The canal widened as we headed to Chester and we were back in double locks. It was cold wet and windy and we were grateful to be able to share some of the locks with NB Greenfields until they stopped for lunch.
We kept company with Beeston Castle for a long time and tried to decide whether it was the castle we had dragged John and his cousins up to in 1996. I remember complaints about the hill, but I don’t remember it being that steep.
We came across a 70 foot hire boat wafting around in the middle of the canal while some of her crew walked with boat hooks on the towpath. It wasn’t clear whether they were trying to get the crew back on the boat, or find somewhere to moor. They got the boat stuck in the mud on the other side of the canal, but assured us they were OK. We overtook wondering how long it would take them to reunite with their crew. A 70 foot boat is quite a challenge for an inexperienced crew.
We passed endless lines of moored boats before more large and slow locks into Chester. We took the last mooring in the middle of Chester before a winding hole to avoid going through Northgate Locks – a hard work staircase of three.
Twenty years ago, Dugald walked the boys around the city walls. John, Paddy and Ollie were excited to be walking Roman walls. This time we walked the cold and windswept walls, watching narrowboats head towards the staircase locks below, until stopped by scaffolding and diversions. We retreated to Urbano to eat Pizza, drink wine and reminisce.
It is duckling time of year, and this duck had 25 ducklings. We wondered how she was going to manage to keep tabs on them all. This heroic duck would surely have got a medal in the Soviet Union.
The next day we explored the quirky mixed vintage shopping centre – some medieval, some Victorian and later rebuild. The ‘rows’ have timbered galleried shops and walkways. We also managed to fit in our usual wash and restock.
On our way out of Chester we were joined by another narrowboat, and her cheerful crew helped us up through the locks. ‘Windermere’ was one of three hire boats travelling together, on an annual holiday arranged by people who drink in the same pub. The other two boats always set off at eight each morning, while this one sauntered along some time later luckily for us.
At the top of the flight out of Chester they dropped off to join their mates in a pub for lunch.
We carried on and the sun came out briefly. Noticing the daily changes in the plants and trees we passed, we now saw the first potatoes peeping through the soil.
We passed Beeston again and noticed the extraordinary Wild Boar Hotel on the hill nearby.
The line of stables at the top of the Bunbury staircase locks served the fast ‘fly’ boats used for the trip between the Mersey and the Midland factories in 24 hours. Bunbury was one of the places where they changed horses, and they had priority at the locks. It must have been an exhausting schedule.
The weather deteriorated and we had patches of wind, rain, sun and hail.
Passing the Hursleston flight at the entrance to the Llangollen, I saw it was deserted, such a contrast to the previous Saturday.
We stopped just before Nantwich at the bridge with a wooden horse made from lockgates, and turned down the arm into the Nantwich Canal Centre where we had arranged a berth for the night. On the Llangollen a stray piece of aluminium canal lining had engaged forcefully with the exhaust for our heating system and turned it into a mobile can opener. It made a hideous noise every time it touched a lock side, and we were worried about the damage it could cause another boat.
We finished mooring when the heavens opened, thunder, lightning, rain and hail – just avoiding a major soaking.
The next morning some incredibly helpful guys from the Canal Centre quickly looked at, and discussed solutions for our bent exhaust outlet. We decided on the pragmatic thing – heat up and bash the metal back into place. Swiftly done, small financial transaction completed and we were off again. Another really good customer experience.
My cousin Sarah was joining us a little later, and we wandered into Nantwich to get some supplies. Neither Dugald nor I had any great expectations of Nantwich, somehow the name didn’t promise much. We were in for a surprise, it is a really pretty small town unspoilt and full of interesting old houses. The only disappointment was the railway station, the building and car park had been taken over by an Indian restaurant, and we had to rethink Sarah’s parking. A little later Sarah joined us, parked her car at the Canal Centre and we were off again.
Sarah had arrived just in time. We had three flights of locks planned for the next day!
We did a couple of locks that afternoon to get into the swing of things, and then moored below the Audlem flight.
The next morning we set off in sunshine up the flight, and with extra help we made good progress. On through the Adderley flight avoiding the temptations at the cake stalls on the locks. Sarah decided that with the addition of a clipboard, I could be renamed ‘lock monitor’ implying a bossiness that I don’t really recognise in myself.
Dugald always keeps an eye out for farming activity near the canal. He spent many hours on a slurry tanker, and was delighted to catch one going over a bridge. We hoped it would not discharge its contents until we were well past
We went through a rather damp flight at Tyrley, helping the boat in front who had an injured crew member, and then set off through the deep Woodseaves cutting. There were contractors working here, and as we passed a moored barge we got firmly stuck on the bottom. It took much pushing, shoving, and pulling helped by one of the men to get us off the mud and on our way again.
We passed Steamboat President and her butty Kildaire. Dugald was very excited, he loves steam.
The Shroppie is a difficult canal to moor on with all its cuttings and embankments, our planned mooring was full. It was another hour getting colder and wetter before we could stop and collapse in a heap. Strangely Sarah did not seem put off by the experience and was as cheerful as ever.
Norbury Junction was busy the next day, boats were gathering for a festival over the bank holiday weekend.
At Gnossal we moored near a pub, hoping to get a taxi to get Sarah to Nantwich or a nearby station. This proved too difficult, but we found a solution – bus to Stafford, train to Crewe, taxi to Nantwich. It is always a bit tricky trying to reconnect visitors with their vehicles! The bus arrived on time, and apparently the other connections worked as well. We had had a good couple of days, Sarah was great company as always.
In spite of the rain and hail, we continued, passing a long line of fishermen doing their best to ignore us.
We stopped at the bottom of the Shroppie to buy a ‘handcuff key’ in readiness for our climb up to Wolverhampton and then Birmingham, then turned right down the Staffs and Worcs.
We ignored the turn to Birmingham, and moored a little later above Compton Lock.
The following day we moved a little further and moored close to our target – Wightwick Manor (pronounced Wittick).
Wightwick Manor is an unusual National Trust property built at the end of the nineteenth century by a wealthy paint manufacturer, Theodore Mander. It is a Victorian attempt at a manor house. Built in the Arts and Craft style with a bit of a baronial medieval twist, and is full of pre-Raphaelite paintings.
The small manor house felt comfortable to wander through, and we would have spent longer exploring the gardens if it hadn’t been pouring with rain.
We set off a bit later than planned the next day. Heavy rain was forecast and it seemed unlikely that we would miss it. There is a flight of 21 locks up to Wolverhampton.
A single hander on NB Love Boat had passed us as we left our mooring and we groaned as we found him in the first lock of the flight. However, it was really a blessing in disguise. He was local, able to warn us about tight locks, shallow areas, and most importantly show me how to use my handcuff (anti vandal – water conservation) key. The rain started heavily about half way up the flight, and by the time we reached the top and moored we were cold and tired, but fairly dry in our trusty red outfits.
On towards Birmingham,
passing areas of urban regeneration
and continuing degeneration.
We didn’t have time to explore some of the interesting nooks and crannies this time. We needed to go straight to the centre so that Dugald could take a quick trip into London the next day. We went straight down the ‘New Main Line’, another of Telford’s creations.
Passing frequent toll islands now missing their toll houses, the canal on either side is very narrow, maybe to avoid boats dashing through without stopping.
20th century motorways mix with 18th and 19th century canals and aqueducts.
Birmingham is still the heart of the system. There are continuous loops that weave their way and in and out of the Main Line
Sudden heavy rain heralded our arrival in the centre, and we gratefully moored up opposite the Fiddle and Bone and Sherborne Wharf. It was a handy spot to stay a couple of days.
402 miles and 282 locks