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.

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. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harecastle_Tunnel

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

Backtracking


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.

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.

Easy

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

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.

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

Pottering around Stoke


From the south, Stoke on Trent itself isn’t the prettiest of places to cruise into. It suffers from the typical neglected backsides of light industrial units, security fences, barbed wire, graffiti and litter entangled in overgrown vegetation. But it is what it is, and it isn’t the worst we’ve seen. At least here the town planners have realised what an asset the canal can be and the towpath is in good condition.

A warm welcome

But there are some major highways that run close by so the mooring is either noisy, undesirable or non existent, and with 5 locks within the centre of town, it means that we have never stopped to explore the centre of Stoke itself. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I took the time to explore, Stoke could be a fascinating place with a strong industrial and creative heritage. However, we carried on cruising until we got to Etruria junction and the canal regains its prominence.

One of the old flint mills, now home to two historic working boats

Many of the old wharfs have been repurposed to serve as CRT yards and workshops for the benefit of boaters and gongoozlers alike. And although many of the heritage buildings which were once a hive of activity for the canal traffic have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

This is the Anderton wharf which possibly has some connection to the Anderton boat lift,


At least one gem remains, the Middleport Pottery has thrown open it’s gates to the tourist trade and despite still being a working pottery, it welcomes visitors.

The Middleport bottle kiln

Although we were a bit concerned about it’s health and safety notices warning people to be careful near the canal

Don’t say you haven’t been warned

The abundance of coal and clay meant that Stoke was ideally placed for entrepreneurs and innovators such as Wedgewood and Spode to create a world famous industry here and why in the mid 1700’s Brindley’s team began to dig the canal where bridge 128 now stands.

Where it all began


100 years after the canal had been in existence Westport Lake was created , although not for the benefit of the local industry, Brownhills Colliery hit the water table and flooded both the mine and surrounding land. Nowadays its a local beauty spot along side the canal.

Westport Lake

We were lucky enough to moor opposite the pottery and spent a few days walking around and enjoying the sights. (Middleport have daytime only mooring for visitors)

A prime mooring spot


We would have loved to have done the factory tour, but it is still waiting for it’s release from Covid restrictions. We were allowed to walk around the site though, and it’s very atmospheric.

I can’t imagine it was this quiet in it’s hey day

Most of Stokes bottle kilns have been dismantled now, although some just appear to have been abandoned.

So sad to see such an eyesore

As I looked opposite this decay I wondered if our descendants will feel the same nostalgia for the current factories if they are still standing in 50 years time.

I wonder how long this one will last.

From Stone to Stoke


Having achieved the first of our commitments by getting the Boat Safety Certificate, it was time to move on to Stoke for “mission possible 2”. But with 4 days to do the 10 miles, we were going to take our time enjoying this bit of canal.
We paid our respects to poor Christina Collins, a passenger travelling south, who, in 1830, was “meddled with and murdered” despite having reported her fears to the canal company office in Stone. Her sculpture by the bridge has been cleaned up since we saw her last October.

Stone bottom lock overlooked by Christna.

Stone itself, was a prominent place on this canal when, in 1755, a group of Liverpool merchants and Staffordshire potters, sponsored Thomas Brindley to survey the land with a view to linking the Trent and the Mersey rivers together. However it wasn’t until 1764 when Josiah Wedgewood and his partner Thomas Bently, realised the potential and took the idea forward. In 1766 an act of parliament was passed and the Grand Trunk Canal company was formed. With its headquarters here, the Stone section was opened in 1771. Amusingly, the celebration party proved to be a little too exuberant as £1000 worth of damage was done “by repeated firing of the cannon”. A whole lock and bridge fell in causing CRT to issue a navigation closure notice… (Ok I made up that last bit about CRT)
Despite initial opposition to the canal from packhorse owners and river navigators, Stone grew and thrived bringing a huge economic upturn for the small market town. And not just for the potteries.

Beer is still brewed in Stone,

After all the rain we’ve had , it looks like summer might be putting in an appearance and it’s a joy to wake up and want to set off cruising

Oh what a beautiful morning…

Good bye swans, thanks for having us.

Past the Wedgewood factory, thanking Josiah for his part in getting this Canal built, but not stopping to for a visit this time.

I don’t think this is the original building


However we did moor up to do some essential shopping at the Trentham Estate, a destination shopping complex incorporated into the Trentham Hall and Gardens. (About a mile’s walk from bridge 106) It’s focus is more on garden centre type concessions, rather than the high street fashion, and we needed a Mountain Warehouse to pick up a replacement pair of shoes for Eric. Footwear sorted we moored for the night at Sideaways, on the long straight section that’s just ripe for development before Stoke. It’s close to the railway and is what we call a functional overnighter. So gave us the breathing space we needed before the final push through the graffiti covered neglect that sadly seems to be the norm on the outskirts of some towns and cities.

You’ve got to hand it to them, not all graffiti is bad

However it’s not all bad, someone along the line has realised what an asset a well maintained Towpath is to the community and has given us a warm welcome.

Stoke bottom lock