The last blog ended with us moored at Milton and shortly after writing it a boat came by looking for a mooring spot. I gave him what information I had but pointed out that it was our first time on the Caldon so my information was sparse. His response: “yes mate, my first time too and most definitely my last!”. Boaters are funny like that, they either love or hate a particular water way and we were about to find out which camp we fell into on this particular canal.
I was always told that the most risky period for anybody using dangerous machinery was when they become very relaxed and confident with it. That’s when they let their guard down. I was beginning to think that I had probably reached that point with the boat but it took the Caldon canal to prove my instincts were correct. Challenging is the word that springs to mind, followed quickly by quirky, crazy, unexpected and impossible. I do now understand why not everybody falls in love with this very unique canal but for me it became like a wild eccentric friend. Somebody that you can’t help but love despite the fact that they always manage to embarrass you in public.
It started as soon as we left Stoke with a couple of unusually low bridges which required a whole new skill, that of steering the boat from a crouched position, head just above the roof line in a narrowboating meets yoga kind of way. If boat yoga ever becomes a thing that one will be called Crouching Canal Turn. And so it went on with surprises around every bend and surprising bends where we least expected them.
Not all the bridges were low but they had other tricks up their sleeves. I can handle narrow bridges, even narrow bridges on bends, but narrow bridges on bends completely overgrown with vegetation had me stumped. Steering the boat through a jungle of weeds with a bridge hidden somewhere amongst it is always going to end painfully and I’m afraid it did once or twice. They were mostly glancing blows that did more damage to my ego than they did to the boat. Or bridge I should add.
I don’t know if it’s down to less traffic or less maintenance but the Caldon has a wild, earthy feel to it more akin to a river than a canal. The reed beds and grassy banks are untamed and often reduce the waterways to narrow channels where passing another boat takes care. There are many wooded sections and it’s not uncommon to find trees partly blocking the channel or hanging so low that there are moments when the front of the boat has taken centre stage through a curtain of foliage while we on the back are still blindly waiting in the wings and hoping there is nothing coming the other way.
There are single and staircase locks to negotiate, manual and electric lift bridges, a short tunnel and even a river section where the river Churnet flows through a valley so narrow that it and the canal simply run out of options and merge for a mile or so.
The terrain that has to be negotiated is so torturous in places that you have to wonder just how valuable limestone was to warrant building the canal at all. The restored Churnet valley steam railway joins the party at times and practically dips it’s sleepers in the water’s edge. It’s not often that locomotive driver and narrow boat helmsman get the chance to exchange a passing “good morning”. At Consall Forge there was so little room for the station alongside the canal that they cantilevered the platform and waiting room over the water. It makes for a buttock clenching five minutes as you steer the boat under the structure with a few inches either side and above and nowhere to go if another boat appears.
There are more narrow channels towards the end of the line and at Froghall there is a tunnel that is so low that very few boats can pass through it. We were one such boat and as we missed the last winding hole I got the opportunity to practice reversing further than ever before. I am quietly proud to report that no boats or canal infrastructure were harmed in the process.
All of these challenges are set amongst the most delightful mixture of lazy pasture and dense woodland with regular sightings of kingfishers, jays, herons and the sweet perfume of late wild flowers. It must be an absolute delight in the Spring time. There are old lime kilns to explore and a restored flint mill complete with working water wheels. The whole area is steeped in industrial history but somehow retains an air of wilderness and tranquillity. At Denford an extension to the Caldon branches off to connect with the town of Leek. It’s a fascinating feature as the main line drops through three locks and the branch turns 90 degrees and passes over it on an aqueduct. It’s a bit of a stretch I know but it felt like we were travelling on the Spaghetti junction of the waterways.
I do understand that there are difficulties on this canal and not everybody will be comfortable with them but for me they just enhance the rewards. As is so often the case in life the best things are worth fighting for and I would definitely advise boaters that the Caldon is worth getting in the ring with. Somebody said to us that you shouldn’t go on the Caldon if you have just had your boat painted. I get that and I’ll admit that we may have lost a bit of paint here and there but the eight days we spent discovering this fascinating corner of the network will stay with us forever. We loved it.