Saturday, 21 October 2017

Churnet

As planned, Brother Nº 3 and Wife met us at the Holly Bush Inn for a day's excitement. As hoped, the overnight rain died away at more or less the same time and, after introductions were made with Erin Mae and we'd all had a nice cup of coffee, it was time to go boating.


I think the last time we'd shared a tiller was in the summer of 1968, when we went sailing and camping along the south coast with our friend Barry, who owned a catamaran that was just big enough for three. Now that was an interesting trip – but I will not digress. Just a point of note – a razor has not touched my face since. And my best beloved has never seen it shaven (but she's seen pictures of it without the beard, from the time before this holiday, and she's quite happy for me to keep it!).

The Caldon Canal is a great deal shallower than the waters we navigated on that occasion, and our pace was positively snail-like. Brother tackled tiller duty with appropriate accuracy, especially the bits that didn't involve serried ranks of moored boats around bends on the off-side and unseeable underwater obstructions on the on-side. Sister-in-law declined the opportunity to ground Erin Mae, and instead wielded her camera with great skill.


Meanwhile my best beloved offered instruction in all aspects of managing locks and other hazards. She also offered delicious portions of coconut crunch and gingerbread.


All proceeded well until we got down to Oak Meadow Ford lock, which is where the canal joins the River Churnet for a while.


Just above Erin Mae, on the right of this photo, can be seen a notice, whose purpose was to alert us to possible danger ahead. Out of sight (so you'll have to take my word for it), under the bridge at the bottom of the lock, is a depth gauge, to show the level of the river. It was very definitely in the red! It was also plain that the river was running fast. So instead of going down the lock onto the river, we stopped and had a very nice lunch of Staffordshire oatcakes, hoping that no other boats were following us down, since the only sensible mooring place served as both the lock landing and one side of a winding hole.

Lunch eaten, no harm having been done, and the gauge still in the red, we winded and retraced our steps. Down this stretch of the valley you're never far from the Churnet Valley Railway and, to our surprise (since this was a Friday in October) several trains ran up and down, announcing their presence with that characteristic steam train whistle which, for some reason or other, is extraordinarily pleasing.


Sister-in-law asked me if I had a favourite stretch of canal. It's hard to answer – we've been in so many fabulous spots. But the Churnet valley must be one of the best. It would just have been nice to have had the conditions and time to take them down to Consall Forge and on to Froghall.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Second breakfast

The unseen, submerged part of a fallen tree had a nibble at Erin Mae yesterday as we meandered to Leek.


We escaped intact and I was looking out for it making another attempt as we retraced our steps today. It was cool, a day for wrapping up warm at the tiller. And it was a route with regular hazards apart from toppled trees. In particular it has a number of bridges at awkward angles on corners, usually with boats moored up too close for comfort.


One of these corner-bridges is about the worst we've encountered anywhere, though the setting is delightful.


The first time we came through here, both directions, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to get Erin Mae pointed in the right direction while avoiding collisions. Today, with experience, it was less problematic, but we still used up just about all the allotted space in this very shallow basin. So shortly afterwards we decided on a short pause.


In Lord of the Rings, Pippin says: "What about second breakfast?" Aragorn pays no attention and Merry memorably replies: "I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip." Well, by now we were certainly up for second breakfast, what with the ends of both a seeded and a fruit loaf just begging to be toasted. Then it was through the bridge and round the corner to the junction.


I love the optimistic mention of Uttoxeter 20½ miles. The canal currently extends in that direction for one short pound beyond Froghall, and I doubt even the best efforts of the restoration society will see it in water all the way to Uttoxeter while we're still boating. But the branch towards Froghall was to be our immediate route.


The turn is too tight for Erin Mae to negotiate under power without churning up most of the bottom, so I got off the front with the bow-line, and pulled her round into the approach to the three locks.

The expected rain had arrived and we were glad to tie up soon on the moorings just short of the Hollybush Inn. Whether for main meals, puddings, musical evenings or more second breakfasts, I fancy we're going to be seeing quite a lot of the Hollybush over the next few days if this weather persists.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Forks in the road

Continuing up the Caldon canal, we came to another of those landmarks that draw your hand irresistibly towards the camera.


Apparently (according to Waterways World) the island used to be the pivot point of a swing bridge carrying a light railway over the canal. I expect anyone who's ever come this way has gone home with a photo or two. The one above was taken looking back, the one below was what we saw as we approached.


Just through the bridge is a basin which used to serve the lime-barge industry, but which now houses the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club. To stay on the main line of the canal you have to turn sharp right.


The other place at which this waterway forks is at Denford, where the Froghall branch carries straight on down three locks, while the Leek branch turns right along a lock-free pound, shortly passing over the lower branch, by now far below.


You can't go anywhere fast on the Caldon. In the first place, it's far too shallow and, in the second place, even if it wasn't, the canal deserves a dawdle. So we've come slowly to Leek and visited Morrisons for some Staffordshire oatcakes – possibly the longest journey specifically for such oatcakes ever undertaken by humankind. Well, we did buy one or two other things while we were at it (in fact, quite a lot).

Tonight we stay here. Tomorrow we retrace our steps to the junction and go down the three locks of the Froghall branch. After that it all gets a bit complicated – down that branch a bit and back on Friday with family. Back to Leek on Saturday. More family doings on Sunday. I'm tempted to leave an Ariadne thread as we move about to make sure that we don't lose track of where we are and can finally escape the Caldon labyrinth. Except that I expect it would get wrapped around the prop.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Caldon duck

Today we came through a stretch of the Trent and Mersey in the southern reaches of Stoke-on-Trent which was completely devoid of wildfowl. It isn't just that they don't like urban environments – they appeared elsewhere in what seemed to be the most unlikely of places. Ducks, in particular, in an assortment of varieties, including the slightly larger black and white splotchy sort that seem to be some farmyard breed escaped and gone native. But, in this stretch, not a moorhen, duck, swan, goose or anything else was to be seen. It was quite nice, when we moored up at Milton on the Caldon Canal this afternoon, to be greeted by the usual little flotilla, including this chappie.


The Caldon Canal branches off the Trent and Mersey at Etruria Junction. The unusual name for this area was given by Josiah Wedgwood when he established one of his major pottery centres here – it comes from the Etruscans of ancient Italy who apparently were known for their artistic flair. Wedgwood was himself one of the major players in the building of the Trent and Mersey – it was to save (and build) him a fortune by providing a way of moving his wares without half of them breaking en route. Today the junction, with its museum and events, celebrates canals rather than pots, and has a statue of James Brindley, the engineer for the T&M and other canals.


The first part of the Caldon goes through a very mixed part of Stoke. This was where we came on our very first cruise on Erin Mae in 2011, and the initial mile was throughly depressing and a bit scary. We were pleasantly surprised two years ago to discover all sorts of urban renewal projects underway, including a new housing development along the canal.


This has now been expanded to the other side, and one new estate has a very striking tribute to the city's past, with a couple of kilns left in place.


With these suburbs straddling the canal bridges are constant – including one electric lift-bridge where you try not to hold up too many cars as you pass sedately in front of their noses. But the one we always remember is Nº 9, because that's where we lost our chimney on that first cruise.


It's the lowest bridge we've encountered anywhere on the network. The sharp-eyed will note that I detached the chimney this time and laid it flat. It's only 12 inches, but it would have gone!


You can imagine what the girder might do our heads if we weren't careful. Now that's what I call a Caldon duck!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Exposed

As we left before 9 this morning, Ophelia was beginning to make her presence felt.


However, travelling north from Stone up the Meaford flight was generally sheltered and pretty calm. All very enjoyable, apart from the 3rd of the four locks, which appears to be damaged and took about half an hour to fill.

We had thought about mooring up just south of Trentham lock, but we found a good space a little before, by the bridge that leads over to the Wedgwood works and exhibition rooms (well worth a visit). Since there's been more traffic than expected, and there is limited space by the lock, we stopped here, looking out west towards the eye of the storm.


What you can't see from the photo is how the wind had developed. Under these conditions, it seems there a balance to be struck between exposure to the elements and making sure that you're not susceptible to a tree collapsing on you. So we opted for the more open choice – it looks good in the sun, and feeds us electrons via the solar panel.

Meanwhile, Ophelia has been having some fun dragging dust up from the Sahara, with some extraordinary effects.


I did nothing manually with the exposure for this photo – just let my little Panasonic do it all by itself.  We're used to the moon occasionally appearing unusual – a harvest moon or that eclipse – but I can't remember seeing the sun looking quite like this before. When the clouds swirling in front, the effect was different again.


All very wonderful, but we're hoping Ophelia doesn't have too many surprises left in store.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Stone

As we travel. we try to link up with local churches for Sunday morning worship. What would you google in Stone? "Stone Church" gives you a range of results that are not exactly relevant!

Stone also offers an opportunity to lay in supplies. With plans for turning right in Stoke and going up the Caldon Canal, this is the last chance for a decent supermarket shop before Leek. We'd planned on eating some Shropshire oatcakes with family on Friday, but unfortunately have found that they have a life expectancy of about three days (the oatcakes, that is, not the family!). Unless we can find an en-route supplier (suggestions, anyone?), we may have to push on to Leek for an oatcake shop before coming back to the Hollybush Inn where we're meeting on Friday. Not the end of the world.


The Star in Stone has been doing good trade on this fine day, which is getting hotter by the minute as hurricane Ophelia drags all that air up from the south. Tomorrow's forecast still looks good for our trip to Trentham – perhaps a bit gusty around the time we expect to arrive. My best beloved's Donegal family, however, looks likely to cop rather more of the wind, and we'll be thinking of them and others we know over there.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

North by North-West

Our brief trip home was highly successful in its primary purpose – getting my best beloved's dental emergency unemergencified. Yesterday we drove back north to Erin Mae, wondering from time to time what on earth had induced us to do so on a Friday afternoon, when the world and her husband are going places. But we have plans! Our big question is whether the weather will allow us to fulfil them. Everybody's talking about a hurricane for Monday – and boaters, generally speaking, don't like the wind. But if you look at the Met Office website, the forecast for our neck of the woods seems at most a little breezy and for the most part quite balmy.

So (intrepid adventurers that we are) out we set, following the Trent and Mersey on its North-West passage to Stone. And very nice it was, too, with the autumn colours around on a sunny afternoon.


It was a bit of a long haul (over 4½ hours) and we'd started late, so we were slightly concerned about finding a mooring spot. A boater who helped us up the first lock in Stone indicated that there was a place above the second lock, just behind his boat, where we could squeeze in and no one would mind us staying over the weekend. The first part of his assurance was correct. We'll report back some other time on the the second part was as accurate!