After we got back from our Grand Tour, the next thing on our horizon was our booking with Northwich Drydock Company on the River Weaver and, more importantly, our journey to get there. Under normal circumstances, from where we were moored on the T&M, it would be a simple case of booking a passage down the Anderton Boat Lift the day before, spending the night on the visitor moorings on the river in Northwich, and then going into the dry dock in the morning. However, the boat lift was out of action and would remain so until the following spring. Apparently the safety bolts, which slide into the gates when they are in the raised position and prevent them falling in the case of cable failure, had not passed a safety inspection, and needed to be re-designed. Because it is a listed Ancient Monument any replacement has to be sympathetic to the original structure, so the design and replacement process will no doubt be long and arduous. We had thought we’d have to cancel our booking, but when we spoke to Matt from Northwich Drydock Co., he suggested getting there via the Manchester Ship Canal. That sounded a bit daunting, but exciting at the same time and as you know, we're not adverse to a spot of adventure. It would involve a mad dash round a huge circle from Northwich on the T&M, south to Middlewich, along the Middlewich branch to Bordesley Junction, north on the Shroppie, through Chester and up to Ellesmere Port where we would drop down the locks onto the Ship Canal. An hour and a half on the MSC would bring us to Marsh lock at the mouth of the Weaver, then a sixteen mile trip upstream on our favourite river would get us back to Northwich, fifty feet below where we started.
The Manchester Ship Canal is owned by Peel Holdings and it is, as you probably know, a big commercial waterway, with large ocean-going vessels regularly going up and down to the oil refineries and docks at Runcorn and Ellesmere Port. Peel holdings aren’t exactly keen on small, wobbly, pleasure craft crawling about on it, but they will allow you to go if you jump through enough hoops. Matt was extremely helpful in the hoop-jumping department. He sent us all the forms we needed to complete, recommended a surveyor to give Legend the required Seaworthiness Certificate, and helped us with booking lock passage on and off the MSC with CRT staff at Ellesmere Port and Marsh lock.
The seaworthiness certificate was the first thing. A very nice chap called Mike Carter came along while we were still at Taylor’s bridge and gave Legend the once over. He inspected our life jackets, anchor, bilge pump and front and back lines, then chatted with us about our experience on rivers and boating in general. He also showed us some maps and aerial photos of the ship canal, the locks and the VHF radio reporting points. Happy that we were aware of what we were taking on, that Legend was capable and that we had the kit and experience to handle it, he signed our certificate and wished us a safe trip.
We had a few days moored around Northwich while we ran some errands...
...did a parkrun...
...and swapped the wardrobe and bedding over to winter mode, then abandoned the car in the drydock car park and set off. A few big boating days took us down to the Middlewich Branch...
...across to Barbridge junction, north on the Shroppie and down Bunbury staircase...
...below which we came across a rather sad and abandoned looking shed-of-a-boat adrift in the middle of the cut.
We got a rope on it, towed it to the bank and tied it to a tree.
Ann-Marie sent CRT a what-3-words location and told them what we’d done, hopefully they’ll be able to contact the owner, but it won’t surprise us if it’s still there on our way back. We shared Beeston locks with a lovely hire boat crew...
...stopped at Wardle lock to avoid the hail, and then carried on to Chester...
We stopped there for two days while we bought a new printer and did the parkrun, (or parkwalk in our case as we both had painful Achilles tendons)...
...and had a day walking round the walls and along the wonderful Rows...
...before we cast off and went to moor up at Caughall Bridge by the zoo. We’d moored there nine years previously, but it was nothing like we remembered. Although there were signs proclaiming it to be a 48hr visitor mooring, and there were mooring rings if you dug around in the undergrowth, it had a submerged shelf that we bumped on and there was no signal whatsoever. It’s funny how our priorities have changed; back then we just wanted somewhere quiet, these days it’s all about solar, parking and signal. And a nice view of course.
Next day we stopped off at Cheshire Oaks Retail Park for a final shop before heading to the end of the Shropshire Union canal and the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.
We were really lucky when we got to the port because the final member of staff was just leaving and he kindly told us how to get in and where to moor. We pulled a big mass of Pennywort out of the top lock entrance, then dropped down the two locks taking us through the museum...
and into the bottom basin. We moored up in exactly the same place that we’d been nine years previously when we went there for an Easter boat gathering.
In the morning, Dave was up at dawn and out for a walk to check out the ship canal, then phoned the harbourmaster to check we were all ok to go. He told us that there was a possibility of a tanker passing us, but otherwise we’d have clear run. Our booking through the lock was at nine and it all got a bit worrying at about five-to when there was still no sign of any CRT people to open the lock. We were just about to phone up when a volunteer appeared, but due to a bit of confusion it was still twenty past nine before he opened the lock for us.
We gave the Harbourmaster a call on the VHF radio to let him know we were about to enter his waterway, he said we were ok to go and told us that the tanker wasn’t moving, which was nice, and then we were out on the big, wide MSC.
And it is big. And so are the ships. About a quarter of a mile after turning right at Ellesmere Port we reached the beginning of the refinery where we had to call Weston point on the radio and report our position.
All the way through that section smoking and naked flames are banned, and they like to know about any moving vessels. We got waved at by the crews of some very big ships...
...and pushed sideways by the wake of a dredger, but after that we left the pipes, tanks, wharves and smells of the big industrial refinery behind and carried on along the long straight to Marsh Lock.
The River Mersey was just over the other side of the left hand bank, and we were surprised by the amount of wildlife we saw. There were no end of seabirds, lots of lapwings and cormorants, plus various flavours of geese and sheep all over the place. We hadn’t expected a big commercial waterway to be so rural.
The junction of the Ship Canal and the River Weaver is a wide “Y” shape. We were coming up the stem, the canal continued off to the left and the river came in from the right. Marsh Lock, which would take us onto the Weston Canal was on the opposite bank of the river, in the crook of the “Y”, so we had to cross the wide mouth to get to it. We’d been warned by Mike that the river deposits a lot of silt at the junction and that there was a dredged channel across to the lock, marked by red and green buoys, which we needed to follow to avoid getting stuck. So, with the flow from the river coming at us from the right, and the wind, which had suddenly picked up and was funnelling across the junction from the left, we aimed our little boat between the buoys, at the even littler looking lock entrance about quarter of a mile away on the far side of the river mouth.
As we got closer, with more open water behind us, the wind got stronger Dave had to crab Legend more and more to keep us heading for the open lock gate. It all got very hairy for a while, but Dave held his nerve and we finally got there, hurtling sideways through the gate into the calm shelter of the lock with full reverse thrust. With both of us pumped full of adrenaline we gently bobbed about in the middle of the lock while the lock keepers worked us up onto the navigation.
It was a proper knee trembling and crazy laughter moment, and it took us a while to calm down. We chugged up the Weston Canal to Sutton Bridge...
...and moored up next the steam ship Daniel Adamson.
After lunch we had a lovely walk to Frodsham and back over the fields, then Dave got some wood cut up while Ann-Marie sorted out and indexed our photos on the computer. It was very nice to get back to normal after all the excitement.
The following day we moored at Devil’s Garden, a really beautiful spot on a wide bend of the river.
We’d stopped there the last time we came this way, and it was even better that we’d remembered. With the Anderton Lift out of action there was very little traffic on the river, and we had the mooring to ourselves. In fact, we pretty much had the whole river to ourselves; on average we saw one other moving boat a day. The afternoon was mild and calm, so Dave got his paddleboard out for what would probably be the last time that year and had half an hour going up and down the river. From there we went through Dutton and Saltersford locks...
... the river running parallel to the T&M where we’d been nine days previously, and with perfect timing, got tied up at Barnton Cut visitor moorings just before the rain arrived, and had a popcorn and telly afternoon.
The next morning we were going to have an early start but it was really foggy, so we held off moving till it cleared. Just as well too, we were outside cutting wood and sorting the spring bulbs out when a wide-beam dredger appeared out of the fog pushing not one, but two wide-beam barges side by side. OK, the Weaver Navigation is quite wide, and it’s perfectly possible to get past something like that in a narrowboat, but it was really foggy and he was taking no prisoners. Thank goodness we’d delayed our departure! The sun broke through and we set off to Northwich, passing the Anderton Lift and the country park, then stopping at the services before tying up between the iconic swing bridges on the visitor moorings. The last time we were here there was a boatyard on the opposite bank with a side launching slipway. It was abandoned and rather derelict and looking very sorry for itself. It has now been replaced with a shiny new Waitrose and the developers have made a nice feature of the slipway, retaining some of the tracks and trolleys. A rather touching tribute to Northwich’s boat building heritage.
In the morning we moved about half a mile up the river to Hunt’s Lock, passing the CRT yard, under the footbridge linking the lock island to the town, and past some of the glorious historic river boats that are moored around there.
The dry dock is on the lock island under a railway arch alongside the weir. To get there you have to go up the lock then back on yourself down the weir channel on the other side of the island. Our booking was for nine the next morning so we moored up just before the lock, ready to go as soon as it opened at eight-thirty.
In the morning we were joined by David, who was giving Dave a hand with the work. Ann-Marie was swapping places with him and going to stay with Kate for the duration. We know it’s all very stereotypical, but that’s just how we are. One of the lock keepers was late, so it was about half past nine by the time us and Nb Footloose got up the lock and round to the drydock. One of the two boats we were replacing was Saturn, the historic charity owned horse boat that we’d last seen being bow-hauled over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct on the Llangollen canal carrying the Olympic torch. It had been in for blacking and we later found out that it spends its winter months safely tucked up just around the corner. We think there must be far more historic boats in Northwich than there are in the museum at Ellesmere port.
As soon as we were in the dock the gate was craned back into place, lines were put on the back and front of both boats to position them in the perfect place, and the sluice was opened in the front wall draining the dock into the river below.
Northwich is really deep. Unlike Stourport, where we only dropped down about two feet and the gunwales ended up level with the dock sides, in Northwich we started off level with the gunwales then dropped a good three feet before our baseplate touched the bearers.
As soon as the water had drained out, two pairs of warehouse steps were craned in, and we were ready to get to work. David and Dave waived Ann-Marie off and while Matt started on Footloose with the pressure washer, they got Legend and themselves ready for a week’s worth of grafting.
We’ll share our respective diaries about what we each got up to in the next instalment.
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