Today is not a good day. The rain is determined, the wind is persistent and the summer has retreated with its tail between its legs. Looking out of the window at what should be the far bank of the canal but is, in reality just a boat width away, I can see the trees thrashing about as if they are desperate to break free from their roots and move to somewhere more hospitable. I would go with them if I could but this is not the weather for boating.
We are on the Caldon canal, a branch of the Trent and Mersey that leaves the centre of Stoke and winds its way through the outskirts of the city determined to escape the overcrowded space and find some peace in a more rural environment. It has a reputation for remoteness and quiet places but the tranquillity has to be earned. To get here had involved passing through Stoke from the south and as always entering the city by narrow boat is pretty predictable but most definitely not pretty.
Wealthy suburbs of detached houses with tidy, manicured gardens decorate the water’s edge, gradually giving way to more practical dwellings; full of children’s play equipment, lawns in need of a trim and the slightly chaotic look reflecting busy young families trying to keep heads above water. At the margins of the city huge new distribution warehouses feed endless products into countless lorries to be scattered across the country in a never ending frenzy of consumerism. Run down factories and tired, tatty workshops follow as the canal takes on a shabby, litter strewn complexion. Every discarded bottle, can and takeaway container seems to end up floating in the water alongside the odd palette or traffic cone. As we reach the city centre a veil of gloss in the form of smart street furniture, glamorous looking offices and apartments and neatly tended islands of municipal garden give the impression of order and prosperity. The up and coming city is keen to give the impression that it is going places and will be dragging all the shabby peripheries with it. It could be any medium sized city centre in England, probably in the world for that matter. A smart glittering jewel set in a cheap shabby mount.
The locks here are deep and dark. The walls are draped with dripping mosses and I have to share them with a varied collection of rubbish. Fumes from our dirty diesel engine waft around me as I wait for the water to raise me up into the sunshine and welcome fresh air.
Alongside the second lock a pair of homeless men have set up camp under the railway bridge. A complex arrangement of plastic sheeting and old railings surround makeshift furniture and although it’s still early they are busy blurring the reality of their situation with a few cans of strong lager and a roll up or two. They aren’t interested in me or the boat, we live in different worlds, they don’t respond to my cheery good morning. What do they have to be cheery about?
The nature of the canals is such that these dreary surroundings can be replaced just a few minutes later by a delightful setting of new housing juxtaposed against ancient remnants of the original canal infrastructure lovingly restored and given a new life in the form of a museum. The junction of the two canals is just such a place and it’s a welcome relief after all the dirt and drudgery. After making the tight turn from one canal to another we climb up the deep staircase lock at the start of the Caldon and into what has been described as a dodgy area not recommended for mooring.
Obviously that information comes from another era because in all directions there are smart new houses and apartments and efforts have been made to encourage the boaters with new places to moor. Sadly, all this new facade is let down by old walls covered in ancient fading graffiti that line the canal and tell the story of this area’s former life. The grim, blurred and illegible artwork reflects the past times of unemployment, poor housing and all the consequences of the once flourishing pottery industry gone to rack and ruin. The occasional bottle kilns are a nod to former prosperity, looking odd and out of place sitting as they do amongst the new homes. It’s nice that they have been retained but shameful that they are now a home to sprouting weeds and shrubs. They have been saved but nobody seems to care about them.
The Caldon canal is narrow and twisty and requires a level of concentration that I clearly can’t maintain as I fail to negotiate one of the tight bridge holes at a particularly sharp bend. It gives the two young lads who are fishing there something to smile about as I bump my way through. The battle scarred edges of the bridge and the look on the boys’ faces tell me they have seen it all before. The outskirts of the city finally begin to fall away as woodland and open fields herald the end of the urban landscape and the village of Milton provides us with the first good opportunity to moor. Knowing that storm Francis is on it’s way we need somewhere to sit out a day and two nights and this seems ideal. It satisfies all our needs; secure rings to tie up to, an open aspect to take advantage of any solar power and reasonable internet access to keep us entertained. The fish and chip shop and local butchers and bakers we discover later seal the deal. It’s cosy when other boats go by but they are careful and pass by slowly for a change.
I don’t particularly like the fringes of the cities we pass through but they are inevitable. The canals were only built to link centres of trade with ports and each other. The towns, cities and docklands were the only things that mattered one or two hundred years ago and the countryside was an inconvenient obstacle between them. Now, for me at least, it’s the exact opposite. This branch of the Trent and Mersey has a reputation for dividing boaters. Some love the quiet natural feel to it whilst others are impatient with the limited mooring opportunities and constant vigilance required to navigate its sinuous lines. Tomorrow we will find out which camp we fall into but I suspect I already know the answer.