Thursday, 30 October 2014

Straight and Crooked Thinking

The Tyrley locks, carved into solid rock
This was the title of an old philosophy book I read as a student and promptly forgot about in the alcoholic fug of student life, until the title came back to me when reflecting on our passage along the Shroppie.
In the early days of narrow canals pioneers like Brindley took the easy option – not that digging a canal was ever patricularly easy of course – and wormed their canals along the contours of the countryside to create routes that minimised the number of locks and aqueducts that might be needed. Snag was that ten miles of crow flying distance might become twenty when meandering round some awkward lump of hill.
The narrow, tree shrouded Woodseaves Cutting has a Tolkein-esque air
Later on, chaps like Thomas Telford were made of sterner stuff. Or to be fairer, had started to get a better grasp of canal building techniques. Tommy Telford was a no nonsense sort of chap who didn't believe in submitting to the lay of the land. No, he was determined to bully the land until it lay down and submitted to him.
He would place his ruler on the map, draw a straight line and decree this to be the route of his canal. There were no NIMBYs then to complain about it – just the occasional land owner who if he couldn't be bought off might get a grudging deviation.
And the rule is - you always meet a boat where there's no room to pass
The Shroppie is the archetypal Telford canal. It runs arrow-straight for many miles, arranges its rises and falls in convenient lock flights which can be tackled at pace and deals with other variations in gradient by bashing through them in cuttings or teetering across them on sometimes high and long embankments.
Fortunately for Tommy T, the Shropshire countryside is relatively flat but even so the stretch southwards from Market Drayton towards Norbury displays some quite remarkable feats of civil engineering. And all done by gangs of blokes with shovels, wooden wheelbarrows, rickety timber scaffolding and horses and carts. Not a JCB or a Caterpillar earth mover in sight.
The cuttings are the most dramatic. The Tyrley Locks, just after Market Drayton, are carved into the middle of a dramatic man-made gorge through sandstone rock, stunningly beautiful in its autumn colours. After that comes the long, narrow, high sided and tree shrouded Woodseaves Cutting,  like something dreamed up by Tolkein, steaming and dripping with condensation, the towpath a quagmire of mud. Tall trees lean out across the water, their roots impossibly clinging for grip into the clay coloured rockfaces. The soft rock is worn into strange holes and crevices – and is prone to crumbling and slipping into the water, as a warning notice at the start of the cutting points out.
Tall Shroppie bridges arch across like architectural supermodels
It's not a place to stop, especially on a windy day and not the best place to meet another boat – which of course means we did, right at one of the few bridgeholes where we managed with a bit of banging and scraping to squeeze past each other.
But if the cuttings provide the drama, it's the embankments that gave Telford his real headaches. Trees hide much of the view from them now but occasional glimpses reveal just how high some of them are above the surrounding land. Just how was so much material moved and shaped to form these vast banks? With a lot of difficulty, it seems. The huge Shelmore embankment was begun in 1830 and took over five years to complete after repeated slippages and collapses.
A brief break from this Gothic scenery came as we passed the old Cadbury's factory wharf at Knighton where chocolate crumb was shipped to the firm's works at Bournville in Birmingham. Dried milk is made there now and moves by lorry but the wharf is still a mooring spot for working boats.
Big Woolwich 'Birmingham' moored at the old Cadbury Wharf
Telford's straight-line approach could make the Shroppie a boring canal to pleasure cruise along but the scenery is always a treat, the canalside farms with their cattle and sheep and the Shropshire hills away in the middle distance, and all with the backdrop of autumn's orange and yellow colours. For a narrow canal it's built to a grand scale, too – wide and deep. Even the bridges are grand, too: tall, stately arches that let you sail through without worrying that a moment's inattention will have the chimney swiped off!
As we near the end of the canal, waterside villages are appearing more frequently. We moored at Gnosall (pronounced knows-all) and enjoyed a fine pub grub dinner at the Navigation Inn. If you go there, be warned that the "20oz steak and onion pie" really is as big as it sounds – but damned good, too. A proper pie not one of those things with a flaky pastry hat.
Last night we were in Wheaton Aston where the canalside village garage sells red diesel and proper water pump grease for Listers – except they'd just sold out of the latter, dammit.  Today we will go to Brewood (prounced brood) just a couple of miles on as we slow the pace and try to delay our departure from this fine canal.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Village England 21st century fashion

Harry nears the top of the Audlem flight
Audlem is English village life 're-imagined', as they say in Hollywood, for the 21st century.
Once upon a time, country folk lived in pretty villages like Audlem, bought their meat at the local butchers, shopped in the local grocer, nattered with the village postmaster and make sure their dog doesn't bite the newspaper delivery boy on his bicycle. A trip to the local town was a once a week treat on the bus.
These days villages are places that middle class people go to get away from the hubbub of the towns to which they drive in and out for work and for shopping. If it's lucky the village might retain a pub, a primary school and a small Spar shop but that's it.
Except at Audlem where there's an astonishing assembly of shops still thriving, from a food store to an undertaker, a newsagent to a Boots pharmacy. But, as I said at the start, this is a 21st century village – you can also find a cycle-sport shop, a deli, a couple of coffee shops and a posh butcher called Oxtail & Trotter which sounds like it should be in trendy Notting Hill. Oh, and there's even a village charity shop.
One can't help but wonder how much of Audlem would be the way it is today if Dr Beeching hadn't axed the local railway service back in the 1960s and enabled it to live in snug isolation from the outside world until its inherent prettiness and attractive location saw it evolve into the affluent country spot it is today.
Of course for the boater the 15 locks, the big Audlem Mill craft and bookshop and three friendly village pubs, two of them canalside, are what makes Audlem special. If you like locks – and shouldn't every narrowboater – the Audlem flight is perfection. The locks are closely spaced so the lockwheeler can walk between them setting and closing as his boat goes up or down. They all work perfectly and leak only slightly – CaRT knows a honeyspot location and looks after it well. And the views as you near the top are sublime with the open country stretching away to the distant Welsh hills.
Harry passes our old boat Star at Market Drayton
Five more locks and as many miles we came to only the second town on the Shroppie. And, like Nantwich, Market Drayton is just clipped along its edge by the canal. It's a much smaller and much less affluent place than that footballers' wives spot but manages some fine 17th century timber framed buildings in a shopping centre that also includes a Lidl. Hurray!
At Market Drayton we also ran into (well not literally) our old boat, Star, and shared a brew with its owner who was on his way up to Chester on a winter cruise. It was nice to see the old girl still being enjoyed out on the system. We overnighted near it and woke to the familiar sound of its Petter engine as Star made an early start next morning.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Whatever happened to the last two weeks?

Things didn't quite go to plan, is the answer. I anticipated writing today's blog from Llangollen canal basin. Instead we are half way down the Shroppie and moored at Market Drayton.
The Llangollen exploit was a bit of a whim. We were on the Middlewich branch of the Shroppie when I looked at the guidebook and thought out loud: "We're right by the start of the Llangollen when we leave here – why don't we head up there? It's a couple of weeks until the stoppages start."
So we did. Boy, was that a thought I shouldn't have had.
But before that story, a quick aside. While heading along the Middlewich branch I spotted a boat with the name 'Justice' on its side. There couldn't be two of those: it had to be Steve Haywood who eight years earlier I'd signed up as a curmugeonly columnist for Canal Boat but had never, ever met. We stopped; he came out in his slippers, clutching a mug of tea – and turned out to be a rather cheery chap and not at all the old grump of his column. (But don't tell anyone!) He was also, it turned out, heading up the Llangollen a couple of days behind us.
Hi-tailing it off the Llangollen
The Llangollen, though our most popular canal, is 'officially' a shallow one,  an excuse the Waterways types can always fall back on if a deep draughted boat like ours gets into trouble. All the same, working boats have made it all the way and (though not quite as deep in the water as Harry), we made it easily in Star a couple of years back. So we weren't too worried.
And we weren't that worried all the way through the first day – which included a brief stop at the delightful Wrenbury village, walking from the towpath to its church across the historic meadow which could yet be destroyed if marina plans go through on appeal. What sacrilege!
Day One ended just short of the six Grindley Brook locks and we went up these, with their three-lock staircase next morning and on to the little town of Whitchurch. The canal once reached into the town via a short arm but that's gone now, save for a short stretch which the canal society has tidied up into a neat set of visitor moorings. Three years ago when we were last here, the town seemed a bit of a sleepy hollow with empty shops and shabby buildings. Today things have brightened up a lot and it's well worth the 15 minute walk to find out: there are a lot of independent shops and coffee houses and the whole place has an active,  lively air. "We are lucky - we have a town centre Tesco so people don't have to go elsewhere for their basic shopping. They stay in the town and use the other shops too." An intriguing and probably correct theory: Tesco not the villain for once, then.
Having dispatched 19 of the 21 locks to Llangollen we were in a good mood as we set off after our lunch break at Whitchurch. Five heavy, slow manual liftbridges slowed us down and the iequally heavy rain damped our mood so we called it a day in the strange, flat, fen-like surroundings of Whixall Moss where descrepit bungalows and decaying vehicles hide among the undergrowth. Rather like the Fens.
Next day the going did get stickier: we were briefly stuck in the soft going as the canal  wove past the beautiful tree lined Meres or lakes on the route into Ellesmere. Then I had to man haul the boat through the (fortunately short) Ellesmere Tunnel as the going was so sticky.
One of the delightful Meres alongside the Llangollen
"If you think I'm going to pull it through the tunnel!"
We moored in the short arm, full as ever with boats, all stocking up at the Tesco at the arm's end. Sadly, a local Tesco doesn't seem to have done much for this town – Ellesmere seems to have withered a lot since our last visit. It's hard to know why: it has an accessible canal and a large and elegant mereside. Yet somehow the town is failing. One little country town finds a new lease of life while down the road another is failing, just why that should be seems impossible to understand.
Next morning, after a few more sticky stretches we met one that was pure Superglue – Bridge 61 where we ground to terminal stop on what was very likely a bridge edge coping stone that had been dislodged and was lurking under the water. Other, shallower boats were getting through so our draught clearly didn't help matters. We phoned C&RT who said: "it's been raining a lot so we took the opportunity to run off an inch of water into the reservoir". Hmm. An inch? More like four of them to judge by the levels.
So after half an hour of struggling we gave up – the first time we've ever retreated in the face of a canal enemy. But even the retreat was a bit Napoleon and Moscow: we had to reverse for nearly a mile – and try that on a bendy canal with a few moored boats to boot – before we found a wide spot to turn round.
Then we turned tail and ran from the Llangollen. Or didn't. We trudged through the silt like Napoleon's beaten troops and into the Ellesmere Tunnel once more. Where we got hopelessly and completely stuck once more at the exit. Which is known to be a shallow spot and therefore has never been dredged. Mass pulling with ropes by passers-by failed to shift us and only when another boat managed to squeeze past us - with more pulling and shoving - could he tow us free.
From there it was simple. For a couple of miles until we suddenly ground to a halt once more in the middle of a wide, open stretch of canal. Yards from the bank. With no-one about. Eventually a dog walker arrived, tried in vain to pull us with a rope and went off to summon help from some nearby mored boats. Three or four more hefty types arrived, grabbed ropes, shouted 'helpful' instructions to the inevitably simple minded woman who had  been unaccountably left at the tiller while her husband heaved on on the pole at the bows, and finally we were away.
For another half a mile until we ground to a halt once more in mid-stream. By now it was semi-dark and after more revving, poling and pulling we gave up, tied up loosely to a moored boat, had dinner and drowned our sorrows. Brian thought we were going to drown him to when I had to precariously jump across the boats carrying him to the bank for a late night pee.
Next morning the levels had risen a millimetre or three and after more scraping and heaving we were finally away. And this time managed to keep going all the way to the end of the Llangollen.
I suppose, in hindsight, it was fun. No, actually, it wasn't fun but it will make for some funny stories in the days to come.
So we turned south instead down the Shroppie, a nice, straight, wide and generally deep canal. With Hurricane Geronimo forecast we headed for Nantwich embankment, a mooring as far from any trees as it's possible to be. Nantwich is a decent place to see out a storm – it's an affable and affluent little town full of shops for footballers' wives and wealthy young farmers. You can buy any amount of vulgarly expensive bling for Celebrity Come Dine With Me but boaters like us can scour ten or more charity shops which are packed with expensive cast-offs.
Southbound, Nantwich is the only town of size for some miles on the Shroppie but fortunately for us – despite its poshness – it did boast an Aldi so Vicky was happy and the fridge was full.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

What goes down must come up

Tonight's mooring with the River Weaver way down below
Well here we are back on the canals. Three weeks ago we went down the Anderton Boat Lift to the River Weaver and yesterday we came back up the Lift to the Trent & Mersey Canal.  In between times we also fitted in a lightning (is that the word for a 450 mile round trip in a 1.0 litre hire car?) to visit family in Suffolk.
We are unanimous in voting the Weaver the highspot of our boating year and it's come as something of a shock to be back on the leaf and silt churning shallowness of the canals. Not helped by someone up there having turned the sprinkler system on in the skies. I'm surprised it worked after so long out of use!
The first miles after the Lift are a long and lock free stretch that circles round the edge of Northwich across a landscape still ravaged by salt extraction. The most famous example of this is The Lion Salt Works at Marston, the ruinous remains of which were featured on tv's 'Restoration' programme some years back.
Restoration nears completion on the Lion Salt Works
The Lion works opened in 1894 and produced salt by pumping brine from underground which was evapourated off in large pans until 1986. After its closure it was run as a museum for some years until advancing dilapidation forced its closure again.
It is the last surviving open pan salt works in Britain and maybe in Europe and finally, in 2008 a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund kick-started major restoration work of the whole site to become a major museum. When we last passed this way the site was still a ruin surrounded by 'keep out' warnings but the change now is startling; restoration is almost complete and the museum opens next spring. See here for more details.
Steam and stink from the vast ICI plant
Beyond Marston comes one final, unforgettable reminder of the industrial plants that dominate this whole are - the vast and vile looking chemical plant at Rudheath that straddles the canal, belching steam and noxious smells. This sprawling eyesore, large chunks of which appear to have fallen out of use and simply been left to rot, is actually owned by ICI Alkali division – not that you'd know for these ugly plants rarely boast a name and this one is no exception.
A large new marina nearing completion
But another one certainly doesn't
Fortunately the T&M now heads into countryside, which is something of a relief even to someone like me who enjoys a bit of industrial squalor. We passed a large and impressive looking marina which appears close to opening and then, barely a mile later, another which claims to be 'Opening in Summer 2014' (yes, you read that right) and is little more than some marker posts in the ground. Perhaps they are having second thoughts – with so many vacant marina moorings right now there seems scarcely the demand for one let alone two.
Anyway, we moored opposite what will be the entrance and this morning headed the few miles down to Middlewich. Middlewich is a bit of a boating hub – a sort of poor man's Braunston – with six locks (the first of them broad for some inexplicable reason since the rest are narrow), two hire fleets and a junction to the branch canal that nips off westwards to join the Shropshire Union. Which is where we are headed.
Poor old Middlewich doesn't offer much beyond the canal; it's a small, scruffy sort of place that has plenty of Indian restaurants, a couple of charity shops and – bizarrely – a shop selling motorsport memorabilia but not a lot else to delay one. Nice to report, though, that the new owners of Middlewich Narrowboats hire fleet have smartened their place up no end: the boats look smart and the formerly scruffy buildings a lot, lot smarter.
Moo, that's a fine looking tug you've got down there
We might be well down the canal now but we still can't shake ourselves free of the Weaver: tonight we are moored in a stunning spot with views down a long, deep valley to the River Weaver way below,  following its twisting course until it opens out into Winsford Top Flash. Beautiful.

 And finally...
Please leave area immediately ... at 4mph?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Late night and early morning

Cruising through the early morning mist
Having spent yesterday moored at the Red Lion's moorings in Winsford we thought we would do the decent thing and go for a meal in the pub.
Actually it wasn't purely altruistic: we had read the pub's excellent reviews on Tripadvisor so we weren't taking too much of a chance. As it turned out the food was better than excellent, it was superb. The Red Lion is no poshed-up gastropub; it's a proper pub that welcomes drinkers as well as diners. Last night there was an open mic music evening on too.
The menu was short but imaginative: Mrs B had chicken breast on bubble & squeak while I went for the high calorie option of pork belly. Wow, both were top notch. And remarkably, cost only £8.95 each! Only down-er was that when we went to order dessert we discovered the kitchen had just shut. Damn! Shame they didn't warn us. But I spotted the chef on his way home, thanked him for his excellent food and gently bemoaned the lack of dessert. He went straight back to the kitchen and produced a couple of portions of mouth-watering, home made cherry bakewell cheesecake. Now that's what I call customer service.
The pub is part of a local small chain - Cornerstone Inns - which recently took over the down on its luck Big Lock pub on the canal at Middlewich, revamped it and now gets even better reviews for its food than the Red Lion.
Bright sunshine and autumn leaves at Vale Royal
After big dinners and a few beers we could have been excused a lie-in but instead we woke early and gazed out at a cold, misty morning. After breakfast (surprising how one still has room for one even after a big dinner) we were away by nine just as the sun was starting to break through, warm the air and encourage the mist to lift.
It was a wonderful morning to be on a boat; the trees' autumn colours reflected in the still water, kingfishers skimming the river and only a few hardy anglers and walkers in sight.
Now we are back in Northwich, moored in the Quays marina there for a few days while we leave the peace of the waterways for the hubbub of the roads for a trip to visit family in East Anglia.
The Marie Celeste? No the helmsman has gone below to answer a call of nature

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Passing the salt

Passing the massive Salt Union tower
I have never seen so much salt. Mountains of the stuff piled up along the river bank for nearly a mile. Not the white stuff you sprinkle on your chips but the brown stuff councils sprinkle on your roads. 
Winsford (not to be confused with Winslow or even Wilmslow) is the centre of the biggest salt mines in the country. These are so huge that there are whole roadways underground with heavy trucks and and array of vehicles driving around. In a previous life the car magazine I edited had a photo-shoot for half a dozen road test cars underground in the Winsford salt mines. They barely filled a corner.
And even further past the tower, the works carry on
The mountains of rock salt - ready for a bad winter
The huge 'Salt Union' tower comes into sight very quickly after leaving our Vale Royal moorings. These days the firm is called Compass Minerals but the emblematic name remains on the tower that kicks off the miles of workings leading into Winsford.
The Weaver kinds of peters out as it reaches the end of the officially navigable waterway. There's just a jetty outside the Red Lion pub big enough to hold a couple of narrowboats. To reach it you have to ignore the C&RT sign warning 'last winding point' a mile earlier. In fact there's easily room to turn the 55ft Harry at the pub, using the ropes to pull it round.
The Weaver runs on under two closely spaced road bridges into the 'Bottom Flash' where the water has spread out across a large lake formed by ground subsidence. It is possible to go into the Flash but there are plenty of warnings in the guides that it's shallow in places and with no-one around to pull us out, we decided to play safe and stay at the pub moorings. There's actually a decent set of council provided moorings in the Flash but whether we would have reached them, I really don't know. 
The Bottom Flash looking back towards the town
The spanking new moorings but how deep is the water
A shame really for some positive encouragement to visit the town at the end of the line would be no bad thing. Salt may have been one of man's most valuable trading commodities over the years but that doesn't seem to have rubbed off on downtown Winsford.
This is Winsford town centre - appealling, eh
It's had the crude, seventies style new town treatment. The 'High Street' is now a motorway style dual carriageway and the town centre a low-rent shopping mall with the usual money-saving shops. But there's an Aldi and an Asda too so plenty of choice for boaters who do manage to moor.
After our explore around the town and the Flash we were having a quiet cuppa on board when a man in a wet suit and flippers turned up on the jetty along with his clipboard wielding sidekick. Was this some sort of water based licence checking? Turns out they were doing water level inspections on the bridge, measuring water depths across the river with a neat little hand held sonar torch (the sort of thing that could be handy for us when searching for a bankside deep enough to get Harry into) and checking the bridge pillars for cracks and movement. They are specialists in river bridges, apparently - this was their eighth today. Fortunately this one wasn't about to fall down.

Our wet suited visitor paddles across to measure up the bridge