Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Burslem, Bouncing Boats and Body Transformation

I have chronicled in past blogs how I generally dislike going through tunnels, though I thought I had that licked after last year when we spent dozens of hours in the subterranean splendour of our waterways system, drips n’ all.
But when it came to the thought of negotiating the Harecastle tunnel again, on the northern edge of Stoke-On-Trent, I became a little anxious, not helped by the fact that an experienced boater was knocked off his boat going through it a few days earlier and drowned. Evidently the sudden changes in the roof height caught him out. It’s easy, even at speed, to get bumped around in the Harecastle. The walls seem to close in, and last time through we lost a navigation light. Well, this time our headlamp failed half way through...oops. Bear in mind this tunnel is a mile and half long and although we had torches as a standby, I scratched some of my lovely blue paint trying to see where I was going. Double oops. And then on emerging at the northern end the skies opened and we both got soaking wet. Now I am reliably informed, that I am grumpy at times!  For the next couple of hours Pat kept her distance and ignored me, while I stomped around shouting and swearing at nothing in particular. Not a red-letter boating day.
About to enter from the Southern end

If you can get under the dangly bits, you should be all right
Just before the headlight failed.
Since then it’s been a mixed-bag weather-wise, but generally it’s been dry and cloudy, despite Shefali, who does the BBC Midlands Weather, telling us it should be raining on us, almost continuously. However she has got it right today and it is sheeting down outside, so we might stay put, unless it improves.
Last Saturday evening we said goodbye to Paul & Carolyn, who live in Stoke and who had entertained us at Stoke City F.C. at the beginning of the month. We wanted to return the favour, and between us, we had lined up two good drinking pubs that also served decent food in the Burslem area.
Pat & Carolyn enjoy some "Plum Porter" in the Titanic Brewery Tap
Both pubs had good beer, however both were non-starters when it came to food, so we had a few pints and ended up in a very good Indian restaurant called Kismet, evidently the first one to open in Stoke in 1968.
We are now making slow progress north-west and dropped down 24 locks on Bank Holiday Monday before arriving at Wheelock, which is a little village, about a mile from Sandbach in Cheshire. We walked into the town yesterday, ostensibly to purchase a “litter picker” so I could remove a piece of plastic I have dropped into the bowels of the boat’s bilge and Pat purchased some rather “flashy” shoes. We also found another Waitrose, which are as rare as “hen’s teeth” around here.
Just a few feet away from the thunder of the M6 at Rode Heath
Pat's new shoes, with lots of "boaty" grip.
Now here’s a thing. Both of us read a daily paper, watch the news and keep ourselves abreast of what is going on, though draw a line at “trashy TV”. Perhaps if we did we might have known what a “Body Transformation Centre” was. I thought it was where you took your Citroen if you’d had a knock, but evidently it’s what they call “A Gym” round here. Fancy that.
Seen at a converted car showroom in Wheelock
Tomorrow we push on into Middlewich, where we will stay for a day or two. We need to fill up with diesel and visit the chandlery there. Then it’s on to Northwich and the excitement of the Anderton Boat Lift at the weekend. Really looking forward to that experience.

Toodaloo chums. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Cruising the Caldon and returning to Stone

Everybody told us, “Don’t do it!”. Eyes rolled and various cheeks were sucked in as boaters, walkers and locals agreed that cruising the Caldon Canal, a 17-mile stretch of mainly very rural waterway, was a challenging prospect.
“How bad can it be,” I said to Pat. Our pals Fred and Lisa, had cruised it, and there is nothing in any of our guides to suggest it is any more difficult than any other waterway. But the blank looks and expressions of surprise, still kept coming. “There’s  no water: you’ll be down your weed hatch three or four times a day: it’s not maintained:  it’s all overgrown, and there is few places to moor safely.”
Traditional pottery kilns stand alongside new development as we leave Stoke on the Caldon Canal
Well, I am pleased to report that we are now back on the Trent & Mersey, after spending four days on the Caldon, and we were not eaten by bears or hi-jacked by Somali Pirates. It was a pleasant, though sometimes challenging journey, but we found moorings OK and there is no more rubbish in the Caldon, than anywhere else we’ve cruised. And although we didn’t see any (they only run at weekends at this time of year), the thought of a steam train running alongside the canal, was quite evocative, and I have included one of the said preserved railway as proof it exists.
Could be a scene from 70 years ago. Taken near Consall on the Caldon
The journey was helped, of course, by the weather, which over the last few days has been warm and settled. I think it was a lot hotter in the south, and we did get a fair bit of cloud, but we did break out the shorts and sunglasses on several occasions.
We liked Leek, where we visited to stock up on essentials last Friday. A new Waitrose had opened the week before and as we still get a good discount in Waitrose and John Lewis, it was worth the journey. I enjoyed the fine architecture, much of it Georgian.
Our first guest of 2014 arrived on Monday afternoon. Pat’s sister Monica, who lives on Vancouver Island in Canada, visits the UK every three years or so. The last time she visited us and saw The Cat’s Whiskers, it was a few days old and didn’t  have a roof.
Monica gets a conducted tour of an old working boat, moored at Etruria

Our very attractive mooring at Etruria, opposite the Brindley Statue
We met Mon at Stoke-On-Trent station and after another evening in Etruria (and a very nice visit to the “Holy Inadequate”) we cruised south and moored beside the Wedgwood factory and visitor centre, where we had a really good day. We signed up for the full factory tour, and although there is still no trace of the three generations of Pat and Monica’s descendants, who worked at Wedgwood, it didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the Wedgwood experience and Monica bought some small pieces to take back to Canada.
The girls check out some of the "Jasper" in the Wedgwood Shop
Monica earns her passage from Stoke to Stone
Dropping down into the outskirts of Stone
We are now back in Stone, right opposite the railway station where we drop off Monica tomorrow (Friday) lunchtime. We are just yards from Roger Fuller’s boatyard – yes, that’s right Roger Fuller. We met him fleetingly last night and he seemed as bemused by the co-incidence as me, but he let us wind in one of his moorings in a little basin almost opposite us.
One letter in it. Mr Roger Filler admires Mr Roger Fuller's boat
We then head north again, through Stoke to Longport, where we are meeting some pals for dinner on Saturday night. Then it’s Hardcastle Tunnel and foot down as we hurtle further and further towards the North-West and Liverpool. We have received our permission to enter the docks for six days towards the end of June, so we have plenty of time to make the journey.
Toodaloo Chums

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Soaked In Stone

The more you get to know Britain’s inland waterways, the more you realise that you are still scratching the surface. Canals take you, often in a roundabout route, from town, to country, to town. Now I know that rivers do this too, but they are essentially natural phenomena, even if we have tinkered with them over the centuries. I like the idea of travelling on an artificial creation, entirely man-made. For these human creations bring a sense of personality to individual waterways.
Pat and I are still waterways novices, but you do hear experienced boaters comment, “This is a good example of a Brindley canal,” (James Brindley being the architect of many of the very early canals). Whereas you never hear comments such as “ahhh, the M4, one of John Smith’s finer motorways!”

James Brindley's statue at Etruia, Stoke, at the junction with Caldon Canal. Took this two years ago
The other essential element of  canal life is that none of them were built for pleasure so canal travel brings with it all manner of associations, sometimes powerful, sometimes subtle, reflecting the working life that thrived on them until recent times.
I am not suggesting that day after day, as I stand attached to the tiller, I constantly peer around looking for historical references, but the feeling of being part of an old working environment is never far away. It’s that extra dimension that makes canal travel different and special.
So endeth this week’s rambling. I don’t need to tell most of you how wet it’s been over the past week and if you have been cruising you would have encountered some very heavy showers, and some bright sunshine as well. I have absolutely no problem in cruising in the rain. Fifteen years commuting into London on a motorcycle cured me of that. The wind is another matter, and there have been some huge gusts, though thankfully, I have not lost control of the boat, this time around.
Our journey north-west has taken us across Staffordshire, from Alrewas on to Fradley, where we overnighted, to Rugeley, which we quite liked, then to Great Haywood, which lies beside Shugborough Hall, and then on Saturday we cruised the seven miles or so into Stone, straight into a major missing person investigation. A helicopter seemed to be following us as we approached the town and as we moored, gangs of policemen, were prodding the bushes and poking about in the water, looking for a young local man, who went missing last Thursday. That carried on through much of the afternoon. This morning it started again, with them searching the canal again.
Fradley Junction on a rare sunny afternoon
Searching the canal for a missing person at our moorings in Stone
Both of us like Stone. It’s where we celebrated Pat’s 60th birthday last spring. It’s very much a canal town, and all the facilities you need as a boater are close at hand. It also has a fair smattering of very good pubs and a heritage of brewing. If you see any of the Lymestone beers around, give them a try.
And blow me down, while we were mooring at Great Haywood, another “Cat’s Whiskers” passed us and is now three or four boats in front of us. The owners name is “Cat”, so, I guess, that’s her connection with the name.

Another Cat's Whiskers

And it was good to see that Psycho, the swan, who featured in our spring blog last year, is still terrorising passing boats, as he protects his mate’s nest on the far bank. He liked the taste of my shoes last spring, and, judging from the picture, not much has changed.
Psycho in attack mode
Now May is here, there is an abundance of new life everywhere. Families of ducklings abound and there are also plenty of those pesky Canada Geese and their little ones. We have only seen one family of baby cygnets so far though. One bird that is very common on this stretch is the heron. No shortage of those in Staffordshire. One followed us for a mile or two and I kept snapping and finally got a slightly fuzzy picture of it with a fish in its beak.
A "more by luck than judgement" snap of a heron off to have his lunch
One of the first things we did on arriving back in the UK was to purchase an external aerial to improve our wi-fi signal. Like a lot of boaters we use a “3” Mi-Fi dongle, which has been a faithful servant since we moved on to TCW, but you have to press it against the window to get a decent signal and that can fluctuate immensely. The unit didn’t have an output for an aerial either. So we have signed up and got a new 4G one, and with the aerial on the roof, we are now getting a much better, stable, signal, and we can now Skype New Zealand on a weekly basis, and not have to continually re-connect.
Our rather wet, but "super douper" wif-fit aerial

We push off tomorrow (Wednesday), depending on the weather, which is set to improve as the week continues. We aim to be on the Caldon canal by next weekend, around Stoke-On-Trent, so will blog from there.

Toodaloo chums

Monday, 5 May 2014

Stuffed At Stoke

When I stopped going to top-flight football in the early 80s I swore I would never get sucked into it again. The mixture of euphoria and despondency never materialises in equal measures, especially if you follow one of the clubs who are never going to set the footballing world alight.
But it happened again, about six years ago, when our boy Kev started going to Fulham FC and invited us along. We got sort of sucked into it and every Saturday we cross our fingers when we check the scores and stay up until the last match on “Match of The Day”, for they always appear last, and normally lose. That has been especially pertinent this season.
I mention this as last Saturday saw Pat and I sitting in amongst 30,000 Stoke City fans, with my old drinking pal Paul and his wife Carolyn, who entertained us for the day with a great meal in the club’s best restaurant and two match tickets. We feared the worst but it was a rout.  A crushing 4-1 defeat sent Fulham down into the Championship after 12 years of playing with the big boys in the Premiership. To be fair Fulham were terrible. No fight in them at all. But it was still a great day out. We hadn’t been to the Britannia Stadium, since our hosts had their wedding reception there 12 years ago.
Pre-match shopping at Stone Farmers Market

Pre-match lunch in the Waddington Suite at Stoke City FC

4-1 down. Five minutes to go

We are now in Alrewas, and that is quite a difficult name to pronounce properly. It’s a regular stopping place for us, and for everybody else it seems, for when we pitched up here Sunday lunchtime, there was only  a couple of spaces left. It is better today. We like Alrewas. Delightful moorings; close to the village centre; three pubs; a decent Co-Op, a fabulous butchers and a thriving ukulele club. Plus, one of the pubs does a super Sunday roast, with three courses for £8 and the pub is in the "Good Beer Guide", so a good assortment of ales.
We had to moor on a bend. at Alrewas.

This morning we walked over to the Nation Arboretum. Despite mooring here four or five times, we have never visited this unique and very moving tribute to all those who have served and fallen in the armed forces. It’s a huge estate which attracts thousands every year and was only a short walk from the village.
Pat checks out one of the memorials at the National Arboretum

Our progress, since we left Mercia Marina last Thursday has been slow (for us). But with the football on Saturday and the Bank Holiday, we have lost a couple of cruising days. This will not change much over the next two weeks as we snake our way north to Stoke On Trent, where Pat’s sister Monica joins us for a few days cruising.
We had planned to spend a couple of days, south of Stoke, adjacent to the Wedgwood Factory. Three generation of Pat’s great grandparents worked there  in the 19th century and Pat had some of the dates and addresses where they lived in company houses.
Unfortunately the archivist there has been unable to find any record of them at all. We had hoped to raid the company’s extensive archive (though it is clearly not that extensive!) but I doubt we will bother now. I think we are both a little disappointed. I expect we will visit, but we had planned two days there, so now we have to re-think.
We welcome again John & Karen from "Kind Of Blue"

While we were moored in Burton, “Kind Of Blue” chugged past. We first met John and Karen when we were moored in Hertford last summer, and met up again in Rickmansworth in the autumn, when they were fitting out a boat for their daughter. They are very similar boaters to us, and we always have lots to talk about when we meet up. They appear to approaching the Leeds and Liverpool from the River Trent, so no doubt we will meet them again later this summer, somewhere in the middle.
And, we couldn’t pass Ian and Eileen on “Free Spirit” without popping in for a cup of tea. They are moored at Branston between Burton and Alrewas, waiting to become grandparents again.
Next weekend, we will be in Stone. Another favourite place of mine on this stretch.
Till then, toodaloo.