Sunday, 31 July 2011

Stoke is so sad

I always find Stoke a fascinating but sad and sorry place to boat through. Fascinating because there are so many remnants of its old industries - the bottle kilns, the wharves, the ruined brick warehouses. Sad because that's all they are - remnants.
People have told me of cruising through the town when steel furnaces spat fire along the canal and the kilns belched smoke. What a sight that must have been!
All that has gone, the warehouses are deserted ruins, the kilns silent museum pieces and for nearly a mile the canal runs through a wasteland; a bulldozed desert of nothingness.
I know things have to change but in Stoke they seem to have just changed for the worst; those lifeblood industries have gone but nothing much seems to have replaced them.
It's a story one sees across so much of the old industrial heart of England.

Granny gets her fix

Narrowboat, foot, train and van. Those were our means of transport yesterday to bring us from Macclesfield to Bury St Edmunds so Vicky could get her fix of grannying before little Martha and her ma & pa go off on holidays.
We set off at 10 a.m., reached Stoke on Trent by 3pm where we left the boat in the Festival Park Marina (and a very helpful outfit they were too), walked to the station, got the train to Lichfield, walked to Streethay, picked up the Astravan and drove to Bury St Eds getting there 12 hours later at 10pm after a Macdonalds refuelling stop en route.
It was a busy and an incident filled day. First we found ourselves holding up a trio of little plastic cruisers so I pulled over and let them by, only to be caught up by another couple and a small narrowboat. Apparently we'd got tangled up in a cruising club outing to the Ashby Canal.
Well, the second lot had to stay behind us to the Harecastle Tunnel entrance where their narrowboat member decided he ought to try and overtake and bashed into the back of Star!
He was in a panic about missing the run through the tunnel - despite the fact that we were joining a line of boats all starting to filter through.
As we left the other end of the tunnel I, shall we say, explained the error of his ways to him - and to the club 'commodore' in the boat behind him!
We stopped for a sandwich and to let the cruising crews get well ahead and then carried on through Stoke to the marina. It being Saturday, a steady stream of newly hired craft were coming the other way, their steerers gradually mastering their new controls.
And then round a bend at some speed appeared one - completely on the wrong side of the water. There followed that couple of seconds when you think "I guess he'll just pull the tiller over and move across" followed by the dawning realisation "Oh no! He's not going to. And unless I do something he's going to T-bone us!"
I swung to the left and waved him furiously to pass on the 'wrong' side. Just as he decided to engage full reverse with plumes of water spraying everywhere. A couple of seconds of that and he's be all over the place. Fortunately he decided to obey my signal and go forwards instead.
As we passed he uttered an unforgettable question "What side are you supposed to pass on, mate?".
He'd actually come from the marina we were heading to and when we got there I saw another boat crew getting pretty comprehensive driving instructions. Clearly that particular boater had been asleep at the back of the class!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Down - and up again

We must be mad. We spent two hours wrestling our way down the twelve Bosley locks, moored up below them on the aqueduct and then went off and walked up the 1150-ft high summit you can see in the distance called The Cloud.

We made it!
And so did Brian who was more impressed by the smells than the view

Still, it was worth it. Even on a hazy day the views are superb. There's a complete 360 degree panorama of Cheshire and Staffordshire. On a clear day you can see Wales, though probably not Lands End and John O'Groats that are marked on the big bronze compass plaque at the summit along with all the local landmarks.
The walk was actually not as bad as it looked (it looked terrifyingly steep!). We had to drop down from the aqueduct into the river valley below then climb some steep lanes before a very stiff trudge up through a meadow. The last bit was easy, though: the National Trust who own the site had even put in some concrete steps and a handrail up the steepest bit.
After an energy packed banana and honey sandwich each - plus a pile of dog biscuits for Brian - we were recovered enough for the descent. And three hours after leaving it we were back at the boat.
Tomorrow sadly we'll leave the hills behind, tunneling through the last of them via the Harecastle Tunnel that brings us to Stoke. A few more days and we'll be back at base.

Thursday, 28 July 2011


Vicky flagged down a passing pushchair today just like you or I would flag down a passing cab.
Apparently you can do this if you are a state-registered-granny and want to have a bit of an "ooh" and "aah" at a baby. Or in this case two babies as the eagle eyed granny had spotted it was a double buggy.
Mums appear quite happy - delighted even - to have grannies doing this sort of thing. I suppose it's because to grannies all babies are "lovely", "beautiful" etc etc. Which, of course, they are.

Brian's Blog

Another day, another bl**dy hill! I don't mind a walk but why do they always have to pick hills? A towpath I like - plenty to sniff, the odd dog to growl at - but hills are just damned hard work. It's alright for them; they went off and bought fancy walking shoes but me, I'm on my poor old pads clambering over these rocks. Up they go and my little legs have to try and keep up.
It gets worse; if there are any of those silly big white woolly dogs around (y'know, the sort that make a kind of odd 'baa-ing' bark) then I'm back on the lead before I get a chance to have a play.
And when we get to the top of these hills, what happens? They both sit about scoffing sandwiches and going on and on about what they can see. Me I get a bowl of lukewarm water and a couple of dog biscuits. And today I even had to put up with a really irritating 4 year old who kept rushing up and shouting at me. She even tried to put a bag over my head. I had to put on my fierce growling face to get rid of her. It's the parents I blame.
To be honest with you, going down hill is often worse than going up. I'd tell them "you try going down a steep hill head first"!
But this walk had one thing going for it - the bloke who built the stiles had at least thought about dogs and that's a rarity. He'd left a nice hole in the stone wall for me to get through. And when I walked through they kept saying how clever I was. Do they think I'm stupid or something? They're the daft ones, keep finding all these steep hills.

Another summit conquered

The Macca has three notable canalside 'summits' among the hills that line it. The first, Mow Cop, we cracked a few days ago; the second, White Nancy, we tackled today.
White Nancy is actually a curious bottle shaped building on top of the northern edge of the Saddle of Kerridge that overlooks Bollington just north of Macclesfield. It was put up by one of the local landowners to commemorate victory at Waterloo and was a summerhouse from which - presumably - he could survey his domain while sipping a glass or three. A glass which would have been heaved up the sharp, steep slope by his poor unfortunate servants. I bet they dreaded the annual Waterloo victory celebrations that must have gone on up there!
It's not a long walk but it is a damned steep one though most of it's up a damned fine stone footpath, first of slabs and later of gritstone pieces laid on edge into the soil.
From the summit the view is of course stunning - we could see planes landing at Manchester Airport in one direction and right across the dry stone wall grids of the Peakland hills in the other.
We took the long way back, along the Saddle to its southern tip then meandering down through the lanes and footways of the steep slope down to Kerridge and Bollington. A crazy zig-zagging footpath took us down between stone cottages clinging for dear life to the edge of the hillside and even, at one point, under what was once the upper floor of a now ruined cottage.
Finally down at the canalside we passed the two huge surviving silk mills now revived as offices and apartments. At their height no less than 18 mills worked in this tiny area alone.
Tomorrow it's the final peak - The Cloud.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Low and slow

It's been a slow day - but not for the want of trying. Water levels in the always shallow Macca are about six inches below their usual level which means the bottom is rather too close to the top for deeper draughted boats like us.
It's worst at bridgeholes where the silt and muck collects in the narrows. We dragged our way across some slower than a reluctant child being dragged to the dentist. As you go through, mud and a slurry of rotted vegetation cling to the prop which often demands some lively reversing to throw it off again.
The original plan was to stop at Macclesfield to stock up the larder and stooge round the other shops but that soon changed. What a shame that the town that gave the canal its name does so little to encourage the passing boater to visit.
The moorings are shallow, unkempt and lack any sort of ring or barrier to hook a rope to on the eroded bankside. Worse, three average sized boats would fill them. Today none had bothered to make the effort and I don't blame them. Maybe Macclesfield feels it can do without the boaters' trade. Well it did without ours for sure!
With moorings few and far between along this section of the canal we decided to plod on to what will be our destination on the Macca this trip - the moorings at Higher Poynton run by our chums Iain and Luisa Bryceland, former owners of Braidbar Boats across the other side of the cut. They've done a lot of work since we were here two years ago with new jetties, much dredging and the removal of a huge concrete barrier wall.
Tomorrow we'll turn around and drift slowly back towards Streethay. Quite literally it's all downhill from here.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Moving on up

Near the top of Bosley Locks with glorious views behind
Artistry in stone, a turn-over bridge swaps the towpath from one side to t'other
Mrs Cow and Junior take a last look at their boating neighbours
The intricate lattice-work timbers of Little Moreton Hall

It was time to say goodbye to our idyllic mooring spot today. Idyllic despite the 5 a.m. mooing of the local cows! Before we went we had one last walk down to Little Moreton Hall to gaze once more in wonder at the 15th century hall's Chinese puzzle of interlocking timber framing. Sadly it's shut on Mondays and Tuesdays so a full visit will have to wait until the return trip. But we did feed the virtually tame crows who queue up waiting for you to put pieces of bread out on the fence posts for them then virtually walk up to you to pick them up.
We headed first to Congleton for some much needed supplies. Much needed for Brian in particular as his dog food ran out this morning. But fear not Bri - just a few yards from the towpath was a pet superstore so Iams and biscuit treats are now fully back in stock.
The 12 Bosley locks were looming close now. The Macclesfield is 'typically Telford' in its design, even if the great man only schemed it out and then left the engineering to others. It's all scenery defying straight lines of cuttings and aqueducts and a single long flight of locks. The engineering is as much art as science: the turn-over bridges are works of art in their swoops and curves, aqueducts provide breathtaking views across the fells as they stride valleys and the locks built in huge blocks of stone are a marvel.
You meet all sorts at a lock (that's what makes working them interesting) and today we fell in with a delightfully eccentric walker with a voice like Alan Bennett, a bushy white beard and long straggling hair like Ben Gunn, a 2CV parked down at the lay-by and a van - not he explained a camper van but one he sleeps in all the same which he travels around the country in for holiday trips that often include canal walks. Today he was off to see 'Spring and Port Wine' at Newcastle under Lyme theatre, stopping for a spot of walking on the way. Locks done, he was away before we could offer him a cup of tea.
The day almost ended with us swapping our idyllic mooring for the mooring from hell. We'd passed - as you do - a few iffy moorings in pursuit of the perfect one with lovely views that's always round the next bend. Except it wasn't. We cruised on until, knackered, we pulled up just past a swingbridge. As I tied the first rope, a train thundered past the other side of the hedge. At the noise of the train kennels full of dogs across the canal began howling and barking.
But at that moment another towpath walking pair came past. "Just go round the corner," they advised. "There's an ideal mooring with lovely views."
And this time, there was!

Monday, 25 July 2011

A fair Cop?

Have you ever noticed that stunning natural scenery is rarely matched by stunning man-made architecture? The glorious glens of Scotland are pocked by scruffy bungalows; the wildness of the Pennine hills dotted with farmers' scrap and so on.
The same is true of Mow Cop, the steep hill we have just returned from. It towers like a natural fortress above the fields below and from its summit is a breathtaking 360 degree panorama. North east lie the Pennines, north west in the distant haze you can just make out the tower blocks of the Wirral and Liverpool, swing west and the view goes away to Wales. In the middle distance, the distinct white giant Meccano construction that is Jodrell Bank observatory stands tall in the plain.
Mow Cop is famous for two things: the entertaining 'ruined castle' folly built on its top by a local landowner 250 years ago and the founding of the 'Primitive Methodists' by a local man preaching on the summit.
The folly is an amusement - a sort of Hollywood castle prop but built in real stone rather than polystyrene - and the Methodist connection is probably of interest to Methodists though not to us.
But when you take your eyes away from the scenery or your mind away from religion and look around closer to home you see that Mow Cop is a ghastly mess. Once a few stone cottages and a couple of mills occupied the summit. Today every inch is filled with the worst of 1970s and 1980s houses and bungalows. The sort of bungalows that have lawns trimmed with nail clippers and borders of evergreen shrubs. Some have even hidden themselves from the distant views behind high hedges - presumably to shield their lives from visiting tourists.
It's horrible and despite the best efforts of Mow Cop Residents Association to create a heritage trail round local landmarks like the various chapels and the grave of Hannah Dale, the 33 stone 11 year old girl who died there in 1892 the walk round the hill involves much more dross than floss.
Despite that, those staggering views certainly made the walk well worthwhile.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A room with a view

Riding over the Trent&Mersey

We sitting tonight in one of our most delightful ever moorings. It's a typically British summer evening; a warm sun is setting slowly over a pastoral setting, in the foreground the oak trees of a large country estate cast long shadows across the meadow; as you look into the middle distance the green fields, hedges and trees of the Cheshire plain take your view further and further west toward the hazy grey outlines of distant hills that could be as far away as North Wales. A tractor chops grass for hay, swallows swoop down to the river for flies and behind us the steep hillside of Mow Cop rises high to a monumental ruin on its summit.
It's hard to think of anywhere nicer to be; sitting on the tug deck, sipping a beer.
We are, for those who don't know their canal geography, up on the Macclesfield Canal. We swerved right off the top of Heartbreak Hill onto the canal at the switchback Hardings Wood junction where the Macclesfield twists back, runs parallel with the T&M and then climbs over it on the Red Bull* aqueduct.
It's a beautiful canal with fine views and proud, aristocratic stone bridges that are a far cry from the functional brick ones so familiar to the canal user. Tomorrow the summit of Mow Cop beckons - put your walking boots on, Brian!

PS Speaking of Red Bull, a perfect internet signal meant I could watch a great Lewis Hamilton drive, trouncing the Red Bulls and the sulky Spaniard as well!

An uphill task

Volunteer lockie Rob at work
Canalside suburbia at Rode Heath
A sunny Sunday brought cyclists, walkers and joggers out to join the boaters on a busy Trent & Mersey. I'm sure good fun was had by all though the joggers never look like they're enjoying it and the locks are damned hard work for us windlass wielders.
Suburbia has got the canal firmly by the throat for much of its hard climb toward Stoke. Canalside hamlets have become dormitory villages of look-alike 1980s 'executive' homes complete with the Hyundai 4x4 and Golf TDi on the drive. Will they ever gain the slightly shambolic charm of the old canal terraces they sit alongside? I doubt it. Certainly they lack the history - the old terraces were built to serve the canal, the modern houses look on it with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance.
At Rode Heath back in the 1980s the canal society managed to stop the demolition of a historic mill: local MP managed to overturn the decision. So in its place we now have a row of mock-Tudor homes shielding themselves from the canal's gaze with high hedges. A great improvement!
As we neared the end of the climb a pair of eager beavers in bright yellow jackets suddenly biked into view. They are BW 'volunteer lock operators' and whirled away getting us and those around us through the locks at high speed. Chris and Rob were good guys but this isn't just a bit of sunny Sunday volunteering - they are here every day.
Reason is that both are out of work - have never had a job in fact. "There are no jobs at all in Stoke," lamented Chris. I was telling his tale to another watcher a couple of locks later: "I know" he said "I've been out of work since March." After 27 years in environmental health work he was eased out in favour of a cheaper, younger replacement. He too is filling his time with volunteering.
Is this Cameron's 'big society'? A nation of job seekers filling in time opening locks or serving in charity shops before they're forced into some menial, minimum wage employment and join the ranks of Mcdonalds workers or call centre operators. On a boat you travel through ravaged towns like Stoke, where acre upon acre is razed flat, or Middlewich where the old salt industries are visibly rotting into the ground and you worry and wonder where the jobs; where the re-kindling of a flame of life will ever come from.
An uphill task indeed.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

We turned right

Faced with the choice between turning left at Middlewich for the thrills of the Anderton boat lift or right for the heavy lockwheeling up the 31 locks of Heartbreak Hill, guess what - we turned right.
We decided that with other things coming up in our schedule it could only be a brief trip down the lift and onto the River Weaver. Also weighing on our minds was the fact that Star's engine has played up a bit this trip and we didn't want to find ourselves stuck down on a river with few facilities if something serious should happen.
And, to cap it all, we decided that some things are best left for tomorrow. After all we have got narrowboat Harry coming along back at base. We need to do some exploring in that.
So we set off southwards towards the climb up out of Cheshire on the Trent & Mersey. We've been down this way before but it's still a stretch of canal whose pleasures are easy to overlook. Once out of the remains of the great salt industry that gave the 'wiches' their names it becomes a deep, gently winding canal through affable scenery and the locks - at least to begin with - are just a pleasant interlude on cruising.
But then they speed up! We stopped for water at Wheelock whose moorings are a sort of base camp for those about to attack the climb, or those recovering from the descent. Since the moorings were full we pressed on for a lock or two. And ended up doing another ten.
Wde're now moored at Hassall Green with the nearby M6 a steady background hum. The "17th century haunted" Romping Donkey seemed a potential refreshment halt but when we got there we discovered only boarded up windows and doors. Yet another country pub bites the dust.
Tomorrow 16 more locks beckon plus, internet willing, a break for the German GP.

Holiday horror

We passed an Andersen hire boat from Middlewich sporting a large Norwegian flag yesterday afternoon. Like all the Andersen fleet it was named after a Fjord and I had a chuckle about Norwegians choosing a suitably Norwegian named boat for their canal holiday.
An hour or two later it came up behind us at a lock outside Middlewich and as I began talking to them they immediately spoke about the bombing and shootings in Oslo - their home city. It was the first we'd heard of it.
Even then they were shaken and shocked, thought the full extent of the horror was as yet unknown. Apparently their family and friends were all okay but we can only imagine their feelings as the full story developed through the following hours.
What a terrible, terrible way to end a holiday. Our thoughts are with them.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Interesting boats spotted

Daringly different these two and both of them spotted on the Chester branch of the Shroppie.
Emily Anne, a modern steam engined narrowboat with its own, purpose built steam power plant and Turnothworld, an elegant replica Bridgewater Packet built by Roger Fuller.

Turn left or turn right?

BW employees at work on the Middlewich branch - and from an old working boat too. Nice

We could have done with some BW workers here pruning the dangerously overhanging willows outside Chester - instead Vicky hacked away with her shears!

We've reached Middlewich after a lazy day's cruise along the eponymous - nice word that - Branch of the Shroppie, leaving behind (thank gawd) those big, heavy locks on the Chester section of the canal.
We did the final three of them today and then swung left off the Shroppie onto the Branch, expecting it to be nose-to-tail with hireboats but finally that, going our way at least, we pretty much had the canal to ourselves.
It was a beautiful, warm sunny day; the sort that makes a pale Brit reach for the sun tan lotion. Then - just as we came into a lock (when else) the temperature suddenly dropped about ten degrees and seconds later it was sheeting with rain. A couple of minutes after leaving the lock, the sun re-appeared (of course).
We've now moored just in the edge of Middlewich which makes a tidy suburban contrast to the town's rather down-at-heel centre. The centre boasts one memorable feature though - an excellent fish&chip shop which provided tonight's dinner.
Tomorrow I have a treat in store for Vicky - a visit to Lidl, her first for several weeks now. She's been getting withdrawal symptoms.
After that we come to a canal tee-junction where the Shroppie meets the Trent & Mersey. And it's time to decide is it left for the Anderton Lift or right for Heartbreak Hill and all points south. Hmm, no contest I think.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Coming back to life

Newcomers to narrow boating might find it hard to believe that canal cruising boats haven't always been 57ft long steel tubes. In the 1960s many were timber-built, not hastily cabin topped old timber working boats either but slimmed down versions of the oak and mahogany cruisers popular on the Broads.
And the most famous builder was Taylors of Chester whose boatyard we are now moored outside. Taylors is probably one of the oldest surviving complete canalside boatyards in the country and dates back to 1845. Its large canopied roof, supported on iron girders and columns resembles a Victorian railway station and under its shelter the Taylor family built their handsome launches.
But as interest in wooden boats waned so the yard slipped into decline and the big dry dock next door was taken part into British Waterways hands.
Fortunately things should be about to take a turn for the better for the Grade II listed site. Earlier this year it got new owners who have taken on a long lease for the yard and the dry dock from British Waterways and who will be working witb BW to get the whole site back into shape.
The new owners are Pete and Yvette Askey, better known to boaters in the London area as JP Marine. They have moved their narrowboat repair, maintenance, BSC and surveying business up to Chester.
I met them today in my continuing quest for oil for Star's lubricant-thirsty engine and, by a fortunate chance, Pete was just off to drive over to the nearest chandlery for supplies so he brought me back a couple of cans.
As I have discovered there's a serious shortage of boatyards in the area - virtually nothing at all in the ten miles leading into Chester and less than nothing from here to Ellesmere Port. And to judge by the number of moored craft the demand is surely there. So good luck to Pete and Yvette.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Back in Chester!

After a day in Ellesmere Port we're now back moored in Chester - and rather pleased to be here. The boat museum is interesting but the rest of Ellesmere, once a thriving port, is now a sad and sorry place.
I think we'd rate the museum at about seven out of ten. It sprawls across the old dock site, reclaimed from dereliction by volunteers - though sadly not before Telford's magnificent looking warehouses that were its centrepiece were burnt to the ground by vandals.
There's plenty of good stuff to see and some real nuggets of gold tucked away. I loved the old colour film of repairing a wooden narrowboat at Peter Keays yard in the '60s. And the black&white documentary of the building of a huge new lock on the Manchester Ship Canal was beautifully shot by director Lindsay Anderson, later known for sixties and seventies hit movies like 'If'. The monumental soundtrack could have been for Star Wars. "From here the products of British skills and industry were exported all over the world" closed the voiceover as a freighter sailed off into the sunset. Ah those were the days!
But the museum does disappoint in some ways. The knowledgeable canal-ist will already know so much of the basic facts and history. I'd like to have seen more: a photo-gallery on individual canals, say; more on canal restoration; more on the traders and builders. And I'd like to have been able to watch some of the boat restoration that's happening at the Museum. There are plenty of semi-derelict boats to see but the work that is going on to repair and restore others is all happening out of sight.

After the museum we took a short stroll through the broken glass strewn underpass beneath the M53 to see the town itself. What a desperate place: you can't help but feel sorry for people who have to open their front door onto it every day; for kids who grow up there. It's desolate, dreary and dirty. Even a large piece of Soviet-style monumental sculpture work at the head of the main street and another giant glass installation further down can change that. (What is the purpose of this ludicrous public art? The money would be better spent on cans of paint and litter clearance to smarten the place up.)
It is salutary to see where the underclass spend their money: I counted 18 fast food outlets in a mile of main street. Plus four cheque changing/loan arranging/pawn shops, five solicitors, two 'party shops', a couple of tattoo studios, ditto nail bars and pedicure shops, a Polish deli, the inevitable Wetherspoons with its doorway of smoking lunchtime boozers (ironically called The Thomas Telford) and - my favourite - a shop selling pushchairs and hair extensions.
But it's too easy to sneer or lecture: if you live in a place like this and do a grim job (if you have one at all) and some hair extensions will cheer you then why not.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Missing the cheeseboard at the Savoy

That's what one guide says it would be like to turn round at Chester and not do the final eight miles of the Shroppie up to Ellesmere Port.
Hmmm. I just hope the Savoy's cheeseboard is a lot more appetising than those miles - often weedy, sometimes lined by a trail of generally scruffy moored craft and towards the end flanked by pylons, motorways or oil depots - or all three.
It was more the Everest factor - "because it's there" that make us tackle the run to the end of the canal. That and the National Waterways Museum in the old canal warehouses. We've visited before but it's always worth another look and tomorrow we'll do just that.
In fact we'll go in by boat, moor in the lower basin, the last stage before exiting onto the Mersey and become not just visitors but temporary exhibits as well!

The staircase at the edge of the universe

No, not the title of a previously unknown Richard Adams book but rather the thought that comes to mind when you take in the vertiginous view from the top of the Northgate Staircase. You gaze out right across to the hills beyond the far side of the Dee estuary and it's rather like being on top of a watery ski slope waiting to plunge 34 feet down through the three locks into the arms of the Shroppie below.
The locks are massive and massively impressive too; carved out of the solid rock just like the canal channel before them which runs through a high gorge flanked on one side by Chester city wall and bridged by handsome stone arches.Above the deep canal gorge is Chester's own Bridge of Sighs, foreground, which now goes nowhere sadly
It's a dramatic way to take one's leave of a fascinating city which is rightly thronged by tourists from all over the world - including three Australian ladies who were so admiring of my lock-wheeling techniques they snapped away with their digital cameras as I wrestled with the huge, heavy locks. Don't worry kids; Vicky was keeping a chaperone's eye on me!
We did the full Chester experience when the rain finally decided to stop at lunchtime today: the Roman experience; the city wall experience; the cathedral experience and even - unusually for us - the shopping experience among the unique and beautiful two level black and white fronted shops.
I wanted a new pair of outdoor shoes and having searched around, the best choice and by far the most helpful and knowledgeable assistance came at Cotswold Outdoor so we ended up buying not one but three pairs between us!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Rain, rain, rain and then more rain

That's the forecast for Chester today so I don't think we'll be doing too much sightseeing. At least the 3G signal seems good enough to watch MotoGP on livestreaming BBC. And Vicky is finding brass to polish.

PS It was a quiet night BTW; the drunks all took different route home from the Frog & Bladdered down the road.

PPS We must be near Liverpool - in Tesco yesterday afternoon I spotted my first girl shopping with her hair in rollers ready for Saturday night partying!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Tied up in Chester

The weather forecaster spoke of heavy rain and strong winds all day but fortunately by 11 a.m. the rain had stopped, the sun was starting to appear so we set off toward Chester. It's not far - just a handful of miles - but five of those wide, slow, heavy locks barred the route as well.
We pottered on and pretty soon I saw a familiar looking boat coming the other way - it was our mate Jeff from Streethay Wharf, heading towards the pub mooring we'd just left. A pity that after two months away we were just a day apart: we could have been supping pints and exchanging anecdotes.
Star's engine has developed something of a thirst for oil and I was running low on stocks so I decided to call in at the new Tattenhall Marina which promised a chandlery. What a daft design it is! To get to the visitor jetty for fuel, pump-outs and 'stuff' means reversing into a couple of narrow pontoon moorings. Try doing that in a strong wind that howls across the open marina! I did and after getting blown broadside toward a massive stanchion I changed my mind and drove off. Oil could wait.
Beyond Tattenhall (remarkably empty but let's be kind and say most boaters were off cruising) came a solid line of, oh, 200 moored craft on farmer's field moorings. The canny farmer had even set up hard standing for DIY project boats. What an enterprise - a lot more profitable than Welsh sheep I'd wager.
Soon came the succession of five locks; fortunately we teamed up with another boat as all five were against us so needed filling and all five were fiendishly heavy too.
After the usual scruffy back street entry into Chester we found ourselves going past smarter flats and bars to the recommended moorings where we slotted in among a cluster of craft.
It certainly doesn't rival Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham as a desirable canalside destination: opposite Mecca bingo and just down from the Frog and Nightingale. I'll report tomorrow on just how quiet our night was!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Lleaving the Llangollen

We're going down and they're going up as we cross in the middle of Bunbury staircase

We finally left the Llangollen today after a thoroughly enjoyable trip. It might be busy with hire boats but it is a lovely canal, packed with things to see and do and the scenery is marvellous, especially the closer you get to Wales.
But today we dropped down the four Hurleston locks, swung left and headed up the Shroppie en route to Chester. And were immediately in for a shock. The locks on this northern end of the Shroppie are wide and super-heavy. Not nice at all - especially once it started to rain.
The first ones were a brain teaser too; a two lock staircase so in the middle you can find yourself with one boat going up and another going down in the same lock! Weird.
But after struggling through four of these hefty locks we finally moored up by The Shady Oak pub at Tiverton, overlooking the monumental remains of Beeston Castle up on a rocky hill. The pub meal was spot on: straightforward stuff (cottage pie and fish & chips) but beautifully cooked and very tasty. Plus a couple of yummy home-made puds as well. All at a decent price. It's not rocket science but why can so few pubs manage it?

Boats mean business

I read somewhere recently that boats bring £34 million worth of business to Wales. I can well believe it having seen the amount of hireboaters going up and down the Llangollen.
But it's in little towns like Ellesmere you can really see how boaters bring money to canalside towns. Walk around the streets (and there aren't many of them) and every other person seems to be a boater. Those who don't have Aussie or American accents have boaters' tans, hats (or beer guts!).
You pass and re-pass a lot of the same boats on a canal trip along the Llangollen and you can spot them moored up in places like Ellesmere - or parked up outside canalside pubs.
I'd like to visit Ellesmere in mid-winter - it must be like Sleepy Hollow with no boaters around.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A night to remember

Our to-ing and fro-ing on the Llangollen did give us a chance to track down Beth Llewellin, wife of late and much lamented motoring journalist genius, Phil.
They, as we knew, lived in Welsh Frankton, just up the hill from the Frankton locks. But with no internet and no address how would we find her in the sprawling hamlet?
Fortunately Vicky had a clue - she remembered (god knows how) from a drunken press party evening that Phil had told her they'd just installed a cattle grid across the driveway to stop sheep wandering in.
So this pair of sheep wandered the lanes until, on the point of giving up, we spotted a house with a cattle grid and a Mini Cooper in the drive beyond it.
The woman who opened the door was momentarily bemused by the two tramp like creatures and their small dog who stood there but then eagerly invited us in and while we drank and exchanged motoring anecdotes, Brian lay contentedly on the fitted carpet recalling the luxury of life in a proper home.
The following night we went back again for a super meal (thanks Beth) and listened to her tell of some of the fabulous cars, ridiculous drives in every corner of the world and fascinating people she and Phil had met. Nearly a thousand people attended his funeral in Oswestry, such was the appreciation of this talented and gregarious writer.
If you don't know his work then I'd urge you to read his book 'The Road to Muckle Flugga' .
Wherever you are, cheers Phil!!

Back on air

Apologies to regular readers - I hope there are some of you - we've been off-line for a few days for a variety of reasons.
First of all the inverter went bang. Literally. A loud bang and a big flash and it inverted no more. That was when we were nearing the top of the Monty and meant no laptop use to conserve what little computer battery there was for emergency emailing.
Blackwater Marina in Ellesmere didn't have an inverter but Maestermyn back down the Llangollen direction did have a suitable one. It was the wrong way but not too far. However stocks of Fruit & Fibre, beer and bread - three manly diet staples - were out so we had to go to Ellesmere Tesco first, then back again to Maestermyn.
The inverter fitted and power restored we then cruised into a broadband black hole, and have only now left it down on the mile-long Prees Branch of the Llangollen. This is one of those dead end branches which you just have to go down anyway, because it's there. It does have a marina at the end though and the marina has an excellent launderette - strictly for moorers unless someone has left the door unlocked. Which they had.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Crumbling to dust?

The sandstone memorial to Waterway Recovery Group founder, Graham Palmer, beside the lock named after him on the Montgomery Canal is slowly crumbling away.
But is the canal that he and his team did so much to bring back from the dead also turning to dust?
Thirty odd years ago the saving and restoration of the Monty was a cause celebre in the fledgling restoration movement. The 'Big Dig' at Welshpool saw volunteers clear out the canal bed and show how good a reborn canal could be. Through the seventies and eighties work was done all along the line.

Only seven miles are open from the Llangollen to Maesbury Marsh but further inland there are 11 navigable miles, with rebuilt locks and bridges and even on the stretches between clearance work and bankside piling can be seen all around.
But the pace seems to have slowed. Even locals admit that any completion date has drifted far into the distance. We took a walk down the eight mile gap between where we're moored at Maesbury and Arddleen where the land locked 11 miles begins to see the current state of affairs.
Beyond the present terminus a further half mile lies waiting, finished and in water. It's been like that since 2007. Another 600 yards is being worked on by Shropshire Canal Society volunteers but that won't be ready until 2012.
The first big goal is Llanymynech three more miles on where the canal is in water and briefly navigable. Apart from one country by- road bridge to conquer it's not hard going - the route is there; the canal bed clear. But at present progress rate volunteers could take 25 years to get there!
And the tragedy of that is that beyond Llanymynech so much expensive work has been done. Work which is already being reclaimed back by nature. The beautiful Carreghofa Locks, below, rebuilt in 1982, are so rotted they already look in need of replacement, in places the bankside piling is rusting, in others vegetation has taken hold.

The canal is entirely in water to Arddleen, though chopped by two flattened bridges taking the busy A483 across it (above). They will be a serious challenge.

We finally reached the so-called navigable 11 miles to find - at least in the first mile - just the same weed clogged, empty waterway that we had been walking along before. This is the winding hole!
Nowhere on the route are there any billboards, explanatory story boards about the restoration or any sign that anything is happening. Something is surely going wrong: so much money has been spent to resurrect a glorious canal that will bring tourism and wealth deep into mid Wales but it risks being money wasted unless the project can be kick-started again.
Walk the route and you see a canal which is a realistic restoration project - far more achievable than some of the pie in the sky, headline grabbing tales of inclined planes and boat lifts elsewhere. Surely it can be done?

Designed by a blind architect?

British architecture hit rock bottom in the sixties and early seventies. (Remember the tower blocks?) but rarely have I see a nastier, more inconsiderate and just damned well ugly piece of design than the indoor market in Oswestry.
This brick blockhouse replaced an earlier market building and sits in the market square flanked by the splendid Victorian Guildhall and the sturdy black and white Eagle pub. Who could possibly have designed something so ugly and so out of keeping with its surroundings?
Inside is a pitiful market scattered around a dreary, institutional interior.
Best option? Demolish the lot and start again.

Friday, 8 July 2011

We've sprung a leak!

It wouldn't be a Star cruise without a breakdown. This time we're leaking. Fortunately it's not a leak from outside - that would be a problem - but a leak from the engine cooling system.
I spotted it the night before last as we were due to head toward the Montgomery Canal - the coolant header tank was empty. But it was dark, it was raining and we were moored outside the pub. I decided that after a pint and some dinner things might seem less fraught. And they did: it was either overheating for some unknown cause - possible but probably fixable; a leaking pipe - fixable; or a blown head gasket - not so fixable but least likely since the engine was running fine.
I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning what was revealed was a copper pipe from the engine to the skin cooler which had chafed through and was drip dripping away. Snag was that in all my spares copper pipes and brass fittings were conspicuous by their absence. So we decided to potter on down the Montgomery, checking the coolant and topping up as needed and fix it when we got to the other end.
This morning I got a bus into nearby Oswestry (free, courtesy of my old codger pass) picked up some bits, headed back and spent the afternoon sorting it out. Now we're up and running and leak free.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Lleaving Llangollen

There comes a moment when you realise that it's time to go. That however much you like a place, you're supposed to be traveling. And that if you don't go now, well you might not go at all.
Things start to become a habit. Things like a morning coffee in the excellent Llangollen Wharf cafe watching the granny-bus visitors and foreign tourists hustle and bustle to get aboard a horse-drawn boat ride.
And we were getting sucked into the Eisteddfod experience too. After watching the delightful parade yesterday we were entertained by sword dancers from Newcastle (the Geordie Newcastle that is) and then by a wonderful choir of Ukranian folk singers in the main street today.
They might come from all over the world to sing and dance in the Eisteddfod but it's still an intimate, small town experience that wouldn't be the same in a big city. We'll definitely be back and maybe stay longer next time.
But today we were off. We left at lunchtime, cruised in sunshine despite the forecast and moored up shortly after the rain started. We're outside the Jack Mytton Inn somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the English/Welsh border country. And what a curious place it is too: a bar that sells a fine range of draught beers but only seats about ten people and a cavernous restaurant that seats about a hundred in surroundings that would have been just about fashionable in the 1980s. Food good in parts but atmosphere sorely lacking despite the friendly service. Sorry Jack!
Tomorrow it's onto the Montgomery.

PS It wouldn't be a Star-cruise without me falling in or damaging myself. Today I slipped jumping off the counter when mooring, barked a shin on the concrete edge and dunked a leg in the water!

Rush hour in Llangollen

Believe it or not this starts at 5.30 a.m. On the canal at any rate. That's the time we were slammed against the concrete canalside by a hire boat charging away from town.
And then came another just before six, and two more. By seven I'd given up the idea of dozing off again and got up to make a cup of tea. Not all of them were speeders, to be fair, but enough were to get me out of bed on the wrong foot. Where were they rushing to at that time?
We were moored on the canalside outside of the 48-hour limit zone, and neatly tied up to rings with fenders and a spring line as well but we still got heaved about.
But no point getting too grumpy is there: they were on holiday, trying to pack in as much as possible into two weeks' break from work. It's just us lucky few who can afford to meander.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Llangollen's Eisteddfodd begins

The 2011 Eistedfodd parade leaders
The young Japanese contingent passing to a united chorus of 'aah, sweet' from all the grannys in the crowd
The remarkable Breton dancers
Best dressed: the Ukrainian competitors
Irish dancing in the main road
Guest of honour Terry Waite
The African dance-leader was exhausting just to watch

Even if - like us - you're not overwhelmed by the prospect of folk singing, dancing and operatic arias you couldn't have helped thoroughly enjoying the opening parade through the town. Teams of dancers and singers in national costume from countries as diverse as Ukraine and India, as far apart as Canada and Australia, parade noisily and thrillingly along the streets.
Most colourful were the Ukrainians, noisest were the African drummers but the most curious - and the best - were the austerely dressed Breton dancers.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A pie to remember

Brian waits hopefully but the pie is disappearing fast*

'Renowned for our home made steak pies' says the Telford Inn at Trevor by the Aqueduct. And after sampling them we can confirm that they are indeed some of the best we've had. Massive portions of proper pie with crunchy pastry topping (none of that flaky pastry hat stuff you often get), filled with succulent, quality steak and really tasty gravy.
And of course you can't have a pie without a pudding...two portions of steamed treacle pudding please.
To walk the lunch off we walked back via the Offa's Dyke Path, which was an offaly long way. Ouch!
*And yes, Brian fans, he did get some pie.

World heritage s*ite?

This is the sight that greets visitors by car to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - Monday lunchtime on a sunny July day and the carpark waste bin clearly hasn't been emptied since before the weekend.
Somehow it's typical of the place: the BW run visitor centre has been closed down - apparently they want one run by volunteers but none seem to have appeared so far. All that remains are some information boards and a small shop run belonging to the hire fleet based there - and operated by someone whose customer facing skills seemed sorely lacking when we visited.
It seems a golden opportunity wasted. A World Heritage site which was teeming with visitors when we walked there today ought to be the jewel in the crown for the waterways. It's a public relations goldmine where the canals can be explained, promoted and visitors won over to the cause. But there was not even a leaflet.
As one local walker we met said: "There was all sorts going on when they were trying to get it to be a World Heritage site but since then nothing."
It's a crying shame: visiting the aqueduct on foot only confirms what a superhuman achievement it was. The soaring stone columns are pieced together out of blocks about 4ft x 2ft x 2ft, all cut so accurately there's scarcely a scrape of mortar between them. Imagine the sheer effort of hoisting them; the huge amount of wooden scaffolding, the sheer numbers of people working on the job. It beggars belief.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

On the history train

I like a good steam railway and Llangollen has a good steam railway so we just had to go on it today. It's a stunning little line, running eight picturesque miles along beside the River Dee to the present terminus at the little riverside village of Carrog.
It's another of those Beeching sacrifices. Back in the 1960s maybe it seemed sensible to shut it but today you can see what a terrific tourist trail a proper Dee valley line would have become.
We were pulled by what I'd call a proper loco, not one of those little tank engine but a big ex GWR 4-6-0 locomotive and we lolled in the comfort of a compartment whose soft, springy seats are so much nicer than the firm, cramped Inter-City ones of today.Vicky thinks wistfully about the Sunday lunch she missed at Carrog

The only mistake we made was at Carrog where we stopped for a rather forgettable snack at the station buffet, only to walk down the road into the pretty little village and discover a big, bustling pub serving a huge range of tempting food. Damn!

Carbohydrate neutral exercising

Watching my tenth large backside and thighs plod up the footpath, why, I asked Starwoman, are so many walkers somewhat, well, stoutly built? All that exercise should surely be good for their figures.
Simple, she replied. They go for a long walk, work up an appetite and so they call at the pub where they demolish several pints and a large portion of pie and chips.
It's what we call carbohydrate neutral exercising. Burn off some carbs and then replace them.

On the history trail

Telford's weir was stop one on our Llangollen History Trail, a six mile scenic walk taking in the 12th century castle ruins high on the hill overlooking the town and due to take up to six hours according to the leaflet.
The towpath walk to the weir was the easy bit; after that it was almost entirely uphill. Steeply uphill. Next came Llantysilio Church, charmingly set within an evocative graveyard of Joneses and Evanses.
But what of the church itself? It would have been easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a fat person to enter Llantysilio Church. The door would open little more than a crack - presumably to prevent anyone disappearing with the "rare medieval oak eagle lectern". Fortunately Starwoman and me have not been at the chips too often and slipped inside to view a simple but atmospheric interior.
From here we followed the signs up Velvet Hill which "gets its name from the soft texture of the sheep cropped grass and moss". Of which there was none to be seen. Nor any more waymarkers. Just ferns. When the path split, we were lost, as were two other walkers and only the arrival of a third walker, relying on an OS map rather than a guide, put us straight and back on route to Valle Crucis Abbey.
Once it was the second richest abbey in Wales after Tintern. Today the ruins are smothered in a huge camping and caravan site. A great way to treat our heritage, eh. And the signs ran out again.
We followed our noses uphill and, as we climbed steeply out of the trees and ferns a superb view of surrounding hills came into view. But we were more than two hours in and Dinas Bran castle still looked depressingly distant. And much higher. Brian, uninspired by the prospect of exploring a 12th century ruin, was walking to rule now - even after being fortified by dog biscuits and water. Still, we plodded on, and finally, there was the fingerpost pointing to a path zig-zagging up a steep, steep slope to our goal.
But, boy, was that last mile slow! I don't think I'm ready for Everest base camp yet - this one was struggle enough. But the views were staggering. Way to the east we could see the Newbridge railway viaduct and the road bridge across the valley - both of them far beyond the Pontcysyllte aqueduct - though that was hidden in the trees. And out to the west were the high hill tops of Snowdonia.
Brian decides his body double will tackle the next hill walk

We headed down the short route back to town. And Brian, curiously, was a dog instantly revitalised pulling hard at the end of his extending lead.