13 Oct

Week 22 – A Week In Worcestershire

Stourport On Severn

There & Halfway Back Again

On Saturday 5th October we left the Shropshire Union at Autherley Junction and headed south. We joined the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and would be travelling around twenty five miles to its end at Stourport On Severn before turning round and coming half that distance back again to take the Stourbridge Canal towards Birmingham.

At the junction, still on the Shropshire Union, is a stop lock so shallow, just four inches, that it is hard to tell by eye whether you will be going up or down. It is a lock added to address the concern of Thomas Telford that the canal it is about to meet would steal the Shropshire Union’s water. Now, of course, it is completely irrelevant but still you have to go through the process of raising and lowering the paddles and working the gates.

Having made the turn we planned to stop almost immediately at Oxley Marine for diesel and other services. Oxley Marine is not a slick operation but it got the job done. The sanitary station was a manhole round the corner, water was available from a rain butt with a watering can and and it was clear that, on a Saturday lunchtime, faffing around with tax and splits was not expected to be something we would want to indulge in, 80 pence a litre would be fine and of course, cash only, no cards.

Our planned stop for the night was just above Bratch Locks and with the stop lock on the Shroppie that would be seven locks today. As we moved on we began to learn that the Staffs & Worcs locks, while certainly not unique were definitely “special”. The spindles for the paddles are placed so close to the balance beam that you can’t use a long throw windlass to wind them or you will crack your knuckles. People who know about physics and stuff will probably chip in with gabble about “mechanical advantage” and the like. All I know is it is a lot harder to work a lock when the handle is only six inches from the spindle. Another “feature” is that many of the locks have a bridge right beside them. However, there is no access from the lock to the bridge. The only way from one side of the lock to the other is to creep across the platforms on the lock gates. Not a big deal but tricky with a windlass in one hand and a dog in the other.

Some days you just can’t get a break and everything seems against you. The days when everything falls into place and lands butter side up seem to be far less common but Sunday was one such. After a really wet night we woke to a dry morning with a little bit of blue sky, By the time we got moving it had turned into a really nice dry, bright, sunny day.

We were immediately into Bratch Locks, which are three locks so close together they look like a staircase and there are complicated instructions on how to negotiate them safely, with parts of the structure painted in red and others in blue to aid the explanation. First piece of luck for the day was that a lock keeper was on duty so we didn’t have to try and work all this out for ourselves, we just let him tell us what to do.

While we were at Wheaton Aston a chap moored outside the pub opposite had told us that a new Sainsbury’s had opened up at a place called Wombourne, so that was our next stop. Another stroke of luck to find the mooring right beside the bridge for the supermarket vacant and waiting for us. They even had a special offer on Scotch, so two trips were required.

We had another six locks to do before arriving at our planned mooring site above Greensforge Lock. This had been chosen as it was a 48 hour mooring right by a full set of services and a pub, as well as road access. We could sit here all day on Monday so that Dave from Aintree Boats could do his worst and we could leave on Tuesday fully supplied. You never know quite what you are going to find in reality but we got there at about two thirty, after a pleasant cruise in the sunshine, to find that the, very short, visitor mooring was free and right by the services building, so we were close enough to fill the water tank as often as we wanted without even moving onto the water point.

As we hadn’t yet had anything to eat, the ideal would be to get lunch in the pub beside the lock. Being a Sunday, in many places you would find that they were fully booked, only did roast dinners on a Sunday, didn’t allow dogs on the premises, stopped serving food at 14:00 etc. Not a bit of it! They had a very busy clientele, a relaxed attitude, an efficient approach to get everyone served and a special Sunday A La Carte menu that included snacks as well as main meals. To top it all they were cheap as chips, so we had some of those with our ‘red hot wings’. After a busy morning it was very nice to sit outside in the sunshine enjoying a pint or two over lunch. Even Bracken co-operated by concentrating on her chew rather than on barking at our food.

Monday morning and up early (for us) because Dave was coming. Except by nine o’clock we received a text telling us that he wasn’t. He’d been watching the weather and as he needed a clear day to seal the windows he won’t be coming today. To be fair the forecast for the day was foul but we hadn’t been aware that the visit was weather dependent in the first place.

Now we had to decide whether to stay here today, as planned, or move on because he wasn’t coming. As the weather was supposed to be very bad we stayed, only to see it dry up about ten o’clock and be dull, damp but broadly dry all day. Being right by the water point we got some washing done and we did manage to get in a couple of walks from the boat during the day. Before dinner we took Bracken over to The Navigation for a drink. She was pretty good inside, given the right incentive. Some of the locals, mostly the same people that we had seen in there the day before, made a lot of fuss of her. One of them, who fancied himself a dog handler, decided to take hold of her chew. He was happy enough with the growling that ensued but went a bit pale when he realised that, in trying keep hold of it, she also had one of his fingers! Luckily I had a piece of sausage to distract her with and he was able to withdraw unharmed. He may be a bit less gung ho in future.

Chimney Disaster Averted

The lower section of the Shropshire Union was built by Thomas Telford and runs in a ruthless straight line through the landscape. It is pleasant to cruise on but this presumably reflects it having been built much later in the canal age and a recognition that, in the long term, speedy transit for goods and materials was more important in the economics of the canal than initial construction costs.

The Staffordshire & Worcestershire was one of James Brindley’s, completed much earlier and based on managing the construction outlay by following the contours. We were soon made aware of this as we travelled south by the more convoluted course of the canal and many bends. Another feature that points to the era in which it was built is the height of the bridges and the angle of approach. We have not had to worry about this for some time and now found ourselves getting caught out by how low the bridge holes were. Having been forced to fire up the wood burner as we approached the end of the Shroppie we still had the chimney on. Arriving at Dunsley Tunnel, with Bracken and I walking on the towpath, I could see this was going to be a problem. It is only twenty one metres long but so low that it would be sure to knock the chimney straight off the roof. I flagged Sue down and she just managed to back off before the entrance so that I could get the chimney down and the stopper back on to stop rain going down the flue.

Engine Trouble (But Not Ours)

Shortly after leaving Greensforge we came to Rocky Lock and at first we thought we were in luck as a boat was coming up, which would make our passage faster. It turned out that the boat in the lock was towing a really old traditional workboat behind it. They told us it was eighty six years old and weighed twenty four tonnes. It had thrown a crankshaft through the engine casing and now they needed to get it to a place where they could have the roof over the engine lifted off.

First they had to get the lead boat through, then shut the gates and empty the lock again, then haul the second boat in by hand, refill the lock, open the top gate and re-attach the tow to move out of the way. Far from being through this one quickly, then, it took twice as long.

We carried on past the junction for Stourbridge and Birmingham, down through Kinver and another short tunnel at Cookley, this one sixty five metres long, to moor just beyond before Debdale Lock. The rain really chucked it down just as we reached the tunnel but it lasted no more than ten minutes before we could get tied up and start drying out.

There wasn’t much to see in Cookley, which seems to sit mainly above and away from the canal cutting. It seemed quite a well-off place, however, and had a fantastic sports and recreation area which then led into a belt of common land and a path back down to the canal level. A great place for Bracken to have a run and chase rabbits.

Wednesday, 9th October, was a largely bright and sunny day and we had a good run down to Stourport On Severn, via yet another supermarket stop at Tesco, right beside the canal in Kidderminster.

We managed to moor just above the basin in Stourport and went to have a look around the place. Somewhere in our guides it said that Stourport could not make up its mind if it was a seaside town or a riverside town and we would have to agree. Stroll down past the basin to the locks and it feels like a riverside embankment with a nice path along it and big park area. Just the other side of the entrance off the river to the canal is a classic, small seaside town amusement park with the usual dilapidated rides, looking a bit forlorn in the deserted autumn. The size of the car parking available gives a bit of a hint as to how much busier this place must be in summer.

Coming back up the High Street there are two or three amusement arcades, fish & chips shops and stores selling fishing nets and kiss-me-quick hats. Even in the basin there is a sense of duality with plenty of narrow boats on private moorings but they are dwarfed by a selection of huge Tupperware cruisers that are clearly built to cruise the tidal Severn and beyond to the open sea.

Cruisers In The Background Ready For Sea

One curious sight down there was an opening, off the water and through a bridge, into a large area of mooring laid out with pontoons, each provided with water and electricity. There was space for quite a few boats and it had obviously been incorporated into the new development of flats that surrounded it. It was completely empty and the entrance was blocked off in a very permanent looking way. It would be ideal for boaters to be able to moor in there, as space here is at something of a premium. If it isn’t for visitors and it isn’t being used by the residents why did they build it in the first place?

Half Of The Empty Mooring Basin . .
. . . And The Entrance To It

The hot news of the day was a text from Dave at Aintree Boats confirming that he would be with us on Friday 18th October. Fingers crossed!

We had allowed the possibility of staying an extra night here but based on what we saw we decided we would move on the next day. First we had the interesting challenge of renewing Bracken’s medication. We had been in touch with our vet and they had sent us a prescription by email, but how to fill it? We could order it online but wouldn’t get it in time. Pets At Home don’t supply medicines, even in their veterinary practice. We rang a local vet and they were very helpful. They didn’t have it in stock but could order it and have it there early the next morning – this was about five o’clock in the afternoon. They would have to see Bracken first, even though we had a written prescription but if we came over now they could do that and then place the order. We were only ten minutes walk away, the vet saw her in about another ten minutes and we picked up the medication the next morning before nine o’clock, a brilliant service. What’s more, having seen the price of the drugs, the vet told the receptionist not to charge for his consultation. Very kind, especially when you consider that our own vet, who already had all the facts on their system and only had to press a button, still charged us £15 to send the written prescription by email.

With that sorted we headed back up the canal the way we had come. For the night we had decided to moor at Pratt’s Wharf, about as close to the nearest town of Kidderminster as we wanted to get for an overnight stay. There was no mooring as such but it was a good spot where the canal widens past the abandoned wharf so we had some sun. The area around it is Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve so it should have been pretty peaceful. We couldn’t see the industrial plant on the other side of the canal and beyond the River Stour that had activity going on all night but it didn’t disturb us that much.

Kidderminster Retail

No-one had a good word to say about Kidderminster. There were several negative comments when we asked about mooring, there are no services of any kind, which seems odd for such a big town and a search for any kind of town trail or heritage guide had drawn a complete blank. What any query about Kidderminster will throw up is every major retail store you can think of. The plan for Friday was to move up to the mooring by Tesco, which puts you as close as possible to B&Q and then to go through the lock in the town and moor again outside Sainsbury’s, which is in a retail park with Halfords, Pets At Home, PC World and several others. I must say that, having passed through the town on the canal twice and walked through part of it today, it didn’t seem as black as it was painted. The people were friendly and there were no obvious signs of unusual vandalism or delinquency.

Kidderminster Visitor Mooring By The Lock and Church

Having last refuelled as we came onto the Staffs & Worcs we had been looking ahead to when we might next be able to get diesel, only to find that we were in a bit of a desert. As far as we could tell we would not be able to refuel until we reached the centre of Birmingham. It was quite likely that what we had could last until then but it would be helpful to have some margin of error. A solution seemed to be to get a 20 litre jerry can and fill it at the Sainsbury’s petrol station. It would be road diesel at the normal price for private cars etc. with no distinction between domestic use or propulsion but it would provide peace of mind. Halfords had the jerry cans in stock so we could click and collect there. We would need to use the fuel fairly soon as it does deteriorate but once the can was empty it would still be valuable piece of equipment to have on board. If we hit a similar problem in future we would have the extra option of walking to the nearest petrol station to get us out of trouble.

The day went well, by and large. As we finished near to Tesco the heavens opened in an absolute deluge but that gave us time to have lunch and an hour later it had stopped, rather to our surprise. By the time we got through the lock and up to the visitor mooring by Sainsbury’s we were in pleasant autumn sunshine. Based on previous reviews of mooring overnight here we had determined that we would finish our errands and move on a bit further to spend the night just below Wolverley Lock. As we settled down for the evening we had a message from the boiler makers confirming that they had now received the pipe layouts from Aintree Boats and would be reviewing them in the next few days. Good to hear that gradual progress was being made, rather than the problem being quietly kicked into the long grass.

Kinver & The Rock Houses

The plan for Saturday was to moor in Kinver, described by everyone as a very charming, pretty village. We would have a short cruise to get there and spend the lunchtime and afternoon having a look around the place and stay there for the night. There was the issue that all the mooring actually above Kinver Lock is private for its entire length but we could stop short on some twenty four hour visitor moorings below the lock. The village itself seemed to be a little way away from the canal in any case.

We tied up and walked into the village and found ourselves underwhelmed. Reports of Kinver’s attractions are as overblown as those on the horrors of Kidderminster. We wandered through the High Street and explored a small alley containing a handful of shops and then realised that was about it. They did have a disproportionately large number of tea shops and cafes so, a little bewildered, we chose one with some seating outside and ordered some lunch while we decided what to do next. Kinver also seemed to have a decent mobile signal so we were able to do a little research into a brown sign we had seen on our walk round. Kinver Edge is owned by the National Trust. It is a high point with plenty of woodland and heath around it and the property also contains the Rock Houses; homes hewn from the sandstone of this high bluff in which people were still living well into the twentieth century. This seemed a good way of making use of the afternoon and giving Bracken some exercise so we set off after lunch, following the signs uphill.

Rock Houses At Kinver Edge

It was a bit of a climb here and there but, accompanied by some pleasant sunshine, it was a good place to spend the afternoon. As well as a good walk and a spectacular panoramic view we visited the Rock Houses and learnt a bit about them. There are records of people living there from the eighteenth century but they are believed to have been inhabited long before that. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the growth of industry in the area attracted workers who couldn’t find or afford accommodation elsewhere, as well as agricultural labourers. Some homes were owned by the occupiers but most were rented out by the people who employed them or owned the land they worked.

The houses were carved out of the easily worked sandstone so, if an extra room were required, they just dug a bit deeper. They had water from a well and eventually gas. They never did get electricity but the houses were fully occupied into the 1930’s and there were some still living there in the 1950’s. In the early twentieth century they were a major tourist attraction with visitors coming from far and wide on the Kinver light railway to see them and to take refreshment at the tea room the families set up to exploit their curiosity. The absence of mains sewage was the factor that finally saw them declared unfit for habitation and abandoned. The National Trust is working on a programme of restoration and, of course, has set up its own tea room.

Back on the boat we might have hoped to watch England play France in the Rugby World Cup but the game had been cancelled by Typhoon Hagibis. It is a shame that we didn’t get the chance to watch what is usually a gripping contest. On the plus side, points put England through to the quarter finals. The Scotland v Japan game would potentially suffer the same fate and if so the Scots would not be so lucky. Somehow it seemed typical that they were trying to change the rules and threatening to take legal action even before the event had occurred or a decision been taken. There was a time when we would never have imagined seeing such behaviour.

05 Oct

Week 21 – Market Drayton & Beyond

Market Drayton Buttercross

Saturday 28th September was quite a fine morning and despite a few short showers it was a good run up the five Alderley Locks into Market Drayton and we arrived about noon. It was sunnier still that afternoon and we went up into the town for a look around.

Ginger Spice

The town seemed to be very busy. There were lots of stalls everywhere and every shop was holding some sort of tasting or event. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the Ginger & Spice festival. There were no ginger wigs available to help us fit in, but we were allowed to wander around the displays of street food, ginger ale, sweets and bakery. We tried a few of the samples and bought one or two items as we went around. The excuse for all this is a long tradition of gingerbread production in Market Drayton and the Billington’s Gingerbread brand, whose secret recipe has been guarded there for 200 years. Apparently the local practice is to eat a finger of gingerbread after dunking it in port or tea.

Having explored the festival we headed up to the Morrisons supermarket at the top of the town for supplies before heading back to the boat. On the way we approached a very substantial industrial looking building among the shops in Cheshire Street and wondered what it could be. It turned out to be Equity Will Writers. Such premises imply a factory setting, with row on row of paralegals and lawyers churning out the last wishes of the good people of Market Drayton and surrounding area 24/7. Perhaps the local citizens are particularly jealous of their legacies and given to frequent and capricious changes of heart, requiring constant re-writes? We were curious too about the doors on the first floor level. Sacks of wills being winched down into waiting carts? or a short cut out of the building for staff who can’t take the pressure?

Around The Town

The tourist information office is in the Library, so that was closed, but we did find a rudimentary town trail online that we could download. We had had a night of torrential rain, which showed no sign of having entered the boat so, hopefully, the diagnosis was correct and the temporary fix effective. Having established that, we ventured out into a wet Sunday atmosphere to take the tour. Regular periods of fine drizzle weren’t helpful but it was mild enough and we were able to get round it.

First we took Bracken for a run in a field just down from the canal. We couldn’t find any sign of a recreation space in Market Drayton. Although we were right beside both a sports club and large playing field both forbade any form of dog walking. What we did find was an open gate into a field that was devoid of livestock, was neither planted nor ploughed and bore no signs of any crop except, perhaps, set-aside. She had a good romp in there and worked off some energy so that she was happy to just follow us around for the next hour or so.

Having followed the trail we had to conclude that not too much of note had happened in Market Drayton, although it had had its own great fire along the way, in 1651. The Buttercross, standing in the Market Square, looked like an ancient building but had actually only been built in 1824, to allow the farmers’ wives to display and sell their wares under cover. It was not clear what they had been doing until then, since the market first started in the 13th Century – getting wet presumably.

In common with many traditional market towns Market Drayton has more than its fair share of pubs, many with quite a history and some of which still are actually pubs. Most sat over the town’s aquifer which provided the water source for the ales. The Red Lion has been restored to encompass the new Joules brewery, resurrected from a period of being subsumed into Bass Charrington. It is a very smart and tidy operation that even runs tours for the public, but not on a Sunday, sadly.

We were pointed to quite a few fine old buildings around the town as well as some plaques where others had stood and there was a great view over the Tern Valley from St. Mary’s church. Struggling for some other claim to fame the leaflet highlighted the Clive Steps which lead to the old Grammar School, where Robert Clive was once, briefly, a pupil. Of course, there are now mixed views on the once proud public reputation of Clive of India.

Revisiting Visiting Plans

Our daughter Jen has plans to come up and see us on 18th October and as a rough guess, a few days ago, we had decided that Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin would be a good place to meet. It was long past time to look at that in more detail. Having done so we realised that, if we went straight there, we could be about a week too early.

By Saturday we expected to reach Autherley Junction and the end of the Shropshire Union Canal. Once there, we would turn down the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. Shortly after that, at the Stourton Junction, we had planned to turn left up the Stourbridge Canal towards Birmingham. It seemed to us that we could use the extra time by carrying on past Stourton to the end of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, where it meets the River Severn at Stourport-On-Severn. There is an option to go out on the Severn and work our way up to Birmingham another way but, given the issues with water levels and flooding at the moment, we felt it would be better to save that for another time, so we would turn at Stourport and go back up to Stourton Junction and continue from there as planned.

Norbury Wharf

We left Market Drayton on Monday morning for the first of a series of hops down to the junction. We had another five locks to go through, which wasn’t expected to be much of a challenge. When we arrived at the bottom of the Tyrley flight we found that, with so much rain in September, the by-wash of excess water being channelled from above the locks was very strong. As we tried to leave the landing and move into the open lock the boat was just swept across the canal and pinned against the side of the deep cutting that formed the approach. Bow thrusters proved ineffective in this situation but, with some difficulty, Sue managed to pass me a line that I could use to try and haul her back to the towpath side. I then got hold of the mooring line attached to the bow. By hauling on that as Sue made the next attempt we were able to keep the nose pointing in the right direction while the engine kept the stern in line until we were past the spillway.

Similar problems were evident at the next four locks but weren’t quite so severe. With a bit more room to manoeuvre there we didn’t have any more issues. Warned of another very wet afternoon ahead we soon moored up at Goldstone Bridge opposite the Wharf Inn in good time before it started. Not a very welcoming place it turned out. No Dogs, very limited opening hours and a big focus on fields of motor homes and static moorings, so we didn’t bother.

High Bridge & Telegraph Pole

Our short cruise for the day took us through the famous High Bridge, with a telegraph pole mounted on the strengthening span below the upper arch, as far as Norbury Junction, which is no longer a junction. The Newport Canal, which once led off from here has long since disappeared, leaving just a very short arm with some mooring for a few boats and a dry dock at the end.

What’s Left Of The Newport Canal

On the other side of the canal, opposite the defunct junction, is Norbury Wharf a very busy place offering all manner of marine services, a café, diesel fuel, a chandlery, a hire fleet and boat trips on the Shropshire Star. With a CRT yard beside the wharf and with the CRT service point one side of the arm and the Junction Inn on the other it was a hive of industry. The rain arrived on cue and we settled down for the rest of the day to wait it out and tried to firm up our plans.

For some days now we had been promised that, of all the days this week, Wednesday would be fine, dry and bright. Disappointing, then, to hear the first raindrops landing on the roof at about seven fifteen in the morning. Two hours or so of gentle, intermittent rainfall followed. We moved up for fuel and services at about 11:30, as it seemed to be drying up and by noon we were starting to see signs of brightness. We had the washing machine going and stopped in Gnosall (pronounced ‘knows all’ apparently) Heath to fill the water tank again in brilliant, warm sunshine. We were right by the Navigation Inn and clearly not in a hurry so we decided to have lunch on the terrace in the sunshine and moor up here for the night. It turned into a lovely afternoon as we walked over to Gnosall proper for a ‘nose’ around.

Horse Trouble

Bracken had been very good on our walk along the towpath and over to Gnosall, coming when called and walking to heel very nicely. We were a few yards from the boat, congratulating ourselves on a very pleasant afternoon, well spent when she spotted a gap in the otherwise very secure hedging and fence and disappeared into a field. To our utter horror we realised that she was now chasing a horse! Suddenly cast into the role of that poor hapless fellow filmed in Richmond Park trying to stop Fenton from chasing the deer I scrambled over the fence and started trying to recall her. For what seemed forever she was oblivious of any shouts, entreaties or bribes. The poor beast must have been terrified, while Bracken clearly thought they were having a great game.

Just as the owner emerged from the house nearby and came over to see what was happening the horse landed a kick which stopped Bracken in her tracks and allowed me to secure her. The owner was surprisingly relaxed, having steadied the horse he assured me that it was unharmed and would calm down soon and brushed off my profuse apologies. I scooped up Bracken and beat a hasty retreat.

When the hoof landed she had yelped and had dropped down on her side. Naturally, I feared the worst, whatever that might be, so I carried her back to the fence she had come through and got her back onto the towpath. She was clearly limping when I put her down but managing to walk and to hop onto the boat so we concluded that she had got away without any serious damage, although certainly shocked and bruised. For the next couple of days she looked a bit sorry for herself and took it easy. She could still put weight on it when she wanted to, though, and steadily got back to her old self. I wish I believed that she has learned a lesson from this but the way she behaves when we pass a field with cows or horses suggests not. We will need to be even more stringent about where we let her off in the future.

No Room For Denial

Tuesday had been the first of October and it was no longer possible to deny that Autumn had arrived. Lately we have seen huge gaggles of the horrible Canada Geese, usually for some reason with a Greylag or two mixed in, grazing in the fields, presumably storing up for a long migration. Suddenly, conkers seemed to be everywhere underfoot and a gust of wind would bring down a little fusillade of acorns. Whether there is any connection to the season I don’t know but where, for the whole summer we had seen one kingfisher. This week we had seen four or five at least, but they weren’t as easy to photograph as the geese.

Despite a sunny afternoon, temperatures were dropping and it seemed we would have to light the stove for the first time since we left. Accordingly, while it was still fine, I fished out all the paraphernalia: the axe, ash bucket, chopping block, logs and kindling. It went surprisingly well. The fire caught easily, stayed alight without difficulty and began to warm the space quickly. It worked so well that, once Sue had started the oven to cook dinner as well, we were sweltering and had to throw open the hatches to cool things down.

On a dull, still Thursday we headed down to Wheaton Aston. It stayed dry and we were able to have a walk around the village in the afternoon. It really doesn’t look as if there is anything there at first but turning off the busy road that runs across the Tavern Bridge you can find quite a nice village centre with the Church and local Co-op.

We also found one furry creature waiting to greet us on a garden wall. I’m sure someone will know what it is.

Moving on the next day we planned to spend Friday night moored at Pendleford Bridge, the last visitor mooring some way before the junction itself. Beyond there, it looked quite built up and we expected it to be busy with Napton Narrowboats based right by the stop lock.

On the way we would pass a village called Brewood. Somewhere we read that this was pronounced “Brood” but they could have been having us on. However you say it, the village has a tremendous write-up in our Pearson’s guide, in particular the filled baps provided by the Village Bakery. On the strength of that we had determined to moor there to have a look round and as it would be lunchtime were looking forward to sampling the baps. Sadly, we could find no trace of the bakery or of Coopers’ food store. The High Street was full of beauty parlours, tanning salons and the other useless businesses that only flourish with enough idle affluence to support them. The village itself was as pretty as we had been told and was very busy with a constant stream of cars, heavily laden with wedding guests, all looking for space to park and discharge their passengers as close as possible to the church to try and preserve their fascinators and stilettos in what had become persistent, driving drizzle. We did manage to get some quite nice flatbread sandwiches to take away from a bistro called The Mess but the weather didn’t encourage us to linger much longer and we headed back to eat them on the boat.

Pendleford Bridge was not a disappointment, but only because we weren’t expecting much in the first place. We didn’t find any signs to designate it as mooring, or any rings to tie up to. There was a busy road in the distance and a large industrial site just around the corner through a modern bridge. Nonetheless, where we were was quiet and we managed to moor up there despite a large, broken stone shelf sitting under the water. We even saw some sun in the late afternoon and it dried up a bit, which is more than I can say for our small oil leak, which had reappeared under the gearbox in the last couple of days.

Pendleford Bridge Did Provide A Nice Sky

What About The Snagging?

Since he had failed to appear last Wednesday, 25th September, we had been waiting to get a new date for Dave to come and carry on snagging for the boat. He had been supposed to ring me later that day but we heard nothing. I left it until the Monday and rang him, to be offered 28th October. When I mildly complained that this was four weeks away he insisted that it wasn’t, as it was October already. I initially forbore to point out that it was actually 30th September. When he told me it was 14th October, however, I could see I would have to give him more time to get his head together and look at a calendar.

After many promises to ring back over the next few days, plus an apology that he was at yet another funeral, we finally got a text on Wednesday night confirming he would be with us on Monday 7th October. So now we needed to work out where we could moor up on Sunday with road access and stay for two nights so we could be there all day on Monday.

27 Sep

Week 20 – Nantwich & Engineers

Evening In Nantwich

Or it might still be Week 19? It is pretty approximate as the weeks tend to start or end whenever I decide they do – just like old times! This week we had a lot of servicing elements planned, as much as actual travelling, starting with our 500 hour engine service which was booked for Monday morning in Nantwich. We were still in range of the original engine fitter so it made sense for us to get him to come and do it, then he couldn’t start blaming anyone else. To make that work we really had to get there and find a mooring on Sunday, so that we could text him the exact location to find us. Of course, there was no saying what time it would actually be finished so we planned to stay here for a couple of nights.

We had been promised that the weather would break down on Sunday and at first that seemed to be the case. We had successive waves of very heavy rain from about 05:30 for a couple of hours and anticipated a wet trip. After that period, however, it settled down. It was very mild and stayed dry with some good spells of sunshine for the rest of the day. We had a couple of short periods of fine drizzle after we moored up in time for lunch and the rest of the afternoon was quite fine.

We found ourselves moored on the embankment approaching the aqueduct. Beside us were signs pointing the way for the Nantwich Riverside Loop, so it seemed wrong not to get out and follow the route. The towpath here is well made up and we followed it along the embankment, across the aqueduct and past the visitor mooring at the far end, where the loop turns off and starts to go through the edge of a new housing estate and then through fields to the Shrewbridge Road before taking you back through a park and nature reserve along a path between the lake and the river to arrive on Welsh Row, the main road back to the canal and our starting point. A very nice walk for the afternoon.

Gary, the engineer, gave us an ETA of ten o’clock and turned up promptly at eleven fifteen. We have had a very slight drip of oil under the engine for some time, which I had spoken to him about on the phone and having examined it he recommended contacting the gearbox manufacturers, PRM Newage, to have it looked at under warranty. Otherwise, it was a clean bill of health with various filters and the oil changed ready for another 250 hours.

While Bracken and I waited for Gary, Sue went into town to start the shopping. Big town equals big grocery shop. You don’t always get your supermarket of choice and in Nantwich the main offering is Morrison. How many times you have to go there depends on how much you are able to carry back and how far you have to carry it. As it happens their store is the other side of the town. As the canal lies quite a little way from the town centre to start with, we would have to go at least twice. While she was in there Sue also picked up a town trail from the Tourist Information office. Since yesterday’s Nantwich Riverside Loop neatly avoided pretty much all of Nantwich we could still do the town itself today.

After lunch we talked to the gearbox people, who said an engineer would contact us. Then we set out on the trail. It wasn’t quite as well organised or the sites quite as comprehensively labelled as in Chester but we found our way around it. Nantwich, as the ‘wich’ in the name implies, was another salt town, based on the natural brine springs in the area one of which, ‘Old Biot’, still feeds an open air swimming pool, which is the last of its kind in Britain. It seems ages since we went down the Anderton boat lift to explore the River Weaver but Nantwich is still on the same river. As well as the importance of salt production, Nantwich was significant as the last outpost in the area before the Welsh border. As you leave the town centre and cross the bridge over the river you follow Welsh Row, the main road to Wales used by the coaching trade in one direction and, earlier, by marauding Welsh armies in the other.

They seem quite proud of the number of disasters that have befallen the town over the centuries but the most notable was the Great Fire of 1583, “caused by an illicit person’s brewing”, which lasted for 20 days. Constant winds fanned the flames but fire-fighting efforts were also hampered by the four bears that were released from their cage in the town’s bear pit for their own safety. It’s an ill wind, however, and the resultant re-building has left lots of attractive timber framed buildings in the main town.

All in all it was a nice town and an interesting tour, despite the rain that made its presence felt half way through. That rain continued solidly right through the next day until about three in the afternoon. We tried to wait it out and spent the morning doing some more detailed route planning but in the end, about half past twelve, we decided we would need to move. Our forty eight hours on the mooring here were up and we needed to get water etc. in any case. We had also heard from the gearbox guy and arranged to meet him further up the canal that afternoon.

Wet it was but windy it wasn’t, so reversing up all the way back to the CRT services at the last bridge seemed a viable proposition. As ever, keeping it in a straight line was one problem, other traffic in either direction would be quite another. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to have the good sense to stay battened down and we completed the manoeuvre quite easily. While we were there the engineer rang and said he had finished his other job early so we arranged to meet at the other end of the Nantwich aqueduct in a few minutes.

As you might expect, Gary’s confident diagnosis was instantly rubbished by the new expert on the block, who had his own theories. My role was to hold the umbrella over the open engine hatch, a task that fell comfortably within my technical abilities, while he removed, resealed and replaced one of the connections from the engine. He was obviously competent but also happy to acknowledge that this might not be the final solution. If it didn’t do the trick the leak is minimal and could easily wait until we are laid up for the winter. That morning I had arranged a mooring from November with Calcutt Boats and he had been down there on a job only the day before, so he was happy to deal with it then, if it were necessary and we left it that I would keep him posted.

We parted company as the rain began to ease and we headed off down through Hack Green Locks to Bridge 85 where we had arranged to meet Aintree Boats and Eberspaecher, the boiler makers, the next morning. In preparation for their visit we turned off the heating programme that we usually rely on for hot water and warmth first thing each morning, crossing our fingers for a mild night.

Bridge 85 – Waiting For More Engineers

We were in luck, it was very mild and the kettle can always be relied on for hot water. Before we had finished breakfast Aintree had already sent their text to say that they would not be coming. Another death in the workforce family, it seems, so how can you seriously complain? The boiler team were still en route, however, so while I waited I set about the exciting task of drying out the engine room and cleaning the gutters around it. They hit some traffic that delayed them but turned up in due course and I must say they were very thorough. The conclusion was that the system definitely isn’t heating up as quickly as it should do. The size of the heater is absolutely not a problem, the type of radiators we have chosen may play a part but actual flow of the water is the key element. Without Aintree there to provide details of the plumbing they couldn’t do much more but left to get in touch with them and obtain some diagrams. Watch this space!

There was time in the afternoon to go for a walk in the local area. I have been planning routes based on public rights of way on the Ordnance Survey for at least fifty years and I have to say it does seem to have become harder rather than easier to walk these paths, certainly here in the North West. I thought that relying on a designated long distance path, the South Cheshire Way, would give us a good chance for a clear route. Instead we ran foul of careless crop planting within the first fifteen minutes. We were faced with a wall of seven foot high sweet corn planted right across the path, with no attempt to reinstate the right of way as required by law.

South Cheshire Way – Long Distance Path

We did manage to pick our way around it all eventually but lost both the time and enthusiasm to complete the whole route planned and ended up cutting it short. We did still manage to come back past Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. This is one of Nantwich’s most famous tourist attractions but surely that is a bit of a contradiction?

Sshhh . . .
Without This Sign You Wouldn’t Know It Was There

Thursday started pretty bright and we had a good run down to Audlem to moor up a few yards from the Shroppie Fly, a famous pub on the canal whose name refers to the ‘fly boats’ that became the express service of the established canal age, running non-stop day and night delivering urgent and perishable goods. We risked another walk in the afternoon, which was straightforward this time and brought us back into the village of Audlem from the other side, with a great view of the church across the fields.

Audlem Church

We did have a couple of short spells of fine drizzle during the day but by and large it was fine and sunny. That evening we celebrated Bracken’s first birthday, the day before, by taking her into the pub. We managed a good hour with her engrossed in her chew while we ate and had a conversation. Quite a promising improvement, as she usually starts barking as soon as our food arrives and gets us thrown out of the pub.

Shroppie Fly

If Thursday was more sunshine than showers, Friday was the reverse. There were frequent spells of fine drizzle as we prepared to tackle the remaining thirteen locks to the top of the Audlem flight. A large posse of CRT volunteer lock keepers were in attendance to keep things moving and made the job a good deal quicker and easier than it might have been. We even managed to stay fairly dry overall, until the heavens opened just as we were finishing the top lock; our cue to moor up and have lunch.

This was when we discovered THE LEAK. There was water on the kitchen work top and on the cushions of the dinette as well as on some of the things we had left out on the seats and table there. There were no leaks from the window so we struggled, at first, to work out where it was coming from. In the end we found a steady dripping from behind the wooden beading on the wall between the galley and the dinette, but how was it getting there?

We took photos and emailed them to Aintree and tried to call them. A bit later Dave called us. He couldn’t talk for long as the office had called him but he was at a funeral. However, his guess was that one of the mushroom vents in the centre of the roof was leaking and the rain was making its way across the ceiling inside the insulation and finding its way down the side wall. The best suggestion was to cover the vent with something. It seemed like a long way from the vent to the leak but Sue found a glass mixing bowl and we put that over the top. Eventually, the dripping stopped. The jury is still out on whether that is down to an accurate diagnosis and effective temporary fix or just because the rain had stopped.

We didn’t have very much further to go as we had decided to stop just short of the next group of locks for the night and tackle them on Saturday. Once the rain passed we went back to have a look at the cake stall beside the top lock we had just come through. An impressive array and the lemon drizzle cake and chocolate tiffin proved irresistible. Having added our money to the cash box we moved up to the mooring in time for the sun to come out and dry everything off for the evening, inside and out.

Cake Stall
22 Sep

Week 19 – A Visit To Chester

Sunset From Northgate Staircase

It hasn’t been a great summer but in the last week we have had the best and longest spell of decent weather since we left in May. There was one hot, dry spell that lasted a few days but we managed to spend that week back in Croydon, where it was actually too hot to be enjoyable. Wednesday 18th September was another fine morning, if a little cold and misty at the start. We took Bracken over to the other side of the canal, opposite the Country Park, which is shown on the map as a golf course but appears to have been abandoned. There is a lot of open land but it is almost impossible to identify the greens or fairway from the surrounding rough.

Originally, we had expected to meet Aintree Boats for some snagging in the city on Thursday. One piece of good news while we were last at home was that the manufacturers of the boat’s diesel central heating boiler wanted to arrange a site visit on Wednesday 25th August. This was good news in that, firstly, it shows that Aintree Boats really had been in ongoing discussions with them and second, it should give clarity on whether the system is sized, installed and configured correctly and in line with our specification. If not, we should be able to agree what needs to be fixed and if it is, then we can find out if there are options to improve on what we specified that we can consider. As this issue has been the one constant running theme, Aintree decided to postpone their visit and be here at the same time.

Since that meant we now had Thursday free of visiting snaggers we decided to leave it until late morning to make the short hop to Chester. We would be able to get our bearings in the afternoon, deal with a few chores, like a visit to the launderette and a big weekly shop at Tesco and work out a plan for what to do the next day.

It looked for a moment as though this might have been a tactical error. We had identified a mooring in a the large basin at the northern end of Chester, by Taylor’s Boatyard, as the best place to stay for a couple of nights. When we arrived at twelve thirty there was no room at the inn and we ended up round the bend and under the Northgate Staircase locks. Fortunately, there was room there to turn around and as we went back for a second pass the boat nearest the locks indicated that they were about to finish lunch and move on. The basin is so wide that we could turn again and reverse up to the CRT services to take on water while we waited for their space to come free. Now, of course, we could worry that someone else might turn up while we were busy and slip into the space ahead of us. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and we were safely moored up by quarter past one.

We had a good afternoon finding our way around and settled in for a quiet evening on the boat on our berth opposite Telford’s Warehouse. Originally conceived by good old Thomas Telford in the 1790’s, the Warehouse stands as a magnificent example of Georgian architecture and as a reminder of the once thriving port of Chester. The building was constructed partly over the canal to allow boats to be located and unloaded from the full height of the loading bay within the building. It is Grade II listed and was converted to a pub in 1980. Little did we know that Wednesday night is Latin Mania night! The frantic Latin rhythm, the excited voices of the Samba students and the persistent percussion underpinning it all, carried,unhindered across the water. Fortunately, it quietened down by eleven o’clock, apart from the loud farewells of the participants, slowly taking their exhausted leave.

Thursday was the day for our grand tour of Chester, following the guide we had picked up at the visitor centre the day before, which was also the start point. The weather was absolutely perfect. Warm and sunny but with just enough breeze to keep it from being uncomfortably hot. We started our tour with a cup of coffee sitting in the sun outside the Coach House pub and it felt positively continental.

Bracken – Ready For The Grand Tour

The guide was pretty good, a sensible route that covered a good proportion of the city and offered just enough description. By the end of it we felt we had a pretty good grasp of the layout and a bit of the history. Our memory was that we had really liked Chester when we visited here once before and we weren’t disappointed. One thing that hadn’t changed since then was the city fathers’ understanding of pedestrianisation, which seems sketchy at best. You are walking around broad thoroughfares and open squares that give every sign of being traffic free, along with hundreds of other tourists, and you suddenly find yourself in the path of a double decker bus!

A redeeming factor is that every notable feature is neatly labelled. In many towns you can follow a guide that talks about ‘a half-timbered building’ and look around to see half a dozen such, with no clue as to the particular site they are trying to describe. You are almost never left in doubt in Chester. If you see more than one candidate for the landmark in question, just look a little more closely and you will find the correct one clearly identified with a sign, even when there has been a change of use or ownership since the guide was written.

You get quite an emphasis on Chester’s foundation as a Roman base from which to do battle with savage Britons in Wales and the North. That position continued over the next two millennia. William the Bastard, scourged his way north in the wake of his victory near Hastings and installed his nephew Hugh Lupus as Earl of Chester, with the right to make his own laws and taxes. By virtue of both his name and savagery he was known on one side as ‘The Wolf’ but based on his girth and fondness for the feasting table the Welsh knew him as ‘Hugh the Fat’. In the 15th century there was a formidable mediaeval gate known as Welshgate guarding the only approach to the city from Wales. just one and a half miles away and following the last great rebellion in 1400 the Welsh were forbidden to enter the city after sunset, to gather in groups of more than three people or to carry knives. It seems this law still stands and although we saw some groups of Welsh people during the day, and even one or two in the evening, none of them were carrying knives.

We are told Fat Hugh also had some responsibility for the eventual demise of Chester as a major port and the transfer of it’s trade to the fishing village of Liverpool. He built the weir in the river, that is Britain’s oldest surviving dam, to power his mills. It slowed the river down, which contributed to the mediaeval harbour silting up. The Jolly Miller of Dee, immortalised in song, was jolly because the farmers had to bring their corn to their mills by law, so the millers could set their own prices. Penalties for not using these mills included having the farmers hands chopped off!

Like a lot of people, apparently, we were surprised to learn that the black and white half-timbered Tudor buildings that characterize much of the city are nothing of the sort but are part of a Victorian ‘black & white’ Revival movement.

There were lots more little nuggets to plagiarise on the way and we had a lovely tour in the sunshine, with a lunchtime break for an excellent pork roll with all the trimmings, including a bit of crackling for Bracken. As we finished the tour, walking into Abbey Square and around the Cathedral, we noticed odd items in the Georgian streets that looked like window dressing to make it look like the 18th Century. Rounding a corner to find a sea of trucks, a forest of floodlights and a rats nest of cables running in every direction offered an explanation and the little army of creative looking people in ripped jeans all ignoring one another and staring at their phones confirmed it; the area was being set up for filming although there was no clue as to what. David Jenkinson would probably have felt right at home.

It was only about four o’clock, leaving time to go round again to the various stores, whose locations we had noted en route, and shop for a variety of items you just can’t get outside a large town.

Throughout this whole tour Bracken was amazingly well-behaved. We had expected that it would be difficult to keep her from getting bored and demanding attention and thought it likely we might have to cut the day short. On the contrary, she followed us around patiently and just sat and waited while we talked about the sights we were being introduced to. Even as we traipsed around the shops she was quiet and relaxed while one of us went inside and the other waited with her. It is also true to say that everywhere she went, she was the star attraction. We lost count of the number of people who would suddenly stop us and say what a lovely dog she was and want to meet her. The people here are very nice and at least twice, as we were standing looking at the guide in different places, complete strangers stopped to ask if we were lost or needed help. Perhaps it’s Cheshire? After all, the last time that happened was in Macclesfield. If it were to happen in Croydon, of course, you should be very afraid!

To round off a near perfect day we walked around the basin and found a bench on the west facing terrace of the Telford Warehouse to enjoy a couple of drinks in the setting sun before going home for dinner. Bracken was really quite good again, while engrossed in something to chew, which lasted for at least forty minutes.

Friday continued the run of bright, sunny mornings. A bit more of a breeze made it feel cooler but another nice day. Before leaving Chester we went for a walk over to an area called The Cop which leads to the Dee River walk. We had read a lot yesterday about Chester’s role as a major port open to sea-going vessels before the river silted up. Out here along the river on this side of the city you can really see how that was possible. It is wide and deep, heading straight down to the sea. As the walk and a designated cycle route runs alongside it with no access to traffic it was an ideal area for Bracken to have a run.

Back at the boat, ready to set off, I went up to the Northgate staircase lock, just around the corner to let the volunteer lock keepers know that we were coming up. Having them there meant that we shouldn’t have quite as much trouble as we had had coming down on Sunday. They were also struggling to balance the level and told us that it had been a problem for a couple of weeks since a boat had hit the top gate. As they were letting water out of the middle lock, and chatting to Sue on the stern, we suddenly noticed that the boat had begun to list violently to port. By the time the lockie had rushed back to the paddles, stopped the water flowing out and let some more back in to right the boat we had lost a glass and two plates that were sitting on the draining board. The problem was a narrow ridge below the top of the lock. The base plate of the boat projects an inch or so around the hull to provide extra protection and a couple of footholds below the surface of the water. This caught on the ridge as the water dropped and caused the list, a potential disaster in a wide lock like this that would have allowed room for the boat to turn turtle.

Although we were on our own this time and so it took a little longer, we had a good run up the rest of the locks out of Chester, on a very warm, sunny afternoon, back past the place where we had moored last Saturday night and pulled up just short of Tattenhall Marina. We needed to get some diesel the next morning and had decided to treat ourselves to breakfast in their café while we were there. There are obvious reasons why railways often follow the line of the canal and we are well used to finding ourselves moored within earshot. This particular spot was about as close to the tracks as it was possible to be. Just beyond the hedge was the West Coast Mainline. Normally it doesn’t bother us but even we couldn’t help noticing when the Virgin express trains thundered past.

Saturday was another very fine, bright day, the last we could expect if the forecast was to be believed, but much windier than it had been recently. Just the challenge we weren’t hoping for when navigating a marina. All in all it went very well and we slotted neatly into the service pontoon by the café. Unfortunately, their diesel hose would not reach anywhere near our filler cap at the stern. We would need to back out, turn around and reverse back onto the pontoon again. Having placed an order for two full breakfasts and filled up with water etc. we steeled ourselves for the attempt. We might be learning something at last. We backed off far enough to really give us plenty of room and used a lot more power against the wind as we made the turn. We cheated a bit by being able to pass a line to one of the guys from the marina as we reversed back in but still it felt quite successful.

By the time we had filled the tank our breakfast was ready and one look at the size of it turned it instantly into brunch. It was excellent, though, and the people here were very nice, something that we had seen commented on in reviews online before we arrived. As we were now facing forward our departure was a bit more straightforward, although it was a very busy morning and as we headed for the narrow entrance we almost didn’t spot “May Bee Tomorrow” on a collision course, powering across our bow at speed from the other lagoon. We signalled for them to go ahead, slowed down to let them out first and followed them out into the cut. We regretted that decision only a little later as we approached the first lock. Obviously they knew we were behind them and yet resolutely closed the lock against us, even though we sounded the horn to warn them not to shut the gates. It isn’t often you meet with such ignorance but people are people everywhere.

Once again we had the locks to ourselves, then, until we arrived at Bunbury staircase, which sits right beside an Anglo Welsh yard. They were running one of their customers through his induction as we arrived and joined us in the lock. As it happens that didn’t save us much effort as there was a squad of CRT volunteers who basically did the whole thing for us. We were aiming to moor up just beyond here so it was a relaxing finish for the day. Imagine our delight at finding a space just behind “May Bee Tomorrow”, who had obviously turned around and were presumably planning to head straight back to the marina they had come from on Sunday.

18 Sep

Week 18 – Ellesmere Port

Back On The Water

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

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

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

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

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

Stoke Hall

The Cheese Shop

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

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

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

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

Beeston Castle

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

Bracken Relaxing At The Shady Oak

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

Beeston Castle Towering Over Us

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

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

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

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

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

Bracken – Ready For A Burger

First Pass Through Chester

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

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

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

How Many People It Takes To Open A Lock In Chester

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

A Passage To Ellesmere

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

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

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

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

What Are We Celebrating Here?

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

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

Information About The Obstructions

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

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

A Day At The Museum

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

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

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

The Funnel In Question

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

12 Sep

Week 17 – A Run Ashore

Swanley Bridge Marina by Brett Hughes

Heading Home

We had two specific reasons for leaving the boat in a marina and returning home now, in particular. The developers who hadn’t turned up for their snagging visit on 2nd August had rescheduled for 5th September and it can now be revealed that we were invited to Jason Moore’s surprise party for his fiftieth birthday in Reigate on the Saturday. Obviously, those were hooks on which to hang other things such as meeting up with the family and we also had a face to face session booked in with the behavioural expert to talk about Bracken.

From where we were, although Nantwich was the nearest station, a little extra cab fare took us to Crewe, where we could get a single train direct to Rugby with an hour and twenty minutes journey time. For once this train was on time leaving and arriving and there was lots of space with most of the coaches half empty.

You have to know your taxi drivers when you are out in the sticks and we know ours well enough to be aware that the eponymous John of John’s Cars in Long Itchington would be on holiday at this time. However, we have had good service from J’s Taxis in Rugby in the past so we had booked them to meet the train. You have to book as we have had issues trying to get a taxi off the rank with the dog in tow. The further North you go the worst this seems to get.

Things seemed to go pretty much according to plan. Bloor Homes were on time, we had a good session with Hannah the dog expert and showed her some videos of Bracken reacting to situations on the boat. It isn’t just our imagination, she really is anxious and unhappy, not just loud. There was talk of medication to tackle it and we were able to make an appointment with the vet for Monday afternoon.

The Deep South

We headed down to Croydon on Friday morning, ready for the big party. Jen has succeeded in renting out her flat, which is a bit inconsiderate. To be fair that just meant we had to go and stay with her and Dave at their house. Not so great for them, or her cats. They were very hospitable and we were made very much at home. Bracken decided to jump on the ‘grass’ on the surface of their garden pond, which gave her quite a surprise and had us all running for the hills as she emerged. Just behind their road is Kings Wood, a lovely ancient woodland, which gave Bracken an ideal playground for the next three days.

On Friday night Dave prepared an amazing paella for the four of us. He can cook too! The following day Sue had a session at the beauty parlour while my brother and I had a planned a joint visit to discuss a few things with my mother. At the age of 95 she is becoming steadily more frail, both physically and mentally, while her finances are also dwindling, so there are some hard decisions to be made. Unfortunately, her obstinacy and awkwardness are growing in inverse proportion to her capacities and resources, so neither of us were looking forward to this even as a combined front. It went pretty much as we had expected. The obvious solutions that would be simplest to implement and easiest to manage were rejected out of hand, leaving us to go and look into more complicated and inconvenient ways to manage her future.

The highly organised party for Jason’s birthday seemed to go very well as all the guests were there on time and before Jason, himself, arrived. How much of a surprise it was I am not quite sure but I don’t think it matters, we all had a great evening a big part of which was seeing old friends and catching up with people you haven’t seen in years.

Sunday lunchtime we had a date with my son, Nick and his family down in Lamberhurst in Kent, not far from their home in Tonbridge. The kids were full of beans and the weather, which had been cool and a bit grey, suddenly turned into a warm, sunny, summer’s afternoon so they had a really nice time in the garden and on the play equipment after lunch.

Returning to Jen’s late Sunday afternoon we had an evening in, as we were staying over until Monday. Sue has had the same hairdresser down here for at least the last thirty years. She has seen her grow from an apprentice, to start her own business, get married, have kids and all the rest. She used to come to our house in Caterham for the last ten years but now Sue goes to her house in Oxted for the treatment. On this occasion, thanks to holiday season, the only appointment she could get was eight thirty on Monday morning so we stayed down specifically for that, heading home afterwards in time for the vets appointment.

Back At Home

During the weekend we had decided that, at this point, we could do with fewer summer clothes and more coats on the boat over the autumn. As the marina was less than two hours drive away from our house it just about made sense for me to run up there and back on Tuesday morning, while Sue was straightening out the house to be left for another couple of months. For once there were no major hold ups so I was back for lunch.

Before going back up on Wednesday we had made one other arrangement so we met Mike & Lesley Fielding, themselves between foreign excursions, at The Folly Inn in Napton On The Hill. A proper pub by the canal not too far from both our homes, you always have a good meal here and it made a great way to round off our trip down.

Back On Board

John was back at work for Wednesday and picked us up at 10:00 for the reverse journey via Rugby and Crewe. Once again the train was on time at both ends with ample room to be comfortable and the taxi we had booked to meet us in Crewe turned up, so this had been a really painless trip both ways.

On Wednesday afternoon, a lovely sunny day, we backed out the boat, turned it around and reversed it back on to the pontoon so that we could finish washing the starboard side. It was quite a still day, for once, so we didn’t have any problems with this, rather to my surprise. All we had to do then was wait for the Sainsbury’s delivery to restock the boat before we left the next day.

04 Sep

Week 16 – Another Slow Go

On The Way Up

Where To Next?

After the excitement of the boat lift we had another look at our plans on Friday morning, as we were at another of those fixed points. Needing to be back at the house for next Thursday we had looked for a place to leave the boat and catch the train. The best we had come up with that could take us was Swanley Bridge Marina on the Llangollen Canal. We would need to get there on Tuesday, 3rd September. From where we were at Anderton we could probably have done that in a couple of days and we had four days available, so we would need to make sure we didn’t go too fast or we would just be moored up outside for a couple of days.

The distance wasn’t that great but it is an interesting, slightly convoluted section. First, you follow the Trent & Mersey almost circling through ninety degrees around Northwich, reflecting the River Weaver below at a distance. Eventually, you arrive at Middlewich, where you can take the junction onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union canal. After a few miles, at the end of the branch, you turn left on to the main line of the Shropshire Union for a short distance before arriving at another junction with the Llangollen Canal. Turning right up the Llangollen puts you within a couple of hours of the marina. With all the junctions and a few locks thrown in for fun, it keeps you nicely engaged on the journey.

In the interests of not going too far, too fast we didn’t leave until quite late on Friday morning with a view to stopping at the CRT services, just a couple of bridges further up the canal. If we wanted to kill time then I suppose it was helpful to find the Elsan point out of order and not expected to be fixed for a couple of days. Sizing up the options, while taking on drinking water, the best course seemed to be to reverse up all the way between the boats moored on either side to reach a service dock outside Anderton Marina. They would let us use their sanitary station for the princely sum of three English pounds. We don’t usually pay but we decided it was better to pay the money and get the cassette emptied than carry it around with us for another couple of days until we reached a working CRT site.

The reversing process itself is not so difficult, particularly with little wind, although some care is needed. As you can only steer going forwards, on a long stretch like this you often need to stop reversing and use the forward gear to realign the boat before reversing some more. As a result, it all takes quite a time. This is a really busy stretch of canal, with boats moored nose to tail on both sides and a blind right angle bend coming through a bridge immediately before the marina wharf. As such, the biggest concern was that another boat would suddenly come steaming round the bend wanting to get through when we were only half way there. We were not quite sure what we’d do if that happened but thankfully we didn’t have to find out.

Chemical Alley

As we moved on around Northwich we first encountered Lion Salt Works, now a popular heritage site telling the story of the salt production industry in this area. We are still pretty rubbish at this. We were two miles down the cut when I suddenly thought: “Why didn’t we stop there, then?” We weren’t in a hurry and could easily have moored up and spent an hour or two there but it just never occurred to us until it was too late.

Next up we found ourselves going past the premises of Thor Specialities and a series of small signs on the offside bank that said: “If the siren sounds evacuate the area immediately”. Apparently they are a “multinational manufacturer and distributor of biocides, flame retardants, personal care ingredients and other speciality chemicals”. Presumably some of these can get a bit lively but we did wonder exactly how we would accomplish the urgent evacuation being called for. A sedate walking pace in a straight line doesn’t feel like it would fit the bill.

Another TATA Chemical Plant

As we turned sharply south things calmed down a bit before we found ourselves in the heart of another maze of industrial plant, massive pipe work and huge vats and hoppers of who knows what substances spanning the canal as we passed through TATA Chemicals Europe site at Lostock.

Bramble Cuttings

Passing two marinas opposite one another we left Northwich behind and were out in the open country. It wasn’t long before we came to a couple of ‘flashes’, large stretches of water created as a result of the collapse of old mine workings. The sun was out and we stopped for lunch in one of the flashes and watched ‘Dad’ blow up a rubber dinghy and show the kids how it was done by launching himself into the path of an oncoming narrowboat and losing control of both the stubby plastic oars. He got out of the way eventually and gradually mastered some sort of technique, then the kids just took off in it as if they were born to it, leaving him to help ‘Mum’ with the barbecue.

We carried on after lunch and had intended going beyond Croxton Flash. On the way we spotted a 48 hour visitor mooring unusually positioned on the offside that looked so beguiling that we decided to pull over and call it a day right there. There was a short section of nice clean bank with rings and Armco to tie up to and behind it a lovely wooded glade with steep sides rising behind and around it. There were picnic tables and metal barbecue stands scattered around the grassy area. This was ‘Bramble Cuttings’ a site maintained by the Broken Cross Boat Club, presumably based at the Broken Cross pub which we had passed a little earlier. It is based on an old quarry and bordered by private land with no right of access. This little dell can only be reached by boat and offered space for just three or maybe four boats to moor. A real haven, safe, secluded and ideal for Bracken to be let off to run amok until any other boats arrived.

Middlewich Branch

Last year this would have read “Middlewich Breach” as in March 2018 2,800 cubic metres of the canal embankment collapsed and the route was closed to navigation until December. To their credit CRT have now completed the repairs and, apart from the neat newness of the concrete bankside along the previously collapsed section, you would hardly know that anything had happened. It was said, at the time, that a similar breach in yesteryear was repaired in a month using only picks, shovels and the sweat of very large numbers of navvies. That, of course, was before health and safety went mad and I would guess they also didn’t bother about saving 10,000 fish before they started. It could also just be Fakebook history, of course.

Middlewich Breach – from the Shropshire Star

On Saturday 31st August we saw our old friends “Jubilani”, alongside whom we had moored in Liverpool and then locked with up to Wigan, drive past us at Bramble Cuttings. Sure enough we caught up with them going into the Middlewich Big Lock and they were helpful as ever in opening paddles to empty locks for us as they left them and so on.

Middlewich Big Lock is presumably so-called because it is a double lock. The three locks above it are single locks, so anything wider than a narrow boat can’t go beyond them. As we moved up towards Middlewich we also passed over the Croxton Aqueduct, which was also just wide enough for us to pass through. With the need to turn round, any wide beam craft would only really be able to use about half a mile of canal between two winding points inside these limits. It makes you wonder why it was worth having the big lock there originally?

After a cloudy, cool morning we were all drenched in a torrential downpour that seemed to come out of nowhere just as we began working the three main locks close together. There was no chance to take shelter in that kind of situation so we just got wet. Fifteen minutes later, as we entered the last of the three, the sky cleared for a dry, sunny summer’s afternoon.

Just after the Middlewich locks comes the junction where we were to turn right to leave the Trent & Mersey and head down the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. A tight turn straight under a stone bridge with a lock sitting just beyond and room for only one boat between it and the junction. Technically, it seems, this short stretch, the lock itself and few yards above it are actually the Wardle Canal. It was built because the owners of the Trent & Mersey insisted that there should be no direct link between their canal and the Shropshire Union at Middlewich and it enabled them to levy large compensation tolls for boats to pass through Wardle lock.

We didn’t go too much further before finding a nice mooring on Saturday night where we could enjoy a sunny but rather windy afternoon.

Sunday the first of September seemed to bring with it instant Autumn. All of a sudden we were noticing a lot of fallen acorns, leaves here and there were looking a little bit browner and the Sunday morning temperature dropped by 5°C on the day before. Early days but winter is coming. We have started to see huge crops of red berries on the trees and hedgerows. According to one old wife aboard, this is a sure sign of a particularly harsh season in the offing.

Our total for Sunday was five and a half miles and one lock with a stop at a marina for some fuel and services. The marina stop was fine, although it seems we arrived just as one of the residents had booked in for a pump-out. They accepted our ‘queue-jumping’ in good part. After all, how could we have known? We just got on with it as quickly as we could. The one short, heavy shower of an otherwise fine and sunny day coming in just as we were working the only lock of the day felt a bit personal but generally we had a very pleasant day and a relaxing afternoon.

Lurking In The Llangollen

Monday morning was a similar bright, sunny start but by now we were down to 9°C. We had even less distance to travel, just three and a half miles but a bit more interesting with two junctions and five locks to negotiate on the way. The fourth and last lock on the Middlewich Branch was just ahead of our mooring and lined with CRT volunteers, requiring little input from us. Barbridge Junction, out onto the Shropshire Union main line, suddenly became extremely busy as we approached. Boats were coming from all directions, turning in, turning out or cruising straight across the end. Our first gambit of hanging back to let them sort themselves out didn’t work as they kept on coming, including from behind us, so we threw ourselves into the melee. With a bit of give and take, we made it round without incident to move on the next half mile to tackle the junction into the Llangollen Canal.

It is quite a wide junction from our direction so the turn wasn’t much of an issue. Just a couple of hundred yards in, however, there are the Hurleston Locks. A straightforward flight of four locks, with some very short pounds between them, these shouldn’t present too much of a problem. However, the bottom lock, No. 4, is collapsing and becoming narrower. The maximum beam now allowed into it is 6′ 10″ and it is supposed to be closed and rebuilt completely in the winter maintenance schedule. In the meantime, CRT staff man the lock during the working day and lock it up overnight. Volunteer lock keepers man some locks but these guys were CRT ‘regulars’, full time staff who would normally be doing something more productive. They were friendly enough but made it very clear that we should touch nothing and would be best off just staying on the boat. Some boats have got stuck in the narrow parts in recent months and they wanted to retain full control so that they could manage the pace and stop things at once if anything began to go wrong.

Having successfully made it through the first lock we found the next three manned by the normal volunteers, who were unusually keen to do some of the work so we had a really easy ride this morning and were moored up for the night, just a couple of bridges short of the marina, by lunchtime. After a fine, dry morning it was becoming greyer. We set out for a walk around the area after lunch hoping to do a circuit round by the Hurleston reservoir, which we think is a similar construction to the Toddbrook reservoir at Whaley Bridge. However, on this occasion, the farmers and the weather won. We covered half the route on good clear paths and then found our way blocked by five foot high crops planted right across the right of way, with no real route around it, at the same time as the rain began in earnest. We beat an ignominious retreat, retracing our steps but consoling ourselves that while we might not have completed the planned route we had actually still covered the intended distance.

Tuesday morning was brighter if a bit windy and we had a very short trip up to the marina. Somehow, on this occasion, we managed to conquer the wind across the wide open water and slid neatly into the marina and then on to our berth without a hitch. By now it looked quite threatening with dark clouds building in the distance but still plenty of sunshine so, as well as taking full advantage of the industrial strength laundry facilities, we set about a much needed boat cleaning afternoon. We managed the roof, bow, stern and port side and it looked all the better for it so it was a satisfying afternoon’s work. With the wind still rising we chickened out of the option to leave the berth, turn round and back in again so that we could reach the starboard side. A wise choice in the end, as it started to rain shortly after we made that decision. Instead we turned our attention to packing for the trip South the next day.

31 Aug

Week 15 – Getting A Lift

Sailing Through Sale

With Bank Holiday weekend looming and a forecast of hot, sunny weather we could already see the signs of a busy time on the canal. In the morning, as we headed down into a large built up area around Sale there was lots of activity on the moorings, all along the way, with people uncovering their boats, washing them down and stocking them up.

We stopped for supplies ourselves on the mooring at Sale Bridge. It seems to be a very big town but the area by the canal feels quite nice. We had to go through the busy shopping centre to get to Tesco so we saw a little bit of the place and it certainly seemed to be thriving, compared to some of the areas we have passed through.

Knowing we had a fair way to go we got straight back on board and decided to have lunch on the move. There were no locks or bridges on our route today and it was a beautiful day for a cruise.

As we left Sale Bridge you could see it on the map as a huge sprawl of urban development. Although people on the far side would probably claim they were in Altrincham there doesn’t seem to be much division. From the water it doesn’t feel that bad. The towpath continues to be very well made up and runs past gardens, schools and parks. On the offside permanent moorings seem to go on for miles with the railway just the other side of the bank. It makes for slow going when reducing speed to pass these long stretches but it doesn’t make a huge difference overall.

Blame The Parents

You can never really blame the children. Equally you can only ever really blame a dog’s owner. However, it isn’t always easy to see what you have done or how you can make it better.

Bracken is a lovely puppy and will soon be a year old. She is gorgeous, charming, very intelligent, affectionate and forces us to be more active than we might otherwise, which really is a good thing. Nonetheless, despite all the socialization we tried to do, and the training we have been through, there are some fundamentals that are proving really challenging.

On the one hand, she was labelled as ‘wilful’ & ‘independent’ before she even left the breeder at 8 weeks old and that hasn’t changed. A couple of related behaviours in particular make our life difficult and in some ways, the more we try to address them the worse they seem to get. On the other hand, even after nearly four months on the boat, she is palpably anxious and distressed while we are moving, and positively panicky whenever we manoeuvre to pull in to the side or enter locks etc. We have also found that, as the more limited space means both of us are now with her almost constantly, her ability to be left alone for an hour or two, which we had built up at the house, seems to have deserted her. Bold and independent, anxious and unhappy to be left alone, she really is quite the contradiction.

Behaviours change quickly at this stage and it could just be the ‘teenager’ phase so we need to persevere but we are concerned that we may have to think carefully at some point. Both about the impact on us if we aren’t able to address some key issues and about whether, if she can’t adapt to life on the boat enough to stop spending at least part of every day stressed and exhausted, it is fair to impose this life on her.

Lymm Congestion

Breaking free of the urban sprawl we were aiming for Lymm. Looking on the map it seemed like a nice place to stop, with a fish & chip shop, so we were hoping to stay there for a couple of nights and allow the forecast heat wave and the Bank Holiday weekend wash over us.

There are no bridge numbers on the Bridgewater Canal and the bridges over the canal all have names. Another feature in this area is that where the canal crosses over roads, rather than under them, the crossings are labelled on the maps as “underbridges”. We couldn’t work out why these were not either aqueducts, from a canal perspective or tunnels from a road point of view.

Busy Bank Holiday In Lymm

Coming through Lymm Bridge we could see that five o’clock on a Friday evening was not the best time to be arriving here looking for a mooring. We got lucky though, finding a straight spot, just long enough to take us, at the far end, just by Whitbarrow Underbridge. It was under some trees, which might often be a disadvantage but if it was as hot as predicted then it might work out to be a good thing for the next day or two.

Our Shady Berth

People continued to arrive, even into the darkness, peering hopefully along the crowded bank before giving in to despair, either continuing on into the night or stopping their boat somewhere inappropriate and tying up to whatever street furniture they could find. One enormous wide beam pulled up in front of us with the centre of the boat resting on the apex of a tight bend. This left his bow and stern out in the middle of the channel reducing it to just about a single boat width and so generating queues of traffic on either side. Could he not see this when standing on the bank? Or did he just not care? Hard to say but he wasn’t Lymm’s most popular camper that night.

On Saturday morning we went and had a good look round, following the Lymm Heritage Trail downloaded from their site. It hides it well but you eventually come to see that it is a small town masquerading as a village.. The centre is quite pretty and well kept. The trail takes you out to the Trans Pennine Trail and a very heavily used cycle trail. You come back through Slitten Gorge, where you can see the remains of the water powered Slitting Mill. Apparently this was a business of cutting iron bars, often imported, into nails. It seems this was a vital industry for the country and of sixteen recorded slitting mills a disproportionate number were in this part of the country.

Passing under the canal and through the centre you head out through a pretty grove called The Dingle and find yourself at Lymm Dam. The most striking feature here is that this not a dam. There is no vast curtain wall holding back millions of tonnes of water, in the style of the Todmorden dam now so familiar to all, just a large lake with pleasant paths, fishing stands and picnic areas all around it. Local opposition prevented a new turnpike road from Warrington to Stockport, which is now the A56, coming through the centre of the village. It was re-routed across the valley below St. Mary’s Church, requiring that an earth coffer dam be built across a stream and pool, which then formed the Lymm Dam lake. The trail takes you all the way round the “dam” and by the time we were back in the village it was time to seek out the shade by the boat to avoid the heat of the afternoon.

Lymm “Dam”

The fish & chips on Friday were good, there were lots of recreation spaces, it was very busy with visitors and locals alike, there are plenty of nice pubs and bars, all in a bright, sunny picturesque setting, bustling with boats all weekend. Overall, Lymm lived up to its promise in a way that Worseley really didn’t.

Fun Days & Festivals

Sunday continued the uncharacteristic Bank Holiday heatwave. We had already been in Lymm for two nights and could happily have stayed for a third but mooring there was restricted to forty-eight hours so we had to move on. In any case, we needed to make progress toward the Anderton Boat Lift as we had a date there on Tuesday.

We only cruised for three and a half hours, with a forty minute service stop on the way, before mooring up just by Moorefield Bridge. We expected this to be a fairly isolated ‘wild’ mooring in the countryside. There were a few other boats there but it was pretty much as expected. Having moored up, as we started a late lunch, we were aware of a strange thumping noise in the background and a lot of loud screaming from across the fields.

The first noise was explained by a quick trawl of the internet. It seems that we were in ground shaking earshot of this year’s ‘Creamfest’. This is the kind of music festival I don’t think Ray Baldwin would be attending. We were able to recognise only one name in the line-up, Fat Boy Slim, and the music seemed to be the same drumbeat endlessly repeated, with pauses. The good news was that this was the last day and it was due to finish before seven o’clock. The major noise did stop then but there was a late night laser light show that we got for free after the sun went down.

The second noise, coming from the opposite direction, turned out to be from the Red Lion in Moore, so far across horse paddocks and a railway line that we hadn’t realised it existed. They appeared to be having some sort of Bank Holiday family fun day, involving children and a bouncy castle, which went on for the rest of the afternoon.

After a while we filtered the noise into the background and got on with the afternoon’s task of setting up the anchor with fifty feet of chain, fifty feet of rope and shackles to secure it all to the fixing point in the bow. Everything had to come out of the bow locker and be stowed away again afterwards so it took a while and given the weight of these things combined with the heat of the day, a fair amount of sweat and swearing. Finally, and for the first time this summer, we were ready to start the barbecue. We learnt a lot about lighting fires and barbecues on our trip last year, apparently all very easily forgotten. Nonetheless, two cooked burgers were eventually on the plate and they tasted pretty good.

Tight Tunnels

Bank Holiday Monday was to take us down to Anderton ready for the next day. Another three or four hours cruising that took us through the Preston Brook Tunnel, to leave the Bridgewater and get back onto the Trent and Mersey, which we had left behind when we turned up the Macclesfield Canal back in June. Preston Brook Tunnel is one-way operation with timed entry. If you are travelling South you are allowed to enter the tunnel any time between thirty minutes and forty minutes past the hour. Passage is around fifteen minutes. Northbound traffic is allowed to enter anytime from on the hour to ten minutes past the hour. Somewhat surprisingly, this is completely unsupervised, so look before you leap! Whilst you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is far from straight. Its sudden curves will catch you out if you don’t pay attention and could even hide a boat that had jumped the gun. Immediately beyond the tunnel is a stop lock. With a fall of just four inches it seems a little unnecessary these days but it still has to be negotiated like any other lock.

Coming through onto the Trent & Mersey you notice a change immediately. The canal remains as wide initially but there is a lot more vegetation on both sides, the trees seem to close in and the reed beds along the offside seem to have just been left to expand at will, often restricting the channel to almost a single boat width. You get quite a sense of neglect and unchecked entropy compared to the Bridgewater that you have just left behind.

There are two more tunnels before you reach Anderton. Like the Preston Brook Tunnel, both are far too narrow for more than one boat at a time. The first, Saltersford Tunnel, is also timed entry, with Southbound traffic permitted to enter between thirty minutes past the hour and fifty minutes past the hour and passage taking only around five minutes. In this case you can’t even see the light of the far portal at all. Strangely, although equally kinky and the longer of the two, Barnton Tunnel has no such restriction. You just have to have a look and hope for the best.

Having made it through these without incident we stopped on the forty eight hour moorings almost opposite The Stanley Arms and a little short of the boat lift. The thing that was most immediately striking, wandering down to the Visitor Centre, was the huge industrial plant down in the valley, which turned out to be owned by TATA Chemicals Europe.

Winding Down To The Weaver

Tuesday was the morning we were booked to descend to the River Weaver, via the Anderton Boat Lift. You can only enter from one direction so first we had to go past the lift and turn round in the wide basin just beyond and be on the holding mooring half an hour before our booking. The structure is a huge piece of machinery. There are two caissons that boats can be driven into. Each of these iron baths will hold two narrowboats, side be side. We travelled down with a crew that had done the trip literally hundreds of times. They were canal traders who had been moored outside the Visitor Centre over the long weekend, selling their goods to the tourists and they were heading back to their house on the Weaver. I must say that rather undermined our vision of canal traders as hard-bitten, continuous cruisers plying their wares around the network all year round, come what may.

Anderton Boat Lift

As we went down, the other caisson came up the other way, with the trip boat in it. I used to think that the lift operated with the two balancing one another out but this is not true. Each can be operated independently or both can be raised or lowered together, if required. Apparently, I was half right, as our companions told me the operation used to rely on their being counterbalanced originally. When the lift was restored and electrified it was no longer necessary. Nonetheless, it still helps so they usually do work them together in opposite directions and when not in operation they leave both caissons at the bottom to save strain on the structure.

The operation is straightforward. The boats are driven in to the chamber and a barrier raised behind them when they are secured. The caisson descends, very slowly. As it passes the rising caisson you start to see the big column of the hydraulic ram that does the heavy lifting. When the descent is complete the forward barrier is raised and the boats can proceed onto the river. Our companions told me that laser sensors now determine when the descent is complete. It seems these take an age to register and they are often fooled by almost anything, from a slight misalignment through to a spider sitting on the lens. Such issues never dogged the old pressure switch, I was told, that worked much more quickly and had a degree of tolerance for the real world.

Once down at the river level we headed upstream. It was a little like going on the Thames last year, in miniature. As well as the hassle of having to set up an anchor, chain and rope ready to be dropped in an emergency, all the locks are much bigger than on the canals and operated by full time lock keepers. The other key features of river travel are the sense of space, the freedom to do a U-turn almost anywhere and a 6 m.p.h. speed limit rather than 4 m.p.h. Everything is on a larger scale, as some of the vessels using the navigation are getting on for small ships rather than boats. There are a number of swing bridges to accommodate them but most narrowboats can pass beneath without needing to get them opened them, as long as the river level is not exceptionally high.

The Weaver – Up And Down

We were due to go back up to the canal on Thursday afternoon so this was really a short recce to see what’s what on the Weaver and probably return for a longer stay another time. The navigable stretch is about twenty miles long, with the Anderton Boat Lift somewhere near the middle. Upstream you pass through Northwich town and two locks to arrive at the Winsford Bridge. When you pass through there you leave CRT jurisdiction and enter the Winsford Flash at your peril, it looks an inviting expanse of water but is very shallow and you will run aground. However, it is possible to turn and there is even a water point just beyond the bridge, as long as you don’t stray too far. Downstream takes you through two other locks as far as the Weston Marsh Lock, which you can go through onto the Manchester Ship Canal but only by making special arrangements in advance. The navigation does go past Weston Marsh Lock for a short distance around Runcorn to Delamarsh Lock but having been there we didn’t see anything to recommend it.

In the time we had we were able to stop off at Northwich for an hour or so and gained a rather favourable impression of the town. There were some older half timbered buildings as well as some old style shopping precincts and a brand new centre so quite a mix through the ages but it felt busy and vibrant and worth exploring further.

Some picturesque buildings
A strange mix with a corrugated iron roof

We carried on up to Winsford via Hunts Lock and Vale Royal Lock. All the locks are operated by CRT staff. They are huge locks compared to those we are used to so you phone them when you set out to let them know you are on the way and they try to set the lock for you while you are on the way. They then phone ahead to the next lock and let them know you are on the way to them. This does mean you can’t pass through after they knock off or before they clock on the next day. Unlike Neil Payne’s éclusiers in France, however, they don’t go off to lunch. There seems to be a rivalry between the locks and we were given insults to pass on as we left Hunts Lock.

A River Weaver Lock

We had heard a lot about this river and we expected to find a very rural landscape, all about trees and green fields and weedy river banks. All these are present and correct but the number of massive industrial operations along this section was a surprise. Having at least seen this stretch and turned, without grounding, beyond Winsford Bridge we moored up for the night at a spot just short of Vale Royal Lock. Although there is no requirement for a towpath on the river there was a good track running beside the mooring. Well-used by runners and dog walkers but it really only ran like a causeway between the river on one side and marshy wet ground on the other so not much scope for wider exploration.

River Weaver industry upstream

Wednesday started wet so we delayed setting out but eventually had to don wet weather gear and make a start. First call was Vale Royal Lock, of course, then back through Hunts Lock and Northwich, past the Anderton Boat Lift, through Saltersford Lock and Dutton Lock to Weston Marsh Lock, barring access to the Manchester Ship Canal.

Once past the huge TATA site opposite the boat lift on the way to Saltersford Lock the surroundings become much less industrialised and more like the gentle countryside we had anticipated. This lasts for quite a long way but gives way again to heavy industry as you pass the M56 and Rocksavage to approach Runcorn. All you can see on the North bank is a mass of steel frameworks, pipes, holding tanks etc. for what feels like miles.

Way downstream Runcorn awaits

We did go past Weston Marsh but at this point we were just passing acres and acres of industrial manufacturing plant with nothing else to be seen so we soon turned back. The rain had eased after an hour or so and despite one other heavy shower in the afternoon, much of the day was really quite pleasant, As we made our way to a small mooring just beside Dutton Lock it was a lovely, sunny evening. We found the mooring a bit confusing, as it was clearly marked as a forty eight hour mooring but was also a water point and there was no room for more than one boat. It seemed unlikely that we would be in anyone’s way, however. In any case we couldn’t go anywhere else as it was too late to go back through the lock today, so we tied up here for the night.

Our view from Dutton Locks

The weather on Thursday was much brighter. Having realised that we were short of milk we got going as soon as the lock was opened so that we would have time to go up to Northwich, pick up some shopping and get back to the Anderton Boat Lift in time to check in there half an hour before our booked passage at two fifteen. As ever, when you are suddenly on a schedule, there was a hitch. Saltersford Lock was not set for us, even though Dutton had phoned ahead. Apparently they had been waiting for a boat that was said to have been on the way down but never showed up. We didn’t see any craft heading that way after we went through either so who knows where they went.

Despite the delay we were back at the lift in good time and back up on the Trent & Mersey by three o’clock. The weather was still fine but the wind had picked up, which made both the ascent and the junction out into the canal more interesting. We only went far enough to get away from the Visitor Centre before mooring up. The nature park here was a great place to give Bracken a good run and hopefully wear her out enough for us to go and eat at the Stanley Arms.

24 Aug

Week 14 – Old Ground & New

Retracing Our Steps

We woke on Saturday to grey skies and more rain but also a wind strong enough to shred the clouds quite early on, leaving a bright and sunny day. After too much time spent waiting for the rain to stop it was great to get moving again. We had quite a busy (for us) day planned ahead.

Not sure what these were about on the way to Scarisbrick

We stopped in at Scarisbrick Marina for diesel and made surprisingly neat work of the entry and exit from the basin, even drawing applause from a small group of gongoozlers on the towpath bridge as we left. The strong winds had their fun with the business of turning round in the restricted space inside the marina, however. The wharfman knew exactly how to do it, of course, so I followed his instructions to the letter but ended up much where I started. I did ask him what I had done wrong then, to which he replied: “Nothing. The wind got up” so nobody really has all the answers. We tried a different approach that worked this time and we were soon on our way.

We were now simply retracing our steps up the Leeds & Liverpool towards Wigan. It sounds boring when you say that but even though it is the same land and waterscape you saw on the way down there always seems to be a different perspective as you travel in the opposite direction. We approached Burscough, bracing ourselves for yet another ill-timed encounter with the “Rose of Parbold” somewhere between here and her home mooring. It never came. On further enquiry it seems they only run their charity trips during the week.

We moored up in Burscough for lunch and a side trip to Tesco and, as it happened, a very short sharp shower before continuing on back past the Rufford Arm and on to Parbold itself. Only four swing bridges to negotiate today, as opposed to the nine we had on Thursday, but we were on the move for six and a half hours, which is a long day for us these days. We had a pint at The Windmill and treated ourselves to a Saturday night takeaway from the Chinese chippie by the station. There was nothing much wrong with it but it did remind us of what a Chinese takeaway was like in the seventies, we hadn’t realised how much they had changed down south. We ended up with the dishes we had ordered, which included a special fried rice, but a portion of rice with each dish as well, because that is what they do. A lot of waste, especially with the bag or prawn crackers thrown in but we couldn’t seem to refuse the extra rice and the only alternative on offer was a portion of chips instead.

Parbold Windmill

Welcome Back To Wigan

At last the string of alternating rainy days seemed to have broken as Sunday was a beautiful sunny morning and, despite a couple of very short sprinkles on the way, was largely fine and dry until the evening. Today, we wanted to get past Wigan so it was going to be another fairly long one, with just the one swing bridge but eight troublesome locks in the way.

We set off about nine thirty, just as an army of anglers were assembling in the adjacent car park. We went through the first lock alone but were caught up by “Jabulani” at the next, as we took on water, so had help all the way up to Wigan. As we went in to the first lock after Wigan Pier the owner of “Jabulani” pulled onto a clearly defined landing stage on the right and left his wife to manage the boat. Only after she had pulled away did he find that there was no way through from the landing to the lock. We were all set to do one thing and now had to change plans in mid-stream. We were in luck as someone else appeared at the lock and opened the gates for us to go in while he found a way round in the end.

The guy who had opened the lock was not coming through. He was from “Sapphire” and had come all the way from Leeds, including the twenty one lock Wigan Flight, which they had done that morning, in the company of a single crewed boat heading for Liverpool. Clearly the journey had formed a bond. They were parting ways at the top of the Leigh Branch but he had offered to moor up before the turn and walk down to do the two locks in the middle of Wigan to help him on his way. A nice gesture!

“Jabulani” were meeting friends who were coming the other way so they set off down the Leigh Branch together. We moored up for lunch and services again. We both thought that, from the journey up, we remembered a water point that was certainly shown on one of our maps. Another, increasingly common, false memory, it seems, as there was no sign of it. Why would we need water when we had already filled up in the morning? Well, as it was dry and fine with the engine running all day, it was also a laundry day and that gets through quite a lot very quickly. Fortunately, we weren’t that low and would make it through to the next option tomorrow.

As we rounded the junction and were about to close the Poolstock Top Lock gates behind us “Sapphire” came around the bend. It was good to have the extra hands on these two, the last of the day. While working and chatting we learned that they were pretty keen to get to the pump-out at a place called Plank Bridge. They had tried four possible sites without success on the way and were now, understandably, anxious. I forget all the details but one had too short a hose to reach their outlet on the off-side, another relied on an operator who would not be back until one o’clock, which would have delayed them too long and a third had a tea room and couldn’t operate the pump-out until it closed at four o’clock, for ‘Health & Safety’ reasons. One could use this as an argument for the cassette toilet but to do so would only spark off another round of debate on the huge controversy that dominates any boating discussion eventually.

We moored up for the night at some mooring rings at a site called Dover Locks, which could be considered notable for having no locks. The lock structures are there but are now redundant and there are no gates etc. The Dover Lock Inn is there too, equally abandoned, locked up, unloved and forlorn. For once, perfect timing meant that we were tied up and indoors just before the rain started for the evening.

Stepping out for some air last thing, just after midnight, I became aware of music playing. One of the boats further down the mooring was playing his stereo quite loudly. Above it you could hear occasional argumentative shouting, although there only seemed to be one voice. Since the main songs were ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ and ‘I’ll Never Walk Alone’, I guessed it might be someone local. Inside the boat we hadn’t really noticed it but I’m glad we were no closer and we felt sorry for those that were.

Passing Through Leigh

We had some heavy rain overnight but Monday morning was bright. There was more cloud around and we had a couple of showers in the morning but not the endless downpours of the recent past.

First stop was Plank Bridge, an automated lift bridge across a busy road with a water point just beyond it. Here we found “Sapphire” again, at the one day visitor mooring that is still there beside the water point, even though they have built a marina entrance immediately opposite. They had been keen to get to the self-serve pump out facility just before the bridge and thought that, as it was again on the ‘wrong’ side, they would have to pass through the bridge, turn in the marina entrance, pass back through the bridge to use the pump out and then go back through the bridge a third time but in reverse to be able to turn again. Complicated for them at the end of a long day and annoying for the traffic being stopped three times. They had found they were in luck, however, as the facility had an extra long hose that would pass over the roof of the boat. They had been able to just stop there and then go through once and moor up for the night.

We filled up with water and carried on to Leigh. We had spent two nights here on the way up so knew the lay of the land and where to moor so that Sue could make a run to Sainsbury’s (Tesco simply doesn’t sell some of the things we depend on).

By then it was already lunchtime but the sun was out again so it was a nice cruise through the Leigh Bridge boundary, where the CRT Leeds & Liverpool hands you off to the Bridgewater Canal Company, with no backstop. The difference in practice is barely perceptible, apart from a change in signage. We passed the Bridgewater Marina at Boothstown, where we had checked in to meet the Belling engineer last time, and carried on to Worsley where we tied up about four and began to think seriously about the route ahead.

What About Worsley?

When we were deciding where to head for on Monday we remembered that Worsley had seemed like a nice place when we came through but we were booked in to the marina so we had just carried on. Coming back the other way we thought we should stop and have a quick look around.

Picturesque Worseley

A long straight section ducks under the M60 and takes a sharp right hand turn, just beyond which there is a series of mooring rings available to tie up to. As you take the bend the closed channel to the left goes off to the Delph, the entrance to the navigable levels of the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines. This basin is now being redeveloped as a visitor site to explain the history of the mines at Worsley, for which the canal to Salford was originally built.

The entrance to Worseley Delph

The houses at this end of town are quite picturesque and the area has the appearance of a very desirable and affluent suburb. We hadn’t appreciated, as we passed through before, just how close it is to the motorway and how busy the road through the town is. The noise and smell of the traffic is quite noticeable. At the same time there are high sides to the cut and there are a lot of large, mature trees that, together, create a rather dark, dank and dingy feel.

At the back of the Bridgewater Hotel, a standard Greene King pub, we found a small courtyard that had a steadily shrinking patch of sunshine where we could enjoy a drink. There was the more upmarket George’s Dining Room & Bar just next door and we passed Tung Fong, a smart Chinese restaurant, as we walked around the Delph. There didn’t seem to be much else in the way of pubs, shops or restaurants that we could see.

All in all, I think we found Worsley a little disappointing when set against our fleeting first impression, or perhaps we just needed to give it more time in better weather.

Retail Therapy

After a few days of travelling quite a few hours each day, Tuesday was a very short one, just an hour or so from Worsley to cross the Manchester Ship Canal and moor up outside an entrance to the back of the Trafford Centre. There are a few rings here and very little around except some industrial units and a car park for the shopping mall. We had spotted it on the way up and Sue had declared her intention to shop till she dropped on the way back.

The Bridgewater is quite a wide canal but then, of course, there is the Manchester Ship Canal

“Carpe Diem” had left Worseley long before us and was now moored on the rings with a git gap before the little boat “Autumn” on the stretch before the entrance. We were about to start banging in pins behind “Carpe Diem” when Sasha, the owner of “Autumn”, came out to greet us. She told us that there were some more rings just the other side of the entrance, which might be easier, even though they were under some trees but we would need to be forward of the drain immediately outside the centre.

I’m not sure if ‘she’ was the original pronoun but that doesn’t really matter. Far more importantly, Sasha was a mine of information. Little “Autumn” fitted exactly onto a short concrete bank between the first two mooring rings and she moored there a lot as she works in the centre. She could reassure us that it was perfectly safe to moor here overnight as, once the shops closed, it was a mile in either direction along the towpath to get to anywhere, so you never saw anyone. With the lights of the centre security and the CCTV camera right overhead it was pretty secure. She also gave us a run down on where to find different things in this vast expanse of shopping centres, local intelligence on the mooring further down and the bridges to be wary of when going under, an appraisal of the services at Stretford Marine and quite a lengthy account of her life and adventures as a single woman living on her boat around Manchester. Quite a character but really nice and very helpful.

Canal entrance to the Trafford Centre

Looking ahead in more detail, now that we were close to moving back into the unknown, we had decided that we would rather wait to go down the Anderton Boat Lift until after the Bank Holiday. That meant that we would need to slow down and take our time along the Bridgewater main line to avoid arriving at the lift too soon. We would probably stay in one place for more than one night at a time but this should be different from riding out torrential rainstorms. As long as the weather was reasonable we would be able to get out and about or work outside on the boat, quite different from being cooped up inside trying to keep dry.

Breaking New Ground

On Wednesday morning we eventually got going when the sun came out and travelled the short distance past the Kellogg factory to the end of the Leigh Branch and on to the main line, at the junction where we had turned off after coming down through Manchester. Almost as soon as you turn right here there is a small marina basin on the right and a service dock just big enough for one full size boat. Of course, there was one boat already there and one other was just pulling up behind it to wait. We had nowhere to go while we were waiting but for once there was little wind and plenty of sunshine so we were fine just hovering there.

It wasn’t long before we could pull on to the dock and we found that, just as Sasha had said, the lady here was very nice and welcoming. Cheerful and helpful she took our rubbish away for us and filled up the diesel, chatting all the time. Bracken was fed biscuits and allowed off to play with her dog Vinny, as the dock area was quite secure. The facilities were the smartest and cleanest I have ever seen, including the sanitary station and there was a hose reel already connected for the water rather than having to drag out or own, a surprisingly rare phenomenon.

We asked about how safe and easy it was to moor down through Stretford and Sale. She pointed to Steve, who had just pulled up ahead of us, as someone who works locally but has a mooring at Preston Brook. He moors on the towpath round here all the time and has only ever had one minor incident. This was very much in line with what Sasha had told us. Her worst experience had been when moored against a particularly high bank side she had returned to find footprints on her roof but no other damage. Reassured we decided to look for somewhere just a little way down into Stretford.

As it happened Steve set off a little before us. We followed him down to the club house of the Watch House Cruising Club where we could see boats moored outside it but space against the towpath before them. We would just need mooring pins again. As we closed up on the first boat we saw Steve backing up towards us and I walked up to ask if he was intending to come in here. Continuing the theme of really nice, helpful people in this area he said he wasn’t, he was just backing up to tell us that if we carried on a couple of hundred yards to the other side of the boats there were again rings that we could use to save us the trouble. We were amazed that he would go so far out of his way like that and thanks to his advice we found an ideal mooring.

Watch House Cruising Club

Settled In Stretford

Where we were was by an aqueduct the path under which led to a huge expanse of Sale Water Park and various nature reserves. Apparently the excavations and gravel created from building the M62 was originally planned to a landfill site. Then the local authority decided that it should remain as an overspill area if they ever needed to relieve flood pressure on the surrounding towns and instead a lot of work and investment went in to creating the wetland areas, a huge recreational lake and walks and cycle trails all around it, all with the River Mersey running through it. You can see on the map a real green corridor separating Stretford and much bigger Sale.

On our side of the canal was the Trans-Pennine Trail, The Bridgewater Trail, a big recreation ground, perfect for Bracken to chase a ball, with the houses starting well away from us across the aqueduct. The railway running parallel to the opposite bank was not that busy or noisy and we are well used to the affinity between rail and canal and while we could see the bridge carrying the M62 ahead of us we were far enough short of it to see or hear none of its traffic. We decided at once that this was a nice enough spot to stay for a couple of nights. The only issue turned out to be that the very straight and extremely well surfaced towpath running directly from Sale, through Stretford, straight up to the centre of Manchester or round to the Trafford Centre was a magnet for commuting cyclists. Any time between seven and ten in the morning or between four and seven in the evening it was mayhem out there and you really needed to be on your guard when you stepped outside.

The weather was not yet summer but a definite improvement on recent weeks. It was grey a lot of the time, windy some of the time and we had a couple of daytime rain showers but none too heavy or lasting too long. We had a nice walk along the Trans-Pennine on Wednesday afternoon and a good poke around the Water Park on Thursday.

On the domestic side we took advantage of a laundrette nearby to get a service wash for some of the heavier items, to spare our power and water but also to ensure they would be dried, without having to be draped around the interior of the boat for a few days. We were even able to use their photo booth to get a new digital photo for Sue’s passport renewal, the one we had taken at home having been rather sternly rejected by the Passport Office.

Preparing to move on a little on Friday we had to agree that, although the town itself might be nothing special, Stretford had proved to be a lot nicer than we were expecting.

11 Aug

Week 13 – Liverpool At Last

August In Melling

Saturday 10th August really did live up to its billing, being grey, wet, windy, then very wet, then very windy and ending in extensive gales. There were breaks in the rain but, as it turned out, not long enough to complete even a modest walk in the area without getting drenched. We know this because we tried it. The only good news was that it was entirely expected and we had no plans to move the boat today.

What was a really quite modest drop in temperature was so exacerbated by the effects of the wind that we even contemplated lighting the stove. We know, from various posts on Faceache, that there are those out there who did weaken, but to us it just felt wrong to be doing that in August. One good thing about a narrowboat is that, if you just need a short boost, you only have to light a couple of gas rings for ten minutes and the saloon soon warms up.

Of course, the gas then ran out but that is the first bottle we have finished since March. We had a spare and this was a chance to enjoy the benefits of designing the boat to store the gas in a stern locker on deck. Switching over the supply in the wind and the rain and the dark isn’t half as uncomfortable when you have a deck light mounted right over the bottles and you are not balancing on the slippery steel of the bow trying to work inside a traditional forward gas locker, with the steel hatch continually dropping on your head.

Hell For Litherland

When we had first started enquiring about good places to moor as you got near to Liverpool the one name that kept coming back was Litherland. The initial thought, that there must be a sale on, proved incorrect. It seems that Litherland is an actual place somewhere between Crosby and Bootle.

There is a CRT depot there with a full set of services and a short stretch of mooring that is secured from the land side. There is a very large Tesco store right beside the CRT site. Boats using the Liverpool Link can only go in at 13:00 and can only leave at 09:30. As it is just a little over an hour from the top of the Liverpool Link, Litherland provides an ideal staging post to moor overnight, top up or empty out and re-provision the boat, before making the final assault on Liverpool. For those coming the other way it is a chance to do the same, after up to seven days in the city and to get down the weed hatch to clear all the debris that is bound to have accumulated around the propeller.

As Sunday dawned the winds had, indeed, eased and as expected, the rain cleared away quite quickly. We were a little short of a recently automated swing bridge that crosses quite a busy road just at the top of the Aintree Racecourse. It is programmed to prevent boaters opening it at peak times so we knew we couldn’t leave before nine thirty. Heading down there from our overnight mooring, despite the grey skies, it was a little warmer again and there were even signs of the clouds lightening up.

Instructions on the bridge begin: “1. Ensure the bridge is clear of traffic”. It gives no specifics on how to do this if the traffic refuses to clear. The road across is single track, so if it clears in one direction there is usually a queue of people waiting to come the other way. If you are going to find a gap, then Sunday morning is probably your best chance and eventually we got the bridge open. The automated bridges go through a sequence of traffic lights, crash barriers and bridge operation that run very slowly with long pauses between them. In the meantime, to the untrained eye, it looks as if you are just standing there holding up the traffic on a whim. It shouldn’t really be the case but we always feel a bit awkward as the queue of cars builds up around us.

This bridge is just on the outskirts of Aintree and as you move on from the swing bridge you arrive at the famous racecourse and can identify some of those iconic names that will resonate with anyone who has ever heard a commentary on the Grand National. You meet the course at the Canal Turn, of course, then pass Becher’s Brook to your left and run alongside the back straight across the Melling Road until the track peels off towards The Chair on the first lap or the Finish line on the second.

The canal continues past Aintree through the Netherton swing bridge on what is, thankfully, a slightly quieter road. It then meanders South to run beside the Rimrose Valley Country Park and Crosby on the right to arrive at the last swing bridge, a footbridge this time, right before Litherland and the CRT site there.

When we arrived the mooring looked quite full and we were a bit surprised to find how limited the space was here. It is a popular, safe spot and must attract a lot of boats but you could only get half a dozen in here. There are no rings or bollards to tie up to, so every boat has to hammer in mooring pins when they arrive. Having found ourselves doing the decent thing at Netherton Road, by letting a couple of following boats through the bridge before closing it, we would have been a little put out if there was no space for us to moor. However, a couple of boats were moving out and one of the beneficiaries of our generosity, who had already secured his boat, had been grateful enough to ensure we could take the space.

Throughout the morning the weather had continued to improve and as we banged in our pins at lunchtime the sun cleared away the clouds for a very pleasant summer’s afternoon.

Moored Up At Litherland
View From Litherland

The Liverpool Link

Our appointed day for going into Liverpool was the Glorious Twelfth, which turned out to be a reasonably fine Monday. To avoid arriving too early we had to wait until late morning and had ample opportunity to see the boats that had left Liverpool that morning arriving at Litherland. One by one, as each successive craft arrived, the owner would disappear down their weed hatch and haul out skeins of rancid weed and plastic. This clear warning that the channel beyond here was exceptionally choked up made us bring our departure time forward a little, so that we could hasten more slowly and hopefully minimise what we collected.

Not quite the clear watery motorway you might imagine
We hadn’t seen a mounting block actually in a canal before

There were a couple of boats, who were travelling together, that left ahead of us and we arrived at the top of the link just after one o’clock. We were somewhat surprised to have already had a phone call from CRT, bang on 13:00, to confirm we were definitely coming down.

Top of the Stanley Flight with the clock tower in the distance

Heading down into Liverpool is a very different experience from dropping through the bowels of Manchester. Where the latter dares you to enter and forces you to overcome a series of unnecessary and unpleasant obstacles to spit you out into a take it or leave it mooring with no facilities or support, Liverpool has invested in welcoming you into its heart and provides safe, secure, pre-booked, well serviced moorings with water and electricity provided free of charge. The approach is well managed and supported so, while it is a little challenging, it is an enjoyable experience not a gruelling, solo trial by ordeal.

Use of the Liverpool Canal Link is unusually strictly controlled. Only half a dozen boats can be booked to go down on a given day and there is no access on Tuesdays. If you book in you must book passage out at the same time. You can only stay for a maximum of seven days and cannot return within twenty eight days. You can only go down between 13:00 and 16:30 on your booked day. You can only leave between 08:00 and 09:30. All this is because you are moving through a huge, operational and potentially hazardous dock area, different parts of which are owned by different authorities and companies with their own rules to be followed. I have cobbled this together from some notes provided by CRT and other sources:

In 1981 Merseyside Development Corporation was established to revitalise the South Docks area to attract inward investment, business and visitors. A huge amount has been done since then. As a part of this British Waterways (now Canal & River Trust) negotiated a ‘right of passage’ through Liverpool Central Docks with the Dock owners. Now, the Liverpool Canal Link (LCL) provides a navigable route from the bottom of the existing Stanley Lock Flight on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Liverpool’s South Docks. The route includes two new locks, open channels, tunnels and culverts.

This doesn’t really do justice to the amount of other works that went into creating a safe, navigable and identifiable route through a complex maze to get to the final destination, which is a set of secure pontoons in Salthouse Dock, at the heart of the Albert Dock tourist centre. The very specific and quite convoluted route passes through a series of wide docks, with large expanses of deep, open water exposed to the wind. There are channels marked by orange buoys. Sometimes these must be kept to the right and sometimes to the left. There are a few overhead obstacles to avoid and the locks and tunnels to negotiate. There are also stunning views of some of the most iconic landmarks of the city to be seen from the water.

Our lives were made considerably easier by a number of factors. To start with the weather was dry, with fairly light winds. Although the funnel effect of some of the structures we passed could be felt, you could also tell that stronger winds in the open water would change the game significantly. We found that CRT had quite a few staff on hand and despite the emphasis in the “skippers guide” that the locks are all boater operated they really did most of the work, walking across from the Stanley Flight to get ahead of us at Princes Dock Lock and Mann Island Lock further on. Finally, we joined Nigel and his wife on “Tam Shaz” for the trip, who clearly knew everyone and everything, They had their boat built thirty years ago and have been cruising on it and taking it in and out of Liverpool ever since. All we had to do was follow them and revel in Nigel’s endless stories and advice as we sat in the locks. All the ‘lockies’ clearly knew them very well and were keen to look after them. They told us that Nigel had just been operated on for bowel cancer, while his wife has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Very sad for them, of course, but you would never have known it from their cheerful attitude.

Some photos of the approach through the docks

At the last lock we were encouraged to go out first, leaving “Tam Shaz” to collect the CRT Lock keeper and give him a lift. Following the directions through five right angle turns between different dock basins was actually not too bad. We were stumped, however, as we were set to go into Albert Dock itself, as the navigation light we had been told to ensure was green currently showed red. Floating there in a big open dock, hovering outside the giant entrance we had no idea what to do. The instructions had been very clear that you must ensure that the light is green but had omitted to say what action you should take if the light was not green. We began to wonder if we had got mixed up about what light to look for etc. and where we could moor to wait. At that point “Tam Shaz” hove into view and the lock keeper was on the bow shouting for us to go through anyway. Chatting to him later it was his mistake, not ours, it seems. He should have set the light to green before heading up to the top lock and had forgotten to do so. Still, no harm done.

Down On The Docks

We found our pontoon quite easily and where I expected the three point turn in the middle of the dock expanse to reverse into the seven foot gap between it and the next boat might prove challenging it actually seemed to go pretty well. Having tied up about three o’clock we didn’t waste too much time getting out into the city to look for a late lunch. We did pause for a moment, however, to admire the thousands of moon jellyfish we could see rising and sinking in the surprisingly clear water around the pontoons.

Salthouse Moon jellyfish in their thousands

Moored as we were, right in the heart of the tourist centre but secure from passing gongoozlers, with water and electricity ‘on tap’ and a daily garbage collection, we were ideally placed to explore. Liverpool ONE, the big central shopping centre with the flagship John Lewis store is literally just across the road. Albert Dock has a colonnade around the open water with more bars, restaurants and eateries than shops. The concert arena is across the other side of the dock, with one of those big wheels that have become so popular everywhere and the Adventure Dock, an inflatable obstacle course in the water. The Three Graces, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Museum of Liverpool, the ferry across the Mersey, memorials to the Titanic and many other events are right behind you.

Safely berthed at Salthouse Dock
Our view from the mooring

We couldn’t really do justice to more than half of the immediate area that afternoon but it was very nice strolling around in the sunshine among a busy crowd of holidaymakers, despite a strong breeze.

Whistle Stop Liverpool

The following day we dredged up a walking tour of the city online and followed that around the rest of the Albert Dock and Pier Head area, up to Lime Street Station, both of the cathedrals and back round past Chinatown to the docks again. It was probably quite a superficial tour but we had a fantastically sunny day for it, though still with a very strong wind down by the sea, and we got a decent feel for the place.

Have you heard of The Beatles? Take a trip to Liverpool and you certainly will have. You would be forgiven for thinking this popular beat combo was the only worthwhile thing Liverpool had ever produced. As well as the big glossy Beatles Story, the Cavern Club and the souvenir shops all around the dock, every cheeky chancer in the city clearly feels entitled to hijack the band’s reputation for their Fab Four tour, taxi, sandwich, tattoo parlour, kebab shop, strip bar etc.

The Three Graces are a famous group of three buildings on the Pier Head: The domed Port of Authority building, the Cunard Building and The Royal Liver building topped by the two Liver Birds who provided the title for an old situation comedy set in Liverpool that a few of us may remember. They do look magnificent, even dwarfed by the modern blocks around them.

The Three Graces

Like every other city we visit, the whole place seems to be in the throes of construction but that probably never changes. Having said that the whole place seems to be very prosperous, everywhere we went was busy with people going about their business in a city that generally seemed clean, tidy and well managed. There seems to be higher ratio of drinking and catering establishments per capita than we have seen in the UK outside London. Close to the docks area it is very difficult to find even a blade of grass for Bracken and that seems a general issue as we walked around. As we found when visiting Aintree Boats any scrap of grass that does exist in Liverpool is heavily defended. We did manage to sniff some out, however, including the very nice St. John’s Gardens by St. George’s Hall, near Lime Street station.

All grass in Liverpool is heavily defended

No city seems to be at its best around the railway station and as we climbed up Mount Pleasant towards the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral the area seemed a bit more run down, more like West Croydon than the West End. Perhaps the fact that this seems to be the university or student quarter has something to do with that. It only affects a small area, however. As we wandered away from the cathedral down Hope Street things quickly improved again and we stopped for lunch at Pimpernel, a gastro pub with wicker furniture placed all around the outside which, at least in today’s sunshine, reminded us both of being in Rome or Paris.

Some Pictures from Our Whistle Stop Tour (No Beatles)

Fortified by a large G&T with a grilled ham & prosciutto on sour dough sandwich and a shared bowl of fries, we carried on to view the Anglican Cathedral off Upper Duke Street. Both this and the Metropolitan Cathedral are surprisingly recent additions to the city with the latter completed in 1967 and the Anglican one in 1978. From this high point the building doesn’t look that impressive so we were also surprised to hear it was one of the largest cathedrals in the world. When you get down below, however, you begin to appreciate its real scale. Crossing Cathedral Gate gave both of us another reminder of a visit to Rome, where we chanced upon the Ministry of the Interior, which has a similar vast forecourt high up in that city.

Further down the hill the magnificent Chinatown Gate at the entrance to Nelson Street, which leads to what we are told is Europe’s oldest Chinese community. Something we need to explore on a future visit. For now we carried on down Duke Street to take us back to the docks.

We only had a day this time. We had deliberately kept the visit short as we didn’t know how Bracken would handle it and weren’t too sure how much we would enjoy it ourselves. Based on this brief reconnaissance, we came away with a very positive impression of Liverpool and would hope to come back in a couple of years for a longer period.

Passage Out

An early start on Wednesday to prepare the boat to be at Mann Island lock for 08;00. It turned out that the boat next to us, whose owners had returned the previous evening from a trip to their home, was also leaving this morning and it looked as though we were the only two making the trip that day. It had been very wet overnight but wasn’t too bad at first, despite a poor forecast, we had occasional light drizzle and attempted sunshine on the way back to the top of the Stanley Flight. Importantly, the winds were fairly light at that point. The lock keepers were as helpful and hardworking on the way up as they had been on the way down. As we knew our way around by now and weren’t fighting the elements, we had more chance to take in the views on the way back and it is a great trip.

As we reached the top of the flight and joined the main canal any traces of sunshine vanished and the rain intensified to chase us back to Litherland. We were moored up there again before eleven o’clock for the obligatory trip down the weed hatch. You couldn’t imagine a greater contrast with the day before and given the current conditions and the forecast we had decided that it would be best to settle here for the day and move on in the better weather being predicted for Thursday. For once, this turned out to be the right decision. After the restrictions of our stay in the docks it was quite nice to be able to make our own schedule again.

What we could do was start to put some more detail on the next part of our trip, including booking a temporary mooring to let us return home in a few weeks time. We figure we should be near Crewe, which has a direct line to Leamington Spa but could only get a slot at Swanley Bridge Marina on the Llangollen canal. Looking into that a bit further, we realised the marina is above Hurleston Locks, one of which is restricted pending repairs this winter to rebuild it and restore it to full width. Boats have been stuck in it and it is limited to a maximum beam of 6′ 10″. Would you believe our beam is supposed to be exactly 6′ 10″, provided Aintree Boats’ tape measure was accurate that day! We spoke to CRT who were really helpful, as they always seem to be despite the moans we see on Faceache. Within ten minutes, at a time when the local office was officially closed for the day, we had a call back to say that the Area Manager had been contacted and confirmed that there was enough leeway to say, with confidence, that at 6′ 10″ we would be fine and should continue with our plans.

Heading Home

Thursday morning, following continual heavy rain all the previous day and overnight, started damp with rain squalls continuing until about nine o’clock. From then on the high winds that had really kicked in the night before managed to shred the clouds enough to let some sunshine in and the rest of the day was dry and bright but very blustery. As luck would have it a boat arrived at the Litherland water point just as we were preparing to move up there and that delayed us for an hour. Normally it wouldn’t matter but today’s plan was to stop at Wally’s Steps, by Bridge 7D, which gave access to the road across from Aintree Retail Park. There were a few things we planned to get, mostly for Bracken at Pets At Home. However, we had to be back on the boat and through Handcock’s Swing Bridge before its restricted hours began at 14:00. Late leaving Litherland meant less time for the side trip and a leisurely shopping trip became more of a supermarket sweep. Nonetheless, we managed to get everything we planned to and get back on our way with a little time to spare.

As we finally left Litherland it had turned out that we need not have been delayed after all. As the other boat pulled away and we moved up we saw that, tucked away around the side of the CRT office, there is a second water tap that is perfectly accessible from the canal. Something to remember for the future!

Once again the forecast was for a next cycle of low pressure to drown us all on Friday. The aim today, therefore, was to make hay while the sun shone, make as much distance as we could and find somewhere to moor where we could ride it out again the next day. Arriving at Downholland’s Cross there is a short section of mooring with rings to tie up to right next to the New Scarisbrick Arms. This is not a pub, as such, but a rather nice restaurant, much lauded on Trip Advisor, with a garden looking out over the canal. It is signed as Visitor Mooring 24 hours only but we felt that we could probably stretch a point, arriving one evening, to leave on Saturday morning.

By now, not only had the rain stayed off and the sun been out much of the day but the wind, which had kept things interesting at every one of the nine swing bridges we had had to pull over to operate on the way, slowly began to drop. As rebellious rule breakers in respect of the mooring we felt no shame in pushing our luck and asking the restaurant if they would serve us a drink even though we weren’t dining there. They were very nice people and more than happy to take our money as we sat in the garden enjoying a well earned pint in the lovely, calm, evening sunshine.

New Scarisbrick Inn

With no deadlines to meet or schedule to follow it makes good sense to stay put when it is clear that you are only going to get wet and miserable if you try to move on. Having said that, with so many such days arriving so close together this summer, it has started to seem more like the rule than the exception and begins to feel a little claustrophobic. Friday’s rain started at seven o’clock in the morning and kept going right through until gone seven o’clock in the evening, accompanied by high winds just as predicted. Again a good decision to sit tight but for how many more days like this can we keep ourselves amused if we don’t get a spell of more settled weather soon?