Thursday, 30 June 2011

Parking for a pie

I'm a sucker for a pork pie. Michael Pearson's entertaining guide to the Welsh Waterways speaks highly of Vermuelen's pork pies baked fresh each day at their Ellesmere premises so the lunch menu was taken care of!
The Ellesmere Arm, unlike that in unfortunate Whitchuch, runs right to the heart of the town. And there's a new Tesco in the canal basin, facing the evocative but sadly decayed Shropshire Canal Company warehouse and a preserved loading crane . So naturally it was choked with boats but there's always room for a little'un like Star and we crept all the way to the end where there was indeed just enough room to moor.
A five minute walk took me to the pie shop and lunch was a substantial pie (they sell them by weight incidentally) with superb crusty pastry, rich with meat and tasty jelly. The jam doughnuts I bought for 'afters' were, I have to admit not in the same league sadly.
Ellesmere is a charming, slightly sleepy small town. It hasn't the same sizeable houses and large churches as can be found in Whitchurch and perhaps the small, manageable nature of its buildings is the reason why they are better preserved than the other's.
It does't take long to wander round the amiable streets but when you venture a little further and discover the Mere a whole new side of the place is revealed. This huge lake, surrounded by trees and beautifully kept gardens and lawns has the feel of a genteel Thames-side park with its steam day launch, tea room and small visitor centre. It was alive with visitors - no wonder the town has so many restaurants, tea rooms and, of course, such a superb pie shop.
At five p.m., just as the increasing numbers of hire boaters were arriving to tie up for a night at one of the local pubs or restaurants we fired up and headed off for another late evening session. On a sunny evening, it's quite the best time to be afloat; you can have the canal almost to yourself. Tonight we're tied up somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a mile or two after the junction with the Montgomery Canal. And just 14 miles from Llangollen.

All 'ell at Ellesmere

The Ellesmere Tunnel looks innocent enough in the Nicholsons Guide, a mere 87 yards underneath a main road. But the entrance to it is on a 90 degree corner so it's completely blind and - as you discover only when you get there - it's strictly one-way!
And, of course, there was a boat coming. I'd dropped Vicky off to take a peek into the tunnel as soon as I saw the problem but, too late, the boat was almost out. I tried to reverse but was already turning in so the boat came back on the left (or wrong) side of the canal. And there, despite my efforts, it stayed - stuck.
Eventually the other boat came past me on his wrong side but by now three other boats had formed up behind me on the correct side so the exit gap was narrowing. And another boat was on its way through the tunnel. As they tried to get out between us all, they got stuck! So now two of us - one facing each way and on the wrong side - were stuck and blocking the whole tunnel.
And another boat was coming through.
I finally managed to reach my pole and pole us back across to the correct side, helped by some Germans on a hire boat (we is it always the Germans who take charge - same thing happened on our cruise a couple of years back) and everyone struggled free and got on our way.
All a bit of fun but, to be honest, a BW warning sign advising that the tunnel was one-way and blind might have been a good idea.

Late night extra

There we were sitting at our mooring last night and admiring the warm sunny evening when we thought "it's perfect; let's go cruising!"
So at 8.15 p.m. we did. Untied and headed off for another hour or so before mooring at the start of a strange low-lying landscape called Whixall Moss, uncannily like the Fens we know so well. These Mosses are actually areas of peat, now no longer harvested - if that's the word - but turned into wildlife reserves rich in plant and insect life. Including mosquitoes, though they'd gone to bed by the time we arrived.
It's a weird contrast to the rolling green pastures of Cheshire, with their black and white cows and handsome farmhouses. Instead there are a smattering of squalid homesteads struggling in flat, semi-barren fields.
These peat bogs were formed as the last ice age melted, the great chunks of receding ice crushing the land below. The same ice also melted to former a number of much more attractive lakes or 'meres' which you pass on the way towards Ellesmere - itself, as you can guess, the home of a 'mere'.
But before reaching it we had our own adventure....

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A walk into Whitchurch

How times change. Thirty years ago towns were busy trying to fill in the decaying remnants of their dirty and unwanted canals. Today those that succeeded in replacing them with car parks or drive-throughs are looking with envy at those who failed. Or who had the foresight not to try.
Today the little Shropshire town of Whitchurch would dearly love a canal arm to bolster its faltering local economy with tourists from the Llangollen a mile distant. Unfortunately the arm was closed in the 1940s and the land largely sold off in the 1960s save for a few hundred yards from the main canal. With some foresight the local councils did see the benefit of trying to resurrect it in the 1980s and put a stop on any building over the land that would prevent the canal's return.
Unfortunately, all that has resulted is a nettle-filled linear wilderness surrounded by modern housing estates.
There are very realistic plans to extend the arm a short way further into this and to create a small mooring basin a handy step closer to the shops, and rather bolder ones to go further and build an inclined plane. Given the snail's pace of progress on the former one wonders whether Whitchurch will still be around to witness the latter.
The reason for my pessimism is not just the potential cost of building such a waterway super-structure in the present and foreseeable future but also seeing the evident decline in the current town.
It's probably no different to many similar little country towns: a pleasant mix of fine church, elegant large houses and one or two decent local shops interspersed with too many empty shop fronts and decaying houses of all ages and sizes. Signs in windows speak of a campaign to 'Keep Tesco In The Town Centre'. If, as it presumably wants to, the store migrates to the edge of town then what reason there was to shop in High Street will vanish and Whitchurch will slip away with it. Whatever happens to any canal plan.

Through the bottleneck

Entering the picturesque bottom lock and, below, beginning the staircase

The delightfully named Grindley Brook is the Llangollen Canal's equivalent of a motorway contraflow. The perenially heavy canal traffic is suddenly funnelled into a cluster of six locks, including a three-lock staircase.
A staircase, for the uninitiated, is a chain of directly connected locks: going uphill you enter the bottom one; fill that up with water from the (already filled) middle one; go into that, fill it from the top one; go into the top one and fill that from the canal ahead. Got it? The only complexity is the need to make sure all the locks are properly full - or empty - before entering the chain. And the staircase is inherently wasteful of water - if one boat goes up, all the lower locks have to be emptied of water before one can go down.
For that reason, a lock-keeper is on hand to ensure boats go either up or down in small processions (and to make sure we don't find two boats facing each other in mid-staircase!).
As you can imagine, the whole place can become a serious bottleneck in peak holiday times - witness the ranks of bollards for the queue-ers. It's also a goldmine for the lockside @29 cafe/shop and for the little back garden craft and secondhand bookshops in nearby houses.
It's a curiosity that the rest of the world passes such a busy and historic by without a glance. Step a few paces away to the road beyond and you wouldn't know Grindley Brook was even there.
Perhaps that's for the best. Let us boaters make our mistakes in peace !

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Onto the Lllangollen

Nantwich was this morning. Tonight we're moored up on the edge of Wrenbury, a little village some six miles up the Llangollen Canal and only 38 miles and 12 locks from our principal destination on this trip.
It was an easy couple of miles up the Shroppie to Hurleston Junction where the Llangollen begins with a flight of four locks to lift you 30 odd feet up above the surrounding farmland. Then another five locks climbing steadily up toward the Welsh hills found us here at Wrenbury.
We've rather rushed it to get here, conscious of a need to be back at Streethay by mid-August and a desire to beat the hireboat rush along Britain's most popular canal. Yes, we have indeed rushed it becausetwo boats ahead of us is the little Springer Waterbug of our Streethay neighbour, John, who left nearly three weeks before us! He admits he isn't rushing - he's already walked on to suss out tomorrow's mooring just a couple of miles away. John's been everywhere on his little boat: the Thames, London on the GU, the Kennet&Avon and the Llangollen - though not for many years.
It's a shame there aren't more Johns on the cut; people enjoying themselves in small affordable boats. You don't have to be a wealthy retiree in a £100,000 palace to explore the wonders of the waterways.

Footballers' wives shop here?

Nantwich is indeed the attractive market town the guidebooks promise it to be. We strolled down Welsh Row from the canal past elegant Georgian houses and smart Victorian terraces with perfect gardens, over the River Weaver bridge and into a town centre that has remained remarkably unsullied by the corporate architectural savagery of the building societies, banks and High Street multiples whose bland facades have destroyed many a similar town.
No, Nantwich is charming, a maze of irregular streets and local shops. It is also extremely affluent, a mix of Cheshire land owning 'old money' and footballers' wives 'new money'. The biggest shop in town is a massive Christians Kitchens, the bespoke kitchen builders so sure of their place in the commercial world that the windows are clothed by blinds and you have to go in the shop to examine the wares! Right across the road is a sizeable Aga shop and everywhere you look are expensive clothes shops and chic coffee parlours. But there was a delightful little indoor market of largely amateur stallholders selling bric a brac - plus (inevitably in such posh environs) a plethora of charity shops so we could re-stock Star's paperback library.
Posh it might be, but Nantwich is a town like many towns used to be and all too few are today.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The unmistakeable sound

Last night as I walked Brian down the top few locks of the Audlem flight I could hear the distant but unmistakeable 'plop, plop, gulp, pause, plop, pause pause, plop plop' of a Bolinder - the famous single cylinder working boat engine. Or should it be infamous given its foibles - like cutting out unexpectedly, deciding to run backwards when you want it to run forwards and trying to throw its human starter out of the engine room hatch when he tries to kick start it (off the flywheel) and it kicks back. "A lovely engine – in someone else's boat!" as one historic
boat enthusiast once put it.
The boat came into view - it was the magnificent looking Thomas Clayton boat 'Spey', a now rare wooden hulled boat which originally carried tar oil down the canal from the Mersey to the Midlands. The front third of Spey had just been rebuilt, using shaped and steam bent two and a half inch thick oak planks for the sides and three inch thick elm boards for the bottom.
It was on its way to the re-opening of the Droitwich Canal and making slow progress up this part of the flight, its three feet plus draft frequently seeing it grounding. Still the back cabin stove was lit, the pies were in the oven and the three man crew was planning to keep going until darkness stopped them!

A lorra lot of locks

Fifteen of them this morning in scorching heat, even though we were started by nine a.m. Still, mustn't complain. By the time we did numbers 16 and 17 this afternoon it was wet and windy - and I know which I prefer.
The Audlem flight is as perfect as we'd come to expect from the immaculate canal. Locks working smoothly - and not leaking - grass around them trimmed, towpaths in good order and even seats to clump on at some.
Having just read the Canal Wolrd Forum post 'who wields the windlass?' I kept a check on the boats that passed us on the flight. All but one, crewed by an eager bunch of young hirers, relied on the woman crew member to work the locks while hubby manned the tiller. And usually stood motionless throughout while his missus sweated.
The variation in Body Mass Index was also apparent. The first crew set the trend: lean, fit locking wife and a husband whose physique answered another topical question, one raised on Radio 5 Live this morning, 'should men go around bare chested in the hot weather?' In this case most definitely NOT! The rolling layers of white flab made me glad I hadn't eaten a cooked breakfast.
The flight drops down steadily to reach Audlem village with two locks to go. The temptation of a convenient mooring for a pint in The Shroppie Fly (famous for its narrow boat fashioned bar) saw us moor up for a beer and an early lunch before finishing off the locks. Before you ask, lunch was a healthy salad including a fresh-this-morning lettuce on sale at a mid-flight lockside stall.
These local farmers have really embraced the canal as a source of business and good for them. So far we've passed at least four selling farm produced bacon, pork, salad, eggs, vegetables and so on.
After lunch as the weather worsened we tackled the last locks of the day at Hack Green. Nearby is a 'Secret Nuclear Bunker' - a regional centre of government in the early 1980s in which the civil servants and military leaders who had started the nuclear annihilation would have been able to survive it while the rest of us were vapourised. Today it's a tourist attraction but not for us. The cold war nuclear threat is too much part of our younger days to revisit.
Tonight we're moored up in Nantwich, ready for a wander round what is claimed to be an attractive and interesting town tomorrow.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Remote canalside pubs

The guidebooks like to speak of these but, in my experience, the reality rarely seems to live up to the description. I remember the shock at arriving at the "remote" Consall Black Lion on the Caldon and finding a shrieking horde of kids rushing around while their parents boozed and shouted. It could have been Blackpool.
I hoped for more from the "remote" Anchor Inn at High Offley - and got it. This is a pub like I recall country pubs in my youth. Big settle benches in the public bar, vaguely uncomfortable padded stools in the posh folks' saloon and a choice of one ale (Wadsworth's excellent 6X), one lager and for the effete wine drinker, red or white from a wine box on the counter. Plus 'Strictly No Children' and - of course - no food.
In Tom Rolt's day most pubs were like this and it was amusing to compare his descriptions with today's reality. Thde Wharf Inn at Cheswardine "the most remote canal inn we had yet encountered" was a "simple, friendly house with a rough bench beside the fire". I think the picture of today's Wharf Tavern with (presumably) the owner's Range Rover outside says it all.

Earlier on the Staffs & Worcs we passed The Cross Keys, a decent looking pub across the canal bridge from a housing estate. In Rolt's day it was "a little lost canal inn standing amid the fields beside the towpath".
Times, sadly do change, and much as I miss sitting on a bench in a country pub while the landlord brought a jug of ale from the cellar, or playing bar billiards, I'm probably happier eating a decent pie and chips witha pint of decently kept brown beer picked from a choice of four or five. Trouble is such pubs are harder to find than welcoming village inns were in Rolt's day.

Entering a lost world

Shrouded in trees, its damp, earth red stonework gradually being enwrapped in ivy, the towering buttresses of the Woodseaves Cutting could have been a gateway to a lost world; some vestige of a former civilization, some temple gate.
Which in a sense it was, the entrance to the long gone world of boat transport, of horses and carts, when the next town was an arduous walk away. But though it is just one Telford's many cuttings on the canal, this high sided, claustrophobically tight and tree enveloped corridor still feels a magical place.
We experienced it on a blazing hot summer's day (hard to think that two days back we were shivering inside our fleeces in the wind and rain!). Today we covered 13 miles and ten locks - Telford liked to stack his locks in flights and today we tackled two flights of five. Tonight we're at the top of tomorrow's much bigger challenge, the 15 lock descent down the Audlem Flight.
We also found a Lidl (in Market Drayton) and put an end to Vicky's week long withdrawal symptoms! Too far from the canal to bring home many bargains, though; just the essentials and some Yogosan – which despite sounding like some "lady's product" is an excellent yogurt. Isn't everything, says Vicky.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Never trust a weatherman!

Woke this morning to hear the Radio 5 Live weather forecaster speak of a "heat warning" with temperatures as high as 30C and nightime highs of 15C. Sounded good to us after a night of incessant rain.
We set off at 9.30 on a cloudy morning for the last seven miles to the junction of the Shroppie. And, of course, it rained! Rained, then stopped, rain then stopped. That was the story of our morning. And never a sight of the sun.
They weren't terribly interesting miles and probably wouldn't have been a whole lot better in the sunshine, weaving as they did round the admittedly largely unseen edge of Wolverhampton. But then we reached Autherley Junction and the shallow stop lock leading onto the Shroppie.
It's remarkable what difference 50 years makes in canal engineering. The James Brindley Staffs&Worcs was opened in the 1770s and is very much an old school' contour canal that followed the natural lie of the land with locks interspersed where necessary. But by the 1835 Shroppie Thomas Telford was drawing straight lines on his maps and forcing the countryside to bend to his will with embankments, cuttings and lock flights.
Travel the Shroppie now and you'l marvel at his achievements as cutting follows embankment follows cutting. Think of the earth moving, the surveying, the sheer logistics of the job in an age of horse and wagon and no roads of note.
Nowhere did we see this better than on the astonishing Shelmore embankment which towers above the surrounding land; its sheer sides sadly hidden by trees. All you can see are trees, treetops below them and the hint of more trees even further down the slopes. With a distant glimpse of fields far below.
The embankments give the views while the cuttings are swathed in an almost tunnel-like green camouflage of trees (sometimes close enough for Vicky to get busy with her new toys - a pair of £2.99 Wilco shears!). And magnificent bridges cross these cuttings too, beautiful stone arches in perfect order - a far remove from the rickety brick bridges of so many narrow canals.
Tonight after a busy day of 25 miles and two locks we are moored outside the quaint Anchor Inn at High Offley - one of the few pubs that can still truly be called "unspoilt" - no food, no children and warm beer served properly without one of those ghastly foam creating taps.
But more on unspoilt pubs another time.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Wandering Gailey

Five thirty p.m., we had just exited Gailey Top Lock, the last on our stretch of the Staffs & Worcester Canal when the rain started. Perfect timing. We pulled up and called it a day after 13 miles and 11 locks.
It's a delightful canal is the S&W, one of the older, contour following cuts whose meandering pgthway and tree-lined edges often make it feel more like a river than a canal. The locks can be a frustration, the distance between them gradually closing but always remaining just a little too far to walk ahead and set the next. The result can be, as it was today, that a queue gradually forms. But just as soon it can disappear. At Penkridge we were fifth of five, with no-one coming the other way at all. By Gailey we were second and only had one boat behind after others had stopped for various reasons.
With only a quarter mile between each of the last four I walked with Brian while Vicky steered; an arrangement that Brian didn't entirely approve of. He doesn't like his pack being separated anad runs back and forth along the towpath trying to keep walker and boater in sight. At one point he even leapt onto a moored boat, contemplating a jump from there to ours. Not a good idea when he found himself teeth to teeth with a snarling collie and had to be hauled off by his scruff!
Now we're moored, Vicky is cooking dinner and Brian is lying in the warmest part of the boat - on the floor above the calorifier! Sensible dog.
Seven miles tomorrow will take us to the junction with the Shropshire Union Canal where we swing north and head towards Wales.

Thursday, 23 June 2011


We finally made it. Several weeks after we started promising ourselves we'd put Harry aside and go off cruising for the summer we finally did it.
We filled up with diesel, topped up the water, bought a new gas cylinder, said our cheerios and cast off at 11.30. Seven hours later and we're moored up in Tixall Wide near Great Haywood (an astonishingly busy Great Haywood and Tixall where we only just manged to squirm Star into the last remaining slot, barely a foot longer than the boat.)
Though it was mid-summer a brisk cold headwind had Vicky searching out her winter fur hat but the weather looks more promising as we near the weekend.
Remarkably, it's been a whole nine months since we arrived at Streethay to start the refurb of Harry. Naively we thought we'd be finished by now. Fat chance. In a way it felt strange leaving, we'd been there so long we felt part of the boatyard village. But we'll be back to carry on all too soon.
Meanwhile here's to a few weeks of relaxed cruising through the quiet countryside as we make our way up to Llangollen.
When we exit Tixall Wide tomorrow we'll be cruising in what is for us virgin territory and we're looking forward to it.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Bermuda Triangle

Cheap tools are easy to find; decent ones much harder to come by. Needing some plug cutters and router bits I headed for my nearest purveyor of decent woodworking stuff, Axminster Tools which I discovered had a branch half an hour down the road in Bermuda Trade Park, Nuneaton.
And when I got there I found not just Axminster but Screwfix and MacDonalds in a Bermuda Triangle of manly pleasures.
Axminster is the place though - a huge gleaming showroom with every conceivable woodworking and engineering tool (plus plenty more you've never heard of). I came out having spent £50 - I could have spent £5,000! There was everything from massive spindle moulders to exquisite and excruciatingly expensive hand tools from Lie Nielsen. Expensive as in £350 for a hand plane - albeit with a bronze body.
Ironically the next day, just as I was settling in for a session of routing mouldings on my new framing my trusty Makita router seized solid. If it had happened before visiting Axminster I would have been spoiled for choice. Today it was a toss up between the local Screwfix or Wickes.
Screwfix had the better buy but - of course - it wasn't in stock at the Lichfield depot. Or at Burton, Birmingham or Cannock. Why do they bother with these depots? Nothing I want is ever in stock.
So back to Wickes which promises to 'beat Screwfix prices by 10 per cent'. And, yes, they agreed the Screwfix router was cheaper than theirs. BUT Screwfix's was 1250 watt and the Wickes one 1200 watt. "Sorry, they have to be identical" they said. "But that makes the Screwfix one an even better buy." I said. No joy. It wasn't identical. But Screwfix didn't have one so Wickes got my cash.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Heart of oak

Well floor and walls at least. After a long spell of faffing around on minor jobs which seemed to take forever but showed no outward sign of progress we've made a quantum leap.
We've laid a solid oak floor and I'm well on the way to framing the cabin sides in some chunky European oak too. The oak actually comes from Russia though we bought it rather nearer to home - from Peak Oak. They're our 'local' supplier of oak flooring being half an hour up the road near Leek and run by cheery and helpful farmer turned oak specialist, Adrian Plant and his son.
It seems he also supplies Braidbar Boats with oak flooring so if he's good enough for them he'll do for us!
For the floor we used 160mm wide 'character grade' oak, which means it comes with enough knots and flaws to give it, er, character, using long 2m plus lengths to minimise the number of cross joints. Then I bought some knot-free 120mm 'prime grade' and got him to machine off the tongues and grooves to leave me 110mm wide and 20mm thick lengths that would be just the job for some chunky framing.
About eight hundred quid later we hauled the lot back to Harry, coated it in Osmo Polyxoil to seal it and started to fit it. Well first I decided to ask for some advice on how to fit it. And I wished I hadn't. Basically it turns out there are two schools of thought - one says "screw it down" and the other says "whatever you do, don't screw it down". Their choice is to glue it together and leave it floating on the sub-floor. To which the first school says "don't ever glue it together".
Finally I decided to take Adrian's advice and screw it down with blind screws through the tongues - using some remarkable new floorboard screws from Spax which he recommended. And boy, were they good: they cut their own way in without splitting the wood even an inch from the end of the tongue and so need no time consuming pilot hole drilling. A small, steeply angled countersunk head lets them be pulled right into the surface too. Brilliant!
The floor went down with little more than a couple of days and a couple of top coats of Polyxoil produced a superb waxy sheen.

And then we covered it all up again!
It had to be protected from the rest of the work so it's now hidden under sheets of hardboard and cardboard.
The framing has been slower going. Even with the big compound mitre saw I bought to do up a house and which is far too huge really for boat fitting. Trouble is that nothing is square on a boat. Even things that look square are just a degree or two out. And there's nothing more exasperating than cutting a ninety degree joint and discovering it should have been ninety two degrees - the resulting gap looks like a chasm.
But we're getting there.
Meanwhile poor old Vicky had been trying hard not to get frustrated and bored at being unable to join in the refitting work. Until she decided to prep and paint the side of Harry next to the bank. She's been working away sanding, painting, flatting back and re-coating again and it looks superb.
Or it did.
I went off to get the camera to photograph it, came back and discovered she was busy sanding it all down again to get ready for another coat. So no picture until next time!