So long swallows, see you next year

A few days ago I sat on the back of the boat with the hot sun warming my back and a squadron of swallows swooping and diving overhead. It could have been mid summer were it not for a hint of gold adorning some of the nearby trees or the distinctive autumnal song of a robin in the hedgerow. Today, autumn has stifled the summer’s last gasp and those golden leaves are dancing on the rippling surface of the water, dislodged by a bracingly cold breeze. I haven’t seen a swallow since then. Maybe, like us they are now on their way to their winter grounds. The next time we enjoy their display they will be skimming the waters of the marina next spring and we will be preparing to set out once more on another summer of adventure.

Looks like autumn, feels like summer

We are now on very familiar waters, retracing our steps and counting down the days until we make the final turn onto the Rufford branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal and descend the seven locks to our marina to hunker down for the winter. Any journey’s end is a time of sadness but it’s mixed with the satisfaction of having created another bagful of memories that we can dip into during the long dark nights ahead. We met up with a couple of friends on their narrow boat yesterday and they asked us an often repeated question, “why do you go back to the marina in the winter? Why not just carry on cruising?” It’s a question we often ask ourselves, in fact, it was always our original intention when we bought the boat to spend the first winter in a marina and then take off with no plan to return and nothing to pin us down. What got in the way was community, friendships, the feeling of belonging somewhere and having roots. There are practical difficulties and discomforts to winter cruising that put us off but it’s mainly the people that draw us back to the same place each autumn. Like the swallows, we have become migratory.

Our third summer of wandering the waterways got off to a late start due to lock down but what we have missed in weeks we have more than made up for in new discoveries. We were more or less resigned to sticking to routes we have done before but a last minute change of plan gave us the opportunity to sample the Caldon, Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals and they proved to be some of the most rewarding we have ever done. They are mostly quiet peaceful places reaching deep into the heights and beauty of the Pennine hills.

Spectacular views on the Macclesfield canal

Towns and villages are small and sparsely scattered, entertainment is in the form of wildlife, expansive views and an abundance of flowers and bird song. The once busy and gritty industrial nature of the canals has been softened under a mantle of wildness, occasionally uncovered or preserved to add interest but only rarely dominating the scene.

The Golden Girl in her elements

There are great opportunities to combine walking with narrow boating in all of these areas and it’s relatively easy to gain amazing views from minimal effort. An hour or so of gentle climbing brought us views across the Cheshire plains to Welsh hills and north over Manchester to the Pennines. Quiet moorings were easy to find with nothing but the stars and silence for company. Places where you can watch a heron or a kingfisher catching its prey or a kestrel riding the breeze. Magical moments are two a penny on all of these canals and we are already talking about return visits to sample them in the early spring perhaps.

Beautiful turnover bridges on the Macclesfield

As always we have met some lovely people along the way and although it hasn’t been quite so spontaneous because of the Covid effect we’ve still enjoyed the company of boaters, fishermen and tow path wanderers as we have meandered along. People always have questions about life on a narrow boat but then we always have questions about the locality so we are happy to trade information. We even managed to keep smiling and saying good morning to each and every one of the sixty five competition fishermen strung out along the bank that we passed the other day. With each season that passes we are increasingly likely to come across familiar boats and boaters and it’s always great to catch up and exchange a story or two whilst carefully tip toeing around the fact that neither of us can remember each other’s names or where we met. Most encounters start with “oh look there’s that couple from *insert boat name here* and I have no doubt they do the same. We really should write things down.

Foggy autumn morning in Altrincham

It’s several days now since I started writing this and the last few mornings have found us rummaging around looking for gloves and thermals so it was a delightful surprise to see more swallows today still skimming over the canal optimistically looking for food on such a chilly morning. In a few days we will be settled back into our berth while they will be setting out on their amazing journey to Africa. When it’s cold and dark and the water in the marina is freezing over this winter I’ll look forward to seeing the first of the swallows return in April to start the cycle all over again and herald another great summer on our Golden Girl. Whenever we get to this part of a summer’s journey it always feels like we are going home. Maybe that is what would be missing if we just cruised throughout the year with no base to return to. We often consider the idea of just travelling endlessly but for now we’ll just stick to being swallows.

So long summer, see you next year

Nine rounds with the Caldon

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.

The Golden Girl – bruised but not broken

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.

Mind your head!

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.

I wonder what’s around that corner?

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 other Golden Girl at work

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.

Coming through
Anybody for the 9:30 Golden Girl to Froghall?

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.

Which way now?

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.

No harm done really

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.