Day 40 Aston to Armitage

The marina office doesn’t open until 10.00 on Sunday and as usual I was up at 7.00. So after breakfast, feeling fit once again, I scrubbed the boat roof and side decks. Cleaned shower tray, replaced bathmat with clean one (and washed the the other)cleaned the cooker, emptied loo and filled water tank.

Left about 10.30 I suppose but didn’t check. Then ran into an hour-long queue at the first lock. Cleared that about about 12.30 and stopped for lunch. Locks have been easy all day, I only did five and had help for all but one so they went quickly. Two of them I shared with a couple who have a short narrowboat. While waiting in the queue the bloke explained that he normally does the lock work but he has a hernia so his wife was doing it. Maybe his is worse than mine but I’ve done >300 locks in the last 6 weeks many of them singlehanded. After the last one there is a long lock-free pound to Fradley Jnct. I hoped to get there by this evening but having lost time yesterday I didn’t. Maybe another hour or so tomorrow morning.

Lots of suburban developments along this stretch, the houses are nothing special but everyone with a canal frontage seems to have made a real effort to make the most of it. On the southern outskirts of Rugely there was a short private drive with about 5-6 houses on it arranged facing the canal with a shared driveway along the front. The residents had obviously agreed a ‘theme’ and put a row of large blue plant pots, different shapes and shades but all blue, along the canal edge and planted them up.

Someone (Tony?) said I should stop at the Plum Pudding for a pint. I passed it late this afternoon, but didn’t stop. Amused to see gentrification has hit Rugely, it’s now the Plum Pudding Brasserie.

Day 39 – Aston Marina

Last night I stopped just before the flight of four locks north of Stone, so this morning I made short work of them then cruised toward the town centre. At the next set of four there was a queue but for the first time the boat in front was short enough (35′) for us to lock through together. We did a couple of locks then he pulled in to the CRT service station.

Next to the services was a boatyard and it seemed like a good time to fill up with diesel. It took 21.6l, last time I filled up was a week ago at Trevor so that’s about 3l per day. I asked at the yard where would be a good place to moor to walk into the town centre for cash point and shopping. They generously let me stop in one of their berths.

Stone has an old-fashioned and apparently prosperous town centre with a decent market and independent shops. There was some kind of event getting set up, people tuning up guitars and the mayor wandering around in costume and chain, but I went back to Seren and carried on through the last two of the set.

Then stopped for lunch. Pork pie from Stone, sourdough bread, cherry toms and piccalilli. And a nap. The sky was overcast and I’ve been caught out too often this trip so before lunch I closed the cockpit roof.

It didn’t rain and was a lot brighter in the afternoon (and is a glorious evening now). I yanked the roof open then doubled up with stomach pain. I have a few funny pains with my various abdominal problems so I started the engine, cast off and sat at the helm. Sitting I felt fine and it was a mile or more to the next lock. A boat was leaving it so I went straight in, then realised how much my stomach hurt when I got off to close the gate.

A woman from a boat behind me opened one of the paddles while I did the other, then she said I should get back on Seren and she’d do the gates. I accepted gratefully.

I’d pretty much decided to find a mooring before the next lock when I came upon Aston Marina. It’s not cheap but it is luxurious. After a lot of sitting down and another nap I’m feeling a lot better. I’ve even done some laundry in the enormous commercial washing machines they have here. Loo and water tomorrow then off again. It’ll be a slow start though, the office doesn’t open until 10.00 on Sundays and I want my deposit back.

Day 38 T&M

It’s an interesting contrast going back via the T&M rather than the SU. The Shroppie is beautiful in places and deservedly popular, but the T&M has it’s charms too. The rural sections are as pretty as the SU and the industrial sections are interesting. The T&M was largely financed by Wedgwood and his Etruria Works were right by the canal in Stoke. There are still some modern potteries near the canal and an old bottle kiln, though sadly it has weeds growing out of the brickwork.

South of Stoke city centre there are suburban developments that really make the most of the canalside. Some older houses with large gardens leading down to the canal. And some new developments set just three or four metres back with room for a patio/deck. I passed one expensive looking house with a nice garden, plenty of parking, and it’s own little branch off the canal with a 70′ boat in it. It even had a replica canalside crane to lift out the ‘stop planks’ isolating the arm from the canal.

You do get the impression at times though that the T&M is the system’s poor relation. Many of the locks are in a poor state and hard to operate. Some gates have been replaced with BW steel ones that rattle and clang. A few though have recent CRT traditional style wooden gates and they are great.

Many of the locks are doubled, ie there are two side by side but in some cases one is out of action, apparently long-term, and in a few cases one has been infilled or converted to a weir. That’s a real shame because having a spare lock should enable traffic to continue when one needs maintenance, filling it in, or just neglecting it as it falls apart is a lost opportunity. Budget issues I suppose.

Most of locks I passed today were as deep or deeper than yesterday. I was trying to estimate one, the rungs on the lock ladder are about a foot apart and the falling water exposed 12½ of them. It’s a long way down climbing back into the boat. But better than twice as many 6′ locks.

The summit level of the canal passes through the Harecastle Tunnel which is about 1½miles long. Since I last came down here 35 years ago the towpath has been removed making it much easier to steer through without bouncing off the sides. It’s still one-way though with keepers either end controlling batches of boats. Harecastle marks an East/West divide. Rain falling west of the tunnel ends up in the Mersey and the Irish sea. That falling to the east makes it’s way to the Trent and the Humber estuary.

I’ve stopped for the night just north of Stone before the next flight.

About 2 more days to reach Fradley Junction where I will join the Coventry canal.

Day 37 - Too many locks

Day 37 – Too many locks

I may have lost count, and still haven’t managed to buy a Trent & Mersey guidebook to confirm but today started with the Wheelock flight of eight locks, followed by six locks in three pairs then a flight of 10 ending at the Red Bull CRT service station (and Red Bull pub). I think that’s 24 locks.

Many of today’s locks had the original split, cantilevered bridges over the downhill end of the lock. These were originally installed to facilitate towlines on horsedrawn boats, and later used by motor boats towing butties. These days hardly anyone uses them but they are useful for solo boaters bow hauling their boat in to the lock to avoid the long slimy climb up the lock ladder. Unfortunately many bridge halves have drooped closing the gap, and even where they have remained separate BW/CRT have installed new hand rails without splits (see photo).

Split Bridge, Silly Handrail

After climbing out of so many deep locks up slimy lock ladders I was tired and filthy so I had a shower got changed and treated myself to a steak & ale pie and pint at the Red Bull. Good choice. We’ve had a few light showers during the day but within minutes of me getting back into Seren after dinner it started pouring down.

Day 36 - Middlewich and Trent & Mersey

Day 36 – Middlewich and Trent & Mersey

Once again I’ve chosen an overnight stop with no internet connection so I’ll upload this sometime tomorrow. Mind you I thought that last night too. I did have a connection for a large part of the day, but I was busy boating.

My Shropshire Union Guide speaks warmly of Venetian Marine just above Cholmondeston Lock, so I stopped to get a T&M Guide. They didn’t have one, only guides to various ‘ring’ routes. So onwards and downwards to Middlewich basin.

The Middlewich branch connects to the northern end of the Shroppie, constructed as the Chester Canal to widebeam dimensions. Around Barbridge Jnct there were quite a few wide beam cruisers moored and the branch feels wide too, right up to bridge 2 and the subsequent locks, which are narrow. Despite that much of the channel is wide compared with the southern Shropshire Union. The locks are deep too, 11’3″ at Cholmondeston.

The theme continues on the T&M, wide channels, narrow and deep locks, though now going up out of the Cheshire Plain. A boat was leaving the first lock as I arrived so the lock was set and gates open, always a bonus. For the next three locks I was following an idiot who left all the top gates open and on one occasion the paddles too.

T&M Locks are deep

They are not great locks for single-handed use. Possibly because of the great depth the bottom gates don’t have the usual planks on the gates to walk across, they have a bridge. This prevents me bow hauling the boat into the lock because I can’t pass the rope under the bridge, I have to climb aboard and motor in, then climb the green slimy ladder to get out. Lock 98 had an extra hazard, a dog shit bag tied to one of the rungs of the ladder. I guess the dogshit fairy who removes the little parcels left dangling from trees and hedges doesn’t operate underwater.

After five single locks on the T&M (and 3 on the Middlewich branch) I stopped at Wheelock just below the Wheelock flight of eight. Need to be fresh to tackle those.

Day 35

Day 35

There was indeed a pub at Willeymoor so I had a beer, crisps and a chat with the landlady. Not a great night, up twice with cramp and up for good before 7.00. On my way before 8.00. Locks on this stretch are spaced out, Willeymoor, Quoisley, Marbury. Then past the repaired breach at Wrenbury (see photo). Bridge 20 at Wrenbury Mill is yet another lift bridge, but this one is electrically operated. Once again the landing stage is on the wrong side. Then I moored by the bridge and walked to the village shop for provisions.

Wrenbury Breach Repaired

There was a lot of barking at Wrenbury which I assumed came from a nearby property. Then a narrowboat passed me as I unpacked the shopping. On the back deck a near-hysterical dog (spaniel, I think) was barking at other dogs, at people on the towpath, at passing boats, stationary boats and nothing at all. I followed it to Baddiley locks, trying to stay back out of earshot.

There were two other narrow boats waiting at Baddiley and all three boats were single-handed and the owners known to each other. They had a system for dealing with locks:

First boater to arrive opens the lock.
Second boater helps him through.
First boater moors past lock and returns to help boats 2 and 3
Boat 2 goes straight on, becomes boat 1 at next lock.
Boat 3 goes on, becomes 2 at next lock
Boater 1 closes lock gates follows the others. Now boat 3.

Of course it got complicated with me following…

After Baddiley I stopped for lunch (pork pie from Wrenbury) then on to Swanley locks and finally around 3pm to Hurleston. On the WW map there’s a sanitary station at Hurleston. I got the cassette out, got the trolley from the topbox, dragged it to the sluice and… it’s closed.

Once again there were a few CRT volunteers doing all the work and I stayed on the boat. One of the volunteers told me the sluice had been closed two years because the septic tank is cracked and excavating it and installing a new one is too expensive for CRT.

So far the return has just been back the way I came along the Llangollen Canal. Previously though I approached Hurleston from the southern Shropshire Union. I’m going back via the Trent & Mersey. It’s about 20 miles longer than the route through Birmingham, but has about 30 fewer locks. It takes about a long to pass a lock as it does to travel a mile so the extra miles can be ignored. And anyway, 20 more miles is 6-7 hours extra sitting down. 30 locks is a lot of work!

So northwards on the Shroppie for a mile or so then right onto the Middlewich Branch. Near Barbridge Junction is Barbridge Marina which I got to just before closing time (5.00) and paid £2 to empty the loo. Onwards for another half hour or so, stopping before Cholmondeston.

Four locks to Middlewich tomorrow morning then turn right again, south down the T&M.