18 Sep

Week 18 – Ellesmere Port

Back On The Water

Thursday 12th September started with a very fine morning indeed. As we fiddled about preparing to leave and checking out with the marina the breeze began to rise. By the time we were ready it was noon and we had a very strong wind. We got off the berth alright but as we tried to get over to the narrow marina entrance the attempt to compensate for the effect of the wind by using more engine power merely resulted in the inevitable impact taking place at higher speed. There wasn’t any significant damage, though, so we carried on back down toward Hurleston Locks.

When you arrive at the top lock you can see a tremendous view down and across a plain ahead. Naturally, that means the locks are very exposed to the wind as well. When we arrived there was already a queue and it seems that someone may, indeed, have got stuck in the narrow bottom lock. If so, the CRT guys did their stuff and managed to jiggle it through so we didn’t have as long a delay as we had first feared.

View From Hurleston Top Lock
Bracken – A Bit Nervous About Lock No. 4

Our next leg was intended to be North up the Shropshire Union Canal to Chester, a city we have visited before and rather liked. However, we felt it might be rather crowded at the weekend and news that there was a big race meeting on there this weekend made up our minds. We would be taking our time in any case, so we would pass through Chester to Ellesmere Port, the end point of the Shropshire Union, where it now meets the Manchester Ship Canal. That terminus is now the home of the National Waterways Museum, which is owned and run by the Canal & Rivers Trust. We could be there on Monday, have a look around and come back to Chester mid-week.

Accordingly, we were looking for our night’s mooring almost as soon as we left the locks and made the turn out of the Llangollen. A nice spot came into view just past a place called Stoke Hall so we pulled in and moored up for the night. There was a good path around Stoke Hall and across the fields that ran down almost to the Barbridge Inn and brought us over a bridge back on the towpath to circle back to the boat. A good walk for Bracken and a nice stroll before dinner.

Stoke Hall

The Cheese Shop

We did a similar circuit before we left there in the morning. It was a lovely, sunny start, although a bit chillier than the day before and those red berries were everywhere we looked.

However, it matured nicely into a great day for cruising with blue skies and sunshine and quite warm by mid-morning. On the way up on the train we had joked about the possibility of an Indian summer but it was beginning to seem a real possibility.

Even though it isn’t that far, there are quite a few locks on the way in to Chester so our target for the night was a mooring just short of Wharton’s Lock. This lies right under Beeston Castle and we had planned an excursion on Saturday morning. On the way we stopped off at Calveley Mill cheese shop, which has a dedicated three hour mooring outside it. We came out laden with cheese, biscuits, some toasted focaccia to have with a cured meat and cheese platter for lunch and also some kindling. They seemed to sell virtually anything there and the smell of bacon butties being prepared in their café was real torture. Why hadn’t we skipped breakfast and come straight here?

Soon after the cheese shop we came to Bunbury Staircase lock, with a CRT volunteer lock keeper on duty who had it all ready for us. He told us it had been a busy morning and everyone was heading down for the Shady Oak pub. After a couple more locks on our own we stopped for lunch in the sunshine and when we set off again were joined to lock down the next two by a boat with a crew of four. They had a couple of spaniels with them and were extremely tolerant of Bracken’s shrill barking. They told us that their dogs had suffered similar problems at first but had settled down after a couple of years!

Beeston Castle

Mooring up as planned, just beside a footpath to Beeston Castle, we walked down to the Shady Oak, beside the next bridge beyond our own mooring. There were an awful lot of boats down here so we were rather glad we had stopped where we did but we enjoyed a nice drink in the garden, Bracken was fairly well behaved for once and we were even able to have a chat with several of the people who were there from various boats. A really nice end to a good day.

Bracken Relaxing At The Shady Oak

The temperature dropped to 5 degrees overnight and we woke to a fine mist laying over the water, with a local photographer standing outside our boat trying to get a picture of it. The day continued fine, dry, sunny and warm. Looking across to the castle you could see the huge outcrop that it sits on top of and it seemed like quite a climb.

Beeston Castle Towering Over Us

The path takes you on a gentle rise over cattle fields to the road just beside the castle entrance at the foot of the bluff. English Heritage took our money and we headed up the steep climb along the ward walls and up to the modern bridge across a moat into the inner bailey. The views from here are remarkable and you can see across seven counties to the Pennines, the Welsh mountains, the Wrekin, Chester, Liverpool and Jodrell Bank all from this one spot.

Although the views are fantastic the big hit for us was the replica bronze age Roundhouse being constructed halfway back down to the bottom. We had a really interesting tour from one of the volunteers involved. The project is led by an experimental archaeologist and is trying to use the materials, tools and techniques of the time. There are a couple of minor compromises. The daub that traditionally would have relied on the use of manure in one form or another is banned by the great god health and safety and so they are trying to develop a substitute using mud instead. They have tried different mixes and are just now starting to use it on the walls.

The second variation is the thatch roof. They should really be using English reed from Norfolk but instead have employed reed imported from Hungary. It is a third of the cost, they don’t have to back order it for two to three years and it looks and performs exactly the same. I know Mike Fielding will be spitting feathers to hear this after his run-in with some conservation Gauleiters in Oxfordshire who forced him to wait months for Welsh slate when he could have had Spanish slate far quicker, for much less cost, that would have appeared identical.

It was surprising to hear that they had needed to get planning permission for this Roundhouse and Cheshire Council had taken from September until February to grant it. They are working hard, using mainly volunteers in their spare time, and had done a lot of fresh work that week but I assumed it would still be many months in the making. Apparently, however, they are planning a grand official opening in 2-3 weeks, so fingers crossed for them!

After coffee and a bacon sandwich, we got our money’s worth by taking Bracken out on the woodland walk all around the castle mound before heading back to the boat. Setting out shortly before two o’clock we weren’t planning to go very far today but hoped to moor just short of Waverton. When we got there any spots that offered any sunlight were taken so we pressed on a little further and found a gap in the tall hedges just past the village and around the bend before Rowton Bridge. We had some tea in the sunshine, started up the barbecue much more successfully this time and sat back to enjoy the sunset.

Bracken – Ready For A Burger

First Pass Through Chester

Sunday was a bit more dismal to start off, with a lot of drizzle, but it dried up just as we set off and stayed away for most of the day. Our first stop was a water point just a little further up, before the first lock. As we were filling up there “Gdansk” came past with five adults on board and asked if they could pair up going down the locks. With five locks to cover in two miles it was a great help and we had quite a pleasant morning chatting with them and hearing about their boat and boating while we waited for the locks to empty.

We parted company in Chester and after a very brief stop to get a sandwich from Waitrose, right by the canal, we carried on to the last set of locks at the far end of the city. This was Northgate staircase, three connected locks that require water to be drained from the bottom before unleashing the deluge from the top lock, if you don’t want to drown the passers-by. They are a bit different but shouldn’t prove too much of a problem if they are working properly.

In the middle chamber a Cinderella gauge shows when the water level is just right to allow the gates from the top lock to open. Right now, however, there is so much leakage through the gates at the top that you have to add more water to put the middle lock level into the red or it won’t equalise properly. If you add too much, of course, it still won’t allow the gates to open. We had been warned of this by the lock keeper at Bunbury Staircase and by a fellow boater who was passing as we approached the locks, so we knew what to do in theory. In practice, while equalising the levels was tricky enough, it was still impossible for Sue to get the lock gate moving on her own. I counted at least seven grown men and women and a few extraneous children, hanging off the balance beam before it finally began to shift.

How Many People It Takes To Open A Lock In Chester

The lower chambers were less problematic but when we emerged into the basin below we realised we had lost an hour here altogether. We still had to stop here for the services, including water as the washer / dryer had been running on the way, before we carried on out of Chester and started to look for a decent mooring. A couple of miles further on, just past Knolls Bridge, there is a forty-eight hour site with mooring rings supplied. There was no-one here and it sits right by the Countess of Chester Country Park, an ideal place to take Bracken, so we pulled over and called it a day. It was getting cold and very grey but we had done well with the weather today. We had a few chores to finish outside and we were all squared away before heavy rain set in for the rest of the night at about six o’clock.

A Passage To Ellesmere

The morning didn’t look too promising but it brightened up quickly and we had a good walk around the Country Park, mainly in the sunshine. We set off mid-morning heading for Ellesmere Port and with a stop for lunch and a trip to Sainsbury’s, we arrived in the upper basin there by about half past three. On the way we encountered masses of weed mats, just lying on the surface, over most of the journey. Sometimes you could steer around them and sometimes you could nudge them out of the way but there were plenty of stretches, several hundred yards long, where the weed mass stretched from one bank of the canal to the other. As you try to move on the weed builds up in front of the bow and the boat begins to move more slowly in response to the extra weight and water resistance, while the steering gets less and less responsive. In the end you have to pause and clear way the giant, green moustache so that you can start all over again.

The canal actually terminates at the National Waterways Museum. There are locks beyond the Visitor Centre leading to a lower basin where there are both exhibits and derelicts, as well as a Holiday Inn. When arriving at Ellesmere Port you come under the last bridge to find a nice wide upper basin. There are 48 hour moorings here but only space for two boats. Just ahead of them is a water point with restricted mooring for 30 minutes and beyond that there is space for one or two boats to moor, briefly, right next to the Visitor Centre. You can at least pause there and talk about entrance and mooring etc. On the other side of the basin are the heritage boatyards where they are working on traditional boats owned by the museum, aiming to restore them.

This is the National Waterways Museum owned and run by CRT. You sort of expect that it will be jewel in the crown. You think everything should be smart and painted, in full working order, with appropriate signage and instructions and proactive management.

First impressions were not great. The shop and café seemed to be being run quite well but it looked as if the actual heritage being portrayed was all the dereliction and abandonment of the mid-20th century, as trade declined and before all the revival movements gathered steam. Lock paddles are not working and there is rust and abandoned junk all over the place. I think it would be a great visit by car but there seems to be no real support for people arriving on actual boats. The water point is in one place, the bins are somewhere else, the sanitary station is on the opposite side of the basin tucked away in the heritage boatyard and everything is slightly awkward.

What Are We Celebrating Here?

When we arrived there was one boat, “Life’s Dream”, moored on the water point. I asked if they were getting water and they said they would want some tomorrow but were checking to find the tap. It was well hidden away but I found out where it was and returned to let them know and to talk about how we were going to get some water now, only to see the couple wandering off in the distance over the bridge on the way into town. Somewhat surprised, I spoke to the CRT staff about it. They were helpful in letting us moor abreast one of their boats and opening a gate usually kept secured, so that we could work around the problem but it was awkward, inconvenient and yet they showed no signs of considering any enforcement action.

While dealing with the water issue we had established that there was some mooring available in the lower basin. For one night’s stay mooring could be included in the entrance fee. For each additional night there would be an additional fee of four pounds. Forms must be completed and amongst the material provided was a helpful sheet that explained that the funnel that could be seen protruding from the surface of the water was attached to a vastly bigger shipwreck below. In addition, around the mooring area, were a number of sunken boats that one should take care to avoid. None of these underwater obstacles are visible or marked by buoys or any other feature. Oh, by the way, you navigate at your own risk.

Information About The Obstructions

Having taken that on board we were advised to proceed down the narrow locks to the lower basin. There are two sets of locks here, side by side. The wide locks look as though they haven’t been used in years and I think we saw a wrecked boat in one chamber. The narrow locks looked to us exactly like another three lock staircase, which would require water to be emptied from the bottom in order to accommodate the water being drained from the top lock without flooding the local area. Accordingly we set about emptying the lower chambers. After a while a guy came by and explained that this was all wrong. It turns out that the water from the wide locks can flow straight into the middle chamber of the narrow side. We were effectively draining the other side. In fact, rather than three locks together, what we had were a top and bottom lock with a very short pound between them. We never did work out where the water let out of the top lock goes, but we were warned that we needed to empty it very slowly or we would, indeed, flood the pound in the middle. Apparently, everyone struggles with these locks and often do flood the surroundings, which makes it even more surprising that here, at the heart of the CRT, there are no instructions on how to use them.

From the locks you can see right across to the Manchester Ship Canal, the Mersey and Liverpool beyond; a wide flat estuary facing the Irish Sea. Of course, as you leave the bottom lock you are emerging into a very exposed, windy expanse, heading straight for the funnel of the sunken ship. You need to turn through 120 degrees to the left to reach the mooring berths but you are unable to start turning until the stern clears the lock chamber. I’m glad Sue was driving! The locks were configured so that it was impossible for the crew ashore to board the boat so, having closed the lock I scrambled round to meet her, chasing off two very irritated swans who seemed to have taken up residence on the quayside in the process. Finally, we were tied up among the rest of the exhibits, feeling very much a part of the museum.

A Day At The Museum

It was another fine morning on Tuesday and we were able to have a good look around the museum itself. We explored the preserved buildings on one side, we crossed over to the boats being restored in the heritage boatyard, went round the exhibitions in the Island Warehouse and poked around the workers cottages in Porters’ Row. From being rather underwhelmed the day before the place rather redeemed itself. There is a huge amount to see and in about four hours we barely scratched the surface. Bracken was very good, just going round with us and waiting while we looked at the various displays etc. but it wouldn’t have been fair to spend much more time there. We may well come back another time, however.

Sure enough, “Life’s Dream” had spent the night on the water point and stayed there throughout the morning, even getting his fishing rod out and sitting on the back dangling it in the water. However, as we were heading into the café for some lunch, we saw him pack his gear away and finally move off and make way for a hire boat that had just arrived. Whether he was actually clearing the water point for them or it was just coincidence that he had decided it was time to go we will never know.

As we finished lunch the hire boat started to go down the locks so we asked them to leave the bottom one open and scrambled back to get our own boat moving. It was a struggle to get lined up and into the lock, partly due to the wind but largely due to the fear of hitting the underwater obstructions. We probably had loads of safe space to manoeuvre in but not knowing where they are makes you over-cautious to start with and then you suddenly find you haven’t left yourself enough room.

The Funnel In Question

Going back up, now that we knew the score, was quite straightforward. When we thought about it we realised we hadn’t seen anywhere nicer to moor on the way down than where we had stopped on Sunday night so we spent the rest of a gloriously sunny afternoon heading straight back there. A chance to give Bracken another shot at that Country Park after what, for a dog, must have been a very dull day.

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