4 counties and a nostalgia trip (part 1)
Crew: Christine & Terry, son Tim, brother Christopher
This is our first 2 week trip and our first trip round a ring. We wanted to revisit the Stafford and Stoke on Trent area where we lived when we first got married in 1975.
Part 1 - A trip down memory canal
Sunday 11th Gailey - Radford
Christine, Christopher and I arrived at the boatyard just after 1:30 to find Freiya ready and waiting for us. She is a new boat with just 370 hrs on the engine, is 60' long, has two double (or twin) cabins, 2 loos and a cruiser stern. The saloon has a fold down single bunk and a convertible dinette. As soon as we got on board we noticed the very high quality of the fitout and the attention to detail. The quality of this boat was one of the reasons we chose to buy a share in boat from the same yard.
Once we were settled in, one of the staff showed me the technical bits and did the rather tricky turn from the parking bay into Gailey lock. This involved some very rapid reversing which alarmed the crew of a boat we were heading for. We were soon on our way, and met an quite a bit of traffic coming the other way - mostly from a rally at the Stafford boat club. It meant the locks were all set for us, which was okay by me. This was our first return to the area for many years and it was interesting to revisit Stafford by boat and see once familiar landmarks from a different perspective.
We had arranged to rendezvous with our son Tim and his then fiancee (now wife) Caroline at the Trumpet not realising that our 97 Nicholsons guide was out of date, and the pub is now called the Radford Inn. We managed to find each other thanks to Christine phoning them as they whizzed past down the A34. Tim was to stay with us for the rest of the week, his first holiday with us for many years.
Monday 12th Radford - Stone
After breakfasting on bacon sarnies, Christine and I made an early start leaving the "lads" in bed. At Tixall lock we met the tug Trem, which had come to a halt with several yards of electrical cable insulation round the prop. Then onto Tixal wide with Shugbrough Hall sitting grandly in its grounds. After a short stop at Great Haywood junction to look at the boats and fill up with water, we headed for Weston, our main nostalgia stop.
We moored just before the bridge at Weston and took a walk into the village where we started married life 25 years ago. We noticed that a lot of new houses had been built since our day but we soon found our way to our old local the Woolpack, where we had a nice lunch.
After lunch we walked up to Weston Hall. It used to be flats, and rather run down. We lived in the basement, which was always cold even in the summer of '76. The transformation in the place was amazing, it's now a posh conference centre and restaurant. We took a tour round and identified where our old flat was. So many walls had been knocked down it was difficult to envisage the way it used to be. We're planning to have dinner there on our 25th anniversary in September.
As the top of Sandon Lock a couple of mallards alighted on the roof for food and a photo call, we obliged with both. We moored for the night by Stone Bottom Lock, noting the extra winding hole not mentioned in Nicholsons. Just up the cut there was a delightful wooden cruiser Tamburo, which we remembered from our September cruise also. Stone seemed a pleasant if empty little town, with a handy Safeways.
Tuesday 13th Stone - Milton
We started on the Stone flight, stopping to take on water by the picturesque Newcastle Road lock with its horse tunnel. Had trouble finding a place to stop for a cuppa after the locks, as the towpath was overgrown with nettles, but finally pulled in between bridges 100 & 101. As we continued, and trundled along this section, we were accompanied by the aroma of the lamb in red wine casserole that Christine was preparing.
Our 1997 Nicholsons struck again as Etruria junction with the Caldon canal comes after lock 40 - not between 39 & 40 as they allege. We moored up at Etruria junction - a pleasant and park-like oasis in the centre of an industrial wasteland, with it's statue of James Brindley. After a brief stop for lunch, taking on water and dumping the rubbish, we went on to tackle the staircase.
There was a bit of a queue at the staircase as one idiot in a share boat insisted of working through it totally alone. He then got stemmed up trying to turn round in the winding hole below the lock. Once in we went up the staircase pretty rapidly, thanks to assistance from the oncoming crews. The middle gate looks awfully tall as you enter the bottom lock.
Stoke (actually Hanley) was Christine's first home in this country when she arrived from Connecticut USA 26 years ago. What a difference to rural Connecticut, I'm amazed she survived the culture shock. I found the place a shock and I was brought up in London. They are so far behind the times they still sell sterilised milk! They do accept Decimal currency now, and the people are just as friendly as they have always been.
We moved on to Hanley park, another green haven in the midst of the city, to demolish the lamb - wonderful. As it was a delightful evening and we didn't want to spend the night in the city, we pushed on through an industrial wasteland until we reached lift bridge 11. This bridge is key operated but we couldn't get the key in all the way. At that point Nb Sovereign showed up from the opposite direction. They couldn't get it in either, so they called BW, and an engineer showed up an hour later. He bashed his key home with a hammer and we we underway again. We finally reached Milton at 9:30 when the light was definitely fading fast - just as well it's mid June.
Wednesday 14th Milton - Stockon Brook
We woke to the sound of rain on the roof, so after a leisurely get up we wandered into Milton for supplies. Milton is a pleasant little town, and the best access to it is by bridge 18. The main town is on the towpath side. We decided to push on through the rain in an attempt to see the pretty bit. Lift bridge 21 doesn't need a key despite what Nicholson's guide says, you do need a windlass though. After a rapid passage up Stockton Brook locks we stopped for lunch, but found the edges very shallow and the towpath overgrown.
The next stop was the brand new and very posh Park Lane visitor moorings. It has a washing machine, though you need a swipe card from BW first. We had intended to get as far as Leek, but gave up just past the junction and turned at Br 3, in torrential rain. This manoeuvre was made more interesting by a boat coming through the bridge while we were turning - apparently oblivious of our 60' of bright yellow boat right across the cut.
The scenery was still stunning, in spite of the rain. We returned to Park lane for dinner. The forecast for the morrow was wet, and as we had a temporary respite in the precipitation,we decided to do the Stockton Brook flight after dinner. One irritating feature of this flight is there is nowhere to drop the crew off before the locks. We got through the 5 locks in just 30 mins, thanks to some pretty slick lock work by the crew.
Thursday 15th Stockton Brook - Church Lawton
The morning started dry, but with the promise of rain to come we set off after a breakfast of oatcakes with cheese and bacon. (After that I could face what ever the weather threw at us!) We made a brief shopping stop at Milton, wended our way back through Stoke, and had to queue for the staircase again.
Had another pleasant lunch at Etruria junction and prepared the boat for the Harecastle tunnel. We fitted an extra light on the rear of the roof, pointing up and forward, and a red bike light to the rear of the gas bottle bunker. Made sure there were torches handy front and rear, got the rain gear handy etc.
When we arrived the tunnel we were told it was a 45 minute wait. (One of our convoy were travelling astrologers, if they were any good they should have been able to predict when the tunnel would open and not have to wait.) After about an 1.5 hours two boats emerged and we though we were off, but the barrier went back across and the doors were shut. After a further 20 minutes a boat emerged with cheering American crew who wished us all luck and that we would need it. Then Jobsworth the tunnel keeper decided it would be a good time to inspect everyone's licence in detail.
After all that we finally got under way with some trepidation, but the passage itself was no problem, taking just 1/2 hr. The extra roof light was a great help especially when the roof got really low and you couldn't see much at the front. I manage to get almost all the way through without a single touch but I throttled off to do the turn at the end and the bow swung over and grazed the metal plate at the side of the portal.
After that we started looking for a quiet mooring. We stopped briefly at Red Bull visitor moorings, another nice new refurbished place, but some idiot put down a thin layer of pea gravel on the path right by the mooring rings. Ever tried hauling on a mooring rope stood on pea gravel ? I wonder if these guys have ever seen a boat let alone moored one. After passing through a very crowded lock by a pub we found some peace and quiet just below lock 46 by Bridge 135.
About 10 pm we heard a boat engine and looked out to see Phil Ruston going by on Why Worry, heading for Middlewich single handed. We had hoped to meet up with him as we had conversed on the UK waterways network newsgroup and knew he was heading our way. He moored with us and we enjoyed a good natter, it was good to put a face to a name from the newsgroup.
Friday 16th Church Lawton - Middlewhich
By the time we got up Phil was well on his way, but we caught up with him at a queue at Hassal Green, so we worked the two boats through the twin locks together. We soon caught a hire boat with a large crew making slow progress through the locks, so we started to assist them as well. They didn't seem to understand the co-operative lock working, and on one occasion closed the gate of "their" prepared lock as I approached, despite all our previous assistance. We soon left them behind to muddle through and stopped at Wheelock for a well earned lunch after doing 20 locks and 5.5 miles in 4.5 hrs - what a team.
Today the weather had improved and it was getting rather warm, so we had a leisurely lunch, filled the water tank and hosed the boat down before trundling down to Middlewich. We had been warned that Middlewich would be crowded as the Folk and Boat Festival was on. The parked boats started just after Cledford bridge but we didn't fancy mooring right by the main road so we decided to take our chances on the Middlewich branch.
We passed more boats than I have ever seen in one place, some moored 3 or 4 deep leaving just enough room to pass. Kings Lock was a seething mass of people, so our locking technique had to be good, as did the turn at the junction.
We got lucky and found a mooring just below bridge 29. The folks on the adjacent boat warned us that the bank was poor and we should moor carefully. We used an aft spring as well as the centre rope. We also had to use the rather warped gangplank, the only bit of equipment on the boat I could fault.
This was where Tim would leave us and Joyce and Brian join, so we used the mobile to make final rendezvous arrangements for Saturday. After that we took a look round at all the boats. One that particularly took our eye was Celtic Dream with its elegant colour scheme of deep blue and gold, we may do something similar when we get our own boat.
(Because of the photos and the length of this trip report, we've put the second week on the next page)