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

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

Jammin’ with the Stone Strawberries

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.

Shugborough Estate

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.

Trespassers will be pecked

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.

Obligatory cute swan with cygnets photo

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.

What a bargain

And I made the Stone Strawberry jam.

4 jars of stone strawberry jam

This will be labelled up and eaten during Wimbledon fortnight with scones and clotted cream.

Still going West, slowly going North


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.

Moored by Tuppenhurst lane, Handisacre


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.

What a convenience having the canal so close

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.

Naomi’s Landing at Rugeley


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.

Even the NHS need to take some time gongoozleing

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.

The content sheep at Tuppenhurst 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?

Irrelevance? Good name for a stranded boat

We’ve even seen some sunshine.

Yes, we’re still getting sun on the solar panels

A few days in Fradley

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.

Just before turning left onto the coventry

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.

A chance meeting

Just after he’d said goodbye, we were joined by another Braidbar boat

Gettinf to know the Potters too

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.

The glorious south!!!!


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.

At least the rain had stopped

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.

HS2 here you

But after all, what did people say about the canals ripping through the countryside 300 years ago.

48 hours in Alrewas


We moored up expecting rain but were rewarded with a few precious moments worth of blue sky as I looked across the water meadows.

The view from the visitor moorings by the lock

We had seen the church perched on the hill as we cruised through Wychnor

St Leaonards, Wychnor

So I took the opportunity to walk back along the river section for a closer look.

River reeds

I climbed up the hill and found some info boards in the adjoining fields hinting of the archaeological significance of mediaeval settlements, but the village was wiped out during the plague, I didn’t stick around to investigate more. Alrewas however survived and became a thriving village with some stunning timber framed thatched cottages

Shakespeares cottage

And Coates, one of our favourite butchers shops.

Coates Butchers, worth a visit

We can recommend the pies, sausages and rump steak, however we suspected the local camel would taste a bit wooden.

We think the wise men must be on their summer holidays

We wondered if there’s an equivalent term for boaters who look wistfully at houses like gongoozlers watch narrowboats. And where does that place us with our modern electric boat, hankering after an old thatched cottage.

We didn’t make it up to the national memorial arboretum this visit, preferring to follow ratty’s advice on this Canal side cottage.

Simply messing about in boats

So we had to smile when we came across another Braidbar boat, appropriately named.

Boating about in Simply Messing

And we continued our journey up to Fradley

Bagnall lock

Forget me not


Usually we love this time of year, with ducklings and spring flowers, but this May it’s been a struggle just to accept what is, is. The weather has really put a dampener on our spirits. We’ve had some lovely meetings up with friends and family, but all with shadows of having to be careful, not to get too close, and will it be warm and dry enough to meet outside. Equally so, this has impacted on our cruising, and desire to explore. But we still realise just how lucky we are to live this life and really how little serious impact Covid really has had on us personally. We cruised up to Shobnall Marina in Burton to fill up with diesel.

It really is a great little marina and Chandlery, if not least because diesel prices are so good, 69p/l, mind you it’s a skill getting in and out of this place as it is situated on the now disused Bond End arm cut. So it’s a sharp right under the bridge, and a reverse out.

The weather dictated our next stop, fearing imminent rain, we stopped to overnight at Branston Water park. But after a heavy downpour the sun came back out again. Giving us magnificent clouds to enjoy.

I was a bit worried Branston had become more of a safari park, than a nature reserve, when we saw this lioness sitting on the towpath.


But it didn’t deter the family of geese guarding Firecrest


And we snatched half an hour’s sunshine to walk through the woods around the lakes.

We continued our journey the next day past the lovely Tatenhill lock, where its cottage is now a desirable Bed and Breakfast.

The next stretch of canal runs a close parallel to the A38 so for an hour or so, we just have to grin and bear the noise of heavy traffic. Grumpy me would like to say “we were here first” but actually the A38 follows the roman road here, so in this instance we accept the road was here before the canal. We returned to tranquility as the river Trent and the canal mingle again for a short while. And today there were warning signs to “enter with care” as levels are in the amber zone, but looking at the flow and comments from oncoming boats, we weren’t too concerned and passed through safely.

We stopped on the 48 hour Alrewas moorings to sit out another day or two of threatened rain.


And again enjoy the dramatic clouds in between the deluge.

Avoiding the weather


It seems like we are planning our cruising around the weather forecast these days. This time last year we were bemoaning the fact that we were locked in the Salthouse Dock in Liverpool when the sun was cracking the flags and it was perfect cruising weather.

12 months ago in sunny Salthouse Dock not allowed to cruise

But this year, April showers have turned into May monsoons. Ok perhaps not that bad, and the bright moments have been snatched and glorious.

Sunset at Swarkestone

We cruised up to Burton, travelling alongside Deep Dale Lane, which always makes us chuckle. We’re wondering if the signage is warning cars not to fall off the road into the canal, or warning boaters of the to be on guard for cars landing on their boats.

Deep Dale Lane

I’ve never seen any signage warning the sheep to take extra care,

Ewe better be careful

And sadly yes, I have seen more animals floating belly up, than cars going for a swim. Perhaps this heron is on sentry duty keeping an eye. Herons are used to canal life but usually fly off at the last moment so it was quite a treat to get up close and personal to this one standing on the side at Dallows lock.

Quite magnificent birds

It’s always a relief to see Dallow’s lock as we cruise into Burton. It’s the first of the single locks, which are so much easier to work through. But we moored up shortly after this in Burton.

14 day mooring in Burton

This stretch of Towpath is maintained by the homeowners who take great pride in their section, even the Armco edge had been neatly trimmed. But oh boy when it rained, the footpath took on the appearance of a new canal in its own right. We called it the Baby Burton Branch

The Baby Burton Branch

If it hadn’t been so miserable I’d have made some paper boats to float down in. Instead we sat inside and waited until it was dry enough to continue another few miles west.