Friday, 26 September 2014

The Weaver weaves its magic

Moored at the Devil's Garden
I've never known anyone have a bad word to say about the River Weaver and after two days on it I know why. It's charming, fascinating, easygoing and – for a river – no problem to moor on. What more could you ask.
Handsome and huge - the Weaver swingbridges
Coming into one of the giant double locks
The Weaver came into being as a navigable waterway to serve the local industries and though the commercial traffic has sadly gone, everything about it is still to a commercial scale. The locks are huge, the river is crossed by massive swingbridges, that rarely need to swing these days, there are huge factories on its banksides and there's even a commercial sized wrecked ship.
There's an elegance to the locks and the black and white painted bridges that recalls the golden era of the waterways. The water's edge factories are far from handsome – they never were and now as they slide into disuse and dilapidation they are a sad reminder of the Weaver's better days. The massive chemical works at the Runcorn end which we reached today might be unsightly too but at least they are very much functioning still.
The Brunner Mond soda ash works faces you as you leave the boat lift
The massive Brunner Mond chemical works is your first sight exiting the boat lift. This was a forerunner of ICI, then became independent again and now is part of the giant Tata group. It produces soda ash, used in washing soda and many products, and was also where polythene was discovered in an experiment 'which went wrong'.
Ww turned right in front of it and headed west towards the Mersey. The factory is soon left behind as the river threads through a steep sided tree-lined valley before passing another, equally large, derelict factory and heading to Saltersford Locks. The locks on the Weaver are huge and paired, with a lock-keeper at each to operate them for we fortunate few boaters.
The river itself is extremely gentle natured, with just the mildest flow on its deep water. It brushes briefly with habitation at Acton Bridge where there is a caravan park, a smattering of houses and a couple of accessible pubs, then heads into the countryside again. Until now it has run almost parallel with the canal up at the top of the hill but from Dutton Locks it moves away, still in lush, tree filled countryside.
It's here at Dutton Locks that the MV Chica lies sunk and slowly mouldering away. It's been here since sinking more or less overnight back in 1993 and being abandoned by its owners. At the time of its demise it was operating, without much luck, as a hotel boat on the Weaver but its prior history is still something of a mystery. It could be a wooden sail powered cargo boat built in Norway, it may have done gun running in the Med and smuggled booze across the Gibraltar Straits, or maybe that's al folklore. For more info, take a look here.
The wreck of the mysterious MV Chica at Dutton Locks, 
Last night – and again tonight after today's trip – we moored at 'Devil's Garden', a spot entirely the antithesis of its name; a quiet, sheltered bend with a hillside running up behind us. The only devils here were probably the lads who had created a BMX course that looked like a deserted Max Max encampment in a field at the top of the hill.
From the boat we looked out at bar tailed godwits feeding in the water opposite as well as some small, mysterious grey/black birds that defied identification by diving underwater every time we came near. We reckon they are little grebes. Elsewhere today we've seen buzzards, a tufted duck, golden eye ducks and a still to be identified hawk on the ground with some prey.
But we haven't seen any UFOs though some kids back in 1978 did claim to see a spaceship and some aliens here at the Garden. Wonder what they'd been smoking?
Beer and BMX at the Mad Max style encampment at Devil's Garden
Today we headed downriver toward Runcorn, the steep valley slipping away into open, flatter countryside as we neared the estuary. The last stretch is fully canalised, by-passing the river's original route, and suddenly after a trio of bridges – swing, rail and motorway – the country was gone and we were into the sprawling industrial belt of Runcorn where a vast chemical plant, or is it plants plural I really couldn't tell, lines the bank. For the best part of two miles a myriad of pipes, towers, cables and  huge curiously shaped containers runs along the riverside. The real strangeness is the near stillness of it all: aside from the occasional hiss of escaping steam, an occasional whiff in the air and one solitary person you wouldn't know if it was closed down or about to erupt. I wish I could tell you what was produced there but even Google doesn't seem to know.
Just what is going on inside those myriad pipes and towers?
We moored at Weston Marsh Lock where craft can exit onto the Manchester Ship Canal. The original River Weaver swings in here too to create a sizeable estuary with the Ship Canal in the distance and the Mersey estuary beyond it. The Weaver Navigation carries on for a further mile down to Weston Point docks but we'd had enough chemical plants by then.
We've back-tracked and are moored again in the Devil's Garden. Tomorrow we will re-trace our path back past the boat lift and head into the eastern half of the Weaver to Northwich and Winsford.

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