09 Jul

Week 7 – Off Peak to Manchester

Destination Portland Basin . . . or not!

Another day’s snagging on Wednesday addressed some issues and showed we were reaching that familiar 80:20 point. Most of what was left or was now coming to light was hardly worth worrying about. However, the small number that are significant remain of real concern and are pretty much the same as they were on Day One. Dave had come armed with a pump to fit to the central heating but when asked if this would specifically solve the problem or make any difference at all, the answer was ‘I don’t really know’. We agreed not to make another invasive change on the basis of suck it and see and I gave him the details of a contact at the boiler supplier to go and talk to for more advice.

After that enforced stop on Wednesday it was time to set off down the Lower Peak Forest Canal, via sixteen locks from our mooring at Marple Junction. In order to make life easy for meeting the service engineer on Friday we were booked into Portland Basin Marina at the junction of the Peak Forest and the Ashton Canals from Thursday night so we did need to cover that stretch on Thursday.

Marple is one of those ‘M’ words that sounds a bit grim. Even though where we had been moored was actually quite pleasant we had got an impression that, heading down the locks, things would start to be a bit more gritty and hard going. In fact, the passage down was really quite pleasant. It was a dry, sunny day and Marple seemed to be quite a nice, clean town with plenty of well-maintained amenities, parks etc. The towpath was continually busy with the occasional hiking group and people strolling, cycling, exercising their dogs or walking their babies.

The locks were in reasonable shape though, with only a couple of boats coming up, we didn’t get much help to work them so it was a fair days work by the time we reached the end. Even though we had come down quite a long way, over two hundred feet, as we emerged from the last lock we still seemed to be quite high up above the surrounding countryside. Crossing the Marple Aqueduct near Upper Watermeet there was a great view of the railway viaduct alongside.

View From The Aqueduct

We also had a couple of tunnels to pass through and although they were quite short they had the added complication of being one way operation. You have to peer ahead and make sure no-one is approaching before committing to going through.

It was only really as we crossed under the M67 motorway bridge coming into Hyde and Dukinfield that we began to feel a more built-up, urban vibe with houses closing in and various small businesses generally choosing to show their worst face to the canal. The last bridge (or first, as it is actually Bridge No. 1) was the manually operated Dukinfield Lift Bridge less than half a mile from the junction.

At this point we started looking out for our marina on the right hand side, just before the junction. We spotted the entrance and successfully threaded our way through it into a narrow backwater channel, hemmed in by boats on either side. We passed a diesel pump and could see an office ahead so we stopped and spoke to a guy who came over from one of the boats they were working on. He explained, patiently, that this was a boatyard not a marina and we must be boooked in at Droylsden Marina, which they also operate. He was keen to elaborate on what a wonderful amenity that was, with showers, laundry facilities, secure access etc. and point out that, as we were heading towards Manchester, it would be closer to our destination when we left. The fact remained that when we made the booking there had been no mention that the actual berths were in Droylsden or that that was two and a half miles further on. Doesn’t sound such a big deal in a car. By boat we were talking fifty minutes more to get down there just when we thought we were finished for the day. As ever, there was no point in prolonging the debate. It was a bit irritating but we had deliberately aimed not to be too late here, as there always seems to be a wrinkle, so we had time in hand. Fortunately we did stop to ask if there was fuel available at Droylsden. There wasn’t and we would have to fill up here before we left.

Once we had filled up we had the challenge of backing up all the way down the channel to the entrance and reversing into the main Peak Forest Canal. We seemed to get away with that and headed up to the junction to turn left onto the Ashton Canal towards Manchester. The channel here seemed a bit wider and there were fewer yards along the way with various housing estates visible at a distance. We passed a pub on one side and the Snipe Retail Park at Ashton-Under-Lyne on the other and while it was far from the upper Thames it generally felt quite civilised, although there were some stark contrasts to be seen side by side.

Quite A Nice Approach Shot Ahead
Not Quite So Nice When You Look Behind

Droylsden Marina has a basin that sits off a place called Fairfield Junction (although there is no longer a junction) right at the top of the next flight of eighteen locks that we would be taking down to Manchester. Arrival here was altogether more straightforward. Despite being directed right down to the far end and required to make a three point turn to reverse onto the jetty we managed it with aplomb and received a very warm welcome, both from the lady who looks after things there and from a number of the longer term residents. We felt quite at home immediately, as well as feeling quite secure, despite the basin being surrounded by houses and flats. It reminded us of the basin at Aylesbury. There was no Waitrose beside the dock here but a Tesco Superstore was only a couple of hundred yards away across the main road.

Droylsden Marina
Sunset in Droylsden

We were due to stay here over Thursday and Friday nights. Almost the first conversation we had with the natives was that heading down, intending to spend Saturday night in Manchester Piccadilly, was not the best idea. As we had already heard similar things from other sources we decided to stay an extra night and head off there on Sunday.

Hanging About In Droylsden

Since we had moored here specifically to make it easy for our engineer, Gary, to get to us and do the engine service on Friday morning it was a bit disappointing that, when I sent a text with confirmation that we were in place, he replied that he probably couldn’t make it on Friday and asked if we could do it on Saturday morning. It was no consolation that the reason given was that Aintree had a boat going out on Friday afternoon and the engine due to be fitted two days earlier was now only arriving there on Friday morning. We knew what that meant: yet another Aintree boat on the water to claim more of Dave’s attention even before ours was finally sorted.

As we had already decided to stay Saturday night it didn’t seem too big a deal to get it done on Saturday morning. On Friday there was plenty of stuff we could do around the boat. It needed cleaning and we could use all the electricity we could eat for vacuum cleaners etc. plus we could use the laundry, instead of hammering our on board machine.

We also had to find a way to make an appointment with Belling to look at our cooker. A minor issue with the starter on the grill but they need a static postcode to be able to book an appointment. We found another marina further down our route and tried to book in there to meet Belling. That conversation became just a little awkward as it turned out the lady who manages the bookings had suddenly and unexpectedly died the day before. They don’t do succession planning in marinas so it was no surprise that this had thrown them into a degree of chaos; all the more so as it transpired she had actually been the boss’s mother. All credit to them, however, as they gathered their thoughts and rang me back a couple of hours later, able to confirm our booking. I was then even able to get back to the same person at Belling and confirm their appointment. A lot of phone calls but a result in the end.

Saturday dawned and with it a steady rainfall that lasted all morning. It could be argued that you only really see Manchester in its true colours in the rain, it just seemed to suit it better than yesterday’s sunshine, somehow.

We eventually had a text from Gary to say he was on the way, via a stop at Aintree Boats to collect his tools. The hours ticked by and no sign of Gary. We had just decided he was going to let us down when another text came in confirming he would be with us in half an hour and to start the engine in preparation. A relief at this point but a day late and a wasted morning, just waiting for him to arrive while it rained outside. To add insult to injury he finally turned up just as the sun broke through for a nice, sunny afternoon and evening.

By the time he finished it was quite late but we still managed to walk up to the retail park to the delights of B&Q, Pets at Home and Argos etc. These are things we can’t easily get to so we usually have a list of stuff to get when we can reach them.

Droylsden offers a lot of closed and shuttered shops and some quite seedy looking tattoo parlours and takeaway shops of all kinds with a few rather run down traditional pubs. Not a lot seems to be open and the tram line runs right through it (but doesn’t take dogs). On the major crossroads just up from the marina and in the heart of the high rises, however, we had spotted The Silly Country. Billing itself as a ‘bar & bottle shop’ it looked quite nice from across the road and was packed with people, inside and outside, many of whom seemed to be stopping off on their way elsewhere. It seemed as if it must be the only decent bar in Droylsden and we certainly enjoyed an hour there, despite the rather raucous atmosphere.

Descent Into The Unknown

We had discussed our plans with various people in the know and it was clear that you couldn’t just cruise into central Manchester and drop in a couple of pins to moor on the towpath. Most people suggested that it was unlikely that you would be molested directly but you would certainly be subjected to the sights and sounds of Manchester in full party mode, you were likely to witness unpleasant scenes of an urban underclass attempting to satisfy its more unsavoury predilections, you would probably be unwise to leave your boat unattended and if, by the morning, nothing was taken it was entirely possible something unwanted would be added.

Having delayed our passage to avoid Saturday night in the centre we were aware that we needed to set off early on Sunday. CRT had issued a notice about the Swing Bridge No. 15 last Thursday. It had been damaged and was now padlocked. CRT would attend only between 08:00-09:00 and 16:00-17:00 each day to open it for boats until such time as it was repaired. We had to get through two locks before we would get there and in the end we arrived at 08:50. Quelle surprise! There was no-one there. A phone call to CRT gave us an emergency number to be used only in the case of danger of sinking or to life and limb. Still, it was the only option we now had so we called it and soon someone rang us back to say they would be there in fifteen minutes.

Sure enough they did turn up in that time and we could get on our way. There were eighteen locks on the Ashton Canal, counting down, to get to Piccadilly. With two behind us we arrived at Lock 16 to find a hire boat broken down and moored on the landing. As we arrived so did the men from their boatyard. By the time we had passed through the lock they had managed to re-mount their rudder on the cup it should sit in (knocking this out in shallow water is quite a common issue) and persuaded the couple on board that, rather than get a taxi back to their car and abandoning the boat, they should carry on, with some assistance from the hire team to help make up some time. I am not convinced that the distaff side was entirely happy with this outcome; she looked as if she had had a ‘get out of jail free’ card snatched from her grasp.

From our point of view, although there was a slight sense of pressure from behind, this was actually quite useful. These locks were an awkward design, all with handcuff keys required to unlock anti-vandal measures on each of the paddles and no way to get from one side to the other than to walk all the way round the far end, several times per lock. Most of them were in poor shape and particularly difficult to open. With an eager Scot and his two children, keen to push on, following us down we made a lot more progress than we would have on our own.

Complicated Lock Mechanisms

We were surprised again that despite being on the outskirts of such a big city the area the locks passed through was relatively open and fairly clean for the first fifteen or so. On a sunny Sunday morning there was plenty of activity on the towpath and it was all quite pleasant despite the hard work involved.

Still In The Sticks
But Approaching Fast

As we neared the bottom, of course, the urban reality came far more to the fore. The towpaths were messier or surrounded by tall new buildings, more and more bridges came at us thick and fast as the road crossings increased and even on a sunny Sunday lunchtime we were greeted with the sight of some lost soul with his trousers round his knees struggling to find a vein. What the family behind made of that I can only imagine.

Weird Architecture As You Get Closer
How Do They Get Away With These Conceits~?

Much had been made of the height restriction in the Harecastle Tunnel. Full time staff in attendance checking loads and giving briefings and a gauge at the entrance to ensure you would fit through before it was too late. Why, then, are the bridges in Manchester completely devoid of any warning whatsoever? We had sailed through the Harecastle with only the helmsman needing to duck. At least three of these bridges we passed under forced us to crouch down below the cabin roof level and one actually caught our top box, it was so low. It shifted it an inch or so but only the cover was slightly damaged, still you can’t help wondering why there wasn’t even a sign and the headroom is not even mentioned in our various guides.

After some careful research we had decided to moor at a site called Thomas Telford Basin in Piccadilly Village. It had been recommended by a number of people. It has the peculiarity of being a space for public mooring sitting right in the middle of a gated residential complex. Secure, as only residents could pass in and out of the complex. Possibly a little too secure as boaters, being non-residents, might be able to get out to the surrounding streets but had no way to get back in.

We hadn’t been sure what this arrangement would look like or if we might sail past without recognising it. In fact, it was very obvious. The nature of the buildings around us suddenly changed to red brick, smart apartments with gardens and flowers around them, clearly signed as Piccadilly Village and a neat sign from CRT indicating the entrance to the basin. We found that we were the only boat there and could pick our spot.

A Peaceful Haven In Piccadilly

I chatted to one or two of the residents. They felt the estate was very secure but people still climbed the fence and the odd car was still stolen, somehow. They were clear that it was a bit rough around the edges and by that they meant right at the edges of their gated enclave, so it sounds like Fortress Piccadilly. It does feel very nice in this area and the properties must have been much sought after but there are now horrible high-rise developments going up that must overshadow and devalue them.

Welcome New Developments . . .
. . . And New Improved Views

The extent to which even a short period of enforced containment can grate is really quite surprising. We were aware of the terms of our incarceration and thought we were well prepared, with food, drink and entertainment on board. However, on a warm, sunny afternoon, we were soon seized with an almost irresistible desire to go out into the city and find a bar or at least view some sights. Even walking Bracken was an issue and any real exercise for her was out of the question. I think that, as we were clearly on a boat there, the residents might well have given us a gate code if that were all it took. However, they have changed their system to a personal key fob now and it seemed a bit too much to ask for the loan of one of these.

We survived until a bright, sunny morning bought our freedom and after a hearty breakfast we girded up our loins for the ordeal ahead. The junction from the Ashton onto the Rochdale Canal lay just ahead. Turning left presents you with just nine locks that drop down through the city centre and emerge at the Castlefield Basin, an area that is also deemed safe and secure but without the constraints of the previous stop in Piccadilly.

The Rochdale Nine

The description above sounds straightforward but we had discussed this stretch with various people at different times and with each telling the reputation of the Rochdale Nine became darker and more ominous than before. Pulling together all the different reports we had heard this is the summary we took away:

These locks take you right into the darkest, deepest underbelly of metropolitan Manchester. They are in poor condition and very hard work both to operate the paddles and open the gates. They are often overtopping, making it difficult to equalise the water pressure or sometimes left open by vandals, flooding the lower towpaths and draining the pounds above. You are likely to be offered some form of assistance by any number of misfits and ne’er do wells hanging around in the darker corners, often where the locks pass underground through the foundations of office buildings. A polite refusal may well cause offence and even if you are not accosted directly, you are likely to see things you really wish you hadn’t. You should keep the doors and stern hatch closed and locked at all times. Start in the morning and under no circumstances get caught on ‘The Nine’ when school is out. Whatever happens, your passage will be slow and arduous and the survivors will have earned the right to wear the T-shirt.

Our experience was consistent with most of these reports, By some way the dirtiest, most awkward and uncomfortable arrangements for working locks we have ever encountered. You have a couple of tight turns and then are almost immediately plunging under the surrounding buildings where we found a few strange individuals moving back and forth in the near darkness with no apparent purpose. They left us alone but it was still a bit unnerving, especially as with just two of us Sue was often ahead of me and on her own for some time while I closed the lock.

We got through the first two locks relatively unscathed and approached the notorious Lock 86. The particular feature of note here is that, most unusually, there is no access to the lock from a towpath. That ends shortly after Lock 85 and picks up again from Lock 87. In fairness, this is very well advertised in all the guides, so we were ready for it and the whole crew was on board leaving Lock 85. It wasn’t easy to operate. In fact, I had to enlist the help of a construction worker, who happened to working on a site right beside the lock, to get the top gate open. but we got through it, got back on board and moved on – three down, six to go.

As we approached Lock 87 we could see something in the water by the lock landing. We realised it was part of a sunken motor cruiser and by now our bows were already floating over it. Since it had obviously been there for a very long time we assumed it was possible to drive past it into the lock so I jumped off and began to raise the paddles.

The previous week I had discussed with Aintree my feeling that the boat had a slight list to starboard. As I waited for the lock to fill and looked at the bows I was thinking: “You know, Dave, we are definitely right, she does list to starboard, however slightly”. Then I realised that this phenomenon was becoming even more pronounced and began to hear shouting from Sue who was just out of sight of where I was standing. Finally cottoning on to what was actually happening, I dropped both the paddles again very, very quickly and we tried to work out what to do now.

The sunken cruiser was not just at the side of the canal it was right across it. As the lock began to fill, the pound above emptied and lowered our steel boat onto the wreckage. As the weight settled on to the Tupperware hulk we began to list more and more to one side. If this continued there was every risk that we could even turn turtle.

A Bit Brahms In Lock 86

Attempting to put panic to one side I managed to stand on the cabin of the cruiser, now exposed above water, to get a centre line from Sue, which I secured to the steel pontoon that served as a lock landing; this in the hope that it would prevent the boat tilting any further over. Then I asked Sue to get the phone that I wasn’t carrying, for obvious reasons, and ring CRT.

No Longer Quite As Sunken

The solution to this problem was to go back to the previous lock, open those paddles and let a lot more water into our pound sufficient to float us off and to allow this lock to fill and then get the gates to open and our boat inside. There were a few issues with this approach. You will recall that there is no access to the previous lock other than by boat. Also, that lock was more or less empty, as we had just come through it. Finally, my phone was on board so I couldn’t communicate with Sue when I was out of sight.

I walked back along the busy city streets street to the point where the lock was, which took about five minutes. Sure enough I could see down into the lock but couldn’t get down to it. However, I did manage to pass my windlass over the barrier to the very same friendly construction worker and explain to him how to open the front paddles. Then I headed back down to the boat, where Sue had managed to get CRT on the phone. They said they would be there in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, what water had come down had helped a little but not nearly enough. So, back up on the street to Lock 86 again. This time there was nothing for it but to climb over the big, glass barrier and drop down onto the lock to open the paddles on the top gates and let more water down from the pound above. I did this under the close scrutiny of a whole class of schoolchildren, whose teacher tried to explain what was going on. With no boat in sight he was really struggling with that!

After a while I closed the paddles (I didn’t dare just walk off leaving them open) and clambered out of the forbidden lock to head back to the boat and see if it had done any good. CRT were in attendance and we were able to get the lock gate open but still didn’t have enough water to float the boat off the wreckage. Off he went to do the same thing I had done. Finally, ten minutes later we began to float and were able to pull the boat into the lock and shut the gate behind her. What are CRT going to do to avoid this situation in the future? Absolutely nothing, apparently, as it isn’t their boat.

Four down and five to go. We cleared Lock 87 and eventually Lock 88. We did lose another fender leaving here but otherwise got through it without any real incident and carried on to Lock 89. At least this was in the open but by now all the offices were turning out for lunch, so we were greeted by a crowd of gongoozlers operating on a strictly look, but don’t touch, policy. While this lock was emptying I walked all the way back with my boat pole to fish for the fender in the previous lock, deposited my catch on the rear deck and opened the gates to carry on.

Sue sailed off towards Lock 90 and I followed along the towpath. That was until I reached a very serious padlocked barrier with a notice that the towpath was closed here and one should follow the diversion that was rather obscurely outlined on the accompanying map. Trusting that this would, of course, lead me to the next lock, off I went, once more on foot through the city with windlass in hand.

What happened was that, twenty minutes later, I ended up the other side of Lock 91 facing an identical impenetrable barrier on the towpath in the other direction. I still didn’t have my phone to contact Sue, who must be wondering where the hell I was and I couldn’t find any way past the locked gate. Retracing my steps I could just peep down into where the boat was, waiting at Lock 90 but with no chance of communicating. I was by the station and the whole area is a demolition site. I found an entrance, demanded to speak to the foreman and explained the problem. Despite having had strict orders to the contrary he was very helpful and I persuaded him to take me down to the barrier, for which he had a key and let me through. By now, Sue had opened the lock, taken the boat in and was in the process of emptying it so we were able to pick up from there.

At Lock 91, the last but one, we met another boat coming in the opposite direction. They had encountered the same problem with the barrier but had realised in time and with their help it was a fairly simple passage to get through that one and on to the last lock.

Lock 92 drops you straight down into Castlefield Basin at the junction with the Bridgewater Canal. This last lock on the Rochdale Canal is situated between two pubs and immediately under a bridge that is busy with foot traffic. We arrived and I filled the lock and tried to open one of the gates. Just as I was doing this two people appeared on the other side and walked across them! So I suggested that they should help me open the gate which, in fairness, they did, saying they hadn’t realised what I was doing.

I carried on emptying the lock, having to cross back and forth over the foot bridge through a number of people standing, watching. Then I went to open the gates using the winch mechanism provided here. There was simply no movement whatsoever, I couldn’t move them an inch. After a few minutes one man who was passing by realised what was happening and enlisted the support of the people who had been watching me struggle. In the end it took four strong men on one side and me pushing and heaving with my whole, not inconsiderable, bodyweight on the other, to shift them. At last we were through the Rochdale Nine and had lived to tell the tale!

03 Jul

Week 6 – Peak Too Soon

Water Shortage

Emerging through the Marple Junction you can see on your left the first of the sixteen locks that take the canal down towards Manchester. Turning right takes you onto what is sometimes called the Upper Peak Forest Canal. In many ways this doesn’t seem very different from the Macclesfield that we had just left behind but with the added bonus of now heading directly towards the Peaks that give the district its name. The scenery over the last week was very pleasant but on this section of waterway it is really stunning at times. It seems a million miles away from words like Manchester, Mills and Mining. Nonetheless, everywhere you go, you don’t have to delve very deep to find reminders that this was an industrial landscape.

We had originally expected to have taken on water back near Higher Poynton and to spend at least one night in Marple. Having decided to go straight through and then not having been able to fill up at Marple water point (other than Sue’s lungs) meant we were now on the Peak Forest earlier than expected, with an empty water tank and a lot of wet clothes. Without water it wouldn’t be practical to stop for the night where we had intended so we decided to pull over and re-group over a late lunch.

Having got clear of the junction we could see a boat moored against the bank with an inviting stretch of clear Armco before it, so we pulled in. It turned out to be a Judas boat. We were still yards from the shore when we heard the bottom scraping the hull and were in danger of being beached. We carried on further round the bend and after two more failed attempts it dawned on us that this was a feature of this canal, with very few stretches deep enough to get in fully alongside. If an attractive site seemed clear of boats it was probably because it was unusable. In the end we settled for no more than two yards from the shore.

Over lunch we reviewed our situation. The Upper Peak Forest is actually quite short, two to three hours will get you to the far end. Travelling now south-east from Marple, after about six miles, there is a junction. Half a mile up the left fork is the end of the canal at Bugsworth Basin. A different half a mile up the right fork is the terminal wharf at Whaley Bridge. There were a couple of key points in the schedule over the next week or so. Firstly, meet Dave from Aintree Boats to do some more snagging on Wednesday 3rd July, which we thought we would do in Marple. Secondly we had arranged to meet Gary the engineer to do a 250 hour service at Portland Basin, a day below Marple, on Friday 5th July. As today was only Thursday 27th June we needed to take our time over the next four days, so we had planned to stop at odd places en route. As far as access to water was concerned we knew that there were full services at the far end of each arm. However, there were two marinas on the way and reports were a bit mixed as to whether they would let passing boats fill up. We decided we would carry on to the marinas, chance our arm and if that failed, keep on going to Bugsworth, fill up and moor there for the evening.

Water, Water everywhere . . . not a drop to drink!

New Mills Marina was, typically, around a blind bend through a bridge, with the service dock immediately by the bridge hole and set quite wrong for the prevailing wind. Having presumably watched us struggle to pull in and tie up, a lady came down and stood in front of a large sign advertising diesel, pump out, solid fuels, gas and crucially, water. She asked how she could help and when we enquired about water she told us that they didn’t have any water except for the yellow hose reserved, for obvious reasons, for the pump out. Although it was tempting to question this statement from a variety of standpoints her demeanour made it clear that it was going to be a flat ‘no’ so we didn’t waste our breath and moved on. Passing Furness Vale Marina not only was there no evidence of anyone in attendance but there didn’t seem to be any obvious place to pull in anyway. Bugsworth Basin it was then, the whole outward journey done by the end of Thursday.

Bugsworth Basin

Bugsworth basin is run by volunteers from the Bugsworth Basin Heritage Trust in conjunction with CRT. It has been cleared and restored so that it is very easy to see how it must have operated in its heyday, with dozens of boats moored, loading, unloading, manoeuvring, arriving and leaving. Most of the buildings and machinery have gone and the lime kilns are just ruins but there are really good information boards and displays that help you understand how it all worked. It was completely dry and derelict when they started in 1968 and was finally opened for boats at Easter in 1999, which gives a good sense of how long term these projects are. Even longer since it had to close again almost immediately, due to severe leakage once powered boats arrived and was not finally opened again until 2005.

Bugsworth – Lower Basin Mooring

Today, apart from the heritage signs, what you see is a wide open area between the hills, with the main stone wharves and individual basins, all equipped with mooring rings for visitors and connected by a network of bridges, ramps and tunnels. There is plenty of grass, there are various benches etc. A popular cycle trail runs through it along the old tramway and The Navigation Inn sits a few hundred yards from the water, above and slightly apart from the main site. Apparently they get 50,000 visitors a year but it didn’t seem all that crowded when we were there. All in all it was a lovely site to moor in. As we were early arriving we were happy to spend the maximum two nights here before moving on.

Bugsworth Basin

Friday, despite a bit of grey cloud during the morning, was mainly sunny and became very warm. The wind continued to be quite fierce, however. When I asked one of the volunteers they said that was quite unusual and I was rather glad we weren’t moving the boat that day. Instead we went for a walk. To the north east we could see Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge but despite appearing to have recovered from her stomach upset we thought that might have been a bit far for Bracken, so we headed south east and climbed up Eccles Pike. The famous Kinder Scout is over 600 metres high and Chinley Churn is 451 metres, so at 370 metres Eccles Pike is hardly one of the high peaks. For a relatively unimpressive pimple, however, it offers a panoramic view way beyond its stature. It was well worth the climb, for which we were very much out of practice and it gave us a great excuse to have lunch at The Navigation Inn when we got back, before tackling some odd jobs around the boat.

Whaley Bridge

The next day we innocently set out for the short hop to Whaley Bridge. It was a fine enough day but very humid and as the day went on it continued to get hotter and steamier. It only took half an hour to round the junction and arrive at the wharf on the end of the canal at Whaley Bridge. Being Saturday, we didn’t think much of the numbers of people we saw walking the towpath but as we reached the end of the arm it became apparent that, once again, we had inadvertently turned up on a special day for the local populace: it was Whaley Bridge Carnival Day. There were balloons, crowds, runners participating in events throughout the day, an extraordinary quantity of Carnival Queens from all around the district and a big parade.

The moorings were probably fuller than normal, especially as some events were based on the wharf and canal but we got some helpful advice from a guy on the water point, turned and were able to moor up a bit further back down the arm and very handily placed for the Tesco Superstore. Naturally, we went for a mooch around the festivities.

Whaley Bridge seems rather wedged in to its valley alongside the River Goyt and presents a long, thin town based on the busy main road that runs right through it. Overall it seems quite a nice town but perhaps a bit austere on a normal day. Today, however, all decked out in bunting and balloons with enormous crowds thronging the street it was very festive. The middle aged men in women’s clothing theme, which seems to be compulsory at these events in the rugged north, was very much in evidence. Every pub was surrounded by a crowd of drinkers blocking the pavement and the one we chose to try had a queue out of the door just to buy a drink – so we passed. We did get a hog roast roll and we enjoyed a stroll to get our bearings and take in the sights before heading back to the boat just as the parade was passing.

The afternoon continued to get hotter and more humid as we finished a couple more of the seemingly endless list of small jobs to be done. In the evening we took Bracken to find a park and have a run but even she seemed a bit listless in the heat and we soon found ourselves at The Shepherd’s Arms towards the far end of town. Here we squeezed into a space in the garden before getting a drink, served unceremoniously in plastic glasses by a bar staff that had clearly had a difficult day. It always feels a bit strange going into an environment where everyone has been drinking all day and you haven’t. At this point the whole town seemed a bit wasted and emotional and I had to make friends with the locals in the bar while I was waiting to be served. However, the people seemed friendly enough, if a bit northern and the mood, if slurred, was still good natured.

At this point, out of nowhere, there was a shower of warm rain. It lasted no time at all but scattered some of the crowds and gave us a chance to have our first drink in peace, following which the mood began to seem a lot less abrasive and rather more mellow. After a second glass we felt part of the crowd and went in search of a takeaway pizza. We had passed quite a few people carrying a particular design of pizza box and we tracked down the source, as that seemed the most popular takeaway in town. It turned out to be excellent, quickly prepared and deliciously baked despite being such a busy evening.

The temperature dropped quickly overnight and the next day was cooler, steadily brightened up through the morning and was much less oppressive. Opening the deck boards on Sunday morning I found the whole, normally very dry, engine bay running with water with a pool of it across the floor. I couldn’t find any real source for it and there was no diesel or anti-freeze in it. In the end, even though temperatures were not that cold, we were forced to conclude it was merely condensation arising from the extreme heat of the day before and the abrupt change overnight.

Unexpected water in the engine area!

Wanting to avoid climbing steep hills today we set out to try to find a walk around Todbrook Reservoir, just across the Memorial Park. As expected, walking through the town, there was a distinctly hungover feel everywhere. Just a few people were starting to venture out and make their way through the discarded kebab wrappers. This was one aspect of the carnival that the committee had clearly overlooked. When aiming to encourage a large influx of visitors and townspeople to spend the whole day enjoying themselves in the sunshine you need to schedule bin collections throughout the day. This clearly hadn’t happened. All the bins were overflowing and surrounded by the litter people had still tried to force in. There are scum everywhere who will not even try but you have to give the people who want be responsible a fair chance.

Failed attempt to circumnavigate Todbrook Reservoir at water level

We rather failed in our attempt to find a walk on the level. A path that seemed set to circumnavigate the reservoir led us a long way round before heading straight uphill above the incoming watercourse and forcing a bit of a detour to get to the road where we could cross it and come back down again. Recent development had also played havoc with some of the rights of way we could see on the map, so we ended up coming back right through the town. By now it was pretty much awake and into its second cup of coffee. We passed a really nice bakery / coffee shop near the wharf and picked up a sandwich for lunch. There were lots of people sitting outside on the pavement and it was only spoiled by the constant traffic trundling past on the main road.

Return to Marple

One additional complication of having Bracken with us is that only one of us can go into a supermarket at any one time. That needs to be Sue but if she buys everything on the list then she can’t carry it. Being by Tesco was a great chance to stock up and by staying over Sunday night we could have two bites at the cherry before we left. On leaving, we would need water etc. The services were behind us at the wharf so we either had to reverse all the way back or go down to the junction turn, come back to the services, turn again and then head off on our way. We weren’t due in Marple until Tuesday night and hadn’t anywhere specific in mind on the way there. We had enjoyed mooring in Bugsworth Basin so much that we decided that a much easier solution was simply to hop round to use the services there and moor up for Monday night.

Back in Bugsworth Basin – the easy option

On Tuesday we set off from Bugsworth and were back in Marple by about two o’clock. We had wondered if we would find mooring or would need to turn back up the Macclesfield Canal to moor there. As it happened there was one space, quite near the junction, where we could get into the side and moor up, as long as we kept the lines loose and put out fenders to keep us a little way out from the shelf lurking under the water. All in all a good place to meet Aintree Boats for their snagging visit on Wednesday.

27 Jun

Week 5 – Up The Maccie

Back On Board

Having returned to the boat in Stoke On Trent on Tuesday afternoon we didn’t plan to take it very far. Two miles north of the marina there is a large expanse of water managed as a wildlife and bird watching centre called Westport Lake that sits right beside the Trent & Mersey Canal. There is a long stretch of two day mooring here that provides a convenient stop just short of the Harecastle Tunnel, which is quite a feature in itself.

Westport Lake

Set aside as a leisure area by a local farmer as long ago as 1890, the lakes apparently descended into wasteland before being reinstated in the mid 1980s. It seems a bit of a shame that the new housing development has then been built right opposite and looming above it. There is a big Visitor Centre and café, in the base of which is a CRT service area with showers, toilets, a sanitary station etc. Given that level of investment, the lack of a water point on the mooring seems rather a strange omission.

On our trip south we had picked up a list of things to complete little jobs around the boat and we stayed on here on Wednesday to get some of those done. Walking Bracken down to the start of the tunnel and having a look at what we would be facing the next day was sufficient procrastination to ensure that some rain had arrived and forced us to focus on jobs inside to start with. As it brightened up a bit later we managed to dry out the bilges from all the rain that had accumulated in the last couple of weeks and cleared the drainage channels that may have contributed.

Harecastle Tunnel & Beyond

We set out on Thursday to negotiate the Harecastle Tunnel and then turn off on to the Macclesfield Canal. The Harecastle Tunnel is not the longest on the network but is over one and a half miles long and only accommodates one-way traffic. The height of the tunnel varies considerably along its length but at its lowest can be less than seven feet at the sides. That also varies depending on the depth of the water at any given time. No ventilation shafts were built into the tunnel originally as the boats had no engines but now there are huge fans which start up as you enter, to ensure that diesel fumes do not overcome the helmsman or the crew passing through. Doors close across the southern portal to ensure the fans are effective as well as to prevent unauthorised entry. Of course, you can’t just turn up and drive on through. The traffic is managed by CRT tunnel keepers who inspect the boats arriving to make passage, provide safety briefings to their crews and check that nothing on the boat touches the gauge suspended from the main tunnel entrance. With an average transit time of forty minutes you don’t want to just miss the last set of boats allowed in or you’ll be waiting an hour and a half to be allowed through.

Thursday having been trailed as a fine, dry day offered a grey start with light rain as we set out. We thought we would fill up a water point at the tunnel entrance, on the opposite bank to the queue, while waiting to be allowed in. In the event, having set our course to glide in to the left bank, we realised that the doors were open, so boats must be about to emerge. That meant we didn’t have time to water up and should really be in the queue on the right bank and a couple of lengths behind us. As with any sudden change of plan, farce ensued. The rain intensified accompanied by strong winds that disrupted the attempt to reverse smoothly back up and move across the canal. The lead boat appeared from the tunnel far too soon to find us sideways across the cut and their crew were clearly wondering what we were up to. They could stop, of course. However, behind them in the darkness of the tunnel would be a handful of other boats with no idea that there was an issue. We did manage to sort ourselves out fairly quickly, clear the passage and get in line for inspection but it was an entertaining few moments for all concerned.

Air draft is one statistic not included in the specifications the builders provided se we had wondered whether our top box might give us a problem with the height. In fact we were well clear of the gauge as we entered the portal and the only thing that didn’t clear it were my head and shoulders. At first the tunnel seemed to be a more comfortable size than expected but the lowest sections are from near the middle onward. Sure enough I could just see the roof coming down to meet me and ended up crouched down on the rear deck trying to steer completely blind with only six inches clearance on either side. Still, we made it through without incident and emerged into a slightly brighter and drier daylight than we had left forty minutes before.

Beyond the tunnel, at Kidsgrove, the Trent & Mersey continues North West while a junction provides access to the Macclesfield Canal, which heads off North East to Macclesfield and Marple. Given this description it may seem surprising that we had to turn left at this junction. Apparently, when the upstart Macclesfield was approved to be built, the owners of the Trent & Mersey insisted on building and retaining control of the first one and a half mile stretch of water to meet it. The channel takes a convoluted route to turn sharp left, then sharp right to run parallel to the course of the original canal and sharp right again to cross it via an aqueduct, the Trent & Mersey having, by that time, dropped down to a lower level via a flight of locks. Apparently this is one of only two flyover junctions on the network, so we assume the other must be the junction with the Leek arm that we encountered on the Caldon Canal a couple of weeks earlier.

As we entered the Macclesfield there was quite a different feel. Suddenly the banks were overgrown with lush vegetation and the trees hung close over the channel. Everything was wet but the sun was shining now and the birds were celebrating. All in all it felt a little as though you were travelling up the Amazon in an oversized dugout. Despite plenty of reminders of the different industries it served, the cotton mills, silk mills, coal mines and stone quarries, our overall impression of this canal is that it is prettier and a lot more rural than we had expected. The bridges are attractive features like these at Hall Green and Congleton:

Hall Green Stop Lock
Lamberts Lane Congleton

The milestones along its length, badly weathered now, are quite distinctive and show the distance from Marple on one side and Hall Green on the other. Apparently, during the war, they were removed and buried to confuse enemy paratroopers. When the canal was being restored The Macclesfield Canal Society found and reinstated as many as they could and had replicas made for the missing ones.

The banks continued to be very green and overgrown wherever there was no specific mooring and we were often switching between open country and deep woods all along its length. We were travelling north, parallel to the Peak District National Park and as well as the fields, woods and lush, uncut vegetation around the canal itself, we were seeing views opening up of the hills in the distance, particularly as, for the most part, the canal seems to run quite high above the settlements that have grown up along it.

Another feature that continues along its length is the impressive array of stonking, new-looking stanking plank stores. They mostly seem very posh compared to the run down, weathered affairs we are used to seeing.

Stanking Plank Palace

On this Thursday afternoon we stopped on the aqueduct crossing back over the Trent & Mersey as we had a parcel to collect from the Post Office in Kidsgrove and would also pass a large Tesco on the way there. Urgent supplies were needed, notably Sue’s wine. In the brief view we had of it Kidsgrove seemed a very ordinary place dedicated to the canal and the railway in its hey-day and now, although busy, a bit lost.

We didn’t linger long and carried on to Hall Green Stop Lock where the true Macclesfield Canal begins. There is no real need for a lock here. It exists purely to satisfy the paranoia of the established Trent & Mersey company that the Macclesfield interlopers might take advantage in some way. It is only a 1′ 4″ rise on to the new cut, it is actually hard to tell by eye whether you are heading up or down. Originally, apparently, there was a pair of stop locks here, each with an accompanying lockkeepers cottage and stable block. It became something of a Checkpoint Charlie with employees of the two companies housed on either side, glaring at one another in mutual mistrust. Their antipathy was only perpetuated when each was taken over by a different railway company during the canal’s decline.

Little Moreton Hall & Congleton

On the way back up to the boat we had discussed how useful it would be to draw up a plan that mapped out where we expected to be, on what day and what services would be available at what points etc. We had concluded with a solid agreement that someone definitely ought to do that.

While waiting to see if the rain would stop on Thursday morning we had put something together for the next week or so. We stopped, as planned, at Bridge 68, a very pleasant, remote mooring site with nothing to distinguish it, not even a name. The one key feature here was a footpath running down from there directly to Little Moreton Hall, a National Trust property we had thought we would visit this afternoon, combined with a longer walk. We would then stay over a second night and move on to Congleton on Saturday morning.

Naturally, life intervened. Bracken had just stopped eating on Wednesday evening, then began vomiting and had now developed diarrhoea. As we had discovered over breakfast that it was now Friday we thought we should see a vet today, rather than having to wait until after the weekend. That would also mean moving on to Congleton today rather than tomorrow.

The sun was shining and having rung to secure an appointment with a vet in Congleton for four fifteen, we had time to walk down to Little Moreton Hall and have a quick look this morning, before we left. The hall was a moated manor house, quite interesting to look at, a real crooked house. It was hard to tell if any given feature was built that way or was sagging under its own weight. It seems it is particularly well preserved simply because a reversal in fortune of the family that owned it meant that they didn’t have the money to make the kind of modifications to keep up with fashions over the years that would have changed its character. Sadly, dogs were not allowed to cross the moat, a draconian policy that meant we didn’t have time to explore inside, going in one at a time. We couldn’t even take advantage of the café.

Little Moreton Hall

Returning back up the footpath we set off for Congleton, three miles up the cut with no obstacles in the way. We managed to get the last mooring by the Canal Road Aqueduct with sunshine on the boat and the solar panels well into the evening of this, the longest day. A nice spot and an ideal place to get down into the town for the vets and have a look around..

The town centre is ten minute walk from the canal and is best described as tidy. It is fairly compact, has a pedestrianised main street with the usual amenities. There were not many of the high street chains represented, although, of course, they had a Costa. They had plenty of charity shops but it managed to avoid feeling too run down and there seemed to be quite a few nice restaurants and bars as well.

The vet was reassuringly expensive, although a lot cheaper than ours at home, never mind the animal bandits in London. A consultation with a shot to stop the vomiting, instructions for a diet of chicken & rice with some stuff to put in her food for the next few days and we were on our way.

There was time for a stroll around our mooring site just by the aqueduct. It was a pleasant wide area in the sunshine and the towpath led down to a nice changeover bridge with a bridle path running across it.

Exploring just a few yards up the bridle path above the bridge we came across clear evidence that, despite sitting alongside reminders of the leisurely communications of the past, Congleton is ready and willing to embrace the 21st Century, right on its doorstep!

Congleton is ready!

The Longest Day

Well, technically, the longest day was on Friday but by the end, this sunny Saturday this felt like a very long one to us. We planned to move up to just short of Macclesfield and then go into the town the next day. It was about eight and half miles but also involved the twelve locks of the Bosley flight, a couple of swing bridges and, as it turned out, an element of trauma.

The first lock leads to a very sharp left hand turn to get into the second. I can’t imagine anything longer than fifty foot being able to make it in one, so there was a certain amount of backing and filling in the pound to get us lined up. Having got through that one we could start to try and get into more of a rhythm for the straighter run up the rest of the flight, with Sue going ahead to start the next lock while the one I was in was filling and then coming back to close the gates. While waiting, I tried to work out any way I could help closing the paddles and opening the gates once the lock was full.

Even at my age my capacity for stupidity and clumsiness can still surprise me. I was distracted by looking at the set-up of the locks and thinking about how to work them most efficiently, instead of focussing entirely on what I was doing. After many years of repeatedly reminding myself that the one thing I mustn’t do is let my fingers get caught in the lock mechanism, I let my fingers get caught in the lock mechanism. It happened so quickly that I still don’t quite know how it did come about but the crushed digit bleeding onto the towpath told the story. It was only one thumb and the left one at that but the pain was as intense as bashing your thumb while banging in a nail. Over the next few days I was given repeated reminders of why having two, fully operational, opposing thumbs was so critical to the development of human civilisation. Whilst effecting some running repairs we reflected on the irony that, only yesterday, we had walked past Congleton’s minor injuries unit, handily situated a few hundred yards from the canal and had even congratulated ourselves on not having needed such a facility thus far.

Ready to carry on we got back to work, sliding into the fifth lock of the day we started it filling, rose to the top, opened the gates and engaged forward gear to move slowly into the pound. Nothing happened, in itself a very odd sensation. A bit more throttle, still nothing. Eventually came the realisation. The top of the lock must be narrower than the bottom and the power of the tons of water entering the lock had forced our six foot ten inch hull up between the four inch thick rope fenders on each side and firmly wedged us in the lock chamber. On closer examination we could see that one of the fenders had been torn off altogether and was missing. The only solution was to let some of the water out, very slowly, allow the weight of the boat to take us back down to where the walls were slightly farther apart, lift the fenders out of the way and then refill the lock. Simple but time-consuming.

By the time we had completed the flight and moored on the service dock at the top it was already three o’clock and the sun had been fully out and beating down for several hours. While we were taking on water we chatted to a guy who was single-handed and was waiting for a friend to join him and help him down the locks. Despite his obvious experience he did not regard it this flight as really being feasible to negotiate alone. We told him where we planned to moor and he offered a better, more open spot which might be nicer. It is always worth listening to local knowledge so, even though it would add a little more distance, we decided to take his advice.

As we moved on through the electronic Royal Oak swing bridge, which is where we had planned to stop, we could see what he meant as it was deep and dark in the woods and would be a shame to bury ourselves there on a rare sunny evening. The site he had recommended was only a mile or so farther on and bathed in sunshine along the axis of the canal, so we would have sun in the evening and in the morning, if there was any.

Having moored up and looked at the map we realised we were only a bridge or so away from a pub called Sutton Hall, highly recommended by Lesley Fielding when we saw her the other day. It was a lovely evening for a walk and this would be a chance to exercise Bracken. It felt like we had had quite a day and deserved a treat and something to ease my throbbing thumb so we made our way down to the pub. It is a great place. Perhaps it once really was a squire’s hall? It certainly had extensive grounds, its own carriage drive and a lot of interesting connected spaces inside. As luck would have it, however, we had arrived on the day on which it was acting as one of the checkpoints for the annual Sutton Eight charity walk. As such, it was absolutely packed and at seven o’clock had clearly been under siege for many hours. The barmaid told us she had started her shift at nine that morning and all the staff looked a little frazzled. The garden was occupied by groups of middle aged men in fishnet stockings or turquoise lycra and pink leggings, so we think the Sutton Eight may have been a fancy dress affair with an eighties theme. If they were at point seven in an eight point walk they showed no sign of moving on. At this time of year, however, they had plenty of daylight left to burn so perhaps they would eventually.

Getting a drink didn’t prove too difficult but food was already up to a forty minute wait from when you ordered, with more people arriving all the time, so we didn’t eat there on this occasion. It was lovely just sitting in the garden in the sunshine at eight o’clock in the evening, though, so we had another drink and then set off back to the boat. On the way you could just see the beacon of a Burger King sign a short walk down the road from our nearest bridge. Every now and then it is quite nice to indulge in a guilty pleasure after a particularly trying day. It was too late to want to start cooking now, anyway, so we gave in to our basest instincts and I went to play the hunter / gatherer and Sue returned to the boat to put the kettle on.

Macclesfield Town

On Sunday we intended to move up to the town moorings at Macclesfield. Having heard good things we thought we might stop here for two nights and explore a bit more. There is a three day mooring site marked on the map, which is where we were headed, the only thing was that they were at the far side of the town with nowhere flagged as suitable to moor once you were past them. It turned out that there was only space for four to five boats on a jetty made up of scaffolding poles with a kink in the middle. At the time we arrived, they were full. Just beyond the next bridge we found a section of repaired bank with nice new Armco to tie up to. We soon found out why no-one else was there. Below the surface the bank was lined with huge stones and you couldn’t get the boat alongside. We didn’t have much option, though, so it was a chance to unship the gangplank and use that to bridge the four foot gap to the shore. It seemed quite workable on a warm afternoon although not entirely comfortable.

With large parts of the country under threat of thunder storms and flash flooding one thing we weren’t prepared for was the gale that gradually blew up over the course of the evening, rocking the boat and shifting the vital gangplank around. At that point, however, even if our position felt a little exposed now, any attempt to move to a different site further on would only make matters worse. In the end, the wind blew through, a smattering of rain died out overnight and we never saw a flash of lightning or heard a clap of thunder, never mind experienced the threatened deluge.

During Sunday afternoon we had had a brief foray to the local park and of course the nearest supermarket. In our original plan, as we had been told that Monday would be a mostly rainy day, we had thought we would look around Macclesfield on Monday and stay on there another night. By Sunday evening we decided we would rather only stay rocking on the gangplank for one night but at the same time we were also advised that the weather on Monday would not be that bad after all. Accordingly, having survived the night without harm, we decided to have a look round during the morning and move on later in the afternoon.

We set out into the town on Monday morning, via a run in the park for Bracken, heading downhill from the canal to the ring roads and the station. First impressions were not that favourable, with the area we walked through reminding both of us quite a lot of Croydon old town and the flyover there – not a recommendation.

The market place is really the centre and sits on the top of a steep hill. The rest of the town seems to have developed around it, flowing down the sides as time went on. It is a steep climb up narrow cobbled streets to get to the top but once you emerge on the summit it creates a much more favourable impression. We picked up a free heritage trail from a very helpful Tourist Information office and followed its directions around forty four points of interest. You only ever take in a proportion of these things but they do help you to get a feel for a place and ensure that you cover the areas you might not have thought to visit. It was interesting to see the way the growth of the silk and button trade had fostered the town’s development and it became very evident that most of the town’s prominent citizens and owners of the grander houses had essentially been part of the legal profession.

The current modern town is pedestrianised for a good part of the summit and sports all the surviving high street names you can think of. There are still smaller independent traders of all kinds to be found in the surrounding streets and a plentiful supply of pubs and restaurants. The overall feel is of a safe, clean and prosperous town. The people are very friendly. We found ourselves engaged in conversation with passing locals a number of times, often initially attracted by Bracken, who will talk to anyone. One lady, who had seen us studying our guide at the side of the road, even stopped her car to ask if we needed any directions, which seemed very kind.

We left the centre with a much kinder view of Macclesfield than we had had when we arrived there and headed back down the steep mound to cross the valley bottom by the station and climb back up to the canal.

Bollington

Our next port of call was Bollington, only two or three miles further on and as we arrived at the moorings there the sun had started to break through. We were in time to find the recreation ground and the adjacent pub called The Vale. It was nice to sit outside with the late sun shining on their new decking overlooking the cricket clubs nets practice. A nice pub with friendly staff, featuring beers brewed in their own Bollington brewery across the street, the one oddity is that the only way to get from the bar to the terrace is to leave the pub, walk past a handful of unrelated cottages and then through the pub car park at the end of the street,

Bracken seemed perfectly fine in herself and had certainly stopped the vomiting following her injection on Friday. Nonetheless, her diarrhoea just didn’t seem to be clearing up. There was a large board on the towpath, just beyond where we had tied up, advertising Bollington Veterinary Practice. At the same time we were now expecting a wet Tuesday. Since we had left Macclesfield earlier than planned and arrived here only in the afternoon we chose to stay an extra night in Bollington, pay another visit to the vet and spend Tuesday exploring there.

Our Pearson’s Guide says: “. . . Bollington is as spick and span and as pretty as any hill town in Umbria”, so it sounded very promising, although I do wonder if that was a misprint for Cumbria. From the perspective of the canal traveller the town is bounded by two huge cotton mills, one at each end, known as Adelphi Mill and Clarence Mill. Neither are operating as mills any more but are presumably protected and trying to attract modern businesses to use the space for offices and the like. Despite the scale of these buildings they don’t really dominate the whole area as much as you might expect.

The towpath is used a lot by dog walkers, runners and cyclists and there are footpaths all around the town that take advantage of the woods and fields to avoid the main streets. The canal follows a contour on steep hillsides and is carried by a high embankment and an aqueduct across the road that seems to connect the two sides of Bollington. To the west, below the canal, the road drops away and then runs through a section that seems residential and commercial, keeping itself at a respectful distance and height from the River Dean in the bottom of the valley, which seems to have supported the original water driven mill industry. The new Co-op supermarket is here, surrounded by estates of red brick houses from the eighties and newer developments using materials more in keeping with the original properties. These seem to have been built between the road and the river. Presumably they are built on the sites of some of the old mill buildings with centuries of experience that says they won’t flood. The main road continues to the east and climbs steeply from the valley where it passes under the canal through the area with most of the pubs and amenities in it, towards the moors and peaks beyond. Strangely, the most famous landmark high above the town, known as White Nancy, can seldom be seen from its streets as there always seems to be the shoulder of a hill, an ancient tree or a fine old church building blocking the view. Being white, it also easily disappears into the overall cloudscape on a grey day.

White Nancy – A Small White Nipple On The Summit

Overall, we liked Bollington. It is bigger than it first appears, has a lot of character and is clearly well-loved and looked after but also has all the amenities you could need, from Indian Restaurants to canal-side cafes and its own Community Radio Station. It seemed busy and prosperous and although it is likely most of its residents are commuters these days, there were a lot of social activities in evidence from canoeing to art classes taking place in the street. In terms of negatives, the main road through the town is horribly busy, with narrow pavements and few crossing places and then there is the simple fact that everywhere you go it is so damned steep!

Up The Junction

On Wednesday it was time to move on, although not too far. As we had been moored immediately opposite Bollington Wharf it was, theoretically, a very simple matter to move across the canal in order to take on diesel and water and empty our various wastes. In classic style, we had just untied the first mooring line as a boat came past and asked if we knew whether he could get water there. We could hardly stop him calling in there so we had to tie back up and wait a while. He didn’t take too long though and we were able to try again, with more success, just twenty minutes later. We even bought a new rope fender to replace the one lost back at Bosley Locks.

Higher Poynton was only chosen as a staging post where we could stay the night before the final assault on Marple Junction. We tied up a little before Bridge 15, which turned out to be a centre of activity. Beyond the bridge lay a long stretch of mooring on the off side that seems to be operated by Bradbair Boats, who also have the boatyard by the bridge. There is Bailey’s Trading Centre by the bridge and a tea room as well as the Boar’s Head. The Middlewood Way, based on the disused railway runs right through between the canal and the pub and has been developed into a really nice picnic area and cycle trail and there is a wide network of footpaths and bridleways covering the area, including a route to the Lyme Park National Trust site to the east. The village itself lies a little way further west, beyond the pub but details of the various businesses and amenities are clearly displayed around the towpath and in the car park there. This has a small Visitor Centre with displays on the history of Nelson Pit. They make interesting reading as you compare the bucolic village sitting in the sun outside with the work and conditions described on the display boards. Nelson Pit was just one of many small collieries owned by the Lords of Vernon that dotted the area in the not so distant past. They closed in about 1935.

It all made for a nice walk, an interesting afternoon and a very pleasant overnight stay, we could have stayed longer and visited Lyme Park but in the end we decided to press on. Our plan said we should take on water at the bridge and then stop at Marple on Thursday night. However, we had also decided that we would actually go beyond Marple on Thursday and moor a little further up the Peak Forest Canal. Accordingly, we bypassed the water point at Bridge 15 as we knew that we would be stopping at the services just before the junction.

Never pass up the opportunity to fill or empty your tanks should be every boater’s motto. It was a very pleasant run down to Marple, just a few miles in warm sunshine. Marple on the map looks quite a big place. As you are approaching on the canal you can see the big mill that would have marked its outer limits and I assumed we were about to enter a longish stretch of built up area and derelict industry. However, around and opposite this building there is also a large, well maintained golf course. In fact, the canal appears to skirt the eastern edge of the main town and then turn down its northern side. so for us, although there were some big buildings to pass through, it didn’t seem much more urban than Bollington.

Approaching Marple

As we approached the last bridge we passed a boat going in the other direction. He informed us that if we wanted water there were four boats in the queue already and it was taking an hour and a half to fill each boat due to the low pressure. We had passed up water this morning, we needed water today but if we waited six hours to get it we would not be moving on to find a mooring until about seven o’clock tonight. When we arrived at the service dock there were indeed lots of boats queuing and they confirmed what had been said. The people currently at the water point had moored overnight and been waiting all morning.

We decided we would not get water here but would use the other services so as we asked the boat that was already filling if we could moor alongside. They were fine with it so I started reversing the boat as best I could, mainly looking to stern. As we came alongside Sue stepped onto their gunwale with our centre line to secure us to their handrail. I was still looking backwards but when I heard a strange noise I turned to ask Sue what was happening, only to find that she wasn’t there! She had fallen in the water, hence the noise.

It is never as easy getting someone out as you think and we were probably lucky that so many people were on hand to help although, as always, that did entail a lot of loudly shouted, contradictory advice and instructions. I am pleased to report that when she was retrieved Sue was still clutching our centre line! Heaven forfend that she might have allowed the to drift off into the canal unmanned. That might have given us a real problem ;-).

All in all we were quite lucky. It was a warm day and even the water wasn’t cold. She bruised her shoulder on the way down but no other injuries and she avoided being crushed between the two hulls. With all the boats queued up at the water point she was also lucky enough to have a captive audience for the whole episode, who will no doubt dine out on the incident for years.

Having recovered a little from the shock Sue went below to have a shower, I finished our business at the services and we moved on through the junction to leave the Macclesfield Canal behind us. Despite the experience of the last half hour we left with a very positive view of the week we had spent on the Maccie and Sue can now call herself a real boater at last. Having had this trip through we know a bit more about where we might want to stop, for how long and what there is to see around it so I think we will certainly do it again sometime.

18 Jun

Week 4 – Shore Leave

Given the weather conditions experienced when we were heading back to Stoke we were not as sorry as we might have been to leave the boat and head down south. The week ahead was aimed at catching up with as many people as we could, which seemed to involve a lot of eating and drinking with periods in between waiting for the next night out.

The rain was relentless throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday morning saw it continuing, as promised. The first stage was to get a taxi from the marina to Stoke On Trent station in time for the direct train to Leamington Spa. We could then get a taxi from the rank there to our house in Long Itchington. Funnily enough, the only part of our journey that caused any problem was the first taxi journey. Perhaps linked to the rain, just getting through to any cab firm proved quite difficult. When we did contact them they would not take a dog. In the end we called Intercity Cabs in Stoke who sorted it out immediately with no problem.

At the station we were rather surprised to find that, despite the heavy rainfall right across the region, there seemed to be no disruption at all. The train arrived on time, the carriage was comfortably uncrowded and we didn’t lose any time on the journey.

This was Bracken’s first introduction to train travel so we approached the trip with a degree of trepidation concerning how she would react to the noise and size of these beasts on the platform and how she would behave in the confines of the railway carriage on the trip. She was no trouble at all. She was completely unfazed by the trains arriving and leaving and spent most of the journey sitting on Sue’s lap watching out of the window.

Stoke Station

A night at home gave us a chance to gather our wits, catch up with events in the village, attend an appointment or two, pick up some stuff ordered over the interweb and pack the car to head down to Surrey. Jen’s flat is being prepared to be rented out but for this trip it was still available and we could have the place to ourselves.

Thursday evening saw the event that had fixed the timing of this trip in the first place, an evening out with old colleagues from L&G. Some are still being forced to suffer but most of those have retirement firmly in their sights. Dave Hairs is the next of the group about to hang up his umbrella and become a man of leisure at an indecently young age. Sharan Leach was very convincing in saying she would retire this year but it is hard to believe that, in the end, she will actually walk away from the pleasure of working there. As always, it was a great evening and a chance for some of us to appreciate how nice it was that these were distant memories and not daily life.

On Friday the binge tour was in full swing. Lunch with my brother in The Red Lion in Turners Hill, a proper pub with many real ales on tap and the grey pound much in evidence – nearly an hour to produce two baguettes in consequence of its popularity with the non-working community. Just time to get home and change before meeting a group of old friends at The White Bear in Fickleshole. Having sent out a general message to see if anyone was around, there ended up being ten of us in the party so it had been tricky to find a venue. The White Bear proved a good choice and was clearly enjoying one if its periodic up cycles. The weather through the week had continued to be as showery as promised but this evening the sun was shining and it was warm enough to enjoy a drink outside before an excellent and convivial meal.

Saturday was more of a family day. The morning was a fevered expedition to Crawley to find a present for Liam’s third birthday. We were successful although its size meant it couldn’t be assembled before they got it home or it would never fit in their car. We met son Nick with his wife Amy and their two children at Jen and Dave’s house, hoping to have a barbecue. We got that lit just in time for the rain to start, so it seemed more sensible to do the rest inside. We still managed a very enjoyable meal. Bracken and Liam both needed a walk to burn off some of their energy and as the showers came and went we were able to get an hour exploring the King’s Wood, just behind their road. Liam was even more enthusiastic about collecting random sticks than Bracken was and Sue had the important role of carrying them home.

On Sunday we headed home with strained waistbands sighing in premature relief. Mike & Leslie Fielding had left Cropredy in their boat that morning and would be halfway to Long Itchington on Sunday night. Obviously, an opportunity to good to miss so we met up with them at The Wharf Inn in Fenny Compton, near their mooring, for more food, drink and excellent company.

One of the things we had tied in with this trip was an inspection visit from the house developer, Bloor Homes, to run through our six month snagging list. Nothing really seemed to cause concern, although they will now need to get the landscapers in to look at the drainage of the back lawn. The biggest issue is going to be arranging for us to be there when any necessary work is going to be done. This whole appointment took half an hour at eight thirty on a Monday morning, leaving us the rest of a reasonably sunny day to take Bracken for a walk over to Bascote Locks and back, pack our bags for the next day’s journey and stroll over to The Buck and Bell for a pint before dinner.

Tuesday was the day we planned to return to the boat. Honest John the Long Itch cabbie was there, promptly, to take us to Leamington Spa, with no nonsense about the dog. The return journey was just as straightforward as the outward one. On time at both ends and just a bit more crowded than it had been last Wednesday. Once again Bracken was well behaved, though there was a sense of greater confidence. She’s done this before. A few more trips and we might see a bit more inclination to assert her independence – just like any teenager.

We approached the taxi rank at Stoke On Trent and hit an immediate brick wall because of Bracken. It seems they would rather sit there idle, earning no money, than give a dog a lift. Does anyone know why? Once again Intercity Cabs were happy to sort it out and had a driver there in ten minutes or so.

Leamington Spa Station

Arriving back at the marina in dry, warm conditions had a very different feel. The chores that seem so onerous in driving rain are easy and almost a pleasure to work through. We had a short wait for the Sainsbury’s delivery to arrive with provisions for the next stage of our voyage. Then, following the advice of the Black prince base manager I reversed the boat through the lift bridge at the marina entrance onto the Trent & Mersey Canal, which proved easier than I had anticipated to be fair. Then we were on our way to moor up at Westport Lake, just a couple of miles further north.

Westport Lake from the mooring
The mooring from Westport Lake
11 Jun

Week 3 – Caldon Canal

Evening in Leek

Day 15 – A Day Out In Leek

Wednesday was a greyish day but largely dry. As we had decided to stay a second night we were able to have a good look round Leek. The part by the canal moorings is south of the town. It is low-lying and mainly a nature reserve and playing fields. It is a really nice area with lots of scope to exercise the dog and a well-made towpath for walkers and cyclists. The town itself lies at the very top of a hill some twenty five minutes’ walk from the mooring. Between them are a couple of large scrapyards, a light industrial estate, a large Morrison’s and a steep ascent. Our local informant was somewhat indignant that visiting boaters tended to moor, go to the supermarket and then leave, when Leek had so much more to offer. We could see how, having seen the noisy, ugly trading estate and being aware that it was a hard climb along busy arterial roads to get to the town centre, many people might not feel it was worth it.

That is a shame because Leek does have quite a lot to offer. There is an old corn mill built by James Brindley, who is more famous for engineering much of the canal system. There are other premises that appear to be old cotton mills and the like, while the dominant red sandstone buildings always look a bit gritty. However, while I don’t know if it is true, the impression we gained was that this was not a major industrial centre. It seemed more like a place where the Potteries’ captains of industry had their homes and spent their money rather than where their industry was conducted.

The town has a nice, busy centre with indoor and outdoor markets and plenty of shops, most of which are open. As far as we could see there were very few of the ‘normal’ high street shops. Boots, Millets and WH Smith had a presence, of course. For the most part, though, the shops we saw were independent, individual stores rather than large chains and there was quite a range of different types. There were certainly a lot of antique shops in evidence. Of course, one man’s antique collection is another man’s junk so I’m not convinced much of the stock on display would find itself featured on the Road Show.

The Tourist Information Office was well organised and even open for visitors, which has become quite unusual in recent years. It is housed in the Nicholson Centre, to the north end of town, with the main Library and an Art exhibition space and museum. It is just by the college so the area here is busy and has a more youthful bustle about it than some other parts of the town. The centre boasts that it is one of the few such buildings still being used for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It offers a free leaflet with an Architectural Town Trail, which we followed. It was interesting, although the focus was on architectural features (clue in the title) and there were quite a few interesting and historical looking buildings we saw that simply didn’t get a mention. One thing that did was the war memorial – it is enormous. At 27m high it is claimed to be one of the tallest in the country

Beyond the town and college to the north the ground drops steeply down into Brough Park, a huge open area of grass and trees with a bandstand on top, tennis courts, playing fields etc. so Leek is certainly not short of recreation spaces of all kinds. Bracken certainly loved Brough Park and by the time we had then walked back to the boat she actually seemed to be tired out for once. We certainly were but then that is normal these days.

Day 16 – Leek to Cheddleton

Thursday morning was absolutely beautiful. Bright & sunny, very warm in the sun with a gentle breeze. After a run with ball for Bracken we set out for a comparatively complicated day.

The first step was to get back to the junction with the main Caldon canal and head towards Stoke On Trent, to the only services between Stoke and Froghall at Bridge 31. We then needed to turn at a winding hole, a bit further down at Bridge 27, in order to come back up past the junction, down through the three locks there, on the way to Froghall. We were planning to stop for the night at a mooring by The Boat Inn at Cheddleton, so we had a few more miles and a couple more locks to go through once we passed the junction for the second time by about three o’clock.

It stayed bright and sunny most of the day, which made for a nice cruise. The Caldon canal continued to be a bit of a challenge through narrow bridges and strange turns, which made it awkward but kept a longish day interesting. To be honest, even going the other way it didn’t seem that much easier to negotiate. I suspect Sue has the right answer when she says our boat is a bit longer than the traffic the canal was designed for. We understand it was built as a tub-boat canal. They would have carried just 3-5 tonnes and been about 20 feet long and have a 6′ 6″ beam. They would have been pulled in groups of half a dozen or so but each one, individually, was a lot shorter than our 59 feet and narrower than our 6’10”. Oh, and they wouldn’t have cared much about the paintwork, of course.

We passed the Cheddleton Flint Mill museum and some pleasant moorings there, bathed in sunshine and shaded by the trees, continuing on towards 48 hour moorings marked at Cheddleton, just past Bridge 44. Up to this point we had been travelling through fairly open country with high ground around us but at a respectful distance. Once past the Flint Mill, however, the route enters a steep defile and passes a huge industrial plant full of tall sheds and towers, heavily defended by a metal fence that seems to go on for ages. The canal is generally running alongside the River Churnet, a name that, for some reason, we found hard to remember, spell or pronounce so we found it easier to refer to it as the Chutney.

The moorings were where they were marked alright. However, they were just big enough for a couple of boats and with one already moored in the middle of it, all we could do was pull up very close behind it with the stern just off the end in the reeds. Above us were the engine sheds of the Churnet Valley Railway, which was making an enormous racket even at five o’clock in the afternoon. The area didn’t feel very pleasant at all. We did debate whether to move on but it wasn’t obvious where we could move on to, at that time of day, so we chose to stay and tie up as best we could. The right decision, for once. Five minutes after we shut the hatch and went below an enormous thunderstorm came through that would have left us completely drenched had we still been on the water.

The storm was heavy but quite brief so I had time to take Bracken out for a walk and look around the area, as well as a pint at The Boat Inn, a nice enough pub but looking a bit dark and damp at the bottom of the now sodden valley. We did climb up through the housing estates on the west bank and found a very large and well equipped recreation ground at the top of the ridge, high enough to still be enjoying the sunshine after the rain and with spectacular views across the valley and beyond.

Day 17 – Cheddleton to Froghall

If we had dodged the rain on Thursday, we were not quite so fortunate on Friday. We left about 10:30 with three locks and five miles to get to the Froghall Tunnel. As expected, the gauge at Flint Mill Lock, a curtain of plastic strips at the exit from the lock, showed that we would be too high and wide to fit through the tunnel. As we left that lock behind the rain began, hard and heavy as we arrived at Froghall, turned in the 65′ winding hole there and moored up for the night. That rain continued for a solid four hours, paused for an hour or so at teatime and returned for a final burst of an hour and a half before it cleared away for the evening about seven o’clock.

In the lull we went down to look at the basin through the other side of the tunnel. There is a nice, modern looking, tea room, a large craft workshop, mooring pontoons in a small basin and a fully functional set of CRT services. It seems a shame that many people can’t get to this haven. It looked a bit dark and dank, dripping from the rain. In better weather, however, it would be a great place to stay for a couple of days.

Day 18 – Froghall to Consall

The rain started again, hammering on the roof, by 06:30 on Saturday. It did not stop for the next eleven hours. Every now and then it seemed there might be signs of it easing but any hope was promptly dashed as it intensified again. In many ways wet weather is hardest on Bracken. It is uncomfortable for us having to accompany her on necessary trips out of doors and reduces our enthusiasm for providing her with real exercise. She doesn’t understand why she isn’t having a long walk and must get very bored sitting inside waiting for us to move.

As one distraction we had the irksome chore of loading our toilet cassette on a trolley and wheeling it through the rain to the services beyond the impassable tunnel. Other than that, we looked for tasks to keep us occupied indoors until the rain stopped, as promised in the morning forecast. Having failed to realise that there was nowhere at all on the Caldon Canal to obtain diesel, we had entered with only half a tank of fuel. A schoolboy error but to be honest, only one of many. Since we burn fuel regardless of whether we move or not, we were quite keen to make some progress back to Stoke. When there was still no sign of the rain stopping at two o’clock we togged up and went for it anyway.

We only planned to go through one lock, cover two or three miles and then stop at a mooring below the Black Lion pub by Consall Nature Park. We didn’t have any real issues and were moored up well before teatime, listening to the rain again.

This is a point where the Caldon joins the River Chutney and coming the other way there are stern warnings about entering the river when it is in flood, as shown by some indicator boards. We did wonder whether, with all this rain we might find ourselves in trouble at the junction but it seemed unlikely that, unpleasant as it was, this period of rainfall could outweigh the months of dry weather we have had so far. We certainly didn’t experience any issue even though we could hear water rushing through the nearby weir with great force.

At about five thirty the rain actually stopped. Although the air was damp and everywhere was saturated it began to become a halfway pleasant evening. We took Bracken up into the Country Park for a good run and then went up to the pub, intending to eat there as a treat after such a dull day. Somewhat to our surprise, as we stood in a virtually empty bar and asked for the menu, we were told that they were fully booked and could not offer us any food. No suggestion of eating in the bar or even at the tables outside – just ‘no’. It seemed very odd for a pub not to want our money but we had a couple of drinks and a chat with some people who, like us were visiting the area for the first time and then went back to the boat to make our own supper.

Day 19 – Consall to Cheddleton

Sunday morning could not have been a greater contrast. Bright and sparkling, clear skies and really warm in the sun. The day stayed fine and dry all day. Despite a couple of periods of threatening looking cloud in the afternoon, the sky always cleared and the sun returned right through to a really nice summer evening.

We were going back up to Cheddleton, to a mooring just beyond the village where there is an old Flint Mill restored and open to visitors most weekends and Bank Holidays. We had been told it was fascinating and informative so we had planned to stop here at lunchtime and pay it a visit. It was closed. Nonetheless, the mooring was very pleasant and the area here much nicer than where we had stopped on the way down so we stayed the night as planned.

On the trip this morning we had begun to understand how, past Cheddleton, you enter a kind of lost valley. Coming from Stoke, the country is fairly open but as you pass the mill the valley deepens and narrows steadily. Look closer and you find all manner of industrial relics, a considerable network of trails and footpaths, several nature reserves and country parks, an RSPB site and the steam railway, of course. Experiencing this on the way back in bright sunlight and having got some understanding of what is there, I am sure we will plan a longer, better organised, expedition through this area in the future.

We took a walk down the towpath to Deep Hayes Country Park anticipating a stroll back on the other side through the Country Park itself. Deep Hayes seems typical of a lot of local authority run places like this north of Watford. There is a lovely area set aside but the facilities there all feel tired, run down and underfunded and there is a sense of much untapped potential. Unfortunately, the ‘Red Route’ was closed and impassable. We ended up following a longer route around the park to get back to Cheddleton. No great hardship, as the sun was shining and Bracken needed the exercise but it did mean the tearoom was closed by the time we got back.

Having stopped here on the return trip we also got a better understanding of Cheddleton itself. It is quite large but seems rather compartmentalised. Here at the mill you are by the old village and this is also the commercial end, with a pub, restaurant, florist, garage etc. and presumably more that we didn’t see. The valley bottom further down towards Froghall where we stayed on the way down seems to be the industrial end with the large plant and the railway. Above that, filling the space between the two, is the dormitory end. Several phases of housing development over the decades take advantage of the steep hillside to offer views and catch the sun above the valley floor, with amenities like the recreation ground and schools etc. No doubt many of the residents are now commuters to places like Stoke On Trent.

Day 20 – Cheddleton to Stockton Brook

Another lovely morning! Clouds began to gather but it stayed fine and dry through the locks at the junction with the Leek Arm, past the CRT services at Park Lane Bridge and the mooring at Post Bridge close to the local Spar & the Co-op. We stopped for lunch here, which could have been a mistake as it was much greyer when we set off again. In the end, while we did get a few very brief spots of rain on the way down the five locks at Stockton Brook, we moored up just past the bottom of the flight still in the dry. Still only three o’clock but this was as close to Stoke On Trent as we were willing to spend the night.

Bracken had had quite a good walk along the towpath in the morning and another accidental swim having got over-excited trying to make friends with a huge flock of Canada Geese in the middle of the canal. There was still time for another walk with a stroll up to the old disused railway. This I find unusual in that it still has the metal rails in place on concrete ties. I should have thought the metal had some value in that quantity, perhaps at the scrap metal yards in Leek. Maybe the cost of recovery is greater than its current worth or is it possible that the Chutney Valley Railway hope to reinstate this line in the future?

Back to the boat well before teatime but as we settled inside the threatened rain finally came about four o’clock. Living in a steel box lets you hear when it is hammering down. If you can’t hear it that doesn’t mean it has stopped, just eased a little or turned from downpour to drizzle. Worse still, with the rain came a sudden deterioration in mobile broadband signal we depend on for, well, pretty much every form of entertainment. We have a few DVDs we could watch but it is surprising how often you decide this is an opportunity to look into something that you have been thinking about or you think “hold on, I’ll just look that up” and then realise you can’t do anything. It is like the day the Google died.

Day 21 – Etruria Junction

Once again we were on something of a self-imposed deadline. We were due to spend a few days back in Surrey, including a meal with old colleagues from L&G on Thursday evening. We had booked in to the Festival Park Marina at Stoke On Trent, the only one we could find there, so that we could leave the boat for a few days. We would still need to get the car, so would have to take a train back to Leamington Spa and a cab from there to Long Itchington to pick it up and then head south. To make it a bit easier we had decided to berth the boat on Tuesday, travel home on Wednesday and head down on Thursday itself in time for the meal. We could also then say the house had been occupied and reset the clock on our home insurance.

Festival Park Marina had originally told us that they could take us easily and we should call a week or so in advance. We duly rang them in advance to be told that they knew nothing about us and had no room for a boat of our size. There followed a discussion amongst themselves, culminating in their agreeing they could squeeze us in after all and they took our details.

Apparently, when we first rang, they also told us there would be no mains electricity on shore line, something I know Sue had relayed to me but I had managed to let go completely over my head. When she reminded me it was a bit of a shock. We would be away for a week. With no shore line to charge the batteries and no-one running the engine, the fridge and freezer would be drawing power and the batteries could drain down. The solar panels might well maintain the charge but not without any sun. The forecast was for wall to wall torrential rain and cloudy skies for the next couple of weeks. I was looking forward to getting the rapidly emptying diesel tank filled here, at last. Now it looked as if we had another resources crisis looming.

The forecast was correct – rain through the night and still going at six thirty in the morning. We really wanted to get to the marina and sort things out there so spotting a short lull at nine o’clock we set out. The break lasted maybe half an hour before it started up again, heavier than before. We had seen pictures of Caterham in flood the night before so either this wasn’t as personal as it seemed or the weather hadn’t caught up with our change of address.

As we came back down into Stoke On Trent you could feel the city closing in. You come to warehouses or factories that are derelict and closed down, all broken windows and bricked up doorways. You can’t help humming ‘Dirty Old Town’ as you pass them. There is more regeneration going on here though, just around the corner are a few acres of modern houses and nice new apartments. In the middle of these, every bit as obsolete as the factories but somehow thought more worthy of preservation, are two large bottle kilns, cleaner than the derelict sites but sprouting weeds and lichen from every crevice. More industrial buildings follow that one assumes are much the same. Looking more closely however you see odd buildings stuck terraced in with the ruins that have intact windows and the odd faint light visible through the dirty glass.

Eastwood Potteries does look fully open for business, however. Lots of cars in the car park and lights on all over the structure. At the moment we passed most of the staff were standing outside watching a couple of fire wardens wielding fire extinguishers over some smoking material on the ground. Was this a real emergency? It’s hard to say. Looking at the weather though, it seemed just the right day for some joker in facilities to say: “Let’s have a fire drill today”.

There was a lot of activity at Hanley Park. There were several teams of workers out, despite the conditions, clearing unmanaged undergrowth on one side, working on the formal gardens on the other and another group working on Bridge 5A and the stone balustrade around it. It really looks as though they are trying very hard to make something truly worthwhile here. We did have to wonder how long it would take to overcome the reputation it has garnered over the years so that people felt comfortable to visit and stay overnight.

We made it down to the junction and round to the marina in good time. Something of a narrow entrance but we managed to get round the turn and line it up pretty well. Sadly, there turned out to be a closed lift bridge across it. Sue jumped off the bow to open it up while I tried to hold station just outside but it turned out to be locked. So now she had to go and try to find someone to talk to, while I was hanging about broadside-on to any canal traffic, being blown about by the wind and the ongoing torrential rain, under the full gaze of a crowded Toby Carvery overlooking the marina entrance. Sure enough the people in the marina office didn’t have us booked in and had no idea we were coming!

In some ways, despite the incompetent booking arrangements, they were very good. As we were starting afresh they asked if we needed electricity so Sue said yes, definitely. That gave them more of a headache but rather than just saying ‘no’, it only took about quarter of an hour for them to work out where we could moor, come out into the rain and move two boats to clear the berth for us and help us to tie up. We were right by the diesel pump ready to be able to fill up in the morning (I didn’t ask “why not now?”) We had shoreline power and a hose right there for water. With this abundance of resources we were at least able to have as many lights on as we wanted, run the central heating to get things warm & dry and put the washer / dryer on for several cycles all afternoon – luxury!

We had hoped that, by the afternoon, there would be break in the rain. We were close to the Retail Park on the one hand and the Etruria Industrial Museum was only a short walk away so, if it eased, we could get out for a change of scene. No such luck, the downpour continued. I honestly can’t recall a day when, prolonged heavy rainfall having set in at the beginning, it didn’t eventually stop within a few hours and certainly less than twelve. By the end of today it had been raining solidly for at least eighteen hours with perhaps a half hour pause in the morning. The forecasters promise more of the same for the foreseeable future so maybe now is a good time to leave the boat for a few days. Given what they are saying about how long it could last it might even be worth thinking about extending that for a little longer.

04 Jun

Here we go again . . . Just can’t wait any longer!

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.

Perfect Evening In Braunston

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.

Conveniently Placed In Rugby

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:

Strange Window Openings on the Bridges

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.

Sneaky Debris From The Weed Hatch

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.

A Little Light Snagging In Progress

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.

End Of The Line At Leek

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.

10 Feb

Wet & Windy Whilton – End of a Chapter

With a new boat on the horizon and a need to decide where to put her in the water, as well as where to keep her longer term, we also need to make plans for the future of our faithful “South Downs”. We bought her from Whilton Marina two years ago and they are one place everyone goes to when looking for a boat. They also provide the option to buy the boat for cash as well as to broker it for a commission. You don’t really need to spend several days taking the boat to them to get it valued, they will come to you by car in about half an hour. However, for us it was a good excuse to take the boat out after more than a month in “dry dock”.

 

Originally we planned to set off on Sunday but shelved that idea as there was still a fair bit of ice around. Instead, we went up to Aintree earlier in the week than we had anticipated so we could go out on Thursday when the weather was expected to have become milder.

 

It was certainly milder but accompanied by very high winds with gusts of 70 mph and more. Reluctant to abandon our plans a second time we went for it anyway. That may have been a mistake. Perhaps partly as an effect of the wind it had already proved to be a clumsy day, with everything I touched ending up “butter side down”. That trend continued throughout. We even managed to lose the boat hook overboard, not once but twice. At least it floats so we were able to retrieve it. Of course what we would usually use to retrieve something lost overboard would be the boat hook, so that made things a bit more awkward.

 

Mistake or not, we made it through the narrow gap from the inner basin to the outer marina with some aplomb and shouldered our way out of the entrance into the main cut quite successfully – if you call being pinned to the opposite bank by the wind and facing in the wrong direction successful. In the end, having failed to make any progress in turning around there, we were obliged to travel directly away from our destination until we could find a more sheltered spot with sufficient width to turn round.

 

Arriving back where we had started from but twenty minutes later, we could now tackle the first three locks. With no-one else being foolish enough to unpin in these conditions we were able to lurk in the lee of each lock until the next was open, which made things a bit easier, at least until we came out of the top lock. We were now exposed to the wind whipping across the open reservoirs on our right and had to reverse on to the water point across the canal and alongside the lock. Another painful struggle with the mooring lines to pull the flat side of the boat directly against the wind followed. At last we could turn our attention to the water point, only to find that it was leaking badly from anywhere except the business end. Ultimately, we weren’t that short of water so we decided to leave it and find another water point in a  better state of repair further on.

 

So far, even we would have to wonder why we were doing this. It had been hard work all morning, the wind made it a bit unpleasant and the occasional rain squall made it worse. At this point, however, we were able to settle on a more or less straight course, the wind tore some holes in the clouds and let the sunshine through and all of a sudden it felt a whole lot better. The sun got stronger as the afternoon went on and the winds had eased considerably by the time we got to Braunston.

 

Sun Breaking Through

Swans A Swimming

A Lovely Afternoon

By the time we had stopped again for water at Braunston Stop House and passed through the first three of six locks it was already four o’clock and by a remarkable accident we found ourselves with space to moor in the pound just above the Admiral Nelson. Originally, we had meant to get as far as the New Inn at Norton Junction but that would mean another couple of hours and arriving in the dark. It was not a difficult decision to put in some pins and moor up here for the night. The decision was made all the simpler as we had learned that the New Inn does not allow dogs inside whereas the Admiral Nelson boasts that it is ‘dog-friendly’. The latter certainly proved to be the case and we found it a very pleasant and welcoming pub.

 

We didn’t get going quite as early as we had planned on Friday morning. The evening before, I had wandered up and found that one top gate had been left open on each of the three top locks. There aren’t many possible explanations for this other than a boater having gone up ahead of us being too idle or ignorant to finish the job and close the gates behind them. I had closed each gate and hoped that the flight would regulate itself overnight. As we were about to set out and I went to set the next lock I met a single hander, on his way down, in the process of bringing water down from the top lock to fill a virtually empty pound between locks 4 and 5. While that added an extra delay it also gave “Priceless” a chance to catch up with us on their way up. With a crew of four middle aged men on board the extra manpower, however inexperienced, meant that the process of filling the pound went faster and once we did get moving we could get through quicker than we would have done on our own.

 

At the point where we asked him, even the apparently experienced master of “Pointless” didn’t appear to have settled on a plan but he asked about the route north and having told them a bit about the Leicester Line, this end of which we now know quite well, they decided to take that turn at Norton Junction. Bit of an own goal really; it meant the extra help didn’t follow us down the next flight of seven locks from Buckby to Whilton. With the wind rising again and occasional drizzle it was quite hard work and the arrival of much heavier rain for the three locks from the end made us regret lying in. An earlier start would most likely have seen us tied up and hunkered down before the real wind and rain started.

 

At the end of the flight it is only a few hundred yards to the entrance to Whilton Marina. As we were told even stronger winds would be setting in that night and through Saturday morning and as we expected to be heading back up to retrace our steps first thing the next day, we thought it best to turn the boat to face the right direction now. Despite approaching it with a degree of trepidation we executed a rather graceful turn, with a short lunge and retreat in the marina entrance to bring us round. Rather less graceful was the heaving and grunting required to haul the boat, flat side on, into the windward bank of the canal and get her tied up there.

 

As planned, the guy from Whilton Marina who does all their valuations came across and gave us a figure for selling the boat through them as a broker and another for them to buy it as a cash sale. The former was pretty consistent with others we had received and the latter not quite as disappointing as we had expected. He then proceeded to put a real fly in the ointment by pointing out that, if we were going to sell it through them, we could save ourselves the trip back and leave the boat there right away. It would still be ours and not up for sale until we were ready but they would moor it free of charge until the new boat was ready and also moor that one free for a week or so while we completed the transfer of equipment from one to the other. They weren’t concerned that the date at which the boat could go on sale might shift at the whim of our boat builder and would even run us back to our car so we could fetch it back to Whilton and pack our bags to go home.

 

Cue yet another sleepless night, deciding what to do. We had expected to travel back over Saturday and Sunday and make a decision after this trip. If we did decide to go with Whilton, however, we would have to repeat the exercise again once we had received and transferred to the new boat. At the same time the idea of just walking off and leaving “South Downs” in their care was quite an emotional one. We have formed quite an attachment to our very own boat, far more than to any bricks and mortar we have owned and more like a faithful steed. Abandoning her was going to have to come eventually, we just weren’t mentally prepared for that decision today.

 

In the end, of course, common sense prevailed. We decided that Whilton probably were the best people to broker the boat with the highest chance of a quick sale. There was enough difference in the net outcome for us to believe that we would be better off taking a chance on brokerage than a cash sale. If that was the case, there really was no point in flogging the sixteen locks back to Calcutt only to have to do the same journey again in a few weeks time. We duly informed them, I got a lift to the car and brought it back and we packed up our things and prepared to move “South Downs” to a berth in the marina. While we waited for the wind to drop the dog needed a walk so I let her take me up the towpath past the seven locks we had covered yesterday in two and a half hours. Sure enough, on foot and not working the locks, we were back at the New Inn in about forty minutes. We called our driver, Sue, to come and collect us and we settled outside by the top lock with a drink in hand and just enough sunshine to avoid being frozen.

 

Finally, with the wind eased a little, we attempted the move into the basin. It hadn’t eased enough, apparently. It was a complete mess, requiring three attempts, a lot of sideways crabbing and a handful of casual ricochets. Nonetheless we made it round,moored her up and there she now lies, waiting for us to come back in the coming days, remove what we aren’t selling and to dress and groom her for sale. The final pages of an exciting chapter!

 

28 Oct

Week 16 – The End Of (100) Days

Return from Rugby

 

We had thought the best of the weather was behind us but we may have called time too early. Although the days get steadily shorter, overnight temperatures are lower and the leaves are falling in earnest there has also been a resurgence of sunshine for the second half of October. Completion day dawned bright and sunny and we had an easy time to finish loading the car to the gunwales and set off for our new home.

 

Calls en route confirmed that the completion had been accomplished well before noon and we arrived before lunchtime while the developers were still completing what they called a ‘sparkle clean’ around the house. A very brief tour of the premises and a short handover process left us holding the keys. We didn’t have long to get a set of keys to the carpet fitters in nearby Southam, grab some lunch at the Gateway Café next door and get back in order to lock the car in the garage in time for the taxi to pick us up and whisk us back to the boat in Rugby.

 

We were there by about three thirty and the boat seemed unharmed, apart from a carpet of leaves right across every horizontal surface. It was still a lovely autumn afternoon and fifteen minutes exercise with a broom in the sunshine was no hardship. We were in a bit of a hurry, though, as we still had to top up with water, turn the boat round, moor up again and get down to Tesco for the supplies we would need for the journey back, everything having been run down before we left, as the fridge was going to be switched off while we were away. Back on board by about six thirty, with the shopping squared away, we finally had the opportunity to sit back with a cup of tea and contemplate our return to a life of bricks and mortar. We had a house again – hooray! But did we really need it?

 

The weekend weather was golden. Misty mornings and early cloud cover cleared away each day, leaving sunshine and blue skies to lift the air temperature for genuinely warm afternoons. The sun weakened from about four o’clock each day but the nights that followed offered clear skies, brilliant moonlight and thousands of stars. We noticed that the canal was much busier than we were used to and began to realise that it was half term. The area around Braunston and Napton is a real focal point for canal users. Of course, half term means that the hire boats are out in force with families hampered by children of school age. It also means that grandparents who own a boat will be using it to help ease the pain of childcare duties, students will descend in gangs for a floating party palace and a fine weekend will ensure that every other stay-at-home boat owner will decide this is a good time to “have a run out in the boat”.

 

On Monday morning, having moored at Ventnor Marina again, we only had the ten Stockton Locks between us and Long Itchington. As we caught up with a nice family, returning from their first narrow boating long weekend, we got through more quickly than usual. We were moored up before noon and on our way down to the house. The carpet fitters were in and working well so we left them to it to start a quest for curtain poles, toilet brushes holders, outside lights and many other deeply exciting things associated with moving back to a bricks and mortar lifestyle. From here on in the focus will be back on land and the rest of the week was a series of deliveries, meetings and estimates from tradesmen of various kinds. We need accounts for gas, water, electricity, broadband, digital TV. That means we need a TV aerial and we want to make sure the lawn is looked after with some continuity when we are away for extended periods etc.

 

We had arranged for the boat engine to be serviced on Wednesday, something I had intended to do myself but ended up deciding was one ball too many to juggle, particularly with the difficulty I had already found in getting the right parts. Assurances from RCR (River Canal Rescue – the AA of the inland waterways) that they could be obtained with ease from knowledgeable staff at Halfords had proved woefully over-optimistic. Getting a professional to do the service and bring the parts with them was an easy solution. This kind of service on the canals always comes with a ‘character’ and this was no exception but looking past the beard, tattoos and ponytail we had a full service, answers to any question that may have been concerning us and a willingness to share the knowledge without reservation.

 

All this took time, however, with no regard for other plans we might have. Emptying the cassette could be done by car but we really needed to top up the water tank. This is built into the hull so we can’t pop it in the boot and run it down to the nearest water point – the boat must go to the mountain. Finishing up around four thirty in late October meant casting off at ten to five to head down to Bascote Locks, pass through the staircase at the top, wind (turn round) in the pound there, come back up through the staircase, call in at the water point at Bascote Bridge and then cruise home to the mooring at Long Itchington. A two hour excursion to get back to where we started, with the only gain being enough water for a cup of tea in the morning. As we only completed filling up at six forty-five the last half hour was a case of navigation by torchlight. It is surprising how difficult it is to moor a narrowboat in the dark. Even with a bombers’ moon, while the light may seem bright as day it is entirely monochrome and the slightest shadow becomes pitch black. As we finished tying up I heard somebody suggest that we had earned the right to a stiff drink and to let somebody else do the cooking so we repaired to The Two Boats Inn.

 

While the engine service was in progress we did pass the time of day with another boater who walked by. They were out of nearby Ventnor Marina and had come out for a single day on Sunday. However, they owned a cat which had met a dog and had ended up 40 feet up a tree by the towpath. It had been up there for two days. On day two they had arranged for the RSPCA and the Fire Brigade to attend. Neither had had any success so now they were waiting for a tree surgeon to arrive about five 5 o’clock on day three. They didn’t know how he could help but were now clutching at straws.

 

We met the tree surgeon in the Two Boats that evening, dining out on the tale of derring-do that surrounded the cat rescue. Apparently, he had begun his ascent using a steel ladder, clad in High Vis and wearing Kevlar chainsaw gloves and a hard hat with full face visor. The cat, by now exhausted, starving and dehydrated, had at first watched his ascent listlessly but warily. The tree fella reached out for the trapped animal, which promptly spread all four paws akimbo and attempted to glide to safety, rather than face the approaching demon. Inevitably, gravity won. Despite the extended surface area the cat plunged forty feet into the blackthorn thicket below. Nonetheless, we were assured that neither pet nor rescuer were harmed in this endeavour and the animal was now safely back in the care of its owners, now happily free to return to their home mooring.

 

We couldn’t really delay the evil day any longer. Our worldly goods were scheduled for delivery from store on Thursday and expected to be with us by about one o’clock. Their arrival would signal the start of a lot of hard work over the next few weeks. Unpacking would be only the start. That would lead to a whole slew of decisions and actions about where to put furniture, how to hang which pictures, what we had to put in place (like a garden shed) just to take stuff that the new house had no home for and whether to hang on to stuff that clearly didn’t fit here or what to do with it. It felt as if it would be a long time before we were free to look much beyond the house concerns.

 

Two large removal lorries arrived on time and one was emptied and gone by about four thirty. The other was only half empty that night and stayed over to complete the job in the morning. To be honest, we thought we had substantially failed the downsizing challenge in choosing this property. Looking at piles and piles of boxes and dismantled furniture crammed into every room, as the removers drove away, it was clear that our old house had been far bigger on the inside than either of us had realised.

 

Depending on how you count them, discounting time spent away on holiday etc., we had now been homeless and afloat for just about 100 days. We have reached the end of that voyage and are looking forward to a new one in the spring.

21 Oct

Week 15 – A High Wind In Warwickshire

Looking back I think we can say the weather finally turned on Friday. The day started grey and damp with rain by eight and a strong breeze. It stopped again by nine and with a forecast for worse later we decided to at least get through Calcutt Locks to start with. Entertaining from the start, as the continually strengthening wind was blowing us firmly onto the bank where the water was shallowest and the mud deepest. Only two or three attempts were required to finally break free and gain sufficient momentum to make progress down the cut.

 

The three locks are very close together and between the middle and top locks is the service wharf for Calcutt Boats, where we needed to call in and get diesel etc. The dock lies parallel to the line of the canal and set back 100 feet or so. It seemed the entire fleet of Calcutt’s own hire boats were already moored stern on with a space left by the diesel pump itself. The mission for the prospective customer, should they choose to accept it, was to leave the middle lock and then immediately manoeuvre in the tiny pound to come beam-on to the wind and reverse back onto the wharf between the other boats. A simple manoeuvre in a car; fraught with difficulty on a 55’ slab-sided narrowboat in a rising gale.

 

The simplest approach was to let the boat be blown against its neighbour and reverse back along it with Sue standing on the gunwale fending it off as we went. Fuelled up and reassured by the attendant that the wind was going to get much worse, it was time to leave again. By this point we were going nowhere by driving straight out at 90° to the wind so it was a case of using what little space was available for both of us to pull the bow round as far as possible into the wind and then racing back to the tiller to get some power on, before she was blown crossways again and then head into the prepared top lock. All, no doubt, highly entertaining for the Calcutt staff who were, presumably, hiding somewhere out of sight to avoid being asked for any assistance.

 

With the rain now starting in earnest we approached Napton Junction, a blind T-junction facing another marina entrance immediately opposite, with a degree of trepidation. The only approach, really, is to keep moving slowly into the cross channel to start the turn until you see or hear any sign of an impending collision. As it happened there was nothing coming in either direction today so we completed that one without incident and as soon as possible found a little stretch of bank where we could pull in, moor up and hope to wait out the rain.

 

By now we were hearing that this was “Storm Callum” and expected to become even more violent and to persist for at least another 24 hours. The rain stopped for a while after lunch so we moved on towards Flecknoe, where we planned to moor up for the night. The wind was still rising but once we were on the move we could keep moving forward and only the tightest corners were a problem. We were very surprised at the numbers of boats moored along the stretch approaching Flecknoe at Bridge 103, everywhere else the moorings had been half empty. In the end we found ourselves moored back at Bridge 101, just where we had mustered the L&G flotilla in April with Mike & Lesley Fielding and Neil & Karen Payne. Under normal conditions this is a nice spot. Today the wind was howling down the open hillside straight against the side of the boat, with minimal screening from a few scraggy trees on the opposite bank. We didn’t get that much rain overnight but the wind just kept on going and we began to wonder about the integrity of a couple of branches overhanging the boat.

 

On Saturday morning it was raining at first and just as windy so we debated whether to move at all. Ultimately we decided it would be nice to moor up somewhere with a bit more shelter. We kept an eye out for a gap in the rapidly moving cloud cover that we thought one might be able to drive a narrowboat through and seized an opportunity about ten o’clock. We made it into Braunston, more or less dry following just a couple of quick showers and moored up near the Stop House, a CRT hangout beside Braunston Marina entrance. At that point the sun came out and stayed with us for the rest of the day, which encouraged us to find a walk up the locks as far as the Admiral Nelson. Steeling ourselves against the temptation to go into the pub and have a drink we turned right here and headed uphill to start a loop round behind Braunston and back in via Wolfhampcote.

 

 

Wolfhampcote is the site of a deserted medieval village, mainly marked by the Church of St. Peter that seems to stand there completely isolated amidst open pasture. Despite having been threatened with demolition in the past there is a group that still maintains the church and services are still held there once or twice a year. The village was abandoned in the 14th Century. While that is said to have been due to the population having been infected with the plague, brought to the village by refugees from London like us, this is now believed to be untrue. Most of the inhabitants generally did survive the Black Death and were living there after had passed. It is now believed that they just gradually sloped off to wealthier areas that were easier to cultivate, leaving the local landowner to use the area for sheep grazing.

 

It was a nice walk in the afternoon sunshine with great views of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire countryside but the wind never really eased up, which made it quite a bit more tiring than usual. In the evening we made our way to The Boathouse for an evening meal. Right on the canal, this Marston’s pub has always specialised in a very wide menu, sold very cheap and thus attracting families and large groups but with cheerful restaurant staff who always seemed welcoming and helpful. In the year or so since our last visit it has had quite a downgrade. They will no longer run a tab, there is no table service to take orders or settle your bill and within 15 minutes of our arrival they had run out of Peroni.

 

By Sunday the wind had eased off somewhat and heavy rain started about six-thirty to continue, without a break, for most of the day until about four o’clock in the afternoon. Any thought of moving on was abandoned quite early on. We had plenty of time in hand and the forecast for Monday was almost as bad; better to spend one day getting wet rather than two. Apart from a brief trip to the chandler’s, late in the afternoon, we stayed on board all day. So far, we always seem to have plenty to do on these occasions. Accounts still need to be reconciled, we need to get up to speed on puppy training etc. and a lot of time was consumed in looking at the colour scheme for the new boat. We know what it should be in principle but continue to struggle with the exact detail of how to arrange it.

 

We really needed to move on Monday as we needed to be in Rugby that night, in order to catch our train the next morning to get back and pick up the car from Purley. It was a cool start and still pretty breezy but not raining at first. We managed to get the water topped up, turn around in the marina entrance and get down to Midland Chandlers for about nine o’clock to pick up the solid fuel (bags of coal and nets of logs) that I had paid for and put by the day before. This was supposed to be a quick stop to grab the goods and go. All went well up to the point where I was loading it all into the top box. The vinyl cover is held on all round by elastic straps. Lifting up one side of the cover and throwing it back we had begun to load things in when another strong gust of wind that we really should have been prepared for lifted the undone cover on our side, cunningly unhooked the bungees on the other side and blew the whole thing into the canal. Moving round to retrieve it Sue was just in time to see it disappear below the surface of the water – who knew it could sink? Fifteen minutes of fruitless fishing with an eight foot boat hook saw us almost at the point of surrender when I just managed to locate it in the thick silt of the canal bed and land it, without the aid of a keep net. Quite a relief as much of the value of the top box is to be able to store things outside the boat and still keep them dry.

 

The Offending Topbox

 

The rain had held off pretty well up to this point and while we did get some spells of light drizzle on the way up to Rugby it was a lot better than the day before. The canal seemed very quiet with only a few boats passed on the way up through Hillmorton. As we left there we began to see the signs of construction in progress. The further we went the more we could see, with huge earthworks alongside the canal for a long distance until, shortly before we reached Rugby we came upon a big bridge being built over it. Looking it up on the interweb we found that what we had seen was work on a new road to connect Rugby with Houlton, a brand new town of 6,200 houses being built the other side of Hillmorton out almost as far as Crick. It seems there is no escape from the endless expansion of development and now we are really in no position to complain, having just bought a newly built property ourselves.

 

Rugby station has had a makeover and seems quite modern but you can’t move or replace the old railway lines so the bones of the old station are still there beneath. There is evidence of that in this VR postbox, still in place, which should delight Neil Payne, who must be suffering withdrawal in one of his obsessions having been abroad for many weeks.

Rugby Station’s Skin Deep Modern Makeover

 

Our rail journey itself on Tuesday morning was straightforward, really but maintained our experience of the success rate for public transport at a pathetic 50%. As the first of the two trains we had booked approached Euston it came to a halt and the conductor appeared to be announcing that we had encountered a gridlock, with all four main lines each having trains sitting at red signals in both directions. It turned out to be the result of an encounter between road vehicle and a railway bridge that meant that when we did start again we had to proceed at snail’s pace through the affected area. They did announce that as we were delayed more than fifteen minutes we could go to the LNR website and make a claim for compensation. Sue tried this but the complexity of the whole process exhausted even her terrier-like tenacity and she gave up. After all, off-peak with a Senior Railcard, the whole journey had only cost £5.30 each to start with.

 

The main mission for the day was to get the car and visit the local branch of our bank in Caterham to arrange transfer to our solicitor of the funds required to complete the house purchase. The amount was such that this could only be arranged in person. With that, on top of settling two more invoices for the boat build in the last ten days, it felt quite painful. Even though that was the only reason the money was in the account at all, it still seemed a shock to see the balance drop to almost nothing.

 

We had arranged to stay with Jen and to be down until Friday, when the house purchase was expected to complete. A chance to visit our mothers and meet up with friends. We had put out feelers to see if, while we were down, one or two people might have a gap in their busy schedules to meet up for a drink or a meal. It was great to find that we could muster a party of fourteen for dinner at The Horseshoe in Warlingham on Wednesday night. It was really nice to see everyone to catch up on their news, and we managed to include a round of “name that puppy!”. It might have been yet another farewell tour for us but we got the impression it was also a good excuse for everyone else to get together after the summer as well.

 

Weather-wise, Wednesday had been a complete washout, with a permanent light but penetrating drizzle. Thursday was much better, which was good as we aimed to get as much as possible of the stuff we had stored in Jen’s flat packed in the car before going to see the grandchildren and their parents in Tonbridge for the evening. Sue got to pick Liam, who is two now, up from nursery and walk him home and we had a chance to catch up on progress with the house they are trying to buy down there. In the past, we have experienced all the same issues of deposits, mortgages and negotiations on the price based on defects in the survey etc. that they are having now. Hearing about it made us appreciate just how much easier our move has been this time!

13 Oct

Week 14 – Long Itch to Liverpool (and back)

Friday was the big day for the “Home Demo” but not until two o’clock. A nice day again, if not quite as good as Thursday, so we walked down the towpath and worked our way cross country to the other end of Long Itchington and back through the village via the Co-op and over the fields behind the church to where we had moored the boat by the Two Boats Inn. We still liked the village and looked forward to getting to know it more.

 

A quick lunch and it was time to go down to the house. Good news, it was definitely finished and included everything we expected. Now it is decorated it feels like the house we thought it would be and we only found a couple of things that still needed to be done.

 

 

 

While we were at the development we had asked them to chase their solicitor and when we got back to the boat we had a message to confirm that completion day was definitely set for 19th October. We just managed to get to the removers in time before the weekend to confirm they could do the dates to match so now we were all set for that. It seemed only right to visit the Two Boats and celebrate (again!) with a couple of drinks before dinner.

 

Saturday was a universal washout. The good news was that this had been accurately predicted for some time so we had no plans to go anywhere. I would like to be a better man but I’m afraid we couldn’t help a sneaking sense of smugness and a little schadenfreude as we watched drenched, unsmiling crews drive past having had to come down Stockton Locks in the pouring rain in order to meet whatever timetables were urging them on. Many were hire boats so it was also their holiday they were suffering through, presumably to get back to a base in time. Not very long ago that would have been us and it is good to be able to avoid it now.

 

For us this was a chance to catch up on the rainy day things we had put aside in favour of being outside in the sunshine. Particularly with news of the completion date we had a lot of things to think about. We needed to look into getting the services set up, finding a vet, some puppy classes, someone to care for the lawn when we are away for long periods, arrange insurance etc. etc. etc. We were never going to get through it all at once but we made a start.

 

As we would be in Aintree on Monday, looking at the progress on our new boat, I also went through the much procrastinated “power audit” to measure the power every electrical thing on the boat is using, over how much of the day, in order to work out how many batteries we need of what type. Not so important for “South Downs”, as we seem to have come to a wary understanding with her, but useful as input to a decision on the battery supply for the new boat. We also had to compile a list of all the items on the plans that were still marked as “TBD” so we could either “D” on the day or at least establish when the “D” would have to have been made.

 

Sunday was a contrast. Dawn has been noticeably tardy of late. When it did come, it was bright and sunny, once again striking mist off the water, following a cold night getting close to zero. The air was bitter at first and stayed cold in the shade but by nine o’clock it was already warm in the sun and the day heated up steadily through the afternoon. We had quite a few locks to tackle en route to Leamington Spa and that warms you up quite nicely too.

 

We moored up close to the centre, in easy walking distance of the railway station, after another unusually long cruise. We were between a brightly floodlit loading bay on the offside and a busy office building, working round the clock, on the quite busy towpath side. It doesn’t sound ideal but as we were leaving the boat overnight the next day we hoped it would offer some extra security around her.

 

Our trip to see the boat builders in Liverpool sounded straightforward, in principle, but actually involved four trains. Leamington to Birmingham New Street was half an hour late and then found itself hot on the heels of a local stopping train. Inevitably, the connection from Birmingham to Liverpool Lime Street was missed by a mile. At Lime Street we needed to change and take a train from Platform 1 to Liverpool Central, apparently with a train every 5 minutes. After scouring the departure boards in Lime Street station for any train to Liverpool Central and finding no mention of it we asked a porter, who told us we had to go downstairs to the underground and take any train from Platform 1 there. Liverpool has an underground railway – who knew! Finally, another local train for a few stops to Fazakerley, a name specifically designed to be spoken in a scouse accent. The station is tiny and completely unmanned. There was no taxi rank in evidence so, given that it was now a fairly fine afternoon, we chose to walk to Aintree Boats from there. It was actually not a bad walk with a lot of wide green verges and roads that, while busy, were not jammed as they would be in London. We did think it would be helpful if Aintree Boats decided to move somewhere closer – to almost anywhere.

 

The boat is taking shape. By the time we got there it had slipped a week from the progress we had been told to expect only a week previously but in canal time that translates to being bang on schedule. Our hard copy of the actual plans had been sent to Aintree for us to collect there and it was a little disconcerting to see that, in order to give them to us, Mark had to unseal the tube with all the copies in. It begs a question as to what they have been working from until we arrived but we decided it was a question we would be better not to ask. We have to hope they have had copies electronically, as we have, and are using them. We covered all the outstanding items, one way or another, in a couple of hours there and headed off to spend the night with Lenny Henry.

 

 

The Premier Inn experience is not quite as he portrays it in the adverts, we were expected to take breakfast at the Toby Inn next door, at extra cost, and we made up the set with an evening meal at a local Harvester in the Retail Park up the road. Adequate was the word coming most often to mind. This is one thing about not having a car with you. Your choices become severely limited, you can’t go somewhere and then just change your mind and move on somewhere else and when you are staying somewhere in the wild North West these restrictions are exaggerated.

 

We called a taxi to take us back to Lime Street, less than a tenner and a lot less hassle. At the station there was news of a derailment at Sheffield but it didn’t seem to affect our train to Birmingham which arrived in good time to get the connection back to Leamington Spa. Of course, this was affected and was eventually delayed by 35 minutes, although this time it was able to maintain a sensible speed. While we waited at New Street a nice lady from Network Rail, who was no doubt completely innocent, approached us and asked if we could spare a minute to answer a questionnaire. We were able to confirm that, unexpectedly, we could spare 35 minutes. What she did advise us was that if the delay was more than half an hour we could claim compensation, a fair return for the valuable feedback we were able to offer.

 

Leamington Spa was warm, absurdly warm for October but very pleasant all the same. The boat was apparently unharmed and we got on the move as soon as we could, moving down for a shopping trip at a Morrison’s just across the road from the canal before winding (turning round) and heading back the way we had come. It really was a beautiful evening for a cruise along the canal and we were able to get out of the town and moor up opposite the church at Radford Semele, on an aqueduct sitting above a lovely nature reserve and the River Leam, just in time for an aperitif in the sunset.

An evening cruise in October

On Wednesday, another lovely summer’s October day, we retraced our route back up to Long Itchington where we couldn’t resist going back down to the house and pestering them for another look around. We then contacted the insurer we talked to in July, good old Saga, to arrange insurance for the property. It was a bit of a surprise to be told that, because their records had not been updated with the latest Postcode Address Files, their system couldn’t recognise the postcode and they couldn’t quote. They weren’t the only ones. We tried several insurers who all took the same approach. There was no question of an exception process to refer it to an actual underwriter. No postcode – no quote. This included the Post Office themselves! In despair and frustration we retired to the Two Boats to plan our movements over the next week or two.

 

The early completion means that we can’t really go anywhere, as we had planned, before needing to pick up the keys. We did want to have collected our car at that point, too, so would need to head south by train during that time as well. We ended up planning a very slow series of short hops to Rugby, where the service to London is more convenient, followed by a trip down to Purley to collect the car and hopefully meet some old friends there. We would return by car on the Friday, collect the house keys, pass them to the carpet fitters and then return to the boat at Rugby to bring it back down, a bit more energetically, over the weekend.

 

Thursday morning started fine but with a lot more cloud around. There is a small shop a couple of hundred yards from the canal in the houses off Stockton Road and a notice beside the first lock explains that by going through the alley between some garages, just a few yards down the towpath you can get straight there. As we had failed the shopping challenge in the Co-op the day before we needed some milk so I set off to find the shop. The notice by the lock is very old. The sturdy five barred gate that guards the street entrance to the garages and its impressive array of padlocks is very new. CCTV may well have captured footage of a man of advancing years forced to perform a commando roll under the gate in order to escape. I managed to find a more dignified route back with the milk but it was a long way round.

 

Although the weather forecast was poor and there was a lot more cloud around we had plenty of sunshine heading back up the Stockton Flight. We could see no-one else moving in either direction. Although that meant we didn’t get any help on any of the ten locks, their being so close together also meant that we could introduce our own system to speed things up by emptying the lock ahead while filling the one we were in. We were all done in much less than two hours. Arriving at the top we were greeted by the same uncommunicative volunteer lockkeeper who had watched us go down. This time, while he presented the same taciturn, grumpy demeanour when we arrived, he suddenly asked about having seen us go down last week. I explained where we had been and all of a sudden he became quite chatty and even helped to finish off the lock. Can’t wait to see how he behaves next time.

 

Having moored up for the day, just outside Ventnor Marina, before noon. We tackled the insurance question again. A couple of the companies we had contacted had suggested that if we used a comparison site they would have many more insurers on their panel and would return results from any of them that did have the postcode in their system. With a better mobile broadband signal we tried this and eventually got around seven quotes. Among the top three, along with two complete unknowns, was Saga. Quite a palaver to end up back where we started! The price is more expensive than they suggested in July but still the cheapest of the reputable companies. The first priority is to get cover in place now. We’ll tackle the ‘best value’ question next year when, presumably, they will all recognise the house’s existence and be able to vie for our business. In the meantime, we derived a mischievous satisfaction from forcing Saga to insure us after all. There was a lot more to look into and arrange which would be tedious and time-consuming at the best of times. It was now pretty clear that the issue of “computer says no” in relation to the postcode was going to keep coming up and make it doubly tiresome.