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

A lot more locks, descending Heartbreak Hill


11 months ago, (September 2020) we huffed and puffed our way up Heartbreak Hill, which is the affectionate nickname for the 31 locks on the Trent and Mersey canal between Middlewich junction and Kidsgrove.

September 2020

It’s only a 12 mile stretch, the enthusiastic hire boaters can do it in a day and still call it a holiday. We took three days. Since then we travelled down to Northamptonshire, where we overwintered and locked down around Market Harborough whilst we had our hull zinced and blacked, then made our way back up north via Leicester, the start of the Trent and Mersey, with a pleasant detour onto the Caldon, up the Macclesfield, to Whaley Bridge on the Peak Forest and back down onto the Trent and Mersey. Which is approximately 360 miles and 240 locks and according to ACC canal planner can be done in 26 days……

Screenshot of our travels from ACcanal planner

This time we are descending the flight, and not having a deadline, have taken our time. We started at Kidsgrove by refilling the larder at the newly opened and very convenient canal side Lidl.

Ready to empty the trolly in the lock

Although for the first mile we thought we could feast upon tomato soup directly from the canal, perhaps not, who knows what other contaminants are lurking in that iron stained water.

A lock full of tomato soup

Traffic seemed quite heavy on our first day, and we were lucky enough to benefit from some convenient crossovers.

Practicing for Strictly, dancing between locks

We felt quite sorry for the enthusiastic hire boaters, negotiating the queues and etiquette of these locks on a very damp day. Although it was mainly mild drizzle, I got caught out in proper rain shower whilst Eric sheltered below a bridge waiting for me to set the next lock.

Hmmm not our idea of fun

We had had enough after 3 miles and moored up in Rode Heath. Our next day was drier, but this time Eric was suffering from wind…..

Practicing the “Suez manouver”

So after 2 miles we tied up at Hassal Green and enjoyed a pleasant evening accompanied by the constant hum of the nearby M6.

Hassal Green mooring

It might make for a noisy pair of locks but once we were under the bridge the noise quickly settled and we were back in the countryside.

Under the M6

The section to the next obvious mooring (for fickle snails like ourselves) actually feels like the end of the flight, despite there being another 5 to go. Wheelock bottom lock, lock 66 is the last/first of the twinned locks.

Leaving wheelock bottom lock

Over the past 3 days we might not be heart broken, but we had broken the backbone and had completed 26 locks over 7 miles. That called for a treat, aka a fish and chip supper under a pretty sunset.

Wheelock mooring


I had wanted to walk into Sandbach, but the footpath was so overgrown I gave up as not being entirely safe with the wet ground. Instead I walked south to the Wheelock farm shop and stocked up on some local produce, and a Cheshire farm ice cream.

Moving on from the Macc


The last few miles of the Macclesfield Canal take us through Congleton. We used to get tantalising glimpses of the town when we drove up to visit Firecrest in build, but we’ve never actually walked around this little town. The signage from the canal was also intriguing.

Very cosmopolitan


We moored to the north of the town near Stanley’s bridge and walked the mile and a half into the centre.

Congleton town garden


Despite some old timber framed buildings and an attractive town garden, the day was damp and miserable and I wasn’t inspired to spend long exploring. I suspect the town has suffered economically.

But this isn’t a new thing, in 1620 the town was struggling to attract visitors to it’s bear baiting contests. As legend has it, when the town couldn’t find the money to buy a bigger more aggressive beast, they used the funds raised to buy a town bible to buy a bear instead to keep the bear baiting entertainment going. Thankfully they have more respect for their animals nowadays.

Treo

We continued cruising south, under the last of the gorgeous snake bridges so familiar on the Macclesfield Canal. These ingeniously simple designs allows the old horse drawn barges to continue seamlessly when the Towpath changed sides because the horses didn’t need to be unclipped and refastened.

A Macclesfield snake bridge

And one last lock to be tackled at Hall Green. This was originally the end of the Macclesfield Canal, as the mile long Hall Green Branch was built by the Trent and Mersey Canal company in order for them to charge tolls and to retain the water flowing down the Macclesfield Canal. Originally it had two chambers that enabled either side to be the higher or lower level. Many stop locks have been removed from the system, but due to the draft of the Harecastle tunnel and the shallow depth of the Macc the 12 inch drop at Hall Green is one of the nicer locks to work.

Hall Green stop lock

With only a mile to go, we crossed the aqueduct and looked down onto the rusty Trent and Mersey, under bridge 97,

Bridge 96


and onto the Trent and Mersey Canal

And onto the Trent and Mersey Canal

Lots of locks, the Bosley flight

Shortly after leaving Macclesfield we cruised south across Gurnett Aqueduct, looking over you can see the house where James Brindley had served his apprenticeship (and Bryons Lane is a pretty circular walk around to Sutton with a well stocked village shop and tea room worth noting )

Paying Homage to James Brindley

But we weren’t stopping, the clouds were grey and heavy and we wanted to reach the top of the Bosley Flight before they offloaded, which luckily we did, and they did. Thankfully we woke to reasonable sunshine and set off down the flight.

Number 2 of 12

The flight is 12 rural locks, nicely spaced out over a mile, so it usually is a pleasant experience even if it’s hard work. All but the last three were set against us.

10 of 12

And we exited number 12 just 2 hours later.

Made it, 12/12

There’s plenty of mooring at the bottom on the embankment that overlooks the River Dane Valley and the magnificent rail viaduct to the east.

River Dane Valley

And the local lamdmark “The Cloud” to the south, this is the peak that Eric and Tim climbed 2 months ago. I decreed that the Cloud’s cloud would obliterate the view so I would leave it until “next time” before I considered the climb.

The cloudy Cloud

And of course when we woke to a perfect day, we needed to continue cruising.

A cloudless Cloud

To Bollington and beyond

We had the good fortune to be approaching Bollington at the same time as the weather forecast was predicting 4 days of thunderstorms and torrential rain. We had the even better good fortune to find a space on the aqueduct in time for us to hunker down and watch the world go by.

The Bollington Aqueduct and embankment


Bollington is a largely unspoilt little place that grew out of 3 small farming communities into a thriving, but small victorian mill town. Nestled in the foothills of the Pennines, on the edge of the Peak district, the canal straddles the wooded valley of the River Dean on a 60′ high aqueduct and embankment.

Palmerston Street below the canal


Perhaps not the most spectacular on the system, but one of my favourites because there’s mooring and a wide towpath, and an interesting town below to explore.

The Spinners Arms,

We had the added benefit of being joined by Sapphire, another Braidbar boat and it’s always good to share cruising notes, especially over a pint. No wonder it is also known as Happy Valley.

Firecrest and Sapphire

The Macclesfield canal was completed in the 1830’s and provided the incentive for local entrepreneurs to take advantage of the Macclesfield silk and cotton trade. Several mills were built, but only Clarence and Adelphi mills are still standing, both as residential and creative hubs with cafes, perfect for gongoozlers. Bollington seems to attract good food, and the day we arrived we only just missed the Hairy Bikers filming at the Indian Goat for a Christmas special. Needless to say we also had to sample the menu, not once but twice.

The Indian Goat, street food worth having.

To compensate for our excessive gluttony, we also took advantage of some great walking trails. The Middlewood Way, (from Marple to Macclesfield) runs through Bollington, along the disused railway line. Just like the canal, straddling the valley also required some skilled engineering. The west side of town is dominated by a long stretch of arches. The weather was against us completing the full trail although it’s one of Tim’s favourite cycling routes.

The Middlewood Way, above the playground

The other local landmark is known as the White Nancy, found on the Kerridge ridge. It’s a folly built in 1817 to celebrate the victory at the Battle of Waterloo. Apparently it used to have a door into a single room inside, but that’s no longer there. And at certain times of the year, it could well be dressed up as father Christmas, or sporting various other commemorative symbols. One year vandals painted it pink, can’t think why….The views from the top are spectacular, even with the cloud, we could see over to the Welsh hills, Merseyside, and the Peak District. We could even see Sapphire moored on the aqueduct. And we could see the White Nancy from the aqueduct.

The White Nancy

All in all we managed to avoid most of the heavy showers and the canal didn’t quite overflow. We are once again heading south.

Heading south towards Macclesfield, hope the blue sky comes too

Full Steam Ahead

Just south of the Gurnett Aqueduct is the medieval village of Sutton, or to give it it’s formal name, Sutton Lane Ends. It’s only a little place, but has a tardis like village shop and tea room. It’s an easy walk from the canal where there’s some pleasant 14 day mooring just before the aqueduct itself.

Firecrest is the furthest boat in the line

We’re definitely in Braidbar country, seeing several tootling up and down. We’ve have had some lovely conversations and struck up friendships as we’ve discussed batteries and solar panels. This week we found ourselves moored next to Kumpali, one of the newest Braidbars.

Kumpali

Still dancing around the dilemma of social distancing, Paul, Kim Eric and I decided a pint in the pub was the nicest way to pass an hour chatting, so instead of descending the steps to the crowed Kings Head, we strolled across the field to Sutton Hall. A rather grand timber framed house with gardens to match.

Sutton Hall


After a few hours more than we’d intended, we thought it time to return to our boats but found ourselves surrounded by steam driven traction engines.

Some were tractors, there were steam rollers

one thing they all had in common were that they were beautifully polished

And loved by their owners

We would have loved to have found out a bit more about them, but the ale had been flowing and whilst the conversation was amusing and light hearted it was neither repeatable or socially acceptable, even if it did make us laugh.

A good day had by all.

Sutton Hall sheep

Heading into the Cloud


One of the many nice things about the Macclesfield Canal is that all 12 locks are contained over a mile, known as the Bosley flight. Tim didn’t take much persuading to stay on board to help us up, but that did mean we couldn’t hang around Ramsdell. Once we had returned triumphant from our Mow Cop ascent, we cruised on to base camp, to moored overnight at the Dane Aqueduct. Expecting our next exertions to be wielding the windlass, was forgetting that Tim is 30 years younger than us, and when he saw the rocky outcrop across the fields there was no stopping him, “come on Dad, we can be there and back before Mum’s cooked tea….”

Tim and Eric waving from the Cloud


And they were, admittedly a late tea, but I was able to stand on the Towpath and with the help of the binoculars, saw them wave to me. The Cloud, as it is known, is the gritstone quarry which provided the stone to build the locks. There was some debate the next morning whether we should join the caravan heading north. A faulty swing bridge beyond top lock, implied that there would be a backlog of boats unable to move on. But word came down the locks that we should proceed. Some people rely upon pigeon post, here we have goose gossip.

Bottom lock Bosley flight

Due to the on going need for water management, passage on this flight is only permitted between 8 and 1. We assume this is to consolidate the two-way traffic thus reducing the need to set the locks. It suits me just fine, although I imagine it’s frustrating for the boaters with deadlines.

Guess who’s doing all the work


We made it up in good time and found a pleasant mooring.

Top of Bosley flight

After lunch said our farewells to Tim as he set off on his 20 mile bike ride back home.

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.