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De­spite so many des­ti­na­tions on his wish list, David Johns re­fuses to speed up canal time

What would Dou­glas Adams of Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Gal­axy (or Ein­stein for that mat­ter...) have made of canal time? David Johns ex­plains

One of the many won­der­fully ec­cen­tric con­cepts de­scribed in Dou­glas Adams’ Hitch­Hiker’s

Guide to the Gal­axy is a ma­chine called the To­tal Per­spec­tive Vor­tex. Its pur­pose is to ex­trap­o­late a model of the en­tire uni­verse – from a piece of fairy cake – and in do­ing so, demon­strate how ut­terly in­signif­i­cant any in­di­vid­ual per­son is by com­par­i­son.

I won­der some­times if Adams ever tried nar­row­boat­ing since he’d have re­alised you can achieve a sim­i­lar per­spec­tive shift by a few weeks of con­stant cruis­ing (al­beit with­out the tor­ture and death which the TPV in­flicts when the sub­ject re­alises their rel­e­vance to the uni­verse).

You see, back when I buzzed about in a lux­ury car ev­ery day, cross­ing coun­ties in mere hours and waft­ing my way along many miles of as­phalt roads, the world seemed a fairly small and eas­ily tra­vers­a­ble place. Six weeks – yes, weeks, I tell you! – af­ter set­ting off on the boat how­ever and re­al­is­ing I was not only north of Birm­ing­ham but steam­ing in the di­rec­tion of Liver­pool sud­denly seemed like the most in­cred­i­ble jour­ney of epic pro­por­tions.

I found my­self look­ing on a map and gasp­ing in awe at how far I’d come. “Look,” I squealed, thank­fully with no­body else around to hear, “I’m all the way up here,” my brain strug­gling to grasp the no­tion of the boat hav­ing moved quite such an im­mense dis­tance in so short a time. How funny – but such is the trans­for­ma­tion of your per­spec­tive when you ad­just to boat life that go­ing a few miles seems like a life­time’s jour­ney.

Hav­ing com­pleted Heart­break Hill in glo­ri­ous sun­shine af­ter do­ing the Hare­cas­tle Tun­nel, my good ship now plot­ted a steady course for Mid­dlewich. The orig­i­nal plan had been to turn left

‘It was here I had my first fu­el­boat ex­pe­ri­ence, nb

Hal­sall com­ing along­side as planned a day or so ear­lier and re­fu­elling my diesel tank.’

there and head across to the Shrop­pie, but it had since been sug­gested that I make a rel­a­tively quick (that means an­other week, of course) di­ver­sion fur­ther north to the An­der­ton Boat Lift. At the very least I should go down and up again on this mighty con­struc­tion even if ex­plor­ing the River Weaver be­low wasn’t go­ing to be fea­si­ble this time around.

And what an im­mense piece of en­gi­neer­ing the lift is. If you think a piece of fairy cake can help you get some per­spec­tive, just try stand­ing be­low, above or in­deed within the An­der­ton Lift and con­sider how it was con­structed not even in the 1900s but in the late 1800s. Now there’s some­thing that will blow your mind. Like much of the canal net­work, it’s mind­bog­gling to ap­pre­ci­ate just what an achieve­ment this thing re­ally is.

As a thrill-a-minute white-knuckle vis­i­tor at­trac­tion you’re cer­tainly bet­ter off at Al­ton Tow­ers; the des­cent or as­cent is glacial – in­deed the whole process was typ­i­cally ‘canal time’ – but as an ex­pe­ri­ence to say you’ve done on your boat, it’s awe­some. If you or your fam­ily have any in­ter­est in en­gi­neer­ing, it’s cer­tainly a trip worth do­ing. Friendly staff, too, which al­ways helps.

With that ex­pe­ri­ence ticked off my bucket list, the boat was turned through 180 de­grees and back down to Mid­dlewich to then turn west along the 100 yards or so of the War­dle canal be­fore it be­comes the Mid­dlewich branch of the Shrop­pie.

It’s very pretty as you start out; houses with lov­ingly-tended gardens on either side, the odd weep­ing wil­low (which look nice but don’t half get in the way of try­ing to see ahead) but with some young urchins chuck­ing stones around from the towpath as I chugged along, it seemed safest to con­tinue out of town be­fore stop­ping for the night.

What a palaver that turned out to be. Three times I tried to pull into a nicelook­ing spot with a good bit of pil­ing to tie up to and three times the boat dragged on the silt even though the wa­ter lev­els ap­peared to be nor­mal. I hate moor­ing with the base­plate on the bot­tom; ev­ery time the boat moves a frac­tion you hear that aw­ful scrap­ing noise and, at least in my case, fondly imag­ine a sand­pa­per-like ef­fect wear­ing through the hull lead­ing to vi­sions of wa­ter leaks spring­ing up as lit­tle foun­tains in the bilge while I’m asleep.... shud­der.

I did even­tu­ally find a su­perb spot op­po­site a farm where the boat pulled in nice and tightly and was still afloat. Three days were spent in the sun­shine there and I could eas­ily have spent more were I not on a tight – okay, three month – sched­ule.

It was here I had my first fu­el­boat ex­pe­ri­ence, nb Hal­sall com­ing along­side as planned a day or so ear­lier and re­fu­elling my diesel tank. Two new fend­ers were also pur­chased, my front one hav­ing al­most worn it­self to threads by re­peated lock­ing ac­tion (rub­bing against the front gates) and the rear one be­ing es­sen­tially use­less since it was shorter than the rud­der thus the vi­tal steer­ing de­vice would take the brunt of any force from the back and not the soft squidgy fender; now fixed.

On­wards to the end of the Mid­dlewich and a sharp left onto the Shrop­pie.

In­ci­den­tally, why don’t they put con­vex mir­rors at the end of those canal T-junc­tions so that you can see if any­one’s com­ing be­fore you head out?

Yes, I know you can blast your horn but twice I’ve done that and there’s still been a boat look­ing ter­ri­bly sur­prised and even an­noyed that I’ve emerged from the bridge, de­spite them giv­ing no re­turn horn blast to warn me that they’re ap­proach­ing.

“You must go up the Llan­gollen,” said prac­ti­cally every­body when I men­tioned my route this year but alas, like the Weaver, it’s had to be rel­e­gated to an­other time. Ditto for the Cal­don and the Mac­cles­field and... look, yes, I know there are lots of lovely canals that I could go up but there’s only so much time each year! The canals aren’t go­ing any­where, they’ll still be avail­able in 2018.

So it was straight past the four en­try locks of the Welsh tourist hotspot and on­wards, with a quick stop at the Nantwich basin for laun­dry. Past a well-signed se­cret nu­clear bunker (I kid you not).

Along some ex­traor­di­nar­ily straight bits of canal with fan­tas­ti­cally pretty views. It was largely sunny so the rolling hill­sides and open fields were ut­terly glo­ri­ous even if – dare I say it – the canal it­self was a bit bor­ing. Is that heresy?

I can’t say I’m a fan of the Shrop­pie shelf, either. It’s one of those things you wished you’d known about be­fore­hand but un­til you get there you don’t know that you needed to re­search it. Es­sen­tially, there’s a very sub­stan­tial – and un­der­wa­ter – con­crete edge to the Shrop­pie which makes moor­ing a dis­plea­sure. If you thought silted-up canal sides were bad for your nerves, try park­ing on the Shrop­shire Union.

It suf­fices to say that a few choice ex­ple­tives were ut­tered on sev­eral oc­ca­sions when try­ing to stop for the night and find­ing the boat clonk­ing nois­ily on top of, or side­ways into, the solid con­crete blocks which have seem­ingly been in­stalled to an­noy pass­ing tourists like my­self. All the na­tives, I note, had pur­chased suf­fi­cient go-kart tyres to drop side­ways into the wa­ter and en­sure suf­fi­cient gap be­tween their hull and the shelf. Duly noted for next time.

De­spite these daunt­ing ob­sta­cles I made my way mer­rily south with even the Audlem flight prov­ing not too trou­ble­some thanks to a well-timed volly lockie com­ing upon me sin­gle-hand­ing slowly up the locks.

Grad­u­ally I got used to the no­tion of stop­ping not wher­ever I felt like it, as with ev­ery other canal, but in the clearly marked vis­i­tor moor­ing spots such as Tyr­ley Wharf, Nor­bury Wharf and Wheaton As­ton – all of which were very pleas­ant in­deed. Soon, the end of the Shrop­pie beck­oned and I’d be turn­ing right down to­wards Worces­ter­shire.

CB

Keep up to date with my video blogs at Cruis­ingTheCut.co.uk, fol­low me on Twit­ter (@ Cruis­ingTheCut) and of course keep read­ing here in Canal Boat mag­a­zine!

Re­lax­ing at Nor­bury Wharf

Tyr­ley Wharf house

High Bridge on the Shrop­pie

The An­der­ton Boat Lift is a work of art

Glo­ri­ous sun­set near Bridge 180A

Busy at Wheaton As­ton

Doggy pad­dle near Mid­dlewich...

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