Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Heading home

Tug talking with Tebay at Tixall
We are on familiar territory now, heading down the Trent & Mersey towards Fradley and then off to Streethay Wharf to say hello to old mates.
Streethay was where we refitted Harry and turned it from fire ravaged wreck to handsome tug, and before that where we based our first boat, Star, for refitting. It's our boating home, I guess.
We paid a brief visit to Stafford; brief because it's such a dismal place: a variety of edge of town malls have sprung up, pulling away all the big stores, and leaving a vacuum in the town centre. Walking down the wide, pedestrianised main street with its closed shops and shabby seventies parades you expect to see tumbleweed rolling past. And all of it presided over by the vast ugly council offices, looking like something out of Soviet era East Germany.
From Stafford, the run is a level, lock-free one for several miles, generally accompanied by the railway. In a rare bout of incuriousity, we passed three people standing on isolated canal bridges looking into the distance. By not asking them what they were watching for we missed a steam train, which roared past just as we disappeared behind a belt of trees. I'm guessing it was the Flying Scotsman. Damn!
Hot air balloons rise into the clear sky
The final lock on the Staffs & Worcs brought us to the beautiful open expanse of Tixall Wide where we moored behind another handsome tug, Tebay and settled in for some tug talk. It's a historic 1929 boat with a Kelvin engine and even deeper in the water than us. On an evening stroll we saw a pair of hot air balloons go up and drift off across the clear sky, then spoke to some lads fishing - and one caught a pike right in front of us. It was young and about ten pounds but big enough and with teeth looking mean enough to make me stand well clear while he released it.

Just keep well clear of those teeth!
Today we've wandered down from Great Haywood where the S&W joins the Trent & Mersey amid an increasing number of boats and a corresponding decreasing number of mooring spots. Finally we've tied up just above Wood End Lock on the run in to Fradley junction.

Monday, 12 June 2017

What a difference a year makes

This canal is not short of locks - 33 since we started
Pretty much exactly a year ago we were coming through Awbridge Lock on our way down the Staff & Worcs and got talking to a couple of old boys about the forthcoming EU referendum.
“Oh yes, we’re voting leave” they agreed. “We want to make Britain great again.”
A year on, coming back up the canal we reached the same lock and reflected on what an extraordinary amount had changed in that twelve months. Contrary to what most of us anticipated, the country did vote for Brexit. We lost one Prime Minister and got a new one, the ex-Chancellor became a newspaper editor, the people’s apparent favourite as P.M. didn’t stand and Theresa May crept almost un-noticed in Number 10. And now she’s on the brink of going after Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘looney leftie’ proved to be a formidable campaigner and she proved to be anything but the ‘strong and stable’ leader she claimed to be. A lot happens in a year even when you’re enjoying life at 4mph. One thing's for sure: Britain's not yet great again.We are boating our way slowly east round the S&W after returning from a glorious week of walking on the Pennine Way. Well, five days’ of glorious walking and two of hiding from the rain in galleries, museums and shops! Where we are going, I can’t tell you because we don’t know ourselves!
Over the past three days we have meandered our way from Stourbridge to the outskirts of Stafford. The Staffs & Worcs is a strange canal; delightful in long stretches yet it’s hard to recall many individual locations. I frequently look at the name of a lock and can’t for the life of me recall what it looks like.
Terry the Terrapin looking lonely on his rock
The canal is at its best in the miles beween Stourton, where we joined, and before Wolverhampton rears its head. Weaving along between high trees, low cliffs and a small river, with locks often hewn out of the sandstone rockfaces, it feels more country river than once-industrial canal.
We enjoyed it in good weather (we spotted a large but lonely terrapin sunning itself on a rock) though the rain started as we neared the notorious narrows at Wolverhampton, where a section of hard rock meant the early navigators could only make a half mile of it, one boat wide, with occasional passing places. And, of course, on a day when there had been hardly any boats about, we met two exactly there. Fortunately the first warned us about the second so we were able to hang back and avoid traffic chaos. The rain got worse and we moored as soon as we were clear of Wolverhampton ‘bandit country’ within earshot of the M54.
We were now on the ten mile lock-free summit level which wanders around the desolate flat landscape there, passing a huge rail-interchange freight site which was just a plan a year ago but now looks well into the build.
After that, we began our descent towards the little town of Penkridge (one of few towns on the route. What peace this countrified route once enjoyed has long been shattered by the M6 which runs noisily close to the canal for miles here.
The massive B52 climbs into the sky
Smaller but no less thrilling, the Flying Fortress
And there was more noise, too, when a huge USAF eight engined B52 Strato-cruiser banked across the sky, followed shortly by a tiny (in comparison) WW2 Flying Fortress. They were stars of the nearby Cosford Airshow, though sadly the only ones we saw.
Today we’ve moved on through more miles of bland country, interspersed with scattered locks to the edge of Stafford. Tomorrow it will be Great Haywood and then where? Who knows. A bit like the state of the country right now.