Oh colourful world!

Chester – Middlewich: 26 miles, 17 locks

It was farewell to Chester on Tuesday morning.    The first part of the route was the ascent of the Northgate triple staircase, aided, fortunately, by a pair of volunteer lock keepers – and supervised, as ever, by the Tentatrice boat dog, Monty.

On below the city walls, out into the sunshine at The Lock Keeper, passing the gentrified Steam Mill  – and shortly afterwards, making a stop at the two hour moorings right outside Waitrose.

Unnoticed on the inbound cruise, standing proud in front of an apartment block, was a set of tiller arms, fashioned like the long tiller arms on the old working boats.

Then came the first of the five more locks up out of Chester. First was Hoole Lane Lock.

Next came Chemistry Lock, the name captured on camera during this transit    – but why it is called such remains unknown (Google didn’t help!)

Then there is Tarvin Road Lock, then Greenfield Lock – and finally Christleton Lock. What a joy is the view from the lock side here: several days previously the beautiful cricket ground was unoccupied, now white-clad batsmen were dashing between the wickets, the umpires were distinctive in their dark trousers and in fine style the fielders showed their mettle.

Decades ago a map of the world had been posted on Cal Son’s bedroom wall, with stickers used to track his father’s whereabouts. Countries of the world have featured often around the locks in recent days; children from the US, the choristers with a Canadian mother and at Christleton Lock the girls with an Egyptian mother.

Moored up later there was a protracted conversation with a Canadian deep sea fisherman, boating in the UK to retrace places his Australian wife had visited. A crew member of another boat displayed I love Malaysia on his T-shirt. Towpath interaction soon becomes a 3D extension of a world map.

Away from the city the canal is again a watery rural corridor, leading out towards the hills… Progress slows past the long line of boats moored at Golden Nook Farm. There were far too many to photograph but somehow this one appealed:  In a brief gap between boats is a BUS STOP (a bus stop, really?!) The crew on an approaching boat (nb Bristol Cream, sadly the camera was not to hand) waved cheerily: “I’ve been following your blog for years,” the lady called. (Many thanks, that was lovely to hear.)

This canal stretch outbound had seemed grey, colourless, drenched in rain. By contrast this day was full of colour, many of the boats and moorings were enhanced by bright floral displays, flower baskets shimmered under a pergola, swans flashed their white feathers – and the Captain sheltered under a multi-coloured parasol…

The sandstone ridge to the west became clearer: there was Peckforton Castle (a  Victorian country house built in the style of a medieval castle, now popular as a wedding venue)  and there was Beeston Castle. The air temperature was rising, posing a serious dilemma at the moorings past Shady Oak: take the mooring beside the hedge – or move about 20 metres further forward for a full glorious open view of Beeston Castle? The hedge won, some several sizzling hours later, providing a semblance of shade for an evening drink…

A hard, hot day it was on Thursday – since then folk across the UK have exchanged tales of their over-heated experiences. Though it was 38.7C / 101.7F in Cambridge Botanical Gardens and a bit less in Cheshire there was no escape from the Great Heat. The boats set off early for Wharton’s Lock, beaten to it by two other early starters. As Cleddau and Tentatrice emerged from the lock another boat was quickly untied from its mooring, setting off to be ahead in the queue. And queue there was at the infamous Beeston Iron Lock (the one that advises single boats only).  There was trouble for every boat getting into the lock due to the sloping canal bank, the shallow water in front of the lock and the turbulence caused as the lock is drained down. It seemed far too early in the day to be seeing difficulties (ropes that couldn’t be released, or worse, a mad man clambering onto his roof to tidy his rope as the boat was being raised in less than steady water…)

Regardless of lock dramas there were folk with cameras, tripods and binoculars about, waiting, waiting. The railway line to Chester runs close by – and the distinctive sound of a steam whistle drew the eyes to the line where a sturdy, shiny black locomotive pulled a line of brown carriages.

No camera…

On, up through Beeston Stone Lock, and with another steam-generated hoot the steam train returned, more or less at the reported time of 0930, a hedge now blocking the view. (See the Tentatrice photo here:).

Word at Tilstone Lock from down-coming boaters was of problems ahead. “Chaos it is, up there, boats all over the place, no room to move…” In such circumstances one approaches the potential trouble spot with caution as well as a degree of scepticism. A mile or so further the “Up there” was the Anglo Welsh hire boat base just below the Bunbury Staircase Locks. Similar news was delivered from an oncoming boater. “Chaos” seemed to be the word of the morning. And when Cleddau came through the last bridge-hole indeed there were hire boats breasted across the canal (as often there are). Slowly Cleddau and then Tentatrice crept forward. Maybe the chaos had dissipated and boats had moved on?  Boatwif became the forward correspondent, relaying detail back to the Tentatrice First Mate, who in turn radioed back to the Captains. “Two boats going up now, one to come down. Everybody up for a Bunbury Shuffle?”

The Bunbury Shuffle (at Bunbury Staircase Locks) involves two boats ascending or descending in one direction, then swapping lock chamber with another single boat travelling in the opposite direction. Overseen by an Anglo Welsh staff member the shuffle proceeded:

Top lock full – single boat in

Bottom lock empty – Cleddau and Tentatrice in

Water from top lock emptied into bottom lock – all three boats at the same level

Middle gates opened

Single boat in top lock shuffled to one side

Tentatrice shuffled forwards into top lock

Cleddau shuffled across to the far side of the lock

Single boater moved forwards into bottom lock

Tentatrice shuffled across the top lock

Cleddau moved forward into the vacated space

Middle gates were closed

Water was poured into the top lock raising the two boats

Water was drained from the bottom lock lowering the single boat

The shuffle worked, though was it more complicated than on a previous occasion?

Onward – midday, the Great Heat intensifying… Boat servicing at Calverley, eventually a left turn at Barbridge Junction back onto the Middlewich Arm, then onwards for another slow mile to moor above Cholmondeston Lock.

The heat was intense, tempers fractured. Cleddau was being tied up on the signposted moorings. “I left the gate open for you at the lock,” shouted a boater storming by “and now I can’t close it…”

Boatwif walked forward (ooh, an apple tree here…) the hundred yards or so to close the gate. Just at the lock the thunder clapped and the rain streamed down and all was wet.  From then on a most uncomfortable evening ensued, threats of rain bursts each time was short-lived and the closed up boat just got hotter and hotter…

And did that yellowing sky produce a worthwhile downpour? No!

There was a drier view of the green gardener the next morning. It was to be a three lock plus diesel refuelling sort of day.

There was a workboat badly adrift,   a clearer view of Aqueduct Marina (my, haven’t the trees grown up in front of the old cowsheds…)

Nb Harnser (grandson doing brilliantly on the tiller) was passed and numbered heifers were moving between fields (What do the numbers mean?)

On past the converted stables and the pretty house, on past a farm where a gang of workers seemed to be sealing a clamp, on past a glimpse of Winsford Flash, past  a confident heron on the towpath, to Stanthorne Lock and its tough bottom paddles, then back past the site of last year’s serious embankment collapse. Does this stone mark the midpoint of the breach?

There are so many glorious mooring places along the Middlewich Arm but timing had become crucial. Onward, the last mile to Middlewich, to moor this time above Wardle Lock.

Tied up, the phone was checked.  47 minutes earlier a text had appeared.  “Moored up in front of the chippie.” A liaison was on then. There’ll be an explanation next time…

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