Just Getting Started
We were blown out on our next snagging visit from Aintree Boats, scheduled for 15th May. Apparently, reminiscent of the Cheese Shop sketch, this was because the van broke down. It seems it is impossible to just hire a van in a primitive outpost like Liverpool. Only the most suspicious and ungenerous of minds would wonder if it had anything to do with the Crick Boat Show being less than a fortnight away and whether they might be rather a long way behind schedule in preparing their own show boat.
There was a frank and honest discussion about the suitability of 12th June as the replacement date offered. Escalating it to the bloke who claims to be in charge made some improvement. With little else to rely on one can’t afford to let the relationship break down altogether so we grudgingly had to accept waiting until 29th May. At this point we were well behind our intended date for getting out on the boat and were missing some very fine weather so we decided we could wait no longer. We would leave anyway and they would just have to catch up with us on the way.
It turns out that, far from being a natural gift, long term planning and thorough preparation are acquired skills that atrophy very quickly if they are not exercised on a regular basis. Who knew???!!! In January we had got as far as deciding we would head North and had casually drawn a series of points on a map to indicate the waterways we would use and the junctions where they would join the next one. Since then, however, there had always seemed to be something more urgent, more important or just more entertaining to do than the detailed planning of journey times, overnight moorings, service stops, opportunities to visit supermarkets etc. that should have followed on from there. At this point, then, it came down to knowing that Sue’s sister would be in Leek for the first week of June and trying to work out a route that would get us near enough to meet her before she left. Sue took that on and put together a schedule assuming we would leave on Wednesday 22nd May.
As the day came closer neither of us were really sure we were truly ready to leave. We also knew that Bracken would be a new factor and there could be things we would need for her that we would only find out about from experience. In the end we decided we would have a couple of short days at the beginning and keep the car with us. We hoped that would help us to identify most of the things we had forgotten and work out the things we didn’t even know we needed for a small cockapoo afloat. This added some complicated logistics to the start of our journey but worked out quite well. In all that time the route took us round to Braunston, a twenty minute drive for me to finally drop off the car at home and get John the Long Itch taxi driver to pick me up there and drop me at Hillmorton to walk back and meet Sue.
Our first day was characterised by some unfortunate timing. By the time we left and were on the wharf to fill up with fuel it was just gone lunchtime at the diesel pump. Having waited for lunch to finish and completed that transaction, two boats passed through just before we were set to go up to the water point. They were both large hire boats, travelling together, both in need of full tanks of water. Following a long wait while they took it in turns with Calcutt’s famously low water pressure we eventually filled our tank and were ready to really start off.
The trip up to Flecknoe, done in stages with Bracken & I moving the car and walking back to meet the boat, was largely uneventful but the mooring site we had our sights on, just after Bridge 103, was pretty full. We pulled over and I went on to check out available spots. There were only a couple so we needed to move up as quickly as possible. Sure enough, no traffic having passed us in the last fifteen minutes, our attempts to move out into the channel were frustrated by a steady stream of boats that appeared out of nowhere to travel in a slow procession just too close together for us to insert ourselves into the traffic flow. Thankfully, none of them chose to moor on ‘our’ spot so we were eventually able to move up and then relax and settle in on the stern deck for a cup of tea.
We left the engine running to finish charging the batteries and there followed something quite unusual; an altercation with someone on the canal mooring. A woman in the boat behind suddenly appeared, gesturing and shouting to us to turn our engine off. It was only 5 o’clock at this point and engines shouldn’t be run after 8 o’clock so we called back that we would definitely turn it off by then. She looked quite cross and kept waving and shouting for a bit. Over the sound of the engine we couldn’t hear what she was saying and decided not to seek clarification as it would probably only upset us. Ten minutes later an elderly gentleman appeared at our side looking slightly uncomfortable. He was very apologetic about his wife’s aggressive and offensive behaviour and assured us that he quite understood that we were entitled to run our engine as long as we needed to until the CRT witching hour of 20:00. Apparently his refusal to come and insist we must switch it off, regardless, had led to something of a marital dispute and the lady had now stormed off down the towpath in a huff. We felt rather sorry for him so we accepted the apology and let him know that we only really needed another ten minutes and left him to go and patch things up at home. If he really wanted to, that is!
I still had to go and retrieve the car and bring it up near to where we were moored. Driving back through Flecknoe it seemed just rude not to call in at The Old Olive Bush and see how strange the pub landlord was now, as compared with when Neil & Karen Payne, Mike & Lesley Fielding, Sue & I all moored our boats on the canal below and dined there a year or so ago. To be fair, apart from not wanting to serve me until he had finished two phone calls, it was fairly normal. Apparently, someone had just dropped out of tonight’s crucial bowls tournament and he was trying to get a replacement and then arrange transport to get the replacement to the game. Having dealt with that, he was free to provide me with a pint of beer to go and enjoy in the very peaceful, sunny garden outside. All in all, not a bad first day.
Of course, I had thought that I would start the blog up again and even use a better template for it than the one I cobbled together last year. Here we are, two weeks later and somehow, there has, again, always seemed to be something more urgent, more important or just more entertaining to do. To be fair, on ‘South Downs’ we had quite an established routine that left us time to think without necessarily being exhausted at the end of each day. Thinking back it must have taken us a couple of months to settle into that routine and it is surprising how much of it must have been specific to that boat and its layout, rather than generic and transferable. This is something of a shake-down cruise on ‘Parting Shot’ and we will probably get there during the summer.
Now, of course, I can’t actually remember what we have been doing. To be honest, although we will sit down in the evening and decide what we are going to do the next day, I live in fear that someone at the locks will ask me where we are heading for. Whenever they do my mind goes completely blank and I can’t think where it is we are planning to spend the night. Fortunately it doesn’t matter. They are only being polite and anyway, wherever it was we were headed for, the chances are we won’t end up there in the end anyway.
For now, for anyone who is interested to follow our travels, here is a summary of where we can remember we have been in the last two weeks:
Day 1 – Flecknoe
We left Calcutt Boats on the Grand Union on May 22nd and turned north at Napton Junction to moor for the night below Flecknoe south of Bridge 102, as above.
Day 2 – Braunston
We had a short hop up to Braunston and turned left at the junction to moor up on the North Oxford just south of Bridge 89.
I had moved the car up and we used it to run some errands and pick up those forgotten items that had revealed themselves. Then we took Bracken for a walk over towards a place called Willoughby. On the way we passed through a field that was completely flat, mown grass; like a playing field but with no pitch markings or anything else. On the far side the ground turned to bare earth rather than grass but still very flat and well-raked. I puzzled over this for twenty minutes or so until realisation dawned. I am sure we have all seen our groundsman and estate workers unloading those green & brown swiss rolls they use to lay a new croquet lawn or repair the damage from an incursion from the deer park? It had never occurred to me to wonder where those came from but now it was obvious. What we were walking across had to be a turf farm! In the evening, we took advantage of still having the car with us to go to The Admiral Nelson and have a belated Birthday meal for Sue.
Day 3 – Rugby
We carried on up the North Oxford through Hillmorton Locks to Rugby. I took the car back home from Braunston and headed back by taxi to meet Sue before the locks. We moored up south of Bridge 58, conveniently placed for the benefits of the big city such as a large Homebase and a Tesco Superstore.
At this point Bracken had been on board for three days. By and large she seemed to be coping well, curling up on her bed beside us at night and sleeping through until whatever time we decided to get up without any fuss. Not quite the same at locks, though. Where one or both of us has to get off the boat she gets quite panicky and will often start shrill yapping and barking in protest that goes on until we are both back on board and back on our way. She reacts the same way when there is close manoeuvring going on and the engine note changes loudly or rapidly or both.
Day 4 – Hartshill
We headed down through the short Newbold Tunnel and along to Hawkesbury Junction where the Oxford Canal ends (or starts) and joins the Coventry Canal. Our route involved the very tight, almost 180°, turn to head north up the Coventry. We wanted to get past some built up areas around Coventry and Nuneaton so this made for quite a long day with 8 hours cruising non-stop to cover 20 miles or more before we moored up near Hartshill south of Bridge 29 and the Anchor Inn. By the time we were tied up we felt we had earned a pint before dinner!
Day 5 – Polesworth
Continuing north on the Coventry we went through Atherstone Locks, a flight of eleven all told, losing all three starboard fenders in the process. We carried on up to a place called Polesworth, mooring up east of Bridge 52. On the way up in the afternoon I let Bracken off the lead and she was very good, constantly checking where I was and coming back when called. After twenty minutes or so I heard a big splash behind me. For a moment I wondered what that noise was, then I suddenly realised what it had to be – sure enough Bracken was in the water! She was still wearing her lifejacket so it was easy to haul her out. I am pretty sure she just got over curious and slipped on the bank rather than wanting to jump in deliberately. Despite the frantic paddling she seemed wet but unconcerned over the incident. Polesworth has a quite nice park and a number of pubs, none of them particularly prepossessing. There was a hotel called The Yard whose website looked as if it might be OK so we called in there for a pint after giving Bracken a good run with the ball. The Yard turns out to portray itself on the interweb very much as it would like to be rather than as it is, which is best described as Wetherspoons minus. One drink was as much as we wanted to risk.
Day 6 – Huddlesford
Monday took us on up the Coventry to its Fazeley Junction and north on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. Many of the bridges on this canal feature these little doors or windows in the side:
This canal also appears to have no bridge numbers, which we commonly use to identify our location or monitor progress. All the bridges are marked on the map with their names alone, much harder to remember as you wonder how close you are to the next hazard. I’m sure there is a reason for these peculiarities and I can already hear the voice of Neil Payne, sounding faintly from his sojourn on the continent, filling us in on what that is. Equally strangely, having thought that we were done with that, we suddenly found that the canal became the Coventry Canal again and normal bridge numbering was resumed. Shortly after this change we moored up south of Bridge 81 and just short of a junction with the Lichfield Arm. This is now abandoned, although there is a proposal to re-open it. In the meantime, it is the preserve of the Lichfield Cruising Club, who look pretty established and well-heeled. We did wander up to The Plough, just past this arm and a much more pleasant establishment than The Yard in Polesworth, just for a drink before dinner. Sadly, heavy rain came in while we were there and we were forced to stay and have more drinks and dinner, which was excellent. Even Bracken settled in the end rather than getting us thrown out into the storm.
Day 7 – Rugeley
We carried on up the Coventry Canal to Fradley Junction where it meets the Trent & Mersey Canal. We turned left through the junction without incident and up through a handful of locks to Rugeley. The 48 hour mooring here was conveniently situated just south of Bridge 66 which itself sits equidistant between a Tesco Superstore on the right and a large Morrisons on the left, with the town centre beyond that. Each of the supermarkets is less than 400 yards from the bridge and a road runs behind Tesco and beside the mooring, which made it a convenient place to meet the snagging team from the boatyard. So far, we had not had any discernible issues with debris fouling the propeller. Given the foul state of the water approaching Rugeley, however, I decided to have a look down the weed hatch anyway. Sure enough I had to untangle two Tesco carrier bags, a couple of feet of rope and what looked like a metre of net curtain. It was just good fortune that it had not affected the steering or worse.
Having tied up and settled in, Bracken and I found the disused railway that leads up towards the huge cooling towers that loom over the town. Unsolicited input from a fellow dog walker coming in the opposite direction informed me that these towers were scheduled to be demolished later this year. That will change the feel of the place considerably I suspect. The railway provides a lovely firm surface through what are now woodlands and natural habitat and meets a road at a canal bridge that brings you back along the towpath to the mooring once again. There are many features, both derelict relics and deliberate commemorations, to remind you of the industrial past of the town as you walk but you can see it all lies in the past not the present and has no future.
Day 8 – Still at Rugeley
Dave duly arrived, accompanied by reinforcements in the shape of Lee. I could discern no particular trade that Lee had made his own so I guess he was just Lee the Gofer. He seemed happy to get on with whatever tasks Dave gave him, one at a time, while the maestro set about dismantling large parts of the boat to rearrange the plumbing layout once again. Quite a few items were crossed off today. However, despite improvement, I can’t accept the heating is 100% just yet. While it was a chance to do the shopping, in most other respects it was a very boring and uncomfortable day. I’m sure that the job was not made easier by having to work around all our possessions and our clothing for all seasons. No part of the boat was left untouched so there was nowhere for us to sit and wait. We couldn’t just go and sit in a café with Bracken and rain set in late in the morning so we were huddled under the forward cratch cover trying to keep out of the way.
I did go and explore the town centre a bit – more Redhill than Reigate there were many closed and empty shops and not much sign of regeneration, just a lot of fast food. I did find AVH Supplies, an Aladdin’s cave of a hardware store with anything you could imagine and still selling nuts, bolts and screws individually or by weight and handed over in brown paper bags. Every town should have a store like this, B&Q or Homebase could never compete.
Day 9 – Weston
Shaking off the urban feel of central Rugeley we continued north up the Trent & Mersey to Great Haywood Junction, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal comes in from the west. This was a much needed stop for services; water, cassette emptying, rubbish clearance etc. Just before the junction we came past a boat selling rope fenders, similar to those we had on ‘South Downs’. We decided that these might be more effective or robust than the rubber pipe fenders we have been losing so bought six of them. Rather than rely on a piece of cord to hold them on he suggested that we use a metal ‘D’ shackle to fasten them, so we’ll give that a try. Continuing north on the Trent & Mersey in the afternoon brought us to Weston, where we moored up just north of Bridge 80. This was a nice spot just beside the Saracen’s Head, which looked a really nice Gastro Pub. However, we went further into the village and found a very pleasant atmosphere with a large green and larger play area beyond for Bracken to have a run in, overlooked by The Woolpack. Having finished our exercise it was impossible not to take advantage of the seating outside in the sunshine and have a couple of pints before heading back for dinner. On the way back we bought half a dozen free range eggs from the cottage by the canal, where you could see the poultry responsible strutting their stuff and demonstrating the veracity of the ‘free range’ claim, much to Bracken’s excitement.
Day 10 – Stone
Day 10 rather surprised us by being a Friday. We hadn’t thought about the day of the week for a while now. Continuing north up the Trent & Mersey brought us to a mooring at Westbridge Park just at the bottom end of Stone, south of Bridge 93 and the Star Inn. Quite a short run today, which gave us a chance to explore the rest of the moorings up through Stone, the excellent Stone Boat Building Chandlery (where we acquired some of those ‘D’ rings for the fenders) and to walk around the town centre for a while. It seems a really nice place and provided a bit of a contrast to the rather down at heel feel of Rugeley. It is clearly a busy place with a lot of development and regeneration going on. After tea Westbridge Park was a great place for Bracken to play ball and run off some energy before we stopped in at The Star for a couple of pints before dinner. Is there a theme developing here? Are we treating this too much like a holiday? I can see we are going have to introduce some sort of ‘no drinking day’ regime if this keeps happening.
Day 11 – Barlaston
Looming ahead on the map lay Stoke-On-Trent. We needed to turn there and head up the Caldon Canal but all the information we had suggested that you needed to get into the canal and right out the other side of Stoke before even thinking about mooring for the night. We also discovered that there was a big canal festival scheduled for Saturday & Sunday being held right on the junction. Based on that we decided on a short run on Saturday to stop short of Stoke and an early start on Sunday to make sure we got past it. That took us through Stone itself and through Meaford, up two sets of four locks each, to reach a mooring at Barlaston, just by The Plume of Feathers and north of Bridge 103 on the Trent & Mersey. Arriving there for a late lunch we were able to spend the afternoon doing some chores around the boat, like washing off the guano that tends to accumulate en route and eat into the paintwork. The Plume of Feathers is subtitled “with Neil Morrissey”. This is a reference to the actor I most remember from the TV series Boon with Michael Elphick, in which Morrissey played Rocky, a plonker second only to Rodney Trotter at the time. Apparently he owns this pub and a couple of others nearby, lends his name to some beers served there and is said to put in the occasional shift in the kitchen. He wasn’t in evidence when we went up there for dinner but it was a nice pub, quite well run and the food was very good with some unusual options.
Day 12 – Stockton Brook
We set out early on Sunday morning, although perhaps not quite as early as actually planned. The first lock arrived shortly, after which a long stretch of clear running gave Sue a chance to get the bacon sandwiches and coffee organised before we reached the next one. We still don’t have a smoke detector on board to let us know when breakfast is ready and this was a reminder to get one soon. Stoke Locks are a flight of five, the last of which is right on the junction of the Caldon Canal, which again involved turning right back on ourselves 180°. This was called Etruria Junction, which is where the canal festival was being held. CRT volunteers were manning the last lock, show boats were lining the canal and double breasted along it, all the usual food stalls and charity displays were set out and it was nearly midday so it was all very jolly and there was a wonderful audience for us emerging from the bottom lock and attempting the tight turn. A canoe tied up at the bottom of someone’s garden, exactly at the point where we needed to put our bow added to the fun and for some reason it had been deemed sensible to have small children in kayaks bobbing about in the middle of all this with no apparent awareness of what 17 tonnes of steel could do to a fibreglass shell. Nonetheless we got past it all and up the next staircase lock, the first two locks on the Caldon Canal. The approach to Stoke On Trent was as depressingly run down as we had been led to believe and the passage out was similarly unattractive, although here a lot of it was quite new college development etc. One area, Hanley Park, looked as if it was really quite nice with plenty of brand new mooring rings on the bank but we had still been told it would be very unwise to moor there after dark or to leave the boat alone. Such a shame. By the time we tied up east of Bridge 23 we had been going for 8½ hours and were glad to relax and put the kettle on.
Day 13 – Denford
From the moment we entered the Caldon Canal we found it quite awkward to navigate. It is really an arm of the Trent & Mersey and has plenty of narrow places and tight bends and we kept going awry trying to get through bridges. When we stopped for water on the way up we met someone who lives on their boat there who told us that we weren’t the only ones who find it difficult, many of the bridge holes are at strange angles of approach when going up the canal and most people get caught out to some degree. Apparently, these angles all favour traffic coming down the canal so we should find it easier on the return. Having left Stoke On Trent behind, the area you then reach is a really lush, green and hilly terrain which mainly seems to be livestock farming. There are lots of woods and paths around the area and the towpath itself seems to be very well maintained with hard smooth surfaces almost the entire length, which makes it an ideal cycle trail. The canal was originally developed to serve the quarries in Cauldon Low on behalf of the potteries in Stoke. Apparently the name was misspelt in the original Act of Parliament as ‘Caldon’ and was never corrected. Having once been abandoned it has now been restored as far a Froghall. A canal basin there, redeveloped in 2005, can’t be reached by a lot of people as the tunnel on the approach is too low for many modern narrowboats. A shorter arm leading to Leek creates a junction half way up which is a convoluted set of twists and turns to leave the main arm and then turn immediately back on itself and pass over the main course on an aqueduct, the original route having dropped down a set of locks. We moored up on the aqueduct on the Leek arm high above the Hollybush Inn where we met Sue’s sister and her husband for dinner.
Day 14 – Leek
Well, here we are on the fourth of June, two weeks in. Up until now the weather has been mild and largely dry, although not quite as good as it was for most of May. Today it was forecast to be wall to wall rain. In fact, the early part was mainly dry and even bright at times and we took advantage to move just a few miles up to the end of the Leek arm where we moored well before lunchtime and plan to spend a couple of nights.
A nearby Morrison’s was a useful visit before lunch but the afternoon was a total washout with torrential rain for hours until late in the evening. A great opportunity to hunker down in the boat and get this blog up to date. Hopefully, tomorrow will be finer and we can go and have a look around the town, which we are told has a lot to see and do.