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.

We’ve been attacked!

We’ve been attacked! It’s not too serious but I have a couple of facial injuries and a damaged ankle while Gill got hit on the leg. We aren’t entirely sure how it happened but we think it was probably some kind of biting gnat that got us while we were enjoying the last of the day’s warmth yesterday evening. I have two lumps, one on each temple that are absolutely symmetrical. It was either two gnats flying in formation or one gnat with a severe case of OCD but whatever the cause I now look like I am about to sprout horns. We have also suffered a few afflictions at the hands of inanimate objects recently too. I was attacked by a cheese grater whilst innocently shredding parmesan and we have both been given a good kicking by angry windlasses whilst operating the locks. Fortunately none of these injuries have required anything stronger than a glass of red wine to remedy them and all in all we are in fine fettle and really enjoying the adventure.

The potteries at Stoke (could do with a bit of a trim)

We are now well south on the Trent and Mersey canal and clear of an intense stretch of narrow locks and the Harecastle tunnel. The previous twenty miles have been fascinating and challenging but certainly never boring. We approached the Harecastle tunnel with a little trepidation as it was far longer than anything we had been through at one and three quarter miles. Passage is controlled by Canal and River Trust staff and is strictly one way. We arrived shortly after other boats had entered the tunnel from the south and we were kept entertained by the highly amusing member of staff on duty. He asked me if I had ever been through before and when I said I hadn’t he delighted in telling me that there was nothing to worry about but to go and have a strong brew whilst waiting for our turn. Here’s a tip for anybody going through for the first time; don’t look at the faces of the people on the boats emerging and don’t ask them how it was or if they enjoyed it. After a short safety briefing and with lights and horns checked we were off into the longest blackest hole I have ever been in.

Don’t ask how it was.

It was actually OK once your eyes adjusted and the only concern was the sudden changes in roof height that threatened to decapitate anybody foolishly looking back to see how far they had come. Forty minutes later we popped out of the other end blinking in the sunshine and to the delight of about forty small children on a school trip who gave us a round of applause. Time for a picnic by the beautiful Westport lake.

Seen one tunnel, seen ’em all.

One other feature of the infrastructure on this section has been the double locks. When somebody mentioned them I imagined locks wide enough to take two boats side by side and as we had used these on the Leeds and Liverpool canal I wasn’t all that excited. In practice they turned out to be amazing pieces of Victorian engineering which are actually two narrow locks side by side and independently operated.

Double locks

As we were travelling with our new friends Bob and Marie we were like a couple of kids disappearing into the deep, dark, coffin like enclosures alongside each other but out of sight. Gill and Marie would then close the gates on us and begin to fill the locks. The water level would slowly rise lifting our boats up and after a couple of minutes Bob and I would majestically surface into the sunlight like a couple of silly meerkats grinning at each other as if we had just popped out of adjacent burrows. They were also a great opportunity for Gill to get more experience of controlling the boat in them as after managing eight in a row one day she suddenly decided that driving the boat for the next eight locks might not be such a bad idea after all. Needless to say, I am now a lot more experienced at turning a windlass and heaving lock gates open and closed. The physical side of this game is actually really good fun and it has the added bonus of making beer in the late afternoon calorie free.

Descending into a double lock

 

Pop-up-Bob

We have now had a little break in Stone where we have been generously wined and dined by friends there and we will be meeting up once more with Bob and Marie in a couple of days to continue onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. One or two people have asked if I will be updating an online map with our route. I hadn’t thought of doing it but it if helps here is a picture of the area we have travelled so far. If you trace a route from Liverpool via Wigan, west Manchester, Lymm, Middlewich, Stoke and Stone you should be able to get an idea of where we have travelled so far.

Edit: I have now updated the map on the blog so you can see all our stops indicated by the blue boat.

 

I would write more but I have just noticed that there are about ten million small flies gathered on the inside of the boat windows. I think I recognise one of them and I am off to have a word or two.

image_pdfimage_print