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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…

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…

Excitement on the North Oxford

Whatever one’s views on public services, some parts of the emergency service are still impressive.

Getting away from Napton promptly, we’d soon transited the Grand Union Canal  to Braunston Junction, whereupon we were back on the Oxford Canal – the North Oxford Canal that is. This section is winding and rural, and normally rather devoid of drama.

But after lunch…

15:06 – Cruising along the canal in the remote countryside somewhere on the Northants/Warks boundary. Go under Bridge 80 and there’s a large field of cows and calves on the offside, and a calf in the canal in distress trying to get out, and getting spooked by a couple of passing boats.

15:07 – Slow boat up, determine no obvious exit point for poor calf, call 101 from mobile, and on being asked whether I wanted Northants or Warkwickshire polis randomly chose Northants (probably wrongly). “North Oxford Canal by Bridge 80, near Barby there’s a distressed calf in the canal, and it’s getting spooked by the boats” and after brief consultation told to call Fire service on 999.

15:08 – Call 999/Fire Brigade from mobile, “North Oxford Canal… etc.” – “OK, thanks very much, there’s someone on the way, please can we have your name?”.

With boats coming and going, decided we couldn’t usefully do any more so cruised on slowly to warn any other oncoming boats.

15:15 – Phone rings “Mr Walton, fire service” asking whether we knew the area and any likely access. Accepted I was a stranger on a boat, clarified problem was between Bridges 80 and 79, and the lady said “Looks like there’s a Barby Hill Farm nearby: perhaps we can get access over the fields from there”.

15:18 – Approaching Bridge 78, see a Fire Service Land Rover parked on the bridge, then further up the road, turning into the long track leading to the farm, two Fire Engines and another Land Rover towing a RIB.

Heaven knows where they came from, but I have to say we were pretty impressed!

I guess they use such incidents as training exercises, even if it seems a lot of time and effort for a solitary calf, but it’s nice to know some things still work well, even in rural England.

After all that excitement we eventually found some decent moorings below Hillmorton Locks at Rugby – 14.5 miles and 4 locks, a long day for us!

Fire Drills and Mr. Darcy

Leaving Bugsworth on Thursday morning, we’d intended to visit Whaley Bridge , the other “canal terminus”, for some provisions , but failed miserably: from the junction with the Bugsworth arm it was was wall-to-wall reserved long term moorings, and the few visitor moorings at the terminus/basin were all occupied. So a swift about turn, and quick visit to Tesco at the junction ensued. Much less interesting.

Retracing our steps we braved the warm Love Hearts blow dry at New Mills again, and fibally moored up on the outskirts of Disley. We’d arranged to meet our friends Mon & Phil again, and have another day of reminiscing while visiting Lyme Park, and that was as close as we could get to the entrance. They managed to find Song & Dance without any problems, and by car we were only 5 minutes or less from the entrance to what is a huge estate.

We decided to “do” the house first, and were particularly taken by some Grinling Gibbons woodwork, of which here are but two.

Grinling Gibbons panelGrinling Gibbons panel

In keeping with the unintended “splendid ceilings” theme this year, we were very taken by this one. The long gallery was equally impressive, even if the serried ranks of pictures were actually borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery.

DSCF5306Lyme Park Long Gallery

Lyme Park has a very fine clock collection, but while perusing it, the fire alarms went off: the volunteers had the evacuation so well organised, we can only surmise they were expecting a fire drill…

Lyme Park Fire Drill

Rather than go back indoors, we walked along the ridge to “The Cave” (which isn’t, it’s a folly). Great views all round: Welsh mountains, Cheshire Plain, Manchester, Peak District… you can see it from several points further down the Macclesfield Canal.

DSCF5314DSCF5315

Lyme Park: The Cave

There’s also a fine Italian Garden, best seem from above.

Lyme Park: Italian Garden

And of course, the ladies were all a-quiver walking around the lake, in the hope that Mr Darcy/Colin Firth would wade out without many clothes on.

Where's Mr Darcy?Where's Mr Darcy?

After all that excitement, we retired for an early supper at Sasso in Disley, where we had a truly excellent Italian meal, before returning to the boat only slightly guilty at having left the Captain on his own for so long. When we got back to the boat he was – as usual – asleep.

A Kidsgrove Bypass

In a past life, the navigator had reason to make visits to a factory in Kidsgrove, and had no desire to repeat the experience – too many memories of standing in a corridor or squatting on the floor on the train – shades of Jeremy Corbyn – all the way home to Euston or Watford Junction. But with the Macclesfield Canal joining the Trent & Mersey Canal at Kidsgrove, another visit was impossible to avoid.

Climbing up Heartbreak Hill on the Trent and Mersey one is heading broadly South East; at Kidsgrove the Macclesfield Canal heads off in a North Easterly direction so one might expect to turn Left. But nothing’s that simple. You have to go through Kidsgrove twice. Coming up from the pleasant moorings at Church Lawton on the Monday morning, we were soon locking up the Red Bull Flight (nothing to do with a caffeinated fizzy drink) and passing under Poole Aqueduct, which carries the Macclesfield Canal over the top of the Trent & Mersey.

Nearly Top of Heartbreak Hill: Kidsgrove

After half a mile or so there’s yet another lock, and the junction with the Macclesfield Canal heads off to the right, not the left. Then, quickly making yet another right turn, you head back for half a mile through Kidsgrove with the T&M a few yards on your right, and about twenty feet below, before another tight right turn takes you over Poole Aqueduct, and you can see where you were about an hour beforehand. So you’ve done two locks and all four sides of long thin rectangle, instead of just turning left and climbing onto the Macc from there. The only saving grace is that it’s all pretty heavily wooded, and you don’t actually see much of the delights of Kidsgrove.

Hardings Wood JunctionOver the Top: Poole Aqueduct

Actually, it’s not that simple – canal builders politics. You’re not technically on the Macclesfield Canal yet, you’re on the Hall Green Arm of the Trent and Mersey.

Mow Cop from Macclesfield Canal

After a short trip through some pleasant country with great views of Mow Cop, you finally arrive at Hall Green Lock.

Hall Green LockHall Green LockHall Green Lock

Here is the real junction between the Macc and the T&M: a stop lock to prevent any possibility of water accidentally moving from one canal to another. It looks like there used to be two stop locks for the paranoid, or maybe the other area was for gauging the weight of the boats’ cargo. And two lockkeeper’s cottages (one for each canal authority). Hey ho. Still, it’s a nice atmospheric spot on a sunny afternoon.

Ramsdell Hall

A further short cruise brought us to some lovely rural visitor moorings near Ramsdell Hall. For National Trust groupies, we were also just a short walk from the iconic Little Moreton Hall. Time to chill out…

Whither Whixall

After another brief but pleasant stop over in Ellesmere, variously taking in a manicure, a massage, an art gallery, another cheap Indian restaurant deal and some serious present shopping, we finally started heading back towards “civilisation” on Friday morning. We’d promised ourselves that we would finally (after many, many years) go and have a proper look at the Whixall Moss but it was the middle of the day, and we didn’t really see anything remarkable.

Whixall MossWhixall Moss

It’s very flat – a raised peat bog – with some big skies. Grand dog walking paths, if we had a dog.

Whixall MossWhixall Moss 

The sun came out, and following a wide mown path that looked as though it would take us directly back to the canal, after a mile or so, it got narrower and narrower, until it was barely followable among the high grasses and boggy areas, and we were skipping from wet hag to wet hag. We should really have gone back, but it was a long way. Persevering, and getting wet feet, we ended up back on the main path near to the boat, right by the second photo. The sign – just visible from the main path, says “No Entry – Sensitive Ground Flora”. Ho hum.

After all that exercise, we didn’t go much further, and moored up for the night at what used to be the “Garden Shop”: a shed in a large rural garden run by a couple of old chaps that sold milk, local meat, bread, ice cream and other essentials. Alas, no more, and the once  direct access from the canal into the garden is just a huge overgrown patch of scrubland, bushes and nettles. Sir found plenty to explore but we didn’t.

Boring Bits and the Bus to Bewdley

The oracle said that Bewdley – about three miles further up the River Severn – was well worth a visit. So  we thought we’d dig out our “old-fogey” bus passes, and catch the Tesco shuttle bus. But there were more immediate concerns: we were fast running out of water, and so rather than heading off on an expedition on the Thursday morning, we needed to look after Song & Dance’s needs.

The nearest water point was about 200 yards behind us, down in the Upper Basin (very close to the crane in the previous post). And while backing Song & Dance 200 yards isn’t that tricky – just tedious – backing her through a deep narrow lock was a challenge we chickened out of. There was a winding hole about three-quarters of a mile up stream, so we headed off through the outskirts of Stourport, turned round, came back, locked down into the basin, and took on water. The diesel was cheap so we took on some of that too. Then we locked back up, and tied her up to the same rings we’d left several hours before. Ah, the excitement!

With heavy rain in North Wales we’d noticed that the Severn was showing signs of rising, so when we headed off for the Bewdley bus on Friday morning, we weren’t entirely surprised to head that the river had gone onto red boards.

Bewdley BridgeBewdley

Taking coffee on the riverside by the bridge, it was quite clear the river was definitely high, and with quite a flow on it, and were well glad Song & Dance was up on the canal system and safe.

BewdleyBewdley

DSCF4716SWMBO

Bewdley is indeed worth a visit, and from the bridge seems almost like a miniature version of Henley-on-Thames. It even brought a smile to the chief cook’s face.

Bewdley

Apparently the Severn is navigable beyond Stourport, nearly but not quite to Bewdley. Certainly above Bewdley it gets quite narrow and shallow, although – like Henley – they do have an annual regatta. I guess rowing sculls don’t need much depth of water!

Bewdley

We were also intrigued by this little prophetic little ginnel, which seemed as though it would really be more at home in Tewkesbury.

Bussing back to Stourport in the early afternoon, we found the moorings above the basin were rapidly filling up with frustrated boaters unable to get onto the Severn; there was even a CaRT volunteer at the lock telling people there was no point in going down into the basin because there was nowhere left to moor.

Being good citizens, we checked with the Captain, and although late in the day, decided to head on out of Stourport a little way to help the mooring situation. And so, retracing the first part of yesterday’s chunter, an hour or so later we found a quiet spot just below Falling Sands Lock, of which more later.