Long Hot Dry Days

We’d have stayed another day and night at the delightful Bramble Cuttings, but the on-going full fridge crisis despite yesterday’s big shop meant that we needed some milk and bread. Reluctantly waving farewell to Bramble Cuttings late in the morning, we tied up in the middle of Middlewich for a quick whizz round Tesco, and then lunch. It isn’t the most salubrious of places, and we knew that the next nice, quiet mooring spots away from main roads were some way out the other side of town, so we expected to cruise on a little later than normal. If only we knew!

Someone came past just as we were preparing to cast off, and were ahead of us as we started up the three locks before the currently useless junction with the Shropshire Union. When we made it up the first lock we knew immediately something was wrong: the water level in the pound was very low. The next one was even worse, and we heard on the towpath telegraph that the chap in front had run seriously aground in the longer pound between the Middlewich 3 locks and Kings Lock, by the junction.

Keeping Song & Dance squarely in the middle of the cut, as we came round the corner and bridge towards the junction we were definitely scraping the bottom a little, but chappie in front had got his back end firmly stuck up against the side of the canal. The best way to unground oneself is usually to put the boat into reverse and apply quite a lot of power. This not only reverses off the problem bit rather than digging in further, but helps by shovelling water under the boat. However, chummy was digging in his rear end using loads of forward power, while trying to snap his bargepole. He waved us past (potential “hooray”), but while preparing to edge past gingerly, he applied even more power, and his front end swung right round across the canal, blocking any possibility of us going past (“bugger”). After a lot of energy expenditure and swearing, he finally managed to get things moving, while crashing around in the boats moored on the other side, and consequently abandoned all ideas of letting us past. (“Damn”).

We thought locking up onto the pound above Kings Lock would improve matters, as it’s a long one, and shouldn’t run out of water just because there’s a lot of traffic. Not only that, under normal circumstances quite a bit of water flows into the canal below Kings Lock from the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union, but with that all sealed off owing to the huge breach, we could understand why things were a bit tricky below the junction. But things were no better… the pound was abysmally low (we even rang CaRT to whinge), and our hero in front not only went aground several times, but picked up a load of rubbish round his prop, too.

Approaching Rumps Lock, about a mile out of Middlewich, a boat came down, and said things were much better above the lock, but he’d had some trouble with one of the gates. Our friend in front went to set the lock up, but one of the bottom gates wouldn’t open more than about six inches, and no matter how hard you try you can’t get a 6ft10in wide narrowboat through a 4ft gap. There was clearly something stuck in the works way down deep. Tried filling the lock and emptying it, to no avail, and with the deepness of the lock we’d no other way of digging around to try and dislodge something, so we called CaRT again. “They’ll be someone with you within an hour”. Right. We began to contemplate staying the night there, right on the main road. It didn’t appeal.

More than an hour later, the couple who lived in the adjacent lock-keeper’s cottage drove up. They said that they had been living there for over 20 years, and until today, they had never seen the sluice/by-wash running through their back garden run dry. The man produced a long plank of wood which we tried sliding down the gate hinge area, and it looked like something like a fender or piece of wood had got firmly wedged in. It seemed to move a bit but we couldn’t dislodge it; we really needed something longer and stronger.

And then, leaning on the balance beam and gently rocking the recalcitrant gate back and forth with no expectation of anything, it suddenly opened. Just like that. So we all finally locked up through Rumps Lock long after Beer-O’Clock, and still with several miles and locks to go to somewhere we’d fancy mooring for the night. We eventually tied up at 20:00, tired and hungry. We’d only done 6.7 miles and 9 locks, but it was hard work and hassle all the way, in hot sunshine.

So as Wednesday dawned bright and sunny again, we were in no hurry to get going, but decided that we ought to make an effort if we were going to get to Harecastle Tunnel in time for our friends to join us. The Cheshire locks (“Heartbreak Hill”) are fairly unrelenting, but the countryside and views are pleasant, and most of the locks are doubled up, so even heavy traffic coming the other way didn’t cause too many delays. But after a hard and hot day’s work, we called it a day at the Broughton Arms at Rode Heath, after 5.5 miles and 14 locks. The moorings were looking a little crowded, but we spotted a perfect place to moor halfway down, only to discover that there was a cunningly disguised winding hole and couldn’t moor there. There’s nothing like reversing a 58ft narrowboat back 200 yards on a stonkingly hot late afternoon when one has already metaphorically tasted the Guinness that was surely awaiting…

Thursday, and we were on schedule, so we pottered up to a favourite spot near Church Lawton. Only half a mile and six locks, we were tied up for lunch and a post prandial snooze. Perfect.

Hats Off to Bramble Cutting

Having made it up to Orchard Marina Sunday night, the original plan was for one of us to take the car back home and catch a train back to Northwich. But after a rather disturbed night’s sleep (Orchard Marina is exactly where all Manchester Airport’s Easterly inbounds turn onto finals – all night), and the sun belting down again, making a quick escape seemed a better idea. There was also a possibility of some friends joining us through Harecastle Tunnel if the dates worked out.

Realising that we had unused and still valid Stoke-on-Trent to Northwich train tickets, a call to Festival Park Marina established that they would be happy to let us leave a car there for a week or two – much more convenient given Song & Dance’s position than either Northwich or Sunningdale. So a quick trip to the big Tesco to stock up was followed by driving down to Stoke – a mere half hour – and then coming back by train – a mere several hours – while the cook finished off some washing and prepared the boat for cruising. We even managed to locate the laid back marina manager and compelled him to settle up.

Orchard MarinaAnd so, at about 16:30 we set off (late even for us). Or rather tried to. One of the boats next to us – it arrived while we were away – was tied with a top rope to Song & Dance’s central roof cleat. Not uncommon when moored on short pontoons, it helps stop the far/loose end from wandering around in the breeze. Closer examination showed that it was only tied to Song & Dance. Not to its pontoon, the bank, or anything else. Odder still, the doors at the front and back were wide open, but no one was on board, and we hadn’t seen anyone all day.

We retied our neighbour to the boat on the other side – it had no other ropes to tie to the pontoon – and noticed that it appeared to be firmly aground. It was also firmly pressing Song & Dance against the tyres/fenders on our pontoon, wedging us in nicely and rendering us immobile. It took considerable power and rocking around to extract her, but we eventually made it out of the marina and turned South onto the cut. It was nice to be boating again, even if not in the direction we’d originally planned.

Twenty minutes later, as we crossed an open stretch of water – a “flash” where a salt mine had collapsed – a pleasantly brisk breeze sprang up from nowhere, and removed the steerer’s  hat. By the time we’d completed the “hat overboard” drill in a shallow spot with a tricky wind trying its best to make life difficult, the hat had sunk without trace, so with tears in our eyes we said a few appropriate words and continued.

An hour or so down towards Middlewich is a lovely mooring spot called Bramble Cuttings. An old abandoned quarry, on the opposite side of the canal from the towpath and inaccessible other than by boat, it is grassy, sheltered, equipped with some picnic tables, and room for about three boats. We’d spotted it heading North, and hoped there might be room for us on a lovely sunny afternoon. There was, and by six o’clock we were tied up, with the deckchairs out, the wine poured, and preparations afoot for an al fresco dinner were in progress. It’s a hard life. Seemed we were sharing the establishment with four dogs and a cat, but all were well behaved, so that was fine.

Bramble CuttingBramble Cutting

Bramble CuttingBramble Cutting

If the old rail-track tipper mechanism was connected to a Waitrose, it would be perfect.

Bramble Cutting

And even the picnic tables were from a sustainable source!

The Sheer Gall of It, or How to Turn 3 Nights into 3 Weeks

Monday morning, and your snuffling correspondent and the by now snuffling head gardener caught a train to Stoke-on-Trent, rescued the car from Festival Park marina and headed for home.

Tuesday morning your intrepid co-pilot waved bye-bye to the gardener, and on Wednesday Morning 3am (there’s a song title in there somewhere) was taken rather poorly. Wednesday afternoon a very nice doctor said she thought it was a gall bladder problem/infection or something; arranged for some antibiotics, an urgent ultrasound scan and said “if this happens again and your temperature spikes don’t mess around, just go straight to A&E and tell them what’s what”. Yes Mam!

And we’d only packed for three nights…

Anyway, suffice it to say that as soon as we felt up to it we had to make a quick trip back to Northwich to collect stuff for a longer stay, madam made it to her Jackstraws Day of Dance, and it was confirmed that yours truly had lots of gallstones and removal of the gall bladder was required. It was clear that the plan to cross the Pennines was no longer sensible, and that we’d really be better off working Song & Dance closer to home base in case more hospital visits were required. We were also getting concerned about the water supplies across the Northern canals as well – rumours about forthcoming closure were beginning to surface.

Eventually we headed back to Orchard Marina on Sunday July 1st. So much for a quick three night trip home!

Laid-Back in Northwich, or How To Turn 3 Nights into 8

As usual at this time of year, the head gardener was due to go off for a few days with her gardening chums visiting gardens (at least that’s her story). With an incipient cold, a car at Stoke-on-Trent, and sadly no Biggles for company, I decided we’d both head home on Monday for three nights. And then, with some serious mission creep, Song & Dance’s dancer announced that if I was coming South as well, Jackstraws Morris had their 40th Anniversary Day of Dance on Saturday 16th, and wouldn’t it be nice if… After considerable discussion we decided to decide later.

We’d arranged to leave the boat for those few (or possibly more) days at Orchard Marina, or at least we thought we had. “I’m sure that will be alright” said the rather laid-back chap who answered the phone earlier in week “just use one of the pontoons immediately in front of you as you come in.”

Anyway, some friends of ours who live at Lymm (Jackstraws Morris country members, no less) said they’d drive over to Orchard Marina then walk along the towpath until they found us. And so it proved, and we had a pleasant – albeit short – Sunday lunchtime cruise in yet more scorching sunshine to the aforesaid marina. And indeed there were a couple of unoccupied pontoons straight in front of us, so we chose one and backed in.

At which point our friends Christine and John poured gasoline on the flames, saying that they were heading darn sarf at the weekend for the Jackstraws Day of Dance, and if we’d like to wait until the Monday morning, they could give us a lift back. After considerably more discussion we decided to decide later.

The manager of the marina was nowhere to be found – a common occurrence it seemed – but the laid-back locals all seemed to think there was no problem leaving Song & Dance where it was for as long as we wanted. It looked like most of the boats were permanently occupied and it was quite a close community (although probably breaking lots of rules regarding residential moorings. Ho hum). Anyway, without more ado, the car was fetched from Stoke-on-Trent on Monday morning and we headed South for 3 nights. Maybe.

Actually, the marina business had us puzzled. Orchard Marina was – given summer and nice weather, and people out cruising – fairly full. But in the mile or so from Whatcroft Flash to Orchard Marina that we’d cruised there were two new/partially completed marinas with room for several hundred narrowboats between them and all of three moorings occupied. Don’t know where they think they’re going to get customers from. Maybe it’s a planning system ploy: after a few loss making years they get permission to convert the area to luxury flats or gravel pits or something. Who knows.

A Slow Boat through Cheshire and Middlewich Conundra

The weather continued to be blisteringly hot, and the Cheshire locks optimally spaced (not!) so progress was slow. Leaving Church Lawton on Thursday we chuntered gently down. We met a boat similar to ours that had tried to get around Marple Locks the other way to our original plan: they’d got stuck even thought only 6ft10in wide like us so they’d unhappily had to come back around the long way.

After a mere 3.5 miles, but 10 locks, we’d had enough and moored near Lock 57. There used to be a lovely small restaurant here (we’d discovered it accidentally by car while avoiding a huge M6 fiasco near Sandbach some years ago) but alas, no more.

Loch 57 itself is close by the M6, and Lock 58 almost underneath, and while locking down and under the motorway, we counted 9 Eddies in twenty minutes. This may of course be related to the large Stobart depot right by Junction 15, a few miles away. Sadly, one can’t watch out for Norberts anymore – that’s progress I guess. But pondering on the solid bumper to bumper and wall to wall procession of HGVs and white vans struggling even to maintain 40 mph one couldn’t help thinking there must be a better way. Doubtless all the billions being poured into HS2 will solve all these problems…

Another 3.5 miles and 10 locks on Friday saw us through the village of Wheelock for lunch and within spitting distance of Middlewich. From there we’d be in uncharted territory (for us).

Saturday saw us finishing the Cheshire Locks, and mooring for lunch and shopping in the middle of Middlewich. We were exactly a week early for the long running Middlewich Folk and Boat festival, but you would never have guessed. Apart from a couple of small CaRT signs on the towpath marking reserved moorings for trade boats, wandering round the town you would never have guessed there was a significant music festival only a week ahead: no sign of any publicity at all. And a few days before the website showed only one booked guest – a “post punk” rock band. We wonder if anyone turned up, let alone any folkies!

Anyway, in a post Tesco euphoria, we headed on down out of Middlewich into Salt Mining territory and moored up on one of the “flashes” that mark this section of the Trent & Mersey. A flash occurs where the ground by the canal has subsided into the salt mine/workings underneath, giving the appearance of substantial lakes rather like a favourite spot of ours – The Broad Water at Tixall (known as Tixall Wide). But unlike Tixall, they’re very shallow – caution definitely required if you’re thinking of straying far from the towpath side of the canal.

The other oddity around here is just as you leave Middlewich, you descend through The Big Lock. This is a proper job double width lock just like those on broad canals like the Grand Union. But with all the other locks and bridges either side only catering for narrow boats we were rather left scratching our heads.

Mind you, it was still hot and sunny…

Rode Hall

By the time we’d had lunch on the boat, walked into the estate, and had an emergency cream tea, it was a bit late to go round both the house and the gardens as well, so the gardens it was.

However, here’s some pictures of the house as we wandered round…

Rode HallRode Hall

Rode HallRode Hall

The house and other buildings were quite impressive, but clearly needing rather more TLC than they were getting.

Rode HallRode Hall

Not sure if the blogging system will censor the above, as it appears to be a naked lady dancing in the flower bed for some reason.

There are wooded areas, a lake with heronry, a huge walled garden and so on. With the dry weather things were not always at their best but here’s some pictures from our wanderings.

Rode HallRode Hall

Rode HallRode Hall

Rode HallRode Hall

And then, of course, there was the long walk back in the baking late afternoon sunshine. A thirsty day… beer was consumed.

Rode Hall–The Long Walk In

Leaving Kidsgrove fairly early (for us) we were soon back on the Trent and Mersey at the top of the Cheshire Locks (aka Heartbreak Hill), and shortly thereafter were attending to Song & Dance’s needs at the CaRT depot at Red Bull. It was by now blisteringly hot, and after another five locks or so we moored up for lunch at a favourite spot (given there’s not a lot of choice down the flight) by Church Lawton.

The head gardener had long expressed a desire to visit Rode Hall – it’s within “walking distance” of both the Macclesfield Canal and the Trent and Mersey, but fortunately only open to the public on Wednesdays, and we’d always managed to safely avoid it. However, close inspection of the map showed that it was not only a mile or so from the Trent & Mersey, but by some planning error cock-up it was not only far too hot to work down the locks, but it was also a Wednesday.

Sadly, the back of the estate might only be about a mile from the canal, but the visitor entrance is right at the other end – about three-quarters of a mile along the fields, then half a mile up the road, before another three-quarters of a mile down the front drive. But hey, nothing ventured…

Heartbreak Hill - Lock 19Mow Cop

The initial approach, following the canal down a couple of locks, is most pleasant, with fine views of Mow Cop in the distance. Then it was across the fields and along the edge of the estate…

CottageRode Hall Lodge

Madam was rather taken by the farm cottage we passed with the strange front door; myself I preferred the lodge house at the Rode Hall main entrance, once we got there.

Rode Hall

By now, suffering from the hour-long trek in, in Arabian summer heat, I was assured by SWMBO that there would be an oasis (i.e. tea room)  at the end of the everlasting drive, and that it would still be open. And so it proved, once we found it. And splendid it was too.

Duckling Rescue

Moored pretty much where the Macclesfield canal crosses over the Trent and Mersey canal before joining it from the “other” side, you wouldn’t guess we were right in the middle of Kidsgrove.

Poole Aqueduct run off - Macclesfield CanalBy Poole Aqueduct

Just opposite was a run-off control/weir system. Excess water runs over, and there’s an enclosed shelf about five feet below or something. Before leaving to worship at the local 24 hour Tesco cathedral, we’d noticed a couple of families of mallards (two adults, and numerous ducklings per pair) straying perilously close to the weir.

On our return, the adults were there, paddling up and down in a most agitated manner, and there were distressed noises from below: clearly the ducklings had sailed over, and were stranded on the ledge below. Occasionally an adult would drop down, then reappear flapping wildly after conducting what’s known in aviation as a “short field take-off”, but the ducklings had yet to complete their first solo so they were there to stay.

It didn’t really seem like a job for RCR or the Coastguards, but fortunately, a couple were walking a dog that side of the canal, and wading through the long grass went to have a look. Our hero took one look, rolled up his sleeves and trouser legs, and climbed down the access ladder. Over a period of ten minutes – doubtless trying to catch them – numerous ducklings were unceremoniously lobbed over the lip into the wings of their devote mums and dads.

All was well for the time being, foxes and pikes permitting…

The Best Laid Plans…

Before committing to the Bosley locks, we thought we’d better just check on the Marple Locks situation… and sure enough, they were closed again. Lock 9 had collapsed last year, and they’d closed and drained the whole flight while major repairs to Lock 9 were made. Took them all winter, and the original scheduled Easter opening slipped to the second May Bank Holiday).  Then – quelle surprise – when the locks were reopened, Lock 11 started falling apart in much the same way, having been de-watered all those months, just as a lot of boaters had predicted. There was talk of limited access, then more boats got stuck, so they closed Lock 11, and said “we’ll let you know what’s happening at the end of the week”.

Not wishing to head all the way up to Marple only to find that the flight still remained closed, we decided to revert to Plan B: going North West before turning back towards Manchester, then crossing the Pennines on the formidable Leeds & Liverpool Canal. A long way round, given we were trying to get to Wakefield for mid-July for Morris Dancing reasons; a route we’d thought we’d come back that way in the autumn,

So, cancelling assorted loose arrangements to meet up with various friends in Macclesfield, Marple and Stockport, on Tuesday morning we tackled the first of the Bosley Locks, turned round in the now properly watered winding hole without problems, and set course for Kidsgrove and the Cheshire Locks.

This long distance boating is nothing if not unpredictable!

Anyway, retracing our steps with a modicum of alacrity, we made our way all the way pretty much back to the junction with the Trent & Mersey Canal at Kidsgrove, moored up and hit the big Tesco store. (Having visited ICL Kidsgrove on several occasions for work reasons in the 70s and 80s, I’d never been into the town itself. What goes round…)

A Walk on The Cloud

Those sad followers of this Blog will know that the plan was to cross the Pennines – probably by the Rochdale Canal, returning by the Leeds and Liverpool. Crucial to this plan was the ability to pass through the Marple flight of locks, which had been closed for months for repairs. The promised Easter opening date had passed and gone, as had the early May bank holiday date; as part of the popular Cheshire Ring, the hire fleet companies were getting cheesed off. The latest opening date was the second, late May bank holiday, and the lock flight was indeed opened to traffic.

We were still suspicious, but decided we’d take CaRT at their word, and left Westport Lakes to transit Harecastle Tunnel then head up the Macclesfield Canal, which goes up to Marple. We ended up mooring at a favourite spot near Little Moreton Hall, a National Trust of some repute. We’d moored here a couple of years ago: a pleasant spot. This time the weather was exceedingly nice, so we actually walked across the fields to Little Moreton Hall to partake of their excellent café; we’d been around the hall itself some years ago when we were having Song & Dance built. And for the first time this year, we actually saw some House Martins… the swallows had been around (and initially freezing) for a while.

It was so nice we chilled out here for another day; on Sunday we moved on through the Congleton outskirts and tied up in another favourite spot by the Dane Aqueduct, just at the bottom of the flight of twelve Bosley Locks. That afternoon, there was some excitement as between the first and seconds locks there is a tight-ish bend, with a winding hole; for some reason the water level in the pound was exceedingly low, and one or two boats were having an epic time sorting themselves up.

Meanwhile, the Chief Sherpa had made it clear that she wanted to upload herself into The Cloud, so preparations were made for an early start on Monday morning.

The Cloud

Unlike the modern usage (for the cynics amongst us “The Cloud” is just a different name for “Someone Else’s Computer”), this The Cloud is a hill just over 1000 feet high just alongside the canal, with – apparently – splendid views over the local area. It’s actually quite a tramp across the fields just to Base Camp, then it starts getting seriously steep for canal travellers.

The CloudThe Cloud, Summit

Actually if we had a car we could have driven pretty nearly all the way up. Mutter, mutter. We made it to the top, though, even if the promised views were disappointing: it was warm and muggy and pretty hazy, so the visibility was less than desirable. And not a Hang Glider in sight.

Fancy House, The CloudFancy House, The Cloud

Car ParkDescent from The Cloud

Cutting across the fields coming down rather than staying on the road, we came across this rather splendid modern house with fabulous views in decent weather. We were, however, somewhat bemused by the car parking arrangements (photo taken from same spot as those of the house).

Thoroughly exhausted, we made it back to Base Camp then across the fields to Song & Dance in time for dinner. One of is jolly glad that – by and large – canals do not travel through mountainous terrain.