Sunday, 28 June 2015

Macclesfield and the Peak Forest Canals

Before the Trent & Mersey canal is joined by the Macclesfield canal at Kidsgrove, the navigation abandons it's twisting contour course and heads for Harecastle Hill and the notorious 2926 yard (2675.5 meters) long tunnel which burrows beneath it.

Harecastle Tunnel

The original tunnel was completed in 1777 after 11 years' work. Since there was no towpath, laden boats had to be legged through. This was done by men lying on the boat's cabin roof and propelling the boat by walking along the tunnel roof. As one can imagine, this was a slow and laborious process.







Light at the end of the tunnel


Fortunately we didn't have to leg our boat through, but the low, narrow profile of the tunnel makes for slow progress and  once we started, it was 50 minutes before we emerged into the sunshine once again.

But Harecastle is by no means the longest tunnel. That accolade belongs to the Standedge tunnel (5686 yards long) on the Huddersfield canal - more than twice the length!




After the excitement of the Harecastle tunnel, it was almost an anti-climax as we turned onto the Macclesfield canal and moored for the night near the Red Bull Aqueduct. A short time later we were joined by narrowboat Figment and its owners  Julia and Malcolm Kirk.


Ian helped Malcolm to moor up his boat and soon we got talking (as like-minded boaters do). The deckchairs came out and we settled down with a glass in hand to 'chew the fat'. Julia found that the Red Bull CRT (Canal & River Trust) Centre had a laundry, so taking advantage of that, she stripped her bed and piled all her laundry into bags and set off. Malcolm was torn between helping his wife or enjoying a glass of something with us. The laundry was less appealing! However it wasn't long before  Julia returned having had all sorts of trouble with the laundry machine, the dryer and the control card - but that is another story.The long summer evening was pleasant, the wine and cider made easy drinking  and before any of us we knew it, it was getting dark -  after 10:00pm - and although we had nibbled on snacks, none of us had eaten. I managed to throw together a toasted something to soak up the alcohol and we all retired only shortly before midnight - and that is how it happens.


The following morning, feeling a little worse-for-wear, we set off along the Macclesfield canal. This canal, which runs just west of the Pennines, bears the distinctive hallmark of Thomas Telford's engineering. Following as straight a course as possible and featuring many cuttings and embankments, it is not unlike the Shropshire Union Canal. All the locks are grouped into one flight of 12 at Bosley. We moored at the bottom of the Bosley flight so that we could tackle the flight in the morning when we were fresh.



The views  were spectacular.The rural, unspoiled setting makes me realise just how lucky we are to have such panoramic vistas while living in this densely populated part of the world. Its quite humbling.

Leaving the hilly countryside behind, the navigation entered the outskirts of Macclesfield. besides it flour mills and the iconic Hovis mill, Macclesfield built its notoriety around silk. Now this was an enigma to me. 'Why did Silk - a product of China - put Macclesfield on the map? The question was soon answered as we explored the silk museum. It all started with a prolific range of holly trees. The wood from the holly tree was desirable for buttons and soon a flourishing trade in buttons was supplying the London fashion houses. As time went on and fashions changed, a supply of silk covered buttons was required so barges brought the imported silk fibre from London to Macclesfield and returned with the covered buttons. From these small beginnings, weaving looms and large silk factories were built.


Along the length of the Macclesfield canal these graceful 'roving' bridges can be found. When the towpath has to change from one side of the canal to the other, these 'change-over' bridges were built in order to assist the horse-drawn barges. The horse can navigate the bridge and change from one side to the other without having to unhitch the tow ropes.



The canal continued on its lonely course towards Marple where it joins the Peak Forest Canal. The spectacular panoramic views over the Goyte valley continued to astonish us and we stopped frequently just to admire a view or simply  to walk a little. If stress was a factor in our lives currently, this would be  the great 'Stress buster'








It had taken us a little over a week to complete the 28 mile stretch of the Macclesfield canal but it was a week of outstanding beauty. We were lucky enough to be enchanted afresh as we turn onto the Peak Forest Canal and headed to the terminus at Bugsworth Basin - once the largest and busiest inland port on the narrow canal system.




Bugsworth Basin, once a teeming, thriving industrial centre, was built to transport limestone from nearby quarries to industry in the North West of the country.  Flames, dust and smoke would have belched from the lime kilns as they were charged until the valuable burnt lime was drawn from the hearth at the bottom of the kiln.  At it's peak, more than 80 boats a day were loaded to the gunwales with this vital raw material for building, farming and the booming textile and tanning industries, before setting off once more down the canal. Today it is a place of tranquillity and remarkable natural, as well as man-made beauty.



It is hard to imagine the deafening activity that once took place here, as we walked along the tranquil wharfs of the canal basin. Although many of the buildings and lime kilns have gone, the canals, paths and bridges map out a system of transport and industry that would be hard to find anywhere else in the world.  Now, among the permanent inhabitants of the basin are the kingfisher, heron, Canada geese and other waterfowl.




It was at Bugsworth basin that we met up with narrowboat Figment again and had a lovely BBQ with Julia, and Malcolm as well as the narrowboating  Aussies, Bron and Bob and to complete the multicultural gathering, Spaniard Pablo and his English wife Carly.

The following day, Malcolm & Julia on NB Figment and Bron & Bob on NB Celtic Maid left Bugsworth while we stayed on for a week. it would be lovely to see them again, but we will be sure to keep in touch via social media.



Shortly before they left the heavens opened and the rain pelted down. even the poor goslings were drenched, but as is the way with the English summer, the weather is so unpredictable. A short time later the sun shone and the clouds dispersed but the temperature didn't improve much. Undaunted, we walked into Whaley Bridge where there was a water festival going on. Ian's cousin Susan had joined us so we wandered around the stalls with a mug of hot chocolate  in our cold hands.




The following weekend, our daughter and son-in-law with grandson Daniel joined us and since it was Father's day that weekend we celebrated in style at the Navigation Inn, a local pub. BBQ was out of the question as it was pouring with rain - again - but that didn't dampen our celebrations. Oh yes... it must be 'Pimms O'Clock'

On that sodden Sunday, we saw John Sargent the TV journalist making another episode of 'Barging Around Britan' but we were disappointed with his attitude and treatment of the crew of the 100 year old restored working boat 'Hazel'- the boat that he used for the filming. The hard-working crew were shunned as being of little importance as Mr Sargent went about his business. A few days later we caught up with the bedraggled  crew who were  returning the boat to its heritage site, while John took himself off in his fancy car. Shame on you John Sargent!



It was time for us to move on again. On the Tuesday we said a fond farewell to Pablo and Carly and set off along the Peak Forest canal to Marple Junction where we encountered the flight of 16 locks that carries the Peak Forest canal down 214ft towards Manchester.








The flight is spaced over a mile and is set in a combination of parkland, and built-up area. At the bottom of the locks, an aqueduct carries the canal over the River Goyt while next to it, this superb viaduct carries the railway.











The Peak Forest canal meandered its way through urbanisation as it skirted Greater Manchester, towards the junction at Ashton-Under-Lyne and Portland basin. At the junction, the Ashton canal heads South West into Manchester while the Huddersfield Narrow canal starts its journey East over the Pennines. We joined the Huddersfield Narrow canal and headed East.


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Caldon Canal

Aqueduct at Great Haywood Junction
Leaving the excitement of Great Haywood behind the canal continues in a north westerly direction towards Stone and Stoke-On-Trent. It was a gentle run as the locks were broadly spaced and we enjoyed the tranquillity of the passing countryside. The canal wound it way through quiet meadows in the Trent valley and since it was so peaceful, we moored for the night before Stone, near Aston lock.







Stone clearly embraces, and has a strong association with the canal that passes through the town. There are good facilities (water, ablutions, elsan and rubbish disposal) close to the locks as well as shopping amenities. A replica portion of a working boat (the boatman cabin) is even used as a signpost where the canal meets the road network...



.."and at each end of the village limits is a welcome sign - for canal users!










Passing through Stone, we meandered our way towards Stoke-On-Trent, the home of the potteries. We moored opposite the Wedgwood factory determined to spend a full day 'doing' the factory tour but sadly we found the factory and museum closed for refurbishment.


So we continued on our way and just around the bend was the signpost for Stoke-On-Trent. This swan wasn't sure where he was either and as we rounded the corner it appeared as if he was reading the sign! Perhaps he was looking for a place to stop for the night or just looking for the address of his nest..





We wondered whether it was worth making our way down the Caldon branch of the Trent & Mersey canal but after a straw pole taken on the Narrowboat User Group on Facebook where it was highly recommended, we decided to go. I must admit, we were not disappointed.

The Caldon branch was built as an outlet for the peak district limestone quarries near Froghall and was originally opened in 1779. Almost two decades later the owners of the Trent & Mersey decided to build a secondary branch that terminated at Leek. Designed to provide a feeder from the new reservoir at Rudyard, the secondary branch joins the main branch at the summit, therefore negating the necessity for locks on that section. All things were stacking up to make this a good trip.

James Brindely
We turned onto the Caldon branch of the Trent & Mersey canal at Etruria top lock and moored opposite a statue of James Brindley.

But before that, while working our way through the Stoke flight, I was joined at the lock side by Rob, a local boy  who happily gave us some valuable information with regard to mooring, facilities and shopping and by the time we moored at Etruria , he was on hand to help us tie up. Rob is apparently well known along the Trent & Mersey between Stoke-On-Trent and Barlaston. For the sheer love of the canal, he takes up his trusty windlass and helps out wherever he can. Thank you Rob!

The first few miles of the Caldon Branch are very industrial and we were advised not to stop between Etruria and Milton (four miles from the junction) it wasn't long before we saw the wisdom of that advice Although there was good mooring at Hanley, we continued on our way and once past Milton we were rewarded when urbanisation gave way to beautiful countryside known locally as Staffordshire's "Little Switzerland". We could have been in another world!

This contour canal, James Brindley's trademark design, hugs the hillside contour where possible rather than making use of bridges, aqueducts and locks. The benefit of this design is an extremely picturesque outlook. The downside is the many tight turns as it winds it way through the beautiful countryside. We had to take things very slowly.
An added drawback to the Caldon canal is that the bottom was too close to the top (in other words the Caldon canal is quite shallow) but there must be worse things in life to worry about!


Mooring just short of Engine lock we had an amazing view from the swan hatch. In the evening the Canada Geese brought their goslings for our approval and in the morning we were greeted by a pony taking an early morning drink. Perfect!








At Hazelhurst locks the canal divides. The main line falls through three locks before following the Churnet River, while the secondary (Leek) branch follows the hillside contour before crossing over the main branch on a large aqueduct. Talk about spaghetti junction!

We followed the main branch and moored for the night close to the Flint Mill outside Cheddleton. Sadly, this superbly restored mill was closed (which was a little surprising since it was the start of the May Bank Holiday) but that didn't stop us taking a good look around before we walked into the village of Cheddleton.

Through Cheddleton, the canal side was dominated by a galvanised steel works until we reached the station on the edge of the village. The station, closed by the North Staffordshire Railway in 1988 was purchased by enthusiasts who re-opened the line in 1996 to run a steam-operated passenger train. This superb line, the Churnet Valley Railway, is operated between Leekbrook and Froghall by volunteers who are members of the North Staffordshire Railway.



We met up with friends Rob, Geri and daughter Lucy on Saturday morning (Ian's birthday). It has been a long time since we last  saw the Howell family, Lucy was a little more than a baby and their elder daughter Becky was a teenager at the time.  Little wonder we called Lucy "Becky" all weekend. sorry Lucy, will do better next time!


Before we set off down the canal we could hear the tooting of the steam train in the background. The theme was 'Barney Buffers' that weekend and I couldn't resist getting a photo of Barney although our granddaughter Hollie would probably tell me that he looks like Percy!


A few miles down the canal in the beautiful Churnet Valley we moored near the Black Lion Pub at Consall Forge. As it was Geri's birthday a few days before, we had a double celebration so we indulged with a sumptuous meal at the pub and finished it off with a beautiful chocolate cake that our daughter Tanya and husband David had sent with Rob and Geri. The setting couldn't have been prettier. Although I didn't get a photo of the steam train puffing its way through the valley, I did get this photo of an old diesel engine, crossing the canal at Consall Forge.



Sadly, Rob, Geri and Lucy had to return home on Sunday which made their time with us very short - not nearly enough time to show them how relaxing the canal system can really be.

However Monday was a holiday and the steam train was still running so we bought a day ticket and rode the tracks between Leekbrook and Frogall, hopping off at the various stations along the way and sampling cakes and scones in the tearooms of each station. Decadent but wonderful!


It was also lovely to see the canal boats from a different perspective, and we respectfully but regally waved to the canal boats as we steamed passed by on the train.




We finished Ian's birthday weekend with a bottle of bubbly (compliments of David and Tanya) on the front deck of  'Winedown' while watching the sun set over the valley.



North Portal of the Leek branch
Our next stop was Leek, where James Brindley originally set up a wheelwright business before he made a name for himself.

James Brindley, an English engineer born in Tunstead, Derbyshire, lived much of his life in Leek, Staffordshire, becoming one of the most notable engineers of the 18th century. At the age of 17, Brindley was apprenticed to a millwright in Sutton, Macclesfield and once he completed his apprenticeship he set up a wheelwright business in Leek. His abilities soon brought him to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater who later commissioned Brindley as the consulting engineer to construct the Bridgewater canal.

Brindley's reputation soon spread and he was commissioned to build more canals. In total, throughout his life he built 365 miles of canals, among which are the Staffordshire & Worcester, the Coventry and the Oxford canals, all of which we have travelled along and enjoyed in our time on the canals.

We spent a few days in Leek and although Brindley is revered, we were a little disappointed that we couldn't get to the Brindley Water Museum and Watermill. We were also a little disappointed that we didn't see much evidence of the silk trade that originally put Leek on the map.

Nevertheless, it was time to move on again so we pulled up the mooring pins and set off once more down the Leek branch of the Caldon contour canal

Passing through the locks at Stockton Brooks, it was interesting to see the stone masons marks on the cut-stone of the lock walls.
Stone masons of the time were paid by the number of stones that they hand cut, therefore each has his own unique mark and these could still be clearly seen as the water flowed out of the lock and the boat was slowly lowered.

Besides the remains of the once splendid  Victorian waterworks, and built in more recent times is this sculpture, depicting  many elements that are iconic in Staffordshire and some that gave rise to this part of the canal network.


Remnants of the old limekilns; bolts from the railway tracks; picks used to build the canal and used in the nearby mines; and pottery from Wedgewood, Spode, Doulton and Moorcroft all sat alongside the iconic emblems of Staffordshire: An image of a spitfire, the iconic plane that contributed to the victory of World War II  - honouring locally born Reginald Mitchell's design and the factory at Burslem; an image of birds, reflecting the unspoiled countryside, and  the Stafford knot which was once used on the heraldic shield of Lord Stafford - 1583 - Stepfather to Henry Tudor (husband of Henry's mother Margaret Beaufort) and still appears today on many road signs, army berets, police badges, as well as pottery and football club crests.


On our return along the canal, we moored once again near Engine lock (so named because of a huge beam engine that used to be housed nearby to pump water from the mining works) and were amazed to see how quickly the goslings had grown in these ten short days.










In Stock-On-Trent once again, we turned our attention to the potteries and pottery museum. Since this unique city is affectionately known as The Potteries and with its rich industrial heritage, has claimed the title of World Capital of Ceramics, we found it hard to ignore.  The skyline was once dominated by thousands of smoky bottle-shaped brick kilns used for firing pottery, Probably as many as four thousand would have been built in the pottery heyday, most of them have been demolished but the 47 that remain are now being preserved.


The Emma Bridgewater factory is alongside the Caldon canal, so we made that our first stop, however the shear number of potteries and factory shops make it impractical to try to visit them all.

We signed up for the factory tour at Emma Bridgewater and enjoyed a cup of tea in the cafĂ© while we waited for the tour to start. The tour, which lasted nearly an hour, was very interesting and we were able to meet a number of the workers and watch the intricacies of hand painting some of the choice items. Unfortunately we were unable to take photos inside the decoration shop because they have already started their Christmas collection.

After the factory tour we walked to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and spent the rest of the day immersed in the history and heritage of the fascinating displays. The following day we picked up the ceramics trail once again and visited the Middleport factory as well as the Doulton and Wedgewood factory outlet before our weary feet dictated that we return to the boat, bringing an end to our Caldon Canal experience.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Tixall Wide

Turning in a more northerly direction at Autherley Junction we found ourselves once more on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal heading towards Great Haywood. This northern stretch is a little over 20 miles with 12 locks and initially it touches the northern suburbs of Wolverhampton. As one might expect, it was heavily populated and not very pretty until we went under the M54 where the canal passed through pleasant farmland once again.




At Gailey Wharf we came across this Toll keeper's watchtower which just goes to show that you can always find a place of interest in the most unexpected places.
The next two days were largely uneventful as the navigation passed through a few populated areas and former heathland until Penkridge. North of Penkridge the canal followed a pleasant valley but the tranquillity was marred by the constant drone of the M6 motorway so it was with relief that we moored at Tixall Wide, just a half mile from the junction with the Trent & Mersey canal at Great Haywood.





Mooring here was plentiful when we arrived in the early afternoon but it is obviously a popular spot and in no time at all boats were moored bow to stern. This didn't spoil our outlook, however, nor did it spoil the tranquillity.



Tixall Wide is a delightful stretch of water that more resembles a lake than a canal and was built as such to appease the gentry of the time who did not want the view from Tixall Hall to be compromised by a canal - the industrial motorway of its time. Sadly, Tixall Hall no longer stands but the remarkable gatehouse, restored in the 1960's stands proudly and is now used as a holiday home. This Elizabethan gatehouse was built in 1580 when the architecture of Greece and Rome had become fashionable in England.


Walking, it appears is an integral part of narrowboating so Ian and I donned our glad rags (and sensible shoes) and set off to meet our friends, Lesley and Chris (on narrowboat Eleventh Heaven) for an evening of good food, fine wine and great company. It was a wonderful evening that, unfortunately, went by very quickly. In no time at all we parted company once again and our boats are now traveling in different directions: Until the next time...



Tixhall Gatehouse is not the only building of historical interest near Stafford. Since our narrow boating odyssey is partly about the historical trail, we felt compelled to visit  the Shugborough Estate.

The history of the magnificent Shugborough Estate started as a modest family seat. The original manor formed part of the estate of the Bishop of Litchfield. But fate stepped in and due to the epic adventure on the high seas by the younger brother (Admiral George Anson) in 1739, which included the capture of a Spanish galleon carrying an enormous amount of gold and treasure, the fortunes of Shugborough naturally rose.


Over the centuries, The fortunes of Shugborough went through decline and rise 'till we see it as it is today. A part of the manor house was inhabited by the Earls of Litchfield right up to 2005 when the 5th Earl, Patrick Litchfield, the world renowned professional photographer met an untimely end. His son, Thomas, the 6th Earl of Litchfield gave over his claim on the estate to the National Trust and the Staffordshire County Council for the pleasure of future generations.

At the Shugborough Estate one can step into the 'upstairs downstairs' world of the fine mansion, explore the servants quarters and the Georgian farm and water mill all set in 900 acres of parkland, woodland, riverside and gardens.


We spent a happy day exploring the estate, starting with the working farm and water mill. This Georgian farm  is a hive of activity and we were delighted to meet these tiny 'sausages-on-legs' just a few hours old...








...and the lambs in the field.

We met the cook in the working kitchen and the scullery maid at the farmhouse. The county museum showcased Staffordshire life across the ages and a day out is not complete without a cream tea in the tearoom at the farm granary. 

All in all it was a day not to be missed. Well worth the walk from the canal and the reasonable admission charge.




The following day we decided to take a break from our very busy exploration and simply enjoyed the wildlife. The mooring at Tixall didn't have a time restriction so we stayed another day. 



Although this area is well known for its  kingfishers, we didn't spot any but we had plenty to see with the Canada geese, ducks and moorhens all bringing their young out to play.








The sun sets on another perfect day

Friday, 15 May 2015

As we leave the Shropshire Union...

The forecast was for mixed weather as we set off, leaving Market Drayton behind. Full of enthusiasm, we expected to reach Gnosall before stopping for the day. We only had 5 locks to work on the Tyrley flight so we expected an easy day.


Well, one thing that I still haven't learned is that when things look easy, they usually turn pear-shape. And they truly went pear-shaped on Friday 8th May.
 
We admired the cutting that led us to Tryley locks. This cutting was dug by the navvies using only pick axes shovels and wheelbarrows. Truly awesome.
 
The tool marks can clearly been seen on the rock face.



Then it was at lock 4 that we ran into trouble. The by-wash was particularly fierce and as I carefully lined up to go into the lock, the flow from the by-wash turned the bow aside. The forward momentum of the heavy boat carried me on but I was unable to counter the flow and enter the lock. In the blink of an eye, the flow had pinned me to the bank side of the cutting and no amount of engine revvs was going to release me. I should have remembered the warning of an old boater months before who had told us to open the top paddles a little and this flow would counter the by-wash flow, but that was furthest from my mind.
 
Ian then scrambled down the bank and hooked the bow line, hoping to haul the bow free of the lock wall. As he hauled on the bow line, I was trying to leaver the stern around while all the time running the engine at full throttle. All to no avail. A passing dog-walker offered his help and even with two men hauling on the bow line, the 18tons of boat still wouldn't budge. I threw the centre line  across the canal for Ian to pick up and we tried again. The passer-by hauling on the bow line, Ian on the centre line and me on the stern with the aid of the full throttle engine. Slowly, inch by inch, we all made headway against the strong flow of water and Winedown nudged her way into the lock. My heart was pounding with adrenalin as the lock gates slammed shut behind me and the lock began to fill. I can only imagine how a single-hand boater would have felt in a similar situation - and there are many on the canal system. 


Tranquillity was restored as Winedown rose higher in the lock, masking the dangers that lurk around corners. Looking back it appeared quite innocent!



While the daffodil heads start to droop, signalling their exhaustion at the end of their flowering time, the bluebells are putting an appearance and some of the woods that fringe the canal are carpeted with purple. its a beautiful sight 

Ferns unfold as they cling tenaciously to the bank side.


The Anchor Inn at Old Lee Wharf is a pub that is stuck somewhere in the 1940's with its rustic bench seats and open fireplaces.  The friendly landlady will serve a selection of wine, draught beers (served from a jug brought up from the cellar) and spirits but the only food is a selection of sandwiches served on quaint mismatched plates. On the day of our visit we had a choice of sandwiches - cheese & pickle, cheese & tomato, cheese & onion or plain cheese.
 

But the company was good.

We met  Mal, a fender maker who has been plying his trade on the canals for many years before he retired. He still makes fenders but only just enough to keep him in beer money he said.  We lingered over our lunchtime sustenance as we listened to his stories of days gone by.
The Shroppie is known for its unusual features but there can't be much to beat this high bridge with a telegraph pole built into its arch...
Birdlife on the canal is abundant and Brewood is notorious for its kingfishers, although they are almost impossible to photograph while on the move. I had to be content with the heron. This fella is obvious used to boats passing its fishing area as it simple walked along the bank while glaring at us. By the time we had passed the heron obviously thought that since we had disturbed the water, he would look for a new spot to wait for the fish.