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.

Shropshire Union Canal

A new month and a new canal! 1st August is my daughter's birthday and this year it coincided with the start of a new adventure. After a short Skype conversation to wish her a very happy birthday the previous evening (Rianna lives in New Zealand and they are 11 hours ahead of our time), I was filled with loving thoughts of her special day as we untied the mooring ropes and set off down the last stretch of the Staffs & Worces canal. Passing Aldersley Junction (where the Birmingham Canal joins the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal) we continued on to Autherley Junction, near Wolverhampton, which is marked by a big white bridge. We took the left turn and entered the stop lock; we were officially on the Shropshire Union Canal. The stop lock, with a fall of only 6 inches was insisted upon by the owners of the Staffs & Worces (in 1830) to prevent Thomas Telford's newer Shropshire Union Canal from stealing water from them.

The Shropshire Union Canal runs roughly northwards to Ellesmere Port, a distance of a little over 66 miles with 46 locks. The long embankments, cuttings and grand bridges are a mark of the railway age and allowed the canal to have fewer locks. This charmingly rural waterway is isolated for much of its length with stretches where there are no towns or villages for miles. It is from the Shroppie that the Llangollen and the Montgomery Canals branch off into Wales.

Shortly after leaving Autherley junction the canal entered a narrow cutting with barely enough room for one boat let along room for passing boats. Fortunately, we didn't meet another coming towards us! The canal opened up once again after bridge 5 revealing quiet countryside and we soon discovered that this seemed to be the signature of the Shroppie.

Unusual bridges and aqueducts are also a feature of the Shropshire Union Canal, as this balustraded bridge (10) illustrates.

The navigation continued through the wooded cutting towards Brewood (pronounced 'Brood') and as we approached the designated mooring the heavens opened marking our arrival with a deluge. We hastily moored up and battened down the hatches.

The name of the village Brewood is derived from the Celtic 'Bre' meaning Hill and given that and the village is situated at the top of a fairly steep, wooded cutting, 'Wood on the Hill' fits very well. After the rain stopped Ian and I set off to explore this delightful 'Wood on the Hill' village. As we wandered the quintessentially English village streets, a man slowed to keep pace with us. He asked if we were visiting - it was that obvious that we weren't local - and asked if there was anything we wished to know. He then told us briefly where we could find a butcher, deli, greengrocer, coffee shop etc. before he hurried on his way. How thoughtful!

The forecast for the following day was not good, but there was supposed to be a window of fair weather first thing, before the rain was expected to set in for the rest of the day. We needed to get to the next village (Wheaton Aston) where there is a sanitary station so that we could empty our loo cassette and we had only 3 miles and a lock to go. We set off early, hoping to catch the promised window of fair weather and had only gone the first mile before it started to rain, and not lightly either - typical! Needless to say, we were drenched before we arrived at our destination. I then decided to cook our Sunday roast dinner (although it was Saturday) to warm the boat and lift our spirits with comfort food. No sooner was lunch ready then the sky cleared and the sun shone brightly... for the rest of the day. Oh well, it was a delicious lunch, washed down with copious amounts of full-bodied red wine.

Note to Boaters.... Reasonable priced diesel can be obtained from Turners Garage at bridge 19 in Wheaton Aston. We found it almost 10p/l cheaper than most other suppliers.

The lock at Wheaton Aston marked the start of the 17 mile pound that was to take us almost to Market Drayton which we did over the next two days. There were so many kingfishers along that stretch of the canal that we became quite blasé when we saw another flash of iridescent blue, darting along just inches above the surface of the water.

I mentioned earlier that the Shroppie has some unusual features, well none more so than this high bridge with a telegraph pole built into its arch...

...and I couldn't help but be impressed by the deep rock cutting near Woodseave. This long cutting was worked entirely by men without the help of machinery. The shear magnitude of the work involved is quite awe inspiring.

We moored at Tyrley Wharf on Tuesday 5th 
August saving the descent of the five Tyrley locks  down into Market Drayton for the following day. We could hear the call of the kingfisher all around us and a visitor even perched on our tiller arm for a while - Beautiful.

Leaving Tyrley Wharf the following morning we set we began the flight of locks with enthusiasm. We hadn't worked a lock for a few days now but even so, the amateurish mistake that I made on the second lock was unforgivable. While waiting for the lock ahead to fill, I drifted too close to the lock side weir and managed to get the stern stuck on the brickwork. The lock gate opened but I couldn't move. Ian to the rescue. I handed him the helm and he took up the barge-pole to lever the boat off and after much grunting and grumbling he freed the boat however the pole then became stuck and he almost fell off the back of the boat as he tried to retrieve it. I stood on the lock side watching helpless (in hindsight, it was quite comical but I wasn't laughing at the time). A boat was waiting to come up through the lock and two more behind them, so we had no choice but to continue into the lock leaving the pole sticking out of the weir brickwork like a finger. The gentleman from the waiting boat promised to help us retrieve the pole as he went by - which he did. I never did get his name as I was too embarrassed to ask. By this time there was quite a queue of boats waiting to get through the flight of single locks and all because I was not paying attention!

I had to admit that after 16 years of boating, I was still stupid enough to make such a basic mistake. Will I ever live it down? Isn't it funny how our worst mistakes are always witnessed. Even the tree thought it was funny.

Moorings alongside the town of Market Drayton are plentiful, an open invitation to linger which we were happy to do. Although the town centre was a good walk from the canal it was well worth the effort. The lovely old black and white timber frame buildings are a delight, the best of which was the Tudor House hotel. We had to have a drink at the bar after a thirsty walk into the town (it would have been rude not to) and the chippy did the most delicious Fish & Chips which we enjoyed on Thursday evening - we couldn't wait till Friday.

Leaving Market Drayton behind, we headed for Audlem. We have booked a winter berth in the Overwater Marina just to the north of Audlem so we were keen to spend a few days exploring the surroundings. We were not disappointed. But again, I get ahead of myself - we had to work 11 of the 15 locks in the Audlem flight before we could moor for the evening - and what a splendid evening it was. The rose-pink sunset provided a tranquil welcome.

We spent a few days sampling the delights of Audlem and found the people to be very friendly, chatty and helpful (this seems to be the norm for this part of England).

Right alongside the canal we discovered Audlem Mill and once inside, Ian couldn't get me out. Set amongst the hoppers and chutes of the mill building we found a vast array of canal books, paintings, gifts and souvenirs. Now I have visited many book/gift shops but I was most impressed by Audlem Mill. And if that was not enough, a peek upstairs at the needlework section had Ian kicking his heels for a very long time! There was such a wide variety of almost anything you could think of.

On Monday 11th we moved on to Hack Green, the site of a former government-owned 'Secret Nuclear Bunker'. After decades of being hidden down narrow country lanes in the Cheshire farmlands the bunker was declassified and decommissioned and now this ugly concrete building is the 1999 Tourism Award winner. It is a disturbing tourist attraction to say the least and not one that you would want to take your grandchildren to. However, having said that, we did find it extremely interesting and thought provoking where the consequences of a nuclear war graphically displayed on posters and film.

With the disturbing scenes still resonating, we untied the mooring ropes and progressed along the tranquil canal, drinking in the sunshine and thanking our lucky stars that the bunker never had to be used. We worked the two locks and navigated the three miles of canal that took us into Nantwich, by which time we had regained our sunny disposition.

Nantwich has been a prosperous town since Roman times and this is partly attributed to its salt springs. It was the country's main salt mining centre until the 19th century. Ian found a butcher that did a good pork pie so he was happy - Ian measures a town's accomplishments by its pork pie!

It was time to return 'South' and visit family and attend to the necessary medical appointments. We backtracked from Nantwich to Overwater Marina, packed up the boat, picked up a hired car and swapped the canal for the motorway. Although I love to visit the family (I take great delight in our lovely grandchildren), I find that after the first few days I long to return to Winedown, our 'home'. A week later we were back on the boat and navigating the canal through Nantwich once again. Bliss

This euphoria was short lived however. Soon after leaving Nantwich behind, my sister called for my help so I hastily packed a bag while Ian searched train times. I left Ian with the boat while I went off to help my sister and her fella on the farm. What a difference; one minute we were gently navigating a peaceful and relaxing canal and the next I was helping to milk cows, drive herds, fill livestock feed hoppers, bring in the straw-bales, bottle-feed abandoned kittens, etc. Phew! Give me the canal any time.

A week later, we were on our way again, enjoying the peace of the rural countryside - and enduring the occasional wafts of muck-spreading on the summer breeze.

These two fledgling swallows were waiting to be fed while we were taking on water at Calveley Bridge (104)

We were, by this time, only a few miles from Chester. Electing to moor on the outskirts of the city and take the bus proved to be a good call. We were able to leave the boat on a 48 hour mooring in Christleton (bridge 122) and the bus stop was just the other side of the bridge.

Chester the county town of Cheshire,lying on the River Dee close to the border with Wales is the largest settlement in Cheshire West. It was founded as a Roman fort in the year 79AD and its four main roads Eastgate, Northgate, Westgate and Bridge still follow routes laid out almost 2000 years ago.

Chester is proud of its Roman beginnings so we thought we should take a tour on foot following a 'Roman Soldier'. It was very informative and we found that this soldier certainly knew his stuff! Well worth the fiver that it cost us.

For the next two days we walked the streets as well as the walls of Chester. Similar to York, the city is surrounded by fortified walls and it was an enjoyable experience to walk them. Saturday (August 30th) was Race Day and that too was an experience. You just have to chuckle at the way people dress up for Race Day - young girls with heels so high that they found it difficult to walk on the ancient cobbles and their fellas perspiring in smart suits; and that was before the races started!

Having spent a few days moored in Christleton, it was time to move on again. We had just finished taking on fresh water at the water point and moved onto the lock operation when we were joined by narrowboat 'Eleventh Heaven' with Lesley at the helm. Unbeknown to any of us, this was to be the start of a very enjoyable week.

Chris and Lesley

We spent the next few hours together as we locked down into the basin at Chester where we would moor for the night (Les and Chris went on through the basin to moor in a more rural location) but it was clear that we all got along pretty well. And yes, I did think that Chris was a 'Grumpy Git when I first saw him, but he is quite a Teddy Bear actually with a wonderful sense of humour!

The basin in Chester is in the process of being redeveloped and with the building of apartments, there is also a new (little known) ablution facility opposite the boat yard. It was like having our own private en-suit, so I made the most of a really long hot shower before we set off the next morning (Monday, 1st September), heading north.

Ellesmere Port is just nine miles to the north of Chester Basin and we passed through some lovely countryside as the canal crossed the Wirral. The docks and basin at Ellesmere Port is where the Shropshire Union Canal meets the Manchester Ship Canal. Part of the Dock complex, including some of the warehouses now form part of the Boat Museum. Well worth the effort to get there. It was here that we met Les and Chris on Nb Eleventh Heaven again.

After spending the afternoon exploring the museum, Les invited us to join them for an excursion into Liverpool the following day. We readily agreed and on Tuesday morning we all boarded the train in Ellesmere Port bound for Liverpool.

Of course, one cannot visit Liverpool without following The Beatles Story so we bought tickets and 'did' the tour...

... but not before we had lunch overlooking the basin with the iconic Royal Liver Building in the background.

Back in Ellesmere Port we found a South African restaurant - believe it or not - and we all felt that we couldn't leave without having a typically South African meal, so we booked a table at Jabula for the following evening. We had a lovely South African meal washed down with a bottle of South African wine (complete with a South African fly - illegal immigrant? - that Chris found in the bottle). It was an exotic meal, probably not what I would have called 'Typically South African' but they did serve up some unusual fare. We found it a little on the pricey side and the wine could have been better since South Africa is a notable wine producer, but the company by far made up for it all.

Leaving Ellesmere Port behind, we followed nb Eleventh Heaven as we retraced our steps along the Shropshire Union Canal towards Chester.

One of Chester's attractions is her Zoo and as it happened, there was a signpost at bridge 134 indicating that the zoo was only 1/2 mile from the canal. There was plenty of mooring so we moored for the night and visited the zoo with Les and Chris on Friday 5th September.

Just a word of caution for any boater wishing to visit the zoo from the canal the entrance to the Zoo has been moved ... the sign points along the road to the old entrance which is about 1/2 mile from the canal. However, if you take the bridal path to the right of the road you will find the new entrance not more than a 1/2 from the canal.

Chester Zoo, opened in 1931, was the vision of George Mottershead who dreamed of a 'zoo without bars' and is now on of the UK's largest zoos.  George took Carl Hagenbeck's idea for moats and ditches as an alternative to cage bars and extended their use throughout the zoo. There is currently a drama series on the television depicting the trials and tribulations of the Mottershead family as they struggled to open the zoo, so it was fitting that we visited it.

Ian and I like to have a traditional Sunday Lunch - naturally on a Sunday - as this marks the start of a new week. Chris and Les joined us at the Thomas Telford Warehouse situated in the Chester basin. This converted warehouse is now a popular pub and the food was very good.

After lunch, both boats set off again and we were faced with the Northgate Staircase locks, before we wound our way alongside the Chester city walls.

That Sunday proved to be a long day. The moorings in Christleton were all full so we were unable to moor there as intended. we were obliged to continue on our way and it wasn't till we reached Crows Nest Bridge (113) that we were able to find suitable mooring for the night. After a full Sunday lunch accompanied by wine, a five hour stretch was the last thing any of us wanted. Hay-Ho that's boating for you!

We parted company with Chris and Les at Barbridge Junction where the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal turns East. We turned towards Middlewich while Nb Eleventh Heaven continued down the main line towards Market Drayton.

The Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union Canal is an attractive stretch of rural canal passing through quiet and remote countryside. This rich farmland is interspersed with woods.

On Chris's advice, we chose to moor near bridge 22 where we were rewarded with splendid views over the River Weaver and the Winsford Top Flash. While the views were superb, we found that the West Coast Main railway line was a noisy and unwelcome intrusion into the tranquillity. In addition, the local farmer was muck-spreading so we decided to move on after only one night.

Continuing on Wednesday 10th September, we only had a little over two miles of the Shropshire Union Canal to navigate which included descended the two locks before joining the Trent & Mersey Canal in Middlewich.

We have really enjoyed our time on the Shroppie, finding it to be charmingly rural with few locks and many glorious views over open countryside.When we have stopped near villages, we have found the people to be very friendly and helpful. In addition, we have been very lucky with the weather. Although we have had some overcast days, by and large it has been a wonderful time with blue skies and at times wall to wall sunshine.