The next chal­lenge for in­trepid David Johns is sur­rounded by tales of ghosly go­ings-on

Canal Boat - - This Month -

First find a place to do the wash­ing, then take on the chal­lenge of Hare­cas­tle Tun­nel for the first time – ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent for David Johns

There are many potential ter­rors await­ing the novice nar­row­boater: maybe op­er­at­ing the locks sin­gle-handed; per­haps fast-flowing rivers and their weirs; in some cases merely ma­noeu­vring the boat safely and steadily is enough to bring on a sweat.

My great­est con­cern as a cruis­ing live­aboard, I’ve dis­cov­ered, is run­ning out of clean un­der­pants.

Ir­ri­tat­ingly, my boat is not equipped with a do­mes­tic laun­dry ma­chine as the more mod­ern craft are and the por­ta­ble twin-tub – which wasn’t that cheap now I come to think of it – has started leak­ing when it spins.

So it is that on my Grand Tour of 2017 I have needed to pay care­ful at­ten­tion to the Ayles­bury Canal So­ci­ety’s Laun­dry List book­let, al­lied to in­for­ma­tion from my best friend Mr Google and his tremen­dous li­brary of maps.

Bar­ton Turns Ma­rina on the Trent and Mersey, I can con­firm, has de­cent ma­chines al­though as with so many of them you do end up hav­ing to shell out for dou­ble the drier to­kens if you re­ally want your clothes re­moved of all damp­ness. And no, I don’t want my smalls hang­ing out on the tow­path for all to see; a drier re­ally is the pre­ferred op­tion.

Con­ve­niently there is an unat­tended vil­lage laun­drette at Kids­grove a mere ten min­utes’ walk from the canal. A few doors down, I was also obliged to dis­cover, is quite a nice bak­ery who will hap­pily present you with suf­fi­cient pound coins to op­er­ate said laun­dry if you are will­ing to buy a dough­nut or two (which I am al­ways happy to do). This laun­dry has dri­ers big enough to crawl into though I do not rec­om­mend do­ing so.

This do­mes­tic bliss is all well and good (I hear you think) but what, if any, boat­ing have I been up to this month?

Thanks for ask­ing. I’ve chugged along up the Trent and Mersey through splen­did lit­tle vil­lages like Willing­ton and Al­re­was, the lat­ter of which where – shock – peo­ple in the vil­lage say hello to you as you walk past while not on the tow­path.

Friend­li­ness to strangers away from the canal? I’m not at all used to this, it made me jump.

While we’re men­tion­ing English stereo­types, may I ad­vise car­ry­ing not one but two sturdy um­brel­las for the jour­ney out of Al­re­was. Both bot­tom gates on one of the locks in­sisted on swing­ing wide open when unat­tended and, be­ing sin­gle handed on the boat, I was obliged to im­pro­vise gate props from my brol­lies in or­der to hold them shut un­til such time as I could let a lit­tle wa­ter in.

It’s been sug­gested I should sim­ply have opened the top pad­dles to create a flow then run back to push the gates shut but I think such ex­per­i­men­ta­tion would have wasted wa­ter. Brol­lies do the job just fine, with­out waste, and repli­cate the ‘of­fi­cial’ so­lu­tion of metal poles seen at As­ton lock ear­lier in the jour­ney.

It was a great plea­sure to ar­rive at Fradley about which I’d heard so much and seen so many pic­tures. An­other clas­sic canal lo­ca­tion – tick! Should you ever go through here I rec­om­mend the le­mon driz­zle cake from the CRT cafe

‘Thank good­ness for that hair­cut else it could have been the bridge un­der­side that gave me a scalp­ing’

op­po­site the vis­i­tor moor­ings; de­li­cious and sticky.

If I may quickly dip back into mun­dane mat­ters for a mo­ment, then I must give a men­tion to Ruge­ley which not only has Tesco and Mor­risons su­per­mar­kets within easy stroll of the town cen­tre moor­ings but also a cheap and cheer­ful bar­bers where I had my usual ‘clip it all off for un­der a ten­ner’ makeover.

Less im­pres­sive was the as­ton­ish­ing amount of lit­ter float­ing by here; for a rel­a­tively small town, Ruge­ley cer­tainly has a keen en­thu­si­asm for dump­ing rub­bish in the wa­ter­way.

The town of Stone was the next ma­jor ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment and go­ing through on a sunny Sun­day it seemed most pleas­ant. Then up, moor­ing briefly at Bar­las­ton be­fore tack­ling Stoke on Trent with plenty of fo­rum ad­vice to get through it in one hit and not to stop un­til at least Etruria, maybe fur­ther still.

Oddly, de­spite all the pre­cau­tions due to lim­ited head­room at the im­pend­ing Hare­cas­tle tun­nel, there’s an in­her­ent bar­rier to over-height boats get­ting there be­cause of some ex­tremely low bridges ap­proach­ing the locks through Stoke. I swear with hind­sight that one of them, a rail­way cross­ing I think, was even lower than the tun­nel and the boat barely scraped through. Thank good­ness for that hair­cut else it could have been the bridge un­der­side that gave me a scalp­ing.

Etruria, I felt, prob­a­bly would have been safe enough to stop at (though in the sun­shine so many places look de­light­ful yet tales of night-time an­ar­chy per­sist).

An­other boater as­sured me that the best spot prior to Hare­cas­tle is at West­port Lake, a lit­tle fur­ther on and this was good ad­vice. It’s a lovely spot, glo­ri­ous in the sun­shine but watch out for great sticky wads of goose poo on the moor­ings.

In­ci­den­tally, tucked away un­der­neath the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre is an El­san point and shower room which is not only un­marked on my Ni­chol­son’s Guide but even ig­nored on the CRT’s own on­line map­ping. Shhh, tell no-one; it’s clearly sup­posed to be a se­cret.

Like sev­eral other boaters, I was up at the crack of dawn (al­right, 7:30am) and head­ing to the south­ern por­tal of Hare­cas­tle. In my case that’s be­cause I wanted to get through, do the afore­men­tioned laun­dry at Kids­grove, then progress swiftly fur­ther on and away, due to Tales of Hor­ror from boaters who’d moored at the north por­tal only to find bored and stupid lo­cals us­ing them for tar­get prac­tice, ap­par­ently.

Af­ter all the an­tic­i­pa­tion, the health and safety checks, the tun­nel doors clos­ing be­hind our con­voy and the noise of the ven­ti­la­tion fans, the tun­nel was sur­pris­ingly un­scary. In­deed I’d go so far as to say it was very in­ter­est­ing though it re­ally does get quite cramped in the mid­dle.

I avoided bang­ing off the walls and we all made de­cent progress, emerg­ing in 35 min­utes. I even spot­ted a ter­ri­fy­ing (not re­ally) skele­ton seem­ingly try­ing to emerge from one of the tun­nel crevices about two thirds of the way through.

Af­ter lug­ging my dirty clothes to and from the afore­men­tioned lo­cal laun­dry – past a use­fully-placed Tesco too – the end­less locks of ‘Heart­break Hill’ fol­low. In the glo­ri­ous sun­shine and with no rush other than to get a de­cent dis­tance away, this was a plea­sure al­though I do have one mi­nor grum­ble: noth­ing to tie the boat to when ex­it­ing the left-hand locks.

So go­ing back to shut the gates as a solo boater was made frac­tion­ally more awk­ward than it needs to be. There are steps and paths and ev­ery­thing you need to re­turn on that side but noth­ing to se­cure the boat while you do. Sod’s Law says if you just leave it, a hur­ri­cane will ex­er­cise its right un­der quan­tum physics to pop into ex­is­tence from nowhere and push the boat to the mid­dle of the canal...

Should you wish to ob­serve the Hare­cas­tle pas­sage – not to men­tion all my other boaty ad­ven­tures – be sure to watch my video blogs at

Cruis­, fol­low me on Twit­ter (@ Cruis­ingTheCut) and, of course, keep read­ing Canal Boat mag­a­zine.

Moored and cel­e­brat­ing laun­dry mis­sion ...while the birdlife looked on

The fa­cil­i­ties at Etruria

The junc­tion of the Cal­don canal The per­fect spot at Stone

Drink­ing in the sun­set

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