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.