2015 09 13 Newsletter – A cruise to Llangollen: Llangollen to Gnosall Heath

After I sent off the newsletter last Sunday, I picked up my rucksack and Kindle then ambled down to the river Dee beneath Pontcysyllte aqueduct’s steel trough, perched on a rock by the water’s edge and sat quietly reading for two blissful hours before returning to my peaceful mooring at the end of Trevor basin.

I could happily spend weeks, even months, in this beautiful spot. I have to reach Rugby for a very important appointment on 20th September so I needed to start cruising in earnest. I will be back but next time I will stay long enough to explore the area fully.

Veteran continuous cruiser Peter Earley voiced my own thoughts perfectly on the forum recently when replying to a question posted there. He said then when you first start exploring the network, you try to cover as much ground as possible trying to see all there is to see. Then, once you’ve worn yourself out, you begin to relax and enjoy your exploration. You take your time, moving just a few miles each time so that you can enjoy your next mooring and all that surrounds it at leisure. How true. I’m at the lunatic can’t-move-fast-enough stage at the moment.

Since April I’ve cruised 1,074 miles and passed through 604 locks. I’m almost overwhelmed by the number of places I want to stop and explore. There are thousands of footpath miles within walking distance of the canal and river network; through woods and forests, along river banks, around lakes, over hills and mountains and, of course, along a usually beautiful towpath. These paths often lead to idyllic sleepy villages, pretty market towns and England’s vibrant cities. Exploring the network and all that surrounds it is a lifetime’s work but for me this year is all about miles.

So on Monday, on a gloriously warm and sunny autumn morning, I turned my boat around and headed east along the Llangollen canal on my one hundred and forty six mile, ninety three lock journey to Rugby.

I sailed high above the river over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct then not quite so high over the Ceiriog at Chirk, through a queue free Chirk tunnel, sideways again thanks to the current, past Frankton Junction and a longing glance up the Montgomery canal, and then almost head on into an out of control boat at a bend.

This was a privately owned boat but a boat owned by a man who loved beer more than his boat. The canal narrowed at the bend so I was in the centre as I made the turn. So was the boat coming towards me. The difference was that I had slowed for the blind bend but he hadn’t. He didn’t seem to mind. He swung his tiller hard over with one hand, took a swig from his beer bottle with the other, crashed hard into the concrete siding with his bow, laughed as both he and his two companions staggered towards the water with the impact, then applied so much throttle that a four feet high jet ski like plume fountained from his propeller before hurtling off into the distance.

The final hour to Ellesmere was peaceful once more. I turned onto a very crowded arm in Ellesmere to do my week’s shopping at the waterside Tesco store then moved on to Blake mere, basking in the early evening sun and laughing at the antics of two shirtless and rather wobbly live aboard boaters close to the playing fields.

As they sipped pint glasses of scrumpy cider they used broom handles as imaginary guns to shoot down a passing plane. They told me that the plane belonged to Commies who were upsetting their dogs.

On Tuesday I woke to a mist shrouded mere and a day cold enough to warrant a thick fleece, hat and gloves.

I cruised through the mist past Blake Mere, Cole Mere, along the long straight embankment close to Whixall Moss nature reserve and then past Prees Junction before catching up with a slow moving Anglo Welsh hire boat.

I waited patiently for the helmsman to extract the boat from the shallows where he grounded after moving too far over to allow a boat to pass, then waited patiently for him to free his boat again for the same reason, then waited expectantly for him to free himself a third time when he grounded again.

Third time unlucky in his case. He was well and truly stuck so I tied my bow line to his stern and pulled him off the mud and waved my thanks to him as he insisted that I take the lead.

I enjoyed the chilly day and its autumn smells; wood smoke from boat stoves and canal side garden fires, the occasional whiff of diesel fumes from my smoky engine and the ever present heady aroma of cow shit.

I managed to avoid negotiating all but one of the Llangollen’s lift bridges on my journey to Trevor but on the way back I had them all to myself. As I struggled with the difficult positioning of the lift bridge close to the Whitchurch arm, a guy enjoying a leisurely dinner on the bow of a nearby Anglo Welsh hire boat abandoned his food, sprinted to the bridge and insisted on seeing me through. What a kind man.

There were two more kind men at Grindley Brook’s staircase flight. Two lock keepers, scheduled to finish for the day at 5.30pm were still there to help me through an hour later. Such is the kindness of the boating community.

Three more locks and I finished for the day six locks and thirteen miles closer to Rugby.

A late and chilly start the following morning saw me at Willey Moor Lock by midday. I dropped through the lock watched by a trio of male hikers enjoying the camaraderie of a lunchtime pint. Ten minutes later I met a lone lock side loiterer, this time sitting next to the water for business rather than pleasure.

The elderly man, sporting a straggly grey beard and blue woollen hat, sat quietly next to his stock of goods for sale; a few onions, a basket of cooking apples, bags of logs and kindling and a few packets of Bryant & May fire lighters. He told me that he had been sitting beside this lock for many years offering to help boaters through the locks in the hope that they buy something from him. Unfortunately, he told me, his failing health mean that he isn’t much help these days but he turns up for work anyway, ever hopeful that he’ll sell a few odds and ends.

I purchased a few packs of firelighters and two bags of kindling from him then helped him help me through the lock before heading east again, stopping briefly to curse the bypass weirs beneath each lock.

The bypass weirs can be a bit of a pig, to put it mildly. Sometimes the gushing weir water enters the main channel in line with the canal, which is no problem at all. But sometimes it hits the canal at ninety degrees so as you slowly leave the lock chamber you’re immediately pushed sideways onto any unfortunate boats waiting to enter the lock. The only solution is to charge through the current before it pushes the boat.

That’s no problem coming out of the lock chamber, but it’s a buttock clenching exercise charging towards a 7’ wide brick opening with twenty tonnes of steel just two inches narrower. I have to confess to not always getting it right. The boat is built like a tank so no worry there, but I can tell at the end of the day how accurate my lock entry has been by how much debris is on the floor inside the boat (Just kidding!).

At Wrenbury I had the pleasure of tackling another lift bridge, this one all electric with a queue of cars, vans, lorries and a solitary cyclist waiting impatiently for me to allow them to continue on their manic journeys.

Heading ever east down twenty feet though the three lock Baddiley flight then another thirteen feet through the two Swanley locks I stopped for the night temptingly close to Snugbury’s Ice Cream shop. No ice cream for me on this trip though.

Thursday was an idyllic day on the cut. The weather, the people, the locks, the view, everything was perfect.

I flew down the Hurleston flight, my last four locks on the Llangollen, aided by two ever helpful lock keepers. Of course, I forgot about the badly place escape ladder in the bottom lock so had to jump six feet down into the lock onto my roof. I managed without mishap then turned south onto the Shroppie.

Nantwich Canal Basin

Nantwich Canal Basin

Joining the Shroppie from the Llangollen reminded me of my first cruise on the Thames. After fifty miles tortuous miles on the narrow and winding south Oxford I turned onto a river which felt like a sea. The Shroppie wasn’t as wide as the Thames, but at the junction and for another half mile cruising south after the narrow confines of the Llangollen it felt vast.

I stopped for fuel, coal and industrial sized tin of Brasso at Nantwich Canal Centre. As I pulled on to their canal side wharf next to the diesel pump, the guy looking after visiting boats told me that I would have to wait at least half an hour while he had his lunch. I wasn’t bothered. I fancied a break myself but, by the time I had tied up and filled my kettle, he had sacrificed his lunch break to serve me 148 litres of diesel. What a lovely chap.

Since April I’ve used 1,059 litres of diesel at an average of 1.35 litres an hour for 784 hours. Most of the engine’s running time has been to move the boat 1,074 miles and through 604 locks. In all of this time I think I’ve only run the engine on two or three occasions to charge my batteries when I’ve been more than one day in the same spot.

I carried on through the outskirts of Nantwich with its acres of new housing to the east of the canal’s high embankment. I cruised all day in brilliant sunshine with wide views on both sides of the canal.

Fifteen miles to the east was Stoke on Trent and Westport Lake where I had the pleasure of a visit from Stoke’s maladjusted youth three weeks ago. The Shroppie is very much more tranquil and civilized than the Trent & Mersey.

The not so secret bunker at Hack Green

The not so secret bunker at Hack Green

I passed a flock of four hundred Canada geese and their mess close to Hack Green’s Secret Bunker and its not so secret sign. For £8.50 you can spend the day underground marvelling at man’s folly during the nuclear strike fearing Cold War years.

A mile further on were plentiful moorings at the oddly named Coole Pilates leisure area. A dozen picnic tables, each with its own barbecue, all empty save a careworn middle aged boater swigging enthusiastically from a can of Stella Artois.

Four miles of arrow straight canal and easy cruising allowed me the perfect opportunity to overheat my engine; 1500rpm seventy two degrees, 1700rpm seventy five degrees, 1800rpm eighty degrees and 2,000rpm blind panic and back to tick over for half a mile. It’s SO frustrating to have a fairly powerful engine but not be able to use it.

Thank you Anton Woodford off Song of the Waterways for your shouted boat roof greeting as I passed Overwater marina on the approach to Audlum. My apologies for the dumbfounded look all around me to try and identify the noise. My wet exhaust makes quite a racket when I’m chugging along at full speed.

My final goal for the day was to rise ninety three feet through Audlum’s fifteen locks. Thanks to the wonderful people of Audlum I flew up the flight. I lost count of the number of walkers, cyclists and fellow boaters who stopped long enough to open and close gates for me. At the penultimate lock a mother enjoying a lock side picnic with four pre teen children put down sandwiches and drinks to help me. Two muscle flexing boys, aided by two stronger and calmer girls, opened both downstream and upstream gates for me with much laughter and friendly rivalry. Aren’t the canals wonderful?

A shady mooring above the Audlum flight

A shady mooring above the Audlum flight

I moored in a deep and shady cutting close to Kinsall Farm above the flight, and there I stayed for a day.

Unfortunately life afloat isn’t all idyllic cruising and day dreaming. My boat, my home, also needs a fair degree of TLC. I spent the following day cleaning the boat inside and out and then decided that I needed to do a little pre winter stove flu cleaning.

I’m sure that you are far more sensible and intelligent than I am but, in case you’re just as stupid, let me offer you some advice. NEVER clean your stove flue after you’ve done your vacuuming and dusting and certainly don’t do what I did and forget to close the stove door when you clean the flu.

Flu cleaning is a dirty but simple affair. All you need to do is lower a sturdy length of chain down into the flu from outside the boat, then give it a vigorous shake to bang the chain against the flu sides. You’ll be amazed at the amount of muck which falls down the flu into the stove and, in my case, into the boat itself through the open stove door and all over the floor.

So I cleaned the inside of the boat again, did some washing, vacuumed the engine bilge, topped up the engine oil, refilled the stern gland greaser and unblocked the drain holes beneath the back deck’s hatch.

I love lying in bed listening to heavy rain bouncing off the boat roof. On Friday night I had the pleasure of listening to it for hours. Heavy rain was still falling when I set off at 9am on Saturday morning.

The lock side farm shop at Adderley

The lock side farm shop at Adderley

Looking and feeling like a cross between the Michelin man and Captain Birdseye in my heavy duty waterproofs I quickly passed through five locks of the Adderley flight, pausing briefly to treat myself to lunch from a farm shop’s display of jams, fresh baked fruit pies and scones, potatoes and tomatoes, fresh fruit, home cured bacon and plate sized pork pies next to the top lock. I helped myself to a pork pie a bag of scones and a juicy fat peach then stuffed a £5 in the stall’s honesty box.

Another hour to Market Drayton and a stop at the water point to top up before moving on to Tyrley, my second five lock flight of the day. This one wasn’t quite so easy. The pound above the bottom lock is at the tail end of Tyrley’s deep sandstone cutting. The towpath side is both rocky and shallow so there isn’t a lock landing.

A missing lock landing isn’t a problem if there are two or more of you on the boat. The helmsman simply stays in the canal centre until the remaining crew prepare the next lock. However, when you are single handed not having anywhere to secure the boat while you prepare the boat is a bit tricky.

While I was trying to think of a solution, the boat in the pound with me grounded immovably in the shallows. I roped my bow to their stern then pulled the boat away from the shallow side allowing them to enter their lock and leave me to my own devices.

Fortunately after a five minute wait a boat dropped down the lock and left the lock open for me. The one final hurdle to overcome on this lock was the two opposing currents from bypass weirs on either side of the canal, both water flows substantial after the day’s rain.

One of the two high Woodseaves Cutting bridges

One of the two high Woodseaves Cutting bridges

After the flight, Woodseaves Cutting stretches for over a mile. The deep, gloomy and narrow cutting is spanned by two forty feet high bridges. There’s a warning sign advising a 2mph maximum speed limit because of possible sandstone rock falls. Giant wire baskets filled with stone line the cutting’s base on the towpath side to help prevent further slippage.

The Wharf Tavern at the end of Woodseave Cutting

The Wharf Tavern at the end of Woodseave Cutting

After another two hours of embankments with the countryside bathed in early autumn’s golden light, a hazy view of The Wrekin twenty miles to the south west and then the damp twilight of the Grub Street Cutting, I tied up on the first available mooring at Norbury Junction with the intention of relaxing for a few hours today to finish off this week’s newsletter. Unfortunately I had to alter my plans.

Gentle countryside bathed in golden autumn light

Gentle countryside bathed in golden autumn light

For just the second time in nearly six months and over 1,000 miles cruising I couldn’t connect to the internet. The first time was back in May at the Crick Boat Show when I was hemmed in by dozens of boats for two days. Other than that, my Three dongle has worked seamlessly everywhere I’ve stopped.

I popped in to the Junction Inn for a quick pint while I took advantage of their free WiFi but I knew that wouldn’t help me today for the several hours I needed to be online.

I was up at 5am, cruising by 6.30am and moored again by 7.30am. I’m moored just north of Gnosall Heath now, connected to the outside world again and very happy indeed.

I’ll be off again in a minute. I have ninety one miles and thirty three locks to go before reaching Rugby, my goal for 20th September. I hope you enjoy your Sunday. I know I’m going to enjoy mine!

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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 13th September 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.