Marooned in Middlewich

Following a boat through Barnton Tunnel

Owning a boat can be the most frustrating experience ever. Perhaps we’re just unlucky, but a whole slew of things seem to be going wrong at the moment. First there was the washing machine going wrong, then a leaking window we had fixed in Wigan. The brain of our solar panels appears to be doing something downright odd and I think another of our windows is leaking. The most bizarre problem has been our chimney. Periodically it has to be resealed. Boats bump into immovable structures and boats also get bumped. Seals crack, leak and need replacement. Somehow our chimney stack got sealed to the collar, and we are fairly certain it wasn’t at our hands; let’s leave it at that. The chimney stack had to come down or we would come a cropper going through tunnels and under the low bridges in this salt-producing area. To get it off Martyn literally had to cut and peel the outer skin of the chimney back like a banana. It took him all of Saturday morning with a borrowed Dremmel multi tool to fix that and we are waiting for delivery of a new chimney stack. The old one is still usable, it just isn’t very pretty.

Wincham Wharf, where of course in the litter of boats I had to meet someone coming the opposite way

On Saturday afternoon and on Sunday we cruised from Daresbury to Middlewich, straight past the Anderton Boat Lift for once. We moored just before Middlewich Big Lock, the last double we’ll encounter for a while. I had an appointment out of town on Monday, so we didn’t move until Tuesday morning, and we didn’t get very far, only to King’s Lock Chandlery where we had an appointment with a mechanic. The prop shaft developed a leak, and the remedy was to replace the seal. See, at the moment it never rains but it pours. We sat at the junction between the Trent and Mersey and the Middlewich Arm of the Shropshire Union Canal all Monday afternoon watching the shenanigans at the junction and people negotiating the two nearby locks. Very entertaining it was, but we ended Monday still in Middlewich, although a mile from where we started that morning.

The first time we passed this way in 2020 we stopped here to remove our side fenders, panicking that we would get stuck on the narrow Croxton Aqueduct

I think I’ve said before that Middlewich surprised me because it’s quite a major canal junction but a small town. It’s an old settlement though. This visit I discovered it has a Roman fort, although when I went hunting it’s the most underwhelming one I’ve ever seen with only the geophysics survey revealing what is beneath. An empty field doesn’t warrant a photo! Roman Middlewich was called Salinae Cornoviorvm, named for the salt workings and for the local tribe.

Cruising the shortest canal in the country and into Wardle Lock

Finally yesterday we got out of Middlewich and onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal which joins the Shroppie and the Trent and Mersey. It was extremely windy, so much so we were cruising down the canal diagonally some of the time, a move known as crabbing. Last night we moored up and for one night only linked up with our friends Trev and Jenny and the lovely Ralf who was so very pleased to see us. A good time was had by all I think, at least if my headache this morning is anything to go by, but I have no photos to remember it by. Perhaps that’s just as well!

A lovely day to be in Minshull Lock

Yes, we are going to Bristol, but we didn’t want to take the most direct route down the Trent and Mersey. We did that last year and we like a little variety. We intend going down the Shropshire Union, and cutting across on The Staffs and Worcester, a new canal to us.

Meeting Tony and Gill on Golden Girl, just outside The Lion Salt Works


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!

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.

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:

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?