Saturday, 29 August 2009

Barging in

If there's one thing that irritates narrowboaters it's having their boats called 'barges'. Clearly no-one told Kirklees Council. But, never mind, they did provide ample wheelie bins at Slaithwaite for us bargees.


Creeping into Huddersfield
Vibrant. I think that's the word a tourist officer would use to describe Huddersfield. In an afternoon stroll we took in its magnificent wide streets of Georgian buildings – and a stupendous Palladian railway station that looks more like the British Museum -- a big African wedding, vivid with colourful costumes, the Open Air Market whose stalls selling everything from knock-off dvds to rusty tools to random piles of old shoes could have been in any third world country, and a flashy new shopping mall.
Quite a place but I don't think I'd like to wander round it at night.

Second thoughts

A rainbow moment on a dismal day
Magnificent Titanic Mill
Blimey. It's been a long, hard, tiring and ultimately not very rewarding slog to get down the 21 locks and half a dozen miles from Slaithwaite to Huddersfield.
The weather didn't help - strong winds brought alternately heavy showers and bright sunshine (plus that Pennine speciality heavy rain and sun at the same time!).
The locks were hellish – more than half were 'one paddle wonders' with at least one of the top or bottom paddles out of action. And where the evidently unreliable hydraulic paddles gave way to mechanical bottom paddles these were usually fiendishly heavy, even with a long handled windlass.
Low point was getting fired at by kids with catapults. No damage done but annoying.They were playing on a demolition site, one of many along the way where the old mills are being flattened. There are so many of these monuments to dead industry, monumentally built and glorious looking but useless now. A shame that their replacements are the faceless and bland steel warehouse sheds.
Some have survived as apartments - like the magnificent Titanic Mill, set on a rugged hillside with church steeple and dark gritstone houses that looks unchanged from Victorian times.
But back to the descent. At lock 12E we were completely stuck. The lock wouldn't fill the last inch and we (that's me, Vicky and two teenage lads we roped in) couldn't shift the gate open.
A phone call to BW was needed. I can imagine the response at the other end. "Ee, there's boat stuck at 12E again - get Big Bert down there." And Big Bert duly arrived, all six feet two and 20-odd stone of him (distributed mostly around the middle). He leant on the gate arm - and it moved, just like that.
The lads and us were amazed. "I gave it all I'd got!" said one. Actually he was a good lad - just starting training as a metal fabricator with a job and a course - plus no less than 14 GCSEs. Good luck to him!
On down the flight we found ourselves almost awash in water. It was pouring round the by-washes and out of one lock and over the top of the next lock down. You hardly needed to use a paddle to fill it.
So when we came to leave 5E and found ourselves grounded in six inches of muddy swill, we were amazed. Where had all the water gone? I had to flush through another lockful to push us down to the next lock. We scraped on through and then crept cautiously through the subterranen string of new tunnels and cuttings that bring the canal past the university and towards its end...where we got grounded again at the final lock! I thought we were there for the night but much pulling and pole-ing got us off and through.
At 8.30pm after ten hours and 21 locks we moored by the uni, Starwoman cooked up a quick dinner and we crashed out.
Only to be woken at 2.30 am by a thump on the boat! I looked out and saw a leg up against the roof. As much puzzled as annoyed I asked it what it was doing. "I just wanted to climb on the roof and have a look at the view," explained its owner with a stupid, happy-drunk grin. "Well don't; we're in here and we're trying to sleep" I said. And he wobbled off.

Friday, 28 August 2009

What do we do now?

It may look like a hideous mistake but this is actually BW's perfectly sensible way of working boats up and down a water-less pound on the Huddersfield Narrow.
Star slithered down to the lock entrance while there was still water in the pound then when the water was emptied in to the lock to fill it for the up-coming boat we got manhandled out of the way to let him out before scraping our way in. On one we were firmly stuck and needed a few extra inches let through from above.
Any other way could have seen us marooned out of reach in mid-pound when the water was dropped.
It's boating captain, but not as we know it!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Despite it all, a lovely canal

Despite the problems with lack of water and some heavy locks, the Huddersfield Narrow is a marvellous canal. It's a lot more enjoyable than the reputation that goes before it - thanks in large part to the efforts of the BW men on the ground who work wonders to keep boats running up and down the east side.
Makes you wonder whether some of the millions being spent on long term restoration projects and city centre waterway schemes might not be better earmarked for getting some of our existing canals like this one working properly.

Boating without water

Where did all the water go?
At the top and ready to go down
Sleeping in to recover from pies and pints, we were woken up by a knock on the hatch. "Are you ready to go?" asked a cheery, windlass wielding man from British Waterways. Well we weren't but we had to be.
This side of the canal has critically low water levels and the BW team were to guide us down through the next twenty-odd locks, passing a similar team doing the same thing coming up. It's all a question of saving water - making sure that what comes out of one lock goes to fill the next one down rather than being wasted round the sides in the over-flow 'by-washes'.
And it all went swingingly well until about lock 31 when I found myself trying to boat over a coating of mud decorated with a rock garden along the edges. Star had to be flushed-through to the next lock. Not quite toilet style but similar in fashion -- fill up the lock above, empty its contents and flush Star through with the extra water.
Repeat several times as necesary over the succeeding locks. It's a recurring problem on the HNC: apparently when BW gave up on the canal after the war they leased away the reservoir water supply that fed it. Now we've got the canal back but not the water to fill it!
Still, we finally made it to Slaithwaite and our overnight halt, 21 locks later. And all on a couple of teacups of water. The next 21 to Huddersfield will hopefully be easier.

The best pub yet - really

Congratulatory phonecall interrupts meat pie consumption

Vicky and new best friend Max!
After a tough day underground (and not forgetting eight hard locks that morning to get up to it) a pint or two and some sort of hefty meal with chips was definitely called for.
And that's what we got at our new "best pub on the trip" the Tunnel End Inn just up the hill from the Marsden side of the tunnel. It was even "Pie Night"! And on top of that, the guest beers were just £2 a pint.
It was also like a village local used to be -- simple, friendly, no frills but good beer, welcoming landlord and landlady, chatty locals (rather than the sort who all shut up as soon as you walk in) an endearing old dog called Max, and a great meat and potato pie meal with chips and mushy peas. I only wish we lived closer; it would soon be our local. Heartily recommended.
They don't do meals every night but if you phone up and say you're a boater then they'll try to sort you out. Can't ask more than that.

Longest, highest, deepest - and we did it

We disappeared through the deceptively ordinary entrance into the black depths of the Standedge Tunnel and 1.00 pm and emerged two hours and seven minutes later from the much more impressive Marsden portal where the full mass of the Pennines you've just been through are revealed.
The Standedge is like no other tunnel. It's largely hewn and blasted from the rock as its jagged sides and numerous pick-axe marks reveal. Occasionally it opens out into cavernous spaces, at other times it's tight and low with the rocks closing in and threatening to rip the paint off your boat.
Even more remarkably it's part of a whole maze of tunnels - one active rail tunnel, two disused rail tunnels (one now a roadway used by BW to monitor boaters on the trip) and a myriad cross connections between them all.
Boats used to be towed through but now it's self drive though you travel with a BW chaperone who warns you of tricky spots and reports in to base at four brief stopping points en route. Geoff was the poor sod who got the short straw of travelling on Star's tiny back deck and breathing the exhaust smoke from our roof-exit chimney for two hours. He wasn't as talkative about the tunnel's history as some -- maybe he preferred keeping his mouth tightly closed against carbon monoxide!
It's full lifejacket and hard hat rules - a bit over the top you might think but a BW guide did get knocked off the counter of a boat a few weeks back by a rock maybe a good idea after all.
It is a fascinating tunnel but, to be honest, 5686 yards (3 1/4 miles), is a bit of a long time to be breathing exhuast fumes and worrying about avoiding stuff so I was kind of glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It was, as they say, "a once in a lifetime experience".

Monday, 24 August 2009

A gentle after dinner stroll!

The trouble with looking out of the boat at hills all around you is that you're tempted to walk up them. And once you start going up it's hard to stop until you've reached the top.
Which is usually twice as far away as it looked when you started off.
Yesterday we walked up from Roaches Lock to the top of the nearest hill and found ourselves in Roughtown - a place that sounds like is belongs in an American comic book. The streets are so steep they really need motorised wheelie bins and god knows how you push a pushchair.
Tonight we set off (or rather up) from Uppermill. The road turned into a 'not suitable for motors' track, which turned into a steep, cobbled trail, which brought us out onto a breathtaking panorama of hills and moors lit by the low evening sun.
Now that made a fantastic walk...but up on the hilltop above us was a magnificent obelisk. It had to be done. Twenty minutes of gasping, panting, slipping, nearly falling backwards into a gorse bush and we were there – even if most my lungs seemed to be still severak hundred feet below.
The obelisk turned out to be Saddleworth's war memorial, erected in 1923. It's on Alderman's Hill, also known as the 'Pots and Pans' after the huge, curiously shaped rock formations near the memorial, 1200 feet above sea level and the views are truly awesome; hills beyond hills to the north, south and west, the entire valley below and the open Penine moorland to the east.
Well worth the effort. And a good excuse for a large chunk of cake and a couple of glasses of wine back at the boat!
Photo: copyright Andy Stephenson, used under Creative Commons licence.

Edging towards the tunnel

We've been creeping slowly up the HNC towards Standedge Tunnel. Creeping because you can't go fast – it's too shallow for that – and creeping because British Waterways phoned on Friday to say a lock was damaged and we might not be able to go through anyway so we might have to turn round.
It's been a bit of a love hate thing. Stalybridge was a mess (see previous rant!) and even well beyond it lock entrances were marked by floating rafts of crap.
After Stalybridge we met our first boat – at a blind bridge hole of course – and both of us went aground in the shallow sides trying to pass. After that we met another going our way and crossed locks with one bringing tales of woe (water shortages and damaged locks) from the other side. Amazingly, though, we've met three today, all coming back from trips to Uppermill, the pretty canalside village where we're now moored up.
It's a far cry from a few years back when, according to a local walker, "the canal was alive with boats – they used to have to queue for the locks at times"
Sad, really, for the canal's not that difficult even if the locks do come at the rate of two or three a mile! It follows the river through stretches made lush and green thanks to the frequent rain while the ridges of Saddleworth moor, splashed with purple heather, rise high and spectacularly above. It's an altogether bleaker, more harsh terrain than the Peak District we've just left.
And it's raining – again. Rain never seems far away here. But we're cheered up by news from BW that the lock is fixed and we're still on schedule for the tunnel trip on Wednesday.

Time for another rant

The re-opening of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was one of the canal regeneration movement's greatest triumphs and at Stalybridge on the edge of Manchester it forms the centrepiece for the regeneration of the local area too.
Or, as Nicholson's Guide puts it: "Enthusiasm for the navigation is universal.....a vibrant waterway...colourful with boats....reminiscent of a Dutch town."
Yeah right! Now the waterway is vibrant with litter and colourful with graffiti. And we were the only boat!
What is it about this country that we can let a place deteriorate like this. The citizens of Stalybridge were gifted a marvellous waterside at a cost of millions and this is what they've done to it.
A minority of them, I know, but that's enough. And it's tolerated - why isn't the litter collected; why aren't the canal bridge arches painted with anti-vandal paint; where are the litter bins? (Dukinfield Junction at the start of the canal is ankle deep in litter - it's clearly never cleaned up and there's not a bin in sight. That just encourages more mindless litter throwing.)
Reminiscent of a Dutch town? You must be joking!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Saved by the Germans

Winning the war on the fallen tree!

Fortunately I wasn't wearing my 'Two world wars and one world cup" tee-shirt today.
We came out of Hyde Bank Tunnel below Marple locks to discover the canal blocked by a large fallen horse chestnut branch, with a couple of hireboaters moored up on the other side wondering what to do.
We phoned BW then set to with loppers and my puny woodworking handsaw to try and clear the mess but what was really needed was some help.
"Sorry, we just phoned my hire company and they said not to get involved and leave it to BW," said the hireboaters. "I guess we'll just put the kettle on and wait."
Not so the Germans! They arrived behind us in another hireboat and soon took charge. "Ve vill push it out of ze vay. Don't vorry ve are sailor-men." (actually their English was fine but we Brits always have to do the pretend German accent stuff). And they did; getting a rope under the trunk, round the T-stud and giving the engine plenty of welly.
Off to the side went the tree and off down the cut went we.
"To be honest, I don't know how they lost the war," muttered Starwoman. "We'd all be sitting around drinking tea and waiting for British Waterways and they'd be getting on with it."

Flight of fancy

The guidebooks will tell you that the 16 locks of the Marple Flight are one of the most picturesque in the country. What they won't tell you is that they are bloody hard worrk.
The mile long flight certainly is beautiful, the second half especially feels like it's in a country park, running through tall trees between which can be glimpsed distant views of the other side of the Goyt Valley.
But the locks drop you down 214 feet so they're big and big usually does mean heavy. The huge bottom gates were hard work even when the lock was emptied and, as for the paddles well some I couldn't wind up and had to resort to taking the windlass out and moving it around to find the optimum angle for a quarter turn heave before moving it round again. Wimp that I am!
Anyway, we were in the first at 8.15 and out the last at 10.50, didn't see a soul and moored just below the flight moments before a cloudburst. Not bad.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Meet our new friend. Pidg (aka Starbird) is a racing pigeon we found looking rather sorry for himself near the boat at Bugsworth.
Now don't go confusing racing pigeons with those ugly old wood pigeons. Starbird was a handsome fella: slim and elegant with beautiful grey/blue plumage and delicate brown bars on his wings. He also had a ring on his leg and we spent ages tempting him closer with morsels of bread so we could read the number and help him home.
The Royal Racing Pigeon Society website said "give him food and drink and he'll usually find his own way home." Which he did, consuming two slices of Tesco Finest bread and flying off in the evening, never to be seen again.
Until the next afternon when there on the deck was Starbird looking for food again. Now the previous day he did look thin but today he already looked pretty plump -- but still managed to force down a slice of bread, pushing it down into his crop with huge, gulping swallows like a fat man gulping a supersized Big Mac.
Nor did he show any inclination to go - hopping down into the boat to take a good look around, at the bed, the galley and even the engine before finally flying off.
So was Pidg really a waif or was he a local bird who'd discovered that fluttering down to the Basin for a feed from the boaters was a whole lot easier than battling back to his coop from some distant destination? Or maybe he'll even decide to follow us!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The best pub yet

As we lay in bed, sated by huge dinners and soothed by pints of beer we voted The Navigation at Bugsworth Basin the best pub yet on our trip. By a country mile.
It's a friendly, welcoming place; big yet still cosy, full of canal memorabilia yet not 'themed'. A good selection of brown beer – and served properly warm, too (pauses for rant: why do so many pubs that sell 'real ale' then freeze it like bloody lager? The northern penchant for foamy tops I'll accept as a regional difference but not an ice cold pint!).
And then the food – lamb and mint pudding! Y'can't beat a good suet pudding and this was certainly good. Mine came with chips (of course) while Starwoman opted for the sensible new potatoes. And wished she hadn't when she saw my succulent, widebeam sized chips. Even the veg was good instead of the usual over-done limp excuse you get.
Not a 'gastro-pub' (thank god) but a proper boozer selling good, sturdy pub grub. Can't beat it!

Surprise ending

The Peak Forest Canal has a somewhat misleading name. It provides plenty of peaks but rather little by way of forest.
I was expecting something like a higher altitude Caldon, edging round some wooded hillsides but in fact it winds almost vertiginously at times along the top of the steep (and I mean steep) Goyt valley with simply stunning views across to the Peak District hills on the other side.
It's surprisingly wide and open in places; a little tight and overgrown in others, true. And though it's only half a dozen miles from Marple to the end of the canal, that end is well worth the short trip. Bugsworth Basin is an extraordinary place.
Like Froghall, it's another of those transhipment basins where limestone was brought down from the Peak District mines to be burned in kilns to produce lime or shipped off as stone. But this is on a wholly different scale to Froghall.
Put it this way, it can hold so many boats that if the place was privately owned and run as a marina you could livev very comfortably on the income. When we arrived there were probably 30 boats moored in the three arms of the basin and you could certainly fit a dozen more.
Only fragments of buildings survive and yet their shells, the interlinking arms, the bridges, all now restored and conserved (thanks to huge volunteer effort again) all conjure a vivid image of what was once there. Helped by first class interpretation boards, a large model and ample brochures in help-yourself bins.
What a place!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Decision made!

The decision is made! It's Standedge Tunnel for us next Wednesday. Two hours underground. I don't know whether I'm looking forward to it or not. Tell you on Thursday!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Where next?

We're at something of a crossroads – literally as well as figuratively. Soon we'll be at the end of the Macclesfield. Now we want to cross the Pennines. But do we go via the Huddersfield Narrow Canal or the Rochdale? Both involve planning ahead and booking so it's time to choose.

The Huddersfield Narrow is said to be prettier and it includes the Standedge Tunnel (longest, deepest etc etc). But is that a plus or a minus? I'm not sure I fancy over two hours underground in a narrow tunnel. And it's tight enough to maybe damage your boat in places.
On the other hand, boaters we've met on this trip who've used the Rochdale say the Manchester end is "revolting" – full of rubbish. There's no tunnel though!

So time to toss a coin perhaps!

Magnificent mills

Three magnificent mills are unmissable features of the Macclesfield. There's the huge Hovis flour mill at Macclesfield itself and two former mills at Bollington, both memorials to another lost industry – silk weaving. Pictured is the superb Clarence Mill by the Bollington Aqueduct.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The remarkable Macca

We been from one fabulous canal to another. From Brindley's Cauldon to Telford's Macclesfield. How utterly different they are. One romances the landscape, the other bosses it.
Brindley's canals work with the land they run through, caressing the contours, twisting and snaking around hills, easing diplomatically past obstacles. Telford didn't have time for that sort of nonsense. His canals went where he wanted them too and if the landscape got in the way, he embanked it, cut through it or built across it. The Macclesfield is a masterclass: this is no tame terrain, easily managed but rugged, hilly country and he's dominated it with his man-made engineering. Only in the face of the biggest obstacles like the massive 'The Cloud' hill does he give way and even then it's a series of straight lines and 90 degree corners. His Bosley lock flight is a series of big solid steps, built in huge limestone slabs. The Bollington Aqueduct (pictured) towers above the village in the valley.
It's not just a spectacular canal but a tribute to a great engineer.

Peaky and perky

Starwoman was feeling a little peaky today and I was quite perky so I volunteered to lockwheel us up the twelve Bosley locks while she helmed the boat.
Two hours later, at the top of the flight, I was a little peaky and she was perky.

Cow in the cut

A few moments after we took this picture we heard a loud splash and the black and white cow was in the cut. A few cow-paddle strokes later and it hauled itself out remarkably nimbly – but on the towpath side, leaving all its mates staring and mooing in bemusement from the field.
The farm was nearby: we stopped and Starwoman ran up to tell the farmer. "Oh don't worry, it'll get out" he replied. "It has," she said "on the towpath". "Oh boogger, that's tricky, " he reflected.
Reckon the only way he'll get her back is to push her back in and make her swim back!

Night caller

Last night, moored up in the middle of nowhere, we were both woken about 3.0 a.m. by a distinct 'thud' on the outside of the boat. It wasn't really heavy enough to be a person (well that's my excuse for not getting up to investigate) so we lay awake for a while listening. All was silent and we drifted back to sleep.
Next morning the evidence was clear for Sherlock Starwoman to investigate. "It seems to have come aboard at the tippet, started to go along the outside gunwale, decided it was too close to the water and gone along the other side to the front instead. You can see that it seems to have shook water off itself here (points to small dirty marks on deck) and jumped up here (points to locker). But what was it, Watson?"
Well I reckon a cat out for a prowl – even though we were a long way from any house. Sherlock is still not convinced. What do you think? They're small prints - little more than an inch long so it wasn't a mystery puma!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Harecastle Tunnel

I'm not a great fan of tunnels but I almost enjoyed the Harecastle – thanks in large part to my new LED head-torch. Despite having the biggest tunnel lamp on the planet (a Francis searchlight) you still feel isolated and in the dark at the back of the boat.
But the bright LED headtorch means I can look at the walls, spot water drips and simply see the rest of the boat. It's surprisingly comforting.

Danny champion of the locks

I have to admit that we were both suspicious of the lad walking along the towpath, cap down, beside the boat in Stoke, speeding up when we did, slowing down as we did to keep pace with us. I almost knew what he had in mind when we stopped at the coming lock.
Except I didn't. Danny just wanted to help. On school holiday, bored, enjoying the boats (he'd even lived on one for a while) he wanted to hold ropes, work a windlass, help open and shut lock gates.
He helped us through the last three locks en route to Etruria and then stopped for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a chat.
A thoroughly nice lad, in fact.

And then while we sitting on the boat, we heard shouting. Some other lads, Danny's age, were throwing apples at an old lady walking along the towpath - and had hit her. We shouted at them to leave her alone and they did – only to come back an hour later and bombard us. Reasoning, shouting and ignoring didn't get rid of them and when we threatened to call the police they just laughed. So we did. And, amazingly, a policewoman (quite a stunner I'll whisper while Starmwoman's not listening) was round within ten minutes. There'd been other complaints; they were in the area so they came round, knew the kids and were going to talk to their parents.

Moral One: don't judge every kid on first impressions and Moral Two: don't be afraid to complain if you do get a problem.
The shame of it is that those kids were not that different to Danny; all they needed was a bit of guidance, probably from parents, to get them on the right track.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Taking the Leek

We were tempted to by-pass the Leek branch of the Caldon – just three or four miles ending in the middle of nowhere.
I'm so glad we didn't – it was a delight and so different from the rest of the Caldon. Swing hairpin left from the top of the Hazelhurst Locks and you follow a canal that winds around the sides of steep hills, often offering breathtaking views. It's narrow in places and there are many moored boats along the opening mile or two but then it gradually opens out, each corner widening almost into a pool.
And suddenly the most spectacular sight of all appears. There on the horizon, towering fully 100 feet above the surrounding treetops is an enormous Gothic tower, so out of scale it could be a giant's plaything.
It is, in fact the water tower of the Victorian St Edwards "lunatic asylum" at Cheddleton, 135 feet tall and built in 1897. The hospital shut in the 1990s and the site is being redeveloped. Apparently the amazing tower was due for demolition (what little regard we have for the masterpieces of the past!) but was bought and converted into a private home. Lucky owner.
The finish of the Leek is less downbeat than the guides suggest. Go through the short tunnel, wind and you can reverse to moor up barely 15 minutes from Leek town itself. This morning we walked to the hilltop by the tunnel and gazed at a panorama of green rolling hills. There still in the distance above them all was that remarkable giant's castle.

Body Mass Index 19th century style

You won't get through these stone wall stiles if you've had too many pies!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Tight fit

The Froghall Tunnel might only be 76 yards long but they're the longest yards you can imagine when you go into it for the first time.

But it's all worthwhile when you come out the other end and lock through into the almost deserted basin leaving all the more modern craft with steep sides and cratches grinding their teeth with frustration outside on the unappealling mooring outside the copper factory.

Even if you can't make the final yards Froghall is still well worth a visit. It's steeped in history – it's almost impossible to believe that not much more than a hundred years ago this tranquil, rural valley was alive with the smoke, noise and grime of limestone mining and burning. At its peak 6000 tons of limestone a week were mined and more than a thousand men worked here.

And what is left? Apart from the giant lime kilns seen here and at Consall, and a cluster of buildings round the basin, including the delightful wharf house pictured, virtually nothing.

We took a three hour walk round the area (the 'Blue Walk' on the information office's map.) We walked up through the valley along the line of the now almost invisible plateway down which waggonloads of limestone descended to the wharf. Here and there can be seen hewn away rock faces while the path below has odd chunks of wall beside it and hewn stone underfoot. Near the top of the slope a magnificent stone accommodation bridge stood in the middle of nowhere, still linking two farmfields above what was the once busy track. The sight of these remnants of a lost past gave a tiny insight into what explorers must have felt as they stumbled onto made man ruins lost in jungle or desert.
The walk then took us out into the open fields at the top of the valley with spectacular views in all directions before bropping back down into the Basin. If you visit you must do it!

Call of the Caldon

I knew I would love the Caldon from the moment we came out of the staircase lock at Etruria and started around the first gradual left hand curve. On one side the narrow waterway was edged by a solid limestone wall, worn and green with age. A row of terraced houses looked on. Across the water sat a substantial old red brick industrial building.
We seemed to have slipped back a hundred years.
All that changed rather quickly as we wound through Hanley under elegant iron bridges and past a busy park, then along a partially regenerated section, where good looking modern houses and new canalside moorings mixed with still active pottery works.
The Caldon is all about history, being built to bring limestone from the hills around the Churnet valley. As we dropped steadily down into that valley, open views gave way to glorious steeply rising forested slopes. The canal is narrow, shallow – we had to drag a reluctant Star through the summit section before the Hazelhurst locks – but always rewarding. We visited the ancient, waterwheel powered flint mill at Cheddleton - restored, working, preserved and supervised by enthusiastic volunteers. And, amazingly, free!
And the canal's full of pubs! We overnighted at the excellent Holly Bush at Denton (two big pie dinners and a couple of pints of Theakstons Old Peculier for eighteen quid) and planned to stop the next night at the famous Consall Black Lion. Unfortunately we hit it on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the whole area teemed with visitors; kids jumping off the bridge into the river, the pub awash. It was far from the remote canalside pub of legend. (We walked back from Froghall a couple of nights later though and discovered its quieter side. You couldn't ask for a more picturesquely set boozer.)
We managed the traditional snap of boat, boozer and steam train too -- but why did all the trains have to be decorated with pink Thomas the Tank Engine faces? Can't kids enjoy a steam ride without this? I'm afraid grumpy old man got his Photoshop out and obliterated it!
The last lock (17) on the canal has Blackwall Tunnel style dangling flags to deter the too-high from tackling the short but low – five feet maximum – tunnel into Froghall basin. We clipped a couple but (like Blackwall Tunnel lorry drivers) decided to have a go anyway.
And we got through with the merest scrape of paint off the front of the handrails, edging our way like a blind man with Starwoman easing the cabin away from the walls as we went.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


It takes a long time to get into Stoke, as the canal glides through wide fields and tidy suburbs but when you get there, it's fascinating. Relics of old industry are spread along the canalside - some of them obvious like the famous bottle kilns, others just enigmatic brick skeletons of what was once there.
You pass wonderful (to a southern jessie) names like 'Jones & Shufflebottom, Plumbers Merchants', a boatyard that has everything from chandlery to fishing bait, tacle (sic), airguns and even a 10 metre shooting range.
And then you reach Etruria and the fine Etruria Industrial Museum based around Jesse Shirley's Etruscan bone mill where cattle bones, flint and stone were ground by massive steam powered machinery for over 100 years until the 1970s to provide the basis for the 'bone china' the Potteries are famous for.
The scale of the machinery is stupendous - the huge beam engine that drives a system of cartwheel sized gears to turn the grinding mechanism, the boiler (still warm on Thursday after it had been run on Sunday). The scale and enterprise of it all takes your breath away.
But there's a sadness too. The smoke and stink that hung over the Potteries may have gone but so too have the mines, much of the industry and, above all, the inventiveness and farsightedness of men like Wedgwood, Shirley, Watt, Boulton, Priestley, Erasmus Darwin and the rest who created and spurred on the industrial revolution. And what are we left with? Wedgwood sold to an American firm that wants to "outsource" jobs from Barlaston to Indonesia, the car industry sold to India and China, no coal industry and us Brits shuffling imports around vast distribution warehouses or blagging a life in banking. And much of canalside Stoke literally flattened – razed to the ground in a vast rebuilding job. It's an impressive effort but what will the result be? Lines of look-alike canalside flats and grey, steel warehousing?
Grumpy old man speech over.
But do go to the Etruria Museum -- the best £2.50 you can spend outside of a pub!

The hunter

Moored at Barlaston we watched this heron patiently and stealthily stalk its prey. It moved slowly and silently through the water watching the surface intently, then struck swiftly, its head almost always coming up with a small fish wriggling in the beak before it was swallowed down.

Made me recall the poor, miserable looking heron we saw ekeing out a living on that filthy black stretch of the Soar in Leicester. If it only knew what the world was like a few days' flying time away it would take wing for Staffordshire.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

(Very) last orders

Please obey licensing laws even when contemplating drowning! (Sign on wall of Star Inn, Stone)


Star in Star Lock, Stone

I think I must have been. I really can't remember much of yesterday at all! Basically we drifted up towards Stone (hence the bad pun of the title) in drizzly rain and moored up at the bottom of the four locks there before lunch.
And there we stayed. Stone, according to a town information leaflet picked up at the lock, is "the food and drink capital of Staffordshire". More like the canal capital, with four locks, as many boatyards and plenty of historic canal stuff to see. But canals don't sponsor tourist guides, restaurants and pubs do!
We had home cooked lamb shanks (from the famous Alrewas butcher and very good too) with our on-board stock of booze. Sorry Stone. But we did come away with shopping and a fistful of charity shop paperbacks.
At about 8.00 pm, after a long spell of quiet, a boat came down through the bottom lock and we briefly thought about going through the bottom lock and we briefly thought about going up while they were all in our favour. But only briefly; laziness won out.
A pity; this morning we had to go up the lot in a queue with no-one coming the other way so the full empty and re-fill routine was needed each time. Before the third lock we even fitted in a canal-style pit stop, tanking up with diesel, dumping the rubbish and emptying the toilet - and all before the lock was ready for us!
Ten minutes further on and it was the same game all over again - four more locks and all running against us. Why did I volunteer to do the lock wheeling today.
At the top lock a 'vintage' cycle tourist parked his elderly but quality (Reynolds 531, Campag etc) bike and pulled a flask of tea from his pannier. Then he sat down on the grass and rolled himself a fag! Don't think Bradley Wiggins would have approved...
After all that energetic stuff we moored early by the Wedgwood factory and went for a look around the visitor centre – fascinating stuff but leave your wallet behind unless you're an American or Japanese tourist. Even the greetings cards in the gift shop are expensive!

PS Saw some very nice tugs around Stone -- very jealous of the Roger Fuller built 'Zulu' , ditto of another 'Zephyr', a bit less so of a RW Davis 'Beast' (I sense these as a bit of a 'clique craft'), admiring of a historic ice-breaker tug 'Tardebigge' and finally there was 'Eric Bloodaxe', diminutive and pretty despite the blood curdling name, being lovingly spruced up by its owner – a thoroughly cheerful Kevin Keegan look-alike!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

I hate engine runners

Bored by the Edgbaston test as it drifted towards a draw, we untied at Tixall and headed on up the T&M. After the picture postcard delights of Great Haywood the first couple of miles are a scrappy vista of railway line and messy canalside moorings but then the canal opened out into an almost river-like stretch – wide and deep so Star could push along smoothly at little more than tickover.
With the evening clouds closing in we moored at the little village of Weston in a handy slot between two boats. Who immediately started running their engines!
I hate engine runners. If people cruise and keep their batteries charged why so they need to sit at the canalside spoiling everyone's evening with the drum of a running engine? Perhaps so they can work their microwave or other item of domestic crap they've decided is an essential part of boating?
And don't get me on generators!

Monday, 3 August 2009

More walking than boating

A cosy little week-end hideaway

My feet ache! But I've only myself to blame. A short walk turned into a lengthy hike. We moored at Tixall Wide, a lake like section of canal created so the local lord of the manor wouldn't have his view defaced my a mere canal. The house has long gone but the Wide survives. Tough luck m'lord.
A walk down to pretty Tixall Lock found a hire boat sitting in the lock waiting for it to rise – while instead the water poured out the bottom paddles that had been left up. At the helm was a young mum in fashionably large sunglasses, apparently daydreaming of shops and make-up, while young son, Toby, ten if he was a day, and his little sister were in charge of lock duties.
After assistance from the Star team they drifted off, mum still draped languidly over the tiller while Starman and Starwoman gave their suitably male and female verdicts on the incident. "Very brave of her to take two young kids on a boating holiday" mused Starman, basking in the afterglow of his chvalry to a damsel in distress. "Hmmph! Stupid woman; just a stick insect." was Starwoman's retort. Miaaow.
Anyway, on with the walk. Off the canal and up to Milton Common. Then we made the bold decision to strike back across the edge of Shugborough Hall estate (a stately pile once owned by Lord Lichfield but now National Trust) meet the canal and circle back to the boat.
If only we'd known we'd faced a climb to Everest base camp to get up the hillside! At least on the other side of the hill we got a free walk right across the grounds on a public footpath, crossing the Trent on the spectacular stone Essex Bridge (pictured) and finally - via a pint in Great Haywood's village pub - five miles later we were back at the boat.
Knackered - but at least we'd rescued a stick insect...

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Starwoman v Morrisons: guess who won?

Don't know about you but if the cut-price packet of mange tout I'd bought for 69p was accidentally rung through at the full £1, I'd be too embarrassed/too lazy to go back and argue.
Not our Vicky who checks her receipts like Sherlock Holmes. Back to the checkout, from which she was forwarded to Customer Services who duly checked and refunded the excess thirty one pee!
The highlight of our stop at Rugeley – which kind of puts the rest of the town in perspective.

The town that gave its name to a toilet

I don't know where the 'Shanks' half came from but Armitage not only gave its name to a toilet, it still makes them in a vast edifice along the side of the canal. Mightily impressive it is too.
Where there's muck, there's definitely brass!

I love meandering through these urban backyards – canals give you a view that streets never can. Mostly of mess and ruin, true, but fascinating all the same. And every now and then, there's a glimpse of a decaying piece of once impressive canalside architecture, like the four-storey Edwardian warehouse we saw a little later at Rugeley. Perhaps it was part of the 'stinking' tannery that Tom Rolt described on his trip - certainly it was near 'Leather Lane'. In another place it would have been 'ripe for conversion' to canalside apartments but here it just died a lingering death. Sad.
Rugeley these days lives in the shadow, metaphorical as well as real, not of a tannery but by the massive cooling towers of its power station, visible from everywhere around.
We pressed on out of the town and, aware of the busy honeypot location that lay ahead at Great Haywood, moored up in open country with distant views of the wooded Cannock Chase - and of the power station.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Ten reasons why it's been p***ing with rain for days

At number 1 (obviously)
Because the Met Office said it would be a heatwave
2. Because British Waterways issued a 'worried about low water levels' press release
3. Because there's an Ashes test series
4. Because loads of Brits worried about the Euro booked UK holidays instead
5. Because I'm trying to take lots of photos
6. Because I only packed tee-shirts
7. Because we bought a barbecue
8. Because it's a government plot to take our mind off swine flu
9. Because we're on a narrowboat cruise.
10. And because a British summer wouldn't be the same without it!