Tamely down the Coventry

Tamely down the Coventry

Tamhorn farm mooring

The next section of our journey took us south on the Coventry canal, leaving the rural farmland to travel through Tamworth. We find it’s always an interesting section of canal with plenty to see. Someone has decorated their boat fantastical creatures made out of old tyres.

Trespassers beware

Although I really prefer seeing the alpaca farms along the cut.

A pity they don’t want to watch the boats as much as I want to watch them

It’s 2 years since we came this way and I’m always pleased that I see things that I’d not noticed before. This time it was a boundary stone, placed to mark the end of the Birmingham and Fazeley canal. We debated whether it indicated an abandoned junction or whether the cut we were on had historically changed company and despite the CRT map clearly and logically labelling Fradley Junction into Coventry as the the Coventry canal other maps suggest we are now on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal

Easy to miss, the boundary stone.

We didn’t reach an agreement although shortly after as we cruised through Tamworth, we did reach the junction that CRT recognise as the start of the Birmingham and Fazeley canal.

Giant wildlife murals painted on the junction

We didn’t stop to explore Tamworth this time as we were playing dodge the rain showers and wanted to moor closer to Atherstone. One day I’d quite like to walk over the Tame Aqueduct, it’s not quite in the same league as the famous ones but never the less still quite high above the river.

The Tame Aqueduct

There’s an interesting feature on the Coventry bridges south of here, my imagination thought it could be a toll booth but Eric’s more sensible suggestion is a storage space for the stop planks.

Could it be an ancient prison for speeding boaters

After a bit of a damp cruise we were rewarded with a rural treat to moor overnight

Looking towards Whittington Barracks.

Ticking off the Trent and Mersey Canal

We had planned to take things at a more leisurely pace once we passed through Stoke but the lure of cruising in the sunshine is proving hard to resist. And we know “winter is coming”. This section of the canal is new to us. The last time we reached Great Haywood, was June 2017 on our very first major outing. We had turned right under the bridge onto the Staffs and Worcester canal heading southwest to meet friends.

Leaving the Great Haywood mooring

Now we are heading towards the Midlands. Undeterred by the chill in the air, a couple of bacon butties sorted that out, off we set.

Warm clothes and bacon butties

I’m not sure if its just the blue sky, but this does feel a very pretty canal and we both agree we’d like to cruise it more leisurely in the future.

Looking down from Bridge 57, Handsacre

Some people like collecting garden gnomes, it seems that people with canal side properties prefer pirates and vagabonds

Oo arrr me hearties, who’s got the rum

These guys also had a boat moored called the Dancing Sheep with a pink tailed mermaid taking the pose.

Boaters come in all shapes and sizes

Which of course appealed to me, both loving pink and being a fibre fanatic. Back in the spring I treated myself to a new spinning wheel. This one being a tiny wee electric wheel. It is perfect to use whilst we are cruising,

My tiny Electric spinning wheel

It’s manufactured by a small start up company in America called dreaming robots and during September, Maurice (the designer), ran a photo competition called Spin Anywhere. Winner was chosen by a viewers poll, and guess what… a photo I’d taken while in Northwich won.

Winning entry of the “electric Eel wheel” spin anywhere competion

My next spinning challenge is a fun fundraiser spinning marathon called Britspin. I’ve taken part in this event for several years now and this year I am the captain of an “elite team” called the Towpath Twizzlers. Our co captain is Martina from NB Burnt Oak, who is a roving trader selling her own hand dyed yarn and fibre. There’s a link to the virgin money page if you would like to support us raising money for the RNLI. And if you want to join in you can find us on Ravelry.
Of course spinning isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but we were very impressed that the overseers of this lock had left a teapot for us

Wood End Lock just before Fradley Junction

We were now approaching Fradley Junction where the Trent and Mersey Canal continues for another 25 miles to Shardlow and the great River Trent just south of Nottingham

The start of the Coventry Canal at Fradley junction

But we were turning right onto the Coventry canal, back onto familiar territory.

Misty mornings and sunny days

We love cruising in the autumn, especially when the day starts clouded in mist, but you just know that the sun is waiting to throw off it’s duvet and shine.

Another perfect day

Shortly after leaving Stone we reached Aston Lock and saw the half way milepost for the Trent and Mersey. Exactly 46 miles between Preston Brook and Shardlow.

Half way

The T&M mileposts were originally made of stone, but were replaced in 1819 by a striking cast iron design.

Spot the difference


But we realised they weren’t all the same. Some carry the date 1977.

I had assumed the originals had been melted down to reclaim the metal, but actually most were removed during WWII to make it harder for any potential enemy paratroopers to find their way. The T&M canal society have a very interesting page about where they found the originals and how they reinstated these attractive. posts. I frequently kick myself for not looking up this sort of information before we cruise past, because apparently there is still one original stone marker left at Weston Cutting. https://trentandmerseycanalsociety.org.uk/mileposts/campaign/


We continued our cruise towards Great Hayward Junction and we lucky enough to find a sunny space opposite the aptly named Canalside farm shop and cafe.

Farm shop moorings at Great Haywood junction


We’d timed our arrival to meet up with our friend Jo, Under normal circumstances we would have spent the afternoon in the cafe enjoying tea and cake, but instead we all sat outside in the sunshine catching up on the past few months lack of cruising. We both made early starts the next morning, in opposite directions

Nice to have seen you Jo

And the sun came out

Set in Stone

The Staffordshire town of Stone has several claims to fame, most notably to us boaters is that it is where James Brindley set up his offices to devise and oversee the building of the Trent and Mersey canal, which was completed in 1771, He has a statue in Etruria, but it was too cold wet and miserable to go and pay homage as we passed by. Although the sun had returned by the time we passed through beautiful Meaford Locks and entered the town.

Meaford top lock

We always enjoy passing through Stone, its an attractive town with lots of history. Although we could stop closer to town, we seem drawn by sun radiating colour off the houses opposite and the reflections at the Whitebridge lane visitor moorings. I’m not actually sure where the white bridge is cause the nearest bridge is now a modern concrete necessity and not worthy of a photo. We set off along the towpath to walk the mile into town. As you approach the town centre, its history is proudly displayed on railings telling the tale of pagan King Wulfere who murdered his his sons here for their Christian Faith. He then converted to Christianity himself and allowed his wife to build a priory at the site where they fell, as it grew in importance, the market town grew up around it and prospered.

The history of Stone in steel

The priory was seized and the land sold to the Crompton family during the dissolution of the monasteries, so nothing other than the tomb of William II Crompton and his wife Jane, remain.

I doubt they were legless when they were buried

The modern church was built on its site in 1758. But it was all locked up so I couldn’t see any more about the fate of the poor princes.

St Wulfan and St Michael’s, Stone

It seems that Stone likes a grisly tale, because as we cruised out of the town we saw a small carving dedicated to Christina Collins

Christina’s sculpture at bridge 94

It’s not surprising most boaters miss her, as she’s hidden by ivy, which poignantly reflects her sad story of insignicfinance. In 1839 she paid 1 shilling and sixpence to travel from Preston Brook to London. Whilst passing through Stone, she complained to the toll office that the boatmen were drunk and behaving badly, she feared she would be “meddled” with. Sadly she was right, the next day her body was found in the canal, she had been raped and thrown overboard. Two men were hanged and the third transported. CRT do mark the spot and Brindley Bank

But to end on a happier note everyone should smile when they pass under a bridge 100. (Above Meaford locks )

Bridge 100

Haring through the Harecastle tunnel

Isn’t it just typical when we have an obligation to travel, the weather is poor. We set off in murky drizzle to do the last half a mile. No wonder the water had turned rusty red with the iron deposits. We always chuckle as we pass under the motorway bridges, this time we were passing underneath the Macclesfield Canal just before the junction. It would have been fun to see a narrowboat above us, but at 7am only the foolhardy were on the move.

Passing under the Macclesfield Canal aqueduct

It was June 2017 that we emerged from the Macclesfield Canal onto the T&M, and I have a feeling it was raining that day as well

The start, or end of the Macclesfield Canal

We carry a spare life jacket so Tim was able to comply with the safety guidelines and as it was raining heavily by now, we didn’t waste much time outside chatting to the CRT crew. We were the third of five to go through on the 8am passage.

Looks like we’ll fit

It’s the second longest tunnel on the network, 2657m long (1.6miles) traffic is one way, and although it is always manned, it doesn’t usually need to be booked in advance, but they want to avoid the potential log jam of boaters awaiting their turn. They let several boats through in a convoy, and count them in and out. It’s not unheard of for boats to break down in the tunnel, and not very easy for them to be rescued. Not everyone makes it out……

The resident skeleton who lives inside the tunnel

But thankfully we did, it took us exactly 40 minutes, 10 minutes longer than the first time.

Almost through

Tim was to catch the train home from Stoke so because the rain was now torrential we moored up and enjoyed a cooked breakfast, but by the time we had washed up, the weather had improved, so the next 5 locks were ok. This section of canal is going downhill so the locks are a bit easier to work.

It turned out to be a good day after all

Heartbreak Hill


Now that we are happily cruising again, our plan is to head south and east, to be closer to Suffolk. Our planned destination is affected by the start of the winter stoppages, and I hate to say it but they are only 5 and a bit weeks away. Looking at the map is a bit nerve wracking. I haven’t got enough fingers and toes to count the number of locks before the Harecastle tunnel. I am reliably informed this section is known as Heartbreak Hill. Although as we awoke all was peaceful and calm so we could never have guessed what was ahead of us.

Early morning opposite Bramble cutting

After leaving the Anderton lift, we’d aimed for Bramble cuttings, a picnic area just for boaters, but apparently you stand more chance of winning the lottery that getting a mooring here, hence we knocked in the pins opposite, and just enjoyed the aroma of BBQ drifting our way. We were 15 miles from the tunnel and there were 35 locks to pass through. Having languished in a marina for 6 weeks, our beautifully toned bodies were showing signs of neglect so we decided to spilt the journey over a few days. From here we went through Middlewich.

Middlewich

I would have liked to stop to explore this area dominated by its canal trade and the junction of the Shropshire union. But we wanted to get on before the weather broke.

The junction of the Shropshire union canal on the left


We had an enjoyable days cruise, just 9 locks pleasantly spaced out, until we reached Rookery moorings just south of Ettiley Heath, out in the middle of nowhere, perfect.

Early morning at Rookery mooring


It’s just a short distance from the real start to Heartbreak Hill at Wheelock, 26 single locks over 6 miles. To help the old working boats a twin lock was added to most of the locks meaning two boats could travel up or down at the same time. Harder work for the navvies that built the canal but much easier for the boater, and also potentially saves on water.

Wheelock bottom lock, the start of Heartbreak Hill

Sadly in this day and age only half of the twins have been maintained, but it wasn’t a problem because there wasn’t too much canal traffic and although most of the locks were set against us, all the traffic going up hill had naturally spaced out so no queues, or feeling the need to rush because someone was waiting. And of course we’d been blessed with glorious weather.

Guess who’s doing all the hard work

And as always we take great pleasure when we cruise underneath a motorway, the M6 this time.

Under the M6

And an overnight stop at Hassall Green. It was a treat to find ourselves moored up with fellow bloggers on Cleddau, always nice to put faces to names.

Plenty of mooring for an overnight stop at Hassall Green

Another morning and another promising day,

And another promising day, that’s Cleddau infront of us

I’d miscalculated last night at thought we’d done 12 locks but I think it was only 10, leaving 16 left, but hey this has to beat commuting into the office.

It’s a hard life

Not surprisingly we were fit to drop as we neared Kidsgrove, But looking back we would do it all again, it’s a beautiful section of the canal.

But the views are worth it

Then to put the icing on the cake, our son Tim arrived by train to help us through the last few locks. I emailed CRT to book our passage through the tunnel, (an extra necessity thanks to Covid) but to our horror although I asked for a slot after 10am the only spaces left were at 8am. Poor Tim, he didn’t get much scintillating conversation after tea, cause we both fell asleep.

Up up and away


Who’d have thought a few days trip to explore the River Weaver would have turned into a several weeks staycation in a marina. Much as we have been grateful for the friendship and sanctuary, and not to mention convenience of Northwich Quay, we are confirmed continuous cruisers, and we’ve been desperate to be on the move again. With Firecrest restored to being a fully self sufficient boat again, we crept silently away this morning. Well it would have been silent if we hadn’t had farewell waves from our neighbours, perhaps they were glad to see the back of us.

Leaving Northwich Quay Marina mooring

Despite the early cloud it soon looked like a promising day as we approached the Anderton boat lift

Approaching the lift

And at 11:30 It was our turn to be swallowed up by the cavenous structure

We were to share our passage up with Leo, whom we hadn’t met before but they immediately recognised us from having read our blog, thankyou Leo, it’s always nice to meet our readers (And again we apologise for not having comments or contact enabled, that’s one step beyond my technical comprehension).

Nestled in with Leo

Strangely we found going up more exciting than coming down, I think it’s because we were much more aware of the opposite caisson descending.

I hope it doesn’t collapse

But it’s always fun to see your counterbalance midway

One up one down

And to wish them well for the river 50 foot below

Looking down onto the weaver

But we had had our fill of rivers for this year. Back to Canal life. Our plan is to head south. It doesn’t feel right on such a balmy day like this but we only have 6 weeks before the planned winter closures start in November, and we don’t want a last minute rush or to get caught by any other imposed lockdown. So we turned right as we left the lift and manoeuvred though all the boats enjoying this very pretty area and past the Lion Salt works that we’d walked up to.

The Lion Salt works from the canal

And from the 19th century salt chemical works onto the 21st century salt chemical works, as we cruised through the TATA plant at Lostock

21st century industry

One of the pipe bridges had been enhanced by some fancy iron cut outs recognising the regions salty chemical heritage.

It didnt take Eric long to translate the formula.

Sodium Chloride + Water = Sodium Hydroxide + chlorine + hydrogen

The canal continued to be dominated by its mining heritage with boat yards, historic wharfs and flashes but after a few miles we were in truely beautiful rural England,

The Trent and Mersey Canal at its best

And we were happy again.

Eric and Cheryl at our best

The Lion Salt Works


This little heritage museum on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal is well worth an hour or two, the £6 entrance fee and a 40 minute walk up from our Northwich Quay Marina mooring. Usually there are guided tours with knowledgeable local people who really know their stuff but alas we just had to follow the arrows.

The lion salt works


Although it is no longer producing salt, the buildings and much of the machinery are still in place and you really get a feel for the sweat and toil that went into making something we all take for granted. It might be a natural product, but it doesn’t grow on trees. I could impress you all with my scientific knowledge, but the museum posters sums it up so well.

Here’s the science


Cheshire Salt production began as soon as early man realised that the briney water in some of the ponds could preserve food. But through the centuries the surface ponds have gone, used up, evaporated,or drained away. In the 18th century rock salt was discovered underground, and this became a profitable mining industry. But that became uneconomic and in the late 19th century, commercial salt production returned to what had been the old cottage industry method but on a grand scale. And this story is told at the Lion Salt works.

The pumping station

Shafts were sunk to the underground salt layer. Water was pumped in to create a stream which dissolved the rock salt to make brine.

What lies beneath

This was then pumped back into holding tanks and then into sheds with boiling pans the size of a tennis court.

The boiling salt pans

Coal fired furnaces on the ground floor underneath the pans, were stoked to a specific temperature, not only for the water to evaporate off, but, and this is the clever bit, by varying the temperature and the length of time the evaporation takes, the shape and size of the salt crystal is controlled, thus creating different qualities of salt that could be used for differing tasks.

At 38°C fishery salt is a very course, hard to dissolve crystal, used for preserving fish. This salt is taken straight to the warehouses to dry out.
93°C produces a course large grained common salt used in the chemical, manufacturing and pottery industry. It took up to a fortnight for the evaporation to be complete.
110°C produces the fine salt where the pan was ‘doped’ to aid the quick formation of fine crystals used in home cooking, in mediaeval times the doping ingredient was a preciously guarded secret for each salt producer, it could be anything from ox blood or pigs urine, but the Lion Works used egg whites, animal jelly or soap powder, though I’m still not sure I really want to know.
The men that looked after the pans were skilled at their trade, known as lump men. But it was a dangerous tiring job. It was like working in a sauna, except that the salt would chaff their skin. They risked their lives raking the salt across the boiling water, cause they wouldn’t survive falling in.

Hard physical labour for the lump men


Once the desired crystal size had been obtained the salt was raked to the edge, scooped out and packed into block shaped moulds.

The blocks of packed salt were taken to the drying room for several weeks.

The drying room with a heated bricks

And then taken by conveyor belt into a milling machine to be ground back into usable crystals.

The milling shutes

You can see how the wood has been corroded by the salt.

The milling shutes

At the end of a gruelling shift the men and women would nip across the road to the pub to rehydrate themselves and they would also add salt to their beer to compensate for what they’d lost through sweat.

The final stage of the operation

The finished salt was then bagged and taken by barge to the Mersey ports to be shipped all around the world. Nigeria was one of the largest importers of lion salt, but when the country fell into civil war in the early 70s business dried up. The Lion Salt works closed It’s doors in 1986.

The rock salt used for gritting roads is still mined at Winsford about 5 miles downstream. But as we all know too much salt is bad for us, so as Firecrest’s repairs have now been completed, and with some covid lock restrictions still being in place, we have decided to cut our losses and abandon our plans to explore the River Weaver and Winsford.

Hopefully there won’t be any more subsidence causing canal breaches like this one outside the lion salt works in 1907, cause once we get cruising we don’t want any more stoppages.

I’m glad we weren’t moored there.

But Weaver, we’ll be back…

Our Sojourn in Northwich

Having found ourselves stranded with a broken down boat, we’ve had plenty of time to explore Northwich. It’s not a place I’ve ever visited before and I really had no knowledge of its who’s how’s and why’s. We knew the Romans had been to Chester so it stands to reason that this little Cheshire town would probably also have a story to tell. And our first impressions were right. The town centre was full of beautiful intricate of black and white timber buildings…..

Quite an assortment of buildings. We like the one imitating our canal life, a “narrowhouse”

But hang on a minute, a lot of them have construction dates on them , 1890, 1909 etc, and as far as I knew the Tudors had long since gone out of fashion so what was going on here. Luckily Tim and Pru got here before us and had televised their visit to the area, so I did have my suspicions There two local museums and being closer, we decided to visit the Weaver Hall workhouse first.. Here’s my potted history of Northwich, a town built on salt.
The Romans set up camp because of the easy river crossing and the brine ponds. They called it Condate, (which means confluence, in this case of the rivers Dane and Weaver). Salt/saline was a valuable commodity to them, there’s even some thought that the word Salary derives from the latin Saline. Lead pans used for salt evaporation have been found in local archeological digs. Another clue to its history is Watling Street, the long Roman M1, passes through Northwich.
The Romans left and during medieval times the town became known as Northwich, “wich” being the term given to places associated with salt production. In 1670 the Smith-Barrys of Marbury Hall discovered rock salt underground when they were looking to further their fortune with coal, so changed their business plan and salt mining began.

White coal


However in the late 1800s it became uneconomic to physically mine salt so production was changed to pumping water into the mines to create brine, which was then pumped back out and evaporated much like the canny Romans had done, except on a much much larger scale. It didn’t take long though for the consequences of the mining made themselves known.
Rock salt mines leave 30% behind to create structural support pillars. However, pumping water into the mines caused these structural pillars to dissolve and consequently by the 1880s large parts of Northwich suffered severe subsidence.

Imagine waking up with a bump


Undeterred by their sinking town, those masterful Victorian engineers devised a system to shore up the remaining buildings and rebuilt a town full of mock Tudor buildings, hence the dates that caused us such confusion originally. Although the mechanics can’t be seen a lot of the high street buildings have steel supports which could be jacked up to relevel buildings that were collapsing. In recent years the mines have been backfilled to prevent further problems.

Necessity the mother of invention


Of course there’s a lot more to Northwich than salt. The by-products led scientists to create new products. ICI, the Imperial Chemical Industries was the amalgamation of three companies in 1926. Polythene was created here in 1933. A mixed blessing in this age of environmental awareness.

The Winnington ICI plant opposite the Anderton boat lift

Northwich however doesn’t present itself as an industrial wasteland. The mining subsidence has allowed the creation of naturalized open land and flashes, which the community can enjoy.

Neumann’s flashes

Again, we’ve been hampered by Covid from exploring inside the buildings as we’d choose, but much as we’d have preffered not to spend a few weeks here, Northwich hasn’t been such a bad place to break down.

There loads of interesting facts about the salt industry in the Lion Salt works, I hope my salty tale has whet your appetite to stop off here to discover more, I’ll share our visit to the other museum, The Lion Salt works in my next post.

Up the creek without a paddle

Oh no, little did we know what was to befall us. After the excitement and novelty of using the Anderton Boat lift, we moored for the night on the floating pontoons at Barons Quay, Northwich. The town on one side and the tranquillity of Furey Woods on the offside. The next morning we set off downstream towards Winsford, end of the Weaver navigation for narrowboaters. Having painstakingly set up our VHF radio so we could call ahead to alert the lockies, like we’d done for previous manned river locks, we realised it wouldn’t be necessary on the Weaver as CRT has decreed that due to Covid, the locks will only be operated on alternate days at fixed times, on a first come first served basis. With a pair of lockies driving between locks. We’re not impressed by this, but it is what it is, at least we were cruising. So with the paraphernalia stowed away, but still wearing our life jackets off we set. Hunts lock is only 10 minutes cruise from Northwich We were the only boat waiting to go up but there were already 8 waiting to come back down. We didn’t rush because we knew had plenty of time to get to to the next lock at Vale Royal, before the lockies arrived.

Leaving Hunts lock to enjoy a peaceful days cruise downstream


With generator running to charge our batteries, we set off enjoying the wide water and spotting fishermen nestled amongst the wooded bank. We’d enjoyed our Sunday morning cooked breakfast and the aroma of bacon still lingered in the galley. All was well with the world…. when a look of concern flickered across Eric’s face, “what’s that smell, something’s burning….” As I reported the cooker was switched of, the concern turned to panic as Eric realised it was an electrical burning that he could smell, it had to be the generator, thrusting the tiller into my hand he leapt into action to turn it off at the fuel shut off point.
Being on an unfamiliar tree lined river meant that we couldn’t just moor up on the bank to investigate, but at least we still had power to cruise. And after a moments quick thinking we decided to turn around and head straight back through Hunts lock, catching the lockies still working the 8 boats down that we had left behind. That caused a bit of amusement, to them, not us, we’d only cruised for 10 minutes and we were still bewildered and shocked at what could potentially have been very dangerous if Eric hadn’t caught it in time before it caught fire. Back in Northwich I was able to phone the marina and negotiate an overnight mooring with the safety of shore power.
We knew it was serious when nothing Eric did could spark life back into it. “It” being a good quality, reliable, reasonably new, low use 11kw generator. Most boaters don’t have need for such a large built in geni such as ours but being an electric boat we run the geni about 5 to 7 hours per week to charge our batteries, the batteries that power everything on Firecrest. For us the generator isn’t a luxury, it’s an essential. Everyone popped in with words of advice and encouragement but alas this was a job for the dedicated manufacturers team.

Watching the precarious lift out

I am not going to go into the details of the repair saga, suffice to say that I’ve had time to get to know Northwich quite well, we have made friends, and been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness. And that we have learnt several valuable lessons.

Keep your emergency shut off switches easily accessible at all times, that includes not storing spare ropes and other boat clutter infront of them.
Don’t build your boat around things that might need replacing, having to dismantle the engine bay to get the generator out is difficult, frustrating and annoying.
You can’t cruise a boat when you’ve taken 280kg of generator out. Unbalanced boats don’t draw the water underneath effectively, and you can’t steer straight.
Don’t make too make too many plans when youre a narrowboater, ok we already knew this.
Northwich Quay Marina has been brilliant, Heather the manager has been so helpful with local knowledge and support, but Marina life isn’t for us. We can’t wait to get cruising again, hope it won’t be long now.

Northwich Quay Marina