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.
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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...