Where To Next?
After the excitement of the boat lift we had another look at our plans on Friday morning, as we were at another of those fixed points. Needing to be back at the house for next Thursday we had looked for a place to leave the boat and catch the train. The best we had come up with that could take us was Swanley Bridge Marina on the Llangollen Canal. We would need to get there on Tuesday, 3rd September. From where we were at Anderton we could probably have done that in a couple of days and we had four days available, so we would need to make sure we didn’t go too fast or we would just be moored up outside for a couple of days.
The distance wasn’t that great but it is an interesting, slightly convoluted section. First, you follow the Trent & Mersey almost circling through ninety degrees around Northwich, reflecting the River Weaver below at a distance. Eventually, you arrive at Middlewich, where you can take the junction onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union canal. After a few miles, at the end of the branch, you turn left on to the main line of the Shropshire Union for a short distance before arriving at another junction with the Llangollen Canal. Turning right up the Llangollen puts you within a couple of hours of the marina. With all the junctions and a few locks thrown in for fun, it keeps you nicely engaged on the journey.
In the interests of not going too far, too fast we didn’t leave until quite late on Friday morning with a view to stopping at the CRT services, just a couple of bridges further up the canal. If we wanted to kill time then I suppose it was helpful to find the Elsan point out of order and not expected to be fixed for a couple of days. Sizing up the options, while taking on drinking water, the best course seemed to be to reverse up all the way between the boats moored on either side to reach a service dock outside Anderton Marina. They would let us use their sanitary station for the princely sum of three English pounds. We don’t usually pay but we decided it was better to pay the money and get the cassette emptied than carry it around with us for another couple of days until we reached a working CRT site.
The reversing process itself is not so difficult, particularly with little wind, although some care is needed. As you can only steer going forwards, on a long stretch like this you often need to stop reversing and use the forward gear to realign the boat before reversing some more. As a result, it all takes quite a time. This is a really busy stretch of canal, with boats moored nose to tail on both sides and a blind right angle bend coming through a bridge immediately before the marina wharf. As such, the biggest concern was that another boat would suddenly come steaming round the bend wanting to get through when we were only half way there. We were not quite sure what we’d do if that happened but thankfully we didn’t have to find out.
As we moved on around Northwich we first encountered Lion Salt Works, now a popular heritage site telling the story of the salt production industry in this area. We are still pretty rubbish at this. We were two miles down the cut when I suddenly thought: “Why didn’t we stop there, then?” We weren’t in a hurry and could easily have moored up and spent an hour or two there but it just never occurred to us until it was too late.
Next up we found ourselves going past the premises of Thor Specialities and a series of small signs on the offside bank that said: “If the siren sounds evacuate the area immediately”. Apparently they are a “multinational manufacturer and distributor of biocides, flame retardants, personal care ingredients and other speciality chemicals”. Presumably some of these can get a bit lively but we did wonder exactly how we would accomplish the urgent evacuation being called for. A sedate walking pace in a straight line doesn’t feel like it would fit the bill.
As we turned sharply south things calmed down a bit before we found ourselves in the heart of another maze of industrial plant, massive pipe work and huge vats and hoppers of who knows what substances spanning the canal as we passed through TATA Chemicals Europe site at Lostock.
Passing two marinas opposite one another we left Northwich behind and were out in the open country. It wasn’t long before we came to a couple of ‘flashes’, large stretches of water created as a result of the collapse of old mine workings. The sun was out and we stopped for lunch in one of the flashes and watched ‘Dad’ blow up a rubber dinghy and show the kids how it was done by launching himself into the path of an oncoming narrowboat and losing control of both the stubby plastic oars. He got out of the way eventually and gradually mastered some sort of technique, then the kids just took off in it as if they were born to it, leaving him to help ‘Mum’ with the barbecue.
We carried on after lunch and had intended going beyond Croxton Flash. On the way we spotted a 48 hour visitor mooring unusually positioned on the offside that looked so beguiling that we decided to pull over and call it a day right there. There was a short section of nice clean bank with rings and Armco to tie up to and behind it a lovely wooded glade with steep sides rising behind and around it. There were picnic tables and metal barbecue stands scattered around the grassy area. This was ‘Bramble Cuttings’ a site maintained by the Broken Cross Boat Club, presumably based at the Broken Cross pub which we had passed a little earlier. It is based on an old quarry and bordered by private land with no right of access. This little dell can only be reached by boat and offered space for just three or maybe four boats to moor. A real haven, safe, secluded and ideal for Bracken to be let off to run amok until any other boats arrived.
Last year this would have read “Middlewich Breach” as in March 2018 2,800 cubic metres of the canal embankment collapsed and the route was closed to navigation until December. To their credit CRT have now completed the repairs and, apart from the neat newness of the concrete bankside along the previously collapsed section, you would hardly know that anything had happened. It was said, at the time, that a similar breach in yesteryear was repaired in a month using only picks, shovels and the sweat of very large numbers of navvies. That, of course, was before health and safety went mad and I would guess they also didn’t bother about saving 10,000 fish before they started. It could also just be Fakebook history, of course.
On Saturday 31st August we saw our old friends “Jubilani”, alongside whom we had moored in Liverpool and then locked with up to Wigan, drive past us at Bramble Cuttings. Sure enough we caught up with them going into the Middlewich Big Lock and they were helpful as ever in opening paddles to empty locks for us as they left them and so on.
Middlewich Big Lock is presumably so-called because it is a double lock. The three locks above it are single locks, so anything wider than a narrow boat can’t go beyond them. As we moved up towards Middlewich we also passed over the Croxton Aqueduct, which was also just wide enough for us to pass through. With the need to turn round, any wide beam craft would only really be able to use about half a mile of canal between two winding points inside these limits. It makes you wonder why it was worth having the big lock there originally?
After a cloudy, cool morning we were all drenched in a torrential downpour that seemed to come out of nowhere just as we began working the three main locks close together. There was no chance to take shelter in that kind of situation so we just got wet. Fifteen minutes later, as we entered the last of the three, the sky cleared for a dry, sunny summer’s afternoon.
Just after the Middlewich locks comes the junction where we were to turn right to leave the Trent & Mersey and head down the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. A tight turn straight under a stone bridge with a lock sitting just beyond and room for only one boat between it and the junction. Technically, it seems, this short stretch, the lock itself and few yards above it are actually the Wardle Canal. It was built because the owners of the Trent & Mersey insisted that there should be no direct link between their canal and the Shropshire Union at Middlewich and it enabled them to levy large compensation tolls for boats to pass through Wardle lock.
We didn’t go too much further before finding a nice mooring on Saturday night where we could enjoy a sunny but rather windy afternoon.
Sunday the first of September seemed to bring with it instant Autumn. All of a sudden we were noticing a lot of fallen acorns, leaves here and there were looking a little bit browner and the Sunday morning temperature dropped by 5°C on the day before. Early days but winter is coming. We have started to see huge crops of red berries on the trees and hedgerows. According to one old wife aboard, this is a sure sign of a particularly harsh season in the offing.
Our total for Sunday was five and a half miles and one lock with a stop at a marina for some fuel and services. The marina stop was fine, although it seems we arrived just as one of the residents had booked in for a pump-out. They accepted our ‘queue-jumping’ in good part. After all, how could we have known? We just got on with it as quickly as we could. The one short, heavy shower of an otherwise fine and sunny day coming in just as we were working the only lock of the day felt a bit personal but generally we had a very pleasant day and a relaxing afternoon.
Lurking In The Llangollen
Monday morning was a similar bright, sunny start but by now we were down to 9°C. We had even less distance to travel, just three and a half miles but a bit more interesting with two junctions and five locks to negotiate on the way. The fourth and last lock on the Middlewich Branch was just ahead of our mooring and lined with CRT volunteers, requiring little input from us. Barbridge Junction, out onto the Shropshire Union main line, suddenly became extremely busy as we approached. Boats were coming from all directions, turning in, turning out or cruising straight across the end. Our first gambit of hanging back to let them sort themselves out didn’t work as they kept on coming, including from behind us, so we threw ourselves into the melee. With a bit of give and take, we made it round without incident to move on the next half mile to tackle the junction into the Llangollen Canal.
It is quite a wide junction from our direction so the turn wasn’t much of an issue. Just a couple of hundred yards in, however, there are the Hurleston Locks. A straightforward flight of four locks, with some very short pounds between them, these shouldn’t present too much of a problem. However, the bottom lock, No. 4, is collapsing and becoming narrower. The maximum beam now allowed into it is 6′ 10″ and it is supposed to be closed and rebuilt completely in the winter maintenance schedule. In the meantime, CRT staff man the lock during the working day and lock it up overnight. Volunteer lock keepers man some locks but these guys were CRT ‘regulars’, full time staff who would normally be doing something more productive. They were friendly enough but made it very clear that we should touch nothing and would be best off just staying on the boat. Some boats have got stuck in the narrow parts in recent months and they wanted to retain full control so that they could manage the pace and stop things at once if anything began to go wrong.
Having successfully made it through the first lock we found the next three manned by the normal volunteers, who were unusually keen to do some of the work so we had a really easy ride this morning and were moored up for the night, just a couple of bridges short of the marina, by lunchtime. After a fine, dry morning it was becoming greyer. We set out for a walk around the area after lunch hoping to do a circuit round by the Hurleston reservoir, which we think is a similar construction to the Toddbrook reservoir at Whaley Bridge. However, on this occasion, the farmers and the weather won. We covered half the route on good clear paths and then found our way blocked by five foot high crops planted right across the right of way, with no real route around it, at the same time as the rain began in earnest. We beat an ignominious retreat, retracing our steps but consoling ourselves that while we might not have completed the planned route we had actually still covered the intended distance.
Tuesday morning was brighter if a bit windy and we had a very short trip up to the marina. Somehow, on this occasion, we managed to conquer the wind across the wide open water and slid neatly into the marina and then on to our berth without a hitch. By now it looked quite threatening with dark clouds building in the distance but still plenty of sunshine so, as well as taking full advantage of the industrial strength laundry facilities, we set about a much needed boat cleaning afternoon. We managed the roof, bow, stern and port side and it looked all the better for it so it was a satisfying afternoon’s work. With the wind still rising we chickened out of the option to leave the berth, turn round and back in again so that we could reach the starboard side. A wise choice in the end, as it started to rain shortly after we made that decision. Instead we turned our attention to packing for the trip South the next day.