2015 08 30 Newsletter – A cruise to Llangollen: Stoke to Ellesmere

Discretion is the better part of valour. Rather than spend another night moored next to Westport Lake on the north western outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, and suffer the unwanted attention of the small number of brain dead youth who like to regularly torment passing boaters who have the cheek to moor on “their” patch, on a rainy Sunday afternoon I cruised for half an hour before mooring close to the entrance of Harecastle tunnel.

Harecastle tunnel entrance

Harecastle tunnel entrance

The decision was a wise one. I was able to fill my nearly empty water tank then moor second in the queue for the tunnel passage the following morning. I had a quick chat with the tunnel keeper before he signed off for the day. I asked him about the tragic death of what I understood to be a lone boater last year.

The keeper told me that the male boater had been accompanied by his wife. The inquest determined that the male boater had banged his head on the very low roof in the centre of the tunnel and fallen into the water. His wife panicked and thrust the boat into reverse to stop the craft and allow him to climb on board. Tragically for both, the boat moved over him fatally injuring him with the propeller.

The keeper returned at 7.30am to turn on the enormous and very noisy tunnel fans, briefed the crew of the hire boat in front of me, then me and finally the crew of a third boat which arrived just as we were about to set off.

He checked our lights and horns, told us how to alert the keepers either end in case of an accident and breakdown, emphasised the importance of maintaining normal cruising speed inside the tunnel to reduce the likelihood of hitting the uneven tunnel sides, and told us repeatedly to stand within the cabin’s profile and to keep a very close eye on the low tunnel roof, especially in the tunnel’s centre section.

Once in the tunnel I wondered what all the fuss was about. The channel was fourteen feet wide and as high as any other tunnel I’ve been through. I cruised along quite happily without a care in the world until I noticed a rocky outcrop jutting several feet into the channel. If I had been anywhere other than dead centre, there would have been a very expensive tear in my cratch cover, nasty scratches down my cabin sides and two broken fender hangers.

After the first outcrop, I kept an eye out for any more. There were several but forewarned is forearmed so they weren’t a problem, which is just as well because I had to focus on avoiding the tunnel roof. At 5’10” I’m not a very tall boater but the roof looked very, very close. Because I’m stupid, I raised my hand above my head to find out how close. The sudden sharp pain and missing skin from my knuckles told me all I needed to know so I spent several hundred metres cruising at full speed with my head almost resting on the hatch in front of me to make sure that my head didn’t suffer the same fate as my hand.

All the time I kept an eye out for the ghostly and headless apparition of the wonderfully named but unfortunately murdered Kit Crewbucket. Kit apparently ate her jewels to hide them from the boatman she and her husband were travelling with. The boatman cut off her head to get to the jewels, then dumper her in the cut. I don’t believe in ghosts so Kit must have been saving herself for someone who does.

The orange water of Harecastle tunnel's north entrance

The orange water of Harecastle tunnel’s north entrance

After a quarter of a mile, the jagged rocks of the low roof was replaced by higher, smoother and much safer bricks and after another twenty minute’s effortless cruising I was spat out of the north entrance with its bright orange water courtesy of local mining.

After sailing past Hardings Wood Junction and the entrance to the Macclesfield canal I reached the first of twenty six locks at Red Bull descending over two hundred and twenty feet to Wheelock and the Cheshire Plain. The series of locks is known as “Heartbreak Hill”

Far from breaking my heart, the day’s cruise uplifted it. The far reaching views of gentle Cheshire farmland are beautiful, especially after a day spent negotiating Stoke’s industrial backside.

Many of the locks on this flight are duplicated which means that there are two narrow locks in tandem. You can use either side to go up or down which helps speed up the flight considerably. Unfortunately at least half a dozen of them are broken, most obviously so.

CRT contractors were working on one of the obviously inaccessible locks. I can’t remember which, they all passed in a bit of a blur, but I think it was Hall’s lock. The two guys were erecting a nine feet tall, unmissable steel sign announcing that the lock was closed, even though the lock chamber itself was hidden behind impenetrable undergrowth. I think even the most intellectually challenged boater would have been able to work that one out.

Can anyone spot a lock?

Can anyone spot a lock?

Beneath the broken lock six boats waited for their turn to ascend. The lead boat had been waiting for just over an hour. The longest I waited at a lock all day was five minutes. Lucky me.

At Rode Heath at midday with eleven locks down and fifteen to go I stopped for some much needed lunch by some rustic picnic tables overlooking a beguiling valley. Rode Heath is a pretty little water side village with many of the houses facing the canal.

After another hour or so and half a dozen locks I passed under a hectic M6 at Hassall Green. I passed over these locks many a time in a previous life, usually on a Friday night two hours into a painful three hour journey in rush hour traffic from my Warwickshire home to my mother in law’s house in Leyland. On this occasion I was fourteen days into a sixty day cruise at a far gentler and more relaxing pace.

A further eighty feet drop through the six locks of the Wheelock flight and a quick stop at the CRT rubbish disposal point on the outskirts of the village, feeling rather jaded after ten active cruising hours, I looked for the first convenient place to stop.

It wasn’t my favourite mooring ever. I had to dig through dense nettles to uncover the Armco rail on one side, and peer through dense shrubbery on the other to catch a glimpse of cows and open fields, but it was a secure mooring on reasonably deep water, so I was happy.

I was happy until I was part way through cooking my evening meal. I smelled something unwholesome and unpleasant, like rotting meat. I sniffed the meat I was about to cook, then examined the fridge contents. Nothing offensive there at all so I was at a loss until I glanced at my Pearson’s guide during dinner and discovered the stench’s source. I was moored downwind of Wheelock sewage works. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

On Tuesday morning, in no particular rush to go anywhere at all, apart from as far away from the sewage plant as possible, I cruised sedately along my final five miles of the Trent and Mersey canal towards a very pleasant surprise at Booth Lane top lock.

An impressively large and striking cormorant stood on the balance beam, wings spread wide to dry. As I pulled on to the lock landing, the bird launched itself into the air and flew inches above my head to a quieter roost further down the canal.

Once through King’s lock, I waited last in line of three boats waiting to make the turn onto the Shropshire Union Middlewich Branch and straight into Wardle lock.

I stopped for the day almost immediately on visitor moorings close to the town centre and a Tesco store. I stocked up with enough food for a week, then returned to the boat to place an order with Tesco Direct.

I have a bit of a problem with my composting toilet. The toilet itself is working perfectly. Three months after having it fitted I’m still thrilled with it. It’s easy to use, ordour free, apart from a small problem created by me which I’ll tell you about in a minute, and easy to empty… providing you have the right tools.

I purchased a “genuine” army folding spade for burying the toilet’s solid waste. If this was a genuine and effective soldier’s spade, I have to assume that they did most of their soldiering in a child’s sandpit. The spade bent in two the first time I tried to use it to dig a hole in clay.

I’ve been looking for a garden centre close to the canal for the last couple of weeks. There was one in Tamworth but I was focussed on getting a replacement internet dongle and topping up my depleted wine supply at the time, so I ignored the opportunity.

There hasn’t been a close enough garden centre since then so the best solution was to use the very handy service offered by Tesco. You can have anything you buy on the very comprehensive Tesco Direct web site delivered to the store of your choice by 3pm the following day. I ordered a bomb proof stainless steel Spear & Jackson stainless steel spade then settled down for a restful day’s inside and out boat cleaning.

The following afternoon I ambled along to the town’s Tesco store to pick up my spade to find that there are actually two Tesco stores in Middlewich, both with almost identical addresses. My spade, of course, had been delivered to the other store.

I needed to buy another composting toilet accessory while I was out. My toilet’s urine collector had started to whiff a bit. I called the lovely people at Hillmorton Wharf to find out why. They instantly identified the cause. I was being too thorough with my toilet cleaning.

The problem was explained to me in technical detail. I can’t for the life of me remember any of it now but the fundamental problem was that, after my daily early morning liquid container emptying session, I was rinsing the empty bottle with canal water, then leaving a little in the bottom with the expectation that the water would dilute the urine and reduce any possible smell. I was doing quite the reverse. Water and urine combine to make ammonia, I was told, so all I had to do to keep the container smell free was to empty it and fit it back to the toilet.

To undo the damage I had done, I needed to half fill the container with a mixture of hot water and white vinegar, give it a good shake, empty it and then leave it alone. Neither Tesco store sold the stuff, so I walked across town to the much larger Morrison’s store for a litre bottle.

Back on the boat, with a shiny new spade and an odour free toilet I set off mid-afternoon for a more tranquil mooring. Within half an hour I passed my first heron of the day, half an hour after that my second, and the first heron I’ve ever seen laying down. They’re very relaxed in rural Shropshire.

I stopped for the night on the sparkling and wind ruffled water of Weaver Way visitor moorings, looking down into the valley and the river Weaver beneath. A tranquil mooring barely spoiled by the occasional train thundering by on the West Coast Main Line half a mile distant.

The next morning I set off again, but my heart wasn’t in it. This is such a quiet and peaceful part of the network that mooring was much easier than cruising. I half-heartedly pushed on long enough to reach yet another perfect mooring with towpath benches close to Aqueduct marina.

On Friday I needed to cover some distance. I had arranged to meet Barry, one of last year’s discovery day guests, in Ellesmere on Saturday night seventeen locks and twenty one miles away, probably half an hour by car but eighteen hours by boat.

My second lock of the day. Cholmondesdon, was manned by the very well organised Shropshire Union Canal Society with their lock side stalls of local produce. While they helped me up through the flight I bought a jar of Welsh honey and dropped some spare coins in their collection box.

On past Barbridge Junction and a brief stop for water and rubbish and then the four locks of the Hurleston flight, the first on the Llangollen. The escape ladder on the second lock was very close to the upstream gates and out of reach unless I walked along the cratch board and launched myself at it over the turbulent water over the cill beneath, so a six feet vault out of the lock was needed while trying to avoid the lock’s slippery lichen and moss covered walls.

Two hours later after exiting Baddiley top lock I was on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from a very unhappy residential boat owner. With neck veins standing proud he screamed at me about inconsiderate boaters racing past him and how much they ruin his peaceful life.

I don’t think I cruise very quickly at all. I constantly fall short of the expected journey time in my Pearson’s guide and I know that my passing moored boats speed is less than two miles an hour. I’m on the receiving end of abuse from moored boat owners very rarely so maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t at fault on this occasion. I looked at the bow and stern mooring lines on his boat and, sure enough, both of them were too slack to hold his boat firmly in place. I left him ranting at the owner of the boat behind me and carried on.

At Wrenbury I came to the first two of many life bridges on my route to Llangollen. I was looking forward to tackling them on my own but the first manual bridge was opened for me by a crew coming towards me and the second electric road bridge by Wrenbury Mill operated by hire fleet staff as they prepared one of their crews for departure.

After a very pleasant eight hours through stunning scenery with more idyllic moorings than I could shake a stick at, I stopped for the night above Marbury lock close to the local coal and diesel boat. Unfortunately no one was home. I was down to my last two hundred and fifty litres but didn’t want to top up at any of the boat yards where I understand they aren’t keen on allowing you to self-declare.

Autumn is approaching. On Saturday morning I set off at 8.30am wearing two fleece tops and a fleece hat, but hey were off by the first lock where I met three Italian ladies on a Viking hire boat. They seemed to be struggling with the concept of passing through the lock so I helped them through that and the two which followed before meeting them again on the very small and tight lock landing beneath the Grindley flight of three locks.

They had their hire boat securely tied to all three lock landing bollards and were just leaving to do some shopping in the lock side store. They waved me on, indicating that I could go ahead of them. I had to explain that I couldn’t as I had nowhere to tie my boat while I set the lock. After a lively conversation between the three of them, they graciously agreed to move on and free the lock landing.

After these three locks was a set of three manned staircase locks and a bit of a shock for me as I passed from the bottom to the middle lock. I very slowly moved forward into the second lock chamber. In fact, I didn’t appear to be moving at all. I applied a little more throttle, then a little more, and some more, until I was just moving at full throttle.

I asked the lock keeper if there was a strong water flow through the lock. He told me that I must be caught on the shallow cill, just as my stern ground over the concrete and the boat dropped into the second pound. “You should have told me you are deep draughted. I would have let some more water in for you!” How was I to know?

On to the Whitchurch arm and another lift bridge opportunity. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I boat crew coming from Whitchurch reached the bridge ahead of me and let me through. On to the next lift bridge and an Anglo Welsh hire boat crew ahead of me let me through. Damn!

I stopped for lunch to let the hire boat crew move ahead of me so that I would have the next lift bridge to myself. With a growing sense of lift bridge anticipation I approached lift bridge No 42. Sadly, it had been left open.

As I approached lift bridge No 45 I saw a crew coming towards me open the bridge then, as I approached, close it again, climb onto their boat just as I arrived and cruise serenely on leaving me to my own devices. Yippee!

I’m delighted to report that the lift bridges on the Llangollen are extremely easy to tackle single handed. I pulled on to the bridge landing on the towpath, pulled the boat towards the bridge with my bow line, crossed over the bridge to the bridge controls on the offside taking my bow line with me, raised the bridge, used my bow line to pull the boat forward so I could climb onto the boat and walk along the gunnel to the stern, cruise under the open bridge, step off the boat with my stern line, close the bridge then step back onto the boat and continue cruising. I don’t think the process took longer than five minutes.

In front of Blake Mere

In front of Blake Mere

Another two and a half hours through stunning open countryside brought me to the meres of Ellesmere. The first, Cole Mere, was hidden behind thick trees on the offside. The next, Blake Mere, wasn’t. That’s where I’m moored now, and that’s where I’m staying until Tuesday. Ten acre Blake Mere, home to some monster 30lb plus carp, is as peaceful a spot as I’ve ever moored.

Barry arrived at 7pm and spent a very pleasant hour and a half shooting the breeze with me before leaving for a two hour drive back to Crosby.

I’ve had a quick walk around nearby 120 acre The Mere this morning. I’m going there for lunch now, then I’ll find a quiet spot overlooking the wildlife haven and settle down for an afternoon’s reading. Isn’t life a joy?

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Services for Boaters

There are a growing number of site users who offer products or services which I am sure would be of interest to other boat owners or narrowboat enthusiasts. If you fall into this category, please let me know. I’ll publish your details in one of my newsletters. There’s no charge involved, I just want to give fellow boaters a helping hand.

Here’s the first service provider and a recent discovery day guest of mine. Colin Ashby is an artist. He’s particularly fond of painting pets but he’s also considering expanding his portfolio to include narrowboats. Here’s what he has to say about his service…

I have been doing portraits of dogs, cats, horses and people for about 15 years, mainly because there is a demand for them. They make a lovely gift and are so much more personable than a photograph. Depending upon the time of year, a portrait will normally take 2-3 weeks.

In the future, I would also be interested in doing personalized sketches of narrow boats, probably in pen and ink, a medium which i really enjoy.

I work mainly in pastels or graphite/pencil and offer a variety of sizes, the most popular being A4 and A5. The size A4 is £95 and will be mounted and the A5 is £55 framed, or £45 mounted.  Add £7 for P&P for both sizes.

All that is needed is a photograph of whatever pet the customer wishes to have a portrait done of. This can be emailed to  : colinashby@msn.com and I will do the rest.”

You can see examples of Colin’s work here.

Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62? long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I’m running the discovery days approximately on the first ten days of August, October and December this year. As summer approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. August onwards is still relatively free. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late.

Update 30th August 2015

The earliest dates are now at the beginning of October. If you want to  see the available dates for October onward click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Ken Sharratt.

“I’ve thought about living on a narrowboat on and off for the last twenty years but through commitments, events and various other things I have never done anything about it until now. Over the last seven or eight months I have started  researching the subject and it has gradually gained momentum, from reading magazines and e-books, the internet and looking round boats to figure out what I wanted.

The first e-book I came across was written by Paul, called “Living on a Narrowboat” (part of the Narrowbudget Gold package of three guides and a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator). I found this invaluable in giving me a realistic view of the life I am aiming for and has definitely added to my growing knowledge. To my surprise I started receiving a newsletter in my inbox which covers all things related to narrowboats from life to composting toilets which I was quite impressed with. I noticed the information about the Discovery day after reading one of these.

I thought, if I’m going to change the direction of my life and spend quite a bit of money doing it, the discovery day sounded like a good way of starting to find out if my expectations matched the reality of everything involved with it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Paul is very easy to get along with. He made us welcome from the start and provided a steady supply of tea throughout the day. It was a very enjoyable and productive day for me. He made me re-evaluate a few things and was remarkably relaxed about sailing off downstream  with his home in Fairly inexperienced hands. He was there at hand though to provide advice, instruction and direction and the odd hands on correction when absolutely necessary.

I would recommend that anyone considering taking to the water should read the book and go on one of these discovery days. They will definitely shorten the time spent on their learner curve and possibly avert a costly or disastrous decision from being made.

I am currently in the process of getting my house ready for sale. The builder should be here in a few weeks, then the decorator and after that the estate agent, so hopefully it’s going to be early next year when it’s sold and I can buy the boat that’s waiting for me out there with my name it.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.