Sunday, 26 July 2015

Chugging through Cheshire

Hardcore blog fans may remember we spent quite a long time stuck in Middlewich a couple of years ago. So it was with a degree of reluctance that we made our way down the final locks of Heartbreak Hill to arrive back in good old Middlewich again.

Here PM is waiting in a queue to turn left onto the Middlewich arm of the Shropshire Union canal (OK, via the Wardle Canal so as not to upset any closet waterways geeks out there). More importantly, she is also moored directly opposite where we were stuck waiting for a new gearbox in 2013.

Fortunately we made it through Middlewich (not a bad place in itself, just we quickly ran out of things to do in 2013!) and stopped on a beautiful peaceful mooring above Church Minshull. This is about the last place in the world you might expect to be woken in the wee small hours by a loud argument outside the boat, followed by a visit from the local constabulary.... but that's exactly what happened. Nothing to do with us you understand but it seems a couple of neighbouring boats spent a little too long in the local pub and things got out of hand. There's never a dull moment on the canals!

The following day was drizzly but that didn't put people off - we were third in a queue of eleven boats waiting for Minshull Lock. All these people trying to get out of Middlewich!

Once we got to the end of the Arm we turned right at Barbridge Junction onto new waters for us on Pas Mèche.

Not far after the junction you arrive at Bunbury staircase locks. This was a busy spot but we were soon on our way down with nb Leo, joining the melée of boats at the bottom - not helped by the local hire firm blocking a lot of the canal. 

The northern Shropshire Union is varied and pretty to begin with, passing the ruins of Beeston Castle after negotiating four wide locks of differing construction to cope with the shifting sands the canal is cut through.

The descent to Chester begins at Christleton and is pleasant all the way through the five locks down into the city.

Chester's waterfront is tidy and welcoming by day but we had been advised against mooring here overnight.

We braved it anyway, although we chose to stop slightly out of the way of the main pub/restaurant area. We stopped below the city walls, opposite a sheltered housing development, reckoning that our neighbours here would be no trouble. It turns out we were right but on our return through Chester we heard more stories of boats cast adrift in the night and people running down roofs of boats moored just under the bridge in this photo when the pubs turned out.

It's a shame the moorings in Chester have a (seemingly deserved) bad reputation as the city itself is well worth a visit. We walked round the city walls (a couple of miles all the way around) which gives a great view of the sights like the race course, the river Dee and the 'Rows' shopping area. Highlight for boaties of course has to be the canal which is cut through solid rock right below the city walls.

The following day we left nb Leo in Chester and headed down the Northgate staircase of three locks. We were heading for Ellesmere Port, which is where the northerly end of the Shropshire Union meets the Manchester Ship Canal. Unfortunately the far end of the canal is a little underused and pretty choked with weed in places so Dave got very friendly with the weedhatch!

Ellesmere Port is home to one of the UK's National Waterways Museums but we found arriving by boat a confusing and unwelcoming experience - we'll be feeding back to CRT about this in the hope that they might start to make more effort for boaters in future.

There are moorings above the basins (where the narrowboat is on the right in the photo below) but the basins are an integral part of the museum and a much nicer place to stop so that's where we headed for, via the narrow locks in the right of this photo (behind the rather unhelpfully moored trip boat almost blocking the locks!).

Lock operators beware the locks into Ellesmere Port basins! If you can see past Middlewich Duck's idiotic grin in the photo below you'll notice the ground around the lock is a bit soggy. Basically if you empty the top lock too quickly it floods the area underneath. This is similar (but different) to a staircase lock but there is no signage or CRT people to warn you about this. Best bet is just to empty the lock very slowly and keep an eye on things below!

So after an eventful couple of locks we arrived in the basins. It's not clear where you're supposed to moor here and rings/bollards are few and far between. After a lap of the basins to check out the options we did the best we could with a mooring at the end of the Holiday Inn car park. We think the moorings in front of PM (by the grassy bank) are where you're supposed to go as they're secure and accessed only via the museum. Still, we had no trouble where we were as Ellesmere Port is pretty quiet.

The Manchester Ship Canal, on the other hand, is anything but quiet around tide-times. We saw quite a few really, properly big ships coming and going. This was about the biggest, being towed/guided in by a tug with another behind for good measure.

We did enjoy the boat museum at Ellesmere Port but as you've probably gathered the overall experience was a little disappointing. At least we understood why nb Leo didn't want to come with us!

After a few more trips down the weedhatch for Dave we met up with nb Leo again at Chester Zoo, which they had visited while we were at the museum. We headed back in to Chester together, passing the other recommended mooring at the basin underneath the staircase locks. This is a short walk out of town but seemed quiet.

With the two boats reunited we climbed the Northgate staircase locks...

... then cruised past the city walls. 

After the stories of ASBO antics we decided not to stop in Chester again, especially with it being a Saturday night, so we went to Christleton for a quiet mooring.

Today we have moved on through the late-July cold, wind and rain and have lit the stove at midday today - where did that summer heatwave get to?

Friday, 17 July 2015

Harecastle, Heartbreak and a surprise hello!

The Trent & Mersey starts the climb up from the Trent with broad locks. After around 400 broad locks since we left Devizes, most of them on our own, it was good to be with nb Leo and have a regular locking partner. Unfortunately there are only six broad locks and they run out at Stenson. So back to doing the hard work on our own again!

After Stenson we passed the entrance to Mercia Marina near Willington, where we bought Pas che six years ago. We can still remember the absolute fear we felt turning out of here on our nine day epic voyage to Ely in Cambridgeshire!

On the edge of Burton upon Trent we came to our first narrow lock since Foxton. Unlike when we first bought Pas che , we managed to lift the fenders and close the side hatches to go through this lock - both rookie errors which we like to think we've moved on from making.... most of the time!

We wanted to do the Marstons Brewery Tour in Burton but it was full on the days we wanted to go. Determined to get some real ale tasting in, we opted for the National Brewery Museum, on the old Bass site. This is a great museum, brought to life by a (free) tour from one of the guides. 

We met the Shire horses (this one's Jed) then retired to the bar to sample some ale.  It must've been good as we didn't manage to move on that day, staying another night in Burton instead.

We left Burton the following day (no hangovers, must be the quality of the Burton waters they brew with). 

As you approach Alrewas the canal briefly rejoins the Trent as it crosses through the river to then rejoin the canal. This section can cause delays when the river's in flood but we had no such problems, only a strong cross wind to fight - always a challenge in a narrowboat.

It's a short cruise from Alrewas to Fradley Junction. This is where the Coventry canal heads south away from the Trent and Mersey. Fradley is one of those strangely popular canal honeypots - it boasts a pub, a cafe, a shop and ... that's about it. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere but is often packed with people who just come to watch the boats go by - often known as "gongoozlers".  Not today though, the gongoozlers had clearly got word that the super slick Pas Meche was coming through so dramas would be in short supply (just kidding).

Armitage is noticeably less popular than Fradley - its main claim to fame being that it is home to Armitage Shanks so you're treated to the sight of more toilets than you'll ever sit on piled up by the canal. What a glamorous way of life we have.

Things get more interesting shortly after the toilet factory where an old tunnel has been opened out to leave a one-way narrow section imaginatively called Amitage narrows. Here the advice is to send a crew member on ahead to check no other boats are coming.

We stopped for shopping in Rugeley then continued to Little Haywood, which is a quiet spot with great views over Shugborough Park towards Cannock Chase. 

After Little Haywood comes Great Haywood, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal heads off south west under the lovely wide brick bridge in the photo above to eventually join the River Severn. We went that way last year but this time carried straight on heading northwards.

Stone is a busy canal town, boasting several boatyards, some good pubs and plenty of locks. We climbed up through the town then moored at the top of the flight.

Victoria immediately set about making a cake for her dad's birthday and the following day we nursed it on four trains all the way to Yorkshire for a family meal out. Miraculously it survived with only minor fault-lines developing in the golfing green.

After a couple of days on dry land we got back to Pas che and headed northwards, climbing the flight of locks into Stoke on Trent.

Stoke on Trent is of course the heart of the Potteries and a major reason why the Trent & Mersey exists in the first place. Although bits of the city are a bit run down you can really sense the history of the place as you chug through. 

We made an early start the next morning from Westport Lake, heading for the 1.7 mile long Harecastle Tunnel. The first time we did this in 2013 we did it with a nearly-empty water tank and the roof of the tunnel was too close for comfort to the top of the boat. Another one of those rookie errors. So we stopped at the tunnel mouth to fill with water and to remove all the junk from the roof. Don't be fooled by the high and wide ends of the tunnel, it get's pretty low in the middle!

David was clearly relieved to escape from Harecastle unscathed. Note the life jackets - not essential but following an unfortunate fatality last year you're strongly encouraged by the CRT tunnel keepers to wear them.

The descent from the summit level starts more or less immediately. It is often known as Heartbreak Hill as the locks are mostly spaced too far apart for crew to easily walk between them but barely far enough to make it worth getting back on the boat. Despite this, we love this stretch of the canal. To make things more fun, the locks are often paired so one boat can go up as one comes down.

Today we have descended about halfway down Heartbreak Hill, with views of storm clouds over Mow Cop.

We do like these locks but some of the paddle gear is pretty stiff. The lady crew members have clearly got teamwork sorted and made light work of the more stubborn locks!

We dropped down under the M6 and saw a familiar boat coming the other way. It took them a while to recognise us but we were thrilled to see Seán and Mary on nb Zygnema coming towards us. We'll let them off not clocking us immediately as it's been a couple of years since we saw each other. Given the strong crosswind Seán made a wise suggestion that we get moored up first before catching up.

Once the boats were safely lashed down in the wind we had a good chat with Seán and Mary and reckoned our paths may well cross again later in the summer.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Melting in the Midlands

The following day we were up early to descend Foxton Locks with the help of CRT volunteers. The locks are open from 8am, Victoria was a bit disappointed we were not the first in the queue! This piece of canal engineering is pretty impressive as it feels like you are falling off the hill.

We then turned right onto the Market Harborough Arm. At the end there's a nice basin with moorings but these seem to belong to the hire firm, who charge £10 per night. We stayed on the free visitor moorings on the towpath just outside the basin, Dave refusing to authorise the unnecessary expense. Market Harbourough is a nice place to visit with shops, but a fair walk from the canal. Having walked all the way in, we decided it would've been worth going on the bikes although uphill with shopping on way home.

Retracing our route to the bottom of the Foxtom locks, we then continued up the Leicester section of the Grand Union. It wasn't always straight forward to moor with shallow edges and poor banks but we stayed over at Fleckney (footpath to village for fish and chips through field of scary cows), by lock 27 between Newton Harcourt and Kilby Bridge and just above Gee's lock (for a special friend). Not much going on around here apart from strange summer weather and amazing evening rainbows.

We even had friendly cows coming to say hello to Middlewich Duck.

We then joined the River Soar at King's Lock and headed into Leicester. The river levels were unusually fine for us (Dave's bad luck usually brings rain!) but always worth checking before going on the river. Look out for the boards.

The usual signs were there that we were approaching a big city (Leicester) but the river was surprisingly pleasant. We passed old warehouses indicating Leicester's industrial heritage:

And a huge weir that would probably pull in strong stream and the very end is unprotected.

We'd heard mixed things about visiting Leicester by boat but we had a great time. The secure moorings are next to the lovely Castle Park that is locked at night but accessable with your CRT key. 

We found Richard the Third (harder than you might imagine being the infrequent church visitors we are) and explored the sights of Leicester.

Interestingly (for cycling-geeks such as ourselves at least) you can moor (oops I mean park) your bike in the townhall for £1 per day. Complete with showers, although after this winter and David's somewhat old-fashioned office, he is pretty handy with a flannel ;-)

We then left Leicester and headed north and started to melt in the glorious weather with perfect blue sky. 

We stayed over by the Hope and Anchor pub then headed for Loughborough. When stepping out of an airconditioned pub (Weatherspoons for cheap beer of course) at 10.30 at night we momentarily thought we were in the south of France. It was still 30 degrees celcius onboard as we had boiled in a sunny mooring. (Preferred moorings for us not in Loughborough basin but on the canal to the east of the junction).

We explored the tropical delights of Loughborough, the Great Central Railway, missing seeing a steam train by a minute because Victoria was staging a heatwave-induced go slow and hadn't cycled fast enough......

And exploring the beautiful sunny Queen's park and the Charnwood museum there (free to get in of course!).

The following day we finally met David's parents on their narrowboat Leo at Zouch. We think Helen was pleased to see us but not sure about Ian, he must have run away!

Great to be travelling in convoy again, even if the double locks are almost finished for now... bad planning!

We then joined the River Trent at the huge Trent Crossroads South-west of Nottingham. We were glad to be going the easy way (onto the canals) not the scary way down the River Trent this time.

At Trent Junction we said Happy 60th Birthday to Dave's auntie Ruth.

 And David got washed for the first time in weeks:

We are now back on the peaceful canals, that turned out to be not so peaceful when we met our first lock queue this year and a lot of turbulance!

We had a flying visit from Victoria's parents and two friends, Dave and Maureen.

And put David's cooking skills to good use in Weston-upon-Trent

That's all for now, we have managed not to completely melt in the Midlands! In the next few days we will be continuing west and then north on the Trent and Mersey canal.