22 to 28 May – Salt Country and beyond
We stayed the day at our Sunday overnight spot below Povey’s Lock. For my own curiosity, I tried to find out who the heck Povey was, but could find no trace. We were serenaded all day by Skylarks and Reed Warblers. It’s a very nice spot.
I spent the day sewing – more Christmas gift bags – and, as is customary, on these summery evenings, we cast off after Paul finished work. We worked our way down a total of three locks (Povey’s, Willeymoor and Quoisely). They were all pretty leaky, a fact which I reported to CRT. We found a very pleasant spot with vestigial road noise and a nice view, just before Marbury lock. We’d knock that one off tomorrow.
We had seen a few shenanigans at Quoisley lock. It was pretty windy and there were two hire boats waiting to go into the lock we were leaving. One had no lines on at all and the other had the stern line on but the bow was loose and swung out right in front of me. Luckily, I had anticipated this might happen and had left the lock very slowly, so that if I had to stop suddenly, it would be easier. We threaded our way through and then looked back to see one of the boats heading full tilt into the brickwork of the lock entrance. A very palpable hit! Those poor hire boats really take a bashing – as do the structures themselves, which is more worrying.
The towpath where we moored that evening had just had its summer mow and the boys had a good romp up and down, scattering grass cuttings as they went. It’s lovely to see them play together and one of the reasons that we got two pups at the same time. They are such good company for each other.
Our overnighter is overlooked by a classic farm and outbuildings on the hill above us and we were disturbed only by the boats speeding past us towards the locks. Hire boaters may know no better or may not care. But private boats should be more considerate. Speed is not only uncomfortable for moored boats but can also erode the banks of the canal and – in nesting season – might well scatter a nest. We always pass moored boats ultra slow, to teach them a lesson. It doesn’t seem to be working! On this canal, we have taken to mooring with a “spring line” on because it gives us more stability. A passing boat displaces water, which then drags the moored boat forward or back and slackens the lines. – the effect is minimal if the boat passes slowly, but at speed can cause all sorts of problems. We have actually had mooring pins, hammered well into the ground, pulled out by yahoos speeding past.
We mostly moor with a line fore and aft, but the spring line is an additional rope which lessens the “see-sawing” effect. This diagram shows what it looks like. 1 is the stern line, 3 is the bow line and 2 is the spring line. You can put a 4th rope on at the stern too, but we find three does the trick.
I did more sewing, including some Christmas bunting, made with some remnants from the gift-bag making. And as I was sitting at my sewing table by the hatch a boat passed and said “Ooh, Old Nick – really enjoyed the last blog!” How nice!
As soon as Paul had finished work, we unhitched and set off. Our goal was to get to Wrenbury, the place with the motorised lift bridge and it was a beautiful evening on which to do it. There was just one lock before Wrenbury and we cruised the rest of the way, once again accompanied by that chilly breeze, entertaining ourselves with some quizzing. You can see how busy the Wrenbury Lift Bridge is in the video below. I guess it’s just a thing the locals take in their stride. Imagine if you were late for work though!
While we were at Wrenbury, Paul took advantage of the handily placed dog poo bins. Those boys are so full of it! Paul “collects” them in the well deck – not like stamps, you understand – it’s just somewhere to put them until they can be disposed of. The Llangollen is not particularly well served for refuse (or Elsan) disposal, we have found.
I had done my preparation for our evening meal before we set off and it was a quick job to cook it, once we had tied up. It was a Beef Thai Massaman Curry, using the excellent “Spice Tailor” Kit. George had introduced us to it and it has now become one of our regular meals. I used minute steaks cut into strips, mange touts, baby sweetcorn and broccoli, served with some egg fried rice. It’s a particular favourite of Pauls. I recommend it. It’s very tasty, but not too spicy for wussy old me.
We ended up mooring, just by chance, at a spot where we had spent the day on our outward journey a couple of weeks ago. We had an early start planned for the next day so you’d think we might have gone to bed earlier than our usual midnightish. Early nights are for sensible folk! We both went out like a light though.
I was deep in dreams when the alarm went off on Wednesday at 06:00. It was a beautiful morning, though. One of those where it has been a tad chilly overnight but the sun hitting the water makes it turn into steam and look quite magical. I would not want to do it every day, but the occasional early morning is a joy.
We had a fair way to go before the three locks that we wanted to tackle and we were cruising in solitude for quite a while, but as we were emptying the first lock, another boat came up behind us and followed us all the way until we pulled over in a nice sunny spot. We had tied up by 8am and we just had time for a quick breakfast together before Paul (and Bill!) started work.
When we first set out this year, farmers were still ploughing and then they were planting and now I see the seedlings burgeoning forth. We are seeing the ducklings, goslings and cygnets starting to look more like ducks, geese and swans, rather than the little fluff balls they were when they first hatched. It’s a real privilege to watch the year unfold at such close quarters.
Now – here’s a question for you. What do you think this little door in the bridge below is for? I always think it looks like an oven or something. Boaters will, of course, know but non-boaters often wonder. I’ll put the answer in next week’s post. Answers on a postcard! Or maybe a comment as it’s the 21st Century?
We set off quite late as Paul had been on a conference call until just after 6 pm. We did a very short cruise from our day spot down to the pound between Swanley Lock 1 and 2, As we cruised down we saw N/B Hearts of Oak, home of The Pipkins, whom we follow on Twitter. Peter Pipkin is a photographer. His photos, taken as they cruise around the waterways, are well worth a look.
We would be spending tomorrow night in Swanley Bridge Marina, which is very close, so we decided not to do the second Swanley lock. We’ll save it for tomorrow.
Jonathon, on Ortomarine sister Ship “Watt Knot”, drew our attention to an important milestone we were just about to smash through – Old Nick’s solar panels producing 3MWh of free power, since its launch in December 2020. Here is the moment that it happened, displayed on our “Ortomate” control system. We estimate, at the current price of red diesel (around £1.25 per litre) that we have saved around £1250 in diesel propulsion costs over the last few seasons.
We went down the remaining Swanley lock and into the Marina during Paul’s lunch break and got settled. We would get our bedding washed, selves washed, empty the loo, top up with water, restore the batteries to 100% and reset the Sate of Charge (SOC) all in one night!
The washing was a bit of a disaster to be honest. When Paul popped back to put it into the tumble drier it was still sodden. Clearly the machine hadn’t spun. We had to put everything on the line, which kind of negated one of the reasons we came into the marina. Sheets and towels are much more easily done in a proper laundry. We go for a wash and dry and very often put the same stuff back on, once dry. Well, that wasn’t going to be possible this time. Luckily it was more or less time to move to summer bedding so we switched from our brushed cotton cuddly Spring seasonal bedding to our Summer bedding. We have really cuddly teddy bear fleece bedding for the depths of Winter. So warm and cosy.
We left the marina, which had been very pleasant, on Friday morning and commenced our journey down towards Hurleston. It was a lovely sunny morning and the vollies were on, so we whistled though the four locks. Back onto the lovely Shroppie, but only for a short distance, as we’d be turning off at Barbridge junction. While the Shroppie goes on up to Chester and Ellesmere Port, where it meets the Manchester Ship Canal, we’d be turning onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shroppie.
The Middlewich branch forms the link between the Shroppie and the Trent and Mersey. It’s only 10 miles long, with just 4 locks. But we had no plans to finish it today. We wanted to take our time and enjoy it. We stopped for a long lunch and a beepy and then pressed on to the spot we had our eyes on, if there was room for us.
It’s a lovely spot on an embankment high above the Weaver valley, with a view of the village of Church Minshull down below. There were already a few boats there when we arrived early evening It’s a popular spot – and the video below will give you a flavour of why. The moorings have benches and barbecue stands, and it’s one of the few moorings where we are perfectly content to jostle with other boats. The countryside is worth sharing. The only downside is that flipping Shroppie shelf! We didn’t miss that one bit on the Gollie.
As it had been so hot the day before and more was promised for Saturday we planned an early start. However 05:10 was slightly earlier than planned, but we were awoken by a diesel boat passing, it’s occupants chatting loudly and being driven to fast, smashing us against the shelf. When we do an early start, we are a little more considerate. A- we are silent, B – we pass moored boats very slowly and C – we talk in whispers. But since we had been so rudely awakened we though we might as well get up. and get going. It was a such joy having the peace and the canal all to ourselves and we relished the trip. WE and others have noticed that the Hawthorn bushes are looking particularly heavy with bloosom this year. Good for bees and later, when the resultant berries have formed, good for other birds and creatures.
We passed the spot where there had been a massive breach in 2018, which had closed this entire canal for nearly 9 months. which must have been a ‘mare for the hire companies whose boats regularly use it. The canal, which is on an embankment dumped its water onto the land below and boats that had been moored there were left high and dry. Must have been an alarming time for them. Luckily for us, all was well as we passed and locked down to the junction.
The cottage by the lock on the Junction (Wardle Lock) was always a beautiful spot, and was famous for the “Lady of the Lock” who was an ex-boater. She would dispense advice and more to the rookie hire-boaters, many of whom were experiencing their first lock. She was like an impromptu lock keeper. Today, some 11 years after her death, the cottage was not looking quite so well kept as it used to, sadly.
Although our eventual route heads South, we turned right at the junction onto the Trent & Mersey (T&M) and headed North, toward Preston Brook. Many of you will know that my Dad died on the towpath in Middlewich, doing what he loved on his narrowboat Sam Gunter, with Nanny Lynne. None of us will ever forget that sad, sad day. We all arrived there to support Nanny Lynne and say our farewells. We gathered in the Newton Brewery pub, all in deep shock.
I wanted to pay a visit to the bench that Nanny Lynne had erected on the spot where he had died, nearly 17 years ago. It bears a lovely plaque commemorating him and I hope provides a nice place for someone to rest their weary legs. Or a place to just sit and be. A few tears were shed, but it was lovely to be there, and we felt a little like we were presenting Old Nick, named in his memory, to him for approval.
To do this we had to go down 3 narrow locks and then through “Big Lock” – an actual wide lock on a narrow canal – and the only one on the entire T&M. It was part of an ambitious plan to move salt on wide beam craft up to the Mersey and its ports – but nobody told the tunnel makers! Which were built narrow. Epic fail! We noticed a lot of new building nearby since our last visit by boat, maybe 25 years ago.
After visiting Dad’s bench, we went down to the first of the many “flashes” – shallow lagoons caused by subsidence from salt-mining, for make no mistake, we are firmly in salt country. Rock salt was deposited in this region some 220 million years ago, during the Triassic period. Seawater moved inland from the sea, creating a chain of shallow salt marshes across Cheshire. As the marshes evaporated, deep deposits of rock salt were formed. Salt Mining has quite an interesting history, going back 2,000 years, being first exploited by the Romans. You’ll recall Droitwich is also a Roman salt town?
We spent the remainder of the day giving Old Nick one of our regular “deep cleans”, where we pull everything that isn’t bolted down out onto the towpath and sweep, hoover, and finally, wash the floors. We usually sweep daily, and on our weekly clean, we just move stuff around to clean, behind and around. We also washed the dog’s beds. It was hot and tiring work, culminating in a beepy. We stayed the night there and left very early, once again, to make our way towards Stoke on Trent and beyond.
Sunday morning was a bit chilly, and we both had to add some layers to feel comfy. It also marked the start of what is known as “Heartbreak Hill” – a set of 31 locks over the 12 miles between Middlewich (Cheshire) and Kidsgrove (Staffs). Their slightly more prosaic real name is “The Cheshire Locks”.
The Trent and Mersey, the Shroppie, the Middlewich Branch and part of the Staffs/Worcs canal form the “Four Counties Ring” – beloved of hire boaters. To me – the “ring” looks more like a hydra. What do you think? Perhaps it should be renamed the Four Counties Hydra?
We passed the British Salt works, with its hills of salt looking like snowy alps. They seemed to be working, even on a Sunday. We passed through a total of 9 locks – 5 of them being part of Heartbreak Hill – before pulling over not far from the small town of Wheelock.
Just before we pulled over, though, Paul had to do a bit of “ad hoc gardening”. There was a very short stretch between the nearby bridge and a lock entrance. A boat was waiting to come into the lock and a tree had fallen, trailing its branches across the canal. We could not have passed without getting scratched, so held back and then Paul brought his loppers into play!
We had noticed last year that a lot of the vegetation on the offside (i.e. opposite towpath side) was a bit overgrown, making passing tricky without being scratched. Paul decided it might be prudent to carry some means of dealing with this annoying foliage and put some loppers and a pair secateurs on his Amazon wish list. Our friends Sue and Paul were kind enough to buy the loppers for him and his Mum bought the secateurs. This was their first outing. I manoeuvred the boat to Paul’s requirements, while Paul lopped. Once we had cut back as much as we could without getting scratched in the process, Paul gathered up all the trimmings and put them in a safe place on the towpath, where no one would trip over them. We notified CRT of what we had done.
We spent much of the remainder of the day at our daytime stop and then set off early evening to knock off a few more of the Heartbreak Hill locks. We had a booking for a 4 pm passage through the Harecastle Tunnel the next day, and this would require another early start. We did a further ten locks, leaving a mere 16 to do the next day! And we found the pounds very low – maybe 10/12″ down, – so it was pretty slow going. We learned that the low water on this canal is partially attributable to the ongoing repairs at the infamous Toddbrook Reservoir, which is a feeder for this canal. You’ll probably recall that there was a major incident there back in 2019 – when 1500 people in Whalley Bridge were evacuated over fears that the dam might collapse. It was pretty dramatic. I think as part of the repair they are keeping water levels in the reservoir very low, so this affects canal levels.
A lock is essentially a bottleneck on a canal, And for this reason, the locks on this stretch are paired. Where both are in a good state of repair, you can use whichever one is more expedient and two boats can pass though at the same time – and not necessarily in the same direction. The locks were originally single, built by James Brindley in the mid 1770s. In order to speed up traffic in the canal’s heyday, Thomas Telford supervised pairing (adding the chamber on the left) of most of the Cheshire Locks (Heartbreak Hill!) between Wheelock, and Hardings Wood junction, near the Harecastle tunnel. Today, some are in need of repair, and some have actually been filled in, sadly.
We spent the night on the Hassel Green Visitor Mooring. And needless to say, we fell into bed that night and slept like logs!
And you can hear about the remaining 16 locks of Heartbreak Hill and our passage through Harecastle next week, in another thrilling instalment of The Sumpners Afloat!