Wigan – and on, and on

Most people know George Orwell of 1984 fame wrote a book called the Road to Wigan Pier, but in 1946 he also wrote an essay in which he described his ideal pub – the Moon Under Water. In his honour, I hope, there is a Wetherspoons pub in Wigan called The Moon Under Water. Is it the ideal pub? Of course not. But we still had lunch and a couple of drinks there.

Definitely not the ideal pub

In the event we got very well acquainted with Wigan indeed. The plan was we would cruise into Wigan after another nice weekend at Parbold, and go up the 21 locks of the Wigan Flight with Sean on nb Eeyore on Tuesday. But you know what happens with plans? Things tend to happen to wreck them. We got a message just before we set off that there was a car in one of the lock pounds on the Wigan flight, which was closed to boats until it could be removed.

We entered Wigan a little nervously. We’d heard many tales of antisocial behaviour towards boats and boaters, and it wasn’t a place we were anxious to stay. I can only speak from our experience, but that proved to be completely false. We had a quiet mooring and no bother. It helped that there were two boats together. We had plenty of time to explore the town, which has a couple of nice parks and a decent shopping centre. It was perfectly pleasant. On Thursday we watched as the CRT pulled the car, stolen of course, out of the canal.

Probably someone-s pride and joy once.

On Saturday after the queue of boats had cleared on Friday, we tackled the Wigan flight and an extra lock at the bottom for good measure. We had lots of help from the Wigan Flight Crew, all hardy volunteers, and from Trev who got up at 6.30am just to come and help us. Thanks Trev! We got to the top in under 4 hours, where we said au revoir to Sean.

Wigan Flight – up the creek with 138 paddles since 1816!

The next day I got my reward for all those locks. We could have driven to Fredericks Ice Cream Parlour in 20 minutes from our home mooring in Rufford. Far more fun to wait until we could moor up outside on a sunny bank holiday Sunday.

I worked for it, I deserved it, and it totally met my expectations

Then it was on to Johnsons Hillock Locks. At the top we were meeting Trev and Jen to cruise to Skipton with them over the next couple of weeks. It was a good day, the sun was shining, the locks were benign, we had another boat and crew to share with – until I fell over my own feet, or a capstan depending on who tells the story – and literally faceplanted the towpath. Result one split lip, two knees like tennis balls and a badly bruised hand. There will be no photos of me on this blog or social media until I look a little less like someone who’s just done a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson. I have to thank Therese on nb Nauti Buoy who sacrificed the ice that was going into her G&T to my bruises.

So yesterday we went nowhere. Trev suggested a mooring at a lovely hamlet called Withnell Fold, and we had a day of leisure, and for me, recovery. We cleaned the boat and Martyn and I went exploring. It’s a peaceful and picturesque little place, basically a square with houses on three sides and a set of stocks completing it. The village grew up in 1834 to house the workers from a paper mill on the banks of the canal, now long closed, although reputed to have made the paper for our bank notes among other products. If it hadn’t been for my accident we never would have found it. There’s lots of information about it online.

A day off in Withnell Fold

Update on offererings to the Canal Gods:

  • Another side fender on the Wigan flight
Jenny and Ralf enjoying life on the towpath. What a treasure he is, and what a good boy at only 7 months old

Under Starter’s Orders

In 1770 work began on the Leeds and Liverpool canal, at Halsall, where I’m writing this post. We’re moored outside The Saracen’s Head, and full of the excellent meal we’ve just enjoyed there. Alongside the canal by Bridge 25 there’s a statue known as the Halsall Navvy. He stands there in commemoration, emerging from the ground, full of power and stoicism, and really makes you think about the navigation engineers who dug out the canals, cuttings, and tunnels; who constructed the locks and bridges with nothing more than picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and their own hard labour.

Sorry mate, you’re rather stuck there …

It’s time to think of beginnings and activity after months of loitering. We’ve been out of the marina for a couple of weeks now, embarking on at least 5 months of travel. We had to wait for the boat to come out of the water to have its cutlass bearing replaced (it’s part of the stern gear – we must have hit something underwater that dislodged it). That was a scary day. I didn’t stay on the boat as it was floated onto a dolly and hauled up a ramp behind a tractor. I saved the white knuckle ride and watching the stern go underwater from the stern itself for Martyn.

Martyn riding the bucking bronco

All’s good now, apart from an annoying whine we’re all scratching our heads trying to fix. We took a tentative cruise down to Tarleton but didn’t go through the sea lock on to the Ribble Link. We turned around and cruised familiar waters, to Parbold with friends from our marina, and then into Liverpool for a week.

Jim and Diana’s lovely narrowboat Bleasdale waiting for Beau Romer to join them in the lock. We’ve never gone up the Rufford Flight so efficiently!

We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the cruising season. There were 4 Bickerstaffe boats and crews snuggled up in Salthouse Docks. A small rump of the Bickerstaffe Massive was in town.

One of our Bickerstaffes is missing …

We enjoyed the thrills of a ghost walk, visited the Museum of Liverpool on the day it re-opened post-lockdown, ate too much good food and drank too much good beer (outside!). We were joined by several friends while we were there, made new ones, took a cruise to the dock system’s far end and generally had a brilliant week.

Friends make good times fabulous

At this time of the year the canal is teeming with new life. We’ve seen ducklings, Canada goslings (sad the cute little yellow fluffy things must grow up into noisy antisocial Canada Geese), coots and moorhens on their floating nests with almost identical chicks, and tadpoles basking in the rare sunshine. Even the jellyfish in Salthouse Docks are about a quarter of the size of the ones we saw last year. There’s a feeling of new beginnings and optimism.

Who doesn’t like a cute baby?
I’m so relieved I didn’t hit that nest while mooring

On the way back from Liverpool we made a pitstop at Aintree Racecourse, site of the Grand National. I think I must have walked every inch of the 4 miles, 856 yards of the course itself, for that’s where I got my second Covid-19 vaccination and Google Maps let me down. Every gate to every footpath it tried to make me take was locked, so I took an extremely long route from the banks of the canal to the building where the vaccinations were taking place.

So close, yet so far

To finish this post off, we are known to be more than a little accident-prone. Here’s the list of offerings we have made to the Canal Gods so far since leaving our winter mooring:

  • One mooring chain
  • One handcuff key
  • One LED nightlight
  • One Jacksonville Jaguars baseball cap
  • One side fender

Oh dear!

David Foulkes took this photo. He’s one of the CRT volunteer lock keepers (fine people who we appreciate immensely) on the Stanley Flight that takes you down into the Liverpool Docks. The building on the left is the Tobacco Building, the largest brick-built building in the world. It’s being converted into appartments. I hope they don’t disturb the Peregrine Falcons we saw who nest there.

Homeward Bound

Last time I updated this blog in (ahem) October, we’d just left the River Weaver. Time for an update, at least to the end of the cruising season. And it’s nice to reminisce about being out, about and free in these days of winter and Lockdown.

We retraced our steps, back up the Trent and Mersey Canal and on to the Bridgwater, cruised through some marvellous autumn scenery, enjoyed some lovely moorings and had another tasty dinner at the Swan with Two Nicks in Dunham Massey.

Autumn’s splendour

At Wigan Junction we waved Trev and Jenny off in the rain. They turned right to go up the Wigan Flight and we turned left for the Rufford Branch and our home mooring. We’d had a wonderful late summer and autumn, and made the most of our first cruising season, but there were rumblings about another nationwide lockdown. We knew if we weren’t back in the marina before any lockdown started, we wouldn’t be allowed back in until it was over. It was definitely time to go home.

Waving goodbye

Back on home territory just past the deep lock at Appley Bridge, we hit a bit of a snag – pennywort. It’s a floating weed which clumps together and since we’d been off the Leeds and Liverpool it had taken hold. We got a huge raft of it caught around and under the bow of the boat and we were trailing it like some sort of green wedding veil. We couldn’t go forwards, and we couldn’t reverse – we were stuck. Thanks to some very kind passers-by we managed to get a line tied to a tree on the bank and got ashore. Martyn called the CRT for help. Someone turned up and looked at it, but there wasn’t really anything they could do. So we attacked the green carpet with our shovel, knife and boathook. Two hours later, tired, aching, with piles of weed hauled out and on the bank and covered in mud we’d got enough of it away from the front of the boat we could get going. I’ve worked out the way to tackle it is just head for the narrowest bit at full tilt – ramming speed in a narrowboat – and knock the Morse Control into neutral as you get to the weed, hoping the momentum is enough to carry the boat through and it won’t clog the propellor, necessitating a trip down the weed hatch.

Stuck fast – it was worse on the other side of the boat!

That delay cost us, and we couldn’t get home the next day, so we moored exactly where we started on our first night in the face of a dreadful weather forecast. We returned to the marina in the pouring rain the next day, like a pair of drowned rats. Martyn, who didn’t have the good sense to put on a pair of waterproof trousers, was literally wet to the skin and I’m not putting up a photo of that!

One last night out on the cut

Our big cruise to Llangollen and back, according to my records, and making allowance for any arithmetical mistakes, was 303 miles 4.75 furlongs, and 102 locks. It took 164.7 engine hours to complete it.

Our totals for the year are 390 miles, 1.25 furlongs, and 144 locks. Not bad, considering we launched our boat 3 months later than planned due to Covid-19.

I’ll write about what we’ve been up to since we got back next time.

What a Tangled Web We Weave

So much for my intention to update this blog twice week. Twice a month seems to be more like it.

This morning’s towpath view – a factory processing soda ash

At the end of the last post we were effectively stuck at Audlem, on the wrong side of a faulty lock at Hack Green, and facing a long slog home around the Four Counties Ring. I’m typing this on a gloomy Sunday morning in Anderton on the Trent and Mersey Canal, overlooking the River Weaver (or more properly, the Weaver Navigation). In the end, we didn’t have to do make the long trek, including Heartbreak Hill and the Harecastle tunnel. The day after I posted we heard on the towpath telegraph the lock was opened for a short window with CRT assisted passage, so we got through on a miserable wet day and returned to Nantwich. I’m still a bit cheesed off we didn’t get a direct notification, especially as we’d been in contact with the Trust and were signed up for updates. The kindness of a fellow boater saved us.

Jenny waiting for Dutton Lock under a magnificent sycamore

We’ve been travelling with Trev and Jenny as a pair of boats for over a month now, and have enjoyed many, many towpath drinks and competitive games evenings. Martyn taught Jen how to play crib! And we celebrated Martyn’s birthday (12 again) in the Leigh Arms at Acton Bridge. On the Middlewich Branch we met up with fellow Bickerstaffe owners Pat and Eileen from Our Narrowboat Quest for a brief towpath chat. We last saw them at Christmas, so that was really nice. And Dave helped us through Cholmondeston Lock again. I might even have made him late for work …

Just what was I supposed to do with these letters?

I think we were in some ways slightly disappointed to have escaped from the broken lock with no drama. With a complete inability to learn what happens if we complicate things, we hatched up another idea. We were going to spend a week on the River Weaver before leaving for home. As this had never been part of anyone’s plan, Trev had to buy an anchor in Middlewich. It’s inadvisable to boat on a river without an anchor to deploy in an emergency. Rivers are deep and have hazards canals don’t, such as weirs and currents.

Our trip down the Anderton Boat lift on a gloriously sunny Sunday

The River Weaver is 50 feet below the Trent and Mersey Canal, and to get to it by boat you have to use the Anderton Boat Lift. This is a remarkable piece of engineering built-in 1875. It is a steel structure with 2 giant buckets filled with water, or caissons (weighing 252 tonnes each!). The system works on hydraulic rams, and when one caisson goes up, the other goes down. Along with the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the boat lift is one of the wonders of our canal and river system and not one we expected to experience this year.

Beau Romer exiting the Anderton Boat Lift onto the River Weaver, and looking very tiny

The River Weaver is beautiful, especially this time of the year, and remarkably quiet. We had countryside moorings mostly to ourselves and enjoyed the peace and quiet, the misty mornings and the scenery. The stretch between Saltersford Locks and the services near the M56 motorway at Sutton Swing Bridge is one of the prettiest we’ve cruised so far. And all the locks are operated by lock keepers. Just as well, because they’re enormous.

A quick meet and greet with an old friend at Hunts Lock, hello Lindsay
Feeling very insignificant in Saltersford Lock

We didn’t need the anchors, but Martyn did slip on a wet pontoon, and nearly took an impromptu dip. Thankfully all he got was a boot full of water!

The beautiful River Weaver and traiiiiin!

Now we’re heading back to our marina. A bit sad to be doing so. Autumn boating is lovely.

We found some of the ventilation shafts for Barnton Tunnel

Do the Strand

Ice cream before I go? Don’t mind if I do. Rum and raisin of course.

Goodbye Llangollen Canal. We were sorry to leave you. You’ve been amazing. You’ve given us some knocks, frustration and you’ve taught us a lot. But most of the time you’ve been picturesque, charming and beautiful. We hope we’ll be back.

Hurlestone Junction and a lovely volunteer lock keeper. Off we go.

Do you remember when you were little, playing outside with your friends and Mum called you in for tea? Remember how sometimes you’d stay out for just one more game of Block, or Tag, even though you knew it was naughty? That’s us at the moment. We decided not to turn left towards home at the end of the Llangollen, we went right down the Shropshire Union for just one more adventure before the long winter

How now, brown cows
And an ovine intruder

We ended up in Audlem. The journey down was a bit of a trial. One of the locks at Hack Green wouldn’t fill. It took four boat crews on the balance beam and the gentlest of nudges from Beau Romer to get it open, then we had to repeat the process for the boat behind us. It was worth it though. We had a couple of nice evenings in the Shroppie Fly and it was an excellent place to wait out yesterday’s foul weather, the aftermath of Storm Alex.

This is the offending lock with all the gates and paddles closed

This morning we set off in the sunshine, looking forward to a nice cruise up to the pretty town of Nantwich, a meeting with another Bickerstaffe boat, and with the bow pointed towards home.

We got half a mile.

The offending lock at Hack Green that was so difficult is, well – locked. We’re back on our mooring in Audlem. The problem is the cill liners have failed. As I write this, we have no idea how long it’s going to take to fix. I’ll call the Canal and River Trust tomorrow morning for an update. Then we’ll have to make our plan. Do we wait it out here, where we have all facilities, a shop and even pubs, or do we go home the long and more difficult way, completing the Four Counties Ring? We have to be back on the Rufford Branch on or before 2 November, or we won’t be able to get home until Christmas. If the lock isn’t going to be back in service quickly we don’t have long to decide what we’re going to do.

I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.

Thank you Audlem, but we’d like to go now.


I’m doing better than Martyn when it comes to dropping things in the water. I confess to a handcuff key. So far he’s tossed overboard:

  • One handcuff key (OK, probably doesn’t count because he fished it out)
  • One slipper in Llangollen Basin
  • One glove at the top of the Frankton Locks
  • A microfibre cloth at the same location
  • Plus a Fitbit!
  • And the chimney. We got it back with the boat hook, but I guess that’s put paid to his habit of laying it on the roof while we’re cruising!
Martyn and Beau Romer coming out of the Chirk Tunnel with me happily on the towpath

It’s hard to believe I haven’t updated this for a week. We’re now nearly back at the beginning of the Llangollen Canal. None of the landmarks that gave us grief on the way up seemed as bad on the return journey, although I walked through the Chirk Tunnel on the pretence of telling Martyn it was clear to proceed! The narrows? No problem. All those impossibly tight bridges on bends? We sailed through them with aplomb. I even bossed the lift bridge at Wrenbury and it’s antecedent tight turn feeling very smug.

Someone’s fixer upper?

We moored up one evening at the top of the Frankton Locks, and walked down the next morning to have a look at the Montgomery Canal.

Maisie enjoying a run along the banks of the Montgomery Canal

The lock keeper at the Grindley Brook Locks advised us not to venture down because of the combination of overhanging vegetation and shiny new paintwork, but we’ll have a go next time.

You can even watch cricket from your boat moored on the Ellesmere Arm

En route we spent a very pleasant couple of days in Ellesmere (not to be confused with Ellesmere Port). Ellesmere is the type of town I could happily live in, small, rural and where residents appear to know each other. Jenny introduced me to Ismay’s, a shop that sells comfortable ladies clothes I can happily wear on the back of the boat, or out and about when I don’t want to look like a feral boater. There’s a nice coffee shop-cum-delicatessen called Moolah staffed by a couple of boaters, an excellent butcher, and a Tesco that doesn’t mind you pushing your bottle-laden trolley back to the boat (as long as you return it afterwards).

Beautiful Blake Mere

According to my guide book there are seven meres close by. Although we wondered after Pennington Flash whether they were the remnants of an industrial past, they are shallow lakes formed at the end of the last Ice Age. Shropshire’s own Lake District as it were, and very pretty.

Another glimpse of Blakemere through the trees

We made good time through the long stretches of the canal with Wales on one side and England on the other, and then the locks that start with a bang at Grindley Brook with the staircase and become more friendly and better spaced apart afterwards.

Sometimes I drive and he does the work. I’m not sure about his fashion choices though!
Autumn’s on the way
Yes, Autumn is definitely coming. Do you see the spider’s tightrope between Beau Romer and the opposite bank? Just how do they do that?

Today it’s raining, so it’s the perfect day to hunker down in front of the fire and take stock before we leave the Llangollen Canal tomorrow.

Will this be the final towpath drink of the year?

Terror at 127 feet

We made it. We crossed the Pontcysllte Aqueduct without incident. It is absolutely awesome, and definitely one of the wonders of the canal system. It’s also blooming scary, as you look over the edge, 127 foot down at the highest point, and there is no safety rail. The boat is in a trough, so there’s no way you can fall out of it, but facts never stop the mind playing tricks.

Martyn crossing the Pontywhatsit. That poor girl was so terrified she insisted on keeping our boat between her and the drop at all times.

The views over the River Dee and the Welsh Countryside are awesome. If you ever have the chance to make this trip, grab it with both hands.

The bird’s eye view over the edge

The Llangollen is the canal that keeps giving and keeps challenging. The Chirk Tunnel was far worse than the Pontcysllte Aqueduct. It’s only 420m long but it meets my private definition of hell. I’ve never been in a tunnel before and felt it was never going to end – until Chirk. I don’t think I’ve ever nearly cried in a tunnel either but Chirk very nearly broke me. The problem was we couldn’t get the boat off the side. The Llangollen flow had us pinned, and also because of the flow, it was such slow going. We pushed forward, inch by painful inch. I’m still traumatised by the memory.

Crossing the Chirk Aqueduct, looking calm and unruffled. This was before the tunnel!

In comparison the Narrows were a doddle. They are three stretches of canal where the cutting has been blasted out of solid rock, and the Llangollen, hardly a wide canal at the best of times, reduces to the width of a singe boat. If you’re travelling with other boats, or you have crew it’s a simple matter to send someone on ahead to check the way is clear, but if you’re a solo boater … well, I don’t even want to consider how difficult it must be to reverse.

Frolicking foals

And then we got to Llangollen, an absolute jewel of a town nestled in the Dee Valley. Apparently it’s called after Collen ap Gwynnawg ap Clydawg ap Cowdra ap Caradog Freichfras ap Llyr Merim ap Yrth ap Cunedda Wledig. Try saying that after you’ve had a couple. Whatever the origins, Llangollen is charming, pretty, interesting, and well worth the trip. We moored up in Llangollen Basin for the permitted 48 hours.

Quite the feat of engineering
Breathe in

In the unseasonably warm autumn sunshine, Martyn and I walked right up to the source of the canal at the Horseshoe Falls, beyond the limits of powered navigation. So we can now say we’ve navigated the entire length of the canal. We’re happy with our achievement.

Horseshoe Falls
Llantisilio Church is just above the falls. This is Thomas Jones of Llantisilio Hall’s tomb. He died in 1744 with no will, so his grave was robbed – twice – by people looking for one. The second time the Church Warden caught the perpetrators in the act and summoned the police!

When you cruise the canals you take the beautiful scenery and the fun of boating for granted. But one of the highlights of this trip has been meeting Jenny and Trevor. We first came across them at Grindley Brook locks, and have been travelling together almost since then. Two nicer people you couldn’t meet. They’ve done this trip before, and know all the perils and pitfalls, as well as the best places to moor. We’re enjoying their company immensely and while the weather holds the evening ritual of a couple of drinks on the towpath is a little treat we look forward to.

Trev making a good point

Fuel and Unusual

Through another narrow gap

We’re in Wales. Two days away from Llangollen basin by my reckoning. We haven’t had a day off this week. The state of the world being what it is we don’t want to risk not getting there because Wales goes into lockdown again, so we’ll dawdle and stop to smell the roses on the homeward journey. That said, we don’t do long days on the tiller. Yesterday we travelled a bare 4 miles and that’s good enough.

Martyn’s checking the map and helming the boat. I’m just taking photographs

The Llangollen is unusual in canal terms. Narrowboating is shuffling down a muddy ditch in a tin bath. The Llangollen is more like a river, it has a flow. The canal draws its water from the River Dee and was built to feed the Shropshire Union Canal and the Hurleston Reservoir in Shropshire. Apparently 6,000,000 gallons of water a day flow out of the river and down the canal. We’re pushing against it, which makes progress slower than usual, and the further we get towards the source, the more noticeable the flow is. It also doesn’t help that we’re in a 20-mile pound and water levels are low. Travelling in the other direction, especially with the narrow bridges, could be a bit of a white knuckle ride.

Marbury Lock. Another bywash

We got on to the Llangollen late on Monday. On Tuesday I decided I really disliked it. If Martyn had said let’s turn around I wouldn’t have argued. I just had a bad day. We queued at the Baddiley Locks for well over an hour because a paddle was out of action, the lift bridges are heavy and I managed to cut my finger on one, and for some reason I lost the ability to tell my left from my right on the tiller. Add in the fearsome bywashes at the locks and it seemed everything was out to get us. By the close of play on Wednesday harmony was restored. We’d had a lovely meal at The Swan in Marbury on Tuesday night, we’d been up the Grindley Locks and our first staircase for years, and met a lovely couple, Trev and Jenny on their boat the Life of Riley. Sitting on the towpath sharing a drink and a good conversation in the evening is part of canal life.

And the Llangollen is charming and beautiful, as well as a bit of a challenge with its twists, narrow bridges and blind bends. There are plenty of really beautiful places to moor – with rings mostly – and we haven’t had a day when we haven’t passed a water point. They seem to breed on the banks, there are four in a line at the top of the Grindley Locks. Plus we keep seeing people we know. We passed Fran and Rich on Constanze who YouTube as Floating Our Boat. They feel like old friends to us, although we don’t know each other in real life. I shouted as much in passing, and Rich replied: “No, but we know your boat”. I’m wondering how?

Beautiful Blake Mere

Now, you might wonder how we get the diesel to power the boat? Usually we drive up to a fuel pump in a marina, just like taking the car to the garage. But sometimes the fuel comes to us. There are fuel boats and other roving traders on the canal, which all add to the flavour. Yesterday in Ellesmere Martyn heard a put-puttering coming up the canal behind us and flagged down a fuel boat.

£5 of 4 star please. Those were the days

While Richard filled up Beau Romer I had a lovely chat with Ruth on the butty behind. A butty is an unpowered boat, so it always makes a pair and is towed along behind a powered one. They’ve been plying their trade on the canals for 12 years. It must be hard work, but Jenny says Richard used to be a lorry driver, but really he just likes messing around on boats. We’re very happy to support them and their diesel was considerably cheaper than the marina just a couple of hundred yards down the cut (which was full of returning hire boats – I’ll write about them some other time).

Ruth also sells her canal art

So onwards. By the next time I sit down to write we will have crossed the Pontywhatsit aqueduct. Or fallen over the edge. I like to leave the blog on a literal cliffhanger.

Hail Fellows, Well Met

So. Narrow locks.

From the helmsman’s perspective, they look horrendous. Narrow – obviously – so tricky to enter and exit. And they are fierce! No matter how gently you, as the lock keeper, raise the paddles, the water comes gushing in towards the back of the chamber. It bounces off the rear gates and the undercurrent then pushes the boat forward – hard. To make sure the boat doesn’t bang into the lock gates at the other end the helmsman has to keep it in reverse gear, all the time, and rely on the lockie not to be too gung-ho about the process. It looks terrifying, especially as the first ones we’ve been through have all been really deep. I haven’t been brave enough to take the tiller yet, but I will.

Turbulent water in our first narrow lock

It’s a lot easier if you’re the one with the windlass. They’re like toy locks compared to the big double ones we’re used to. The bottom gates are so light you can practically move them one-handed, and there’s only one top gate – bliss!

Leaving Middlewich yesterday, we turned right onto the Wardle Canal. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the shortest canal in the country at 154 feet. It’s there only so the Trent and Mersey could control the junction. Canal operating in the 19th Century was a jealous and lucrative business. After that short stub and its lock we were on the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. And we hadn’t gone very far when we spotted a very familiar boat belonging to Mark and Debbie. Their YouTube Vlog, Well Deck Diaries, is one we’ve watched since they started and here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf37tVqAqZtXWRgxQCG1Ahw

We stopped, star-struck, and went to say hello. Next time I will take beer, and photographs.

The West Coast Main Line crosses the Middlewich Branch. Sadly there are no traaaains, but if you look closely you might spot a couple of socially-distanced herons

Our impressions of the Middlewich Branch are that it’s very pretty, very rural, very windy and with bridge holes so narrow they made our eyes water. We couldn’t help but instinctively breathe in as we slid through them, both shouting instructions at whoever happened to have the tiller whether they were needed or not.

A tight squeeze
And another. They’re ALL like this, apart from the ones that also throw in a bend for good measure

We found a lovely wild mooring last night and slept like logs.

Misty morning mooring. Autumn is on the way

This morning we went on a goose hunt. We knew we’d be passing Venetian Marina, and that’s where David Bramley, who we know from #boatsthattweet on Twitter, lives on NB Snowgoose. Dave collects YouTube vloggers’ mugs and sightings of Bickerstaffe boats. We’d have hated to disappoint him. He’s also well known for helping boaters through Cholmondeston Lock. This time I was really happy to return the favour.

Snowgoose in Cholmondeston Lock

After meeting Dave we left the Middlewich Branch and enjoyed a short cruise on the Shropshire Union Canal. It’s different again, wide and welcoming. We’re learning every canal has its own particular flavour. All too soon we turned right onto the Llangollen Canal. It has the reputation of being crowded and the domain of hire boats with incompetent crews playing dodgem cars. So far we haven’t met a hire boat whose crew don’t seem to know exactly what they’re doing. I wonder what challenges the Llangollen Canal has in store for us?

Salt of the Earth

When you sprinkle salt on your fish and chips do you ever think much about it? I know the word “salary” comes from salt (not that I have a salary any more) but I never considered how salt gets on the table. Here in this part of Cheshire, you can’t get away from salt. Even the names of the local towns reflect the history of salt manufacturing; Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich. During the Triassic period salt deposits formed, and now wild brine springs bubble up from deep underground. The Romans discovered them and started commercial salt production locally.

Lion Salt Works

Lion Salt Works at Marston on the banks of the Trent and Mersey was the last factory in this country producing salt by evaporating brine in enormous iron pans. The Salt Works is now a museum, and Colin, Debbie, Martyn and I went to investigate. It’s a little ramshackle because all the buildings were made of wood and not designed to last, but it’s fascinating. It must have been hellish working there; men stripped to the waist skimming the salt off the boiling pans, scooping it into moulds and moving heavy blocks around. It was hard, physical work in dangerous conditions with constant heat, steam, and the tang of salt in the air. And the canal carried the finished product to its final destination.

The Salt Works only closed in 1986, which seems so recent. Or is it just that I’m old?

Something’s wrong here – a pub with no beer! And apparently they’re all smiling

We waved Colin and Debbie off and on their merry way towards Fettlers Wharf and home on Thursday morning.

Au revoir Woody

Then we walked back up the canal towards Anderton to Marbury Country Park. Marbury Hall, the grand house that once stood there, was demolished in 1968 (dry rot apparently), but the grounds are still very tranquil.

Steps leading to a ghost house
Humongous fungus

They built most of the bridges crossing the canal around here with arches. Now they’re nearly all flat-topped because of ground subsidence caused by the salt mining. It’s even worse for houses and other buildings and locally the canal has breached because of it.

Marbury Hall Bridge No 196 – complete with cracks

On Friday we decided three nights in one place was quite enough and set off for Middlewich. On the way we crossed the Croxton Aqueduct. It was just wide enough for the boat. We’re not on broad canals any more! The weird thing was because it was so shallow it affected how much water the propeller could shift, so we went over it at a snail’s pace. I even had time to jump off and take photos.

Breathe in Beau

Last night we moored in Middlewich. It’s a town that’s well-known on the canals and has a branch of the Shropshire Union Canal named after it. So I expected a big urban metropolis and was surprised to discover it’s a quaint little town with one main street. That said, It’s got everything a boater could want; chandlers, supermarkets, water points, pubs, a post office and Amazon hub, and a canal heritage it’s proud of.

Beside the canal
I wish all bridges were so tastefully decorated

Tomorrow we’ll be off again. We’ll be going through our first narrow locks. Wish us luck.