This final part of my review of 2022 boating, I explore a bit of canal I’ve never seen before, fail to get to my favourite waterway and end up on very familiar territory
Having made it to Atherstone, the pressure was off in terms of getting stuck on the “wrong” side of drought-related closures. It was now late August and my thoughts were turning to the beautiful Weaver Navigation as they so often do at this time of year. The direct route through Stoke was unavailable as there was no water in the reservoirs to feed the summit, so I turned left at Great Haywood and headed along the Staffs & Worcester Canal towards the Shropshire Union.
I’m not a fan of the Shroppie. As a later built canal it does exactly what it was designed to, taking the most direct route from Wolverhampton to Nantwich, through miles of countryside, rarely near a town. The route requires deep cuttings and high embankments which were simply not an option for the navvies of the previous century.
Naturally, I tend to look at it as a liveaboard; where can I moor against the bank, leave the car, shop, and of course get good Internet connectivity so that I can work? Broadly speaking the places with good internet are terrible moorings, and vice versa. Unless I’m stopping to see my friends who live near Cheswardine I aim to do the whole thing in a day or two.
This trip was wholly unremarkable barring one moment I’ve never experienced before. As I dropped down the second lock at Audlem a swan decided to jump into the lock ahead of the boat. I had more than half emptied the lock, and it was dropping slowly on a single paddle, so it seemed sensible to let it continue so that I could open the gates and let it out ahead of the boat. The swan however had other ideas. Just as we were making a level it decided to try and escape down the side of the boat and immediately became wedged. I was very concerned that it would be crushed by the boat, so tried to coax it backwards with the boat pole, but it wasn’t having it. By now I was standing on the roof holding the boat away from the bird as best I could. I asked some passers-by for help and soon a crowd had gathered. We tried a couple of different things, opening the gates so it could see an escape route, moving the boat slightly didn’t help dislodge it and eventually one of our rescue team – grabbed it by the neck and hauled it back down the side of the boat to the bow, where it promptly swam away, seemingly unhurt.
By the time I was in Middlewich I’d had confirmation that the Anderton Boat lift, linking the Trent & Mersey to the River Weaver was not going to reopen any time soon. A fault had been identified in a safety mechanism a few weeks earlier, and it had been closed while they assessed it. The alternative route was via Ellesmere Port and the Manchester Ship Canal, and CRT were arranging convoys for those needing to go to/from the Weaver. I did consider this route, but I’ve been on the Weaver when it has gone into flood during autumn and it isn’t my idea of fun.
I reflected on this during a trip to Italy in early September. I’d left the boat with friends Gill and John at the end of their garden in Middlewich. Being away from the boat is always something that needs a bit of thought so the offer of a secure spot is always very welcome. Sadly over the years I’ve had too many experiences of mischief or worse when I’m not on board, and indeed a couple of times when I have been inside. I’ve been fortunate that no-one has actually broken in to the cabin, but stuff has gone from the roof and decks, and I’ve even had my mooring lines stolen on two occasions.
With autumn approaching and a number of trips away from the boat planned it felt like the wrong time to take the Ship Canal option. However having had the idea put into my head, a trip to Ellesmere Port did sound like a good idea. Oddly it’s somewhere I’ve never been by boat. One of those dead ends that I never get around to.
The section through Bunbury and Beeston is beautiful, but has literally no mobile phone signal so I pressed on to the outskirts of Chester, where I paused for a few days.
I had heard many stories of problems with Northgate Staircase locks over the years, indeed they were the specific reason that I’d not been this way before on Bream. They have a reputation for very leaky gates that pour water over boats and with a large open front deck that was potentially a really serious concern, for the return journey in particular. However after a recce of the site, and conversation with a few people, I had a plan. If you keep the water level in the locks above you low enough then it can’t pour through the gates. It means making sure no-one comes down immediately behind you when descending, and dribbling it down from the top as you ascend, but it is doable, so it was nice to be on water I’d never seen before.
Taylor’s Yard is really something else. A proper old boatyard of the type that has mostly gone now. My first two boat trips in 1969 were on wooden craft made here, and it was lovely to see a few of the same family in the water and hiding on the bank. This is also the furthest point in this direction I’d even been by boat, when I helped Rupert on Skylark a few years ago. Before that the southern edge of Chester was as far as I had ever been in this direction, on our family boat in, I think, 1978.
The run to Ellesmere Port has very little to commend it. The views are limited and uninspiring, there are sections with huge amounts of weed growth; the floating islands reminded me of the Caldon in 70s, though this was Floating Pennywort, not reeds. It still tangled in the prop very easily, so with the constant stop-reverse-start, progress was slow. As I approached the Port I met a group of young men having a huge bonfire on the towpath. I did wonder if they knew that the fire was more or less on top of a large diameter gas main that runs down the towpath in that area – and is well marked – but they didn’t look in the mood for conversation so I carried on.
The Boat Museum was deserted when I arrived. I dropped down the locks and moored up. There were signs about needing to book a mooring via the CRT website but when I tried it rejected my attempts. It seems that not for the first time, Bream is too long to be accepted by the badly configured software. She’s correctly on the system at 70’9″ but many CRT assets are logged as suitable for boats of maximum 70′ length. I was on a previous occasion told she was too long to go through a tunnel, so no real surprise. No-one disturbed me and the museum was still deserted when I left the next morning.
Having retraced my steps to Middlewich, I spent a little time at Acton Bridge. Part of the fun of the Weaver in autumn is the Steam Party where boats and traction engines gather for a very sociable weekend in and around the Leigh Arms. My mooring on the Trent & Mersey was close enough for me to walk down and see the fun.
By now the autumn rain had arrived and the middle section of the Trent & Mersey had reopened so after a few weeks pottering around at Acton, Preston Brook and Anderton I headed south. I try to spend Christmas near to Stoke as I still have family and friends in the area, and it’s a time when I’m most likely to see them. This year I’d decided to go onto the Caldon. I wrote a little of this trip on the very first posts on this site so won’t repeat it here.
New Year was spent moored at Park Lane, Endon, though personally I was standing on Westminster Bridge, watching the fireworks.