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 Mèche 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 Mèche , 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 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 Mèche 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.