Tomato Soup, anyone?

We were in for a treat, our son Tim had the opportunity to join us for a few days. Ironically the last time we saw him was 8 months ago when he met us at Kidsgrove to travel south. Today he was arriving by bike so we booked our passage through the Harecastle tunnel for an afternoon transit. We said our goodbyes to Westport Lake, (built by the Victorians after a mine collapse)

Westport Lake

And set off to wait for him at the south portal. The original Harecastle tunnel was built by James Brindley and completed in 1777 but it was constantly beset by problems. I’m sure the original bargees didn’t like it as it would take them over three hours to leg through the 2630m. They would lie on their backs on the roof of their boats and walk sideways along the walls, not easy and hard work. The children walked the horses over the hill on the aptly named Boathorse Road. 50 years later Thomas Telford built a second, bigger tunnel that included a towpath, which greatly reduced transit time. But it was still a difficult tunnel to pass through. In the 1970’s the Towpath was removed, and now apart from it being long cold and drippy, it’s fairly straightforward. There is an interesting page on Wikipedia about the two tunnels.

The old 1770’s and the new, 1820’s.

Although there’s a booking system in place, the tunnel keepers seem to exercise a degree of common sense and as Tim arrived earlier than expected we joined the last morning convoy. We dutifully paid our respects to the boater who didn’t obey the rules.

Mr Bones looking a bit shaky today

And emerged after about 45 minutes, in time for a bowl of tomato soup for lunch.

Happy to see daylight again on the north side of the tunnel

Ok I’m only joking, the canal isn’t really full of tomato soup, it’s the iron ore deposits leaking out of the older tunnel that discolour the water here. It always feels a bit chaotic around Kidsgrove, there are excited boaters waiting to use the tunnel, a lot of long term moorings, and bends and bridges and junctions to negotiate. But we were following the signs and headed south onto the Hall Green Branch on the Macclesfield Canal

We’ll be heading towards Whaley Bridge

Within half a mile we felt like we had emerged into a different world as the Hall Green Branch crosses over the Trent and Mersey on an aqueduct,

Looking down from the aqueduct

and we arrived at the Stop lock. This was a good one for Tim to practice on as the difference is only 6 inches. In the days when companies owned individual canals stop locks were put in place to force the boaters to stop and pay their dues.

We had to look hard to decide whether we were going up or down this lock.

3 happy boaters heading north on the Macclesfield Canal

Tim Eric and Cheryl


The geese came to see us off as we left Leek to retrace the route back to Etruria. We went back through the tall tunnel

North portal Leek tunnel

I had a bit of scary moment at the Endon Services, when the door of the Elsan drain slammed shut on me and I couldn’t get out. Of course my phone was inside the boat so the only thing to do was to shout for help. And if Eric was inside Firecrest, I couldn’t guarantee he’d hear me. So I was extremely grateful that not only did he come to my rescue but 2 other boaters also came running. If either of you are reading this, please know how much your willingness to come to my assistance means to me. Having been rescued myself, it was time to become the rescuers ourselves. We came across z duck tangled up in fishing line. We were able to cut home free and bring him into the boat whilst we unwrapped him.

Plum sauce or freedom

He swam away back to his friends, one of whom was showing him which way to swim

Follow the arrow

We’re getting used to seeing unusual things on the canal, roundabouts and even penguins

Ok not a real penguin

Giant dragonflies

And Middleport pottery upside down

On reflection, it’s still fascinating

We settled down on the Trent and Mersey at Westport Lake to await our next adventure

Westport Lake A perfect place to spend the evening

A little bit about Leek

Looking back towards Leek tunnel

The Caldon canal has an arm that used to go into Leek but sadly before restoration occurred the last mile or so was filled in and reclaimed to build an industrial estate. When I tried to find out a bit of Leeks history online neither its wiki page or the “visit Leek” page mention the close proximity of canal. However as a boater Leek is a destination not to be overlooked. Admittedly it’s a bit of an uphill slog when the sun’s shining, but after 25 minutes you are rewarded with a fascinating market town. Full of interesting architecture.

Perhaps not quite as well maintained as it should be.

Thanks to the precautions we’re all having to take we didn’t get to visit the Brindley Museum. In the late 18th century local man James Brindley set up his millwright business here, before he went on to engineer canals. But fellow boaters have told me it’s well worth it, and of course we have to leave something to do next time….Eric took the opportunity to do some work on the boat whilst I continued exploring the town.

And Leek has not one but two LYS. (That’s a Local Yarn Shop to the uninitiated) the first Bibelot, doesn’t carry a huge selection, but has a lovely haberdashery, if only I had a sewing machine on board.

The fancy black and white, is now a Wetherspoons, Bibelot is next door

And the second is called Love my socks which yes as you’ve guessed specialises in all things socky, which is ok by me as I love knitting socks.

Love me socks

I dutifully supported both businesses and came away happy. Leek is a lovely town, full of curiosities character and independent shops and cafes.

Getliffes yard

And the mooring was pretty too.

We’re going to Leek

We left Froghall basin just after 6 am. Up through the narrow lock.

6am locking, too early for my liking

Athough this time it took a while to fill the water tank, going through the tunnel early reduced the risk of needing to pass oncoming boats in the narrows. It paid dividends, the journey felt surreal, it was just us and the birds.

No one around but us and the birds

Mind you those birds seemed glad of the company. I’d got off the boat to work one of the locks and before we knew it they were hitching a ride. Ducks are usually quite skittish and don’t hang around us humans, unless we have a loaf of bread with us, so it was quite amusing that they stayed on board for a good 5 minutes.

Dropping by to say hello

Our journey took us back under the aqueduct.

Leek Aqueduct

And once we had climbed the 3 locks with the lovely cottage

Postcard perfect

And turned the sharp U Turn junction

Gently does it

We began our trip along the Leek branch, back over the aqueduct looking down on the Froghall branch

Ahoy down there

It was a pleasant journey, quite different to the Froghall branch, lots of very desirable houses with garden mooring. We had been warned that the Leek tunnel was also difficult, but we’re not sure why. Enough room to swing the proverbial cat.

No worries there, mate

Sadly when the canals were abandoned , someone had the bright idea to reclaim the land and built an industrial unit over the last half mile that would have taken boats right into this lovely historic town. So the canal peeters out Leaving just a shallow 40′ winding hole.

Pretty, but nowhere else to go

Luckily though, there is good mooring for about 6 boats after the last full size winding hole, even though you have to reverse into it.

Moor here, it’s about 20 minutes walk into town.

So here we stayed for a few days to enjoy the town , and Morrisons.

Bathing in the Basin

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.

Strolling through bluebell woods

And we discovered muscles that we didn’t know existed as we climbed up to the tops.

Looking back down into the Valley below

The bluebells and wild garlic were just coming to the end of their season but still pretty enough to create a blue carpet.

More bluebells

Ox eye daisies and cow parsley were taking over as flowers of the month.

Another of my favourites, ox eye daisies

And this hill country is definitely cow country, where the teenage cows were full of springtime curiosity

Just want to say hello

All this sunshine, and country walking made us feel like we were on holiday, and of course all these cows meant real dairy icecream

Lucy’s honesty shed, has a fridge a freezer and a shelf,

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

That looks narrow

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.

Even narrower

And out the other side, ok this time we did get a tiny scrape on our handrail, but nothing offensive

Made it

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.

Don’t try taking your boat through this one

The Froghall tunnel, Did we make 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 flint Mill profile gauge

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.

Where’s the tunnel?

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.

Is that an inch or a centimetre to spare

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.

Glad it is only 70m long

Once out the other side, I hopped off onto the Towpath because again the tunnel exit was angled against the channel.

Im ok, what about you

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’m sure he hair before he went in

I hauled us around the bend and we looked back with a huge sigh of relief and an even bigger sense of achievement.

The east portal

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.

Shhhh, don’t tell anyone about this place

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.

A true honey pot

The last 5 miles

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 Churnet section

The river section ends at the Consall lime kilns, where there is a water point.

The Consall Lime Kilns

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.

Breath in, hope no one is coming the other way

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.

The Churnet Steam railway line

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.

Dire warnings

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

Canal? where’s the canal?

The little plastic cruiser moored West of Cherry Eye bridge caused us a bit of alarm,

Cherry Eye bridge

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 …..

Cheddleton Flint Mill

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.

George and Helen, the two wheels

The opening times are a bit sketchy right now, but the wheels are turning when there are volunteers on site

Inside the mill

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 .

Flint grinding pit

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”

This engine was gifted to the site, but it can’t be given back, without demolishing the walls around it

Or housed in it’s original place

One of the smaller grinders outside

The site includes several buildings, including the Miller’s cottage. His daughter lived here until she died in her 90’s

Hard to imagine some homes have less space than we do.

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.

Should we go left or right. Hazelhurst Junction.

Decisions decisions, to the left would take us to Froghall, to the right we’d be going to Leek.

Go this way, I’ve set the lock

The canal divides at this point, and as no boat wants to leak we continued to Froghall.

Good choice

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.

House envy

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.

There’s a lot of floating reed clumps, at least this one won’t foul the lock

So we could continue our journey underneath the Hazelhurst aqueduct, that carries the Leek arm.

1831 aqueduct

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.

Cruising the Caldon

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.

James Brindley

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.

Etruria 1 Uttoxeter 22

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 Johnson Brothers

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.

The bandstand in Hanley park

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.

Hayfever heaven

Our cruising took us on a twisting windy route through bluebell woods

Beautiful bluebells

And buttercup meadows

Moored at Endon

Some beautiful old stone bridges

Bridge 32

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.

I hate to think what it did to their boat

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.

Hope they aren’t expecting heavy traffic

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.

This is the life, who needs to go abroad for a holiday