28th Aug to 3rd September – Northwich to MIddlewich and up the Wardle Canal
We said goodbye to Bruce and Lenny, after a lovely weekend. It was drizzling, so we were in no real hurry to cast off. I didn’t envy them their long trip home in Bank Holiday Monday traffic. We eventually set off about midday, by which time the sun was shining, which was a very welcome sight.
As we left Northwich, we saw some really big boats and you could clearly see the need for the swing bridges. Most of them looked like they rarely moved though. There was obviously a lot of boating history in Northwich in the not so distant past. Indeed the Yarwood family were responsible for building over 1,000 vessels. They produced almost every component of a ship, from steam engines to propellers and anchors. The yard closed in the mid sixties but evidence of their work can still be seen and the basin is still a going concern and filled with historic boats.
As we went out into the country, the river’s banks were lined with fisherman – presumably a competition. And there was much activity on the towpath from dog-walkers, hikers and runners. But no boats. The first pair of locks we encountered was Hunts Locks – we went up in the smaller lock, which is not electrified. The lock keepers certainly earn their lunch winding the paddles and the gates – it looks pretty physical. We told the lock keeper that we would be back the next day and that we planned to spend the night below Vale Royal Locks and he waved us on our way.
We have noticed that great clumps of the dreaded Floating Pennywort have established themselves along the river banks. Not a problem yet, but sure to be if not tackled soon. But it’s a costly exercise and the plant can re-establish itself very quickly from the tiniest fragment left in the water. You may recall that there is a currently a trial on the River Soar, where we cruised last year, employing a a weevil which chows down on the Pennywort. Initial results of that test look encouraging.. You can read more about it here. There is also an interesting article about other alien/invasive species that CRT have to contend with here. Just one quite costly aspect of the work they have to do that many people don’t appreciate. You can see the Pennywort in this video – it’s the brighter green clumps.
We arrived at Vale Royal Locks and turned to moor on the lock moorings. We knew that there would be no other boats coming down or up on this stretch and had been told by the lock keeper it was OK to moor there. It was a pleasant spot and, once the trains had stopped running so frequently on the nearby Birmingham to Liverpool line, it was pretty quiet. We decided to have a quick snooze – despite our guests being very helpful, it’s always extra work and we felt we deserved a nap.
The pics above show the Vale Royal locks, up through which we cannot pass, currently. There has been a lock on this site for over 250 years, the first one being made of timber, which opened in 1732. Sadly, since the decline of the salt industry, no commercial shipping passes through the current set of locks these days. In it’s heyday, a steam flat towing three 300-ton unpowered barges could pass through the lock in 15 minutes, making the Weaver an extremely efficient navigation.
We are a bit disappointed that we cannot cruise to the head of the navigation, at Winsford, where Winsford Bottom Flash and Winsford Top Flash can be found. Both are shallow lakes and are, again, a result of uncontrolled brine pumping in the area. They now form a chain of salty ponds and wetlands which contain saline plants not normally found inland. It is actually possible for boats to explore the Bottom Flash, but the depth of water is limited, and very great care is needed.There is a sailing club there though, so knowing us (or knowing Paul!), I think we’d probably have given it a go?
On Tuesday, we started our journey back up river – or rather I did. Paul had to work so I brought us back through Hunts Lock, where the locky recognised our boat from a passage through Harecastle Tunnel, earlier this year. Apparently these paid CRT employees can be deployed anywhere (within reason) so the job must give them a lot of variety. He remembered our singing – although he said you’re an opera singer aren’t you? I can’t resist belting out a bit of Pie Jesu in a tunnel. The acoustics are everything. Must have been that!
We had rung ahead and booked a night at Northwich Quay, on hook-up. We could hoover up a nice chunk of electricity and also do a shop at the handily placed Waitrose. We arrived at around midday and got settled. After a shower, I went to Waitrose and did a shop. When I got to the checkouts there were mahoosive queues. I asked what was going on and was told that their main checkouts were SNAFU and that everyone was having to use their self-scan checkouts, helped by the Partners who would normally have been on the main checkouts. Needless to say, it took an eternity and I felt very sorry for the Partners. They must have been pretty frazzled. Not everyone is as nice as me!
We had a passage back up the lift booked for 15:45 on Wednesday and so would leave Northwich Quay and travel the short leg down to the Lift later on Wednesday.
In last week’s blog, I mentioned steamship The Danny, and I stumbled across a lovely photo and a bit of a grumble at the effect this season’s “issues beyond our control” have had on their timetable and their business. Here is the pic. Imagine how wonderful it might have been to find this steaming towards us. Maybe next time?
On Tuesday evening, I saw a post on Twitter to the effect that CRT were going to be swinging Northwich Town bridge at 1pm on Wednesday. Northwich Quays is right by the Town Bridge so we would be in pole position and would still have time to get to Anderton for our Lift appointment. Pretty exciting stuff. I don’t think the bridges are operated that frequently these days, so it’s a great chance to actually see one on the move. And here it is
Once we had watched the bridge, we set off from Northwich Quay back towards the Anderton Lift moorings. We tied up on the visitor moorings for an hour before moving down to the lift waiting moorings for 3:15. We watched the trip boat come down the lift and then it was our turn. By coincidence, our ascent was with the same boat that we had made the descent. We were given the usual briefing and then off we went. N/B Splash first and then followed in by us or rather by me. Paul was working and It was quite gratifying to get a round of applause from the gongoozlers for entering the caisson without any bumps. I’ll take that!
The ascent was a little bouncier than the descent, which we were told was quite normal. We were soon back up at T&M level. You may not turn left when exiting the Lift. You have to turn right and wind before proceeding in the direction you wish to go, which in our case was roughly North West towards Runcorn again, running pretty much parallel to the Weaver – just 50 ft higher.
There are several tunnels on this stretch of the T&M, the first of which is Barnton, which is 572 yards (523m) long. The approach to the tunnel is quite wiggly and the portal, when you eventually see it, looks pretty narrow and you can see that it has a kink in it. in the early days of tunnel-building, tunnels were built by plotting out the route across the hilltop and then sinking down several shafts. The navvies would then start digging in both directions from the bottom of the shafts and also from the tunnel entrances. The theory was that they would all meet in one, neat, straight line. Sadly this was not always the case and both Barnton and the next tunnel, Saltersford, have a distinct kink! Once through Barnton, we started looking for a place to pull over as Paul had a conference call at 5pm and we did not want to be in a tunnel, with no phone signal at that time! We found a spot that would do just before Saltersford Tunnel.
Saltersford is only 424 yards (338m) long and, since 2008, has been subject to entry restrictions because it is not wide enough for two boats to pass each other and it is impossible to see from the entrance, whether another boat is coming. This is because of the kink! Boats can only enter from our end (the North end) between between 00 and 20 minutes past.each hour and from the other end at between 30 and 50 minutes past each hour. There is a helpful sign to remind you, though. We would not be going through until Thursday and I lay awake that night, wondering how on earth they coped before 2008.
Paul had an extra day off today (Thursday) lucky boy.You may recall that, on the Weaver, there was a pair of locks called Saltersford that we went through. Well on the T&M, instead of going uphill in a lock, you go straight through the hill! Well – maybe not straight! And after a peaceful night, we poked our nose into the tunnel mouth just after 09:00. It is indeed quite kinked! You definitely could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We emerged from the tunnel to find a boat waiting for their time slot. Quite a nice spot to moor actually. And we really enjoyed the countryside as we headed along towards the end of the this long canal. It’s taken us a couple of bites over two years, but by the time we get to the end, we will have done every lock from start to finish.
The views over the Cheshire plain are wonderful and we enjoyed playing Spot the Weaver! We spotted the Dutton Aqueduct, which we had seen last week, just by the site of the Dutton Breach, which happened in 2012. It was a pretty serious breach and cost around £2.1 million to repair, closing the entire canal for 6 months.
The site looks like a delightful spot to moor. It’s hard to believe you are on the outskirts of Runcorn. Shortly after this, I was going round a bend and spotted a boat heading towards me. I pulled right over to the offside, to allow him space to manoeuvre, but he didn’t see me until very late. He was going too fast and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had lost it. He was like a rabbit in a headlight. It was very clear that he was going to strike us and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.
He gave us quite a biff – what you’d call a t-bone – and I’m afraid I swore at him. He looked utterly horrified (I don’t think it was because of my swearing!) and while I regained my composure and let another boat pass from behind me, he came running back to apologise. He looked very shaken and I felt a bit sorry for him. I accepted his apology with grace and we went on our way. I could have reported him to his hire company, but I believe he had learnt a lesson. He told me he had seen me last minute, panicked and taken his speed off and out of gear and then lost steerage. I told him that the one thing he should never do in such a situation was to reduce speed. and take the boat into neutral. I was taught “No Geary, No Steery” and it’s a good one to remember. As for us, there is a scrape along the blacking and a bit of a dent, but these boats are built for such things. Although it’s not actually “a contact sport” as once said by dear Timothy West, these things happen.
We went on our way, passing cute Dutton Dry Dock and then arriving at Dutton stop lock, which we went through and then winded and went through again, in the opposite direction, stopping briefly to take a pic of the Preston Brook Tunnel Portal. This marks the spot of the start of the privately owned (Peel Holdings) Bridgewater Canal. Or more correctly, 11 yards into the tunnel the tw canals meet. Strange but true! The Bridgewater Canal – which runs from Runcorn to Leigh, near Manchester – is really the canal that spawned all other canals. CRT have a license agreement that allows CRT licenced boats 7 days for a passage. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and if you’re ever planning a trip on the Bridgewater, the NABO have written a comprehensive guide which you can find here
The stop lock only falls a couple of inches but provided a means of controlling the flow of water between the T&M and the Bridgewater. Water was a precious commodity and jealously guarded by all the canal companies by means of stop locks. This particular lock has slightly odd dimensions, being wider than a normal narrow lock but not wide enough to take two boats. Tom Kitching, an excellent fiddler, who busked his way around England a few years back, is appearing at the Dry Dock tonight. That would have been nice to see!
After turning, we moored at the Dutton Breach moorings for lunch. It was indeed a lovely spot. And then the rain started. It had been so pleasant, warm and sunny until then. The rain continued for a while but had stopped by the time we got back to the tunnels. We arrived at Saltersford within the permissible time frame and entered the tunnel. It really does have the most pronounced kink and you do wonder whether you will meet someone who did not know the rules, But we were fine. We really enjoyed this tail end of the T&M – some wonderful scenery. Next time we come through, it may well be on our way back from Manchester, but that won’t be this year.
We burbled on past Anderton and out into the countryside, pulling over at about 17:30. Not an ideal spot – no views, but hopefully pretty quiet and the wifi was OK. We both had our coats on by this point. I hate to mention the A (or even the F) word, but it does start tomorrow!
We had a very quiet night until 07:00, when we were awoken by a volley of what sounded like rapid gunshots or fireworks being let off. It set Ted off – he finds such noises very stressful. So much for having a bit of a lie in today. But we settled Ted and dozed until 09:30 so all was not lost. But we never did work out what the noise was – our best guess was a bird scarer?
We were just about to set off when we saw the fuel boat, Halsall, heading towards us. We flagged them down and did a top up of our diesel, as we do like to patronise the fuel boats whenever we can. They perform a valuable service in all weathers. It was a rather pleasant sunny day when we set off, which makes a nice change. Long may it last. We were bound for Oakwood Marina (again) to do some washing (bedding) and top up the groceries. We are heading out into the countryside this weekend, so want to be fully provisioned. We also fancy another beer and a pizza from the pizza van!
We arrived at Oakwood at about 2pm and decided – as it was payday – we’d push the boat out and have lunch at the cafe too! The soup I had just made with the left-over Chilli would keep for another day. I had a cheese and ham toastie with a poached egg and Hollandaise on top – what a great idea! – and Paul opted for fish finger sarnie. Both were pronounced delicious.
We had a snooze/beepy in the afternoon – sleeping off our lunch! God, we’re old! Well I am – don’t know what Paul’s excuse is?
After our pizza, ( I managed less than half – but it’ll be good for lunch tomorrow) in the evening we went and watched a bit of TV and retired for a very quiet night. We really like this Marina. They seem to have it right. There were several people camping in the pre-erected tents tonight. I like Autumnal camping, but there’s always the wait for the overnight dew to burn off before you can pack your tent away. No worries about that with pre-erected tents, though!
We set off the next morning with everything that needed to be full full and everything that needed to be empty empty. We grabbed a couple of coffees to go and as we were leaving, I made a couple of bacon butties. They went down a treat. We were bound for Middlewich again, our third visit this summer.
It was hot and sunny and all was going well until we arrived at the foot of the 3 locks that carry you up to the Junction by King’s Lock. We had forgotten to allow for the fact that it was Saturday. There are two hire bases in Middlewich and both were engaged in unleashing a few boatfuls of rookies out onto the system. There was a lot of queuing and – at the junction where we and, it seemed, everyone else, wanted to turn right – it was comedy mayhem. And several of the crews were from abroad – Norwegians, Netherlanders etc. and seemed to have trouble understanding what they were being told.
We were turning right onto the Wardle Canal, which is renowned for being the shortest canal in Britain. It’s either 110 yards (91.5 m) including Wardle Lock or 154 feet (47m), depending upon whether you believe historian Jean Lindsay’s book “The Trent & Mersey Canal” or a plaque added to the bridge in 2001. It was originally named the “Wardle Green Branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal”, but the entrance bridge is actually inscribed “Wardle Canal 1829”. So it’s all a bit hazy! But it was built so that the Trent and Mersey Canal canal company could charge hefty tolls on all traffic between their canal and the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal, which starts at the end of the short Wardle Branch and ends at Barbridge Junction. It all looks like the same canal to me, so it’s probably not worth worrying about!!
What should have taken an hour, maybe an hour and a half, ended up taking well over three hours and there was more queing at the next look, on the Middlewich Arm. Finally it was our turn to go and we went up in the lock and then found the first spot on the bank that we could find. A lovely spot in perfect solitude, overlooking fields and woods. That would do for today.
On Sunday morning, we were once again rudely awakened from our slumbers, this time by a lot of shouting. Something to do with a dog called Gwyneth, who would not come back and who “never usually does that”. We don’t know what “that” was but it seemed to have enraged someone who yelled that Gwyneth’s owner should put his bloody dog on a lead! Not exactly the leisurely Sunday start we had envisaged!
It was a scorcher of a day! So hot that we pulled over about 13:30 and took a break from the relentless rays. We set off again about 16:30-ish and eventually moored at the Church Minshull VMs – complete with our own bench. And that’s another week over. They really are scudding by – it’ll soon be Christmas!
Just before we went to bed on Sunday night (at around 23:30) I heard the ropes tighten. I said to Paul “If I didn’t know better, I’d say there was a boat coming”. And then I heard the low thrum of diesel engine from a distance away. We both went out on deck and we could see lights. Sure enough, round the corner a boat came chugging towards us. Many people think it is illegal. It isn’t. Hire boats are not permitted to cruise after dark but if you own your boat, there’s nothing to stop you. We haven’t done it for many years. We used to go to the pub by boat with my Dad, for an evening out and then come back after last orders. You steer by the light of your tunnel light.
Next week we will be back on the Shroppie, taking our time, as we make our way back to base, meeting an old pal and enjoying the promised Indian Summer.