Dots before the eyes

Westport Lake to Norton Green, Caldon Canal: 8.6 miles, 4 locks

            Where is Cleddau? And where is the Caldon Canal? The Caldon is 17.5 miles long and heads east and then south east from Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent to Froghall in rural Staffordshire. As Cleddau approached Milton (the last Stoke suburb) this afternoon a sizeable angler perched on a small canvas stool laconically lifted an eyebrow. “Yer know it’s a dead end, don’t yer?”  (Yes – it’s an out and back canal).

From Westport Lake to Etruria the canal weaves through urban Stoke, the canal being wide, deep and all on the same level. In places the old pottery buildings and pot kilns are still apparent, some in advanced stages of dereliction; in some areas new buildings, housing blocks and office suites have replaced the potteries; at Burslem the vast open space (the Shelton Bar steel works?) cleared a few years ago is now overtaken by invasive foliage.

Etruria: the older terrace houses usually bring a smile to the face, every last inch of the gardens used, quirky ornaments positioned on decking or fences. Here the Caldon Canal branches past a statue of canal engineer James Brindley. A sweep round the corner and a serious structure looms ahead,  the Bedford Street staircase locks: read the notices here to get the water in the right place and in the right order!

The canal passes through the areas of Shelton and Hanley. The recently built Stoke Sixth Form College and a huge NHS Health Centre contrast sharply with the post-industrial cleared areas and a pair of bottle kilns.  Hereabouts a rat swam fast and purposefully across the canal in front of the boat – and back again.

Among the leaflets grabbed yesterday at the Westport Visitor Centre was one showing a working pottery in Hanley very near the canal. Maps and Google were deployed and at Bridge 8 Boatwif was landed, permission granted for a trip to the Emma Bridgewater Factory  and Shop. The boat was so close to the factory – but how long would it take to cross the busy Lichfield Road…  If you recognise the Emma Bridgewater name you’ll know the trademark dotty patterns on tableware. A guided tour of the factory had just been missed, the last for the day. So Boatwif began a long browse – the discount shop, the decorate your own pot studio, the kitchen cafe, the gift shop. Dots and spots were everywhere, on the bunting, on the staff aprons, on the window blinds, on the Aga, even on the handles of the shopping trolleys. There are other designs on the products, indeed much had been made of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012. Emma Bridgewater has provided employment in a specialised industry in an area that has struggled, and still struggles, economically.  Some weeks or months ago she was a BBC2 Newsnight guest and her determination and skills in creating a highly successful business deserve high praise. (Now, can the Captain be persuaded to arrange the return cruise so as to catch a factory tour…?)

Onward the cruise went, towards Milton, the boat a fascination for some tow path photographers. Old wharves, built for past industries, are now just walls underlining colourful summer growth.  Past Milton the canal is essentially rural. A moored boat displayed its patriotic allegiance, St George’s flags flying in abundance along its cabin roof. And then to Lock 4, Engine Lock: water was leaking down the tow path, a spectator stood on the bridge and help was given by another boater, while training his infant daughter in the arts of lock gate pushing! The babe, in red-dotted tights, looked happy and content, a watery future ahead of her.

Just one more hurdle, a country lift bridge requiring a lock handle to wind up – and down. A country mooring then, a green field opposite, cows grazing – and a fox prowling by, looking for a supper.

More dots now  – rain dots on the water and the window panes!

Tomorrow: to Cheddleton.

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