One of the many boats that passed us during our stay contained Steve and Moira, a couple we’d met at Ellesmere Port. We’d promised to go for a drink with them when we were up there but it never happened, so as they were mooring up near the flash we arranged to meet up at the Big Lock pub later that night. A very entertaining evening ensued with a couple who’ve been boating for years and have seen it all.
A day or two after that Martin and Yvonne, who we met last year on our York and Ripon adventure, turned up and moored next to us for the night. Of course it wasn’t just by chance, a good deal of logistical planning had gone into us getting Legend and Evolution together again, including them boating for 10 hours in the rain and us eking out our dwindling water supply so we didn’t have to leave before they arrived. It was all worth it though, we had a lovely evening aboard Evolution and it was fabulous to see such happy people looking so well. They’ve invited us to stay while they’re at the IWA National Rally at Chester and we’re really looking forward to that. In the morning we helped then through the locks going north out of Middlewich and said our fond farewells…for now.
Then Chloe came to stay for a couple of days; she’s got a job in Rochdale and she’s renting a room which can be a bit lonely. As she had 3 days off she cane to spend them with us, so that was lovely, and to make it even better, Shandy came along for the evening and we got an Indian take-away. Bliss.
As if that wasn’t enough interaction with the outside world, all this hanging around meant we still hadn’t gone round the junction when Paul and Lindsay on Happydaze came back from their trip up “The Welsh” as us old boaters like to call the Llangollen. More tea and cake then.
After that, and with Chloe still on board, we finally went through the amazingly tidy and expertly painted Wardle Lock and turned south. Actually, due to the wind, we turned 270˚ clockwise and, more by luck than judgment, ended up pointing south.
Unfortunately Chloe wasn’t feeling well so she was laid out on the sofa all the way to Wheelock. She felt better enough to feed the swans and cygnets later on though.
In the morning Dave dragged her out of bed at 6am and they went for a run. The poor girl had hardly eaten the day before so it’s probably the only time he’ll ever manage to keep up with her. Seriously though, they are fairly evenly paced so if they both get a place in the London Marathon next year there’s a good chance they’ll manage to stay together.
As Wheelock has got a dead easy car-park and it’s only moments from the M6, we used it as a base for 2 days working in Manchester doing tram surveys. After that we rattled our way back up the Cheshire locks to Red Bull. This stretch is also known as Heartbreak Hill, not so much because of how many locks there are, (26) but because they’re spread out over about six miles. The trick is to know when to get on and when to walk. We’re getting better and we can get a really good rhythm going when we’re locking these days. We know the old horse-boaters would put us to shame and leave us standing, but even though barging the gates and letting paddles drop are taboo these days (and quite rightly so) we can still be quite slick. Heartbreak Hill locks are all paired singles and, although not all the pairs are working, or even still there, there are enough of them to make it interesting. You can have boats going both ways, or you can overtake another boat if they’re slower than you. There was a hire boat with a crew of 6 in front of us and we almost got past them twice. It’s an exciting life on the cut!
And the socialising continued. Half way up the locks at Rode Heath, Kim and Luke came to visit with baby George. Ann-Marie got lots of cuddles while the rest of us had tea and cake.
They are refreshingly laid back with George; he’s going to be a cool dude.
And there’s more. Frankie, Harry, Janice and Paul had all come over to the UK for a wedding in Stafford. As they were in a camper-van in a field 40 minutes away we went to spend some time with them and brought J&P back to see Legend. Paul used to live right by the L&L near Burscough and has had a fair bit to do with boats, so we were quite chuffed that our lovely little home met with his approval.
After all that we thought we’d better get on with a spot of what we do best.
So that we didn’t have to find somewhere to park in Stoke, we took the car up to Stockton Brook on the Caldon Canal then walked back to Red Bull. That was quite a hike and took us up the feeder to the beautiful Knipersley Reservoir then over Mow Cop and down the Mac.
It was worth it though as it meant we could crack on through the Harecastle Tunnel, down to Etruria and up the Caldon without having to stop and walk back.
So, at 07:30 on a rainy Wednesday morning, we arrived at the tunnel entrance in order to get the first passage of the day.
We’d taken all the high stuff off the roof before we got to Harecastle, but the tunnel keeper told us it would be a good idea to collapse our big roof box as well, and we were glad we did; it’s really low in the middle where it’s subsided and there are numerous white painted sticky-out bits that you have to avoid. The edges of the big box might not have touched the roof, but we’d have been gutted if they had.
We’ve always found that we get on a lot better in tunnels with all the cabin lights on; it keeps the tunnel walls illuminated after the headlight has gone through, but because we’d heard that bits of Harecastle were exceptionally low Dave had a head-torch on as well so he could see what was coming. That worked really well and we’ll be using head torches for all tunnels from now on. It was strange to hear the different engine notes as the tunnel profile altered; where it was circular the echo made it really loud but as it became more oval it was as if someone had added another silencer. At the Southern portal there’s a pair of doors that the tunnel keeper doesn’t open until you’re almost there. This is because there are no air vents, so they’ve installed a huge extractor fan at the southern end to suck all the fumes out and if the tunnel mouth was open it wouldn’t work. We were the lead boat in our convoy of five; we tried to maintain a steady 3 mph as instructed but because it was such an alien environment it was hard to know what speed we were doing. We must have been ok though; we got to the other end in about 50 minutes which was bob on what they expected. The noise from the fans got louder and louder as we got nearer the end, then the doors opened, the noise stopped, daylight flooded in and we were out in the rain again.
We stopped at Westport Lake, which was the first decent looking mooring, to dry out and have breakfast then, when the rain eased up, we carried on to Etruria and turned left onto the Caldon.
On our way to the staircase locks we passed quite a few historic boats moored up for the Etruria Canal Festival which was due to take place the following weekend.
We’ll come for a visit, but legend will be up on the Leek branch by then.
It all got a bit uppity at the Etruria staircase.
We had been advised not to moor anywhere south of Milton once we got on the Caldon, but we usually take stuff like that with a pinch of salt and after bridge 14 it started to look like rain again. We’d already dried out twice so we picked a decent looking bit of Armco and pulled up. There were trees all around, no empty beer cans, graffiti or razor wire in sight, in fact nothing to cause us any concern about stopping the night. So it was something of shock when we found out the following morning that 3 days previously, at almost exactly the same spot, another boat had been attacked by a gang of stone-throwing kids. Windows smashed, paint damaged and the boater himself hit in the face by a stone. That sort of thing we do take seriously. By good fortune we had a really quiet night, but you can bet the farm that we won’t be stopping there on the way back. We’ll do what everyone else does and go straight from Engine Lock on the Caldon to Trentham Lock on the T&M in one go. We are well aware that someone is smiling down on us, but it wouldn’t be wise to push it.