Joined by 2 more boats, we took a few days to enjoy the tranquility of Froghall basin. Surrounded by steep sided wooded valleys made for a complete change of scenery to what we’ve become familiar with along our flat towpaths.
And we discovered muscles that we didn’t know existed as we climbed up to the tops.
The bluebells and wild garlic were just coming to the end of their season but still pretty enough to create a blue carpet.
Ox eye daisies and cow parsley were taking over as flowers of the month.
And this hill country is definitely cow country, where the teenage cows were full of springtime curiosity
All this sunshine, and country walking made us feel like we were on holiday, and of course all these cows meant real dairy icecream
Being in such an isolated spot meant that the nearest local shop was a bit of a hike, and uphill so despite the tardis like Londis and first class butchers at Ipstones, meant that needed to move on after a few days.
Back through the narrow lock, stopping to fill up with water
And the even narrower tunnel, although this time, we had had chance to study the angles and Eric manouvered us in without me having to bow haul us to the entrance.
And out the other side, ok this time we did get a tiny scrape on our handrail, but nothing offensive
We have to say our sense of achievement and satisfaction at making this journey just for the sheer enjoyment of it has been huge. It’s not a canal everyone would enjoy, it has some very narrow sections that make 2 way traffic challenging to say the least. And the tunnel dimensions exclude a lot of boats, but we would say to anyone thinking of doing it, just take it very slowly, and use your common sense, e.g. if you don’t fit through the profile don’t do it.
Well of course we did. I was convinced we wouldn’t until we exited Flint Mill lock, under the profile guide, giving Eric even more ammunition to tease me about my cautious approach to cruising.
The last 100m or so before the tunnel, opens into a small non discript mooring area with winding for a 65′ boat. However the tunnel entrance itself is hidden around a 90 degree angle to the channel which only adds to the anxiety. (Similar to the north portal of the Harecastle tunnel, only smaller) We opted to bow haul the boat around the final bend to give Eric the best chance of threading this particular needle.
I positioned myself on the bow ready to fend off either side as necessary as Eric somehow managed to steer and take photos at the same time.
Once inside he had to crouch down to steer and we could see that the biggest risk to Firecrest was to the paintwork on our hand rails.
A lot of anecdotes we heard suggested that switching off the power and legging it through was a favoured method of transit. However one big advantage of our electric motor is that we can turn our revs right down which allowed us to creep through yet still retain power and the ability to steer. Fortunately unlike a lot of the Caldon, the tunnel is nice and straight on the inside. And it’s only 70m long.
Once out the other side, I hopped off onto the Towpath because again the tunnel exit was angled against the channel.
This isn’t a tunnel for the faint hearted. Take heed of the profile, and the water levels, maximise your ballast, and take it extremely slowly.
I hauled us around the bend and we looked back with a huge sigh of relief and an even bigger sense of achievement.
It’s only a few minutes cruise to the final hurdle. The lock (again at a right angle to the canal) that descends into a small piece of heaven. The Froghall basin.
We found ourselves in a secluded little basin, with 8 pontoons but only one other boat for company, surrounded by trees and wild flowers, the water being clear enough to watch the fishes. And there were some bigguns as well.
But perhaps best of all was Hetty’s tea room right next door. And they serve Icecream and Staffordshire Oat Cakes not on the same plate though.
We left Cheddleton in good spirits for the last 5 miles of navigation on the Froghall branch. Warned that we might not make it through the extremely narrow tunnel, we hadn’t realised just how narrow the rest of the Caldon Canal was. Narrow, but also incredibly beautiful, including a mile or so of gentle river cruising where the canal and river Churnet flow together.
The river section ends at the Consall lime kilns, where there is a water point.
This water point has a phenomenal high pressure, so high that we actually had to turn the tap to half flow so it didn’t burst our expandable hose. For anyone used to CRT water points, you’ll know how often we suffer from the opposite problem, lucky to get a trickle of the wet stuff. But taking advantage of the pressure, and lack of boats waiting, Eric changed the nozzle end so he could wash the side of the boat. Argh, even though he’d put our carefully adapted weighty brass nozzle in the bucket, easily 6 foot from the edge, the high pressure caused the hose to make a spectacular wiggle, which flipped the bucket over and we watched our nozzle fly cartoon style through the air, bash into the side of the boat and sink beyond reach into the murky depths of the canal. We would have given it a full 10 points if we hadn’t been inspecting the paintwork for a new chip and wondering where on earth we’d buy a new brass end in the middle of nowhere. Such is boating life, at least we had a plastic hozelock spare to allow us to fill the tank and maximise our ballast to help us through the tunnel. This little wharf/basin that serviced the lime kilns is also the last full size (70′) winding hole for those unable to complete the journey. Although the last lock containing a tunnel gauge profile is half a mile further on. Being a 60′ boat meant we didn’t have to make the decision whether we could or should risk it just yet. What we hadn’t appreciated was just how narrow the following section of canal would be. I walked ahead to check it was a clear passage.
The canal follows the line of the Churnet Valley Railway, nowadays a heritage line complete with a steam train. We think this sections wins the prize for closest track and canal can actually get, they are practically on top of each other. So much so that the station platform overhangs the canal.
We think this is almost the only time we were glad not to see a steam train running parallel to us, cause it might have been a bit scary. We reached Flint Mill Lock with the warning signs of the imminent tunnel.
We removed our ariels before exiting the lock under the profile gauge. (I fluffed my photos so this shows our entry into the lock on our return)
Holey Moley, we slid under with barely a stroke from the flapping plastic. This bode well for the tunnel, as we had heard conflicting advice about the pessimistic clearance given by the gauge. Greatly encouraged we continued knowing there was a 65′ winding hole we could use, as we disappeared into the tunnel of overhanging trees, blind corners and oddly angled bridges. At one point we thought the Towpath was wider than the canal
The little plastic cruiser moored West of Cherry Eye bridge caused us a bit of alarm,
We were very glad not to meet another narrowboat, as we made our way towards Froghall wharf, the open basin and winding hole just before the tunnel. But would we make it…. To be continued …..
We stummbled upon this gem on our way down the Froghall branch. The Cheddleton Flint Mill is a restored mill that has been on this site for 800 years, although the current buildings are from the industrial revolution when the canal was used for bringing the flint and lime. There are 2 water wheels that are powered by the water race from the river Churnet.
The opening times are a bit sketchy right now, but the wheels are turning when there are volunteers on site
One thing that I appreciated about the work that had been done in creating this heritage site, was the lack of physical barriers between me and the working machinery. I didn’t feel restrained by the Health and Safety elves, but free to exercise my own common sense, knowing not to stick my fingers underneath the grinding wheel .
Over the centuries the mill has ground flour, flint, glass and other things, although mainly products relating to the potteries. The Trust has been gifted various other pieces of machinery over time. So not everything is “original”
Or housed in it’s original place
The site includes several buildings, including the Miller’s cottage. His daughter lived here until she died in her 90’s
Whilst we were poking around the mill we could hear that familiar toot of a steam train, and sure enough the cheddleton heritage station is just a further 10 minutes along the canal. It hadn’t yet reopened to the public but we were able to walk along the platform, they had been working on the engines preparing them for the coming season. We didnt see any of the classic engines, but I imagine the scenery makes for a stunning journey regardless of the train.
Decisions decisions, to the left would take us to Froghall, to the right we’d be going to Leek.
The canal divides at this point, and as no boat wants to leak we continued to Froghall.
This has to be one of the prettiest lock settings, with the 1842 iron bridge and the lock cottage, not to mention the stunning scenery all around.
But just in case you think I had all the hard work to do, as we worked through the Hazelhurst flight of 3 locks, one of the gates got jammed with a floating island of weed. And it took both of us a lot of effort to haul it out.
So we could continue our journey underneath the Hazelhurst aqueduct, that carries the Leek arm.
The Leek arm was added after much deliberation and opposition from conflicting commercial bodies, at one stage a direct route from Leek to Marple had been proposed -wouldn’t that have made an attractive canal to cruise now. The screenshot taken from our waterway routes maps shows the earlier route to Froghall. https://www.waterwayroutes.co.uk/blog/
For the first time in nearly a year we are cruising on new territory for Firecrest. Now that we don’t have any deadlines or commitments to meet, we are free to meander and explore again. It feels a bit like we are going on holiday, which is saying something, as a lot of people think life on a narrowboat is one long holiday. The Caldon Canal joins the Trent and Mersey at Etruria Junction. And is marked by a statue of James Brindley the engineer responsible for building of this Canal.
The potteries needed lime for their kilns, and a canal was the most efficient way to transport it from the quarries at Caldon Low, (which is the area to the east of Froghall). The proprieters borrowed some £25000 and completed it in 1778. The milemarkers measure all the way to Uttoxeter. But the section between Froghall and Uttoxeter only opened in 1811 and was closed within 40 years in order to built a rail track along it’s route.
The first few miles of the Caldon pass through the outskirts of Stoke, where the 2 bottle kilns from the Johnson Brothers pottery have been preserved as part of a modern residential area.
The canal also runs through the centre of a very attractive Victorian park, complete with bandstands and fountains. You’d think it would be an idyllic place to moor for the night but a local boater warned us against it.
But it wasn’t long before we were out in the open country side surrounded by noisy birdsong. We couldn’t resist going for an evening stroll along the disused railway through the cow parsley, it felt like we were in a different world after the expanse of the Trent and Mersey.
Our cruising took us on a twisting windy route through bluebell woods
And buttercup meadows
Some beautiful old stone bridges
And some frustratingly awkward angled bridges that you didn’t stand a chance of getting through unscathed if you met someone intent of getting to their destination.
There were a few swing bridges that still required a bit of effort, but they are so much quicker than the automated ones.
And some that had been partially removed, this one had a central pillar still in the canal, but at least we knew which way to go.
But despite the sections which needed a lot of concentration, this Canal has been a breath of fresh air and a real joy to cruise, made all the more enjoyable by some summer sunshine at long last. And we are in no hurry to complete this journey.
From the south, Stoke on Trent itself isn’t the prettiest of places to cruise into. It suffers from the typical neglected backsides of light industrial units, security fences, barbed wire, graffiti and litter entangled in overgrown vegetation. But it is what it is, and it isn’t the worst we’ve seen. At least here the town planners have realised what an asset the canal can be and the towpath is in good condition.
But there are some major highways that run close by so the mooring is either noisy, undesirable or non existent, and with 5 locks within the centre of town, it means that we have never stopped to explore the centre of Stoke itself. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I took the time to explore, Stoke could be a fascinating place with a strong industrial and creative heritage. However, we carried on cruising until we got to Etruria junction and the canal regains its prominence.
Many of the old wharfs have been repurposed to serve as CRT yards and workshops for the benefit of boaters and gongoozlers alike. And although many of the heritage buildings which were once a hive of activity for the canal traffic have been allowed to fall into disrepair.
At least one gem remains, the Middleport Pottery has thrown open it’s gates to the tourist trade and despite still being a working pottery, it welcomes visitors.
Although we were a bit concerned about it’s health and safety notices warning people to be careful near the canal
The abundance of coal and clay meant that Stoke was ideally placed for entrepreneurs and innovators such as Wedgewood and Spode to create a world famous industry here and why in the mid 1700’s Brindley’s team began to dig the canal where bridge 128 now stands.
100 years after the canal had been in existence Westport Lake was created , although not for the benefit of the local industry, Brownhills Colliery hit the water table and flooded both the mine and surrounding land. Nowadays its a local beauty spot along side the canal.
We were lucky enough to moor opposite the pottery and spent a few days walking around and enjoying the sights. (Middleport have daytime only mooring for visitors)
We would have loved to have done the factory tour, but it is still waiting for it’s release from Covid restrictions. We were allowed to walk around the site though, and it’s very atmospheric.
Most of Stokes bottle kilns have been dismantled now, although some just appear to have been abandoned.
As I looked opposite this decay I wondered if our descendants will feel the same nostalgia for the current factories if they are still standing in 50 years time.
I don’t tend to share about more personal things, but we both feel strongly about this, and now “Mission possible 2” is complete. Both Eric and I have had our second vaccine, 10 weeks after our first in Leicester. We had followed the instructions and booked both at the same time, but when the fresh advice came through to have number 2 at 8 weeks, everything fell into place for us to re book in Stoke, and the even better, the Tunstall centre is within an easy walk from the canal. We did make our nurse laugh when she asked if we had travelled by car, “no we came by boat”
We’re still keen to maintain our social distances and wear our masks, and we’re still keeping shopping trips to a minimum and washing our hands with more zeal than we did 18 months ago. But it is getting harder to remember that we still need to take care.
And here’s a tray of freshly fully cooked scones to celebrate.
Having achieved the first of our commitments by getting the Boat Safety Certificate, it was time to move on to Stoke for “mission possible 2”. But with 4 days to do the 10 miles, we were going to take our time enjoying this bit of canal. We paid our respects to poor Christina Collins, a passenger travelling south, who, in 1830, was “meddled with and murdered” despite having reported her fears to the canal company office in Stone. Her sculpture by the bridge has been cleaned up since we saw her last October.
Stone itself, was a prominent place on this canal when, in 1755, a group of Liverpool merchants and Staffordshire potters, sponsored Thomas Brindley to survey the land with a view to linking the Trent and the Mersey rivers together. However it wasn’t until 1764 when Josiah Wedgewood and his partner Thomas Bently, realised the potential and took the idea forward. In 1766 an act of parliament was passed and the Grand Trunk Canal company was formed. With its headquarters here, the Stone section was opened in 1771. Amusingly, the celebration party proved to be a little too exuberant as £1000 worth of damage was done “by repeated firing of the cannon”. A whole lock and bridge fell in causing CRT to issue a navigation closure notice… (Ok I made up that last bit about CRT)
Despite initial opposition to the canal from packhorse owners and river navigators, Stone grew and thrived bringing a huge economic upturn for the small market town. And not just for the potteries.
After all the rain we’ve had , it looks like summer might be putting in an appearance and it’s a joy to wake up and want to set off cruising
Good bye swans, thanks for having us.
Past the Wedgewood factory, thanking Josiah for his part in getting this Canal built, but not stopping to for a visit this time.
However we did moor up to do some essential shopping at the Trentham Estate, a destination shopping complex incorporated into the Trentham Hall and Gardens. (About a mile’s walk from bridge 106) It’s focus is more on garden centre type concessions, rather than the high street fashion, and we needed a Mountain Warehouse to pick up a replacement pair of shoes for Eric. Footwear sorted we moored for the night at Sideaways, on the long straight section that’s just ripe for development before Stoke. It’s close to the railway and is what we call a functional overnighter. So gave us the breathing space we needed before the final push through the graffiti covered neglect that sadly seems to be the norm on the outskirts of some towns and cities.
However it’s not all bad, someone along the line has realised what an asset a well maintained Towpath is to the community and has given us a warm welcome.
May is the first full month since we increased our
Solar Panel capacity from 640W to 1kW.
May has not been a good month for Solar power but we
still got more than twice the power we used for propulsion from the sun. It is noticeable how much less we need to run
the generator to keep our batteries charged.
It is now quite practical for us to cruise and live on our boat for a whole week without running the generator. Since we cook with an electric oven, electric hob and use an electric kettle, that is impressive.
Don’t tell Cheryl but I now have a cunning plan to add
two more panels bringing our capacity up to 1.5kW so that a greater proportion
of our total electricity usage comes from the sun and we can run out generator
35:41 hours cruising
56 miles covered
13 days cruising, 18 days moored
Genset use 19hrs
Rain – too much ! !
Propulsion 40kWhrs (17%)
Domestic 197kWhrs (83%)
Solar Panels 89kWhrs (38%) (over twice what we used for propulsion)
Genset 148kWhrs (62%)
Power required for propulsion
1,138 watts per hour cruised
725 watts per mile cruised
Note: Cruising time is based on time from unmooring to starting to moor up. It excludes stops for water and fuel, but includes waiting for locks and sitting in locks waiting for them to fill or empty.