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.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

2015 - We're off again

After spending many weeks in March and April with routine maintenance and spring cleaning, it's time to leave the marina and set off again. Funny how quickly one can get institutionalised; even though a new adventure beckons, a part of us is almost reluctant to leave the safe haven of the marina.

We had recently returned from spending the worst of the winter months in sunny Spain, just in time to watch the spring creep in.


We were amused and delighted by the antics of nature as the wildlife aggressively found and defended it's territory.

A pair  of moorhens squabbled for a prime nesting position

The young swan trying to make itself look larger as it saw off the opposition 
Heron being mobbed by a pair of seagulls

So he found another spot to fish peacefully!
Even this tenacious pansy celebrated the spring by  blooming on the shingle edge of the car park.

Winedown had been berthed at Overwater Marina near Audlem for the winter of 2014/2015 and I must say that it is certainly one of the nicest marinas we have visited. 

Beside the normal ablution facilities, chandlery and office, this family-run marina has a workshop, to assist with engine servicing, hull blacking, repairs, boat safety examination to name but a few services; a handy laundry, very important when staying for an extended period of time; a coffee lounge, encourages boaters to meet and linger over coffee and an excellent selection of Debbie's home cooked cakes (and more); not to mention the lovely surrounding countryside for walks, and of course the friendly faces of other boaters. It is certainly worthy of a visit if you are in the area.
Knit & Natter group meets on a Thursday afternoon at the Coffee Lounge. I must admit that from my point of view, I did more nattering than knitting
Bistro night is the first Friday of each month was always very popular.

Debbie and Vernon are the friendly faces behind the Coffee Lounge and either one of them was always on hand to make one feel welcome.

The pretty village of Audlem has a wide range of shops serving most needs. A regular bus service runs into the nearby towns of Nantwich, Whitchurch and Market Drayton. We were first drawn to the vibrant village when we passed through in the summer of 2014 and were made to feel very welcome when we moored at Overwater Marina for the winter, later that year. Sporting three fine pubs, two cafes and a deli café, as well as an excellent fish & chip shop not to mention the kebab shop, we found plenty of variety to tickle our pallet.

With Spring well established and summer on its way, the days are lengthening and sunsets over the marina can be quite spectacular, especially when the setting sun is reflected in the coffee lounge windows and the calm marina waters.

Just in time for the Easter Weekend, the Audlem Lass took to the waters. This little water taxi is crewed by a dedicated team of volunteers who take donations in support the RNLI. Operating every Saturday and  Sunday (as well as bank holiday Monday) between April and October, the boat ferries passengers between the marina and the bottom of the Audlem flight of locks.

At the end of the bank holiday weekend in early May2015 we said a fond farewell to all our new friends and the marina staff and set off along the Shropshire Union towards Autherley Junction.

Although this is backtracking a little, there are parts of the Four Counties ring that we havn't visited so we will go back to complete the ring before heading off to the Peak District.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Anderton Boat lift and the River Weaver

The Shropshire Union Canal joins the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich. After enjoying quiet, rural stretches of canal it was quite a contrast to see the industrialisation surrounding this part of the Trent & Mersey. It certainly was a reminder to us that the canals were designed and built for industry and not with pleasure craft in mind as they are most commonly used for today.

The Trent & Mersey canal skirts the centre of the town of Middlewich and after navigating the first three narrow locks we found ourselves at a wide (14ft) lock alongside a busy pub. The Middlewich Big lock, as it is known, was to represent the the beginning of the wide, almost lock free navigation through to Preston nevertheless, the Croxton Aqueduct - less than half a mile away - had to be replaced and this was done with an 8ft 2inch wide steel structure. No wide beams along here then!

Other than to take on water at the waterpoint, we didn't stop, preferring instead to find a quieter location. Yet we still had quite a way to go to find such a mooring spot. Although we passed the idyllic beauty of Croxton Flash, and wound our way along the side of a hill as the canal follows the picturesque valley that the River Dane runs through, we found it difficult to moor. There are quiet moorings with picnic tables and BBQ facilities that were apparently created by the Broken Cross Boating Club, but predictably, these limited moorings were all full and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the heavy industrial area on the outskirts of Northwich.

It wasn't 'till we had passed through Northwich  with its heavily industrialised features and enormous ICI works that we found a suitable mooring spot for the night and that was only a mile and a half from the Anderton Boat Lift - the reason for this journey. Initially, my aunt and uncle were to accompany us on this leg of our trip but were unable to join us. I don't think they would have enjoyed this part of the trip at all.

Having said that, we found the Anderton Boat Lift to be an incredible structure. Looking a little like an enormous steel spider hanging on the edge of the River Weaver, this amazing Victorian structure has had a troublesome past. It was initially built in 1875 to connect the Trent and Mersey Canal to the Weaver Navigation, 50ft below.

The concept is simple. There are two huge water tanks (caissons) each with watertight doors that carry boats up and down.

In 1908 The original hydraulic rams were replaced by counter-balancing weights and massive geared pulley wheels. The lift worked 'till 1983 when serious deterioration put a stop to it and it wasn't till its restoration and modification was completed in 2002 that it became operational again, once more using the hydraulic ram system.

We waited our turn at the top and finally experienced the thrill of this magnificent structure by mid-afternoon on Thursday 11th September. While we were waiting, we made use of the visitor centre to find out all we could about its history as well as enjoyed a coffee in the coffee shop while watching the trip-boat and other narrowboats making the passage that we were soon to make.

Once on the river weaver, we moored alongside the nature park just out of sight of the lift.The River Weaver has been straightened in places to make navigation easier for the industry that it served, namely the salt mining industry which has certainly left its mark. The mining subsidence has left lakes (known as 'Flashes') where the salty water is now home to coastal plants and a variety of bird life.

In contrast to the industry, steep-sided valleys along parts of the river are covered in woodland that is still untouched by human hands.

The river winds its way through Northwich and since we were in need of supplies, we headed for the town swing bridge where there is ample mooring as well as a sanitary station. We remained moored opposite the boatyard for a second day as there was a street market that we found to be extensive. By Sunday morning, I had had enough and wanted to find a quieter spot. Since we like to have our Sunday roast, I put the oven on and the delicious aroma of roast pork followed us along the river (the lock keeper at Dutton lock even commented on it).

By early afternoon we had found a lovely spot and the dinner was cooked to perfection. What a result!

We discovered that the lower part of the Weaver Navigation is the most picturesque and we were happy to moor for a few days at a spot known as 'Devils Garden'.

Nevertheless, we did take the navigation down to its end at Weston Point, passing the derelict lock to the abandoned Runcorn & Weston Canal before turning and running alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, back to Marsh Lock. There we stopped to take photographs but we didn't want to stay. It is overlooked by what Ian described as 'Machine City', miles and miles of heavy processing plant works. We knew there were prettier places to moor.

Returning to Devils Garden, we found that the mooring we had left earlier was still available so we hammered in the mooring pins and tied up securely in beautiful and tranquil surroundings once again.

Wanting to take the Boat Lift back to the Trent and Mersey canal on Wednesday 17th September we left Devils Garden behind in the early morning mist and had a lovely run up the river.

Due to an impending boat festival, passage through the boat lift was limited and we wanted to get out of the way before we became entangled in it.

As it so happened, just as we were approaching the boat lift from the river, we saw that a narrowboat was entering one caisson and no other boat was waiting. Ian sounded his horn and we were waved right in. less than 30 minutes later we were once again on the Trent & Mersey canal, 50ft above the river Weaver.

From here we will return to Middlewich, take the Shropshire Union Middlewich branch to the Shroppie main line and on to the Llangollen Canal.