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.

Up the creek without a paddle

Oh no, little did we know what was to befall us. After the excitement and novelty of using the Anderton Boat lift, we moored for the night on the floating pontoons at Barons Quay, Northwich. The town on one side and the tranquillity of Furey Woods on the offside. The next morning we set off downstream towards Winsford, end of the Weaver navigation for narrowboaters. Having painstakingly set up our VHF radio so we could call ahead to alert the lockies, like we’d done for previous manned river locks, we realised it wouldn’t be necessary on the Weaver as CRT has decreed that due to Covid, the locks will only be operated on alternate days at fixed times, on a first come first served basis. With a pair of lockies driving between locks. We’re not impressed by this, but it is what it is, at least we were cruising. So with the paraphernalia stowed away, but still wearing our life jackets off we set. Hunts lock is only 10 minutes cruise from Northwich We were the only boat waiting to go up but there were already 8 waiting to come back down. We didn’t rush because we knew had plenty of time to get to to the next lock at Vale Royal, before the lockies arrived.

Leaving Hunts lock to enjoy a peaceful days cruise downstream


With generator running to charge our batteries, we set off enjoying the wide water and spotting fishermen nestled amongst the wooded bank. We’d enjoyed our Sunday morning cooked breakfast and the aroma of bacon still lingered in the galley. All was well with the world…. when a look of concern flickered across Eric’s face, “what’s that smell, something’s burning….” As I reported the cooker was switched of, the concern turned to panic as Eric realised it was an electrical burning that he could smell, it had to be the generator, thrusting the tiller into my hand he leapt into action to turn it off at the fuel shut off point.
Being on an unfamiliar tree lined river meant that we couldn’t just moor up on the bank to investigate, but at least we still had power to cruise. And after a moments quick thinking we decided to turn around and head straight back through Hunts lock, catching the lockies still working the 8 boats down that we had left behind. That caused a bit of amusement, to them, not us, we’d only cruised for 10 minutes and we were still bewildered and shocked at what could potentially have been very dangerous if Eric hadn’t caught it in time before it caught fire. Back in Northwich I was able to phone the marina and negotiate an overnight mooring with the safety of shore power.
We knew it was serious when nothing Eric did could spark life back into it. “It” being a good quality, reliable, reasonably new, low use 11kw generator. Most boaters don’t have need for such a large built in geni such as ours but being an electric boat we run the geni about 5 to 7 hours per week to charge our batteries, the batteries that power everything on Firecrest. For us the generator isn’t a luxury, it’s an essential. Everyone popped in with words of advice and encouragement but alas this was a job for the dedicated manufacturers team.

Watching the precarious lift out

I am not going to go into the details of the repair saga, suffice to say that I’ve had time to get to know Northwich quite well, we have made friends, and been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness. And that we have learnt several valuable lessons.

Keep your emergency shut off switches easily accessible at all times, that includes not storing spare ropes and other boat clutter infront of them.
Don’t build your boat around things that might need replacing, having to dismantle the engine bay to get the generator out is difficult, frustrating and annoying.
You can’t cruise a boat when you’ve taken 280kg of generator out. Unbalanced boats don’t draw the water underneath effectively, and you can’t steer straight.
Don’t make too make too many plans when youre a narrowboater, ok we already knew this.
Northwich Quay Marina has been brilliant, Heather the manager has been so helpful with local knowledge and support, but Marina life isn’t for us. We can’t wait to get cruising again, hope it won’t be long now.

Northwich Quay Marina

The Anderton Boat Lift, going down

When we are so close, it would have been wrong not to take this opportunity to enjoy another one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, the Anderton Boat lift. And then spend a few days exploring the River Weaver. But thanks to Covid, everything is running at reduced hours to allow for social distancing, so we enjoyed an extra unplanned night on the 48 hour Anderton Nature Park mooring before we could go down.

The Anderton Nature Park visitor mooring


It was a bit of a grey day when we set off but we’d donned our life jackets and set up the VHF radio so were all set to experience this magnificent Victorian Structure and river life. We paid our fee of £5 and arrived at holding mooring on time. We were greeted by the team, who explained the sequence before being allowed under the bridge and into the first caisson.

Leaving the canal

Under the guillotine closure, that dripped goodness knows what onto us, and onto the iron aqueduct protruding over the River.

This felt a bit like walking the plank only we were still in our boat

Each caisson can accommodate two narrowboats, but this time we were travelling solo. We passed under the machinery housing and tied up as instructed.

Scarily high

80 feet above the River Weaver meant the views were impressive

That’s the river Weaver down there

But looking up, it was really the structure and mechanics above us that we were over awed by.

The overhead pully system remains for show

Surrounded by ironwork we were given a final safety briefing and a short history lesson before our descent.

The lift was built in 1875 to facilitate easier transport of goods, particularly for the potteries of Stoke on Trent and salt from the Cheshire Salt pan. It had been costly, time consuming and dangerous transferring goods between the river and the canal so the two companies from the river, and the railway, (who ran the canal) cooperated, and the lift was born. Essentially it consists of two water filled caissons (iron troughs), as a boat enters a caisson, water is displaced so the weight stays the equal in each side. The caissons are then sealed. A small amount of water is released from the lower caisson causing the upper one to descend. Only a small amount of additional power is required to complete the full cycle. Over it’s lifetime there have been various improvements from the original hydrolic ram system and counterbalancing weights. A lot of the original mechanics have been retained as artifacts on site. There is an interesting summary on wiki https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anderton_Boat_Lift that is worth reading the detail.

We waved to our ascendants as they travelled upwards and we travelled down,

It’s the first time our narrowboat has been counterbalanced by a little cruiser

And after about 10 minutes we reached river level

Our guillotine was raised and we cruised out onto the river Weaver

And onto the River

It is really from this position that you can really begin to appreciate the ginormity of the structure and understand why it has the nickname “the catherdral of the canals”

It’s huge

By the 1970s commercial traffic had dried up and the lift was being used mainly for recreational craft. In 1983 corrosion was severe enough to declare it unsafe for use. It was uneconomic to repair so permenantly closed down. Thankfully a group of enthusiastic volunteers formed a trust and various partnerships raised sufficient funds for it to be restored and reopened in 2002. CRT now run an award winning visitor centre and viewing area on site.

From the viewing area

Although I think it is more for gongoozler and family picnics than for boaters, I liked seeing the coming together of 3 centuries hard work. The Victorian boat lift from the 19th century, the ICI factory on the south bank, that arose as an off shoot of the salt works in the 20th century, and now the 21st century priority, leisure.

Something for everyone

The cost of maintenance will always be high, so the on going future of the lift will always be a balancing act, can we as a country afford to maintain this engineering masterpiece. I hope so, but I would urge boaters to use it as soon as possible, it’s not an experience to be missed. We’ll be back soon.