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: 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?