Saturday, March 29, 2008

Caldon Contrasts

Having enjoyed the Cheshire countryside and the River Weaver with Shireen, we headed up the long-drawn-out series of locks to take us back to Kidsgrove, seeing the water turn gradually back to that familiar 'tomato soup' colour. We came under the aqueduct with the Macclesfield Canal going north over it (in this picture), up a couple more locks and then through Harecastle Tunnel again(quite fast this time, only 32 minutes!) and back to Stoke-on-Trent.

Why? The Caldon Canal, of course! We had intended to go there some weeks earlier, but the lock work was only due to finish on 14th March, so we even had to wait a couple more days on the outskirts of Stoke before heading up on the 15th.

Polythene Pollution. All the canal guide books wax lyrical about the beauty of the Caldon Canal, but they seem to forget to tell you that you have to work your way out of Stoke first, before you come to the attractive bits! There are the old 'bottle' kilns from the remains of the pottery industry, but they mostly stand alone in sites that have been demolished for new housing developments. Should be nice when they are done, and some improvements are being made to the 'canalscape' alongside, too – very welcome! But we still had to contend with slow progress along the canal itself, for two reasons: firstly, the water level seemed very low, so the canal was shallow and that slowed us down. Secondly, there seemed to be even more than the usual amount of urban rubbish in the canal, including the dreaded polythene bags that attach themselves to the propellor. Pretty much the boater's equivalent of a flat tyre – you need to stop, open the weed hatch over the prop and get the obstruction out, whether it be weed, wire, rope or plastic. We had them all!
Before long, though, we shook off the decaying industry of the Potteries and found ourselves in rural Staffordshire. Quite a sudden change – another Caldon contrast!

Here is some fine metalwork on the little footbridge taking the towpath over to the Leek arm of the Caldon, while the 'main line' of the canal falls away down three locks to join the Churnet valley. The Leek arm then crosses the main line on an aqueduct and takes a pretty contour-hugging route around the side of the same valley and through a short tunnel before coming to an unceremonious stop where the canal and aqueduct have been filled in. The long walk in to Leek is past a large concrete works and industrial estate – a Leek Letdown!

Remote and Roadless. The next day, we retraced our route back to the junction and went down the locks to follow the main line. Just after Cheddleton, as the road left the valley, we were joined by the Churnet Valley Railway and so rail, river and canal shared the remote wooded valley down to Consall Forge, where the Black Lion pub was once totally inaccessible by road, and the platform and Waiting Room of Consall Station hang cantilevered over a very narrow section of the canal.

As we went on down this lovely wooded valley, we realised that we were still a little early to see the Caldon at its best. Spring was only just beginning; the bluebells and wild garlic would not be out for a few weeks, and the trees were only just starting to show a hint of green. Lovely, nonetheless!

Froghall Frustration. At what is now the terminus of the canal, a short but very low tunnel takes the canal through to Froghall Basin and what used to be the beginning of the Uttoxeter Canal. Well-meaning enthusiasts have paid for the restoration of the basin, which looks fine with its modern moorings. The only troubles are that hardly any boats can get through the tunnel and the Uttoxeter Canal goes no further! According to one British Waterways worker, there is some hope that the tunnel may be enlarged 'on the back of' local housing redevelopment on land above it. And canal restoration societies are founded on optimism and determination, so perhaps one day the canal will link right through to Uttoxeter again!

Adam and Rachel planned to visit us over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, so we returned to Cheddleton to meet them on Friday for a meal at the Boat Inn and travel back down the valley with them. They picked up Jeremy as well, and he stayed for the whole weekend. Rachel's ferret Boo had a bit more exploring to do on board, Adam had some young helpers with one lock, and Rachel got really involved with working another one! And as it was the Bank Holiday weekend, the steam trains were running!

We took Adam and Rachel down the valley beyond Consall before they left us to walk back to the Boat Inn and resume their weekend in the Peak District. We went down to Froghall again to turn around, moored up opposite the Black Lion at Consall and popped in for an evening meal in probably the remotest pub we are likely to visit!

Snow Surprise. We awoke next morning to an unexpected outlook! It didn't last very long, but made spring look like winter again as we headed back up through Cheddleton. By the time we reached the locks at Hazelhurst, there was no trace of it, and we moved on towards Stockton Brook. Adam and Rachel picked up Jeremy on Monday to get him to a train as they travelled home. They all had to be back at work the next day, and Jeremy had to get ready for a trip to Chad by the end of the week. We just had to get back to Stoke to sort out two things: a couple of parcels to collect, and trying to get our old alternator repaired. One parcel was there, but we had to wait a couple of days for the other one. We ran into setbacks with trying to get the alternator repaired and so have still got to sort that one out. Meanwhile, moored near a lake on the edge of Stoke, there are signs that spring really IS on its way!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

More Diversions – Deliberate and Otherwise! – 2 Anderton and Beyond

So – back from the Macclesfield Canal and on the Trent & Mersey again, this time heading northwest, and once again covering a stretch of canal where we had not been before. There had only been one small 'stop lock' on the Macclesfield, but soon there were quite a few more for Shireen to tackle – her choice entirely! She also did a bit of 'driving' – with a little 'help' from Thor.

Adam came and joined us last Sunday for lunch at Wheelock and a little bit of cruising afterwards.

Then on down to Middlewich, where we turned off last April along the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union Canal towards the Llangollen Canal. This time, we headed straight on towards Anderton and its famous Boat Lift. We only had time to stop and look at it last year, but now we rang ahead to book our passage down on Wednesday morning.
Here is 'Zindagi' next to the other boat that travelled down the lift with us. We went over the aqueduct to enter the 'caisson' (large tank filled with water), which was then lowered 50 feet to join the River Weaver. It is all powered by enormous hydraulic rams, but the weight of one caisson going down provides most of the power to raise the other one up from the river to the canal.

We started on the Weaver by going upstream and stopping for some shopping at Northwich, before trying to go right up to Winsford, the upper limit of navigation. When we reached the first lock, we were told that it and the next one up were closed for maintenance, but the BW men strongly recommended us to see what it was like downstream. So we turned round and headed back past the lift and the enormous chemical works opposite it, very soon found ourselves entering a very different world and stopped for lunch in a peaceful spot.

Like on the Thames, all the locks are operated for boaters by lock keepers and on the Weaver they even phoned ahead to the next lock so that the keeper there had it ready for us when we arrived – what service! And what enormous locks!! These were built in 1872 for coastal traffic coming inland and upstream from the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal to Anderton, Northwich and even Winsford, and all the swing bridges had to open for them, too. Sadly, the salt trade, which had been the original reason for the Anderton Lift, together with the chemical works on the Weaver itself, have all gone into decline and commercial coasters stopped using the Weaver Navigation in 1998. Now, as one BW lock keeper said to us, 'It's all for leisure and pleasure'. We went on downstream and found ourselves a quiet mooring, well away from civilisation.

The next day, Thursday, we decided to follow the Weaver right down to its junction with the Ship Canal, and once again the river changed its character. As soon as we passed under Sutton Swing Bridge, we were back in the world of the chemical plant, with towers, lights and miles of pipework. We turned round next to the lock leading to the Ship Canal and headed back to rural peace and quiet!

We only had two days on the Weaver, as we had booked to come up the Lift on Friday. In those two days, though, we had learned to appreciate this river, which probably is one of BW's best-kept secrets. Back to the more familiar world of the canals, and we started our journey back towards Wheelock on the edge of Sandbach, where Shireen and Thor plan to leave us on Monday. We have really enjoyed having them with us and wonder how much he will have grown before we see them again!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

More Diversions – Deliberate and Otherwise! – 1

From Tixall Wide, our plan had been to head north up the Trent and Mersey Canal and branch off onto the Caldon Canal from Stoke on Trent. BUT – one or two other things have been happening since then and we have changed our plans – several times!

First, we knew that Shireen (with little Thor) wanted to join us for a week or two, so we planned to meet her in Stoke on Trent. Other plans meant that she could not join us until 26th February, so we thought we would take the opportunity to explore in the opposite direction and head south on part of the Trent & Mersey that we had not visited before. So we chugged out of the 'Staffs and Worcs' at Great Haywood (and past the Anglo Welsh boatyard, where our first canal adventures had started in 1976 and 1978) and turned right, in a sort of general Birmingham direction again! As you can see, the cold weather in mid-February meant that there was a little ice-breaking to be done.

We travelled south east through pleasant countryside and through Rugeley with its massive power station dominating the landscape, turning right at Fradley Junction to join the Coventry Canal. All new territory for us.
We soon found ourselves at the canalside village of Hopwas, near Lichfield. Once again, we were 'iced in', and just waited for other boats to crunch through before we moved anywhere – saves losing too much paint off the hull!

We decided to travel as far as Fazeley Junction before turning round and heading back towards Great Haywood again, and it was around this time that we had a phone call from Jackie, who said she would like to see us for a couple of days. We arranged to meet in Rugeley, subject to our being able to move.

We made it OK through the ice, past the famous 'Swan' at Fradley Junction and back to Rugeley. Jackie had never been on a canal boat before, so everything was new to her, but she soon got involved, helping to work the locks with great enthusiasm. We took her for a 'there-and-back-again' trip up to Tixall Wide and back to Rugeley, where we turned round again, now really heading northwards to Stoke on Trent. The timing worked out fine for us to meet Shireen and Thor as planned, and we moved up to where the Caldon Canal branches off the Trent & Mersey.

While I (Dave) was having a chat in the nearby marina next morning, someone mentioned that the Caldon Canal was still closed for winter maintenance. Sure enough, there in the list of 'stoppages', was one that would only be clear on March 14th! We had travelled north faster than we had originally thought and I had not re-checked the dates – oops! We needed some alternative plans . . .
Rather than go south again, we decided to head north and take a little trip up the Macclesfield Canal. This is part of our planned route to the Pennines, but we knew that we could not go very far straight away – more lock maintenance work! Travelling north up the Trent & Mersey meant getting through the Harecastle Tunnel (2926 yards long – about 50 minutes of tunnel) and we knew that we should give 48 hours notice.
What we did not know for sure was whether we would need to 'strip down' Zindagi to minimum height to get through. The guide books (and British Waterways) said maximum 5'9" headroom, but another boater had told us some days earlier that he had got through OK with loads of stuff on his roof, well above 6 ft. Talking to the tunnel keeper, he said the best idea was for us to travel up to the tunnel and check against the height gauge, so we set off to get there as soon as possible.

When we arrived, we found that not only could Zindagi fit in easily, but also that we could travel through after about half an hour (not 48 hours later). The earthquake the night before meant that an inspection boat had needed to check all through the tunnel, and we could travel back with it as everything was OK. As you can see, the canal water in this area is the colour of weak tomato soup, due to local ironstone strata.

We had a couple of days on the Macclesfield, enjoying the not-so-wintery weather and the fine 'snake bridges', the local name for the ingenious 'turnover' bridges which enabled a towing horse to cross the canal when the towpath changed sides, but without disconnecting the rope.

But we still had more time, so what should we do with it? Checking through the guide books, we found that we should have time to travel on north on the Trent & Mersey and go down the famous Anderton Boat Lift to cruise on the River Weaver. When we came past it last April, we did not have time to go down on it, but said 'perhaps another time?' Here was our opportunity!