We love cruising in the autumn, especially when the day starts clouded in mist, but you just know that the sun is waiting to throw off it’s duvet and shine.
Shortly after leaving Stone we reached Aston Lock and saw the half way milepost for the Trent and Mersey. Exactly 46 miles between Preston Brook and Shardlow.
The T&M mileposts were originally made of stone, but were replaced in 1819 by a striking cast iron design.
But we realised they weren’t all the same. Some carry the date 1977.
I had assumed the originals had been melted down to reclaim the metal, but actually most were removed during WWII to make it harder for any potential enemy paratroopers to find their way. The T&M canal society have a very interesting page about where they found the originals and how they reinstated these attractive. posts. I frequently kick myself for not looking up this sort of information before we cruise past, because apparently there is still one original stone marker left at Weston Cutting. https://trentandmerseycanalsociety.org.uk/mileposts/campaign/
We continued our cruise towards Great Hayward Junction and we lucky enough to find a sunny space opposite the aptly named Canalside farm shop and cafe.
We’d timed our arrival to meet up with our friend Jo, Under normal circumstances we would have spent the afternoon in the cafe enjoying tea and cake, but instead we all sat outside in the sunshine catching up on the past few months lack of cruising. We both made early starts the next morning, in opposite directions
The Staffordshire town of Stone has several claims to fame, most notably to us boaters is that it is where James Brindley set up his offices to devise and oversee the building of the Trent and Mersey canal, which was completed in 1771, He has a statue in Etruria, but it was too cold wet and miserable to go and pay homage as we passed by. Although the sun had returned by the time we passed through beautiful Meaford Locks and entered the town.
We always enjoy passing through Stone, its an attractive town with lots of history. Although we could stop closer to town, we seem drawn by sun radiating colour off the houses opposite and the reflections at the Whitebridge lane visitor moorings. I’m not actually sure where the white bridge is cause the nearest bridge is now a modern concrete necessity and not worthy of a photo. We set off along the towpath to walk the mile into town. As you approach the town centre, its history is proudly displayed on railings telling the tale of pagan King Wulfere who murdered his his sons here for their Christian Faith. He then converted to Christianity himself and allowed his wife to build a priory at the site where they fell, as it grew in importance, the market town grew up around it and prospered.
The priory was seized and the land sold to the Crompton family during the dissolution of the monasteries, so nothing other than the tomb of William II Crompton and his wife Jane, remain.
The modern church was built on its site in 1758. But it was all locked up so I couldn’t see any more about the fate of the poor princes.
It seems that Stone likes a grisly tale, because as we cruised out of the town we saw a small carving dedicated to Christina Collins
It’s not surprising most boaters miss her, as she’s hidden by ivy, which poignantly reflects her sad story of insignicfinance. In 1839 she paid 1 shilling and sixpence to travel from Preston Brook to London. Whilst passing through Stone, she complained to the toll office that the boatmen were drunk and behaving badly, she feared she would be “meddled” with. Sadly she was right, the next day her body was found in the canal, she had been raped and thrown overboard. Two men were hanged and the third transported. CRT do mark the spot and Brindley Bank
But to end on a happier note everyone should smile when they pass under a bridge 100. (Above Meaford locks )
Isn’t it just typical when we have an obligation to travel, the weather is poor. We set off in murky drizzle to do the last half a mile. No wonder the water had turned rusty red with the iron deposits. We always chuckle as we pass under the motorway bridges, this time we were passing underneath the Macclesfield Canal just before the junction. It would have been fun to see a narrowboat above us, but at 7am only the foolhardy were on the move.
It was June 2017 that we emerged from the Macclesfield Canal onto the T&M, and I have a feeling it was raining that day as well
We carry a spare life jacket so Tim was able to comply with the safety guidelines and as it was raining heavily by now, we didn’t waste much time outside chatting to the CRT crew. We were the third of five to go through on the 8am passage.
It’s the second longest tunnel on the network, 2657m long (1.6miles) traffic is one way, and although it is always manned, it doesn’t usually need to be booked in advance, but they want to avoid the potential log jam of boaters awaiting their turn. They let several boats through in a convoy, and count them in and out. It’s not unheard of for boats to break down in the tunnel, and not very easy for them to be rescued. Not everyone makes it out……
But thankfully we did, it took us exactly 40 minutes, 10 minutes longer than the first time.
Tim was to catch the train home from Stoke so because the rain was now torrential we moored up and enjoyed a cooked breakfast, but by the time we had washed up, the weather had improved, so the next 5 locks were ok. This section of canal is going downhill so the locks are a bit easier to work.
Now that we are happily cruising again, our plan is to head south and east, to be closer to Suffolk. Our planned destination is affected by the start of the winter stoppages, and I hate to say it but they are only 5 and a bit weeks away. Looking at the map is a bit nerve wracking. I haven’t got enough fingers and toes to count the number of locks before the Harecastle tunnel. I am reliably informed this section is known as Heartbreak Hill. Although as we awoke all was peaceful and calm so we could never have guessed what was ahead of us.
After leaving the Anderton lift, we’d aimed for Bramble cuttings, a picnic area just for boaters, but apparently you stand more chance of winning the lottery that getting a mooring here, hence we knocked in the pins opposite, and just enjoyed the aroma of BBQ drifting our way. We were 15 miles from the tunnel and there were 35 locks to pass through. Having languished in a marina for 6 weeks, our beautifully toned bodies were showing signs of neglect so we decided to spilt the journey over a few days. From here we went through Middlewich.
I would have liked to stop to explore this area dominated by its canal trade and the junction of the Shropshire union. But we wanted to get on before the weather broke.
We had an enjoyable days cruise, just 9 locks pleasantly spaced out, until we reached Rookery moorings just south of Ettiley Heath, out in the middle of nowhere, perfect.
It’s just a short distance from the real start to Heartbreak Hill at Wheelock, 26 single locks over 6 miles. To help the old working boats a twin lock was added to most of the locks meaning two boats could travel up or down at the same time. Harder work for the navvies that built the canal but much easier for the boater, and also potentially saves on water.
Sadly in this day and age only half of the twins have been maintained, but it wasn’t a problem because there wasn’t too much canal traffic and although most of the locks were set against us, all the traffic going up hill had naturally spaced out so no queues, or feeling the need to rush because someone was waiting. And of course we’d been blessed with glorious weather.
And as always we take great pleasure when we cruise underneath a motorway, the M6 this time.
And an overnight stop at Hassall Green. It was a treat to find ourselves moored up with fellow bloggers on Cleddau, always nice to put faces to names.
Another morning and another promising day,
I’d miscalculated last night at thought we’d done 12 locks but I think it was only 10, leaving 16 left, but hey this has to beat commuting into the office.
Not surprisingly we were fit to drop as we neared Kidsgrove, But looking back we would do it all again, it’s a beautiful section of the canal.
Then to put the icing on the cake, our son Tim arrived by train to help us through the last few locks. I emailed CRT to book our passage through the tunnel, (an extra necessity thanks to Covid) but to our horror although I asked for a slot after 10am the only spaces left were at 8am. Poor Tim, he didn’t get much scintillating conversation after tea, cause we both fell asleep.
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.
Despite the early cloud it soon looked like a promising day as we approached the Anderton boat 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).
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.
But it’s always fun to see your counterbalance midway
And to wish them well for the river 50 foot below
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.
And from the 19th century salt chemical works onto the 21st century salt chemical works, as we cruised through the TATA plant at Lostock
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Shafts were sunk to the underground salt layer. Water was pumped in to create a stream which dissolved the rock salt to make brine.
This was then pumped back into holding tanks and then into sheds with boiling pans the size of a tennis court.
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.
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.
And then taken by conveyor belt into a milling machine to be ground back into usable crystals.
You can see how the wood has been corroded by the salt.
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 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.
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.
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.
Under the guillotine closure, that dripped goodness knows what onto us, and onto the iron aqueduct protruding over the River.
Each caisson can accommodate two narrowboats, but this time we were travelling solo. We passed under the machinery housing and tied up as instructed.
80 feet above the River Weaver meant the views were impressive
But looking up, it was really the structure and mechanics above us that we were over awed by.
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,
And after about 10 minutes we reached river level
Our guillotine was raised and we cruised out onto the river Weaver
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”
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.
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.
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.
How each canal has it’s own style, or perhaps it’s a county thing. Maybe one day I’ll be able to enter one of those “where am I?” competitions and get it right. As we waved goodbye to the Bridgewater, with its distinctive crane and stop plank system -which seems eminently sensible to have the lifting mechanism right next to the heavy beams used to create a temporary dam across the canal.
We found ourselves in rural Cheshire, with tunnels to provided transit across the rolling hillside.
Tunnels are always a bit scary, what happens if …. well we don’t go there, but these tunnels are long enough and narrow enough to warrant a timed one way system. We are only allowed to enter during the permitted time slot, in this case, between half past and twenty to the hour. And outside the Preston Brook tunnel you can see the stop planks ready to be deployed once the suitable crane has arrived.
There are 3 tunnels at the start of the Trent and Mersey canal, and as we meandered along, enjoying second breakfast,
we couldn’t help but notice nearly all the tunnels and bridges are painted white.
We can only think of two reasons, for the tunnels it certainly aids visibility, against a woody hillside,
Or perhaps it’s just aesthetically pleasing, either way we found ourselves really enjoying the relaxation of this area.
And if you look carefully you can see a white bridge in the middle of this photo, it’s crossing the river Weaver which is our current destination.