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Gone Fishin’. Or Shootin’. Or Dancin’.

Leaving Etruria, we pottered up the mile or so to Festival Park Marina, expecting to find it full of Black Prince Boats, but the hire-boat pontoons were empty, the place locked up and seemingly deserted. WInding the boat and tying up outside, a phone call extracted the duty chap who explained that they had umpteen boats arriving later that day (hence they couldn’t accommodate us), but he was able to relieve us of all our black water. To our great relief. And so, considerably lighter, we headed back down to Etruria, descended Stoke Locks with little fuss and a little rain, and trekked round Stoke-on-Trent.

Beer O'ClockShingles

We’d passed this intriguingly scruffy Stoke boatyard on numerous occasions over the years, but never with camera in hand. Wood shingles for a cabin – whatever next?

Line DancingShooting Range

Many boatyards provide loos and maybe a shower. Quite why this one feels the need to provide this rather bizarre collection of facilities, let alone get the spelling wrong, has always been a puzzle. One of these days I think we’ll call in…

Still, one can’t help thinking of Brad Paisley’s utterly wonderful Fishing Song I’m Gonna Miss Her.

Continuing on we reluctantly came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t make Stone that day so moored up at the bottom of Meaford Locks.

Thursday saw us locking down into Stone itself; a quick trip into the chandlers to replace a piling clip lost in the mud, and – first time ever – we moored up in one of the few prime spots in the middle of town just above the pub. A shame we weren’t staying other than for lunch and a quick shop – they’re never available when you want to stay for a while.

And so to Aston Marina, where we got plugged in, got the washing machine on, and started on the laundry pile. Then went for a splendid dinner at their very excellent restaurant. Two weights off our mind in one day, but a weight on the waistline…

The Best Laid Plans

We’d dawdled rather longer than expected on the Caldon Canal, what with trains, cars, towpath walks and the like, and some things were needing attention. The dirty laundry pile was becoming excessive, a pump-out would soon be urgent, and we really needed to get the car back home: dragging it around was becoming a drag.

And then SWMBO said “Jackstraws Morris are dancing at Bromyard Folk Festival in 10 days. Without Biggles to look after, if we kept the car up here for a bit longer, we could go, couldn’t we… I’ve brought my kit!”

Stoke’s Festival Park Marina had helped out several times before: moorings with electric for the washing machine – tick; relaxed about leaving cars – tick; pump-out facilities – tick. Except that they were full when we wanted to be there. We could probably get a pump-out, but as for mooring, no chance. CaRT have self-service pump-out machines at Park Lane Wharf (on the way but broken) and Etruria (on the way), but you need a special “credit” card to operate those. Handily, these are only available by mail order (useful when on a boat) or from very rare retailers nowhere near the facility. And these pump-out stations a rare enough that carrying spare cards around is a bit like giving CaRT a long term loan – we haven’t needed one in three years, and the Environment Agency ones on the rivers use a different card. And in any case, that didn’t solve the laundry problem. So we ended up re-planning, and booked ourselves into Aston Marina, just south of Stone for a couple of days, and decided we’d better get a move on.

So off we set. Waving goodbye to The Holly Bush on a pleasant Bank Holiday Monday morning we climbed back up Hazelhurst Locks, pottered past Park Lane Wharf, down through Stockton Brook Locks (the abandoned railway there still had its tracks, but trees were growing through them there) and managed to moor at Milton again. Milton on the Tuesday after a Bank Holiday was much like Milton on a Monday, apart from the café being open. They needn’t have bothered…

And then we finished off the Caldon Canal, and moored up at Etruria Junction, frustratingly close to the pump-out facilities, frustratingly far from any means of using them. It’s a major CaRT depot, but no-one was able or interested in helping us out. Apparently the Park Lane Wharf one had been fixed earlier that day, but the chap said the biggest cause of failures was misuse of the magic cards, so perhaps it’s all a plot to persuade the powers that be that they are so under used there really is no demand for them. After all, they charge more for you to do it yourself than most boatyards/marinas charge to do it for you. One of life’s mysteries.

Make Mine a Large One

At various points cruising or perambulating along the Caldon Canal we came across boats that caught our attention. We’d seen the immaculate butty Jam Butty before, moored near Hazelhurst Locks on Song & Dance’s maiden voyage, but this trip her equally immaculate tug Jammie Dodger was nowhere to be seen. Found out later at gossip central (The Holly Bush) that it was on a cruise to Llangollen and back. How nice.

The same morning, we’d seen Chardonnay and Tempranillo, the latter reminding us of the splendidly titled Rioja Bye Baby seen down at Heyford on our first year. Meanwhile…

Whisky

Caol Ila reminded us that it was way past time we headed up to the Hebrides for some malted therapy. The same morning we also saw Comfortably Numb which seemed appropriate.

Alternative TherapyRetired

We rather liked Alternative Therapy as a name. And for many years every time we passed through Stone, Tina Paramore’s two boats were moored in the same place, but were missing this May. Now we know why: wonder if that little word at the bottom was her last piece of brushwork.

Far-Canal

Finally, bemused that Loughborough wasn’t all that far away, the chief cook took some time…

Cheddleton Flint Mill

While walking from The Holly Bush to The Star, one passes Cheddleton Flint Mill; as it’s named after the Head Gardener, and we’d been past several times without stopping, we thought we’d better investigate.

Cheddleton Flint MillCheddleton Flint Mill

Cheddleton Flint MillCheddleton Flint Mill

There are some rather fine old buildings: the mill with two water wheels, and some workers’ cottages. The wheels still turn and run the flint grinding machinery inside.

Cheddleton Flint MillCheddleton Flint Mill

There’s an old steam engine, presumably for when the water supply failed…

Why?

… and a rather unsatisfactory answer to one of the mysteries of the universe.

A Load of Old Waffle

Watcher on the Rye

Waking to a lovely sunny and still morning, we noticed we were being watched. If you look carefully by the largest hay roll (click on the picture) you can see by whom.

We decided that The Boat Inn at Cheddleton had looked after the car long enough: it was time for The Holly Bush to take over the chore. If nothing else, the latter’s car park is huge. So we walked back along the canal feeling warm and virtuous enjoying the exercise.

Going Nowhere

The canal, towpath and river all run side by side with the old railway; on this section, we were surprised that the track was still in place. Maybe the Churnet Valley Railway people are hoping to extend their network, and have left things alone. Given the closeness of the parallel towpath, busy with dog walkers, it’s surprisingly not overgrown.

Cheddleton LockSecond Breakfast

Our virtuous feeling was doing well until we passed under this odd building just before Cheddleton Lock, and found that – with a deft inconsistency in apostrophe usage – Castro’s Mexican Restaurant during the daytime transmogrifies into Oceans Coffee and Waffle House. Warm sun, outdoor table by the lock, massive bacon & maple syrup waffles and good coffee – a somewhat memorable second breakfast! Or maybe first lunch. Virtuous feelings somewhat diminished.

Baby Robin

Staggering on, we found this little chap sitting on the path looking perplexed. After a few minutes, he flew back into the hedge,so all was probably well.

Fran's New HouseSpot the Triffid

Just near The Boat Inn, Fran found her perfect house: an old Victorian end of terrace, with a nice large garden, and a mooring at the end. The only snag was that it was disturbingly close to a serious Triffid outbreak: this one even seems to have flowered, which we’d not seen before.

First Lunch

Disturbingly close to the excellent Boat Inn, too, and we thought we’d better say thank you by partaking of first or second lunch (depending on waffles status) before heading back to the boat by automobile.

Jam and Steam and nearly a Pub Crawl

It’s easy to lose track of the days and even weeks, but the Gin Festival reminded us that it was a bank holiday weekend, so we expected things to be busy, and they were. Setting off on a lovely morning, we’d hope to partake of a lunchtime beverage at the Black Lion at Consall, where we’d moored a few days ago.

Consall Forge StationConsall Forge Station

With two trains running in opposite directions all day, they had to wait for each other at Consall, and as we passed their steam engine was waiting for the train coming from Cheddleton.

Consall Forge Station

Immediately past the station the canal bends through a low bridge under the railway, then immediately back again under the hump-backed bridge giving access to the pub. It’s very narrow, and some how or other the helmsman or helmswoman managed to get Song & Dance  thoroughly wedged and stuck, even though we’d had no problem in the other direction. Managing to back out with a degree of sound and fury from the engine, we took the fenders up, and squeezed through without incident at the second attempt…

Black Lion, ConsallBlack Lion, Consall

… just in time to see the steam train finally depart. Sadly, all the moorings there were taken, so we continued to Cheddleton, and luckily finding a suitable place for lunch if not the rest of the day, we walked up to The Boat Inn. We’d left the car there yesterday, so thought we’d frequent their bar rather than the Gin-fest across the bridge; they were mobbed too, with live music, cheap gin in competition, and a BBQ.

Near the Holly Bush Inn

Thinking it might all be a bit noisy to stay the night right between The Star’s and the Station’s festivities we pottered on through Cheddleton locks and village, eventually finding a delightful spot just short of the Holly Bush Inn, where we’d been several, even many times before. With lovely evening weather most inappropriate for a bank holiday Satyrday, loads of grass, swings and roundabouts etc. that pub was really mobbed – even the grass overflow car park was overflowing. But a couple of hundred yards back along the canal, just around the corner, it was lovely and peaceful.

If a bit full! Mis-estimating our length by a foot or so, we only managed to squeeze in by noticing that the boat behind was (a) padlocked up and unoccupied, and (b) using piling clips to moor, so we pulled him back a few feet. Wonder if its crew will notice on their return…

Trains and Boats and Cars… and Gin

So much for lazing about doing not a lot on a narrowboat: Friday proved a busy day. We’d booked the car in for an MOT at noon back near Piper Boats because we thought we’d be nearby, but the best laid plans… Meanwhile SWMBO was still suffering from coughing and some new chest pains following the Sidmouth lurgy. As the MOT centre was near a hospital with a walk in centre, and we were going right past, madam was duly dropped off to see if she could get a chest MOT as well. Fortunately, both car and human passed with flying colours: in Fran’s case it was a normal viral cough/cold and a pulled muscle probably from coughing too hard (or overdoing the windlass at locks).

Anyway, we thought the Churnet Valley Railway were running trains between Cheddleton and Froghall during the afternoon, and decided to investigate, particularly as we fancied getting ahead of the game and leaving the car at Cheddleton Station or thereabouts and getting the train back to the boat at Froghall ready to cruise back on Saturday or Sunday.

Turned out they were having a special Gin weekend, and were running trains regularly from Friday afternoon right through to late Friday night (as well as the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend).

Cheddleton StationSpot the Mistake

Cheddleton StationUnloading the Gin

The local advertising proved a little dubious, as cider was off, dear… this year they were having separate Gin and Cider Events but someone mistakenly ordered the same posters as last year! We did catch them unloading some of the  40 or so Gins though, but were a bit early for the bar to open.

Coaling UpSmile!

At the end of the platform, we could see them coaling up their steam engine ready for service later that weekend. Mind you it must be easier filling the tender with a JCB than a shovel! Thought this diesel had rather a cheeky smile, too.

Cheddleton WorkshopAmerican Steam Train

American Steam TrainAmerican Steam Train

Peering into the workshop, a friendly chap offered to show us around and take us out to the yard beyond to wander about, which was much appreciated.

HotspurGeorge

We renewed our acquaintance with Hotspur (last seen on our maiden boat trip), clearly undergoing some heavy maintenance, and made the acquaintance of George, the workshop’s resident pheasant. Just a little way down the road/canal/river/rail-track (they’re all together here) was an country estate where they raise pheasants in large numbers as shotgun targets; George had obviously decided being regularly fed by an engineering shed manager rather than a gamekeeper was probably a good career move.

Two LoveliesTrain Home

As we waited for our train “home” to Froghall, one of us became entranced by these two lovelies, who were also waiting for the train. Fortunately, it came before someone had decided to go in for puppy-knapping.

We enjoyed the journey back, and just doing it one way in the afternoon seemed a waste, so after a quick trip back to the boat to unload stuff and partake of a quick meal, we headed back to Froghall station, where the gin palace was now well and truly open. Then did the return journey to Cheddleton and back just for the hell of it. Madam was very taken with the Rhubarb & Ginger Edinburgh Gin… something for the Christmas list perhaps!

And so to bed!

Bonny Froghall Again

Thursday morning sunshine saw us setting off for the rest of the journey to Froghall: slow, winding, narrow and lovely. But the height gauge at Consall Forge lock – even though known to be highly pessimistic – confirmed what we’d known all along… we were never going to get Song & Dance through Froghall Tunnel. Well, not without taking off all the cratch, filling the water tanks and finding some extra ballast somewhere. And even then, not without losing a substantial amount of the shiny new paintwork.

We were soon at the tunnel mouth, and the winding hole for cowards like us. The basin at the far side of the tunnel looked just as idyllic and inviting as before, but realistically there was no way – Andy Irvine would just have to wait until we had a traditional boat some six inches lower than Song & Dance.

Froghall BasinFroghall Wharf

We noticed that the nice wharf building had turned into a rather nice café, and someone was running a trip boat through the tunnel and up to the Black Lion. Hope it goes well with them, even if hearing the grinding and crunching as they went through the tunnel reinforced the correctness of our decision not to even try!

While partaking of coffee at the café, it seemed that the missing bits for the boat had arrived, and someone was coming out to finish off things. Scrounging a lift back to the factory to collect our car, the engineer’s SatNav took us on a lengthy but highly scenic route back to Knypersely via all sorts of high Staffordshire moorland. Coming back on the A roads was positively dull by comparison.

Dinner was taken at the recently refurbished Railway Inn, where a chance conversation elicited the fact that we were only about 6 miles from Alton Towers. The geography around here is hard to get your head round!

Leek to Froghall

Saying farewell to Leek on the Wednesday morning, we soon made it to Hazelhurst Junction, where the Leek Arm and Froghall Arm come together; a tight right turn took us into the top Hazelhurst Lock, aiming for Froghall.

Hazelhurst Lock

Letting down, we noticed something very odd about the lock gate. A prize for the first person to spot it…

And after the Leek Arm, and the three Hazelhurst locks, we arrived at The Holly Bush Inn at lunch time. It would be rude not to… Actually, it was pretty busy for a Wednesday lunchtime we thought, albeit a pleasantly warm and sunny one.

Hollybush Inn

The canal follows the Churnet  Valley, a hidden gem in the moorlands while just a stone’s throw from Stoke on Trent, and before long, drops down onto the River Churnet itself.

Down onto the River ChurnetOn the River Churnet

As we were approaching Consall, we were lucky enough to find a prime mooring spot just by the Black Lion, a splendid, and splendidly isolated watering hole. With good moorings between here and Froghall being a little thin on the ground, it was definitely time to go for a Guinness,

Black Lion, Consall Forge

We’d noticed on a previous visit that the pub was run mainly by chickens, but were particularly taken by this chappie, who we hadn’t seen before.

Handome Cock

Leek and Leak–Take 2

Finally saying farewell to Festival Park on Sunday morning, we headed up the Caldon Canal: Piper Boats still had some stuff to finish off (!) and we planned to stay close to the factory as the crow flies, if only because we’d left the car there. The weather was gloomy, and didn’t inspire any photographic efforts, but there are some from the previous trips here and here.

Mooring up in Milton, we discovered (again) that on Monday morning, Milton is pretty like a town on half-day closing. We did manage to stock up on some local pies and sausages though. The sky was leaking drizzle, unlike last time, when the leak was more serious. We were also expecting Pipers to come and finish off some stuff, but they’d forgotten. Ho hum.

So we headed off in dull and drizzly weather, stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and ended up on Tuesday tackling the Leek Arm of the Caldon Canal: narrow, winding, overgrown and somewhat of a challenge. Fortunately, we found room to moor at the end of the arm, the sun had finally peeped out, and we spent a pleasant lunchtime and afternoon walking into and around Leek, a town that we like more each time we visit (even if the local Waitrose is closing next week).

The path from the end of the navigation into town (or Morrison’s car park, anyway) is quite long and overgrown, but runs alongside Leek Cattle Market even though you can’t see it. Judging by the noises and aromas, Tuesday is market day at Leek…