Beau Romer on the water point in Audlem

We have been in an internet desert since turning onto the Shroppie at Autherley Junction. Perhaps I should consider a digital detox because we feel very bereft without it. I know some people move onto narrowboats to enjoy the simplicity of the lifestyle, but we like our modern conveniences. WiFi, smart TV, washing machine, microwave – bring them all on.

The Shroppie has some very nice bridges. I missed the most famous one and Martyn didn’t take a photo. Next time.

Now we find ourselves moored up at the enigmatically named Coole Pilate (which I have no idea how to pronounce correctly) with a fantastic WiFi signal. I was contemplating what to write last night while cooking dinner – lamb chops bought at Oxtail & Trotter, the simply fabulous butcher in Audlem which is something of a destination shop for us. Then the awful news came in that HM The Queen had died, and I didn’t really want to do much of anything for the rest of yesterday.

Filling up at Wheaton Aston

I know this is a blog about narrowboating, but you cannot ignore events of such magnitude, and I mean no disrespect posting today. So here’s my acknowledgement of the passing of the Queen which will leave such a massive hole in the fabric of the UK, but also the Commonwealth and the World in general. I’ve been listening to the TV and the tributes coming in. Here are my personal thoughts. The Queen was an amazing woman. She was a wonderful example of dedication to country, duty and hard work. I’m sure she had a wicked sense of humour too, remembering the James Bond sketch at the start of the Olympics in 2012 and the recent marmalade sandwich for which she and Paddington Bear shared an alleged liking. She was also a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and I feel for her family. It took me a little by surprise that I feel her loss so personally. RIP Ma’am and thank you. You did a very, very good job and we will never see another like you.

On the boating front, We’ve been travelling northwards on the Shropshire Union Canal. It’s a canal I was really looking forward to, but at the southern end at least, it’s not my favourite. I’m sure many people and the very active Shropshire Union Canal Society will disagree with me, and in its day it must have been a real superhighway with the flyboats zipping up and down. Apparently, the run from Birmingham to Ellesmere Port only took them 30 hours. That’s some going. The Shroppie is long and straight with a plethora of embankments and deep cuttings, and I find it a bit sombre and brooding when it’s not very open and rural. There are several legends of ghosts and spectres. A headless horseman and a shrieking monkey are only two, but thankfully they haven’t troubled us. There also seem to be a lot of pig farms, or at least the aroma of them. More positively, both Martyn and I saw kingfishers, the first for months, and a couple of herons flying overhead made me think of pterodactyls. They always look so odd when you see them perched in trees too.

Cowley Tunnel. It’s short, and the only one on the Shroppie

Almost as soon as we turned onto the canal we ran into two other Bickerstaffe Boats, Glenn on Sacre Bleu and Sheila and Gary on Perfect Harmony. We had a couple of most enjoyable evenings together and a lovely meal in the Wharf Tavern at Goldstone Wharf near Cheswardine. Sadly our friend Ian, who lives there, was on holiday in Canada, so we missed him, what a pity.

Goldstone Wharf in the moonlight, post excellent meal at the pub

Passing through the narrow and menacing Woodseaves Cutting, which I think finished off the great canal engineer Thomas Telford, we had an unfortunate incident. We seemed to hit something under the water which threw the boat sideways and into the opposite bank. It ripped out some of the rivets securing our port side scratch cover. It’s fixable, but I fear the repair is going to be expensive.

Woodseaves Cutting is very deep!

The Tyrley and Adderley lock flights were a joy and took us no time at all because miraculously every lock was set for us.

Tyrley Top Lock with lovely flowers

We were really looking forward to Audlem. We’ve been there before, and as previously mentioned, the butcher is well worth a visit. We got stuck at the bottom of the flight in 2020 after a lock failed at Hack Green. This year we got stuck three locks from the bottom due to a broken paddle. Thankfully the CRT were on the case, and the man in the dry suit had everything moving after a couple of hours. Its just a shame that two of the three pubs in the village, the famous Shroppie Fly and the Lord Combermere are closed down at the moment. Here’s hoping they manage to survive.

Spotted on the bank. What a cheerful chap!

Twenty One Today

Tricky manoeuvring to get water in Wolverhampton

I can see why people are captivated by the BCN.  We’ve barely scratched the surface, barrelling down the Main Line and only deviating to spend a couple of nights moored up outside the Black Country Living Museum at Dudley.  What a great place.  Martyn’s been there twice before, but it was my first visit. I hope it won’t be the last.  I’m of the age where it brings back memories for me too. Some of the brands in the chemist shop looked very familiar (Milk of Magnesia, Sloans Liniment and Andrews Liver Salts). What really took me back was coming across a stone grinding wheel in a yard behind a cottage.  It used to be my job to turn the handle on Dad’s grindstone so he could sharpen the knives he used in the shop. I never seemed to get the speed right. 

Our day at the Black Country Living Museum

We get asked a lot about the flag flying from the stern of Beau Romer. It’s the Dorset Flag of course. We’re both proud of our heritage. When we were in Birmingham I started to see a flag I didn’t recognise, and discovered it was the Black Country flag. It’s full of symbolism, representing the manufacturing heritage of the area, the conical furnaces and the description of the Black Country being “black by day and red by night”. One of the activities in the museum was a chain-making demonstration, which makes the chain on the flat seem appropriate, but chains as a symbol have become so controversial now. The flag hasn’t escaped that controversy.

The Black Country Flag was designed by Gracie Sheppard when she was 11 years old

The BCN has meant the expected trips down the weed hatch, but we haven’t picked up a lot of debris and detritus, most of the time it’s only weed.  I read a strikingly accurate description that in some places boating on the BCN is like navigating through salad.  Apart from the weed, the thing that struck me about the water was its crystal clarity.  Apparently it’s something to do with the coal dust acting like a carbon filter, and having no runoff from farmers’ fields.  Anyway, it’s wonderful to watch the fish and see what’s on the bottom of the canal (not so wonderful when we passed over what looked like the entire front end of a car!)

Our own private aquarium outside the Black Country Living Museum

We had an overnight stop in Wolverhampton, which was fine, apart from the thump, thump of the bass beat from a nightclub somewhere near our mooring until 2 am. There was a building opposite the mooring that proudly proclaimed “Chubb & Sons Lock & Safe Company Ltd Founded A.D. MDCCCXVIII”.* No such problems then.

St Peters Collegiate Chuch, Wolverhampton. Martyn pointed out the uncanny resemblance of the fish on the fountain to Angry Birds. Angry Fish?

Today we slogged our way down the Wolverhampton Flight.  Slogged being the operative word.  They are single locks, but most of them were empty and we needed them to be full. The only way to achieve that state was for us to fill them, which takes time.  It took us over four hours to negotiate the flight.  Usually, Martyn’s at the helm when we’re in locks.  I’m perfectly capable of driving, but we’re still treating him gently.  I did the first five today.  We’ve developed our own system and the helm doesn’t just stand there operating the throttle like a stuffed dummy, but gets on and off, closes gates and opens paddles.  It’s much more fun. The flight changed in nature as we descended its 132 feet.  It got somehow softer and kinder and more rural.  Lock 17 even had a dinky little iron footbridge, so no scary scrambling over the lock gates on that one.

The Wonderful Wolverhampton 21

I found myself wondering somewhere around lock 18 why, with all the exercise I get and all the heavy lifting I’m not skinny as a rail, with taut muscles like Nicole Kidman.  I guess my liking for chocolate, ice cream, beer and gin might have something to do with it.  

How could you think I consumed any of those delicious chips cooked in Beef Dripping we bought at the fish and chip shop in the Black Country Living Museum? Perish the thought!

* 1818


A beautiful day on the Stratford Canal

We’ve been cruising more new-to-us canals, firstly the North Stratford. The 19 locks of the Lapworth Flight would have been a real headache if it hadn’t been for a couple of CRT Volunteer Lock keepers, Pat and Roger. They were absolute diamonds, and made a wet afternoon’s trip up a real pleasure.

Guillotine locks always make me nervous, even when they’re redundant like this one at King’s Norton

After turning right at King’s Norton onto the Worcester and Birmingham Canal we moored for two days in Bournville, and so made a pilgrimage to Cadbury World. It would have been rude not to. I think it would have been a lot more fun with small people in tow, and was a bit disappointed that you don’t get to see inside the massive factory. It didn’t stop us leaving laden down with chocolate though. Next time I’ll just stop at the shop. Bournville itself was pleasant, although not as “manufactured” as some of the other Victorian factory towns built by philanthropic businessmen we’ve visited, like Titus Salt’s Saltaire. We did like the visitor moorings though, securely gated and right next to the railway line, which didn’t bother us in the slightest.

Another day, another tunnel. This one’s Edgbaston
He’s happy; they gave him Chocolate at Cadbury World

Then we pushed on into Birmingham, a trip I’ve been equally looking forward to and apprehensive about. One minute you’re chugging through Edgbaston and past the leafy University halls of residence and then all of a sudden you’re in the city itself, looking very Peaky Blinders around the Gas Street Basin area. No-one warned us about the narrows just outside a pub on the way in. There were plenty of people to judge our boat handling skills on a sunny bank holiday Sunday!

In the heart of Birmingham. See the fudge boat? Yes, I went back and bought some. Obviously I hadn’t had enough sugar at Cadbur World.

We moored up close to the National Sea Life Centre and spent a couple of days exploring the city. With apologies to all those who love it, we were a bit underwhelmed. There is plenty of shopping to be enjoyed, but not a lot of sightseeing to do when you get beyond the canalside, which to us was the highlight of the city. Sitting with a drink watching boats negotiating Old Turn Junction I felt like we were on holiday.

It really is a roundabout, but boats don’t have indicators (neither it seems on the roads, do a lot of cars!)

We visited the Bullring, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and found the bull from the Commonwealth Games. We noticed a lot of begging in the city. Someone even approached us while asking for money while we were drinking a cup of coffee in a Starbucks; that’s a first for me. A lot of the city centre seems to be undergoing redevelopment. Many of the 1960s concrete buildings have been or are being demolished and replaced with modern creations of glass and steel. It’ll be interesting to go back in a year or two and see what changes there have been. I’m sure we’ll visit again. I’d be happy to take recommendations of things to see and do on a future visit.

Martyn looking a bit small

There are two main line canal routes through Birmingham and into the Black Country. Today we’ve been cruising Thomas Telford’s New Main Line (hardly new, it was completed in 1837) and enjoyed passing through the many junctions and peering down loops and arms. We could do without the extremely narrow and redundant gauging stations though. I can see why people get so fascinated by the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations), there’s an awful lot to explore.

The Old Main Line crossing the New Main Line on a beautifully gothic aqueduct. See how narrow the canal is?
A few more snaps of Birmingham. Why not?

Deja Vu

Rowan quickly found out the purpose of the duck hatch

No sooner were we on the boat on our own again, then we left it. Dan, Lianna and Rowan took over for a week. We spent it in Dorset, and they cruised the boat back to Brinklow. Oh well, we got to enjoy Pumpkins Deli for a second time!

The Newbold Tunnel revisited

So, back in possession, we repeated the journey we’d already taken on the Oxford Canal, down through Rugby, Hilmorton Locks and Willoughby to Braunston. This time, on a busy day on the canal (where we seemed to cause all sorts of chaos trying to moor at the chandlers), we turned right at Braunston Junction, towards Warwick. Everyone who had been there had recommended The Folly at Napton and the Napton Cidery, so we detoured there, but everything was closed when we cruised into Napton. Oh dear. Don’t visit on Monday.

Calcutt Locks, looking warm

The next day we turned back onto the Grand Union Canal, familiar territory from a holiday we had a good few years ago. At least this time we managed not to throw a windlass into the first of the Calcutt Locks. By now we were into the summer of 2022 Heatwave 2.0. and the 11 locks of the Stockton Flight were roasting and exhausting. At one point I was just laying on a balance beam in a rare shady patch praying either for more shade and less heat, or for it to all be over. Thank goodness for the Blue Lias Inn at the bottom with cold beer and good food!

Three boats in a lock? Thats different.

Now anyone who knows us knows we aren’t morning people. That changed in the heat, with the order of the day being to set off well before 8 am and to moor up before lunchtime. On we went, hunting for moorings in the shade and spending long drowsy afternoons doing not much of anything in particular. Via Long Itchington and Radford Semele we found ourselves in Leamington Spa and had a bit of trauma there. Martyn’s wallet was stolen from the boat, right in front of him. There wasn’t a lot of cash in it and only two bank cards, but the hassle factor has been a nuisance. We’ve had to replace his driving licence, bus pass, National Trust and Chelsea membership cards amongst others. We were surprised how seriously the police took the crime, even to the extent of dusting Beau Romer for fingerprints. They found some too. We shall see what transpires.

The perfect antidote to a hot day’s boating

Since Leamington Spa, the weather has cooled down and we haven’t had any further dramas. We went up the mighty Stairway to Heaven, the Hatton Flight, with a lovely family on a hire boat and then up the Knowle Locks to Catherine-de-Barnes, where we stayed for a couple of days while I went to the Festival of Quilts at the NEC with friends, and Martyn went to play on the Severn Valley Railway.

Friendly lock keepers at Knowle rendered me surplus to requirements

Having gone nearly all the way into Birmingham we have now turned around and are aiming to enter the city by a different route.

Street art on the Grand Union

Legal Aliens

Four happy boaters

Back on the boat and in a marina it was rather frustrating that a Sainsbury’s delivery driver couldn’t find us. With all the activity around Lichfield due to building HS2 I’m not surprised. We haven’t seen any track being laid yet, just enormous construction depots and road works. Thankfully – and eventually – a taxi driver could find his way from Lichfield station with our guests for a week, Bailey and Anna, all the way from Washington DC and Jackson City Tennessee respectively. I’m amazed that a solid week of rain last October apparently hasn’t put Bailey off the English canals, and that she not only came back, but brought her sister with her.

Bailey and Yours Truly, lock keeping

it did make us laugh in the middle of this exceptionally hot and dry summer, that the girls, along with the Sainsbury’s delivery (eventually!) arrived in the middle of a rainstorm. The lack of rain is starting to cause us some problems. So far the Leeds and Liverpool, Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals are closed, the Trent and Mersey just as well may be, and there are restrictions on many others. I’m sure we will get back to our home mooring in Rufford at some stage this winter, but it wouldn’t be looking good if we turned north now.

Patiently waiting on the Atherstone Flight

Water levels are so low that somewhere on the Coventry Canal we came across a party of scouts who had got their boat thoroughly stuck. Martyn and I weren’t on the boat at the time, the girls were doing a great job in charge. The scouts didn’t have a boat pole (that they could find!) so Bailey and Anna attached a line and gave them a tug to get them going. Of course we grounded ourselves in the process, but we know how to get free!

Beau Romer to the rescue

We’d planned to journey with Bailey and Anna from Lichfield to Rugby, and had a lot of fun on the way. They bought cheese and sweets from a couple of tradingboats, we found a fabulous deli in Brinklow and we enjoyed several pub visits.

It’s a tight turn at Hawkesbury Junction

There was a lot of wildlife in evidence, mainly rats. We were in one of the Atherstone locks when one decided to use the stern of the boat as a bridge from one side of the lock to the other. The next day as well as a dead one in the canal there was a live one swimming alongside the boat. I also spotted a cheeky squirrel using a telegraph wire as a tightrope. The wildlife highlight of the week was a water vole on the towpath practically running over Bailey’s foot!

Concentrating in Braunston Tunnel

Because none of us can help overachieving, we went far beyond Rugby and ended up at Long Buckby on the Grand Union Canal, where the girls had to leave to fly home. That gave us a couple of days to cruise down as far as Stowe Hill, the first place where many years ago I ever got involved in winding a narrowboat. And a right mess up that was! I think we do a bit better these days.

Another day, another pub lunch. The Tame Otter at Hopwas

Catching Up

Mooove along there ladies!

I like keeping a blog, really I do. It augments the diary I keep every day and refer back to frequently. Off and on I’ve been a diarist since childhood. Some of my most cherished possessions are a couple of my childhood diaries, from when I was 11 or 12. Through those old pages I’ve met myself at that age and it’s amusing, sobering and surprising all at the same time. But I digress. I like keeping a blog, so why is it so hard to find the time to write it?

I don’t think there’s room for any more flowers on that boat

When last I wrote we had just come through the Harecastle Tunnel, and I was feeling rather pleased with myself for helming the boat through. I didn’t mention it then that emerging into the daylight I made a complete Horlicks of the exit. Better luck next time!

Armitage Cutting, which used to be a tunnel.

That night we moored the boat at Etruria Junction in Stoke on Trent. I’d been dreading Stoke. It gets mentioned a lot on canal Facebook pages and blogs as a place that isn’t really safe to stop overnight, where the youth is feral and the inhabitants snack on their young. That wasn’t our experience at all. We moored opposite some houses with well-tended gardens and had a very peaceful night, except for the towpath being more of an urban clearway with people zipping up and down on bicycles and scooters, both electric and human-powered. We arrived early afternoon, and from then until the evening one of the inhabitants of the houses sat at the end of his garden stoically fishing, catching nothing. As soon as he’d packed up for the night one of his neighbours came out to feed the fish, the water was boiling as they hoovered up the food they’d brought. We did laugh.

The daily heron at Barlaston. A couple of PCSOs on bicycles held back so I could get that shot

On the way down Heartbreak Hill a fellow boater at a lock told me we’d be fine staying overnight at Etruria, but she also said she’d come across a boater who’d been the victim of an opportunistic thief at Barlaston, where we moored up the following night. He’d been asked for a drink of water and while he went into the boat to get it his boat was burgled. So there we were, in the very nice village of Barlaston, post-lunch in the Plume of Feathers (Neil Morrissey’s pub) and a guy wanders by and asked us to fill his water bottle. Mindful of what I’d been told I stammered out an excuse as to why we couldn’t and spent the rest of the evening feeling guilty that the poor chap was dying of dehydration on the towpath. And I’m normally quite a trusting soul …

Penny in Stone. Yet another lock.

From Barleston we cruised through Stone, where we really would have liked to have stopped if only to go and fill our boots in the canalside M&S food hall. Instead we kept going and moored in the pretty hamlet of Burston. Martyn and I went to explore and found a smattering of houses around a duck pond and a rather unremarkable church on the site of a much older one.

Zombie ducks in Burston. They wouldn’t stop following us no matter how many times I told them we had no food.

Food is something of a theme. At Great Haywood Junction we found a fabulous farm shop, highly recommended if you’re ever in the area. We left the Trent and Mersey there and very briefly moored up at Tixall Wide, a mooring I’ve heard lots about because it’s so picturesque. I wish we’d been able to stay there for more than one night. Penny and Andrew chose to wait out the worst of the extreme heatwave there, very sensible, because the breeze across the wide was lovely, but we had to wave goodbye to them there as we were heading for different destinations at this point.

Mooring up at Tixall Wide

We left the boat in Kings Orchard Marina in Lichfield for a few days to travel down to Dorset. We had a funeral and a wedding to attend. Kings Orchard was lovely. I just wish I’d known earlier what we found out on our last day – that they offered a boat valeting service! Never mind, Williams Waterless Wash and Wax is a miracle when your vehicle is 57′ long.

Onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley Junction

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

Don’t ask me which of the endless Cheshire Locks this is

From Anderton we carried on down the Trent and Mersey, stopping off at The Lion Salt Works at Marston for a second visit. As an industrial museum it really makes you think. There are displays and photos of men toiling and sweating over vats of boiling brine, like something out of the industrial revolution. It’s quite sobering to discover the works only closed in 1986, well within our lifetime.

This is a windlass in the Lion Salt Works. Not the sort I’m used to!

We had an unexpected stop before Middlewich. There was a huge limb of an ash tree completely blocking the canal. We didn’t mind the unscheduled overnight stop. We were moored opposite Oakwood Marina and they had a very nice cafe. By the end of the afternoon the CRT had got the canal clear and the next morning we were on our way again.

Fallen ash tree stops play.
The offending tree reduced to a pile of firewood

I’ve written about Middlewich before. It’s one of those places that that most of us have never heard of, a pleasant enough town that punches above its weight on the canals because it has a junction. It also boats a Morrisons and a Lidl. Bonus!

There are no arched bridges around the Salt Towns. Subsidence did for them.

South of Middlewich, you hit the Cheshire Locks, colloquially known as Heartbreak Hill. We descended it last year with Bailey as our crew, this time we were going up. Nearly every lock was set against us and the heat was blistering. Two days on the hill and we were done. So done, that I moored us up in the wrong place at Kidsgrove, one lock too early. No harm, no foul. We were outside a pub!

Duplicated locks on Heartbreak Hill – it isn’t a race!

I was dreading our next challenge, the Harecastle Tunnel, not being a great fan of long journeys underground. The tunnel is 1.6 miles long and you get shut in. There are no ventilation shafts, so they close the doors behind you and start up some enormous fans to prevent the build up of fumes in the tunnel. Towards the middle the headroom is reduced, and you have to semi-crouch to avoid hitting your head as the roof gets lower and lower. When it came to it, Harecastle wasn’t too bad. It used to have a towpath which was removed, so it’s quite wide. I helmed the boat through and am feeling rather pleased with myself!

Abandon Hope, all Ye who enter here [actually this is the end we came out of)!

TW3 (That Was The Weaver That Was)

View of the River Weaver, taken just outside the entrance to the Saltersford Tunnel

The beautiful River Weaver, that we love so much, is now behind us. But I’m a little premature.

Seren Glas proceeding majestically along the Bridgewater Canal

From Little Bollington, we cruised a short hop into Lymm, a pretty Cheshire Village we’ve stayed in once before. We only intended a quick overnight stop and to take advantage of one of the fish and chip shops, but got a bit more than we bargained for. Poppy the cat went walkabout. She sauntered back to Seren Glas at about 3pm, but by that time we’d given up and spent a most congenial afternoon in the Brewers Arms. Thanks Poppy!

Cheers from The Brewery Tap, Lymm

The next day, the cat glued to the wall, we set off for our third canal, the Trent and Mersey, and Penny and Andrew’s first big challenge, the Preston Brook Tunnel. It’s 1239 yards long, and like most tunnels, has a bit of twist inside. We got through with no problems, and I helmed up through Saltersford and Barnton Tunnels the next day.

Thankfully, there aren’t too many sights like this

The Trent and Mersey isn’t my favourite canal. I find it narrow, overgrown and generally a bit grim. This year it’s growing on me, it seems brighter and more pleasant. I even saw my first kingfisher of the year near Dutton, where the canal breached disastrously in 2012. We’re going to be on it for a good while, so I might end up feeling the same as ever about the Trent and Mercy (as Bailey called it last year) and we’ve got some grim industrial and urban bits to cruise through yet.

The Daniel Adamson moored by Sutton Swing Bridge

At Anderton, we descended the boat lift to the River Weaver for the third year in a row. The boat lift is only operating on one caisson. The ceramic coating on the hydraulic ram is wearing off the other one. It looks like the boat lift is going to be taken out of commission for at least a season for a significant overhaul, but according to one of the fine gentlemen who operate it, not this year or next year, so we should get at least one more go.

Moored up under the Anderton Boat Lift as the sun goes down

I’m not sure what I can say about the River I haven’t said before. It’s a joy. It’s not terribly long, you could probably navigate the entire length in a day and has only four locks, all electric and with lock keepers. The only major town is Northwich, and it’s almost in the middle, with convenient moorings right by the shops. This year was all about giving Penny and Andrew a taster, so we only went in one direction. We moored twice at Barnton Cut, which is super mooring and lets me haul the sheets and the towels a mile uphill to a friendly launderette, and found a new to us spot at Devil’s Garden. You just have to watch out there for visiting cows! The best bit was we hooked up with Paul and Anthony on Morning Star and had a barbecue and a lovely evening with them and Heidi, on the Pirate Boat (who offered us rum and ice cream!). Heidi runs a badge making business, amongst other things, from her boat, The Rum Wench, and it turns out I ordered from her a few weeks ago before I knew who she was. It is, as they say, a small world.

Seren Glas and Morning Star at Dutton Mile

The only incident was descending Dutton Lock. We were the middle boat of three, and it was a bit of squash. The lock keeper started letting the water out and we tilted to the left. We had hung up onto the remains of another lock gate to our starboard side. The couple in the boat behind said they could see our bow coming up, and for a few seconds, which of course seemed like an eternity, it was very scary. We were shouting at the lock keeper but he didn’t hear us. And then, as fast as it happened, the boat came free, lurched violently from side to side a bit and rearranged the interior, but then all was well. No harm, no foul as they say, but I can only imagine the enquiry if the unthinkable had happened and we had sunk in a manned lock. I was glad to see the back of Dutton Lock on the return trip.

Cruising along the river, deep water under our prop

And now we’re back up on the canal heading south. 89 miles behind us so far this year.

Saltersford Lock. The middle cottage is for sale, with a mooring. I’m tempted!

Punting through Poolstock

So here it is, the 2022 boating season.  We got going rather late this year, and have been spending more time than we planned in Dorset and now, at last, we’re Out Out. I ran out of blogging steam last year after the highlight of Standedge Tunnel, so here’s a whistlestop recap of our late summer 2021 exploits.

In January 1912, someone bet Jack Judge 5 shillings he couldn’t compose and sing a new song by the next night. He won the bet by performing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” for the first time in the Grand Theatre in Stalybridge

After spending some time in Uppermill and Stalybridge (StalyVegas as our friend Sean calls it, and we had a Sunday lunch with him there) we turned left off the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and on to the Peak Forest Canal and spent a wonderful couple of weeks there, most of it in Bugsworth Basin. Bugsworth used to be the largest inland port in the country, it’s full of industrial history and atmosphere, and only a short walk into Whaley Bridge, a pleasant market town, now infamous because it was nearly flooded when the dam holding back the Toddbrook Reservoir threatened to breach in 2019.

Sunset over Bugsworth Basin

Next, we hurried (sadly) down to Macclesfield on the canal of the same name where we were joined for a week onboard by Bailey, one of our American relations.  We had a wonderful time, in and out of pubs, eating lots and working her like a dog down the locks of Heartbreak Hill. We also had to cope with a breakdown, but the fantastic Ryan Walker got us going again the same day.  The only flies in the ointment were it barely stopped raining for a week and Martyn developed an infected cyst in his armpit, requiring antibiotics to see it off.  We affectionately christened it Cyril.

Three drowned rats on the stern of a narrowboat

We finished Bailey’s visit with a quick trip down the Anderton Boat lift and on to the River Weaver, met up with Trevor and Jenny and returned as a pair to Fettlers Wharf for the winter on 18th October.

Chugging home along the Bridgewater Canal

Moving on to this year, we left Fettlers on Tuesday, in a bit of a whirl, having only driven up from Dorset on the previous Friday.  We had lots of help from our friends Penny and Andrew and got our pram and cratch covers cleaned and reproofed. That was all the maintenance we’ve had the chance to do. There’s going to be a lot of work done on the hoof this year.

Waiting for the water point at Dean Locks under the M6

I’d forgotten how tough double locks are, especially as I did most of the helming last year and Martyn worked the locks. Now we’ve switched roles.  Thankfully we’re paired up with Penny and Andrew, at least for a while as we have different summer cruising plans.  I’m using the word “plans” rather loosely.  I’ve learned not to make them, so in our case, they are more like “ideas” or “notions” We’ll see where we end up.  The day we left was blistering, and by the time we got to Parbold, we were boiling and exhausted.  There are two swing bridges en route, about a mile apart and it’s my habit to walk between them. This time I had to give up and flag Martyn down for a lift. And I made a real rookie mistake and sunburnt my arms.  The following day none of us got going and we only reached Crooke, on the outskirts of Wigan. Guess what? That day I sunburnt my legs.  Some people never learn.

Getting a visit from Penny and Andrew’s cat, Poppy

Thursday was a war of attrition.  It started so well, everyone was full of enthusiasm and up for it. Again it was really hot, but we got through Wigan with no issues, until that is, we turned right onto the Leigh Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and through the dreaded Poolstock locks.  Poolstock is never easy.  The pound between the two locks is usually shallow and full of debris. This time it was especially taxing.  Water levels on the Northern canals are low this summer following the dry winter and spring.  The Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals are effectively closed, and even the Leeds and Liverpool is under restrictions and threat of closure if we don’t get significant rainfall. So Poolstock was a dribble.  Martyn and Penny got the boats into the first lock by proceeding very slowly and sticking rigidly to the centre of the channel, but they both got stuck on their way out and in the pound between the locks. Boat poles were employed but to no avail.  Perhaps we should have called CRT (the Canal and River Trust), but we took matters into our own hands and let a little more water down, which allowed the two boats through.  We were all delighted to close the gates and put Poolstock behind us to enjoy the Bridgewater Canal and 40 lock-free miles.

Penny and Andrew on Seren Glas cruising into Worsley

After a breather at Pennington Flash, today we’re on one of our favourite moorings, at Dunham Massey. The plan is to sit here for a couple of days, enjoy a Sunday lunch at the Swan With Two Nicks, and recuperate from the first 40 miles. We need to toughen up a bit to get through the summer!

I thought the Linotype works in Altrincham had been saved from demolition. Seeing the difference between now and last October, I’m not so sure.

What a Wonderful World

Is it me, or is that a nervous smile?

We’ve navigated all of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways now:

  • The Caen Hill Flight (on a hire boat in 2012)
  • The Barton Swing Aqueduct
  • The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
  • The Anderton Boat Lift
  • The Burnley Embankment
  • The Bingley Five Rise
  • And as of this week, The Standedge Tunnel
The rowan tree is reputed to be protective. We must have been subliminally aware when we moored next to one

We had a few days in Slaithwaite. I got a bit excited. Stylecraft Yarns’ mill is there, but sadly (and Google thinks otherwise) they aren’t open to the public. From Slaithwaite we ascended 21 locks to Marsden, grateful for the help of Sean from nb Eeyore, who gave up his day in favour of a bit of hard labour with us. I bribed him with homemade cake and dinner.

According to Sean, the most photographed cottage on the Huddersfield Narrow. It’s really such a pretty canal

The main event of the week was of course the Standedge Tunnel, all 3.5 miles of it. It has a fearsome reputation for damaging narrowboats. Its reputation is so malevolent I was having the vapours at the very thought of going through it at all, and was ready and prepared to jump on the train instead and completely forego the scraping, banging, and associated wincing. Beau Romer isn’t just a boat. She’s our home and our pride and joy; were we really going to put her – and ourselves – through this ordeal? And let’s not even think about the tunnel being over 200 years old, and going right through the heart of the Pennines, up to 636 feet underground.

We ventured into the tunnel on the trip boat on Sunday afternoon to get an idea of what we were facing. They gave me this hunk of rock they knocked off the side of the tunnel as a souvenir …

By Monday morning I’d calmed down and was feeling a bit fatalistic about the whole thing. Anyway, there was no turning back now, unless we wanted a long delay; the Huddersfield Broad was now impassable because of a broken lock. We’d taken off the pram hood (including the frame) and removed the cratch cover. Martyn had made protective shields for the cabin corners out of cut-up milk bottles, newspaper and masking tape. The navigation lights were off and the wires taped up. We’d done everything we could to protect the boat. So we turned up at the tunnel entrance at 8 o’clock as instructed, and met our chaperone, Alistair, reputed to be the fastest of the CRT volunteer drivers. We had a choice to make; one of us could helm the boat under Alistair’s guidance, or we could let him do it. We chose the latter deciding to let the expert drive. We were going to enjoy the experience from the bow.

Waiting nervously for our passage

And in the end, we loved it. The tunnel is an absolute marvel and completely fascinating. You forget to be worried or scared and just absorb it. I hope the pictures will give a taste of what it’s like.

Beyond the point of no return

There’s a railway tunnel that runs parallel to the canal tunnel. You hear the trains, and feel the pressure of the trains in your ears. They’re going at 80mph, so even you you were in the right place to see them, you’d be very lucky to do so. Blink and you miss it.

There’s a lot of bare rock, and absolutely none of it is straight and even

One aspect of the tunnel neither of us photographed was some of the ventilation shafts are curtains of cascading water. We could hear them coming and every one precipitated an unseemly scramble to get off the bow, back into the boat and close the doors before we got drenched!

The helmsman has to contend with parts where there’s not much headroom, and the walls are coated in nasty, abrasive sprayed concrete

Sometimes you see an eerie mist in front of you, but it never felt spooky or scary to me.

You have absolutely no idea what’s coming next outside of the range of the powerful light the CRT put on the front of your boat
The brick reinforcement arches are called legging, and they create stunning reflections on the water

In the end, after an hour and a quarter (it would have been less, but they asked Alistair to slow down as we were catching up the boat in front!) we emerged out of our subterranean world and back into the daylight.

See that tiny pinprick in the distance? It literally is the light at end of tunnel. You can also see the cushion is upside down, so we must just have come through one of the boat washes

It was a fabulous experience, and apart from some scratches on the blacking and the rubbing strake, Beau Romer was unscathed. We owe many thanks to Alistair and his exemplary helming skills. Honourable mention goes to Will from the CRT. Not only did he spend a lot of time moving water down a few days previously to get us from Huddersfield to Slaithwaite, but he was on duty at the four tunnel checkpoints to make sure we had a safe passage. There are 38 places where the tunnel interconnects with one of the three (yes three)! other tunnels on site so we could be extracted in an emergency. As Alistair proudly told us, Standedge is not only the deepest, highest and longest canal tunnel in the country, its also the safest, because they knew where we were all the time.

Beau Romer safe and sound at Diggle, some of Martyn’s shielding (not needed) still visible!

And what came next after the excitement and adrenaline of the Standedge Tunnel? I can’t put it better than one of my Twitter followers, Grumpy Jack: “All for the joy of another umpteen reluctant locks”. The Huddersfield Narrow is a picturesque canal, but it’s hard work, with stubborn paddles, obstinately heavy gates, leaky locks that empty themselves as if by magic, narrow cuttings, low bridges and plenty of other surprises for the unwary boater. I wonder if that’s why so few seem to attempt it? Whatever its challenges, I’m glad we did.

Oh joy. They built the pillar of the viaduct right at the exit of the lock!