Today is not a good day

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.

What you might call a close pass

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.

Canalside garden

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 unpretty city

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.

Deep and dark

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?

James Brindley; A fine canal builder. Not sure what he would have made of the houses.

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.

Stairway to heaven?

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.

Bottles and boxes

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.

2018 Summer adventure

Well that’s our summer adventure over with and what an adventure it has been. A total of 673 miles, 386 locks, 60 lift and swing bridges and 26 tunnels. Then there were the four new engine mounts, four new batteries, one replacement fridge, about a dozen or so petty arguments but nothing too serious and an unknown quantity of lost paint. We’ve met some really tough challenges along the way but by far the greatest one is how to sum up such an experience in a few hundred words.

Lock approaching Liverpool

I started off keeping a daily log of highlights but that went by the wayside at an early stage so now I have to trawl my rapidly deteriorating memory to bring back the best and the worst bits of the trip. Actually when I cast my mind back the idea of best and worst makes a lot of sense because whilst I would describe the whole experience as hugely positive there were some difficult and unpleasant times to add balance and perspective. I hated the appalling abuse of the canals in some places, particularly in towns and cities where they are seen by some people as convenient places to discard all manner of rubbish. On the other hand some locations such as the Montgomery canal in Wales were amongst the most beautiful and peaceful locations I have ever spent time in. Idyllic landscapes full of an abundance of wildlife which probably represented about seventy five percent of the journey and even in the industrial parts there was always architectural and historic interest so I certainly don’t want to dwell on the bad bits disproportionately.

Moorhen

Banded Demoiselle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that the backdrop to most of the last five months was a summer like nobody under the age of forty has ever enjoyed before helped to make what would always have been a great trip into an exceptional one. On many days we were leaving our moorings before seven in the morning and looking for a shady spot to stop by midday. I am almost relieved that the final four weeks were a bit of a mixed bag of weather if only so that we could experience a more typical period of cruising.

Oh for a shady tree

Highlights that spring to mind when I wander back down memory lane are certainly the journey into the heart of Liverpool and a wonderful week there exploring that fine old city and its culture.

In the heart of Liverpool

Meeting and making new friends amongst the boating community and all their generosity in giving advice freely and without any hint of patronising whilst treating us as if we have been amongst them for ever. Stunning sun rises and sunsets, especially on those magical occasions when the sky and trees were perfectly mirrored in the surface of the canal or the mist hung gossamer like over the water. Dazzlingly bright and colourful dragon and damsel flies and the incomparable blue of the kingfisher. Stumbling on a picture perfect canalside pub and making an impromptu decision to end the day there or more often, to mark it down as one not to be missed on the return trip.

Oh dear, another pub

Sitting in the late evening sun sipping a previously undiscovered local ale whilst perusing the menu and choosing our dinner. I confess that we did that far more often that we planned to because it was just so much fun. In fact one of the biggest problems of the trip was remembering that we weren’t on a two week holiday with unlimited funds.

There were long dark tunnels such as the Harecastle and dizzyingly high aqueducts like the Pontcysyllte which were unforgettable for being both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Bucket list items for most boaters and now well and truly ticked by us, twice!

Deep in the Harecastle tunnel

High on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

We encountered many fascinating towns and villages, often with histories intimately interwoven with the arrival of the canals like those based around the salt mines in Cheshire or the potteries in Staffordshire. The amazing engineering achievements of individuals such and James Brindley and Thomas Telford provided a fascinating background to our travels. From simple yet ingenious lock mechanisms to the goliath that is the Anderton Boat Lift, there was always something of interest to investigate and enjoy around every bend.

Mr. Brindley, canal engineer extraordinaire

Anderton boat lift

It is humbling to navigate those waterways that only exist because of the ingenuity and bravery of the designers, not to mention the sacrifice of blood, sweat, tears and even lives of the navvies that dug them. The many historic boats that we came across, both original and reproduction were beautiful and impressive but also a constant reminder of a brutally cruel bygone way of life which couldn’t be further removed from our pampered meanderings.

There was plenty of time standing on the back of the boat to consider the history of the canals and the industry they served. I sometimes wondered what those tough, hard working bargees and their families would have thought of our centrally heated home with all its conveniences of fridge, freezer, TV and washing machine. Their only focus was moving produce and materials whatever the weather and conditions. Comfort and living space was sacrificed to maximise carrying capacity and potential to earn with couples living in the tiniest of cabins and children often forced to sleep on top of whatever cargo happened to be in the hold. Not only did those people represent the reason for the canals existence but they are also now a source of endless fascinating social and industrial history that adds to the nature and beauty of the canals we travel today.

Ambush. An old barge now used as a fuel sales boat

We met some amazing people while we were away, some of whom will now be friends for life. We travelled for days and sometimes weeks with others, leap frogging them as we moved from village to town but often mooring up together to enjoy an evening exchanging tales that grew taller with each passing glass of wine or beer. Like most people with a common interest there is a camaraderie amongst boaters that means that you are never really alone. I have heard the two thousand miles of waterways described as a linear village and even with our limited experience I understand why. We would often get talking with fellow moorers and discover that we had common acquaintances on the network, even bumping into boats from our home marina in Lancashire. It didn’t take long to feel as if we were part of a very disparate but strangely interwoven community. An extended family of very different individuals all bound together by a common thread of life on the water and all the joys and challenges that it entails.

I’ll leave you with one more set of statistics that for me sum up the magic of our summer on the Golden Girl. It was a perfectly still, warm summers night and I was reluctant to leave the back of the boat despite the darkness; surrounded as I was by two hooting tawny owls, one screeching little owl and a total absence of cares in the world.

At the end of the day

All photos by Gill

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