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.


  1. Hi Kevin - regularly follow your blog. A blow getting stuck on the Llangollen though. What does Harry draw (and what was Star come to that) ? Thanks in anticipation - Nick and Deb (nb Brutus Maximus - 60ft Tug - hence the interest in learning of draught !). PS : keep up the great recipes Vicky !

  2. We are 3ft give or take an inch or so depending on state of fuel and water tanks, Star was 2ft 6in.
    I think the real issue was that CRT dropped the levels - it was much harder coming back than going up.
    Steve Haywood (also 3ft) following a few days later got thru ok albeit with a few sticky patches.
    If it hadn't been for the upcoming stoppages we would probably have hung around for a few days to let the levels come back (as you know the canal is fed from the river above Llangollen and takes water to the reservoir at Hurleston) and had a go at carrying on. (Vicky says thanks for the compliment BTW)