Friday, 29 August 2014

Trent & Mersey Canal. Coventry Canal. Fradley to Huddlesford.

Well, dear Reader, over the last month or so a lot of plans have been laid and lot of important things have happened, and despite the inherent unreliability of both the British weather and the British themselves, everything has gone like clockwork. We think this is something to be celebrated.

First there was Chloe and Shandy’s wedding in Antrim.

We’d decided to make a holiday of it and have a few days either side, so we sailed from Holyhead overnight on the Monday before the do. Before that, however, we drove over to Chloe’s Grandparents’ house near Stowmarket to pick up the wedding cake that Granny had made, using Granny’s delicious fruit cake recipe, and that Granny’s friend had beautifully decorated with a garland of sugar flowers cascading gracefully down the three tiers.
We placed the boxes containing the cakes and the flowers, along with a big gold cake plinth, very carefully on top of all the camping gear in the back of the car and waved goodbye. Our mission was simple, but involved driving almost the entire length of both the notorious A14 and the equally horrible A55 whilst trying very hard not to think about the responsibility of it all or, indeed the consequences of failure. (Images of a stand-in cake in the form of Sponge-bob Square Pants, because that’s all that Antrim Morrison’s had on the shelf, were shoved firmly to the back of our minds.) As our route took us within spitting distance of the boat we’d factored in a rest stop to say goodbye to Legend and to our friend John who was looking after it for us. We gave him a comprehensive rundown regarding on-board systems operation, or to put it more simply, showed him how to change the loo and start the genny.

We managed to get a couple of hours kip on the ferry, and the drive from Dublin up to Belfast was a breeze, but it was a weary pair of travellers who turned up on Kevin and Pauline’s doorstep 24 hours after leaving the boat the day before. The cake, happily, was perfect.
No Sponge-bob for this wedding!

The rest of the wedding was perfect as well; the ceremony was in Antrim Castle Gardens
and the reception was at Ballymena Rugby Club in an amazing triple tipi.
Dave looked very smart and very proud walking his daughter down the aisle.
And Ann-Marie looked gorgeous as well.
In the days afterwards we had a very small tour of the top right hand corner of Ireland, and if that’s anything to go by, (and everyone assures us that it is) we’re going to love the rest of it. Now our daughter and new son-in-law live there we’ll be regular visitors and intend to make the most of every trip.

After such a hectic time away it was lovely to get back to our calm little boat.  John had watered all the plants and left the place spotless so we were able to chill and do nothing for a whole day. Bliss.

Our next move was to Fradley where we stopped for a week above the locks. Fradley is one of the more popular spots on the waterways; not only is it the junction between the T&M and the Coventry canals, but there’s also a CRT office, a caravan site, a famous pub, a cafĂ© and a flight of locks. It’s always busy. It's busy when the rest of the network is deserted and it's positively chaotic when the weather’s good and the kids are off school. This makes it a really great place for boat - or more accurately - boater watching. By the third week Granny and Granddad are questioning their sanity, and the idea of doing the Coventry ring with the grandkids is rapidly losing its appeal. They’re seriously considering sneaking them into a young offender’s institute in the hope that no-one will notice until it’s too late, when they come round a corner and there before them is Fradley junction and a four hour queue. It kept us amused all week. With this in mind we made a seamless departure down the locks and onto the Coventry at about 8am. Even then there were three boats coming up; no doubt all with the same idea as us!

After filling up with water we carried on down the Coventry to Huddlesford Junction where there was a very convenient car park and some very safe looking moorings. As we would be leaving Legend there for a while we tied proper knots in the mooring lines and put the bird table up. Huddlesford Junction hasn’t really been a junction for sixty years or more. It used to be where the Wyrley and Essington Canal departed from the Coventry and wound its way up through more than 30 locks to the BCN and eventually the top of the Wolverhampton flight. Sadly the section between here and Ogley Junction was closed in the 1950s; the remaining quarter of a mile or so still in water is now used for private moorings. Happily, under the more relevant name of the Lichfield Canal, the derelict part is subject of a very energetic and quite well advanced restoration scheme.
There’s a lot to do.

There's a railway line to get under and a several roads to cross.
A new section of canal to cut to avoid a housing estate. 
But there’s a lot already done.

When it’s complete it will make a very useful cruising ring and a short-cut to Wolverhampton and Birmingham. We have every hope that when we come back up this way again (10 years is our estimate for a return trip) if it’s not finished it won’t be far off.

On our trip away from the boat this time we were in Mate Helping Mode. First stop was John’s in Woodlesford for a de-brief on boat sitting. And cake. Very nice cake. After that we went to Kate and David’s in Keighley. They’ve bought a Mercedes Vito van which they’re going to convert to a camper.
Before all the insulating and furniture building that will ensue at a later date, the first job was to fit the pop-up roof which David had bought on-line. Dave had agreed to help him fit it, or to put it another way, cut a large hole in the top of a perfectly serviceable white van, which, unless the fitment of the pop-top was successful, rendered it worthless. No pressure then. Despite it being a quality piece of kit and very well made there was a dire lack of understandable instructions, so there was a good deal of ‘measure twice, cut once’ with extra measuring on the side.
When the boys were absolutely sure it was all in the right place and at the right angle Dave climbed up with a jigsaw. When he’d completed the jigsaw he cut a hole in the roof with an angle grinder. Boom Tish. Sorry.
After that they positioned the supports and tensioned the canvas and fixed it all in position. This is the finished result.
Obviously there’s still a long way to go but it makes the rest of the conversion seem achievable.
From Keighley we drove to Gorefield in Cambridgeshire where Glen, Steve and Holly live, to look after their menagerie while they were on holiday in the Pyrenees. We’ve had plenty of experience with chickens, ducks, cats and dogs so that was no problem; it was the ponies and goats that we were a bit apprehensive about. Glen had left us four pages of very comprehensive and very useful instructions, but it was still a short, steep learning curve. On day one the goats ate the ponies’ tea, on day two we woke up to find a pony in the garden and then the ponies ate the goats' breakfast, but after that we all settled down and had a very amiable week.
Even the goat/rose bush incident did little to spoil the fun. By the end of the week we were well into the routine and Dave and Bart-the-pony had a bit of a thing going on.
When Glen, Steve and Holly came back we gave up our role as staff and stayed for a couple more nights as guests to help celebrate Steve’s birthday along with a few of their other friends. We had a smashing barbeque followed by an evening of classic films. Predictably “Airplane” went down a storm – we all joined in with choruses of “Don’t call me Shirley.” and “It’s a big building where doctors work, but that’s not important right now.” However the mixed family audience concluded that, with hindsight “Midnight Cowboy” was, perhaps, a seedy bus-ride too far.  Never mind, it was an excellent evening.

Before we’d left Legend, we’d taken measures to stop the plants drying out with, we found on our return, varying degrees of success. After lots of soaking and a good deal of pruning we put our stunted collection of withered foliage back on the roof and hoped that it would get better soon.
What won’t get better soon is the log burner. Sometime between January when we had our Boat Safety Examination and August when Dave deciding to apply some stove blacking, this happened.
We think the sequence of events went something like this; when we had the leak in the back boiler last year, the water got into the rope seals between the cast iron panels. Then when we stopped using it in spring rust developed and swelled the joints resulting, when the pressure got too much, in a crack in the bottom right hand corner.

We’re not sure what to do about it. You can’t have a BSC with a stove that’s been welded up, no matter how well it’s been done, so obviously at some time we’re going to have to have a new one. The questions are when and what. It doesn’t leak (we’ve tested it and the crack is below the firebox meaning that even if wasn’t air-tight it would draw in rather than leak out) so we’ll probably hang on till next year, but do we replace it with another Morso Squirrel or with something cheaper? Unfortunately anything else will require re-aligning both the chimney and the plumbing (that’s if we can find anything that small with a back boiler) so we’re reluctantly coming to the conclusion that we’ll end up biting the bullet and shelling out the fat end of £700 for the genuine article. Hey ho, at least we’ll have a nearly new stainless steel back boiler to fit in it.   

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Caldon Canal. Trent and Mersey Canal. Froghall to Rugeley.

Eventually we had to take our boat away from the beautiful Froghall Basin and back to the real world.
This time we filled the water tank before we went through the tunnel so we could use the motor and avoid any undesirable Ann-Marie/very large spider conflicts. Once on the other side we washed the roof,
then put it all back together,
apart from the big tubs which have broad beans, runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes and lettuce in them and are too big to go under most bridges, never mind tunnels. While we’re boating they get humped into the well deck along with the raspberry canes. Next year we’re going to try and get the raspberries to shrub out sideways.
On our way up to Consell Forge we did our bit for the greater good by pruning back an overhanging branch and cleaning an information sign. It’s not often that we’re in the right place at the right time to join in with volunteer work parties so we’re always on the lookout for an opportunity to contribute something towards the upkeep of the waterways.  We stopped for a couple of nights right outside the Black Lion. It was a lovely mooring, made all the better by the Churnett Valley Railway going right past the pub, and the pub having very nice beer.
Elizabeth brought her daughter Sarah along for the day for some EOTAS which, that day, meant learning about canal locks and water pressure and river flow and invasive plants and cherry buns. The cherry buns lesson will no doubt be remembered long after all thoughts of hydraulic equilibrium and the spread of Himalayan Balsam have faded, and so it should.

We boated with them up to Cheddleton, which has also got a pretty railway station,
then the next day, retraced our steps up to Hazelhurst Junction where we reversed back to the lovely moorings on the Leek Branch.
Dave made good use of the wide towpath and got the new window frames finished off. They’re all done and in now, and very smart they look too. While we were waiting for the last coat of varnish to dry, we thought that as we had all this outside space, it would be a good idea to tidy up the well deck and give the inside walls a lick of paint. As is the way of things, this soon developed into completely emptying the well deck, attacking the floor with the wire brush attachment on the grinder
and repainting the whole thing.
It was hard work and Dave looked a bit like a coal miner at the end of it, but it was all worth it. We celebrated with a towpath barbeque,
finished off with a marshmallow on a stick.
It’s a good life.

Despite it only being hearsay, we took heed of the warnings about the stretch of waterway below Milton, moored up just before engine lock at Stockton Brook and then went straight  back to Etruria in one go. When we got there David and Kate joined us for the weekend. After one night outside the museum which, it has to be said, got a little out of hand,
and didn't finish till about 3am, we said goodbye to the beautiful Caldon Canal and, joining the Trent and Mersey again, set off down the locks and out of the urban sprawl. The boys had a really interesting time leaving Stoke as both of them used to drive trucks through there on a regular basis, in fact David still does, and it was very strange to see familiar landmarks go slowly by from a lot lower down. As you drive through Stoke on the A500 and the A38 you are hardly aware of the canal, but it’s right there next to the road for a lot of the way.

We had one night at Trentham near the Wedgewood factory then moved on down the lovely Measham locks to Stone.
Kate got to see a Kingfisher for the first time and it was a really good one; in bright sunshine with its colours all sparkly, it flew ahead of the boat straight down the middle of the cut then perched on a branch till we caught up.  At Stone we dropped through the locks to the water point where David and Kate left us to go home. That included the Stone Bottom Lock which is in the middle of the Star Inn beer garden, and provides passing boat crews with the opportunity to show off their locking technique. Or not, as the case may be. No-one booed or threw rotten fruit at us, so we’ll call that a success.

Just as we’d finished on the water point, and with perfect timing, a boat pulled out of one of the two mooring spots and we were able to nab it.
While we were near a chandlery, Dave got some high temperature stove paint for the Squirrel. We need to get on with that fairly soon, but  It’s tricky; you need to cure the paint after you’ve applied it by lighting small fires just using kindling. Trouble is, at the moment even a small fire is going to be stifling, so timing is everything.
We carried on down the T&M, past the very grand Salt Bridge,
stopping for one night at Burston then mooring up behind the Saracen’s Head in Weston-upon-Trent.

That was where we’d chosen to leave Legend for a long weekend while we went to the Ely Folk Festival. This is the one bash we try to get to every year; it coincides with our wedding anniversary and it’s a fabulous friendly little festival in one of our favorite cities. The organisers have managed to resist the temptation to expand, but they still attract some big names. Steve Knightley was followed by Breabach on Saturday, and Eddi Reader topped the bill on Sunday. Other stuff that made it a terrific weekend were Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Vin Garbutt and our favourite act in the world; The Gerry Colvin Band. For the first time ever, at  1am, we were awake and dancing at the end of the Friday night ceilidh. Loads of our friends were there; all of Bourne Borderers, who were performing around the city and at the festival site, as well as Glen, Holly and Ann from Pig Dyke Molly, who weren’t. Well, no more than usual. We did a Morris workshop with the rather scary Witchmen and almost got it right. It felt good to be bashing sticks with each other again. It had been raining for a few days before the start so we weren’t allowed to take cars onto the camping field and had to put all our stuff into wheelie bins or wheelbarrows, however the weather wasn’t bad on the whole. There was the odd thundery shower, (including one that came bucketing down just when we were all singing along to Steve Knightly’s “Rain”, which was amazing,)  but the field survived and there wasn’t that much mud.  In-between, the sun came out and the arena filled up with happy smiling people.
Perfect Ely.
After we’d barrowed our stuff back to the car and said goodbye to all our mates, we came back to Weston. On the journey home we’d been debating whether or not to move the boat when we got back, and settled on not doing. However karma had different ideas. Just as we were giving the plants a good watering we got a text from Gordon and Helena on Mandakini; another couple we met on our Rippon adventure last year. They were just a bit further down the T&M, moored up at Great Haywood and were going to be turning onto the Staffs and Worcester next. We didn’t want to miss them so we pulled the pins and headed their way. It was really good to catch up; we went to the pub and had a brilliant evening.
If that wasn’t coincidence enough the next day we were walking back to the boat and came across Shirley and Peter who were with us on our return crossing on the Ribble Estuary, and who we’d last seen at Appley Bridge on the L&L. We’ve met some fabulous people since we started this boating malarkey and it’s really cool when your paths cross in unexpected places.

Right next to the canal at Great Haywood Essex Bridge,

It's a packhorse bridge over the River Trent and very well preserved.

From Great Haywood we went to Rugeley, stopping at Wolesley Bridge for a walk around the nature reserve, which was rather lovely.

After one night next to the Aqueduct over the Trent,
(which is getting rather big now; a little bit further on the T&M joins the river for a stretch, but we’re turning off before that onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley Junction) we had a few days on the visitor moorings in Rugeley; not our usual habitat, it must be said, but quite nice all the same. It got a bit hairy the second night we were there, there was a thunderstorm and at around 3am a big branch fell off a chestnut tree right next to us. With the car parked next to the boat it’s very useful for our immediate adventures; very shortly were going away for 10 days to Ireland for Chloe and Shandy’s wedding in Antrim. John is coming to boat-sit for us and we’ve picked out a tranquil little spot where we think he’ll be happy, but at the moment we’re feverishly ticking things off lists. All we have to do before we sail is somehow shoehorn all ours and Anne’s and Anne’s family’s camping gear into the car, along with a load of stuff we’ve got for the wedding.

Oh yes, and the wedding cake. Mustn’t forget that.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Caldon Canal. Leek to Froghall

One week within walking distance of a Morrisons was quite enough, so we fired up the Lister once more, chugged back through the Leek tunnel to Hazelhurst and dropped down the three locks onto the main line and then went under the aqueduct that we’d just gone over.
The Caldon got better and better as we wound our way further down the Churnet valley towards the terminus at Froghall Basin.  We stopped at Cheddleton,
where there is a restored water powered flint mill.
Flints used to be shipped round the coast from Devon and Cornwall up to Liverpool where they were transferred to narrowboats and brought along the T&M. At Cheddleton they were crushed into slurry, baked into blocks and loaded back onto the boats for onward transport to the potteries in Stoke where the powder was mixed into the clay to improve the durability of ceramic goods as they were fired.
It’s a fascinating place; both the wheels work and there’s lots to look at.

The canal joined the river for about a mile and a half just before Consall Forge.
After the weir the river, railway and canal were all crammed into the little valley and the cut was very narrow; at one point we found ourselves underneath the cantilevered station platform and waiting room.
At Flint Mill Lock we left the river section and as we came out of the bottom gates we went through this height gauge.
This is for the Froghall Tunnel which is a few hundred yards before the end of the canal. Although there is room to turn a 72’ boat right at the end, If your boat is over 60 foot long and doesn’t fit under here you have to reverse back through the lock and turn round, as there is nowhere wide enough to wind between here and the tunnel.
We reckoned we’d be ok.

We stopped overnight on the 24hr moorings before the tunnel, which is where most people tick the “Caldon Canal” box, turn round, and head back to their marina. We had other plans. The next morning we transformed our floating garden
Into low profile mode.
All the stuff that normally lives on the roof had to be found a home inside, so it was a bit cramped.
We’d forgotten to fill the water tank at the last tap we’d passed, so we knew that although we could get through a tighter squeeze than most boats due to having sloping sides and inboard hand rails, we weren’t as low as we could have been. We also knew from Brian and Ann Marie that there’s a bit of leeway on the gauge, and we’d had a look through, so we were feeling fairly confident as we went up to the tunnel entrance.  We went in with the engine off and handed the boat through, which is like legging, only we used our hands. That way, if it looked like we were going to get stuck, we’d be going slowly enough to stop and back out without any trouble. Ann-Marie was at the front just behind the headlight, which gave her a close-up view of all the spiders, but she was a very, very brave girl and carried on. It was close, but we got all the way to the other end without a scrape.
You can just see the light at the other end in the photo.
We did the last bit of the Caldon feeling very smug with big grins on our faces.
At the end of the Caldon there was right turn into one of the least used locks on the system.  
At the bottom of which is this.
This is actually the pound between the first and second locks on the Uttoxeter Branch of the Caldon Canal, however lock 2, together with all subsequent locks and waterway no longer exist. The mileposts all along the Caldon tell you the distance to Uttoxeter; about 14 miles further on, but in 1850 the rest of it disappeared under the tracks that now carry the Churnet Valley Railway. Happily, the first lock and this bit remain as a beautiful but - because of the tunnel - terribly underused visitor mooring basin. There are pontoon moorings, a services block and picnic tables. There’s a 7 day maximum; we stayed for as long as we could, and in that time only 4 other boats came to visit, one of which has a local boat with home-made and well worn wooden guards on the front corners. 

Wiltz was having his birthday party at the Trout Inn at Lechlade at the weekend, so we left the boat at Froghall and went down south for the night. It was a long drive, but worth it; the whole Wiltz clan was there, which of course meant lots of George cuddles for Ann-Marie. The following morning Mum and Dad came over to the campsite, with Karen and Lauren. We had a barbeque lunch in the sunshine which included an impromptu fly-by from a couple of Stealth Bombers from nearby RAF Fairford.

Back at the boat, we had visits from Chloe and Anne, both of who thought we had the poshest mooring they’d ever seen. Rather than putting all the flowers back on the roof we spread them out on the pontoon and had a garden for a week.
Dave continued with the new window frames and  in-between coats of varnish we managed to fit in a walk to Consall Forge and up the Devil’s Staircase; a flight of 200 odd steps which wind up the hill behind the pub.
As all the boxes,  planters and pallets  were off the roof and in pieces we took the opportunity to give the whole lot a coat of wood preserver. They all look very smart now.

Thanks to Chloe and a friend of hers we also had a Grand Day Out in Manchester.  We were offered the chance of a night in a 5 star city centre hotel, including use of the pool, sauna and gym, and as much of what Trip Advisor call the Best Breakfast in Town - all for free. We went to China Town and had Sushi for dinner,
then took a bottle of red back to the room where we drank half of it in the bath and the other half while lying on a bed that was wider than our boat.
Pure decadence! In the morning we had an hour in the pool and the sauna then a 2 hour breakfast including, amongst other things, fruit, DIY muesli, pastries, cheese, ham and some of the yummiest sausages we’ve ever had.
This was the view from our room. 
We came home feeling very spoilt and very lucky.