To the Flashes!

From Acton Swing Bridge to Northwich Visitor Moorings, a distance of 16 miles, 6¾ flg and 5 locks.

We woke to rain again and that pretty much was the weather for the whole of the day. The only good thing about rain on a river is that most of the crew can hide inside and keep dry, leaving just the helmsman looking like a drowned rat.

We gave one of the Lockies at Hunt’s Locks No 2 a lift up to Vale Royal Locks No 1 as they were down a couple of men and he advised us to be back at Vale Royal earlier than normal to ensure that we could get through the locks and back to Northwich for the night. We didn’t see that as a problem as the weather wasn’t exactly the sort that encourages you to dawdle and admire the scenery.

This bridge marks the end of the Weaver Navigation
Winsford Bottom Flash – it’s navigable but we decided not to risk it.

We swung round and pulled onto the visitor moorings in Winsford Marina. We’re not really sure why it’s called that as there seem to be no actual marina facilities – but maybe they are hoping that sometime someone will come along and set some up. We had a good brunch and then cast off, backed up into the flashes and then headed off back down stream.

The moorings at Winsford Marina
The moorings at Winsford Marina
The start of the Weaver Navigation.

We pulled in immediately below Winsford Bridge (eastbound) on the moorings for The Red Lion and dashed in for a quick pint, keeping an eye on the time as we knew we had to get back to Vale Royal locks to guarantee that we could get back through Hunt’s lock before they closed for the day.

Last Winding Hole
This really isn’t anything to worry about in a narrow boat on the Weaver Navigation

Although Northwich, and its sister town Middlewich are known for their salt production, and a lot of the buildings in Northwich stand on jacks so they can be lifted as the ground sinks, there is very little sign of the industry that gave the town their names. At Middlewich there are some large salt piles and a processing plant but alongside the Weaver is a fully functional rock salt mine with its winding tower, and large piles of salt of course!

Salt union
A real working salt mine!

The small streams and feeders into the river were carrying a lot more water than they had when we’d gone upstream even though it had only been a few hours earlier and some of them actually had enough flow on them to affect us as we cruised through them and the river seemed to have come up a bit by the time we arrived at Newbridge Swing Bridge which looked even lower going downstream than it did coming upstream.

Newbridge Swing Bridge
This is a low bridge – there is a gauge showing headroom on the central island
Newbridge Swing Bridge
if we hadn’t already gone through it slowly we’d have been wondering if we’d actually fit
Newbridge Swing Bridge
We fit, with a few inches to spare

The Weaver locks are fine examples of Victorian engineering being both practical and well designed – unlike canal locks which have ladders bolted to the side the Weaver locks have wonderful iron ladder plates, with hand and feet holes in them, built into the lock wall itself

Hunt's Locks No 2
Step ladder

The gates are operated on mechanical cranks, rather than by hand or by hydraulic rams, which are powered by water turbines run off the flow of the water in the river – so they are a great example of “Green” engineering.

Hunt's Locks No 2
Gate mechanism
Hunt's Locks No 2
Gate mechanism
Vale Royal Locks
Gate mechanism

The rain had just about stopped by now and the sun was even trying to come out as we cruised down the last couple of miles through Northwich which meant we could actually admire some of the larger boats moored up along the bank.

Parfield, Northwich
Built at Northwich in 1952
Normandy II, Northwich
Tugboat built in 1934

We pulled up onto the end of the moorings leaving space for a couple of boats in front of us and headed off into town to explore and have a few beers. The moorings are secured by a locked gate so they are quite safe. The new retail development by the river is huge, and pretty much empty – at times it felt like we were walking round the set for a post-apocalypse film. But don’t let this put you off, the town has a lot to offer away from the new development.

Northwich
There are a lot of mock Tudor buildings in the town
Northwich
Former Cinema
Northwich
Public Library and Salt Museum

We ate at the Bombay Quay and then headed off to Barons Lounge for a last couple of pints before heading back to the boat.

Down to the Mersey

From The Paint Shed Moorings to Acton Swing Bridge, a distance of 20 miles, 2 flg and 3 locks.

We were booked in on the lift for one of the early slots so this gave us time to back up to the services and fill up with water and use the shower facilities, before moving up onto the lift moorings. We had a bit of time to wander round the lift site before we were told we could go down

Anderton Lift
Anderton Insect Village

I always feel slightly uncomfortable on the lift – I think is that you’re roped up to the side of the caisson and when it starts to move you instinctively feel you need to undo the ropes or you’ll get hung up. Silly I know, but there you go. It’s also slightly dis-concerting when you pass the boat in the other caisson going the other way.

We’d looked at the weather forecast and decided that we’d head down stream first so when we left the lift we opened up the throttle a bit, headed out and took a right turn onto the Weaver.

Anderton Lift
Leaving the lift
Anderton Lift
View from the River Weaver

All the bridges on the Weaver are all either high level bridges or they swing to let boats through. The first bridge down stream from the lift is Winnington Bridge which is bit of an odd bridge in that it has a headroom that isn’t constant – so it’s vitally important to work out which end of the bridge you are heading for and make sure there isn’t another boat coming the other way.

Winnington Bridge
The swing bridges on the Weaver don’t need to be swung for narrow boats . Here you have to be careful which side of the bridge to aim for

One noticeable thing about the Weaver Navigation is that that the locks are duplicated – but rather than have two locks of one size they are actually different sizes with a “Large” lock and a “Small Lock”. This was obviously done to save water when smaller craft were using the river but the small locks are now out of use ( to reduce maintenance costs) which means that if anything goes wrong with a lock then the navigation is basically closed.

Saltersford Locks
“Small” lock to the right – now unused so we go through the big lock
Saltersford Locks
The locks used to use Railway signals to indicate which lock to use and its status

When cruising along the Trent and Mersey near Dutton Horse Bridge No 211 you can look down onto the Weaver and see a derelict boat near Dutton Locks No 4 . I remember seeing her quite soon after she was abandoned and over the years it’s been interesting (in an odd way) to see how she is slowly decaying. The “Chica” was used as a pleasure steamer on the river for a few years before structural defects meant she was beyond economic repair and she was abandoned and left to rot.

The “Chica” – shortly after she was abandoned.
The wreck of the Chica
The “Chica” – sitting on the bottom and decaying.
Dutton Locks
Lock keepers hut
Saltersford Locks
Plenty of room for us

Just below Dutton Locks is the extremely impressive Dutton Viaduct which strides across the valley. At 60 feet high and 500 feet long it was a major achievement in engineering when it was built in 1836 and is now a Grade II* Listed structure.

Dutton viaduct
This 20 arch viaduct was built less than a decade after Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ won the Rainhill trials

Below Dutton the navigation makes its way slowly towards Runcorn and the Manchester Ship Canal. There are a couple of rather pleasant overnight mooring spots and some pretty views but there isn’t really a lot to see. The river remains remarkably un-industrial until you are past Runcorn Rowing Club where you can see the base of a now removed swing bridge.

Barrels
No, we have no idea why there are lots of barrels lying on the river bank.

The river is quite straight as you pass the ICI Weston Works and Weston Marsh Side Lock comes into view. This lock leads down onto the Manchester Ship canal and it was here that we turned round and headed back up stream

Weston Marsh Lock
Lock down in to the Manchester Ship Canal – beyond the ship canal is the Mersey Estuary

It started to rain again and so we we were quite happy to moor up for the night and walk over to The Leigh Arms

Acton Bridge
Traction Engine in the pub carpark

Downhill in the rain

From Wheelock Visitor Moorings to The Paint Shed Moorings, a distance of 16 miles, ¾ flg and 9 locks.

It was raining when we got up, that horrible more than drizzle that seems to soak everything through without even trying and although the sun was shining it was shining in a sky was that depressing uniform grey which gives no indication if things are going to get better or worse.

We’d seen quite a few herons on the holiday but in Sandbach we saw a first.. a heron standing on the top of a building.

Heron
.. on a hot tin roof.

Or something like that

We made good progress down the locks as we had the canal to ourselves, there weren’t even any people out walking dogs on the towpath, and we arrived at King’s Lock No 71 before lunch time, and the smell of Sunday lunch was wafting over from the pub but we decided not to stop and instead to push on as we had booked a passage down the Anderton Lift first thing on Monday.

The weather wasn’t getting any better, but for now it wasn’t really getting any worse which was something, so getting held up a little at the three locks below the junction was a lot better than it could have been.

Many things have changed in the years since we started boating but Middlewich Big Lock No 75 is very much like it was the first time we went through it in 1979. Back then the pub was looking tired and was surrounded by derelict and semi-derelict factories. These have now gone and have been replaced by housing and the pub has been extended and seems quite lively. But the lock itself is unchanged : it’s slow, hard to work and the gates have a life of their own.

North of Middlewich the canal wanders through the open countryside as if it can’t quite work out where it’s going, and the large flashes, a reminder of the now gone salt extraction industry, have settled into the landscape and look totally natural now.

Bramble Cuttings
Someday we must moor here and explore!

We stopped at The Old Broken Cross PH to pick up crew and I made a quick detour to a local garage to pick up some more oil and a little anti-freeze. After a quick couple of pints in the pub we set off again.

The area around Wincham Wharf gets more and more cluttered with boat each time we go through and now there are a small number of wide boats there and with them breasting up there isn’t a lot of spare space so when an idiot in a widebeam comes charging down the canal, wobbling all over the place, there isn’t really anywhere to go. He shouted at us but it was pretty obvious he was intoxicated and also had no idea how to steer the boat he was in charge of.

There were quite a few boats moored round The Salt Barge PH and the museum, as there usually are but we, as we always seem to do, continued past without stopping.

It was obviously a day for idiot boaters because when we got to Anderton Services there was a hireboat moored up right in the middle of the mooring. It was all locked up and there wasn’t space for us on either side. So we continued on and moored up for the night and went off to The Stanley Arms PH where we had some great food and good beer, and a lot of fun playing “identify the song, artist and year” from their piped music – we had to use Shazam a few times but it did confirm that Simon knows a lot of obscure pop music.

Back to Sandbach

From Congleton Wharf Moorings to Wheelock Visitor Moorings, a distance of 12 miles, 3½ flg and 27 locks.

Crew Swaps needed to be done at Old Broken Cross on Sunday so we knew that we only needed to be in Sandbach by the end of today – it’s a bit of a walk from the canal but has several very good pubs and places to eat, so that was our target.

The oil leak we’d been experiencing seemed to be getting a little worse. We’d tried running with the oil cap loose in case it was a case of blow past the pistons pressurising the crank case and it blowing too much oil down the air intake. We’d even tried running with the air filter off to see if that made any difference. We didn’t seem to be burning an excessive amount of oil and the two cam covers, which are notorious for leaking, didn’t seem to be very bad at all. So that was something else we planned to look in when we got to Sandbach, knowing that we’d still have some day light left.

As with many of the mornings on this trip it was all rather nondescript weather wise and, like most of the other mornings, we seemed to be the only boat on the move as we made our way back to Hardings Wood Junction and our descent of the “Cheshire Locks”.

A lot has changed on this stretch of canal since Our First Canal Holiday   back in the late 1970s.  Most of the locks on this section were duplicated, but back in 1979 a lot of them were out of action, now only a few are, but in some places the duplicate has been lost due to things like new bridges etc.

Lock Closed
Many of the locks are duplicated. But in some places one of the locks has been closed.

Some of the closed locks seem to be in quite good condition and you wonder why they’ve not been restored, whereas others are obviously beyond repair.

Lock Closed
Many of the locks are duplicated. But in some places one of the locks has been closed.

Back in the 1950’s there were problems with subsidence due to salt mining which caused problems with many of the locks and at Upper Thurlwood Lock No 53 they came up with an interesting solution to the problem – a steel lock sitting in a concrete casement. It never really worked well and by 1979 it was closed off and out of use but apparently still intact (with just a few cog wheels missing). Here is an article about a hire boat using the lock in 1973, but it closed soon afterwards and in 1988 British Waterways took the irrational decision to cut it up and sell it off for scrap arguing that it “wasn’t interesting enough” to save.

So now there is only one lock at Thurlwood and it was as we approached this lock that the oddest encounter of the day happened : as we came down the canal there was a boat getting ready to cast off and they held their ropes as we went past but then cast off immediately behind us and basically tailgated us down to Thurlwood. We pulled over to the towpath and dropped off crew but the other boat just floated around rather messily and then, for some reason, went over to the offside to wait. There were only two people on the boat and although they were on the offside bank one of the crew walked very slowly and very nervously down the left hand side gunwale to the front of the boat where they took the rope and gingerly and clumsily got off the front of the boat and onto the bank. All of the time carrying their windlass in one hand. 

They completely blanked us and seemed to be struggling holding the boat against the offside – probably due to the fact that it’s been nicely planted up as it’s outside people’s houses.

We worked through the lock and left them still standing there looking bemused and confused.

Apart from that the day was very quiet – there were very few boats on the move and hardly any people out walking their dogs.

We got to the Visitor moorings at Sandbach mid afternoon and went looking for the oil leak. We found it quite quickly by putting some more oil in and starting the engine and saw a slight oozing round the top of the oil pressure sensor and when we waggled the wire oil came out at a good speed.

So we had a good root round in our boxes of bits and found a bolt that was the same thread as the sensor and with a bit of thread sealant we soon had it blanked off.

So with that job done we headed into town for a few beers at various pubs and a great meal at Kan’s Oriental Restaurant. The Purple Pakora could really learn some lessons from Kan’s…. friendly staff, efficient service, good size portions and extremely good food.

 

Congleton here we come

From Hazelhurst Junction to Congleton Wharf Moorings, a distance of 20 miles, 6½ flg and 10 locks.

One of the reasons for going up the locks the previous night was that it meant that we didn’t face working three locks immediately after casting off. Instead we could chug along the summit enjoying the views and a mug or two of coffee before we actually had to get off the boat and do anything

We got to Stockton Brook Top Lock No 9 and it was good to see that the pounds between the locks were all nice and full and we made pretty good time down them, however the same could not be said for the pound between Stockton Brook Bottom Lock No 5 and Engine Lock No 4 which was, if anything, lower than it had been when we’d come up.

We met a C&RT workboat just beyond Norton Green Lift Bridge No 21 and they were having serious problems in getting their boat to go anywhere at all – but oddly enough they didn’t seem to be concerned about the low level of the water. I’m still not sure how we got past them without getting stuck ourselves but we did and we slid over the cill into the lock with no real problems.

As it had been for a lot of the holiday we had the canal to ourselves and it was quite pleasant – the sun had come out although it was a little cold

Bottle Kilns
Old Pottery Cone Kilns

You can always be guaranteed that you’ll meet a boat at the most awkward spot and we met one at the top of Etruria Staircase Locks Nos 1 and 2 but it didn’t really cause any problems.

We stopped just after Etruria Junction and wandered down to The Holy Inadequate which is well worth a visit if you are passing by and it’s open.

Middleport Pottery
Middleport Pottery
Middleport Pottery
Middleport Pottery

We’d carefully planned things so that we would get to Harecastle Tunnel (South end) in time to get a passage through the tunnel and we made it with plenty of time so spent a bit of time touching up some of the paint.

Harecastle Tunnel
The southern portal fan house
Harecastle Tunnel
The southern portal fan house and the tunnel house
Harecastle Tunnel
“New” tunnel to the right. “Old” abandoned tunnel to the left
Harecastle Tunnel
view from the old tunnel line

We had to wait a little longer than planned due to a rather slow boat coming south but we did eventually get into the tunnel and chugged our way northbound. It was very cold with the fan house running and rather than having to deal with smoke I think we were boating through a light fog.

Harecastle Tunnel
Northern Portal and profile gauge
Harecastle Tunnel
Northern portal of the “new” tunnel. The abandoned tunnel is behind the modern building

As we were the only boat on the last passage of the day the tunnel keeper at the northbound end pulled the workboat into position to block the tunnel off as soon as we had moved out of the portal.

We’d decided to detour to Congleton because we had a couple of hours of daylight left and starting down the locks would have left us really in the middle of nowhere for the night and would have made the timings odd for the next couple of days. Also we’d not been there for ages and it does have some good pubs.

It’s not a bad run up to Congleton and we pulled up on the wharf moorings just as the night really set in.

It’s a bit of a walk down to town but worth it – and we would have drunk more beer than we did if the Purple Pakora had been anywhere near efficient : they were less than half full but it took more than 45 minutes from ordering to our food arriving and the lighting was so low the waiters couldn’t actually read the orders so they were semi guessing which table they needed to deliver food to. The food was good when it arrived but if they concentrated a little less on the mood lighting and style and a little more on service and an environment when you can actually see what you are eating it would be a much better experience.

The end of the road, and back again, again

From Basford Bridge No 44 to Hazelhurst Junction, a distance of 12 miles, 6½ flg and 13 locks.

It was slightly cool and misty when we got up, and the mist was quite a bit heavier than yesterday but you could still see where you were going without too much difficulty.

It was very quiet as we made our way down through Woods Lock No 15 and the mist really added to the atmosphere. Parkhouse Wood Lift Bridge loomed up out of the mist – it looks like it’s basically left open all the time and it looked quite impressive.

The mist had lifted a bit by the time we got to Oak Meadow Ford Lock No 16 and a quick check of the gauge showed that the river was still in the green zone and it was safe to navigate, and as we could actually see a reasonable distance we slipped out of the lock and onto the River Churnet.

It’s so tempting to open up the throttle on river sections and let the boat go at a good speed but the river section is rather attractive so keeping the revs down and enjoying the mist and the light mixing through the trees was the right thing to do, and to be honest it doesn’t take long before you reach Consall Forge where you leave the river and go back onto the canal for the last few miles. The Black Lion Inn looked quite moody in the mist but it was too early to stop so we checked the mooring situation for later.

The Black Lion, Consall Forge
The Black Lion in the mist, as we passed on our way down stream.

Once you’ve passed under Churnet Railway Bridge No 50A the canal becomes very narrow as the space between the river and the valley side has to be shared by the canal and the railway, and the space is so small that the platform and the waiting room at Consall Station actually overhang the canal – which makes navigating this section quite interesting.

At Flint Mill Lock Winding Hole there is a notice about Froghall tunnel showing the profile and basically saying if you have a full length boat and your profile is such that you wont fit then you should turn round here and not proceed as the next winding hole which is before the tunnel isn’t big enough for full length boats.

You Have Been Warned"
I suspect most people have no idea what the profile of their boat is

By Flint Mill Lock No 17 the old flint mill has now been turned into a large house – the last time I came down here the mill was abandoned and open to the elements. I think the conversion has shrunk the height of the building but it’s so long ago that I can’t really remember.

As you exit the lock there is a plastic curtain which supposedly matches the profile of Froghall tunnel – if your boat doesn’t fit under it then theoretically you can’t get through the tunnel.. Mintball didn’t fit under it at all!

You Have Been Warned"
So they put this on the exit of the lock – apparently we wont fit!

Below the lock the canal has a couple of very narrow sections with no obvious passing places and of course there are bends so you can’t see if anything is coming the other way. All I can assume is that when the canal was in commercial use they either sent people ahead or they did a sort of batch processing – moving several boats one way and then several the other way.

As with a lot of the canal the final section down to Froghall runs through woodland with very little sign of any industry or any civilisation at all. The strangely named Cherry Eye Bridge No 53, with its rather unique shape, is one of the few bridges on this stretch and the rurality of the canal continues until you reach Froghall Footbridge where the now flattened Froghall works comes along side.

Cherry Eye Bridge

There are some rather odd pipes here – one crosses the canal by the footbridge, runs down the non-towpath side of the canal and then crosses the canal again at Froghall Pipe Bridge and vanishes back into the factory site it first came out of – I’m sure there was some logical reason for it but….

If you can’t make it through the tunnel then it’s vitally important not to miss Froghall Winding Hole because the tunnel is just round the corner.

We slowed right down and eased Mintball’s prow into the tunnel. After about 20 feet I was convinced that the cabin roof at the front was going to hit the roof of the tunnel but we moved crew around and continued our slow progress into the tunnel… there was NOT a lot of head room but apart from one scrape on the front right hand cabin edge we made it through with no issues.

You Have Been Warned"
This suggests we will fit…. just

Once you are through the tunnel it is only a few minutes to Froghall Junction where the Uttoxeter Canal leaves the Caldon. We continued past the junction and got the first half of the boat under Froghall Junction Bridge No 55 before we ran out of water – so we backed up and went down Uttoxeter Branch Lock No 1 and moored up in Froghall Basin which has some really nice pontoon moorings (although they are slightly short for a 52 foot boat). We were the only boat in the basin and it’s a pity that more boats can’t make it through the tunnel because the area really is worth visiting.

Froghall Jinction Bridge
There is a mooring on the right just beyond the bridge on the right. But we slid to a halt

By now the mist had cleared and it had turned into quite a nice day so we spent a bit of time wandering round the area looking at the old lime kilns and although we were the only people there who had come by boat there were actually a good number of people there and the coffee shop seemed to be doing a good trade.

Froghall Wharf
The end of the canal, looking back to the bridge we got stuck under
The Basin
Froghall Basin

You can tell that this bit of canal isn’t used much as there is a small garden growing on the walls in the junction lock, and I really hope someone at C&RT has it under control because I saw at least one small tree getting quite well established.

In the lcok
Rather a lot of greenery – but considering not many boats can here here….

By the time we got back to Consall Station the sun was shining and the station almost looked like a film set.. it just needed a steam train to complete the picture but as this time of year they don’t run any trains mid week.

Consall Station in the sunshine

The moorings at Black Lion Inn were empty so we pulled in and headed over to the pub for a couple of pints. It was extremely pleasant sitting outside in the remarkably warm sunshine drinking some rather strong beer.

The Black Lion
The Black Lion

We could quite happily have stayed there for the rest of the day – we didn’t actually need to go any further but an evening meal at The Hollybush sounded quite appealing so after a couple of pints we headed back to the boat.

River Churnet
A section of the canal uses the river – hard to believe this place used to be a hive of industry.

We made our way at a relaxed pace back up the river and then back onto the canal. There was someone at Woods Lock No 15 who was obviously just passing their time helping boats work through the lock… however he’d been there for a couple of hours and we were the first boat he’d actually seen.

It was a bit busy round The HollyBush so we made our way up the locks and then backed onto the moorings at the start of the Leek Branch and then walked down to the pub for the evening.

Hazlehurt Junction
Early evening view from the towpath

The end of the road, and back again

From Stanley Road Bridge No 26 to Basford Bridge No 44, a distance of 10 miles, 4¾ flg and 5 locks.

It was a little misty when we got up and did a quick engine check before casting off. Some of the other boats were showing signs of crew getting up and on the one behind us someone came out and drank a coffee as we were checking the oil but they didn’t get their crew out of bed fast enough and we were first off the moorings.

The summit stretch of the Caldon just meanders over open countryside, which is rather pleasing to the eye, Even the very industrial features such as Endon Basin don’t look that way, but the little traffic island in the middle of the canal just before you get to the basin reminds you that this canal was very much an industrial artery in the day. The island is all the remains of a swivel bridge for a tramway which crossed the canal and ran parallel to the railway line down to Endon Station. After Endon, where the canal takes a right hand turn you wind your way to Park Lane Bridge No 31 where there is a small C&RT yard offering water, elsan (and pumpout), showers, refuse disposal and dry recycling (cardboard, glass, tins etc.)

When the Caldon Canal was first constructed the line dropped down three locks just past Park Lane – the Park Lane Locks – but it’s impossible to work out just where the canal went as the line was altered towards the end of the 18th Century and the summit was extended along to Hazelhurst when the line from Leek was added.

At Hazelhurst Junction the main line drops through three locks and the line to Leek goes off to the right. But it wasn’t always like this. Originally you carried along the line towards Leek until you got to Hazelhurst Turnover Bridge No 3 where there was a staircase of locks dropping you down to the main line. However these locks were slow and so a hole was punched through the Leek Branch Embankment ( Hazelhurst Aqueduct ), the new locks were built and the staircase locks were closed off.

The Leek Branch is really nothing more than a navigable feeder for most of its length – think the Llangollen Canal to Llangollen but narrower with less flow and a lot more vegetation. But it seems to be quite deep so you make quite good progress.

Leek Tunnel Winding Hole is less of a winding hole and more of a small lagoon, but how deep it is out towards the edge we didn’t try to find out. But it does allow you to get a good alignment for the tunnel so you can see if it’s clear. The tunnel isn’t much wider than a boat but it does have good head room and it’s almost pleasant to navigate.

Just after Leek Bridge No 9 there is a winding hole with a notice saying that all boats over 45 feet should wind here. We wilfully ignored it – and the comments from the person on a moored boat saying we couldn’t turn round and continued right up to the end of the canal where the feeder from Rudyard Lake joins and the canal used to cross the River Churnet. The canal from here to a basin just outside Leek was filled in in the 1960 and the basin has now been completely built over.

End of the Line
You apparently can’t turn boats longer than 45 feet here. Well you can… but 52 foot is probably the limit and you need to know what you are doing

After a bit of manoeuvring and some bow hauling we got turned round and chugged back down towards the winding hole where we moored up and walked back into town.

Anther view of the end of the canal
I still can’t work out how we got the boat turned round here.
You should turn here
All boats over 45 feet should wind here and then reverse back onto the moorings

The route into Leek isn’t clearly sign posted at all and it doesn’t take you along the old route of the canal, although we suspect you could do it by walking up the road, instead it takes you across to the old railway line which leads you straight to the Morrisons supermarket which now occupies the site of the railway station, which was next to the canal basin. There are long term plans for the railway to Leek to be restored and linked to the Churnet Valley Railway so when that happens they’ll have to come up with an alternative route into town… or they could restore the canal and build a new basin over what is a pretty grim, run down, industrial area.

When you get to Morrisons it’s still a little walk, up hill, to get to Leek itself but it’s worth the walk. The town still has a thriving market and a lot of independent shops, and the Red Lion on the Market Place does a very good pint of Hydes. We’d gone into Leek to do a crew swap so when people had left and others had arrived we walked back to the boat via the Morrisons where we picked up some supplies.

When we got back to Hazlehurst junction we did the sharp turn and headed down the three locks and under the aqueduct. Just past the aqueduct there is the stub of the old line for the staircase locks which seems to be used as a private mooring now.

Hazlehurt Junciion
Bottom end of the long abandoned staircase locks

The canal passes The Hollybush Inn , which is right by the canal and is a very popular stopping point for obvious reasons, and then it meanders its way down the river valley to Cheddleton Flint Mill which occupies a large site by the side of the canal – it’s now a working museum. Just before the mill are set of visitor moorings – if you want to stop and go to the pubs in the village then you must stop here as there are no moorings below the two locks.

If you go down the locks then the next place you can moor is on the very short length of visitor moorings opposite the Boat Inn but be prepared to tie up to the wooden fencing poles as there are no rings and the bank isn’t suitable for spikes or hooks.

Onwards and upwards along the winding road

From Stone Visitor Moorings to Stanley Road Bridge No 26, a distance of 16 miles, 2¾ flg and 23 locks.

We woke to bright blue skies and sunshine – a complete contrast to yesterday, and the forecast for the day looked good.

The new Joule’s development above Stone Wharf is rapidly taking shape and it’s good to see the business back in the town it grew up in.The old Joules brewery buildings are still there too – it would be good if they could get permission to repaint the signage on the canal facing wall as it really does need a lick of paint.

Although they weren’t in sight it soon became obvious that we were following another boat and we caught up with them just before Meaford Road Lock No 33 but they were pretty slick at their lock working and they didn’t hold us up at all.

We were by Plume of Feathers PH when we were hit by a boat coming south. There were two boats moored up outside the pub and I saw a boat coming round the corner rather quickly. I decided that the best thing to do was hold back and let him pass between me and the two moored boats. Well that was the idea, what happened was that “Piggie Wiggie” didn’t slow down and failed to actually make it through the 9 foot wide gap I’d left him. He bounced off our boat, didn’t apologise (actually he blanked us totally), and didn’t slow down at all. Some people on the second moored boat commented “Well that’s not what I’d call slowing down”.

By now there was quite a flow of boats heading south and we could see that we had a couple more boats in front of us – which shouldn’t be a problem. Well it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Trentham Lock No 35. I know its a deep lock but with boats coming down and three boats in front of us it took over an hour to get through – and it wasn’t that people were working the lock inefficiently : it was just slow and I bet it can be a real bottleneck in the summer.

The approach to the Stoke Flight really hasn’t improved – for a city that owes so much of its growth to the canal it really doesn’t seem to care much about it.

Stoke Bottom Lock No 36 has to be one of the worst locks on the canal. Given it’s relatively recent construction you would have thought that we could have learned something from 200 years of building locks, but apparently not. Stoke Lock is abysmal – who ever designed it had obviously been told how a lock worked but had never actually been and looked at one and seen one being used.

The pound above the lock was a little low but the canal was quite deep and with boats having been spaced out a little by the slowness of the bottom lock we didn’t have to queue at any lock until we got to Stoke Lock No 39 but even that wasn’t that bad and we soon got to Etruria Junction where we managed to do the sharp right turn into the Caldon Canal with relative ease.

We pulled in onto the visitor moorings outside the museum entrance and grabbed a bite of lunch. There were a few hire boats from Stone all heading south and heading up the Caldon – we found out later that they were all going to go up the Macclesfield canal but due to a towpath collapse at the top of Bosley Locks they’d all had to turn round and come back so were off up the Caldon.

So we ended up basically at the tail end of a small convoy of boats who weren’t the fastest of boats and who did seem to be extremely over eager when tying up to wait for locks.

The last time I was on the Caldon was in 1999 and the canal has changed a lot, mainly for the good = they were hard at work painting Hanley Park Lower Bridge No 5A and it looks like there is a major refurbishment of the main pavilion and bandstand area going on with lots of new terracotta ornate walling being put in and new flowerbeds being laid.

The Caldon isn’t the straightest or deepest of canals and it does seem to love putting bridges on sharp bends with no straight approach, and sometimes to add a bit more fun it throws in overhanging vegetation which means you either can’t see through the bridge, or you can’t see the edges which leads to lots of swearing. Luckily we didn’t meet many boats coming down the canal but it still was very much a matter of taking your life into your hands on some of the bends.

We had to wait in the queue at Engine Lock No 4 and when we got into the lock the pound above it was down by well over a foot – however it looked like most of it wasn’t recent. Getting crew off for Norton Green Lift Bridge No 21 wasn’t actually that hard but did involve a bit of a leap of faith both getting off the boat and then getting back on it afterwards.

We took it slowly keeping very much to the middle of the channel and just after Heakley Hall Bridge No 22 we found one of the boats that had gone up the lock in front of us stationary in the canal with their back deck up. We edged our way slowly past them and they didn’t move an inch – so they were very hard aground.

Progress along the section and through Long Butts Lift Bridge No 23 was slow and we had to wait at Stockton Brook Bottom Lock No 5 to start our slow passage up the locks. If we thought the level was low before the locks then it was just about empty above Stockton Brook Lock No 7 where we probably had about 6 inches over the cill at best – but we made it to the next lock without running aground. We had to help one of the boats going ahead of us as they cut the corner on the way up to the top lock and got stuck – we ended up flushing water through the lock to bring the pound up a little bit which got them moving again.

We worked our way though the top lock and moored right at the end of the moorings above the bridge and after eating walked down to The Sportsman for several well deserved pints.

A rainy day.

From Radford Bridge Visitor Moorings to Stone Visitor Moorings, a distance of 14 miles, 1¼ flg and 5 locks.

The rain, which had started before we’d left the pub last night had continued throughout the night but by the time we cast off, having been to the local supermarket to pick up a few things, it had reduced to an annoying, and continuous, drizzle.

Maybe it’s just our luck but a lot of our trips along this section of canal seem to have been damp and miserable, or maybe it just feels that way – it’s not the most interesting stretch of canal at the best of times.

We didn’t meet another boat until we were approaching Tixall Lock No 43 where we found a day boat on the lock moorings (we think they were just having problems picking up their crew) and another boat emptying the lock. Once the day boat had moved out of the way we pulled over onto the loc mooring much to the puzzlement of the person who was working the second boat through the lock. They seemed slightly confused about what to do – which was worrying as they were in a boat from Stone, but I guess this was their first “up” lock so it could possibly explain it.

We reached Great Haywood Junction and it was totally and utterly deserted so our turn left was one of the easiest passages through the junction we’ve made recently. The rain had eased off a little bit by now and there were brief periods of it actually not raining which try to trick you into taking your waterproofs off.

We met a bunch of Canadians at Hoo Mill Lock No 23 who. despite the weather, seemed to be enjoying themselves but they were one of the few boats we met moving all day.

We’d decided that we’d stop at Stone for the night so we decided to stop at Salt for a quick lunchtime drink. There are some good moorings south of Salt Bridge No 82 and the pub (The Holly Bush) is a few minutes walk up the road into the village. They do food and don’t reserve tables so its worth knowing about if you are around there and really don’t feel like cooking on board.

Salt Bridge
We suspect that when they had to make the bridge higher to get over the railway they just added more rows to the arch and then put a top on it

The clouds were lifting as we walked back from the pub and it pretty much stayed dry for the rest of the day, but it stayed rather cool and overcast. Like the top end of the S&W this part of the T&M just seems to wobble it’s way through the Staffordshire countryside with very little sign of the industry that provided so much business for the canal – even the bridges don’t reflect it, apart from Brassworks Bridge No 91 and Andre Mills Bridge No 92 which now stand in the middle of modern housing developments.

The housing continues into Stone where we stopped just before the winding hole below the bottom lock.

After mooring up we walked around town for a bit and did some shopping at the Morrisons Supermarket. There is now an M&S food hall right by the canal at the bottom lock if you want to splash out a bit.

We had another good Indian, just up the road from the Royal Exchange which is where we ended up for the rest of the evening. Walking back through Stone at 11pm was like walking through a ghost town – most of the pubs were already locked up and dark and the streets were empty.

All the way to Stafford

From Wheaton Aston Visitor Moorings (north) to Radford Bridge Visitor Moorings, a distance of 24 miles, ¼ flg and 13 locks.

It was a little overcast but still quite pleasant when we cast off just after 7:30. Due to a problem with the bottom mitre on Wheaton Aston Lock No 2 the lock was empty, but despite the leak it still filled quite quickly and with all the paddles open (as the C&RT notices point out) it wasn’t really an issue at all.

We met another boat near Lapley Wood Bridge No 17 and somehow we ended up hard aground on a pile of mud and rock but after a couple of minutes of work with the barge pole we got ourselves free and continued on our way.

Just after Park Bridge No 8 we had a close shave with another boat – he had so much greenery on his roof that the only way he could see where he was going was to look down the side of the boat. As there were some moored boats he was looking down the right side of his boat and was blissfully unaware of us approaching as he was basically taking up all the available channel. A blast on the horn , some quick manoeuvring by us, and some shouting got him to move over slightly but he seem totally unaware (or didn’t care) that he’d nearly hit us.

Heron on a boat at Wolverhampton Boat Club

All was quiet right down to Autherley Stop Lock where, for once, we didn’t have to wait for the lock and there was actually space to pull in by the lock. We were in the lock and about to open the top paddle when a boat swung round in the junction and they stopped and looked at us. They then asked which way we were going and then they had to back out of the way so we had the space to swing round to head East on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal (Main Line: Autherley to Great Haywood)

Autherley Junction

The canal East from the junction is deep and you can make good progress. The trees on the offside give an almost European feel to the canal and it’s hard to believe you are only a few miles from Wolverhampton.

Trees

The canal changes totally at Marsh Lane Bridge No 67 (South End of Narrows) where you plunge into the rock edged narrows

The narrows

The widened version of Forster Bridge No 68 really isn’t something to write home about and if I was writing a murder mystery I’d use the offside area under the bridge as a place to hide a body!

Once you’re out of the narrows the canal deepens off again as the canal starts to wind its way across the countryside. Coven Heath M54 Motorway Bridge is now so long that it could almost count as a short tunnel – and unlike the bridge on the Shroppie there isn’t a sign on the motoroway telling you the canal is there, and the bridge isn’t obvious at all from on top.

There were a few fishermen fishing by Coven Heath Pipe Bridge obviously hoping that the outfall from the sewage plant would attract the fish – which it possibly does but the smell wasn’t exactly enticing.

Apart from one boat and a lone fisherman the Cross Green Visitor Moorings were empty which is quite unusual.

We did meet a few boats on the move – usually on corners, or at bridges, or at bridges on corners – but we were soon at Hatherton Junction where the ornamental lake and balustraded walkways seem totally out of place. A quick check on old maps indicates nothing was there in the late 1880s so who knows why they are there.

It was pretty quiet from there right to Gailey Top Lock where we met a boat coming up the lock. We actually met a few boats on the flight and we made pretty good time down to Penkridge Lock No 38. We did think about stopping for a quick pint but decided to push on without stopping. We tried to stop just before Radford Bridge No 98 but it was a bit shallow so we pushed on through the bridge and found a 54 foot space between two other boats and slipped into it.

Then it was off into Stafford for a few beers and a curry – it’s not the most interesting walk into town and when we came to leave the pub in the evening it was raining. Trying to get a taxi at 11pm in Stafford on a rainy Sunday evening isn’t easy, but we eventually got one so we didn’t end up getting soaked through.