that you don't see from any road.

Denbigh Castle

Denbigh Castle, North Wales Borderlands

 by vanessajayne

“It’s like sailing on a cloud,” observes Ela. If the canal boat was the biggest adventure of our holiday, today is the biggest mystery: we haven't a clue where we'll be sleeping tonight. But that’s fine – every holiday should have an element of the unexpected, making things up on the hoof. So we head for Denbigh – and as it turns out, Denbigh is great. It’s a fine walled town built on a hill so there are great vantage points wherever you are. It has got its own ancient castle and medieval streets to explore. And as luck would have it, the Castle House boutique B&B happens to have a family suite free, which is perfect for us. The lovely Angie and Charlie, who own this beautiful property, are warm and easy company, and full of information about the history of their beautiful Georgian home, which was made over in the Victorian era by a wealthy Somerset socialite. The part we are staying in, it transpires, is set under the ruins of a cathedral that was built in 1578 by Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier, the Earl of Leicester – at least, until he fell out of favour (and money) so the cathedral was never finished.

We stroll down to the town walls, where the children fire imaginary arrows at invisible attackers. The Welsh were always renowned for their archery skills. In fact, Henry V’s best bowmen were Welsh, the famous Men of Gwent who routed the French at Agincourt. Perhaps it’s still in our DNA? Only one way to find out. We've booked a family archery session with Llangollen Outdoors, whose butts (that’s a technical term for an archery pitch, by the way) are seated at Coed y Glyn  a working sheep farm on the banks of the River Dee, where our instructor Lianne awaits. None of us have ever tried archery before, and it turns out to be excellent fun. Lianne shows us how to stop arrows being inadvertently (or intentionally) stuck anywhere they shouldn't be (ie, sheep, other people). She’s an excellent teacher, and – gratifyingly – we all get steadily better with every arrow. By the end of our session, we’re all popping the balloons that Lianne has stuck to the target, which adds a satisfying bang to the pleasure of actually hitting the target. If ever we start fighting the French again, we certainly feel better equipped to deal with it.

The last night treat

Lake Vyrnwy
Lake Vyrnwy

It’s the last night of our holiday, so we're splashing out on a night at one of Wales’s best restaurants-with-rooms, Tyddyn Llan in Llandrillo. It’s an elegant Georgian country house, run by Sue and Bryan Webb, who've won a Michelin star for their food. It’s everything you'd expect: a sumptuous six course taster menu using lots of fresh local ingredients, while the children love their wild bass followed by Eton mess. The children are also dazzled by the grounds, with an ornamental pond, croquet lawn and lots of nooks in which to conceal yourself. If Michelin awarded stars for how good places are for playing hide and-seek, Tyddyn Llan would score top marks. It’s time to head back home, but not before one last adventure, thanks to our satnav, which takes us on a ridiculous route, round unbelievably windy roads, deep into the hills. We go through the Tanat valley, a narrow cleft that separates the Berwyn Mountains from the Montgomery Hills, until we arrive at Lake Vyrnwy – beautiful, dramatic, Alpine looking. We know the way home from here.

“Ydy’n ni bron ’na ’to?” Not long, Tomi, I promise. Not long.