Thursday, 2 August 2012

Slow Boat Round Four Counties

2nd to 16th July 2011.

I've left this too long, and I need to catch up, so I don't intend to blether on so much about our more recent canal adventures... you wish!
Summer 2011 started back at Great Haywood, from where we set out on the original 'Slow Boat Under Birmingham' trip; a different boat, though – this year we have 'Lady Carol' (or Elsie, as I generally call her when swearing at her to go round a tight bend), 65 ft long with a hatch in her side through which shopping can be passed and swans can look for food, a freezer and a microwave, and some rather comfortable reclining chairs. Some of this year we'll – almost inevitably when the canal system is involved - be covering old ground (or water), as we follow the Four Counties Ring in a clockwise direction.

The first couple of days saw us skirting through suburbia, south of Stafford, where there is a mix of private moorings, back gardens, pubs and hotels and holiday villages, punctuated by ducks and a good number of rather deep locks. We decided to practise the 'stick the nose on the gate' system for going through locks, which keeps the boat reasonably stable with a minimum of engine revving and forward and back motion. In an 'up' lock, it keeps the rudder from getting bashed on the downstream gate, and in a 'down' lock, it makes sure you don't get hung up on the cill. You do have to watch for the fenders getting caught, but a sharp pair of eyes on the forward gate helps.
An overnight stop at Gailey allowed for a shore party trip to the Gailey Round Tower, before meandering through flat and windy land studded with motorways, the summit pound of the Staffs and Worcs Canal. By the outskirts of Wolverhampton, it becomes a bit more interesting, with the narrows of Pendeford Rockin' - only wide enough for one boat, so we went through in convoy – and the tight entrance to the Shropshire Canal at Autherley – narrow, under abridge and straight into a stop lock! Watered up just after the lock, and headed on through a quiet evening to find a mooring for the night, passing over Watling Street by means of the Stretton Aqueduct, through some deep and heavily wooded cuttings, full of bugs and badger diggings, to finally tie up at Wheaton Aston.
The following day was interesting and, on occasion, a wee bit dramatic. The first feature was Cowley Tunnel – only 81 yards, originally longer but it had kept collapsing (reassuring!) - the southern portal has brickwork, but as you go deeper it becomes a cut through the natural sandstone, which results in a rather lumpy and irregular profile (of both tunnel and any careless boater), and there are several places where it looks as if chunks have fallen from the roof....
A series of embankments carries us along, with distant views of the Wrekin, a faint blue rise on the horizon. Infant Yggdrasils tower over us in the deep cuttings, and we try to shed the convoy of boats – we pull ahead when it's clear but they catch us when we slow for moored boats. It rains, just to be helpful. Into the depths of Grub Street Cutting, we slip under Bridge 39 - supposedly haunted by a black, monkey-like creature, though we see nothing odder than ourselves – and head onward to Shebdon Wharf, where milk from the surrounding dairies used to be collected for the Cadbury's works.
The most impressive part of today's journey is through Woodseaves Cutting. It's around 2 miles long, almost sheer-sided with some dramatic evidence of recent rockslides. It feels like a trip through another world, travelling on tick-over so as not to start any more rockslides, and conversation is in hushed tones. Drew and I speculate what may lie beyond the trees, and being us, the speculation is of the ghoulish kind.... It LOOMS.. I can think of no other suitable word. Sheer rockfaces on either side, draped with long, liana-tendrils of ivy. Lush ferns spring from cracks in the rocks, and out of a grey mist a bridge towers overhead, a high arch, mostly concealed by trees, vaulting across the gap. It feels like passing the Argonath to go beneath it. The towpath is narrow, and so wet as to have duckweed.
We emerge at Tyrley Wharf slightly dazed, and decide we may as well go down the locks tonight. As Drew goes to open the Top Lock, the heavens open again. Gongoozaling boaters head for cover, and we send Mother below as we start down. At Lock 4, Drew points to some black and yellow tape on the lower gate – the handrail is damaged. 'Think I'll go round!' he says, rather than do his usual nifty hop between the two gates. Then he looks again.
'The notice says “Wasps' Nest On Gate...”' he says, '...try not to hit it, I think!'
I steer slowly in, and sit at the top end of the lock, just clear of the cill.
He comes back again.
'Another notice. “because of the rock shelf, don't moor in the bottom pound. Set the lock and drive straight from one into the other.”'
Okay... so we go down Lock 4, and I sit in there, wondering about wasps, and hidden underwater rocky shelves, while he goes to set and open the next lock.
After a while I spot the nest – it's about the size of my fist, and in the hollow centre of the steel beam of the right-hand lock gate – when the gate is closed, it will be nice and snug inside the gate.
Right now, it's just about head height.
Drew starts raising the second paddle on the gate below, so I decide it's time for a cautious exit and cross the pound into the bottom lock. The sides of the pound are shallow and shelving,where the whole thing has been cut from the surrounding rock. He goes back to (carefully) close the wasps in for the night, and then we go through the bottom lock. There's a very strong surge of water just below the lock, which has carved out a hollow in the rock wall opposite – probably by flinging narrowboats at it, if our experience is anything to go by!
We moor up at Market Drayton, and I manage to splash hot oil up my arm while cooking dinner – ouch! The domestic battery is also looking iffy, possibly not charging properly....
After a replenishment run in the morning, we set off to do the Adderley Flight, and then moor up at the top of Audlem, ready to do that tomorrow. The shrieking spectre of Betton Cutting fails to show up, and it's another day of greenery and cows. The 240v circuit trips briefly while cooking supper. I think it's the alternator, linked to the panel light that doesn't come on at start and stop engines (my car did something similar.) Drew thinks that isn't logical. We shall see.
Next morning is Audlem Locks and my birthday. The locks are quite fun, apart from the chance of getting ducklings stuck in the locks with the boat – with no wish to make duckling pate, we have to keep shooing them out. We wanted to stop at the 'Shroppie Fly' pub, but the length of the boat plus others' shabby mooring means it's a no-go; if we have one major gripe (apart from people passing moored boats at too fast a speed), it's poor mooring – we often see gaps of 10 ft here and there between boats who have tied up one bollard apart – if they'd tie up with more thought, more boats could get into the short-term moorings. Ah well.
13 locks later, we tie up for a relaxing evening, with all but one of the flight done, and settle down to watch the first of the last Harry Potter movies, until the 240v circuit trips out completely....
We called the boatyard just before we set out, to let them know about the battery, and organised to meet at Hack Green, where the shore party want to visit the (not so secret) Secret Bunker.While we were waiting for the rain to stop, the engineer turned up, and – YES! – it was the alternator. One small connector rusted through and requiring replacement, and all is back to normal, and off they went to see the bunker. (I think I've seen enough bunkers to last a lifetime!)
Now, I am aware that we do come home with some odd souvenirs from time to time, but I think a training version of a geiger counter may be the weirdest one yet....
From a mooring at Hurleston Junction (by the turn onto the Llangollen Canal) we went through familiar waters along the Middlewich Branch. The chandlers at Venetian Marina has (oddly) turned into an antiques shop, but we could still get ice creams, and continue on our way to Middlewich. The exit onto the Trent and Mersey was congested, and followed by a narrow tunnel under a bridge and gongoozaler scrutiny into Kings Lock.

Tomorrow we're hoping to do 'Heartbreak Hill' (aka the Cheshire Locks) so a mooring near Wheelock is planned. The landscape is an odd mixture of rural and brownfield, where demolition rubble waits something to replace it, and an odd works producing great heaps of white powder – world's most obvious cocaine factory?
Sunday is a day of locks, in sunshine,showers and a downright downpour! Most of the locks are doubles, with a second chamber parallel to the first. This doesn't necessarily mean the second chamber is working, of course – one was full of concrete, several had missing gates, and one was a veritable nature reserve with meadowsweet and moorhens.
We set off early, hoping to get moored somewhere by the Harecastle Tunnel, and actually made quite a decent shot of it, with the help of a very keen bloke who whizzed along on his bike ahead of his boat and wife (and son, who rapidly lost enthusiasm for cycling). He was eager to get into the locks once we cleared, so aided with paddles and gates until the rain set in, where we lost him. Hoped to do some shopping around Lock 41, but it being 1615hrs on a Sunday and this being England, for some obscure reason the shops were shut, so we decided to go up and moor nearer the tunnel. The water is murky here – very orange, with iron particles from the water under the hill. As we ventured into the underworld below the various rail and road and foot bridges, we were met by the tunnel keeper – a very nice bloke – who said that for preference, he wouldn't moor up here, and suggested we went back a wee bit by the private moorings. If we were at the tunnel for 0730, he'd get us through with the first batch in the morning.
So we went backwards.
Sort of.
Narrowboats don't really like going backwards for any distance. Combine this with a strong water flow, and deep silt on the bottom, and you have the recipe for an awful lot of swearing from Drew.
And profligate use of the bargepole.

When we reached the tunnel (in time) there was already a boat ahead of us, and several more behind; nice tunnel keeper gave us a full briefing before setting us off into the darkness of the Harecastle Tunnel. It's 2926 yards long, and takes around 45 minutes to traverse...unless you are behind a boat which is zig-zagging, bouncing off the walls, coming to a virtual halt (looked like a group photo session), letting the children drive, dropping to tick over, hitting the 'bollards' in the tunnel, and causing everyone else to slow-speed-slow-stop as we followed. In some parts of the tunnel there isn't a lot of head room, which made things extra-interesting.
Breakfast and coffee was served at the first opportunity once we were back in the light, and an exceptionally helpful birdwatcher gave us directions to the supermarket, so our supply hunter/gatherer was sent off.
This side of the tunnel, we are in 'The Potteries' (Stoke-on-Trent seems to be an amalgam of towns rather than a place unto itself); sadly, much of the industrial heritage seems to have been lost to demolition – plaques mark the sites of famous potteries, and there are a few bottle kilns but seemingly little else. Got a pump-out at the Black Prince yard near Etruria, before heading up the Caldon Canal, which begins with some interesting wiggles and a sudden 2-chamber staircase lock, with huge gates. Planet Lock, which follows, is a mere baby at 3ft 10ins rise. The canal wends through the tended greenery of Hanley Park, beginning in a very urban setting, becoming quite posh with some nice waterside flats, before turning shabby-industrial and finally rural again, and all very winding and narrow.
After lunch, we dealt with the lift bridge, which like the one on the Llangollen, requires the boater to stop traffic. How a solo boater manages we still cannot figure, as you're on the wrong side with no way down to your boat – so having lifted the bridge, how do you get your boat through? Drew did traffic control, and I made a rather nervous pick-up on the far side once he'd lowered the bridge.
Stopped overnight at Milton, for a visit to the Abacus bookshop in the morning. Which is apparently excellent! While we were tied up, we encountered a passing family with a very enthusiastic small boy, who was getting excited over the boats. On seeing us, we heard 'Ooh! What a big boat!' and then, as he looked through the window at Mum, '..and it's got a GRANNY on it!!'
Cue collapse of crew....
The locks on the Caldon are stone rather than brick-lined, and there are a lot of mason's marks on the stones, which I decided to 'collect' as we went. Some stones are intricately worked, with patterned surfaces, yet the spend most of their time underwater. I can't imagine the same happening today. On advice from the bookshop owner, we took the main branch,encountering some annoyances in the form of a lot of insects (Drew took up 'cleg-dancing') and one Important Individual who stole the bottom lock at Hazelhurst, wasting an entire lock-full, despite shouts from other boats....prat!
Past the Churnet Valley Railway, with one engine in steam as we passed, and a forlorn dredger parked in the river where it met the canal, risking getting overturned if the river rose. A gorgeous, sunny evening, and as we couldn't get a mooring at the Holly Bush, pushed on up to the Black Lion at Consall Forge. We can't go much further, as the boat is too big to go through Froghall Tunnel, so we picked our way carefully past weir bridges, railway lines and under the platform to the winding hole by Flint Mill Lock. Moored below the limekilns at Consall, and Drew went to the pub, returning with a carry-out of 'Black Hole', a rather molasses-y dark brew.
Southwards now, despite a small sandbar, and a kingfisher by the Knypersley feeder, and the efforts of the 'Martha Gingers' who dillied and dallied about in front of us, going Very Slowly, wrapping themselves in the foliage (which cleverly meant that we ended up operating the lift bridge again) and then messing up going through the staircase...this combined with a bloke who drove straight into the bottom of the staircase without checking if anyone was queuing to come down... result was an hour on a boring bank waiting, and staring at the backs of terrace houses.
Left out of the Caldon, into the top of the Stoke Flight (a Very Deep Lock). The canal goes under the main Crewe-Stafford railway line, where the metal siding on the bridge has been shaped to allow lock operations, and alongside the A5007 which leads to the M6. Chugging alongside the rush-hour traffic and backed-up lorries is rather odd. Then we were out again into a more rural setting, and a gorgeous blue-sky-and-sunshiney evening, the sunlight through the leaves and long grass, gleaming off the towers of the incinerator....
Next morning it was off through Trentham Lock to moor up for a visit to the Wedgwood Factory, and a selection of trophies – small black bowls, a Turkish coffee cup, a lovely blue-bead bracelet, and a couple of creations, Drew having made a small blue beaker and decorated a flower pot, both of which will be sent on when fired.
More locks through the afternoon, and a mooring close to the pub.
The plan to moor for the last night at a decent pub, followed by a short hop on the last morning came to naught, a combination of shabby mooring, too many boats, and a long queue at Weston Lock following a technical hitch culminating in a total lack of mooring between our overnight stop and the Great Haywood base. We could have gone through to Tixall Wide, but it seemed that everyone else had the same idea, so Drew went down to the boatyard to see if we could get in there.
Which we could.
So we did.
Easier said than done, admittedly, with a lot of traffic at the junction, but thanks to the 'Ezekiel Dane' we got round and moored up for the final time.
Very odd, being in the yard overnight, but at least there wasn't the need for an early start!

136 miles, 135 locks, 8 lift bridges, 2 tunnels....

As usual, a map of our trip is here!

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