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
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.
He swam away back to his friends, one of whom was showing him which way to swim
We’re getting used to seeing unusual things on the canal, roundabouts and even penguins
And Middleport pottery upside down
We settled down on the Trent and Mersey at Westport Lake to await our next adventure
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.
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.
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.
I dutifully supported both businesses and came away happy. Leek is a lovely town, full of curiosities character and independent shops and cafes.
We left Froghall basin just after 6 am. Up through the narrow lock.
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.
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.
Our journey took us back under the aqueduct.
And once we had climbed the 3 locks with the lovely cottage
And turned the sharp U Turn junction
We began our trip along the Leek branch, back over the aqueduct looking down on the Froghall branch
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.
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.
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.
So here we stayed for a few days to enjoy the town , and Morrisons.
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 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.
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.