Sunny with a chance of acorns

From Goldstone Wharf to Tom's Moorings, a distance of 3 miles, 5 flg and 5 locks.

It was a bright and sunny morning but a little windy when we cast off on the last, and short, day of the holiday. The wind had picked up a bit over night and it had a coolish edge to it. There seemed to be quite a few boats on the move and we had to wait at Woodseaves Cutting (Southern End) to let a boat through and we passed another boat in the middle of the cutting. It looked like someone had been clearing the towpath as you could see the cobbles on a good section of it but it looked like they had given up by the time they reached High Bridge No 57 as beyond it the towpath was its usual muddy track.

Then we met another boat right on the bend near Hollings Bridge No 58 but we managed to pass each other with neither of us running aground.

Tyrley Locks were as pretty as ever and we followed a boat down and met two more coming up. Just before Tyrley Castle Bridge No 61 there is a slight widening in the canal and someone has been creative with an old tree stump:

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Each time we’ve gone past this stump its had a little more added to.. I hope he’ll be getting a coat and a scarf for Christmas.

In several places on the lock flight and in the cutting below the locks we got attacked by falling acorns… which is where this post got its name from.

There were quite a few boats on Market Drayton Visitor Moorings but luckily the ones opposite Tom’s Moorings were empty so we were able to turn just by Lords Bridge No 64 and then back into our moorings.

 

A Tale of Two Wharfs

From Compton Bridge No 59 to Goldstone Wharf, a distance of 25 miles, 4¾ flg and 3 locks.

It was cool and very overcast when we cast off and as we chugged along to Aldersley Junction it didn’t seem to be getting any better, and we sort of resigned ourselves to another dullish day.. We stopped at Napton Boats atAutherley Junction for a pump out – we had to wait a little while as they had a few boats coming and and apparently their last hire is the first week in November and we had seen quite a few of their boats out and about during the week.

As we headed North away from Wolverhampton the weather slowly got better and by the time we reached Brewood Wharf the sky was clear and the sun was out – this just adding further proof to our weather theory… maybe we should apply for funding from a university somewhere!

The Shroppie really looks good in the late September sunshine – enough of the canopy has thinned out to let more sun into the normally shady cuttings and you get little dappled spots of sunshine adding patches of brightness to the green

The good weather continued and it was late morning when we arrived at Wheaton Aston Lock No 2 where we only had to wait a couple of minutes for a boat to clear the lock before we could fill it. We stopped at Turner’s to get some fuel and then moved over to the visitor moorings so we could go and have a lunch time drink in the Hartley Arms.

The clouds started to gather after lunch so maybe our weather theory needs some minor adjustments, and there seemed to be more boats on the move and but soon after lunch the traffic seemed to stop and we were able to enjoy the countryside views without being stuck in a queue of boats.

We passed Mikron‘s boat Tyseley moored up on the offside just north of Gnosall Bridge No 35 – So I guess they’re keeping it there and had taken road transport over to Burslem for their show this evening. Gnosall was our nominally planned last night but as the weather was still pretty good and we had several hours of light left we decided to push on and stop at The Wharf at Wharf Inn (Shebdon) Winding Hole but it has apparently closed – or so we were told by the person on the other end of the phone when we tried to book a table for the evening, and the sign at the winding hole was all taped over so I guess they were right. It seems an odd thing to do to retire and close the pub but keep the pub’s phone number as your own personal one. Lets hope that the closure is only temporary as the pub usually seemed to be quite busy whenever we had visited it in the past.

The phone call with the other Wharf Inn at Goldstone Wharf was almost as surreal – they wouldn’t allow us to book a table because although they take bookings and had tables free they had taken as many booking as they wanted and told us that if we turned up and found a table then we can eat. All of us on the boat thought this seemed to be a very odd business plan as you risk losing business unless you are 100% confident that you will fill all your unbooked tables with casual traffic. We decided to risk it but we could quite easily have said “Stuff It” and eaten on board and drunk somewhere else. However when we got there we realised that their business model is to get people through the ordering and eating process as quickly as possible and thus reserved tables block that process. The food was very good though and extremely good value.

After eating we walked up the road into Cheswardine and tried both The Fox and Hounds and The Red Lion which is the home of the Lion’s Tail Brewery. If you want to visit these two pubs then you’re better off mooring at Hallemans Bridge No 53 and walking up Westcott Lane as the village is nearer and it doesn’t involve you walking along busy roads with no street lights.

Dimmingsdale is NOT a Monty Python character

From Coalbourne Brook Bridge to Compton Bridge No 59, a distance of 13 miles, 2¾ flg and 21 locks.

We noticed something very interesting this morning as we came back onto the main line of the canal and headed down towards Stourton Junction. The weather when we’re in the countryside has been good, the weather in the cities not so good:

  • Saturday : open Cheshire countryside – wonderful weather
  • Sunday : Heading up the lock – bit industrial but no cities : pretty good weather
  • Monday : Stoke on Trent : grim weather
  • Tuesday : Open countryside down to Huddlesford Junction : pretty good weather
  • Wednesday : Heading into Birmingham – foggy, damp and miserable
  • Thursday – Heading out of Birmingham – weather not that bad
  • Friday – open countryside – weather very good again.

So there we go – it looks like to have good weather on canal holidays you need to avoid cities like Stoke and Birmingham.

Progress down the last four locks to the junction was a little slow and we were worried the boat in front of us might be turning right and heading up the canal, but luckily they turned left. The canal was quite busy and we met quite a few boats on the move and got stuck in a little queue of boats coming up through Swindon Lock No 18 but it didn’t cause any real problems and Botterham Staircase Locks turned out not to be a problem at all as most of the traffic seemed to be going upstream.

We stopped on the moorings at Wombourne Bridge No 43 and after lunch had a quick pint in The Waggon & Horses which has changed an awful lot since Nick and I last drank in there. There’s even a big Sainsbury’s on the other side of the bridge which is well worth knowing about if you need to do some shopping.

We were naturally expecting to have to wait at The Bratch but it was empty and we sailed straight in. Bratch Top Lock No 25 was already empty so when we started filling Bratch Middle Lock No 24 the water was all being puled from the side pond and the whirlpool that formed when we opened the gate paddle was extremely impressive and a little bit scary – it was about a foot wide and the water was corkscrewing into it – so it looked like someone had just removed a large screw…. waster is not supposed to have holes in it like that.

The canal seemed to have quietened off again and Dimmingsdale Lock No 28 had about 2 foot of water in it which seemed a bit odd as it doesn’t seem to leak.

We stopped quite early – taking the last vacant visitor mooring at Compton. We booked a table at the tiny and extremely quirky “Tiger Wok” which is just over the canal bridge, and spent the rest of the evening in The Swan which, if you want good beer and atmosphere , is the better of the two pubs near the canal in our humble opinion – but if you don’t like classic basic boozers full of people chatting and playing darts and dominoes then you might disagree.

Going Underground!

From Symphony Court Footbridge to Coalbourne Brook Bridge, a distance of 20 miles, 7 flg and 25 locks.

When we got up the rest of the reserved moorings were still empty so we didn’t feel guilty at all. A slow chug through Oozel Street Loop brought us back out onto the New Main Line and we made extremely good progress as the canal is nice and wide and deep, well apart from the Toll Office islands which seem to be pretty silted up and although you are really right in the heart of Birmingham the canal seems almost rural in places. The towpaths were once again busy with joggers and cyclists and people walking to work but there seemed to be no other boats on the move and it wasn’t until we reached the far end of Netherton Tunnel that we saw another moving boat. After 2.7Km of perfectly straight tunnel the meandering course of the canal comes as a welcome relief.

The canal at Merry Hill has changed so much and there are useful moorings if you need to get provisions as you can walk down to a Sainsbury’s.. Delph Top Lock No 1 soon follows and we made quick progress down the locks which are a pretty impressively engineered flight Of course if you’re doing The Delph locks then you really have to stop at the bottom and take a walk up the hill (keeping the locks on your left hand side) to visit the Vine (aka The Bull and Bladder) which does very good beer and very silly sandwiches both at reasonable prices.

Some more meandering canal leads you to Stourbridge Top Lock No 1 and the start of a flight of 16 locks down to Wordsley Junction. The large Stewart Crystal glass factory is long gone now and the old Cone furnace by Glasshouse Bridge (Wordesley) is the only sign, apart from the derelict factory, of the industry that was the reason for the canal being here in the first place.as the iron works which was also alongside the canal has vanished without a trace.

Turning onto the Stourbridge Branch takes you back onto a winding little canal which is relatively deep and teeming with fish. It’s not long before the temrinal warehouse comes into view and although its possible to wind a full length boat there the number of moored boats would make it a little difficult. You used to be able to moor near the end of the canal but its now so totally full of permanent moorings that you can’t – its so bad that people actually moor on the water point to go into town. We headed back to the bridge and moored up so we could walk into Amblecote and explore some of the pubs there.

It’s foggy, it’s damp, it’s Wednesday… it must be Birmingham

From Plough Bridge No 83 to Symphony Court Footbridge, a distance of 22 miles, 5¼ flg and 38 locks.

It had been decided in the pub, over beer, last night that we should make an early start to try to get to a sensible stopping place in Birmingham so it was pretty early when we cast off and it was misty and damp and all a bit depressing which seemed only appropriate in some ways.

We made steady progress and Hopwas School Bridge soon came up. I’m sure there was a good reason for it when it was built but the canal through Hopwas seems to take great delight in being almost continuous bends but luckily we didn’t meet anyone on any of them. By the time we approached Fazeley Junction the weather was starting to improve a little and you could catch the odd occasional glimpse of the sun through the cloud and mist and as we headed towards. Curdworth Bottom Lock No 38 the weather rapidly improved and it was actually pleasantly warm working up the locks.

I don’t think any of the canal routes into Birmingham could be described as pretty and the run through Minworth is pretty depressing. The now derelict Cincinnati works at Cincinatti Bridge is just one of many derelict sites alongside the canal. I can remember when it was still open and the now overgrown bank between the works and the canal used to be nicely landscaped.

The original plan had been to go up the Birmingham Canal Navigations (Tame Valley Canal) but it didn’t work well timing wise so we carried on up the Birmingham Canal Navigations (Birmingham and Fazeley Canal) and come out right in the centre of Birmingham so our last member of crew could join us without having to find his way to another train station and catch a second train.

Birmingham seems to have an odd duality when it comes to the canal – there were plenty of cyclists using the towpath as we climbed up through the locks to Aston Junction but the whole place is daubed with graffiti and that whole “we have a canal lets use it” and “we have a canal, its rubbish so lets vandalise it and use it to dump rubbish in” seems to pervade so much of Birmingham’s canal network.

We made excellent time up Farmers Bridge taking 1 hour and 5 to do the whole flight. The towpath was very busy with people heading home from work and the traffic on Saturday Bridge hardly seemed to be moving at all. The moorings at Cambrian Wharf were full as were all of the moorings on the Main Line so we slipped across into the Oozle Street Loop and moored up on some moorings which were reserved, like so many others, for a canal market on Saturday. The notices told us to try to moor in Gas Street Basin but that was completely in the wrong direction and there were no guarantees of a mooring there. By the time we left the boat to go and have supper, and some beer, the rest of the moorings were still empty and they were still empty when we returned from the pub at the end of the evening.

Rugeley Trent Valley… All Change!

From Upper Burston Bridge No 86 to Plough Bridge No 83, a distance of 22 miles, 6½ flg and 8 locks.

After spending time the previous evening in the pub researching train times and bouncing text messages around it turned out that the best place to do the crew swap was at Rugeley – with Simon and Mike leaving on 14:04 and David arriving on the 14:05.

So we set off into a slightly misty, grey and dull day – but at least it wasn’t raining! The canal continues its almost meaningless meandering along the Trent Valley, it seems to go nowhere and seems to be in no hurry to get there and with very infrequent bridges it can become hard to work out where you are. Weston Bridge No 80 and the settlement of Weston even manages to sneak up on you heading south but the village seems to be unwilling to let the canal go and new developments are stretched out alongside the canal almost until you reach Weston Lock No 24.

Great Haywood Junction was, as usual, slightly chaotic with boats moving round all over the place and for some reason people seemed to be having problems getting through Haywood Lock No 22 for some reason and we didn’t want to think about how bad it would be at Colwich Lock No 21 but it wasn’t that bad and whilst we waited we had a good chat with the resident lock keeper who used to be a working boatman. Once through the lock we made good time and soon arrived at Rugeley North Visitor Moorings which are very hand for a supermarket (just over the the bridge) and for Rugeley Trent Valley railway station which is a few minutes walk in the other direction.

Once we’d swapped crew we set off under very pleasant skies and soon arrived at Armitage Tunnel where we didn’t have to wait for another boat and we didn’t follow one through either which is a pretty rare occurrence from our experience, and given the fact that a few minutes earlier we’d passed a lot boats going in the other direction, and the canal was actually pretty quite all the way down to Wood End Lock No 20 which always looks so tranquil. The locks down to Fradley Junction were pretty quiet too and we navigated the junction and Fradley Swingbridge with no problems.

Although our original planned stopping place had been just above Fradley locks we decided to push on Huddlesford Junction for the night as it was a pleasant evening and it seemed silly to waste the nice day.

The Plough at the junction has changed quite a bit since we were last in it which we think was over 15 years ago, however the beer was good and the staff were very friendly..

It’s the Boggart!!

From Turnover Bridge No 132 to Upper Burston Bridge No 86, a distance of 17 miles, 5½ flg and 15 locks.

The weather was going to be colder today according to all the forecasts but none of them seemed to have bothered to mention that it would actually be raining as well. It was that annoying drizzle that seems to soak everything through quickly without there ever really being much rain.

We knew that the first set of boats going through the tunnel would be going south so we got under way and chugged up to the tunnel entrance where they checked our licence and how many people we had on the boat and if we had any pets. A quick run over the rules, which included instructions not to crawl through the tunnel but to do normal cruising speed and stick to the centre of the bore – which was quite refreshing. We were told the whole journey shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes and it was actually only about 35 minutes later that we emerged back into the grey dampness at Harecastle Tunnel (South end). We didn’t encounter Kitcrew bucket during our passage of the tunnel although we did see the skeleton in one of the alcoves in the tunnel wall which were there to allow people to get out of the way of the horses when the tunnel used to have a towpath

A lot of has changed in the section of canal between the tunnel and Etruria Junction since Mintball first came through. All the old heavy industry has gone – there are no coal mines and the huge steel works which you used to cruise through middle of, with one of their steel sheds actually extending over the canal, has gone and has been replaced with a mix of derelict wasteland, partially reclaimed land and light industrial and business units. The pub at Stoke Marina and a sign saying “Fesitval Park” are the only remains of the 1986 National Garden Festival which was held here which can be seen from the canal.

The five locks taking you down from the summit aren’t the most exciting or pleasant locks to work and Stoke Bottom Lock No 36 has to be one of the worst locks on the canal system. It was rebuilt when major road improvements were made and was obviously designed by someone who had seen a lock and understood the principles but had never actually used one – it’s horribly slow to fill, and extremely choppy if you are coming up, and for a lock with a 12 foot fall it’s obviously some very impressive engineering that makes its empty as slowly as it does, and the water leaves the lock much more smoothly than it enters… so obviously designed by a complete idiot.

The canal then winds its way through the sprawling urban mass that makes up Stoke on Trent. Although the canal was built with very specific purposes in mind it now just seems to wander aimlessly around with no real purpose – apart from allowing you to escape from Stoke.

The descent into Stone is remarkably rural and its only when you hit Stone Top Lock No 30 that you realise there is quite a large sized town coming up. The old Joule’s brewery building is still standing and is now longer derelict – now housing some sort of factory – it’s good to see an industrial building not lying derelict that hasn’t been turned into housing. The boatyards at Stone seemed to be as busy as ever and the hire company there has been there for over 60 years – having started in 1946.

The water point and visitor moorings below Stoke Bottom Lock No 36 are very popular. We watered up and did some shopping – Stone has a very good mixed DIY Hardware store that sells pet supplies, cooking equipment and gardening equipment amongst other things. We finished off our stop in Stone with a few beers in The Swan, which is just over the canal bridge on the way into town. It had 9 real ales and free wifi – the beer was good, the wifi not so good : in fact the wifi didn’t actually seem to want to work.

By the time we left at 5:15pm the visitor moorings were full to busting – so it looks like the moral is that if you want to stop in Stone overnight then you get there early and even the 5 day moorings which extend past Stone Bottom Lock Winding Hole were moored up fender to fender.

We ambled on for a short while before stopping for the night. The Greyhound is a good pub and the walk is definitely worth it but it is vitally important to take a torch if you’ll be walking back in the dark as part of the path is quite narrow and runs alongside a stream for part of the way.

Down and then back up again

From The Badger Inn to Turnover Bridge No 132, a distance of 18 miles, 1½ flg and 33 locks.

It was a bright and sunny morning, but far too early given that it was Sunday, when we cast off and made our way towards Middlewich and the slow climb up hill to Kidsgrove, and apart from some problems with weed and a dead rabbit (luckily Nick only had to clear the first of those off the prop) it was a pretty easy run.

Middlewich Junction was, as always, slightly busy but there were no big queues and two boats waiting below the lock to come up. Simon navigated the junction with easy and it was just about 09:30 when the boat slipped into King’s Lock No 71 and the first lock on the long slog up hill.

The first few locks on the flight are quite spaced out so there was plenty of time fo us to have breakfast on the move. Nick’s question of “What would you say to a nice sausage sandwich” of course only has one sensible answer – which is “Hello, sausage sandwich”, but of course the Father Jack response of “Feck Off Sandwich!” was also used. So we ate breakfast as we cruised past some extremely large piles of salt.

The weather continued to get better and sitting in the shade at Crows Nest Lock it felt more like a summer day than the end of September, but as Nick said the weather often does this at this time of year..

The countryside surrounding the canal is an odd mix of industry, wasteland and agriculture and just beyond Rookery Railway Bridge No 158 we weren’t sure if the smell was industrial, agricultural or if someone had dumped a load of Surströmming on the fields. We’ve all smelt some pretty unpleasant things over the years and done things like fishing screwdrivers out of boat sewage holding tanks but this smell beat all of those into a cocked hat. Luckily it didn’t last that long and our sense of smell only took about 10 minutes to fully recover.. either that or the sewage works at bridge 156 stinked nearly as badly.

Solid and steady progress was made through the locks which just never seem to end. A short stop was taken just above Wheelock Flight Top Lock No 59 for lunch before we cast off again to continue the slow slog up hill.

The weather was holding and the sun made the walks along the tow path between the locks quite pleasant. A lot of people were out for walks with family or their dogs, or both, and there were a few cyclists as well.

As the evening drew in we approached the top few locks. The Red Bull Inn at Red Bull Lock No 43 was scoped out as a potential place to eat and drink and seemed at a quick glance to be more than adequate if other places to eat and drink couldn’t be found. We went through Red Bull Top Lock No 41 and decided not to visit the “The Canal Tavern” as it all sounded rather noisy and finally stopped for the night a few hundred yards short of the tunnel.

A quick scout round showed that Kidsgrove really hasn’t improved in the 14 years since I was last there and we ended walking back down to the Red Bull for some extremely good home cooked food and a good selection of beers from Robinson’s. Towards the end of the evening we headed back to the boat via The Bluebell – a pub with no juke box, no TV, no pool table or gaming machines – but lots of very good beer including an excellent mild and a beer which we think was called Fruit Bat which seemed to taste of peaches.

Badger, Badger, Badger….. Mushroom!!

From Tom's Moorings to The Badger Inn, a distance of 20 miles, 1¼ flg and 24 locks.

We arrived at the boat on Friday night and after getting the landline hooked up we unloaded the car and got everything loaded on board and stowed again. Once that had all been done we headed out to find some beer… Well we had to start as we meant to go on and Market Drayton has several very good pubs so it would have been a terrible crime not to slake our thirst with a pint or three and The Red Lion, home of Joules Brewery, was our choice for the evening and the Double Hop, the Blonde, and the Slumbering Monk were all on fine form.

One of the advantages of having an eager crew is that there is always at least one person willing to make an early start and today was no exception. So as one person gets the engine started another is in the kitchen making the first coffee of the day, and as for the others… well usually the noise of everything else going on drags them from their slumbers.

We cast off relatively early – really 07:24 is not a time you should be seeing on a Saturday morning. The sky was overcast and the forecast for the day suggested that the weather was pretty much set for the day..

When we arrived at Adderley Top Lock No 8 at 8am the Adderley Farm shop wasn’t actually open so we couldn’t pick up any fresh meat which we needed to do as a last minute change in crew had meant we only had carnivores on board.

We took it gently down the locks, there were a couple of other boats on the move but it all went quite smoothly and we got through the 5 locks in quite a reasonable time.

Although we knew that our planned stop for the night at the badger was quite easily achievable we know from experience that Audlem can always ruin any well made plan, so breakfast was a rather fine bacon sandwich and coffee on the move.. But because we’d planned for it there were no problems at all and it was just before 11am when we arrived at Audlem Wharf . We did a quick shop for provisions, including getting some meat at Audlem’s wonderful little butchers shop. We had planned on maybe having a pre-lunch drink but apparently none of the pubs in Audlem open before 12 noon on a Saturday so we moved on.

The last three locks of the flight were as easy as the rest and by this time the sky had cleared and the sun had come out. So it was quite pleasant as we headed down through Hack Green Bridge No 86 and pas the secret nuclear bunker.

The moorings at Nantwich were as full as ever and it was a last minute decision to stop at Acton Bridge No 93 and take a short walk over the fields to the Star Inn in the village of Acton. The pub is easy to find, the beers were in good form and the menu looked good so it’s probably worth considering as an overnight stop if the fleshpots of Nantwich don’t appeal.

Whilst trying to find out about the Star Nick had discovered that both Ye Olde Barbridge Inn, and The Jolly Tar supposedly had some real ale, and as we had time to kill we decided to check both of them out. By now the weather was more like late August than late September and apart from the wasps it was very pleasant sitting outside in a beer garden.

Whilst we were at The Jolly Tar we watched several boats going through Barbridge Junction most of whom made a reasonable attempt. We discussed the right way of going through the junction – do you do it slowly and gently and get sneered at or do you do it with flair and panache and look good if it works but risk ridicule if it goes wrong.

With the aid of Nick standing on the bridge we went for the flair and panache and the closest we got to the edge was swinging the rear in to allow Nick to get back on. As we headed along the Middlewich Branch one of the slight disadvantages of boating at this time of year started to make its presence felt – and that is dusk. Yes it goes darker earlier at this time of year but its the time from sundown to it going dark that really takes you by surprise. There was still enough light to wok through Minshull Lock No 2 and we made it to our planned mooring spot before it was totally dark, but not by much.

After supper we took the torch and headed down the totally unlit, and remarkably busy, road from the bridge down into Church Minshull and the pub where were were meeting Simon. The Badger was a warm and welcoming sight and the beer was good, and apparently its cheaper in the public bar… or so we were told by a local. They had 4 beers on and changed one during the evening and we were all slightly more relaxed when we walked back up the dark lane, which thankfully was a lot quieter now, and back to the boat.

September Trip Plan

This is the trip that the crew of the Mintball are planning for the last full week in September of this year:

Starting at Tom's Moorings and finishing at Tom's Moorings with overnight stops at : The Badger Inn, Turnover Bridge No 132, Upper Burston Bridge No 86, Plough Bridge No 83, Symphony Court Footbridge, Coalbourne Brook Bridge, Compton Bridge No 59, and Goldstone Wharf. A total distance of 165 miles, 3 flg and 172 locks.

Some of the days are a bit long and on a couple of days we’ll be slightly short of crew but we’re confident that we should be able to do it. Apart from the first two nights and possibly the last the rest of the overnights are provisional and subject to change without notice.

We’re planning on using the Canalplan Plugin for WordPress and the Wordbooker Plugin for WordPress to allow us to do a blog entry for each day and to post it up onto Facebook.

So if you see Mintball on the move during that time then one of us is going to be on board so feel free to say Hi, and if you like… buy us a beer or two!

Here’s a set of links to the blog entries for each day of the trip :