Friday, 31 August 2012

The tale of a bear and a Bible

Biddulph Valley Aqueduct to the River Dane Aqueduct: 3.4 miles

            Many times in recent years the Cleddau crew have crawled or whizzed past Congleton by car – but never have they visited the town itself. From the canal the few shops and a Post Office at Hightown are easily accessible, just up the steps by the railway station, across the bridge and there they are – just a minute away. But the town centre? Where is it – apart from downhill in the valley bottom?

            It was a gloriously sunny morning. “Come on,” urged the Captain, “we mustn’t waste sunshine!” Down from the aqueduct to the Biddulph Valley Way, a one-time railway line, past the railway viaduct, on further until a track led up to a bridge. A post-war housing estate; a Co-op; some factory buildings and then traffic lights. This was the first sighting of traffic lights and pedestrian signals in about three weeks – apprehension. Crossing a road in a town felt almost perilous. What a mixture of buildings – merchant housing, old timbered buildings, a very Spanish looking Casa Mia, odd little shops. There, in a fine public building, the Town Hall, was a Tourist Information Office. It’s always worth asking a question, isn’t it: “Is there a district called Beartown?” Somehow Boatwif knew that Congleton and “Beartown” were somehow linked. Well, legend has it that in the 1660s Congleton’s bear, used for bear-baiting, died just before the Wakes Holiday. This meant loss of fun and income for the locals... It seems either the Corporation sold the town Bible to pay for a new bear or loaned money saved for a replacement Bible from the town money chest. So:

Congleton rare, Congleton rare,

Sold the Town Bible to buy a new bear.


The bear has remained associated with the town and a bear appears in many logos for town organisations. Then in 2011, as part of a major arts festival, over 70 painted bears were positioned in a trail around the town.  Two, Mayor Bear and Mercian Bear, remain in the town centre. (Now the existence of these bears explains a similar finding of lions in Northampton in 2010!).


            Beartown mystery solved, more of the town deserved investigation. There is a pedestrian area, today shoppers being serenaded by a Country and Western busker. Civic pride is evident in carnival bunting and tidy streets. This was Congleton then -  and Boatwif thought of two acquaintances who have lived here, a past pupil (maybe she’s still here) and Falkland Friend’s younger sister.  After a coffee a big purchase, henceforth to be referred to as the Congleton Scrubber, was made.  The £3 scrubbing brush on a pole, it is hoped, will help remove algae from the gunnels... Steps were retraced, past a fine community garden, a beautifully tended war memorial and a blue plaque. Read it if you can and think about its significance.


            It had been down to the town – and back up to the canal. It was a long slog up to the railway station to rejoin the tow path. Thirties villas lined the hill. Cars whizzed by – and a bus bearing a picture of a bear!


            The slow cruise through east Cheshire continues, the canal creeping under stone bridges, passing fields of beef cattle. By mid-afternoon Cleddau was tied up at the bottom of Bosley locks. An hour or so later unexpected rain spoilt play - laundry had been drying on the open front deck and freshly applied varnish on both the side hatch lid and the Congleton Scrubber!


            Tomorrow – up Bosley Locks to Gurnett Aqueduct at Sutton.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A trip to Follywood

Ramsdell Hall Railings to Biddulph Valley Aqueduct: a 4 mile cruise, a 690 feet ascent, a 4 mile walk

            The great Cheshire Plain, on the western side of Cheshire, is well-known. How different though is eastern Cheshire where a spine of hills runs down the county, butting onto high ground in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. A trip along the Macclesfield Canal passes close to three very distinctive high points: at Bollington White Nancy is a sort of white pepper pot structure (built to commemorate the 1815 Battle of Waterloo). Overlooking Bosley locks about 4 miles from Congleton is the magnificent hill called the Cloud, and Mow Cop (remember, Mow to rhyme with cow) is a strange ruin near Kidsgrove that can be seen from the M6, the Trent and Mersey Canal and even, it is claimed, from Hurleston top lock on the Llangollen Canal.

            There is no tick list – but twice in the last ten years the Cleddau crew has climbed White Nancy, last week they climbed the Cloud and today they walked up to Mow Cop.

Gaiters proved beneficial, so thick and gloopy was the mud! Over the canal footbridge, along a muddy track to a road. A bus going to Mow Cop passed but no one suggested flagging it down... The fast railway line slices between the bottom of the hill and the canal. Red lights were flashing and two trains whizzed by. Soon the real climb began. The roadway was strewn with rubble, presumably brought down by yesterday’s heavy rains. A break in the hedge provided the first of many stunning panoramic views. Up the climb went (the map showing double arrows on the road) and then just beside the Cheshire View pub sign was a road warning triangle that said it all! To the right was Primitive Street, (presumably a reference to the Primitive Methodist movement which was seen to originate in a 14 hour Day of Prayer held at Mow Cop on 31 May 1807. See Wikipedia for more detail).  Just opposite Primitive Street is the Mow Cop Community Church, the Follywood sign in front of it! Search the internet yourself: does it refer to the Mow Cop folly – or to an American vacation Bible School...?

            Finally the hill top was reached. There, on a crag, amidst rocky outcrops stood Mow Cop Castle, a folly, standing 1099 feet above sea level. Built as a summer house in 1754 it is almost a two dimensional structure. There is a wall which adjoins the circular tower (the summer house?) but on a clear day like today it is the breathtaking views from the folly that grab your attention. The moorland heights of Staffordshire, the settlements of Scholar Green, Kidsgrove and Alsager, Jodrell Bank in the middle distance, further away AstraZeneca in Macclesfield. Much further away to the north the spike of the Wintershill transmitter stood out, and that is in Lancashire. Was the lump backed by hills in the middle distance to the north west Beeston Castle towards Chester – or the Great Orm and Llandudno? Expert knowledge and larger scale map sought!

            The Captain is not famed for out and back routes (despite this particular cruise) so why not return a different way...?  A lady was tending her front garden. “Isn’t it difficult living this high up in winter?” Boatwif asked.

Back came a very direct reply: "Oh no, the gritters are really good, often they come out five times a night. It’s only difficult if their last run is at 5am and it snows again after that...” Food for thought for those of us who live on flatter lands.

From round the back of Mow Cop Castle runs a footpath, the South Cheshire Way – and joining that brought Boatwif face to face with the Old Man of Mow, a rocky formation, the result of quarrying activities. Stretching to the north were lines of familiar hills, even the Shutlingsloe summit. Muddy paths, more muddy paths, soggy fields, eventually dropping down to waterlogged woodlands. Somewhere in the woods the Captain spotted an unfamiliar techno gadget (nikeplus on the label) – does anyone have a use for it?

Out of the woods, down a track, a Cheshire East Highways truck ahead. Were the heavily tattooed driver and his mate contemplating road repairs, or taking an early lunch break? Under the railway line, through Ackers Crossing village and back to the canal. Despite the mud and despite the rain over the last half mile it was a grand walk!

After a reviving cup of tea and some lunch the 4 miles or so of cruising to the other side of Congleton could be done, there to moor up above Dane-in-Shaw pasture, and to watch out again for trains, this time crossing the high viaduct...


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Over supply of rain...

Westport Lake (T&M) to Ramsdell Hall (Macc.): 6.3 miles, 1 lock

Whether to stay, to go up – or to go down... such was the problem to be faced this morning, not early, because it was raining, not mid-morning because there was a blog to finish, not late morning because there was a last conversation to be had with Les and Jaq.

The time came for departure. After rain, after showers, after a dry spell, but in a shower again Cleddau drew away from Westport Lake, to arrive within half an hour in truly torrential rain at Harecastle Tunnel. Decision made: through the tunnel, turn left, back to the Macc. The tunnel keeper approached, his bits of paper on his clipboard saturated. It hadn’t been a good morning: a boat had broken down in the tunnel entrance and had had to be hauled out. Delays had built up but now boat passages were restored to normal. Boats from the north emerged from the tunnel portal. Prepare for departure, three boats ahead, one gone, now another, then the third, all lights on in the cabin – GO! Frantically from the tunnel portal the keeper (from under his umbrella) waved Cleddau in, he desperate to gain relief from the deluge...

Now inside the tunnel the fans at the southern end whirred loudly. Out of the storm it seemed strangely dry, until occasional slight showers descended from the roof. As a navigation aid the tunnel walls are numbered at 25 yard intervals – and shortly after 1925 flashed by an unexpected graffiti message, Hull University Rag Week. On the boat went, number four in a line of four, under tiny stalactites, the hatch light picking up irregular stripes of rich mineral colours.

The boat emerged: the rains had just stopped. A weave past the Kidsgrove railway bridge and a sharp left turn onto the Macc, avoiding a British Waterways work boat.  A boater aired an opinion: “How is it that work boats can be tied up just anywhere, always with a flimsy bit of blue string...?” Cleddau cruised past the permanent moorings at Red Bull, Boatwif glad to see a favourite named boat Flirty Gertie, absent a week or so ago, now tied up back on her moorings.

A few more heavy showers: the Macclesfield Canal seen as never before, gravy brown water, streams, drains and overflows tipping excess water into the cut. At the little Hall Green stop lock, usual water differential an unremarkable 12 inches, the level was high, at least 2 feet of water to be drained... There, just ahead on the visitor moorings, was Sanity Again  and a mile further on, Welsh dragon flying from its stern, nb  Benigedig .

Moored now just beyond / before the Ramsdell Hall railings Boatwif did a very quick check of the path to and over the bridge behind the boat.  How much mud can a pair of ageing leather boots and a pair of gaiters take?! Tomorrow, weather dependent, will it be a good walk or some hours-long skulking inside the boat!

Slip, glaze and a game of cards

Milton (Caldon Canal) to Westport Lake (Trent & Mersey). 8.4 miles, 3 locks.

Remember how last week Boatwif had been taken with the idea of an Emma Bridgewater factory tour, the Captain permitting? After four phone calls, an on-line booking and a distressingly early start on Tuesday morning  Boatwif was off-loaded at Bridge 8 with instructions to do the 10am tour.

It was a glorious morning: sun sparkled on the water, boaters and dog-walkers smiled and waved. There was a brief supplies stop in Milton and then onward... The canal weaves, the bridges are tauntingly placed on tricky bends and for a while it is a green cruise. Then the Stoke-on-Trent outskirts appear, a mixture of cleared land, new buildings under construction, the pair of pot kilns, old stone walls, some fifties houses and gardens. Two lift bridges were lifted and at 0940 Cleddau was tied up opposite the factory at Bridge 8. The canal side is broad here and inset into the old bricks are shiny new mooring rings. The Captain remained aboard – for breakfast and boat maintenance duties – while Boatwif galloped off.

The tours (£2.50) take visitors right through the entire production area of the factory. Rules read, trip hazards warned of, fire assembly point noted and the tour could commence. First the casting room: here the slip (pottery clay) has been poured into moulds and after an initial firing is removed from the moulds. Then there is a sponging or wiping process. Then more firing (in modern gas-fired kilns). Next comes glazing and more firing. Then the really fascinating part – the decoration. The pots are either sponge decorated, by colour stamping with a pre-cut piece of upholstery sponge, or by lithography which is via the pressing on of a pre-printed transfer. It is all very skilled, precise and repetitive work. Two twenty minute breaks are allowed per shift and payment (according to the number and complexity of units finished in a week) is by “piece work”. When you browse the wares in the shops you realise that, for example, there are only three different mug shapes. Market response to a new event or fashion can be done via new decorative patterns using existing moulds but the design of a new shape is very costly because of the requirement for new moulds. Boatwif’s classification for the tour: glad she did it.

Back on the boat the focus was an evening liaison at Westport Park. Down Planet Lock. Down the Bedford Street Staircase Locks. A hire boat was coming up. A mother offered her two strapping teenager crew as windlass wielders. A boater from below muttered about water wastage, 100,000 gallons... had he not heard the rain recently? Are we still in drought?! Did he not realise the Caldon feeds the Trent and Mersey? Should two boats go up before / if one can come down? Conversation with two lady boaters was far less confrontational.  Boatwif filled them in with where to find the Bridgewater factory, where to buy provisions, the prettiest Caldon bits... but both gave the same response: “My husband wants to see the railway station.” Is this a man thing...? See nb Valerie’s blog, scroll down to very bottom, see Les’s picture taken about three years ago... that is what is in a Caldon man’s soul.

            By mid-afternoon Cleddau was tied up at Westport Park, bow-button to bow-button with nb Valerie. Adventures regaled; news swapped. For Les and Jaq phase 1 of boat modifications has been completed and American visitors from Washington State have cruised the lower Macc with them. For the crew of Cleddau, well, read below! There was a superb dinner on board Valerie, much talk and laughter - and a lengthy card game, Phase 10. No time to explain the rules: the Captain is in a hurry to get moving, but maybe it’s because one crew member won the card game, and it wasn’t him!

            Today, Wednesday, just through the Harecastle Tunnel and back onto the Macc.

FOOTNOTE: if map and text do not correspond bear in mind that Techno Son-in-Law is on the Lleyn Peninsula, a broadband signal deprived area...