Back tracking through Cheshire

Having reached the end of the canal we were now backtracking, through the basin with Telfords warehouse and Taylor’s Boatyard and the canal link onto the River Dee in Chester.

Telford basin and Taylor’s yard, with the river Dee cut on the right.

Then back up the 3 deep staircase locks. On our we down we had earnt brownie points for working the staircase shuffle, that’s two down and one up, crossing over in the middle. Perfectly doable, but not for the faint hearted. This time we worked on our own, a bit scary in a 30foot deep lock.

Chester deep lock staircase, doing the shuffle

We crept underneath the steep walls with bridges overhead

The bridge to nowhere

We moored overnight in Chester to stock up on groceries but although it’s a beautiful and fascinating city, we were ready to move on. And of course we know there will be more to explore next time. Our goal now was to reach Hurleston junction to turn onto the llangollen canal.

This lock is going to take a long time to fill with a leak like that

It felt good to be back out in the countryside again until we came to the Golden Nook Farm moorings which stretch further than the eye can see, probably for 2 miles, and 2 miles of enforced tick over feels incredibly tedious.

Mile after mile of moored boats

But hey, it is what it is and at least the canal isn’t full of weed. And we were rewarded with another glorious sky at our mooring near Beeston

Sunrise at Beeston

We took a few days to get back to the Barbridge junction where the Middlewich branch joins the main line

Barbridge junction with the Middlewich branch

before we were passing under another Bridge 100.

Bridge 100 Shropshire union canal

We’re all going to the zoo together

When we set out on our life afloat in 2017, one of the must visit places in our minds was Chester and the zoo. And when we realised just how close we could moor our excitement grew. There is 48 hour visitor mooring at Caughall Bridge 134, just 10 minutes walk from the main entrance.

Caughall bridge, for Chester zoo

And the public bridlepath divides the zoo site into two halves so you can take an evening stroll to get a sneak preview of the milder mannered animals. The elephant house is also open to the public free of charge during opening hours, just in case you needed your appetite whetting.

Free entry into the elephant house.

But that’s enough of my phone camera photography, the following morning we were more or less first in the queue with Eric’s long lens to capture our day. The lockie at Chester staircase, suggested we head straight towards the islands where the tiger lives. We followed his advice, although the zoo guide was a bit more pessimistic….. ooooo you’ll be lucky, he’s well hidden today. Glad we listened to the lockie not the zoo-ie and even more glad there was a thick sheet of glass between us.

Now who’s for lunch

We also struck gold with the tree kangaroo, who apparently rarely comes out to play

The red tree kangeroo

The Black rhino obviously doesn’t “play” and just stood and stared at us.

Black rhino

One of the things we enjoyed about Chester zoo were the number of “houses” that are home to free flying birds

Chestnut backed thrush

The rich planting made it feel like We were trekking through exotic forest, we had to stop and say hello to this magnificent rooster who is a red jungle fowl, the Adam to all our domesticated chickens

Red jungle fowl

Some creatures were much harder to find, the cheetahs were obviously having a duvet day, but some were hiding in plain sight.

How many can you see?

But the chameleon had a hard choice, blend with the tree or background

Spot the camouflaged chameleon

Thankfully the Jaguars were spotted and weren’t roaming the car park

South American Jaguar

But the black panther-who is actually just a jaguar with a black coat, was patrolling his grounds

the black panther

We tried to pick up a penguin

Diving penguins

But I changed my mind and decided what I really wanted was a baby elephant

Indian Elephant

Sadly I’m not sure it would fit on the boat with its mum. We could have stayed at the zoo until 5pm but after 6 hours we had walked our socks off, seen far more amazing creatures than I have shared with you.

the orangutan were hilarious and very cute, they certainly knew when it was time to chill out

The laid back orangutans

and the lions were basking amongst their savannah. And we were also ready for to sit down. Yes we both have mixed feelings about keeping animals in captivity, and who are we to recognise if an animal is happy or not,

An Asian Lioness

but as far as Chester zoo goes, we had a great day, and in my simple mind I think most of the animals were enjoying life as well.

Ps we think there are 3 leaf insects in the photo

Ellesmere Port

Having got to Chester, we just had to complete the journey to the end of the line at Ellesmere Port. Back in the 1790s, engineers had a similar idea when they wanted to create a waterway which would connect the Mersey and the Severn. However disagreements, rising costs and falling traffic needs meant that the full route was never completed, and instead of being the Ellesmere canal, this section earnt the nickname of the most unsuccessful canal. Nowadays however it is a interesting change from the rest of the Shroppie. Much much quieter than the run into Chester, floating weed replacing hire boats as the main obstacle

Weedy waters

It would have caused havoc if the weed had got wrapped around the prop so we were going extra slowly, so the locals didn’t really need it keep such a close eye on us, cause we weren’t going to trigger this speed camera

Smile you’re on camera

But apart from the weed it was ok to cruise along, and we found some lovely mooring places

No weed here

At Ellesmere Port , where the Shroppie, Manchester Ship canal , Mersey all come together the Canal and River trust have utilised the old wharf buildings to create a fantastic museum

The incline plane down to the Manchester Ship canal

It showcases canal history, how times have changed. When families worked the canals instead of mooching about like we do, they lived in a fraction of the space we have, with one tiny cabin for the whole family to cook, eat and sleep in, and moving from first to last light every day.

I’m glad we have so much space on Fircrest

It brings a new meaning to WFH(working from home)

No room for a dishwasher

And they were no less proud of their homes. A tradition barge would have been beautifully decorated with ornate paintwork of roses and castles, crochet trim and polished brass.

What a beautiful boat

The horses would also have had crocheted fly protectors and painted tack. But I don’t think they would have had a whole granny square coat like this one.

Meet Rainbow, the granny square horse

Of course not all narrowboats were how we imagine them with our rose tinted glasses. The first commercial canal was the Bridgewater canal , servicing the coal mines at Worsley. These were known as Stavationers, because the internal ribbing looked like a starving persons ribs.

A Stavationer coal boat

And the wide beam boats often did shorter journeys so didn’t all have living quarters. The site at Ellesmere Port was not only a wharf for goods ferried across the Mersey, but it was the site of the local gas works, where coal was burnt to produce Town gas. One of the buildings is dedicated to some magnificent old engines and we were lucky to get a guide who talked us through the machinery.

Theres a machine for everything

The entry ticket to the museum is valid for a whole year, which is a good thing because there is so much to see and too much to absorb in a single visit. But the day we visited felt like November not September and we got our wires crossed about what we both wanted to do, so didn’t stop overnight as we could and should have done. And of course once we had left and moored up the weather improved.

No more rain

I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to this museum for all boaters. Just don’t cycle to it along the Towpath.

Training in Chester

We made good use of our stay in Chester, so much to see and do, all within easy walking distance. The Cathedral was playing host to a model railway display which proved a big draw, not so much the layout of the track but how the circuitry behind the scenes enabled the movement of the trains around it. The track was built by the music producer Pete Waterman, and he was on hand to chat very knowledgably about the set up.

Now that’s some model railway

Whilst Eric was chatting to Pete and the engineers I wandered around the beautiful building and came across a scale model of the Cathedral being built out of Lego

The Lego cathedral

For a fundraising pound I could purchase a brick and add it to the structure. My dad would have been proud of me, for he was a builder and back in the 70’s our family spent a couple of years abroad whilst he built a church. He’ll be looking down from heaven laughing cause I’ve now helped build a cathedral.

Chester Cathedral

I’m not sure the 12th century stone masons would appreciate my efforts as much as I appreciate theirs. I took full advantage of being moored 5 minutes walk from such a magnificent building, and the choristers were just back from their summer break. Like many people, we haven’t been able to worship inside a church for so long, that it was a very emotional moment when the bells rang out on the Sunday morning and we were able to attend the service. Ironically the last time we were in a church was in February 2020 when we went to Liverpool cathedral. The Cathedral isn’t the only place in Chester to offer spiritual sanctuary. The StoryHouse is a theatre, library and creative communal. Well worth a visit if you’d had your fill of old buildings.

The storyhouse

Chester is the end of the line on Mersey rail system so I hopped across the water and met up with my Aunty, we had lunch in the John Lewis restaurant where I could just about look onto the waterfront where we spent 8 months last year.

Looking over the Liverpool link canal and the Mersey

On the way to the station I came across a full size gable end mural celebrating Chester’s Brook street heritage. In the 1980s regeneration replaced demolition for these simple streets that belonged to the working classes, and ten years ago this mural was commissioned to celebrate this vibrant community. Its worth leaving the grandeur of the city centre to stand and stare, and if you’re lucky to chat to someone who knows the stories.

Brook street mural by Steve Drossle

Chester train station has good connections so I also took advantage of being able to get up to the Lake District to see Mum, it was the Westmoreland County show week and the weather was good so we had a lovely few days together.

We know how to have a good time

The train journey back to firecrest was amusing, I felt very underdressed in my comfortable shoes and snug fleece, I thought there must be a business conference going on, but then I realised the women were all in heels and hats. Of course it was race day. It wasn’t the trains going round a circular track but the horses. Part of me would love to go, but if I started drinking champagne at 11am, I’d be asleep before the first race.

Chester race course from the wall
Inspiration from the storyhouse

King Charle’s Chester

We took a few more days to cruise up into Chester, stopping under the Egg bridge at Waverly and outside the Cheshire Cat, but eventually found ourselves the perfect mooring in King Charles’s garden.

King Charles’s tower

The early morning golden sunshine lit up his tower on the Roman wall filling us with a sense of adventure as we explored the city. It is suggested that during the first English Civil war (1642-1646) this is where Charles I stood and watched his soldiers being defeated at the Battle of Rowton Heath. Personally I think he was enjoying looking at the narrowboats moored below, until Eric pointed out that he might have been plotting the route but the canal wasn’t actually built until the 1770’s.

Looking down into “our” garden

Chester has a fascinating history, far too complex for me to do justice to. However it’s proximity to the River Dee made it ideal for the Romans to establish it as a major fortress between England and Wales. They named it Deva Vitrix , and built the original wall. The Anglo-Saxons maintained, repaired and strengthened the wall to help defend against the marauding Danes. And it continued to protect its residents until the disastrous 16 month siege in 1645 when the Royalists fell to the parliamentarians. Chester then realised it was more profitable to welcome visitors, both traders and tourists, and the wall became a 2 mile circular pedestrian thoroughfare.

Eric the gladiator

Until the 1800’s Chester had thrived as an inland port, and although hard to imagine now, taking some quite big ships on the River Dee.

The River Dee

Sadly or fortuitously -I would say the latter, the combination of the River Dee silting up and Liverpool being able to take the bigger ships on the Mersey, the port faded away. But the local entrepreneurs realised that a canal could help maintain trade links both onto the Dee and the Mersey.

Is it a most or a canal?

Beside the canal, one of the highlights of the city, is the stunning architecture. Many of the original Tudor buildings remain, but the spectacular city centre is predominantly Victorian. We shouldn’t complain because we fall into this catergory but they are a significant draw for the tourists making it a strangely busy place to be. Both Eric and I were content just to wander around looking up and all the intricate wooden carvings, and the unique balcony walkways,

Waltons jewellers and the Chester cross

and at the same time looking down to the Roman ruins

What remains of the Roman bath houses

Luckily for us the mooring below the wall is 14 day so we had plenty of time to explore.

The Eastgate clock tower

Climbing the castles

Although we have descended a few locks, with the exception of one or two comical rocky outcrops this part of the Cheshire plain is fairly flat. But if you’re going to build a defensive castle where better to put it than the local view point. And where there’s a hill, we’re not the only ones take advantage to climb it.
Beeston castle dominates the skyline along this section of the canal and its an easy walk from the Shady Oak moorings. So after an enjoyable afternoon with our new friends, when we woke the next morning to a day promising to be a lot cooler we decided to stay put and explore on foot.

A promising morning

Beeston castle is now owned by English Heritage and today it was over run with marauding children attired in printed chain mail tabards, brandishing wooden swords. But back in the day, in the 1220s, Ranulf de Blondeville, the 6th Earl of Chester, returned from the real crusades to built this castle. It was never a royal residence but Henry III used it to keep Welsh prisoner of war, when the English and Welsh weren’t quite so amicable.
In 1394, it was rumoured that rumoured that Richard II hid his royal wealth in the grounds of Beeston castle, but did so rather too well for it still hasn’t been found. We kept our eyes open, but we couldn’t find it either.

Beeston castle

Whilst we were searching for the treasure, we realised we were also within walking distance of Peckforton castle on the neighbouring big rock. So we continued exploring and enjoying the views. I’m fairly sure we could see Mow Cop, that we climbed several weeks ago from the Macclesfield canal, and we definitely could see Liverpool’s cathedrals and the Welsh hills. The cloud cover made photographs pointless.

Peckforton castle

Peckforton castle looks medieval but was actually built in Victorian times, by the eccentric Tollemarsh family. Nowadays it is a fancy hotel and wedding venue. We weren’t invited to stay but never the less it was a good walk.

The straight path home

And the following morning we woke to blue skies and another perfect cruising day.

A perfect day to cruise

Tossing the coin, to the left or right?

To the right, we both agreed, lets go to Chester.

Onto the main line, Shropshire union canal

So off we set, travelling northwestish, along the Shropshire Union main line. We weren’t planning to travel far on this first section, because we had heard good things about the “cheese factory” at Calverly. And we were lucky to get a mooring right next to it.

It would have been easy to miss and although there was a short stay 2 hour mooring, it was occupied. Some of the gardens backing onto the towpath, immediately before had boat names and lengths attached to their fences, yet there wasn’t any official CRT signage and not a single boat in sight. We chose an unreserved length, the owners saw us arrive and didn’t say anything so we weighed up the pros and cons and decided that the home owners were probably just trying to deter potential noise at the bottom of their gardens by laying claim to “their bit”. We’d have moved if asked. We stocked up on some Firey Dragon Cheddar and enjoyed a peaceful night there, but the cheese and cafe weren’t quite as “artisan” as I’d hoped.

Calverly Mill cheese factory

Continuing our journey, we had to start working our way through double locks, but the canal is a hive of activity right now and it didn’t take us long to team up and share the load.

Tilstone lock

It didn’t take me long to spot the little round building alongside Tilstone lock. I’ve not yet been able to uncover a confirmed correct purpose of these buildings but the general opinion is that they were a boaters/lock keepers shelter. And one explanation that I like is that the boats carrying explosives for the mining were not allowed any flame on board, so their boats would be cold and dark. These little round houses had a fire so would be a place to warm up, make a hot meal. Fortunately the end of August We were more in need of a cool pint than a warm hot pot. Another unusual feature on this stretch of canal is the Beeston Iron Lock.

Beeston Iron Lock

Most locks are lined with stone but ground structure made it unstable so this one is lined with iron, but even now it is need if constant care, the sides have bowed inwards meaning you can no longer share, for fear of getting stuck when it’s emptied. We caught up with our new friends at the Shady Oak and settled in for an afternoon in the pub and an evening enjoying the sunset.

Looking towards the Shady Oak

Branching out, waters new

We love taking Firecrest onto waters new, and we had no idea what a lovely stretch we were joining.

Starting on the Middlewood branch

The Middlewich branch is a 10 mile route that joins the Shropshire Union canal to the Trent and Mersey Canal. We started to look for an overnight mooring half way along but got caught by infamous “Shroppie shelf”. This is concrete ledge about a foot below the surface, which makes mooring difficult. The small tyres that we use as fenders aren’t quite big enough to stop us being bashed against the edge if (when) boats cruise past too fast. However, there’s some beautiful scenery and we managed to get in near to Stanley s bridge below Minshul lock.

A perfect cruise

One of the things that makes me happy on the canals is looking at the worn stone steps at the locks and imagining the history. How many feet have trudged up and down.

Well worn steps

But I doubt the working boats would have had to queue like we did at Minshul Lock. When we arrived, we were number 8 waiting to ascend,

Eric, making good use of the long wait to polish the brass port holes, (we have to maintain Braidbar’s reputation )

An hour and a half later, when our turn finally arrived, we had one side of very well polished brass port holes, and there were at least 10 more boats behind us. I don’t know how many more were beyond the bridge, I couldn’t see that far. Yet very few boats waiting to descend.

Now that’s what I call queuing for a lock

I was surprised at how few boaters joined in to help working each other through. Ok I don’t expect boat number 10 to leap into action, but you would think that by the time you are 2 or 3 from the from of the queue, it would be to your advantage to help. So I wasn’t very impressed having assisted several boats myself, by the time our turn came I had to set the lock and open both gates myself. My ladylike decorum was put to one side and I yelled down for some assistance, which to be fair did come running. Many hands make light work, and its far more fun chatting and encouraging each other. Less than a mile and a half on, the following lock was at above Venitian marina, which had the benefit of 2 volockies. But even so we had had enough by then and took advantage of the pleasant visitor moorings.

Venetian visitor moorings

And woke the following morning ready to move onto the Shroppie

Blink and you’ll miss it

Blink and you’ll miss it, The Wardle canal is shortest canal on the system. In the time it took for me to walk the whole length of this canal, Eric exited Kings Lock on the Trent and Mersey, waited for the oncoming boat to emerge from under bridge 168 at Middlewich junction, before arriving in Wardle lock, ready for me to lock up. And that was it. All 154 feet /47m of it.

And that’s it. The Wardle canal

Wardle canal was built in 1829 by the Trent and Mersey Canal authority in order to exercise that authority over the middlewich branch, and Shropshire union. Wardle lock is affectionately know as Maureen’s lock because a boatwoman called Maureen lived in the lock keepers cottage and took great pleasure in helping boats up and down. But we had no time to dwardle through Wardle, we were travelling at the height of holiday hire season, there were so many boats about I forgot to take a snap of her commemorative plaque.

Next stop the middlewich branch.

Leaving Wardle lock and the Wardle canal

Meanwhile in Middlewich

After a day off, we completed 4 more of the heartbreak hill locks to moor up on the wides above Kings Lock in Middlewich.

Kings Lock visitor mooring

A convenient but noisy mooring as the busy A533 runs right alongside, but the neighbours were friendly, and liked to pop in for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea dinner and supper and snacks inbetween.

Please feed us

And the early mornings were idylically peaceful, especially if you’re travelling by hot air balloon

What a glorious morning to take a balloon flight

Middlewich itself is a busy little place, convenient for boaters as it has supermarkets and services, and a very interesting looking Italian restaurant, that used to be a cinema.

The middlewich Alhambra

Historically, the Roman’s valued it for its salt pan, (as most towns ending in a “wich” have a salt based heritage.) And it is the middle of the 3 Cheshire salt towns of Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich. Nowadays its busy canal junction is the main attraction. We sat out the weekend’s heavy rain and set off on Monday morning, Kings Lock being the last in our descent of Heartbreak Hill.

The last lock of Heartbreak hill