Monthly Archives: July 2016

Homeward Bound

Retracing our steps towards Hurlestone Junction, the weather was till hot and sunny. It was a busy Sunday when we went down to Chester, and was much quieter mid-week, so we actually managed to get moored up for lunch at The Shady Oak, near Tarporley.

The Shady Oak,TarporleyThe Shady Oak,Tarporley

Seemed a much more sensible approach to refreshment than flogging ourselves all the way up to Beeston Castle for an ice cream.

The Shady Oak,TarporleyCottage for Sale

The head cook was rather taken with the cottage for sale immediately opposite, but the Captain’s enthusiasm was muted: it was several feet below the canal water level.

Negotiating the Bunbury staircase locks later that afternoon without any need for shuffling, we gave in to the sunshine not much further on.

Thursday morning saw us passing Barbridge Junction again, before joining the queue for the Llangollen Canal at Hurlestone Junction/Bottom Lock. With a stream of boats coming down, saving us the need to empty anything, we were soon up the four locks, and bedding Song & Dance down in her new home for a few week.

And so Friday saw us sad to be leaving the water, but happily anticipating Sidmouth Folk Week, as we began the complicated process of moving the Captain’s entourage temporarily back to winter quarters while catching up on laundry, appointments and onward travel arrangements. The FO caught a train from Crewe, then drove back in a suitable charabanc to collect the Captain, Cook and luggage. Unfortunately, due to communication difficulties and a minor fiasco regarding logistics, eventually departing the winter quarters for Cheshire at 16:00 on a Friday during the August school holidays proved as bad as feared. Despite the multi-hour delays on the M40 and M6, by hook, crook, sat-nav and going off-piste, Swanley Bridge Marina was finally reached just in time to grab a late dinner at the estimable The Thatch pub nearby.

On Saturday morning the traffic heading back home en famille wasn’t so bad, and by lunchtime, we were back, surveying the mound of laundry, post and things to do.

Chester: Ceiling, Consistory Court, Choir and Conundrum

As this cruise – quite unintentionally – seems to have turned into a tour around remarkable ecclesiastical ceilings in middle-west England, it seemed unwise to miss out Chester Cathedral, so we squeezed in a quick tour before heading back uphill up the Shropshire Union for Sidmouth (if you see what we mean).

The ceilings were indeed remarkable,

Gloucester CathedralGloucester Cathedral

but it was disturbing that the recent global cult of the Tabard Taliban seemed to be infiltrating everywhere. The chief gardener was doing her best to ignore their mystical incantations, but with little success.

Tabard Taliban

As well as fine ceilings, Chester has the oldest complete consistory court still remaining in a cathedral building. Don’t know if they still have a hanging judge, though.

Gloucester Catherdral : Consistory Court

Even more remarkable were the wooden carvings over the choir: every position is different,

Gloucester Catherdral : Choir CarvingsGloucester Catherdral : Choir

and the same applies to the misericords.

Gloucester Catherdral : MiserichordsGloucester Catherdral : Miserichords

At the end of each choir stall is a different carving too. The elephant carver had clearly never seen a real elephant! The bearded chap looks remarkably like a Bracknell Folk Club and Festival organiser of some decades ago, although I can’t recall him ever playing a fiddle. And quite what the creature with the pewter tankard is supposed to be, or is doing to the monkey, remains a puzzle. Perhaps the carver was suffering from an overdose of festival-itis when he carved it.

Gloucester Catherdral : Choir CarvingsGloucester Catherdral : Choir CarvingsGloucester Catherdral : Choir Carvings

After all that ecclesiastical glory, a quick sandwich lunch and we headed back South again, and the siren call of Swanley Bridge Marina and Sidmouth Folk Week.

The Captain must have known we were running late and were hot and harrassed, as he jumped ship at one of those difficult – and grey painted- locks, dived into an impenetrable hedgerow bordering the lock cottage garden, and ignored all attempts to tempt him back on board. Unfortunately, when he jumps ship, he eventually tends to return to the point at which he went ashore, and then fails to notice that his home has moved on a few yards.

Unable to wait there with Song & Dance in the lock, we moved on fifty yards or so, and moored up properly, reluctantly accepting that we would probably have to stay there the night, all the while posting a lookout on the lock side. Fortunately the inhabitant of the lockkeeper’s cottage was present; he tied up his whippet, and allowed us to  rummage around in his shrubbery. Realising the game was up, Sir emerged blinking into the sunshine, and allowed us to accompany him back to his mobile food bowl. Oh the joys of a demanding ship’s Master…

After all that excitement for the day, our final resting place for the day was unmemorable, and forgotten.

Beaten by Biggles and Waitrose

Monday proved to be hot and sultry again, so after pootling along for a while in the morning, we decided to stop for a refreshing lunch before tackling the broad beam locks that descend down to the centre of Chester. The Captain left things to us, jumped ship before we’d managed to tie up, and beat us into the pub. He didn’t even care that he was drinking from the dog bowl. The shame of it!


Resuming cruising after Sir had had his fill, it was getting hotter and hotter, and we were beginning to wonder whether we would make it to Chester and the canal-side Waitrose before we turned around or gave up. Our spirits were lifted when we saw two young ladies walking along the towpath holding their free cups of Waitrose coffee. “It’s only about ten minutes walk further along”.

Actually, it was a good mile and a half, and three more very hard locks. And they never walked it in ten minutes either: never trust time estimates from nattering young ladies.

There are good moorings right outside Waitrose, apart from the fact that they’re limited to two hours, but it was blissfully freezing inside. Back in the heat, we’d decided we weren’t going all the way down to Chester Basin: several more locks including a busy staircase. Fortunately, just before the “last chance” winding hole, we came across a mooring, right by a large pub and even a huge rhododendron bush that the Captain could hide in and cool off. 100 yards to the town walls – just the job.


Later that evening we were slightly bemused by this “push-me pull-you” floating restaurant, which as far as we can tell just reversed all the way to the top of the staircase, then went forwards up towards Waitrose and beyond, before reversing back again. Not a very interesting outlook for the diners. Still, at least it’s afloat.

On Tuesday we really needed to be heading back towards  Swanley and Sidmouth, but decided that as the walls and the cathedral were just a few yards away, it would be churlish not to have a quick look.

Chester WallsChester Cathedral

There’s lots of nice buildings in Chester, with great views from the walls. The busker was playing a clarinet accompaniment to “I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside” backing track, which seemed singularly inappropriate.



Beeston Beckons

Having been down and back this way several times before, (the remains of) Beeston Castle looming on the horizon and towering over the Cheshire Plain was a familiar sight, but neither of us had ever actually  visited it.

Beeston Castle from Shropshire Union Canal

As it was (a)  blazingly hot – a real surprise, (b) a Sunday and (c) we had already worked several hard broad locks in the morning, the Captain gave us permission to have the afternoon off and visit the castle, if only because it was likely to have somewhere selling ice creams.

Setting off over the fields and across the railway, the outcrop and castle was rather further than it looked. Eventually, after quite a climb, we reached the entrance. Just before there was a rather fine farmhouse, that proudly announced that it was a milk supplier to Tesco, and hence presumably losing loads of money. Hmmm.

Beeston CastleBeeston Farmhouse

Toiling further uphill into the castle proper, you eventually come to the central keep, cunningly surrounded by a deep ravine on one side, and steep cliffs on the other.

Beeston Castle

We were quite impressed by the early 11th century bridgework, and although it was a trifle steep in places the situation and views were superb.


DSCF4847Beeston CastleBeeston Castle

The top/keep itself seemed a little lacking in facilities (unless you count multiple five-year-olds skipping around while us old’uns recovered our breath).

Still it was nice to look back at our endeavours and see the canal and railway, and ponder that it was a jolly long way to climb just to get an ice cream.

View from Beeston Castle towards canal and Song & Dance

Still, you could always see across to the Welsh Hills, or peer at people going about their business…

View towards Welsh hillsTractorRoad

… and you could also see Jodrell Bank.

Jodrell Bank

Stumbling back down, the return to the boat took rather less time, and heading down the canal a little we aimed to moor near the new and huge Tattenhall Marina where our guide said there were a couple of pubs. Mooring up we soon discovered that the nearest pub was now totally demolished, and the other one was over a mile and a half’s walk, and was stopping serving food about ten minutes after we’d tied up.

Rumours that the new marina (whose water entrance we’d already passed) might provide nourishment momentarily raised our hopes, but a quick investigation showed that access on foot would involve a couple of miles’ walk along roads a long way around to the other side of the marina then a hike into the interior. We raided the freezer and had an early night.

The Bunbury Shuffle

Saturday, rain, and more decisions… so we took the easy way out, and just carried straight on. We could have turned left at Hurlestone Junction and headed up the Llangollen Canal towards Swanley Bridge Marina but knew we’d be doing that in less than a week anyway. We could have turned right at Barbridge Junction, and headed out towards Middlewich, but we’d have to turn round to get back to Swanley Bridge, and reckoned we’d be heading outwards via Middlewich after Sidmouth anyway.

Straight ahead would lead to Chester, if we got that far before turning round. And we weren’t planning on going that way after Sidmouth: we’d both been that way before, and had no plans to go beyond Chester this year. So straight ahead it was. No decision, no contest.

The Shropshire Union leading to Chester changes character: it becomes a broad canal with locks that will normally take two narrowboats side by side. The balance beams are still painted grey though!

First up was the Bunbury Staircase. A two stage staircase, with a sizeable hire base surrounding it, it proved to be a busy spot on a Saturday (turn round day no doubt). The bo’sun last hired a boat from Bunbury in 1972 or thereabouts: it’s rather more hectic now.

Arriving at the top chamber to find two boats already entering the bottom one, we were getting prepared to wait a while, but the hire company Maître D assured us that you could get two up and one down at the same time by playing the Bunbury Shuffle. It’s a bit like those old games where you had 15 tiles in a 4 by 4 holder, and had to rearrange things by sliding things in and out of the single empty space.

Amazingly it worked OK, no tears or water was spilt, and having had enough for the day, we moored up not far beyond, hoping for a quiet evening as we’d had to use pins, and after the recent rain the ground was muddy and soft.

D-Day in Nantwich

That’s decision day… where are we going to leave the boat while we head south for some appointments at home, and then a trip to Sidmouth Folk Week. A short trip down from Hack Green soon brought us to Nantwich, a town we’d visited before and rather liked. It’s pretty busy canal-wise, being on several popular routes, and is near a couple of junctions that enable a choice of directions. We’re not good at decisions.

Finding a spot to moor near the well known aqueduct, we said “hello” to the resident heron…

Nantwich AqueductNantwich Aqueduct - Resident Heron

Nantwich Aqueduct

… before wandering into town for some shopping.


En-route, there are these rather fine cottages,

Flint + Flint

and a shop that must have seen the chief cook coming. (Her approach to skin health is to buy loads of strange and expensive concoctions and spend hours in the bathroom muttering strange incantations).


And in the middle of town, some nice buildings with plentiful supplies of coffee and jumpers. Can’t be all bad.

Not terribly far from Nantwich are several large marinas that (a) would happily accommodate Song & Dance for a few weeks (and a suitable fee), and (b) were within easy reach of Crewe station, which would make the logistics of repatriating the Captain somewhat easier. Eventually we opted to take up board and lodgings for the boat in Swanley Bridge Marina: a modest day’s cruise up the Shropshire Union, then back south again down the Llangollen Canal. Quite a way by water, and several locks, but only a couple of miles from Nantwich as the heron flies.

There was only one snag… there was still a week to go before we needed to tuck Song & Dance up, and the marina was only a day away. Where should we go in the interim, with so many choices? Another perishing decision to make…

Grey Days and Grey Puzzles

The Shropshire Union Canal changes character after Market Drayton. Leaving deep cuttings tall embankments and the Captain’s carnage behind, the canal dives down hill through loads of lock: a flight of five then another of 15 taking one down to Audlem. There were decent moorings after the first two of the Audlem flight, and the weather dull and grey so we called it a day.

Wednesday morning started grey as well, and thirteen locks later we tied up outside the renowned Shroppie Fly pub, but eschewed its lunchtime delights for a shopping trip into Audlem and coffee and cakes in a posh café instead.

The Shroppie Fly, Audlem

Audlem is rather a fine little Cheshire village, with a splendidly situated church right smack in the middle. Despite the busy wharf area and threatening weather, we arrived back to find Sir enjoying a spot of fresh air while watching the world go by.

AudlemMenu discussions

Two more locks after lunch, and we were away from Audlem, into pleasant open countryside, before passing Overwater Marina – one of the larger (and better) ones on the system. It really is huge.

Lock assistant

We finally moored up at Hack Green, which is signposted on the roads over a large area, as well as the canal. The signs are just wrong for so many reasons…

Hack GreenHack Green

The above pictures were taken in October 2011 – we’d moored here before – and the “temporary sign” is now even more overgrown. The bunker (built underneath a WW2 radar station that doesn’t look all that different from a bunch of farm buildings) is disturbing and fascinating, if only as a chilling reminder of the political mind-set during the cold war.

Hack GreenHack Green

Despite the threatening grey skies, we walked down the canal a bit to Hack Green Top Lock, while the Captain joined us for a constitutional.

Hack GreenHack Green Top Lock

Reaching the lock, something that had been vaguely bugging us finally crystallised: shiny new or old and decrepit, all the balance beams on the descent from the top of the Shropshire Union were painted a battleship grey colour. It’s an article of faith that canal lock gear and balance beams are painted black and white.

What on earth were they thinking? Did someone screw up and order the wrong paint? Was the DoD having a fire sale now that they won’t need their new aircraft carriers for several years, until we can afford to pay the US for some planes to put on them?

Whatever the reason, it’s seriously disturbing to the peace of mind and predictable tranquillity of the canals: we should be told!

Bad Boy Biggles Goes on a Bender

Pottering on further up the rural reaches of the Shropshire Union, we soon reached Norbury Junction, which like Saul Junction, isn’t any more. Once upon a time another part of the system descended 17 steep locks and went to Shrewsbury, but as the first lock is now a dry dock with a building over it, it’ll probably be a week or two before the restoration project is completed.

Norbury JunctionNorbury Junction

But with a pub and licensed cafe on the junction, and a small hire base, even on a cold and rainy Sunday lunchtime, the place was busy with boats and gongoozlers.

This stretch has several deep cuttings; after all the rain, they’re rather gloomy, dank and discouraging.

High Bridge, Grubb Street Cutting

Grubb Street cutting is renowned for the bridge with the telegraph pole in the middle; the pole is no longer in use, but we think they used to run telephone lines up the cutting.

Scene of the Crime

Emerging into more open countryside, we moored up and the sun came out for a rare excursion during the late evening.

Despite being unable to attend any meetings of Volestranglers Anonymous while we’ve been cruising, the Captain had been clean of catching rodents for a year or more; he’s been clean of birds for several years. So when he emerged from the bushes with a fledgling blackbird grasped tightly in his jaws, the chief cook was seriously unimpressed and upset. And he really, really didn’t want to let go…

Finally relieved of his burden, he rushed straight back out, and stared meaningfully at a section of hedgerow where there were sounds of other dismayed fledglings rustling around. We confined him to the brig for the rest of the evening, but he’d obviously got  the urge again. Sometime after midnight the cat flap flapped as he returned from his nightly constitutional, but this was not immediately followed by the usual sound of crunching from his food bowl. Expecting the worst, he was found on the saloon floor crouching as if disembowelling a small rodent like object, but the only evidence left was a small drop of blood on the floor… Well at least it wasn’t a fledgling.

Can’t think what’s got into him.

High Bridge, Woodseaves CuttingWoodseaves Cutting

Setting off on a rainy Monday morning we were soon ensconced in the clutches of Woodseaves Cutting. Two miles long, very deep and wet, and frequently too narrow to pass an oncoming boat, it was like a different world. Heavily wooded, dank and drippy, with strange things growing down off the branches, even the grass looked a strange colour: like some Salopian primordial jungle,

Emerging just before the top lock at Tyrley for lunch and a break in the rain, afterwards the flight of five were soon polished off despite a queue of boats coming up. They were the first locks for several days. We suspect a whole bunch of boats had been tied up at Market Drayton – not far from the bottom – waiting for the rain to stop, and they’d all left at once. Busiest we’ve seen things for a while.

Mooring at Market Drayton – nice buildings and town centre but obviously hard hit by the recession, with a bit of a down at heel atmosphere that had improved but a little since our last visit about five years ago – we prepared to head for the shops while dodging the rain.

But before we could leave, the Captain emerged from the long grass, jumped on the boat and proudly dropped a shrew at our feet (he doesn’t seem to eat those). Congratulating him for his kindness and forethought we disposed of the remains while he went ashore again and immediately returned with a mole. This was getting out of hand, and if he catches one of  Ratty’s mates we’ll be seriously upset!

On our return from tea, cakes and supermarket, we half expected to find a pile of corpses at the door, and were relieved to find Sir sleeping the sleep of the just-after without any need to call in CSI. But just to remind us that he was still capable, he went out mid evening for five minutes, and returned with another shrew. Really must find a branch of Volestranglers Anonymous quickly.

Baskets in Brewood

Setting off from Oxley on Saturday morning the Captain had decided to turn left and head up the Shropshire Union to Nantwich and beyond; if we’d carried on up the Staffs and Worcester we’d have had a short stretch we’d never been on before, then ended up at Great Heywood on the Trent & Mersey, which is familiar territory indeed. There was a rather longer stretch of the Shroppie that we hadn’t done: from Brewood to the end of Woodseaves Cutting,  and beyond that we’d only been once. So after negotiating the junction and the stop lock (a level change of – ooh – at least three inches, but still taking ages) we ended up partaking of lunch in Brewood.

Brewood Visitor MooringsBrewood Visitor Moorings

Moored somewhere under this load of flower baskets is an actual narrowboat. SWMBO was very impressed and keen to try something similar. The Captain had words.

Swan Hotel, BrewoodSwan Hotel, Brewood

There’s some odd places in Brewood…

Brewood CottageBrewood CottageBrewood Cottage

…and some very nice ones. Fran was all set to move into this cottage.

The (bottom part) of the Shropshire Union was one of Thomas Telford’s masterpieces, and unlike most other canals, it majors on long straight sections, avoiding locks unless absolutely necessary. Which means large chunks of said straight sections are either in deep cuttings or high embankments (both of which caused Telford grief). It’s also quite wide as canals go, so has quite an odd feel after the Staffs and Worcester, traversing mainly fairly remote rural areas.

Anyway, you can cover quite a lot of ground, and after lunch we carried on and did just that, ending up just past Wheaton Aston and the first proper lock for the day, mooring right beside an old WWII airfield in the peace and quiet.

Oxley Cats, a Bargain Curry, and a Memorial Service

Without wishing to be indelicate, we were beginning to be in urgent need of a pump-out: the last one had been at Upton Marina, and there are no facilities on the Staffs and Worcester between Stourport and the Wolverhampton. Even the offshoot of Stourport’s chandlery and wharf at Compton was now defunct: 90% of the way to being occupied “luxury flats”. So (having been caught out before) we’d checked with Oxley Marine near Wolverhampton to ensure that they could help us out.

Compton Bridge

Compton Wharf did however provide a suitable lunch stop: handy shops right on the bridge, pub, cafe and so on (and frequent buses to Wolverhampton, if that’s what floats your narrowboat). And while pipe bridges are common, we can’t ever recall having seen one quite like this peculiar inverted V one at Compton.

Near AldersleyJunctionAldersley Junction

Oxley Marine is located between Aldersley Junction (where the “Wolverhampton 21” locks finally drop down to the Staffs & Worcester), and Autherley Junction half a mile further on, where the Shropshire Union Canal heads off for the salt fields of Cheshire, while the Staffs and Worcester keeps on heading for Stafford and Stoke. Approaching Aldersley, it’s hard to believe you’re only a mile or so from the centre of Wolverhampton: those 21 locks are quite a steep flight and end right in the middle of town.

Oxley Marine is an “old fashioned” boat yard with a busy bar cum social club attached; there are about fifteen boats there, and they had kindly made room for us to stay overnight with an electric hook-up so we could catch up on some washing. The boat’s pump-out orifice was on the wrong side for ease of access, so we went past the boatyard, turned at Autherley Junction, came back, did the business, then carried on retracing our steps to Aldersley Junction so we could turn around again and moor up properly. We were beginning to know the stretch of canal between the two junctions quite well…


… even if the “his and her” boats opposite seemed a bit bemused at our comings and goings.

We’d been told by the boatyard chappie that the local take-away Chinese and Indian restaurants were both worth a punt, so perusing the proffered menus, we rang the Indian and ordered a Chicken Tikka & Mushroom Biryani with Veggie Curry, a Chicken Peshwar with Pulao Rice and a Peshwari Nan. The bill came to just under £16 including delivery. The food arrived when they said it would despite the Friday night rush, had complimentary poppadums and other bits included, was extremely tasty, and the portions so large that we could only eat half – we kept the rest for a complete second meal! This sure ain’t Berkshire, Toto.

We knew the boatyard had two resident black and white sister cats and seen them wandering around – there had been an awkward moment when Biggles introduced himself. While waiting for our food, sitting in the rare warm evening sunshine with a beer, we were chatting to a couple who said they had seen our cat go aboard at the back, and jump out the front sometime later; they asked how we managed with a walkabout cat. While saying it wasn’t really a problem these days, it became clear that the cat they thought was ours was black and white. The interloper had clearly explored Song & Dance while Sir had remained fast asleep somewhere inside. Words will be had in due course.

Meanwhile, across the canal and down a bit was a canoe/kayak club. During the afternoon a number of floral tributes had been pinned to their railings, and later a gathering of smartly dressed people stood around for a while with drinks in hand: some kind of memorial gathering it seemed. As we were leaving Stourport a few days ago, we’d noticed the Union Flag flying at half-mast next to the Clock Tower for no immediately obvious reason. Let’s hope we’re not indirectly responsible for a sudden increase in the death rate as we head North…