Friday 30 November 2012

Caldon 2012 - Consall Forge to Leek

Caldon 2012
Consall Forge to Leek via Froghall
October 2012

12 miles - 12 locks - 6 hours

The day dawned grey and dreary, with rain falling on an off from beginning to end.

Froghall Basin

Rather than turn round and head upstream we decided to spend the morning visiting Froghall and hopefully find some fruit in the grounds of an abandoned farmhouse nearby. 

The river section ends at Flint Mill lock which is being slowly converted into housing. WB, as usual, gave the height barrier a hearty wack  but we know better and set to, stripping everything off the roof to let us squeeze through the diminutive proportions of the Froghall Tunnel, the smallest on the system. 

Froghall Tunnel

I am getting better at the Froghall and ran through with just one light touch. Instead of the usual emptiness of Froghall basin we found two other narrow boats present, but they were both closed up and laying over. In the event the foraging wasn't great, just some blackberries and apples - but it could be worse. The rain eased off as we returned to the tunnel and back to Consall Forge - the only boat moving. We paused at the Black Lion, picking us a couple of pints of take out, and then back up the docile little Churnet.

Caldon Canal near Consall Forge

We found sloes, blackberries and rose hips, but all the pears were in private gardens and beyond reach. Then it was up the Hazelhurst three, finding the paddle to the side pound at the bottom lock firmly and emphatically blocked. No playing with the side pound this time!

 Bolted side pounds and waterspouts

Hazelhurst Top Lock

Then it was round into the very slow but pretty Leek Arm, the trees arching over the channel which expands and contracts like a pair of bellows. We stopped short of the Leek tunnel, mooring in the wide as the rain really started to fall. Its a lovely spot, if a bit shallow.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Voyage into England - book review

Voyage into England (1966)
by John Seymour
October 2012

Helen picked this one up for me on spec, and then worried that I may have already read it. She needn't have worried - it was new to me and provided very entertaining read for my latest flight back from Istanbul.

Its an account of a four month journey by John Seymour, his wife and three daughters aboard British Waterways Water Willow in the mid 1960's, 1965 I think. 

This book offers an interesting insight into a slice in time of the inland waterways history, a time when British Waterways was in its infancy and hopes of a return to commercial carrying remained very much alive.

The book records a journey inland from Nottingham, up the Trent and Mersey and then up the Welsh Canal to Llangollen. The return took the the Shropshire Union, the Staffs and Worcester and down the Severn to the Lower Avon (the upper hadn't been restored then). The route then included Birmingham, Warwick and then out to the Fens for a rendezvous with a BBC film crew.

 But it wasn't the journey as such which was of interest, much hasn't changed a lot, but it was the series of cameos which really grabbed me. Lets take them in turn:

1. His experiences through the Potteries included an evening with the Stoke Boat Club who were then based in the stub of the Newcastle branch. The branch is gone beneath a redevelopment scheme and the club has moved to the Caldon Canal which was itself closed at the time.

2. Then there are the accounts of the mines, steelworks and potteries in Etruria. He paints a picture of industry in expansion mode which has all been lost in the intervening 50 years.

3. Perhaps the finest section was on the Weaver. They descended on the old version of the Anderton Boat lift onto a navigation thronging with coasters. They then ventured south and made what was probably the last ever ascent of the Runcorn and Weston flight, rising through a canal which all has assumed were impassable.

4. Finally there are the encounters with the latter day carrying pioneers who were making a last ditch attempt to revive the commercial trade. All was optimism and Seymour was certainly an ardent supporter, but whilst many of his insights were almost prophetically accurate, renewed commercial carrying wasn't to be.

The book is probably not a classic, but its cameo's make it stand out from the crowd.

Monday 26 November 2012

Towpath Tale - book review

Towpath Tale
by Arthur Truby
October 2012

I happened upon this 1978 publication published by The Blackcountryman by chanceas I was leafing through the waterways section of Aacus Books in Milford (Caldon Canal). Therewere slim pickings to be had but this little (32 pages) booklet was found sandwiched between two other books. The Blackcountryman is the magazine of the Black Country Society and this august body offers good provenance of an interesting article.

This booklet represents eight separate articles recounting personal recollections of the BCN in the Tipton and Oldbury area between the 1930's and the 1970's. Whilst not always entirely historically accurate, its a fascinating insight into the boating characters of the time, their craft and the local canal scene, all told in the authors own words. He offers an unusually intimate series of recollection of the canals as he found them and there are several locations which will never be quite the same for me as I pass them.

Perhaps the quirkiest tale concerns the gas lights through the Netherton Tunnel. According to the old boatmen the gas switches were turned on in the morning by specially trained pigeons, who were then released from the other end an night and flew back, shutting them off. Typical boaters humour!

What it lacks in length it makes up for in richness of content, just what you would expect of The Blackcounrtyman.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Small Boat to Alsace - book review

Small Boat to Alsace (1961)
by Roger Pilkington
November 2012

It seems a bit odd to be captivated by a series of inland waterway journeys undertaken so far in the past. In this case it was 1961, the year of my birth, and marks a change of direction for the Commodore.

Till now the Pilkington family has travelled north and explored the Scandanavian waterways but now her bows are turned south, propelled on her way by a new engine. Well, to tell the truth, its a second new engine as the first one seized after a few miles - but that's another story.

The change in direction also marks a sea change in the storytelling, and one for the better. In his last couple of books Pilkington has become a bit history heavy, possibly because these was not so much to say about the boating and the waterways. Here the journey is exclusively inland and follows the course of the Rhine upstream through Holland Belgium, France and finally through the Alcase region into Germany at Kehl.

That's the thing about these books, there is never any particular ending, just chapters of an unfolding journey with each book representing a year of holiday trips.

The Rhine is a fast flowing river, with a gradient of 1% which is precipitous for a navigable river and rolls along at between 7 and 10 knots - far faster than the lowly powered Commodore could manage. So their journey into the continent was via the extensive network of canals and lesser rivers which were still thriving arteries of commerce flanking the mighty river. There was a lot to see and write about, the navigations, the boats (including the tractor propelled barges), the geography and of course the history.

This is an area defined by war, with opposing forces repeatedly crossing and destroying it. The Romans started the trend which continues right up to the two German invasions in the early 20th century. This sequence of occupation and suppression has left its mark on the landscape and its peoples, and its all faithfully recorded in the context of its watery thread. Alsace sound beautiful, with its ancient town and friendly people and a rich history.

Whist the people appear welcoming, the picture painted of French officialdom is less than flattering, with rigid observance to illogical rules and stolid resistance to Commodores progression. In the end they were registered as an unladen coal barge, which seemed to do the trick.

There are plenty of twists and turns in this tale which will have you returning to the map page again and again. Its a fascinating slice through the geography and culture of the Rhine and feels rather like U2 when they emerged triumphant from their slightly barren patch of Pop and Zooropa. A comparison between U2 and Commodore - how odd!

Anyway - a really good book in a cracking series. I am making a concerted effort to buy ahead in this series of 18 (I think) Small Boat books and for simplicity's sake, my reading progression is noted in my first post "Thames Waters". I hope that this whets your appetite but does not trigger a bidding war on e-bay!

Thursday 22 November 2012

Caldon 2012 - Consall Forge

Caldon 2012
Etruria to Consall Forge
September 2012

14 miles - 16 locks - 8 hours

For me, this is where the trip really begins - Etruria, gateway to another world.

After all the hustle and bustle of the Trent and Mersey the Caldon is an oasis of tranquility. It always amazes me that at any given time in the autumn the number of moving boats barely scrapes into double figures.

Milton Moorings

I mentioned my plan to visit the Caldon to another boater yesterday and she pulled a face, put off by the unprepossessing start through Hanley and the slow passage along a shallow channel. And I have to admit that whilst the start has  a certain historic charm, it is a far cry from the delights which lie beyond Engine Lock. Like a very good book with a weak first chapter if you like.

 Engine Lock Caldon Canal

Summit pound - Caldon Canal

Lets get that first bit out of the way. I routinely stop at Etruria and have never had any trouble. Its a good, quiet mooring with handy access to a whole range of Trust facilities. Then its a sharp twist up the staircase pair with the Caldon doubling back on the T&M and sees the boat nearly 40ft higher and looking down on the roof of the Etruria Bone and Flint Mill.

The first of several Kingfishers

Next is Planet Lock, squeezed between the heath centre and the local FE college both of which commonly provide an audience who could be described as "quaint". Perhaps the best was the drunken opera singer giving it her all but today it was all quiet. The canal corridor is the focus of a linear redevelopment which is slowly transforming the area, but at the same time wiping away much of its character.

The danger zone is through Northwood to Milton but today it was quiet. For the first time we paused to restock at Milton - the last frontier of civilisation before the Staffordshire moorlands beyond. Its a bit of a characterless town devoid of distinctive buildings but well supplied with shops including an excellent bakers, a Nisa Extra and a Co-Op. Perhaps the big find was Abacus Bookshop which is a real gem with a broad range of new and second hand stock - an unlikely find in such a small town.


Then is was on to the deep Engine Lock which I negotiated solo and Helen was jam making continuing on to pass through the two lift bridges at Norton Green, passable solo but only with care and much fancy rope work.

Stockton Brook Locks threw up the only other boats of the day, and a good basket of cooking apples at the pumping station.

Stockton Brook locks

We reached Hazelhurst Junction at 5.00pm and had a decision to make. Carry on to Leek, as we have in the past, or to start down the Churnet valley. We opted to make for the Black Lion at Consall Forge which would let us sample the delights of this most isolated of pubs for the first time. The canal is shallow and slow going but we finally were released onto the river and opened the throttle just for the heck of it, the GPS soaring to a heady 5mph! 

Black Lion - Consall Forge

With the light gone we wasted no time in getting into the pub which was host to a select clientele of five regulars and two dogs. Amazingly they were able to opper us food and we had a good meal served quickly on sizzling platters washed down with pints of Black Hole and Hobgoblin for Helen and an Old Rosie for me.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Caldon 2012 - Etruria

Caldon 2012
Weston on Trent to Etruria
9th October 2012

16 miles - 16 locks - 9 hours

Maybe that mooring just above Weston Lock wasn't the best decision I ever made. The busy A51 wasn't far away and it kicked up quite a bit of road noise overnight - possibly a better choice would have been to stop closer to the Saracens Head.

A prop fouled Spey entering Lock 37 at Stone.

It was a cold night bringing with it on of the first real frosts of the season and ice coating the towpath as we left at 8.30am. The sun was dazzling as it rose behind us and it was quite amusing to see southbound boaters all wearing sunglasses in the frost, but the last laugh was against me. Just beyond Sandon Lock I was astounded to see a boat from the Stafford Boat Club pull out into the channel right in front of me - literally less than a boat length ahead and in no time at all I was all over his stern. I am usually pretty easy going but I was incensed at the rudeness, especially when he had the gall to turn and ask if I wanted a tow! Cheeky bugger.

I was going to post a photo of the offender but on reflection maybe he didn't see me against the glare of the sun. Its probably best for my karma right out if I take this point of view and anyway - he is from a neighbouring boat club and I will be wanting to use their slipway again in the near future.

Our boats became spaced out by Aston Lock and we made gentle progress, picking Sloes from the bushes as we passed - probably about 1.5 kilos which will make good jam.

But my boater troubles were not over. I must have woken with a the words "canal hooligan" tattooed on my forehead. My route into the second lock of the Stone flight was impeded by a boat moored at the waterpoint - his stern well out into the cut by the entrance bridge and a strong flow entering from the bye wash. No matter how careful a touch of metal was inevitable, and for my pains I got more sarcasm! By this time I was starting to doubt my approach to boating.

The rest of the trip into Stoke was uneventful and foraging continues:

Sloes - a steady trickle from lightly fruiting bushes
Crab Apples - loads, even in a bad season there are always lots around
Rose Hips - a steady supply from the lock sides, picked one pocket full at a time.
Water Mint - found, of all places, growing out of a bottom lock gate!

But I had promised apples and they were proving elusive. Then finally I hit the jackpot. On the approach to Stoke near the Brittania Stadium I found a cooker with a good crop leaning right over the canal. I just had to put the boat onto the mud and gather in a bucket full of superb green Bramleys.

The day did offer a final setback. By the time we were approaching Stoke I was working solo and I moored just below lock 37, beyond the low railway bridge which covers the entrance. I walked up and opened the paddles and returned to move the boat in as the lock emptied. Imagine my consternation when the flow out stopped and the lock started to fill again. Yes, you guessed it - a boater had reversed the flow without looking and didn't hear my hooting an account of the headphones he was wearing. At least he had the grace to apologise!

We made it to Etruria at 6.00pm with time to eat, cook up some Elderberries and settle in for an episode of Morse before an early bed. Tomorrow it is the Caldon, one of my favourite canals.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Caldon 2012 - Weston on Trent

Caldon 2012
Calf Heath to Weston Lock
8th October 2012

18 miles - 15 locks - 8 hours

Other posts in this series:

1. Calf Heath to Weston on Trent - this post
2. Weston on Trent to Etruria
3. Etruria to Consall Forge
4. Consall Forge to Leek
5. Leek to Hem Heath
6. Hem Heath to Tixall

The start of our autumn pilgrimage to the Caldon canal was delayed by our attendance at the Banbury Canal Day, so we arrived at the boat late on Sunday night ready for an early start on Monday. The Caldon is a firm autumn favourite and have been found on these remote waters in September / October for the last three years.

Tixall Wide

We were awake at 6.30am and ready for the off by 8.00am, moving along the Gailey summit under a drizzly grey sky. The plan was to get to The Caldon as soon as possible leaving plenty of time to dawdle in the Staffordshire moorland rather than on the less interesting Staffs and Worcester / Trent and Mersey.

Things don't stay the same on the cut and even at Four Ashes things are a changing. To the west a new waste to power unit is nearing completion and to the east the abandoned section of the Four Ashes Chemical Works has been leveled and a huge area prepared for re development.

Weston Boatyard

There was little traffic on the canal and I guess I got a bit lazy, starting to fill Otherton lock when suddenly the was a bang on the bottom gates as a boat was trying to force its way in against maybe a foot of water. A single hander was coming up and I hadn't seen his solitary paddle raised. I quickly lowered the top paddles and worked the boat up offering profuse apologies. Actually the boater was someone I have met several times before, I dint know his name or that of the boat but it is distinctive with the letters THG painted on the stern doors.

We paused at Midland Chandlers to try out the cassette toilets, feeling a bit foolish to be sitting on the various products and quite literally, trying them for size. WB is scheduled for a new loo this winter and we need to be of one mind about the model which will replace the aging dump through which currently graces the shower room.

The rain stepped up a gear and held steady all the way to Tixall Lock after which it cleared up and we pressed on as long as the light permitted, stopping just beyond Weston Lock. 

Friday 16 November 2012

Adventures of the Hebe - book review

Adventures of the Hebe
by Desmond Stoker
November 2012

I have been trying to settle on a word which describes this book, and after much thought I have chosen "delightful".

Adventures of Hebe in its 2011 form

Whilst it was only published in 2011, it was actually written between 1928 and 1930 as a log book of the inland waterways journeys of the rowing skiff Hebe. Desmond Stoker was a medical student at the time and was an enthusiastic participant in his fathers exploration of the canals and rivers within striking distance of their High Lane base. These accounts cover just three of the many trips made by Desmond and friends, but they are the only ones he wrote about for his own benefit and that of the family. I would like to think that if he were alive todayt he would be an ardent blogger!

A sample page out of Desmond Stokers log book

We are not talking about an day or two out and about. These trips lasted between two and four weeks with the first taking in the Welsh Canal to Llangollen in 1928, what we know as the Four Counties Ring plus a trip to Nottingham in 1929 and finally the epic trip through Birmingham, down the Staffs and Worcester, River Severn and up the Lower Avon - and back in 1930.

Whilst the crew had no motor to drive them, they were by no means a slave to the oars. Stoker Senior had constructed a very effective sailing rig which, in the right conditions, swept the boat along at up to 10 knots. When the winds were less favourable their either skulled or put a crew member ashore to bow haul Hebe.

This was boating on the raw. No creature comforts existed and there was a daily need to find fresh food and drink. When it was just Desmond and his father / alternate crew member they slept on the boat under an awning, but when it grew to be a family affair the lads slept ashore in a tent.

Sometimes I find travel accounts of places I know a bit samey, but not the travels of the Hebe. This was another age, a time when heavy oil engines were in the infancy and a traditional canal craft was propelled by a horse. But even then the canals were in decline in many areas and the sight of the skiff was a welcomed by the lock keepers who minded the lonely lengths.

In some ways it's the small things which capitvated me. Their attempt to navigate down to the River Sow from the Staffs and Worsester at Baswich, their toils to get up to Evesham on the Avon and then there is the tantalising comment next to Norbury Junction indicating that they navigated the length of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals all the way to Shrewsbury. There is no account of this journey, just a few faded photos of Hebe in one of the guillotine locks, entering Berwick Tunnel and bow hauling through dense reeds to get to Shrewsbury. Surely this must have been one of the last craft to navigate the length of this canal.

This book allows you to step back into a pre war era when things were very different, quieter, less mechanical but still the lure of the waterways was able to cast its spell on the unwary.

So, a book which is both delightful and enchanting. Well worth a read if you are short of Christmas present ideas. 

Wednesday 14 November 2012

North Walsham and Dilham Canal update

North Walsham and Dilham Canal
Restoration Update
November 2012

I have been keeping an eye on the activity on the northern reaches of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal. 

Bacton Wood Lock

This obscure waterway is Norfolk's only real canal, a waterway which has been out of action 
since the 1930's. The channel lay dormant for decades and by the time I was at school in the area in the 1970's only a very adventurous canoeist could force a passage east from Ebridge Mill.

Austin Bridge Wharf

And so it remained till a couple of years ago when the upper two miles were bought by the new owner of Bacton Wood Mill who has a passion to see the canal back in water, and running through his watermill. This is a man with a mission and some resources to back it up.

Piling the banks

In my last update I reported on his rewatering of the pound between Ebridge Lock and the newly rebuilt Bacton Wood Lock, and the Environment Agency's machinations which led to a stop order when some leaks occurred and the surrounding water meadow was flooded. 

I am glad to say that the pound watered on the spring of 2012 is still very much full, and the bare earth banks have now been colonised by grass and reeds, softening the image and making it very attractive. Undaunted by the EA, the owner and team of amateur restorers have moved on the the next pound up and the channel from Bacton Wood to Austin Bridge has been cleared, the bank repaired and the whole area made ready for water.

Culvert on the site of Austin Bridge

Austin Bridge is an obstacle, with the original brick structure replaced by a lower culvert to allow the lorries from the Bacton Gas Terminal to cross in the 1970's. The resulting drainage tunnel is too small for anything other than a canoe but I guess they have this in hand.

The next work zone, west of Austin Bridge

These guys are working with some serious kit, real big boys toys - better stuff than many larger canal restoration societies. If this restoration was on the connected system we would all be wetting ourselves with excitement - two miles of restored canal on tap within 12 months and then just another three to the east to connect it to the navigable broads. 

If this link is opened it has to be a candidate for a trailboat festival. 

Monday 12 November 2012

Canals are my Life - book review

Canals are my Life 
By Iris Bryce
November 2012

This is the second in a series of the books covering the travels of Iris and Owen Bryce aboard their narrowboat Bix in the 1970's.

A two year boating sabbatical became a way of life when the intrepid pair decided to take short term work to fund their watery wanderings. This was in the late 1970's when the UK was in one of its boom swings (remember them?) and work was readily available - providing they were flexible.

The book is short, just 100 pages long with a handful of black and white photos by Derek Pratt covering a period of about five years. Given its brevity it focuses on places or events of particular interest rather than a detailed description of the journey itself.

The couple led this nomadic life, running weekend courses on jazz and canals (not at the same time), playing in bands and accepting paying guests from time to time. They mostly found work during the winter months and then an idyllic picture of the summers tempered by the pain of being distant from their family in the south.

Their wanderings therefore has a southerly bias and it was on these waters that the most interesting events happened. These events included a tidal surge overtopping the Limehouse lock gates (pre Thames Barrier?) and then their long tidal passage to and from the Medway - still one of the rarest inland waterways routes.

In short this book is the bit in the middle, filling in the gaps between the opening and closing . A good book in a great little series.

Saturday 10 November 2012

The last run of the season

High Offley to Calf Heath
4th and 5th November 2012

This trip is very bittersweet. On one hand a trip along the Shropshire Union in autumn is achingly beautiful, but on the other it represents the last significant outing of the boating season. Oh sure, there will be the odd day trip over the winter but past experience tells me that from mid November to mid February the boat will see little action beyond some concentrated maintenance work.

 Autumn light

High Onn church

But the maintenance work started on Sunday morning when I attended to the end of season oil change, always an unpleasant job due to the contortions I have to endure as I squeeze my 6ft 3in frame into the small confines of the engine bay beneath the cruiser stern. I can do it, but each year it seems to get harder.

Wheaton Aston lock

With rain lashing down all around us we were blessed by glorious weather, maybe a little frosty to start with but the sun shone forcing us into sunglasses as we peered into the glare.

Fellow Bloggers - No Problem and Chertsey

The Sunday start was a slow affair, starting with a cooked breakfast and then a walk up the the church in High Offley, eventually getting started at 12.30 when half the daylight was gone. But no matter, our destination was only Wheaton Aston, passing No Problem moored and empty awaiting some major TLC at Norbury Wharf.

Today was the day of Herons, stalking fish and winging silently in front of us.

A handful of Herons

Along the way we focused on Rosehips for Rosehip Cordial, picking from the many bushes which line the canal. There is no end to this plant, its everywhere but the trick it to fine a bush with large hips - it makes the topping and tailing so much easier.

We stopped on the visitor moorings and were treated to our very own firework display which we watched by simply drawing the curtains back.


The final run on Monday was as lovely as the preceding three days, with bright sun over ice coated puddles. Along the way we passed Chertsey / Bakewell but with no sign of Sarah who was probably up in Sheffield.

And so the trip ended with a shopping list of winter jobs to be completed, including the replacement of the mattress and more significantly, the replacement of the pump out loo with a cassette - we really are passing the Rubicon with that one!

Thursday 8 November 2012

The sun shines on the righteous

Shroppie Autumn Cruise
Calf Heath to High Offley
Friday and Saturday 2nd and 3rd November

The sun shines on the righteous - well that's what they said when I returned to work after a long weekend on the Shroppie with Helen.

Autumn colours at Brewood

The preceding week has been wild and windy and after our return the cold winter weather closed in again, but for the four days of our trip the sun shone from a cloudless sky, and we made the most of it.

Grub Street Cutting

My autumnal sojourn up the Shroppie has become something of  a fixture in my boating calendar, and a journey I never tire of. Sure it is so familiar that I know every bridge and corner rendering maps unnecessary but the cuttings and embankments are stunningly beautiful cloaked as they are in autumnal reds and golds. The more exposed woodland may be stripped bare by the first storms of winter but in the shelter of the cuttings time was rolled back a month and we even discovered large quantities of Elderberries.

Norbury Wharf

The snag with our choice of weekend is that falls after the clocks go back so the days are short so our aspirations were curtailed and instead of aiming for Market Drayton we settled on the Anchor at High Offley, just before the Shebdon Embankment which will be closed for weeks for repair.

Shelmore embankment

It was an outbound journey which provided a surprising bounty of Apples, Elderberries and in spite of the widespread crop failure, a goodly haul of sloes all picked from the offside of the canal where only boaters can reach them. 

The elusive Kingfisher!

The first night was spent at Wheaton Aston having topped up the diesel tank  and then after a pause at Norbury we spent the second at High Offley, a remote an quiet mooring if ever there was one. All along the route we saw Kingfishers, flitting from branch to branch but these little birds are as fast as they are elusive, defying my attempts to get decent photos. My interest in photographing Kingfishers is bordering on the obsessional.