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

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.

The end of the Bridgewater

There’s very tasty ice cream in Dunham Massey, if you walk 3 miles from the canal to get it.

Don’t ask me why the cone is black

Although we were in a nice spot we had to move. As usual, we needed water. Most of the canals and rivers in England are owned and maintained by the Canal and River Trust. The Bridgwater is privately owned. We don’t have a licence for it, so we can only cruise on it for seven days at a stretch, with no return in 28 days, or we have to pay an additional fee. As we can’t linger on Sunday we pulled out our mooring pins and set off.

Once through urban Manchester, the Bridgewater is very pretty indeed. It’s wide and quite rural. We noticed lots of cabin cruisers buzzing up and down, far more than we’re used to seeing on CRT waters. Sadly a lot of them are a little tatty. Perhaps well-loved is a better description. I was spurred on to give Beau Romer a good wash!

No-one likes to see this

On Sunday night we stayed in Lymm. It’s a pretty village where the houses come right down to the canal. There’s a Sainsburys supermarket there, very useful. It’s also busy and we ended up mooring under a tree. That’s no good for getting solar power to charge the batteries.

Lymm Bridge is very quaint

We were determined to complete our cruise on the Bridgewater on Monday. We braced ourselves for our first tunnel. The Preston Brook Tunnel is 1239 yards long, and it’s the first one-way tunnel we’ve ever come across. Martyn’s an impressive helmsman – he didn’t touch the sides once. I don’t like tunnels. They’re creepy, they drip, and they are never straight.

Emerging triumphant from the gloom

The Trent and Mersey is different from the lovely wide canals we’d been cruising. It’s narrower, twistier, and it has more encroaching vegetation. So far it’s really rural until suddenly it isn’t and there’s a lot of visible industrial activity, especially around the Anderton Boat Lift.

Closing in on a familar vessel

We had a rendezvous with Colin, Debbie and their adorable Chihuahuas, Cyril and Gladys. Their narrowboat, Woody, is another Bickerstaffe boat. They launched Woody in February and have been a great help to us as we get to grips with our new lifestyle. I’m not saying we drank a lot of wine last night, but the evening ended with Martyn flat on his back on the towpath mumbling something about just getting him a pillow and leaving him there!

And I need to make a correction. Wigan isn’t a desert at all. James, the extremely helpful volunteer lockkeeper from the Rufford Branch, (time all ascents and descents for Monday when he’s on duty) sent me a message on Twitter. The water point is just after the CRT pontoon and has now been painted blue. So we’re sorted for the return trip. Thank you James.