Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Trent and Mersey Canal/River Weaver. Middlewich to Northwich.

We’re on a RIVER! And as you may gather, are ridiculously excited about it.

Before leaving Middlewich we breasted up alongside Alton, filled up with diesel and took a couple of bags of coal on board. There aren’t any fuel boats where we’re going and we don’t want to be at the mercy of marinas. We also went out and bought an anchor; as rivers and tidal estuaries are going to be part of our life in the near future we thought it might be prudent.
On the way up to the boat lift at Anderton, we had a couple of stops near the flashes on the Trent and Mersey between Middlewich and Northwich. A flash is a wide lagoon off the side of the canal where the land has subsided and filled with water, in this case caused by salt extraction.
They are notoriously shallow no-go areas, and have been used in the past for storing old wooden boats. Apparently if it’s submerged, old wood doesn’t rot anywhere near as fast as if it’s exposed to the air. It must work as they have mostly been removed and brought back to life, the ones that are still there are, for the time being, beyond repair. (We’ve seen that scenario before in the 2CV world; not the underwater bit silly, the beyond repair at the moment bit. Scarcity and affluence play a crucial part in the definition of “Beyond Repair”.) They are not surprisingly a haven for wildlife, as we passed we saw a family of greebs and this little chap.
During that time we had a trip out in the car to a little spot, still on the Trent and Mersey but 12 miles to the south, at the junction with the Macclesfield canal, where John and Jac were moored up. 12 miles isn’t that far, why didn’t we take the boat? Well in the middle of those 12 miles is a little stretch from Wheelock up to Kidsgrove know fondly as Heartbreak Hill; 31 locks in total, raising the canal some 250’. We’d love John and Jac to see all the changes we’ve made to Legend, but there is a limit. So we took the car instead and had a lovely afternoon with them.
We even managed to get outside enough for a barbeque. That’s two this year. Whoo-oo.

Up at the boat lift we had a chat with the very nice lady who takes the bookings then talked to one of the River Weaver lock-keepers at Hunts lock. They both were very helpful and put us at ease, not that we were particularly worried; everyone we’ve talked to about the Weaver has said how tranquil and easy it is. The Northwich River Festival was on the weekend we’d thought about going, which meant that all the down passages were booked, so we changed plans, visited the festival by bicycle,
and went down the lift on the Sunday when everyone else was coming up. This also meant that Anne, Mark and Jordan could come with us. They parked at a pub on the T&M then cycled up the towpath to meet us. We bundled their bikes in the well deck, stopped on the short term moorings just before the lift
and got ourselves on the next passage down. The lift operator gave us a quick briefing, and then we were under the bridge, through the gantry and into the caisson.
Hardly any time for nerves or adrenalin. It is not the first time we’ve been down the Anderton, however the only other time was on Fred & Sadie’s working boat Lynx; we just sat in the hold, admiring the view. This time it was our home we were taking down and we were responsible for it. Big difference; still fun but nerve-wracking.
When the gates opened at the bottom we motored out into what seemed to be a sudden melee of boats going in every direction, but, more by luck than judgement, Dave managed a neat-looking turn up stream. We moored just round the corner from the lift, where our passengers disembarked with their bikes and rode off through Anderton Country Park back to their car. It was only a short visit but we think they enjoyed it. For Jordan’s first trip on a boat it takes some beating. (Anne - if you're reading this, sorry for the lack of pictures of you three, if you have any please send us some.)

We are completely enchanted by the river. Our first night was downstream from the lift at Branton Cut, a canalised section that until you’ve passed through Saltisford Lock doesn’t even have a noticeable flow.
It was like being moored on a vast mill pond with wooded sides and only the odd Easyjet coming out of Manchester to spoil the tranquillity. In the morning we were passed by a working boat and what we think is a steam tug heading for the next lock.
They must have been to the festival and were now either heading out for the Manchester Ship Canal or doing what we’re doing; messing about on the river. Whatever, we made ourselves ship-shape and set off in their wake. When we phoned the lock to let them know we were on our way the Locky told us to hurry up as there were three boats waiting to go down. Dave put the Lister onto “Full Chat” and off we went. Being on a river is a good opportunity for us to give the boat some welly; you don’t get the chance of flat out cruising on a canal. When we’re on the Ribble Link we’ve got to punch a tidal flow in order to get up the estuary. We need to know that Legend can hack it. We got to the lock to find the gate open, the steam tug and the working boat were waiting inside along with a pretty wooden launch. Once we were safely secured to the sides the huge gates swung shut and out went the water. None of this pushin’ and windin’ lark on a river, it’s all done for you by a chap and some hydraulics. All you have to do is hold onto your rope.
The locks on the Weaver are paired, that means that there is a big one and a (relatively) little one side by side. Saltisford were using the big one; even with four boats in it, it was mostly empty.
When the gates opened we followed the other three out under the railway viaduct.
After the lock the navigation and the river re-join and the flow returns, adding more speed to your journey. Not wanting to keep anyone waiting at Dutton lock we tucked in behind the others and covered the next three miles in about 15 minutes. It is very exciting going fast in a narrowboat. On Brian and Ann Marie’s advice we were heading for the intriguingly named Devil’s Garden, a lovely secluded mooring on a sweeping bend. Now that Frodsham Cut, a cul-de-sac to a disused lock, has been closed, this is the last recognised mooring site before the industrial sprawl of Runcorn starts to intrude on the river. It was just as beautiful as they’d described it; nothing but every shade of green imaginable in every direction.
We did a flow- assisted turn on the bend, and moored up pointing into the current between a couple of hawthorn bushes.
It doesn’t really matter which way you’re pointing in such a gentle stream but it’s good practice and it put us the right way round for setting off in the morning. Ann-Marie did a load of washing and hung it out in a sunny breeze while Dave stripped all the old scruffy non-slip off the back deck and put a coat of black Hammerite on it. The idea is to mask off the edges and fittings and apply new non-slip leaving neat tread pads. We had a walk down to Frodsham in the evening, much to the annoyance of a herd of bullocks. There was a lot of arm waving and yelling, but when they’d finished doing that we all got on splendidly.

It would have been interesting to take the boat further downstream and have a look at the Manchester Ship Canal, but it’s quite a long haul there and back and the river doesn’t get any better than where we were, so the next morning, with the sun shining and rain forecast for the afternoon, we pushed off into the flow and headed for Northwich.

On the way we found out why the locks are so big and why all the bridges swing.
By the afternoon we were through Dutton and Saltisford locks, past the lift and tied up on the town moorings just by Northwich Swing Bridge.
While we were in the locks we breasted up with two more narrowboats and got some very welcome advice about what happens on the Ribble Link from someone who’s done it a couple of times. Very handy.

Over the next few days we’ll be going upstream to Winsford, then back to the lift. The weather forecast is rubbish but if we'd let that influence us this year we'd never have done anything. We’ll be back up on the T&M on Thursday or Friday then up to Preston Brook and the Bridgwater Canal.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Llangollen and Shroppie. Ellesmere to Middlewich.

Before we dragged ourselves away from Blake Mere, Rob (another cuz) and Tracey, along with their beautiful kids, Charlotte, Rebecca and Vincent, came to visit us for the afternoon. Rob is off to Afghanistan next month so it was good to see him before he goes. They joked that as a family they have a “Window of Acceptability”, but we thought they were perfectly well behaved. And the kids were pretty good too. Boom - tish.
After they left we went up to the car park and found a little Rebecca sized pink wellie where their car had been, so as we were going to Wrexham for an oil filter anyway(more about that later) we took it with us with the intention of dropping it in at their house. By coincidence they went across the front of us at a T junction, so we followed them till they stopped at some traffic lights. Unlike London, where getting accosted by people at traffic lights is a regular occurrence, it doesn’t often happen in Wrexham, so when Ann-Marie jumped out, small pink wellie in hand, and appeared in their passenger window, Tracey nearly had a heart attack. Later on, (after what is now known as the Oil Filter Incident) we had a counter-visit, ate lots of yummy cake and pushed our own window of acceptability to its limits. It was great to see you guys, as ever, and lovely to have you on board. There are still many miles of the Welsh canals that Legend hasn’t been to so we’ll be back this way at some time. And it’s handy to have an excuse to return to Blake Mere.

On the Monday after that we returned to Audlem in the car for the day to see yet another cuz, John, or more precisely his daughter Hannah, who along with the rest of The Sound of the Sirens was performing at the Audlem Music Festival.
And very good they were too.

In yet another case of ‘Right Place- Right Time’, the Crewe Ducks (the local Citroen 2CV club for Crewe, Nantwich and beyond) were having their summer camp at Wrenbury on the 8th & 9th of June, just when we were passing through. Although we no longer own a 2CV we’re still in the club and through it, over the last twenty-odd years, we’ve made some of the best friends you could hope to meet, so we were very excited about being able to spend time with some of them. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to arrive at a camp under our own steam, and we’ve never, ever brought a double bed and central heating to one before.

The act of getting there brought home to us this lesson: While much of the time we seem to have a charmed existence, lady luck isn’t always wearing our colours and it pays well to err on the side of caution. Also, that even a charmed existence can be undermined by a complete numpty.

The Oil Filter Incident. Our Lister has needed an oil change for a few weeks. Oil filters are available from chandleries - at a premium, but if you know the part number you can get one from any motor factor. While we were at Blake Mere, and without discussing it with Mission Control, (always a Bad Idea) Dave came over all impetuous, drained the oil and in order to find the number, took the old filter off by sticking a screwdriver through it. After he’d taken this irreversible step rendering the engine useless for the time being, Ann-Marie pointed out that it was the Friday afternoon before the double bank holiday and that maybe he should have waited. Huh? So it was that we found ourselves in Halfords in Wrexham at nearly five O’clock, where we hoped they’d be able to match the number to one of their own. They couldn’t, but good news – their supplier could. Bad news – not till Wednesday. That meant that we’d have to stay put for now then go to Wrenbury on the Thursday; a bit tight compared to our usual leisurely meanderings but still perfectly possible. By then it had gone five and everywhere else was shut, which is when we went off to Rob & Tracy’s followed by a Jubilee weekend on our boat, looking out over our lake and chatting with passers-by. God, we suffer for our art. On Wednesday morning Halfords duly rang to say that it would be in the shop that afternoon. Off we went, a few hours on the free wi-fi in ‘Spoons, then round to Halfords to find out that their system was down and that none of the orders from the weekend had turned up. Sorry. Would tomorrow be any good? Dave went round to Unipart, who cross-referenced the number to one of their own and sold him two, from stock, for half the price, in about thirty seconds.

So, on Thursday, bright overcast and early we donned the waterproofs and set sail for Wrenbury; the weather forecast was dreadful - and correct. The rain, rain, rain, came down, down, down. Ann-Marie was very good about it, hardly mentioning the fact that the day before had been quite pleasant.

At Grindley Brook there was the inevitable Thursday-when-all-the-hire-boats-come-back queue for the locks. Lots of wet holiday-makers in wet shoes with wet dogs and wet children holding wet ropes. This year, across the globe, in countless photo albums with “Our Holiday Afloat“ written on the front, there will be at least one photo, and probably many more, entitled “Bedraggled!”
While we were waiting we got chatting to a lady who told us that they’d delayed their departure from their marina for a month this season because of the awful weather, and had we done the same? We told her we were live-aboards and we’d just done our first winter on the cut. “That’ll explain the sou’wester and the proper weather gear, then.” She said. “You’d think so,” said Dave, “But this is the first time I’ve had to use it in anger. Winter was a walk in the park compared to today.” We got as far as Povey’s lock and gave up. We lit the fire, hung our stuff up around the boat and put a film on, while outside a proper storm wore itself out.

On Friday Karma decided that enough was enough and smiled at us again; we were through Povey’s before eight, through the next three in something close to sunshine, had a free pass through the lift bridge at Wrenbury and were moored up right outside the Cotton Arms Pub just before it started raining again. Bob on.

On Saturday afternoon it stopped raining, the barbeques got rounded up, the camping chairs came out and it was just like the old days; a happy group of people sitting around in a field, sharing a barby and few beers, swapping stories and generally chilling out. In such a relaxed atmosphere we found ourselves inclined to revive the ancient tradition of Dave’s Pancakes.

Short history lesson. In a previous life, Dave was a chef in the RAF, a handy thing to know if you need a lot of people feeding in a hurry. Eons ago, when pubs used to kick you out at eleven o-clock, a bunch of drunken 2CV campers would congregate round the back of Dave’s van clutching a plate a-piece onto which he would dole out pancakes as fast as was humanly possible. (And with a Coleman petrol stove going full whack on both burners under two frying pans, that’s quite fast. He has been known to double that up and do four at a time, but we found that the queue couldn’t cope.) Inevitably the name Pancake Dave stuck, and Saturday seemed a very fitting time to bring him out of retirement.
Ann-Marie rustled up lemon juice, sugar and some of her delicious home-made crab apple jelly for fillings. What’s not to like? Thank you to Pam, Brian and all the other Crewe Ducks. We thoroughly enjoyed your company and had a lovely time.

Dave had a dentist appointment the following Tuesday and we’d fitted it in with a visit to Chloe & Shandy at Daventry and went there on Sunday afternoon. Their new house is really beginning to feel like a home now. Dave went with Shandy to pick up the shed that Janice & Paul had given them as a house warming present. They came back in a van as it was too big to fit in the Punto. Who’d have guessed? There then followed the ritualistic Male Bonding Session known the world over as “Building a shed with your future Son-in-Law.”
They wanted to move some paving slabs to the front of the house to make another parking space and despite making a brave start and getting wet and muddy, the rain finally put the mockers on it. We stayed in their spare room till Wednesday morning when we thought it was about time they had their new home to themselves. They make a lovely couple, and it was good to see them both looking so happy.

Back on board Legend, in what can only be described - compared to what we usually manage - as a headlong dash, we went from Wrenbury, through Hurleston and Barbridge junctions and down to Middlewich, and did a car shuffle, in less than twenty-four hours.
That put us nicely in Middlewich for the Folk and Boat Festival.
We hadn’t really planned to be there for it, but our very good friends, Brian and Ann Marie were going to be there and we hadn’t seen them for yonks. Between them they run the fuel boat Alton on the T&M, Mac, Peak Forest and Bridgwater canals, the river Weaver and pretty much everywhere else in north England. As well as the chance of weekend in their company, we needed some diesel and a couple of bags of coal before we go up to the Ribble Link and onto the Lancaster Canal at the end of July, so it all fitted together beautifully. We had a very enjoyable evening in the Boar’s Head on the Friday night where we caught up on the last couple of years and picked their brains about the River Weaver, which we think we’ll probably go onto for a couple of days next week. The Anderton Boat lift is just up the cut from here and it would be a shame to go past without having a go on it.
Here's a couple of photos from our boat at Middlewich FAB 2012

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Llangollen Canal. Ellesmere to Trevor & Back

Once again we've had both barrels from Miss Serendipity's happy-gun. Being here and now was something we’d organised in a loose kind of way at the beginning of the year. It was Mandy’s birthday at the end of May, she said that she & Chas would love to visit and we said that we could probably be up on the Llangollen canal by then and a trip over the Poncysyllte aqueduct might be a fun thing to do. We hadn’t gone into dry dock by then but we thought it would all work out ok. Well it did. In spades.

We picked the guys up on the town arm in Ellesmere in the afternoon. In honour of their visit and to help celebrate Mandy’s birthday we’d put up the bunting and the Happy Birthday banners and Legend looked suitably festive.
We turned right out of the arm heading west, past Frankton Junction where the partly restored Montgomery canal goes off to the south and moored up for the night at Brooms Bridge.
In the evening we went for a walk and just happened to come across the Myton Inn at Hindford. Oh dear. More beer.
The next morning we set off up the two Marton locks which get the “prettiest lock cottage garden” award.
Ann-Marie went back to wind paddles for a chap who was single-handing a gorgeous wooden tug called Green Man.
Because tugs are deeper draughted than usual and the top Marton lock is quite shallow he couldn’t clear the ledge so she had to flush him in, i.e. open a top paddle with the bottom gate open to create a wave that lifts the boat enough to get it into the lock. We’re talking about stuff straight from the “Advanced Boating” end of the manual here. She got the promise of a drink later and was buzzing about it all afternoon.

After Marton the scenery starts to get closer and more dramatic as canal, road and railway are squished into the steep-sided Dee valley.

Chloe & Shandy were on their way home from N.I. via Holyhead in Dennis, their VW camper, so we’d arranged to meet them at a pub near Chirk. We moored up outside just as they were parking and after introductions all-round the six of us had a lovely lunch in the sun.
Later, once the kids had driven Dennis off towards Daventry we fired up the Lister, cast off and rounded the next bend, taking us out of England and across the big stone Chirk aqueduct into sunny Wales. This is an undeniably impressive structure, which, if it was anywhere else in the country, would be the on all the local postcards.
The reason it isn’t, and why you sort of feel sorry for it, is because firstly it lives in the shadow of its next door neighbour, the railway viaduct, which rises above it, and secondly its big brother a couple of miles away is higher, longer and far more famous. It ends with a “Welcome to Wales” sign in a big basin half-way up the hillside where the canal dives straight into the Chirk tunnel.
It sounds scary but it all happens very gently. Despite it being quite busy on the cut both the bridge and tunnel were clear for us. After that comes the shorter Whitehouses tunnel then a stretch towards the old limekilns at Froncysyllte with the canal clinging to the side of the valley. From here you get tantalizing glimpses of the graceful arches of the next big thrill.
We got lucky with the Fron lift bridge; another crew opened it for us, and then we were round the bend, out of the woods and without having to wait or queue or anything Legend was suddenly over a hundred feet up in the air on the magnificent Pontcysyllte aqueduct. The view is amazing, and made all the more spectacular by the almost non-existent edge to the cast iron bath-tub that is stopping your seventeen tonne boat from plummeting ……
it’s best not to dwell on it too much.

In the little town of Trevor at the end of the aqueduct, there is a sharp left turn to Llangollen, while straight ahead there is a short arm leading to a wharf, a hire centre and some permanent moorings.
This was the beginning of the planned route north from Ellesmere to a proposed ship dock on the Mersey; Ellesmere Port. It never got finished, the Chester canal – now the northern end of the Shropshire Union – extended to the new dock instead. The feeder from the River Dee at Llangollen which supplies the huge Hurleston reservoir was made navigable and the Trevor Arm became a boatyard and a very pretty mooring spot. Ironically, the most popular canal in the UK was never meant to be. It wouldn’t have made any commercial sense in the days of working boats, but then neither would fourteen day moorings or cruising rings. When you think about it, although we hold up a veil of authentic boats with proper engines and pretty painted roses, it is nothing at all like the working days.

Without any hint of smugness we did a perfect turn at the end of the arm and were back just in time to follow the last boat back over aqueduct. We couldn’t have timed it better, and a free ride through the lift bridge – again – put the tin lid on it. We moored on the 48hr rings near the limekilns, got the Barbie out and the four of us, along with Philippa who came back for another visit, had a superbly chilled out evening.
The following morning, as if we'd put days and weeks of meticulous planning into it - which we hadn't - the Olympic torch arrived in Trevor, and the handover took place in the middle of the Poncysyllte on Saturn, the only remaining horse drawn flyboat in the country. It turns out that our friend from Green Man is part of the Saturn Project and was in the bow-hauling team.
We were there along with the TV cameras, the Fron male voice choir and loads of school kids who’d all made cardboard torches. It was all very moving and we were thrilled to be part of it all.
As we took Legend back towards Ellesmere we couldn’t believe just how fortunate we’d been. Our little trip into Wales had gone so smoothly and by pure chance had put us right in the middle of the action. And we’d been just in the right place to see Chloe & Shandy on their way home. Although to be fair, they’d have gone to wherever we were; we had their spare door key and they’d left theirs behind. “Honest Dad, we’d have come to see you both anyway!” Yeah. Right.

We retraced our steps to Blake Mere and found an even nicer spot to tie up at.
It sounds cheesy – no doubt it is cheesy, we don’t get out much – but we really do wake up every morning and say thank you for our wonderful life.
Please don’t hate us and stop reading our blog now.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Llangollen Canal. Hurleston to Ellesmere.

It’s been six years since we’ve been on the Llangollen canal and it’s just as beautiful as we remember. This is not the jewel in the UK waterways crown without good reason. As well as the scenery starting off in rolling pasture land and becoming ever more dramatic as you get further into Wales, there is all the classic canal architecture to marvel at; lift bridges, pretty lock cottages, a staircase, a good smattering of tunnels and, of course the two spectacular aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte. Even though this is going to be a three week flying visit we’ve been looking forward to it lots. The big difference is that it was October and the end of the holiday season when we hired Shadowfax, this time we’re right in the middle of it and we‘ve heard stories of boats queuing for hours at locks and water points. Undaunted, we set of from Hurleston and soon decided that, ok, there are more boats about, but even when it’s busy, it’s not that busy. We moored for one night at Wrenbury, outside the pub, and then headed for Whitchurch, passing through the six Grindly Brook locks, made up of a flight of three and a staircase. That took a lot longer than it should have, and not because of holiday traffic, but due to some bloke coming the other way, single handing his own boat AND towing an unmanned seventy foot broken-down hire boat. Stupid. If it hadn’t been for the lock keeper and all the holiday boaters doing all the pushing and pulling for him he’d still be there. And just to spice things up a bit he fell in half way down. The Locky is on duty all day at Grindley Brook to make sure everyone gets through the staircase without getting stuck or flooding the cafĂ©. In mid-season he’s got enough on his plate already; by the time this numpty got to the bottom he was about ready to wrap a windlass round his head. But hey, the sun was shining and it gave us all something to laugh about! This is the bottom of Grindley Brook.
The Whitchurch arm was full, as were all the moorings outside, so we carried on for a bit to a lovely little spot called Sparks Bridge.
We’d bought this year’s batch of bedding plants so while we had a nice wide towpath Ann-Marie spread out all the troughs, trugs, buckets and planters and potted up the roof. We were quite glad we couldn’t get moored on the arm as this was a much nicer spot with plenty of room for gardening and painting; our two main occupations at the moment. We’ve now got strawberries and lettuce on the front and mostly petunias everywhere else. Our new addition this year is a hanging basket on the tiller.
Here’s a thing; ducks nest in trees. Honest. We know ‘cos we watched half a dozen ducklings launch themselves out of their nest which was ten feet up in an oak tree. As each little fluffy bundle bounced onto the grass, the mummy duck would run around the bottom of the tree squawking, until it followed her to join its brothers and sisters bobbing around in the canal. Then another one would drop and she’d have to do it all over again. Of course her job wasn’t made any easier by the dirty great boat that was in the way. She got them all sorted out in the end but it made for an eventful morning.
Dave climbed up to make sure the nest was empty.
It really was that high up!
After two nights at Sparks Bridge we carried on past the red-brick cottage that stands at the junction with the Prees Branch.
That brought back memories; we moored Shadowfax at the end of there for a night. After that there is a straight cut across Whixall Moss with heavy duty piling on both sides to stop the canal sinking into the peat bog.
It’s slightly eerie in a Hansel & Gretel way, but peacefully serene. We stopped Blake Mere, an idillic sheltered lakeside spot just before the Ellesmere tunnel. We both agree that it’s the nicest mooring we’ve found so far.
We stayed for two nights and promised ourselves a longer visit on the way back. Philippa & Rob, two of Dave’s many cousins live just up the road in Wrexham. Philippa came for tea on her bike, but because we hadn’t sussed out the car parking situation, ended up walking about a mile from Ellesmere in her leathers on a blazing hot afternoon. It was lovely to see her, lots of caching up and comparing notes from Oz where most of the other Wood cousins live.

The next day we pootled through the tunnel, swung into the Ellesmere arm, winded at the end and moored up. Dave managed to not make a hash of the whole turning business, much to the obvious disappointment of the people sitting on the benches at the end of the arm. We think they ought to get score cards, or at least heckle. “BW’s Got Talent” kind of thing.

There’s a very handy Tesco right on the bank so we stocked up ready for our next exiting episode. Mandy & Chas, our good friends from Peterborough who we met when Ann-Marie started dancing with Pig Dyke Molly, are coming to stay aboard for a few days and we’re off to the great Pontcysyllte aqueduct and other unpronounceable places.

This is dusk on the Ellesmere arm.