The first weekend in May is always a bank holiday weekend in the UK and…
Saturday 14th Aug 2010
We set off on our adventure, a trip along the Caldon canal starting at Stoke on Trent, at around 10.30 am. We thought it would be around a three hour journey but immediately ran into some problems leaving Newcastle on the A1. A horsebox had overturned and the traffic was not moving at all. We made a detour along the old A1 which although it is a much slower road turned out to be much faster. We arrived in Stoke on Trent about 3.30pm and managed to find the Marina at Festival Park without any problem.
We were then shown to our narrow boat and shown around. It was called Ruby and was 56 feet long.
To get inside you had to stand on deck and slide the hatch along. You then opened two double doors and descended three steps. Immediately inside was a small bedroom with two single beds on each side and a passage along the middle. You then passed what looked like two cupboards, but one was in fact a wardrobe and one was the bathrooom. The bathroom had a toilet, sink and shower. Next was a double bed and then the kitchen and living room/dining area. At the end were two double doors and you could step out onto a platform at the front of the boat. The gas cannisters were under a hatch right at the front and on the left was a built in storage box which held the rope, a hosepipe and some spikes and a mallet for mooring with. The water tank cap was also in this box. The tank held water for the toilets, cooking, showering etc and needed to be filled up at water points each day.
We dashed to Morrisons for some milk and then we were off. A man came with us to show us how to steer and operate the first locks. The boat was so long it was difficult to steer. You had to judge exactly where to start turning it to get round the bends. In addition if you want to go right you have to steer to the left which takes a bit of getting used to. After a sharp bend we hit our first lock. It was a staircase lock which means there are two, right next to each other. There is a method to doing the locks. Once you get the hang of it its fine but some of the mechanisms are gates are very stiff so it is hard work.
On each side of the lock gates is a mechanism you need to wind up. To do this you need a special tool called a windlass which is really a winding handle. You attach this to the mechanism and wind up the rachet. This needs to be done on both sides of the gate. This allows the water inside the lock to go down or up to the level your boat is on. Once the water equalises on each side you can push open the two lock gates. The boat drives into the lock, you shut the gates behind and then carefully wind the rachets down again. The process then needs to be repeated at the other end. Once the boat gets out of the lock you need to find a place to jump back onto it again.
After passing the staircase locks we were left to our own devices. We drove in a rather zig zag fashion along the canal which had a lot of steep bends. At this point we were passing the outskirts of Stoke on Trent which is not very scenic. Lots of run down factories and old potteries on either side of the canal.
After another lock we met our next challenge. A low bridge across the water that needed to be raised. Cars were passing over this as well so they had to be stopped. On each side of the bridge were barriers to stop the cars so these had to be lowered. Having done this we had to raise the bridge. I found the operating console and had to open this using the British Waterways key that we had been given. Once this was open a button was pressed and the bridge swung open. Once the boat passed the bridge I had to lower it and raise the barriers to allow the traffic to pass again. Another boat was behind us so we let them through as well. I think they were quite thankful as they did not know how to open it either! By now it was getting quite late so we headed downstream to Milton where we moored up for the night. By now we had been driving the boat for four and a half hours and following a long drive were exhausted so went straight to bed.
Sunday 15th August.
We thought we would get a lie in but actually found we were up bright and early. We decided to see how far we could get along the canal today. Now we had left Stoke the scenery was much nicer with fields on either side.
We passed another lock and a couple of draw bridges but these did not have traffic going over them so were much easier. We then hit the village of Stockton Brook. At this village there was a series of five locks with gaps between them. We had to walk along the tow path with the boat following us, opening and closing these locks as we went along. A couple of these were very stiff. Rob jumped out to help and nearly missed the boat as it descending into the lock below!
My aunt lives nearby in the village of Cheddleton and we arranged to meet her for lunch. We metin a pub called the Plough at Endon where we had a lovely carvery meal. After lunch we jumped back on the boat and pressed on. We needed to fill up the water tank and waited ages as we thought someone was using the tap. We didn’t realise there were more taps further on. Once we worked this out we filled up the water tank and set of again.
At this point the canal split into two different branches. One branch went to Leek via an aqueduct, the other branch went to Cheddleton and beyond into a secret valley which is only accessible by water. We headed down the Cheddleton branch. Immediately we hit three more locks which we went through without much problem. We then went round the corner and parked for the night by the Holly Bush pub. We went here in the evening for a few drinks with my aunt. It was a lovely country pub with a playground outside. Andrew had great fun playing with the other children. The weather so far had been lovely.
Monday 16th August.
We set off to Cheddleton knowing there was a turning point here so we could turn round. We made good time and got there early. We then tried to turn in the winding hole but the boat would not steer round. One of the other canal people helped us and told us that the rudder had come off the cup which was why it would not steer. We moored the boat and called for an engineer. While we waited we had a look round Cheddleton and saw the Flint Mill.
There was a crane beside the canal that was obviously used to take stuff from the boats to the flint mill below on the railway tracks. Andrew tried his windlass and was pleased to find it worked to lower and raise the crane!
The engineer turned up and fixed the rudder and we set off back along the canal to the start. We decided to have a big lunch at the Holly Bush pub and get as far as we could that night as we needed to be back at the base the next afternoon. Going back though Cheddleton locks however we were unable to get the boat out of the first lock. The water level was too low and the boat was grounded. Luckily two men were walking along the canal and helped us. They had to go all the way to the third lock to send enough water down to let the boat go though. This took quite a while. We set off back up river and though a large number of bridges and then we hit the set of five locks again. By this time it was late but we wanted to get back to Milton so we knew we would get back in time the next day. We managed to do it and were pleased to moor the boat for the night.
Tuesday 17th Aug
The last stretch! We had a reasonably early start and set off back to base. The canal was pretty crowded this morning and we had to negotiate our way past a number of other boats as well as wait a while to use the locks. The scenary was back to the uninspiring factories and unkept canal with trees and reeds obscuring the edge of the canal making it difficult to navigate. When we reached the staircase locks again, I got chatting to one of the people standing around. Apparently it was his hobby to cycle up and down the towpath helping people at locks and he was carrying his windlass around with him. It seemed a strange hobby to have but it is very useful that people are always around to help you out.
Despite the uninspiring scenery I did manage to spot a heron (at least I think it is!)
We made it back to base in one piece, with the boat intact and set off on the journey home. Tired and exhausted but we had fun!