Go to Allan's Page Part 1 - Birthday Parties and the trip to Stoke Canals Home Page Part 3 - Birmingham to Drayton Manor and the Ashby Go to Deb's Page
BCN Wedding of the Year View Slideshow  

Peak Forest, Llangollen, Birmingham, Drayton Manor and Ashby 2012

Part 2: Macclesfield, Peak Forest, Llangollen and Birmingham

We had made really good time on the way to Stoke-on-Trent, giving us several spare days in which to revisit the beautiful Macclesfield canal, with its spectacular views and beautiful stone bridges. After leaving the Trent and Mersey canal by the strangest of flyover junctions, the canal soon reaches the pretty stop-lock at Hall Green. The odd feature of this lock is that although it is the standard 7ft wide it was originally double the usual length; apparently the T&M and Macclesfield canals were built at almost the same level so each company built their own stop-lock, end to end, to prevent the other company from stealing "their" water. Nowadays the T&M is always lower than the Macclesfield to allow for good headroom through the Harecastle Tunnel, so only one end of the lock is still in use.

 

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Where else in the world could you see scenery like this from the back of a boat?

The Macclesfield canal again impressed us by being in excellent condition. It is a shallow canal, but we never had any difficulty when passing boats that we met coming the other way, unlike our visit of 1984 when every such rare encounter resulted in both boats running aground and having to be manhandled past each other. We always managed to get the bank to find good moorings at any of the piled sections when we wanted to, and as in 2009 we found the locks at Bosley delightfully easy to use apart from the top gates' annoying habit of drifting open behind me as I left each lock. This was particularly annoying because you have to walk all round the lock, crossing over the bottom gates at the far end, to reach the offside top gate, but I soon found that a good technique was to close the top gates at precisely the instant when the next lock was being emptied, because the extra water from that lock held the gates shut as I motored away. The locks had originally been built with side ponds, and it was a shame not to be able to use them; there was a superb interpretation board next  to one of them, giving an excellent explanation of how they worked but then spoiling the whole effect by wrongly stating "the system was only efficient if there were equal numbers of boats passing up and down".

When we visited the Macclesfield Canal in 2009 we had spent an evening in Macclesfield with some friends from the Canalworld Forum, and we were able to contact them again before we left Congleton. They were able to direct us to a good mooring near their house, and we spent a wonderful evening having dinner with them. Clearly their musical tastes matched ours with an emphasis on 70's music, so we reciprocated by inviting them on board for a 70's-themed evening the following week, complete with a cheese fondue.

 

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Industrial mills dominate the scene at Bollington and Marple Inside the old lime shed at Bugsworth Basin

Of course the Macclesfield was not built to provide its users with spectacular views, it was an industrial highway which carried limestone and also served the various mills along the route. Several of these mills still exist although none of them still perform their original purpose. To me they have a majestic beauty of their own which rivals that of the countryside and serves as a reminder of the industrial age when the canals were constructed. When we finally moored at Bugsworth Basin near Whaley Bridge we were actually inside the ruins of the old lime shed where the working boats would have been loaded with their limestone cargoes.

We only stayed for one night at Bugsworth Basin, and then Debbie took advantage of the local Tesco's to stock up with supplies while I went up to Whaley Bridge to turn the boat around. Having loaded the supplies on board we were just setting off when we encountered "Alton" the local diesel boat, so we filled up our fuel tank and made arrangements to meet them at their base the next week to buy a bottle of gas and empty our waste tank.

 

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One of the beautiful turnover bridges
The extension makes steering through this bridge very difficult
As if this bridge wasn't awkward enough, two boats had moored right on the corner
Strange animal life at Congleton
In 21 years this boat is the closest we have seen to our own colour scheme

The wonderful bridges on the Macclesfield canal are always a delight to behold, especially when the towpath changes sides at one of the "snake" bridges which allowed a horse to change to the other side of the canal without detaching the tow-rope. However the bridges are narrow enough to make their navigation tricky, especially on a windy day or when the brickwork is obscured by overhanging vegetation, and sometimes also a modern extension not only hides their beauty but also makes it extremely difficult for a long boat to pass through without being able to bend in the middle. Adding to the difficulty of aiming for the bridge-hole, at the junction in Marple two boats had moored side-by-side right on the corner and as I couldn't see past them I just had to aim the front of the boat in the general direction of the bridge and hope that it didn't hit anything!

Returning along the Macclesfield canal, we moored at a delightful spot within sight of Mow Cop, a spectacular hill topped by an old ruined castle. All is not what it seems however, for Mow Cop castle is a folly that was built as a ruin in the middle of the 18th century. It is a lovely peaceful mooring, about an hour from the end of the canal, and an ideal place from which to launch an assault on the long flight of Trent & Mersey locks down to the Cheshire plain. These Cheshire locks are nowadays commonly known as "Heartbreak Hill" because of the relentless succession of awkwardly-spaced locks which are just too close together to make it worthwhile for the crew to ride on the boat between them, yet are just too far apart to be a comfortable walking distance either. We had planned to take two days descending this flight, as we had done on most previous occasions, but we had woken early to make an early start in perfect weather, and we met hardly any other boats on the lock flight, so that by lunchtime we had passed our planned overnight stop.

 

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Moored below Mow Cop
Enlarged from the previous picture; Mow Cop castle
Subsidence has reduced the width of several locks by bending them, like this one
The first time we had seen a C&RT plaque on a new gate
The bridge over the 50-yard long Wardle Canal at Middlewich

The Cheshire locks were constructed in pairs to speed up the traffic, so that in most cases there is a good chance that one of them will be in your favour. Sometimes one of the pair has suffered from subsidence, and carries a sign that it should only be used by boats of 6ft 10in beam or less; as far as we could tell, these signs are generally pessimistic and a boat of exactly 7ft (but no more) could probably just squeeze through. Certainly with a beam of 6 ft 10 in we had no problems at all. It always amuses me that one of the locks (at Thurlwood) was replaced by an enormous steel contraption which was intended to be a long-term solution the subsidence problems; it never worked properly and was eventually sold for scrap soon after I saw it in 1984, whereas the original 18th century lock beside it is still in perfect working order.

In one day we had travelled to the end of the Macclesfield canal, descended the whole of Heartbreak Hill, made our way along the Trent & Mersey Canal to Middlewich, travelled the entire 50-yard length of the Wardle Canal, and ascended "Maureen's Lock". This, the first lock of the canal, is unofficially named after Maureen Shaw, a wonderful character who lived at  this cottage for many years and sadly died in 2012. Finally we moored on the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union Canal after a total of 18 miles and 33 locks in one day. Feeling extremely pleased with ourselves, not to mention rather tired, we treated ourselves to a magnificent banquet of an Indian meal at the Blue Ginger restaurant, which is an absolute gem in the centre of Middlewich; from the outside it looks relatively ordinary but I have to say that their chef is an absolute genius. After eating (and drinking) ourselves to a complete standstill, and clutching the red rose that the waiter had given to Debbie as we left, we collapsed back on to the boat and slept really soundly until the dogs woke us up the next morning.

 

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"Maureen's Lock"
I love the chimney on this house beside the Llangollen Canal
Night falls as we approach the Welsh mountains
Two days before we were here, a boat sunk by catching its bow fender in this gap
For years I've wanted to get a good picture of a kingfisher.

Soon we were back on the Llangollen Canal. We had made such good progress again that we could afford to spend a week there. Usually at this time of year the canal would be extremely busy, but this year we couldn't believe how quiet it was: the hire bases were full of un-hired boats, and there were no queues at the usual bottleneck places. What we did notice was that those people who had hired boats seemed to have been given very little by way of instruction. For example we arrived at New Marton locks we found ourselves behind a queue of hire-boaters, none of whom could work out how to operate the lock. One said he'd simply been told to go to the lock and wait until someone arrived who knew what to do; one said he'd been told in 5 seconds how to operate a lock, without reference to any pictures or models, and had promptly forgotten every word; one said he'd been told to watch a DVD that had been left on the boat, but the DVD player wasn't working. We instructed them all in the art of locking, and they set off happily up the canal again; a few days later when we arrived back at the locks, by chance we found the same set of boats - who had by now become firm friends and were all travelling together - waiting to go back down again; as Debbie walked up to them someone said "We're OK now, here comes the expert" and once again Debbie went into instructor mode (meanwhile I was busy rescuing a little shrew that had fallen into the canal next to our boat).

It seemed as hire boats were having problems along the canal, and it seemed that every other day we heard further reports of boats being sunk in the locks. Perhaps a lack of instruction was the problem, but when times are tight how could the hire companies afford to lose so many boats? For example one sank in Grindley Brook staircase, where another had nearly sabotaged our own passage by leaving the bottom paddles of the lowest chamber partly open (our middle chamber emptied almost completely despite the lock-keeper's attention) and another caught its front fender in the badly worn gap between the bottom gates so that its stern went under as the lock emptied.

We really enjoyed our week on the Llangollen canal. On our way through Wrenbury, Debbie managed a really good score at the lift bridge: 5 cars, 1 van, 2 pedestrians, and a cycling race! The cyclists said thanks to Debbie for giving them a breather! We spent only one day in Llangollen, and had a great meal at the Corn Mill before using our shore-line to plug in a fan heater and warm the boat up quickly on a surprisingly cold night. We made a slow and lazy start from Llangollen, and were glad that we had done so when at the next  narrows we caught up with all the boats that had started in the 2 hours before our departure.

Returning to the Shroppie, we stopped for the night at a popular but beautifully peaceful mooring which has been created by the Shropshire Union Canal Society, with permanent picnic tables and barbeques, at a place called Coole Pilate. Only it's not so quiet now, because someone has set up a clay pigeon shooting ground in the field directly opposite, with apparently 12 shooting hides each containing multiple gun positions. It was like being moored in the middle of a wartime gun battle, with guns being fired every few seconds for hours on end. What idiot thought that would be a good idea?

We arrived in the middle of Birmingham with several days to spare before two friends of ours were to be married. This would be a wedding with a difference because after the ceremony, which was to be at the canalside Register Office, the Bride and Groom (who had each arrived on their own boat) would be returning to their home mooring on one boat followed by a flotilla of 15 more boats carrying the guests. The resultant chaos that we brought to the centre of Birmingham was absolutely wonderful to behold. I have put together a  page of my best pictures of the occasion (opens in a separate tab) or else you may carry on reading about the rest of our trip ...

 

BCN Wedding of the Year View Slideshow  
Go to Allan's Page Part 1 - Birthday Parties and the trip to Stoke Canals Home Page Part 3 - Birmingham to Drayton Manor and the Ashby Go to Deb's Page

 

All pictures on this site are Allan Jones unless otherwise stated

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