Friday, 30 January 2015

The white stuff

The view from the front doors this morning
It's been threatening for a couple of days but when I opened the front doors this morning, the snow had finally arrived. Quietly and secretly in the middle of the night.
There's not been much of it here at Alrewas – just a couple of inches – but enough to turn the trees, the towpath and the boats into monochrome.
Unfortunately, tonight as I write this, most of it has gone, leaving behind a mushy, puddle ridden towpath and slippery, slushy pavements.
We've been here in the pretty village of Alrewas for a couple of days now. We had our day out in Derby – a mixed bag of a town with some handsome old buildings and a pretty Cathedral Quarter but a place that didn't seem to have much of a centre given the extent of its suburbs - and then went from Willington down to Burton for the compulsory Lidl fix.
A study in monochrome
Next day started bright, cold and sunny so we pressed on - and on a bit more - to get through the long straight and noise stretch beside the A38 trunk road. With bad weather forecast I also wanted to get up the infamous 'river section' where the Trent crosses the canal. Heavy rain can quickly raise the levels and the river's flow to make the short section impassable and shut the canal until the weather improves.
It's curious that Brindley allowed such a weak spot in his busy canal but perhaps the wide, flat Trent flood plains made it impossible to cross the river by a more reliable and weatherproof aqueduct.
Anyway, we have walked the village streets and footpaths here twice now and there's lots to admire: Alrewas's proximity to the A38 and surrounding large towns makes it a desirable spot to live but though it's grown in size, it hasn't lost its traditional English village core. And it's a friendly place which enjoys having the canal and its boats: a place where passers-by give cheery greetings.
We will weekend here and then head Fradley-wards where our imprisoning lock is soon due to re-open.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The land of the lost

Silhouetted against the setting sun, the distance domes of the summer house
It was a beautiful evening as we approached Swarkestone Lock, the golds and reds of the setting sun silhouetting some elegantly curvaceous Jacobean domed rooftops in the distance. This is the Summer House, all that remains of a Tudor mansion demolished way back in the mid 18th century.
By a curious piece of architectural trickery it looks like a square building with a domed roof at each corner so when we walked there the following morning it was a surprise to find an almost two dimensional structure; two domed corners buttressing the shallow building between and all surrounded by a stone wall which apparently marked out ye olde bowling alley.
The house is a quarter mile or so from the village with just a solid old church and a smattering of small properties nearby. Yet the spot reeks of the past; crumbled stone walls all about that must have marked out the boundaries of maybe the kitchen garden, a field or two, even some of the hall itself. A bit like wandering amid Roman ruins. Only the drone from the busy main road 50 yards away spoiled the atmosphere. The church was sadly locked but the graveyard still worth a visit, with its many elegantly worked slate gravestones that appear impermeable to the ravages of time and weather.
We followed the footpath into the main village, notable for its handsome 18th century stone bridge over the Trent and the long multiple arches that carry on from it to take the road over the flood plain.

In daylight, the handsome yet oddly proportion building sits in isolation
 Slate gravestones have lost none of their delicate tracery in 200 years

By Swarkestone lock is the remains of the old Derby Canal
It wasn't far from Shardlow to Swarkestone; about five miles – but it was a hard five miles. The canal was built with wide locks between the Trent and Burton, presumably so barges could carry cargoes to and from the thriving brewing town. We've done lots of wide locks in our time but these had some of the nastiest I've encountered at Aston and Weston. Ferociously difficult to open and, when you've got them open, prone to swinging closed when you want them to stay open or open when you want them to stay closed. The two bottom gates at Aston simply refused to stay shut to let me start filling the lock. And if I cracked a top paddle to start a flow of water to push them closed; well they simply refused to open against the force of water. In the end Mrs B had to come and help. How does a solo boater manage? I think they are verging on the dangerous – the ferocity with which a gate swings open could easily side-swipe someone into the lock.
At Swarkestone itself the Derby & Sandiacre Canal once joined the T&M but it's long gone and only a stub used for mooring remains. There's a restoration plan but it looks like a tough haul.
From Swarkestone we had an easier run; just one more wide lock at Stenson (where we saw – and hard – a white (white! yuk) Lamorghini leave the pub car park) and then mooring at Willington ready for a bus trip to Derby next day.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Starting at the beginning

The iconic Clock Warehouse that straddles one of Shardlow's basins
We are off. We left Shardlow this afternoon on what I am calling the 'official start' of our 2015 cruising. I know it's not not January 1st but if The Queen can have an official birthday then I can have an official start to the year's boating.
And Shardlow seems a very good place to start. It's the southern end of the Trent & Mersey Canal and the most complete example of what the canals were all about – a magnificent inland port that was dubbed 'rural Rotterdam' in its heyday.
You can't be in Shardlow without giving a respectful nod to the bold and brave entrepreneurs who came up with the idea for a 93 mile canal driven across England to link the Trent with the Mersey way back in 1766 when roads were mud tracks and the only JCB was a bloke with a pick and shovel. And credit to James Brindley who took the task on and got it built in only 11 years. A 93 mile motorway would probably take us close on 11 years these days!
The old salt warehouse that houses the Heritage Centre
Sad sight: the canalside warehouses slipping further into decay
Broughton House, looking out on the river was home to the wealthy Sutton family
Shardlow is a marvellous relic of that period, with its famous clock warehouse (now a pub) that straddles one of the old basins, canalside wharves, warehouses, a proliferation of pubs and a variety of substantial houses. The whole village, which spreads a mile up the road from the river and canal, has numerous large Georgian and Victorian houses, emphasising just how much wealth surrounded the canal and the river before it, which had a historic crossing place close by. Remarkably there are more than 50 listed buildings in this small place. Find out more via Wikipedia.
This handsome grain barn is one of several around the village
Unfortunately, a relic is what Shardlow is these days. It was sad to return after a few years to see the canalside warehouses near the lock and main road bridge still empty and even further decayed. Sad, too,  to discover the Heritage Centre was shut until Easter and in its absence absolutely nothing to inform the passing boater or walker about the historic importance of the place. Astonishingly, there are no interpretation boards, no plaques on houses, nothing. That's unforgiveable. I remember visiting a tiny village on the Fossdyke in Lincolnshire where the local history society had put an information plaque on every interesting house. If they can do it, surely Shardlow with so much more history, can?
Rather more modern, the elegant footbridge across the Trent
We spent a couple of days here – there are lovely walks along the canal and riverside, the footpath looping over the river on a magnificent modern bridge – but a couple of days was enough. We were running short of food! Seriously, the tiny village shop and PO is a 20 minute each way walk from the canal. That's a long trip for a bottle of milk and a paper.
Hopefully next time we are there, things will have brightened up. Shardlow is a wonderful piece of our history that deserves to be looked after better.
Photos of Clock Warehouse, by Shaggy359; grain barn by Russ Hamer. Both licensed under CC  via Wikimedia