Turn on the light!
(Congleton – Stoke-on-Trent – Wedgewood –Stone)
The faint sound of church bells ringing (from Congleton?) drifted over the canal on Sunday morning. Drifting too was fine rain, soon to become much heavier. The stunning views of The Cloud were hidden. Cows cowered under what shelter they could find. The view from Biddulph Aqueduct over Dane-in-Shaw Pasture SSSI was a disappointing featureless grey haze… What was not disappointing, however, as boaters who frequently pass this way, was the towpath transformation at Hightown. Here there are easy moorings in a cutting, very convenient for a one -minute walk to the railway station and a two minute walk to a parade of local shops. The towpath is usually a muddy quagmire, made much worse by the loose bowels of the local dog population. But look! A renewed surface to the path and trimmed edges has made it, well, fit for human use!
Increasingly these days there are traders on the waterways. At Congleton Wharf was the Wool Boat; later at Westport Lake there was the Spud Boat – and on Monday, not far at all from the Britannia Stadium (home of Stoke City FC) was spotted The Oatcake Takeaway Boat*.
Once out of Congleton and past the Astbury Golf Course the canal becomes a glorious rural ribbon. The air smelt fresh, blossom was abundant, flag irises were peeping between the reeds, the stone bridges have splendid rounded bridge holes – even the sight of an angling competition could not depress the spirits. Ramsdell Hall railings always deserve an admiring glance – as well as Ramsdell Hall itself. Next comes Heritage Marina – where in the paint dock lurks nb Chouette (a Wash Crossing partner from last summer).
It seemed sensible to top up the water tank at Hall Green water point. The Captain issued stern instructions: “If you’re going to fall make it into the canal this time. No more broken wrists please!” Watered up the boat could head for the stop lock, Boatwif safely dry and unbroken…
Onward, a sharp left turn at Red Bull corner. Yet another photo of Flirty Gertie. “Why?” regular readers may ask. Senior Sis will bear me out: long ago a regular October half-term treat was a train trip with a favourite aunt to Swansea to visit two great aunts. One, Great Auntie Winnie, was a treasure, full of smiles and giggles. The other, though, Great Auntie Gertie, was quite different. She seemed severe, formal, humourless – and absolutely not flirty…!
At Hardings Wood Junction there’s a sharp right onto the Tent and Mersey Canal and Stoke-on-Trent. The waters here (oxtail soup anyone?) are coloured by the minerals in Harecastle Hill, through which the Harecastle Tunnel is cut. It is wide enough for boats to go in one direction only, so there are alternate northbound and southbound convoys. Since last year’s tragic fatality boaters are encouraged to wear life jackets. Boat departures are separated by two minutes. It’s perhaps not a passage for the faint-hearted. Ignore the ghost tales, turn on all the inside and external lights, make sure the horn is in good working order and concentrate…
Off went the first boat.
Just over half way through the powerful flood light mounted on the engine room hatch flickered – and went out. A half second later the bow-mounted light flickered too, but stayed on. The Captain, a ‘belt and braces’ sort of chap, fumbled around in the pitch dark, produced the big torch, told Boatwif to hold it high, to hold it still.
Now shadows swam around on the walls. Creatures…? Delusions…? Rats…? Flesh crept, the torch wobbled.
Then came a realisation – small flies, lodgers on the torch’s lens, were magnified on the tunnel’s roof.
Out of the tunnel it was a mile or so further to Westport Lake for an overnight stop amid fine goose company…
Stoke-on-Trent is distinctly Potteries territory. The canal passes disused bottle kilns and pottery buildings. Middleport Pottery (home of Burleigh) has had a revamp in recent years and tourist literature and road signage promotes factory tours, ceramics museums and retail outlets across the city.
Down through Stoke locks – five deep chambers. At the third lock the Captain got into conversation with the upcoming boaters, detailing the summer plans. “Worcester, Gloucester, Bristol, London” came back on the breeze. Shorter was the itinerary of the other boaters, just from Kidsgrove down to Stoke City Stadium to watch the football (about 8 miles, a tunnel and 5 locks… and back.)
South, past cleared post-industrial land now greening over; past Dolphin Boats which offers a wide array of facilities, past the incinerator, past the house with a pair of Belisha beacons in the garden.
Then through Trentham, a well-cared for place. Here the residents are in protest about proposed housing development on their lovely meadow. Just past the Wedgewood Factory (currently closed to visitors and due to be reopened as The World of Wedgewood in July) there is a delightful mooring stretch. It was far too cold this time to have a towpath dinner! (See the postscript here for reference to a previous one in just this spot.)
Tuesday. From Wedgewood, through Barlaston to Stone is an attractive run. This is a very photogenic location… The canal passes on down the four pretty Meaford Locks, and soon arrives at the canal town of Stone. Here four more locks, boatyards, boat painters, a chandlery, the old Joules brewery and the Star Inn right beside the bottom lock give the place a sense of purpose.
The town today though had a soulful air – more closed businesses and more charity shops, it feels, than last year.
Chilly it is still – the firelighter stock is beginning to dwindle…
Tomorrow to Tixall Wide.
Stats since last post: 22 miles, 1 tunnel and 15 locks.
* The Captain has developed a great fondness for these oatcakes, after being introduced to them in 2010 by Jane M…