Thursday, October 23, 2008

'Up South' towards Birmingham

From Middlewich southwards to Wolverhampton, the countryside climbs up out of the Cheshire plains but it is a slow rise, so we were a couple of miles south of Nantwich before we came to the first two locks on the 'main line' of the 'Shroppie'. Another 3 miles brought us to Audlem, where we stopped for the night and took a little longer to enjoy the village and the picturesque flight of 15 locks. Last time we came through here was as we travelled down south (rather more quickly!) in April last year. The trees were bare then; this time they were just beginning to turn to autumn colours.

As we went on south, we stayed with the seam of red sandstone rock which extends right up to Chester and down towards Stourport on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. Seeing this rock last year started us comparing the Shroppie with the 'Staffs. and Worcs.' Since then, of course, we have refreshed our memories of the Staffs. and Worcs. by going down to Stourport and back, and there certainly ARE some similarities. Here is 'Zindagi' approaching the bottom lock at Tyrley and you can see the sandstone on the right.

This canal was built by Thomas Telford and one of the things that we have discovered about him is that he preferred to go straight if he could! Not for him the winding, contour-hugging canals by Brindley and others so, when there was no need to do otherwise, he would build a long embankment or cut through a hill. Or rather he would plan the canal that way and his army of 'navigators' (navvies) would shift the vast amounts of rock and earth, mainly using hand tools. At least this red sandstone is fairly soft, but that takes nothing away from their amazing feats! The Shroppie looks very straight on the map, but the frequent change between high embankments and deep wooded cuttings makes it far from monotonous. Just try to imagine the work involved in sinking a cutting like this one through solid rock – and there are several of them!

There are also some lovely villages strung along the canal. At one time, some of them would have been much more centred on the goods being transported along the water, and the pubs would have been vital stopping points for the boat crews. Many of them still do a good trade with the present-day boating crews, usually either families on a hired boat or private owners like us, afloat for anything from a week to several years! The Boat Inn at Gnosall is beautifully situated next to a stone bridge. We didn't stop here, though we normally aim to eat out once a week. (If we stopped at every picturesque canalside pub, we would not only be a lot poorer, but would make even slower progress than we already do!)

Just one solitary lock between Tyrley and the end of the Shropshire Union at Autherley Junction, where the owners of the 'Staffs. and Worcs.' insisted that a stop lock was built to prevent the Shroppie stealing all their water. The water level difference is about six inches, if that!

As we came out from the Shroppie onto the Staffs and Worcs, we kept an eye open for a miniature narrowboat which we had seen last time. Not just a short narrowboat – there are plenty of those around – but smaller and narrower and in proportion. Must be difficult for a normal-size adult to stand up inside!

And then for the really steep climb up into Wolverhampton. 21 locks, raising us 132 feet in 2 miles, right into the centre of the city . . .

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

'Pit Stop' at Middlewich

On our way up from Devon to Shrewsbury, we spent a very enjoyable day with Jonny and Sue, who were with us last year when we went up to Leicester and back. Their Somerset home was sort of on our way, so we made sure that Adam could do without the car for another day and stayed the night with them. Great to catch up a bit!

While we had been away, Adam and Rachel had been able to enjoy a weekend on the boat themselves, taking it down 3 locks and 2½ miles (as far as you can go at present), back almost as far as the junction with the Llangollen Canal and then down to Queen's Head again. So, there was 'Zindagi', in exactly the same spot, pointing the same way, but Adam and Rachel had already explored the remaining stretch of the Montgomery Canal. Now it was our turn . . .

The Montgomery Canal is being actively restored, but of course it is a long and costly process. The limit of navigation is currently at Gronwyn Wharf. If you look carefully, you may be able to see that the canal is fenced off under the bridge, though the towpath continues. It runs nearly all the way to Newtown, Powys, 32½ miles from Frankton Junction. The hope is that the whole length of the 'Monty' will eventually be re-opened, but there is a lot of very basic work to be done, as you can see in the picture of the canal bed a little further on from Gronwyn Bridge. Further on again, the canal was very overgrown – even more to be done!
On our way back up the Frankton locks, we found that there were 10 boats booked in to go up them and none to come down, so there was a bit of delay and Colin the lock-keeper was kept very busy. Back on the Llangollen Canal again, and finding our travel rather faster than on the way up, as the flow down from the River Dee makes a substantial difference.

We had originally expected to simply turn south on the Shropshire Union as soon as we left the Llangollen, but now we planned a diversion back to Middlewich to get some work done on the boat. You may remember our occasional battles with our diesel-fired cooker hob. As we have talked with the team at Middlewich Narrowboats since we called in there in April 2007, we knew that they had the same hobs and ovens installed on their hire boats and that they had experienced some similar problems with the hobs sooting up. Recently, though, they had found a solution – running the hobs and ovens on kerosene instead of marine (red) diesel. Their experience (with 18 boats) showed that there was no sooting-up and the units burned much cleaner – and hotter. So we decided to have a kerosene tank fitted and arranged to be back there on Wednesday 8th October to get things started.
Dave the tank maker came and had a look. Yes, he could make a tank to fit in a space next to the diesel tank, but he certainly couldn't find time to fit it. So Middlewich's father and son team, Dave and Joe, would be able to fit it in their own time, as Adam (the boss) simply couldn't spare any of their work time. To cut the story down a bit, the tank was ready by Friday but couldn't be fitted until Monday.

We had a few days to wait, so we headed out northwards on the Trent & Mersey to some 'flashes', where areas of land next to the canal have subsided and made wide lakes. A popular spot for water birds (including several hundred Canada Geese) and apparently also for many local boat owners who often pop out there for the weekend.

We were back in Middlewich on Sunday, ready for Dave (of Middlewich Narrowboats) to fit the tank the next day. He did a very neat job and initial impressions of running the hob on kerosene are certainly favourable – no smoke at all and very little smell, so hopefully no soot either.

So we were able to leave late on Monday afternoon, retracing our route back along the Middlewich arm towards the main line of the 'Shroppie' – heading south at last!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Devon Interlude

So, back to Devon again, staying with Colin and Janet in Lapford this time, while we visited doctor and dentists for annual 'MOT's, and especially to start the process of getting Val's knees seen to. She had keyhole surgery on one of them 10 years ago, with inconclusive results, and they have gone on gradually deteriorating. She has been on anti-inflammatory drugs for quite a while, but even these have not prevented her walking range getting noticeably shorter.

The doctor was understanding and helpful and referred Val to Barnstaple Hospital for X-rays. The results came back nice and quickly and a second visit to the doctor has meant that Val's case is being referred to the consultant. Hopefully she will get an appointment with him/her in the next few weeks or months, and only then will we know whether 'they' think that replacement knee joints will be appropriate – certainly everyone seems to recommend them!

On this visit, we fitted in more visits to friends than we have managed before, but still didn't get to see everyone – sorry!

One visit we DID make was to pop in on Steve and Lin, our tenants, and see how they were getting on. They were really keen to show us all that they are doing, and we don't know where they find the time to do it all! They are really busy with chickens, turkeys and pigs, on top of growing lots of veg and making chutneys and bread to sell in the shop. This is even more amazing when you realise that Steve goes out to work 2 days a week and Lin has not been well since the early summer! They seem to have done very well with the shop and have an arrangement with the (recently re-opened) Village Store, supplying them with fresh produce as well.

A friend of theirs has even made a new roadside sign which looks good, and we hope to be able to feature some of their produce on our 'Blackberry Lane' website. If you live in or near Lapford, we recommend you to pop in and see what they have available.

As well as this robin in a hedge near Lapford, we really must share a photo of a young hedgehog feeding in Joe and Wendy's garden in Barnstaple. He just went on eating and eating, then wandered away for a very short while before coming back and stuffing himself again! We began to wonder whether he had just sent one of his siblings to take over! All of this in brilliant sunshine at 3.30 in the afternoon!
As well as our personal visits to friends, it was good to see a lot of folk at the Village Harvest Supper on the Friday evening, but it was soon time to drive back up to Shrewsbury, spend another night with Adam and then get back on board. Driving back 'up country', we were reminded how lovely our little bit of mid Devon countryside really is . . . we'll be back sometime, but not just yet . . .

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Tying Up Some Loose Ends

We really must apologise for the LONG delay in updating the blog. You will see from the dates in this 'episode' that it is several weeks since we travelled these waterways, but we have found ourselves in areas with very poor internet access, which makes updating the blog a very tediously long-drawn-out process. Anyway, we hope to be able to get you up to date over the next few days, so there will probably be several episodes in quite short succession.

Back southwards up the Trent and Mersey Canal from Anderton, we came to Middlewich on 9th September, turned off onto the Middlewich Arm of the Shropshire Union – and into our first narrow lock since 22nd April! We really enjoyed the summer months, and especially our time on the Leeds and Liverpool, but we do prefer narrow locks, and it was good to be back!

This short (10 mile) arm of the Shropshire Union makes a vital link between the two canals, leading almost directly to where the Llangollen Canal branches off, but we had a 'loose end' to deal with – a trip northwards through Chester and on to Ellesmere Port, where the 'Shroppie' joins the Manchester Ship Canal. We had never been along this stretch before, so here was an ideal opportunity!

Although most of the 'Shroppie' is 'narrow gauge', the stretch from Nantwich to Chester is the old Chester Canal, so we were back on broad locks again! The Iron Lock at Beeston has the whole lock chamber made of flanged cast iron plates because of 'running sand' below it. Apparently the technology for this was developed from the use of similar plates in building the Pontcysyllte aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal. The remains of the 1337 Beeston Castle were within view, but unfortunately not within our walking distance, so we pressed on to Chester amidst spasmodic rain showers.

One of these combined with the late afternoon sunshine to add interest to the lovely old brick-built water tower on the outskirts of the city.
The weather was better next morning, so we decided to walk at least part of the way round the city walls. These are apparently some of the most completely preserved city walls, and it was interesting to compare with our visits to York back in May and June. Apart from anything else, the rich red sandstone of Chester's walls is very different from the cool grey stone of York.

Here are just a few examples . . . King Charles' Tower, on the northeastern corner of the walls, perched above the rock cutting that was originally a moat and was then modified to be part of the canal . . . and then the Victorian clock built above the 1769 arch of the East Gate . . . For lots more information about Chester and its walls, there is a very interesting website to explore.

And then on to Ellesmere Port . . . It is odd to think that this busy industrial town was named as the 'port' for the town of Ellesmere on the Llangollen Canal.

They now seem to be in two completely different worlds!

We really went there just to see what the 'Shroppie' was like on this section, but had a pleasant surprise when we visited the Waterways Museum there – fascinating, with old boats in the water and very informative exhibits. It seems that they are busy with families on holiday but even busier with school visits in term time. Here's a sunset scene looking over one of the old canal basins and towards the Manchester Ship Canal.

We were soon heading back south from Ellesmere Port and Chester and on one stretch of canal found ourselves going past a very long line of more than 70 anglers in a contest. Of course, simple courtesy demands that boats slow right down, but for about a mile of anglers? We did, anyway, though we remembered that there was a long line of moored boats coming up – similar length, and immediately after the anglers! We always go slowly past moored boats, as we know from experience how much too much wash can shake a boat around.
And then, back onto narrow locks again on 15th September as we turned off the 'Shroppie' onto the Llangollen Canal. We went there with David and Mary back in April 2007, but that had been a quick 'there and back in a week' and now we had some other plans as well. We needed to get back to Devon for annual doctor and dentist appointments, and so had been looking for somewhere to leave the boat while we did that, as close as possible to Adam in Shrewsbury, so that we could easily get to him to borrow our car back for 10 days. There were moorings at Ellesmere and Chirk where we could leave 'Zindagi' for up to 14 days, so that looked fine, especially as public transport looked good from either.

Then we had a phone call from Peter and Rachel. We knew that they had been planning to take their camper van to Chirk the previous week, but had been rained off, and we were too far away to meet up with them. Now they had arranged to be there a week later – would we be able to meet? Easy, really; we just chugged a little further than usual for a couple of days and so met them at Chirk on 18th September. The weather was pretty good, so we reckoned that we could take them up to Llangollen and back in the day, through the tunnel at Chirk and over the aqueducts there and at Pontcysyllte – that's the really high one over the River Dee. These photos from the BBC give you a good idea of it, and the fact that, on one side of the boat, you are looking straight down 120-odd feet to the river. As we said last time, it feels like the boat is flying! We had a great day together, and treated ourselves to both a pub lunch at Sun Trevor and an Indian meal in Chirk in the evening.

In these few days, we passed the moorings at Ellesmere and Chirk, where we had hoped to leave 'Zindagi'. It was obvious that they would NOT be really suitable after all, mainly because they were in fairly secluded places, and so a little more vulnerable to unseen vandalism. We needed an alternative mooring – where? In conversation with a very helpful British Waterways man at Chirk, he suggested that we could moor safely at Queens Head, on the restored section of the Montgomery Canal. As we had hurried a little to meet Peter and Rachel, we had a couple of days in hand before we needed to leave the boat and head down to Devon. It seemed ideal, and gave us the opportunity to explore another 'loose end', so we set off back to Frankton Junction, making a phone call to British Waterways to book our passage through the locks on the 20th.
After the Llangollen Canal, busy with many hire boats, the 'Monty' seemed quiet and remote as we travelled the few miles down to Queens Head, but the moorings there were just right. Not too busy, but in the public eye enough to deter vandalism. The pub there does a good line in Sunday lunches, so we tempted Adam with the promise of food and he very kindly came and collected us and our luggage, so that we could spend the night at his house in Shrewsbury before heading off to Lapford on the 22nd.