After a day off, we completed 4 more of the heartbreak hill locks to moor up on the wides above Kings Lock in Middlewich.
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.
And the early mornings were idylically peaceful, especially if you’re travelling by hot air balloon
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.
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.
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.
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……
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.
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.
Traffic seemed quite heavy on our first day, and we were lucky enough to benefit from some convenient crossovers.
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.
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…..
So after 2 miles we tied up at Hassal Green and enjoyed a pleasant evening accompanied by the constant hum of the nearby M6.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We moored to the north of the town near Stanley’s bridge and walked the mile and a half into the centre.
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.
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.
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.
With only a mile to go, we crossed the aqueduct and looked down onto the rusty Trent and Mersey, under bridge 97,
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)
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
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.
And emerged after about 45 minutes, in time for a bowl of tomato soup for lunch.
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
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,
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.
3 happy boaters heading north on the Macclesfield Canal
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although we were a bit concerned about it’s health and safety notices warning people to be careful near the canal
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.
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.
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)
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.
Most of Stokes bottle kilns have been dismantled now, although some just appear to have been abandoned.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Our deadline destination was to reach Stone. Because way back in early April we booked to have our 4 year Boat Safety Scheme examination done there. Give or take a few miles, that’s about 80 miles and 50 locks. According to ACC canal planner it could take us less than a week if we put our minds to it. Up the Grand Union Leicester line and the River Soar, then turn left for a few miles upstream on the River Trent, and finally onto the Trent and Mersey Canal. 7 weeks later we have finally made it. We had been looking forward to mooring up at Great Haywood to visit the Shugborough Hall, but alas Covid booking requirements and dreary weather meant that I only caught a glimpse from the canal, and the rather lovely Essex pack horse Bridge over the Trent as I hopped off to work us through the lock.
We enjoy the Trent and Mersey, being so long, there’s a real diversity of things to look at, so one day we will be back to exercise our National Trust cards, and actually go inside the Hall. That is, of course, if we don’t get seen off first, as this rather aggressive swan foolishly tried to do.
We’ve ruffled a few feathers in the past, but never been attacked whilst in the boat, but this rather over protective father certainly made it known we weren’t welcome anywhere near his offspring. Perhaps he was offended because I didn’t take a photo of them. Unlike these cuties that were being shown off in Stone.
We needed to moor close to a convenient parking space for our BSS and as luck would have it there was space on the 5 day mooring next to M&S, ideal for Mike our examiner. He came, examined and passed us without any problem. We get the impression that this boat MOT requirement is more concerned to ensure that your boat shouldn’t be a hazard to any neighbours, rather than checking it’s integrity for your own safety. Mind you, it wouldn’t be practical to insist every boat is hauled out of the water to look for thin patches on the hull structure. And narrowboats don’t have break pads to check, though perhaps an oral exam that anyone helming a boat understands the need to slow down well before they pass a moored boat might might not be a bad thing. Being so close to M&S did have other advantages besides its car park. They had over stocked on strawberries so at 50p for 500g I couldn’t resist.
And I made the Stone Strawberry jam.
This will be labelled up and eaten during Wimbledon fortnight with scones and clotted cream.
The canal and the river Trent follow a fairly close trajectory, which makes sense both geographically and economically. Great rivers have always provided opportunities for settlement and industry, however it was the building of the canals that allowed for economic expansion with a horsedrawn barge being able to carry up to 50 times more cargo than a cart, and with probably fewer breakages and a speedier transit. This is one of the things that we love about continual cruising on the canals. The canal’s transport links create a sense of purpose, yet one minute we can be moored in the most idyllic rural haven without a care in the world sitting on the towpath with my spinning wheel.
but the next day we will be passing through our countries industrial necessities. Why does travelling past the Armitage toilet factory always make me chuckle, perhaps it’s a sign of me being a boater or perhaps it’s my inner child escaping.
And of course, where there is industry, there are also people, who are endlessly fascinating to watch, especially those who choose to adorn their space with a wackiness that just begs to be captured, and as Naomi’s Landing fb page is advertised on a big banner, I’m sure she doesn’t mind being a boaters talking point.
Especially as Dr Feelgood and Nurse Rached are so keen on vacinating everyone. I only hope when my turn comes the syringe isnt quite that big.
We think the Dancing Sheep manequins have the edge over the Top Gear team at Charity dock on the Ashby. But you still can’t beat a real sheep. These beauties were at Tuppenhurst lane farm.
We took a several days to get from Fradley through to Stone, taking some time in Rugeley to meet friends in a pub for lunch and take advantage of the very convenient Tesco. Life is starting to feel strangely normal. Or is it? Is this boat moored or parked?
We were still playing dodge the rain as we our journey continued. It’s quicker to walk from Alrewas to Fradley, as its only 2 miles but the 7 locks have the potential to make it into a 2.5 hour cruise. But we struck lucky with most of the locks in our favour and the volunteer lockies were on good form helping the many boats through the flight, while chatting to the gongoozlers.
We decided to stop on the 14 day visitor mooring above the top lock, and just as Eric was tying off we were approached by someone with a big grin on his face and the opening statement “I built your boat”. It turns out Sam is one of Tim Tyler’s team of steel fabricators who built our hull. It was a real treat and honour to meet him and thank him, telling him just how much we love Firecrest. We weren’t able to invite him on board to look around, but he was able to peer through the portholes. I think he enjoyed being able to see a completed boat.
Just after he’d said goodbye, we were joined by another Braidbar boat
So after a lovely few days chatting we continued our journey, with the most southerly point of the Trent and Mersey being 10 minutes out of Fradley . Believe it or not the sun was shining as we set off, not that you’d believe me.
I had walked ahead to set Woodend lock and got soaked. I could have done with one of those decorative teapots being full of tea.
It’s usually a pretty place but the rain was dampening our spirits, and we had just seen the beautiful countryside decimated in preparation for HS2. Mind you we are very philosophical about HS2, we’ve always accepted that the building of this mammoth infrastructure will be far worse than we think the actual negative impact of HS2 will be in years to come.
But after all, what did people say about the canals ripping through the countryside 300 years ago.