Four Counties Ring
September holiday day 1
Two o’clock saw us leaving the marina on our September holiday. Unusually there was no wind so our departure was flawless and uneventful. Our first journey in a few weeks towards the Coventry canal was equally uneventful except for our encounter with a steam driven narrowboat presumably heading for the Shackerstone festival. Sue took us through Marston junction and then on through Nuneaton towards Atherstone. We eventually moored near the Anchor Inn at Hartshill.
September Holiday day 2
Up at seven and setting off by quarter to eight gave us a good start to the day. We reached Atherstone top lock by nine o’clock and thanks to the oncoming traffic, we cleared the eleventh lock two hours later. Significantly, locks seven and eight were the first locks driven by Sue and worked by me. We passed through Polesworth just after noon and then broke down just after bridge 54. After some basic checks we called RCR who arrived within the hour and sorted our problem out so that we were moving again within an hour and a half. We ploughed on to Hopwas and moored between the Tame Otter and the Red Lion. We ate at the Red Lion and checked out the Tame Otter on the way back. We later heard what we thought were fireworks but were probably explosions from the nearby military firing range. Half past midnight brought noise from some chavs in the pub car park, a couple of hours later and some teenagers woke us up walking by and then a boat passing by at six a.m. put the icing on the cake!
September Holiday day 3
Setting off at 8am again we plodded on towards Fradley and for the second time in three days, we encountered a steam driven narrowboat. We reached the junction at 11 o’clock where we took on water, emptied the toilet and dumped our rubbish before continuing our journey half an hour later. Fradley, like many of the famous canal junctions is often given a description which is over hyped. After making the turn, we waited for about half an hour before we could ascend the locks. The pound between Fradley and Haywood is a long one which allowed us to push along quite well. Turning left on to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal at Great Haywood, we passed through Tixell Wide before eventually mooring for the night near Baswich, a full day ahead of our original plan.
September Holiday day 4
The sun shone on Monday morning and as usual, we set off for eight o’clock. The scenery was pleasant as we passed the village of Acton Trussell on our way to Penkridge. We stopped at Midland Chandlers just after eleven o’clock before making the final part of the morning’s trip to Penkridge. After mooring, an old boy from a nearby boat came and gave us directions to the various pubs and shops in the village. We spent an hour or so exploring the village and then headed off on the next part of our journey. Then the rain came and although it was heavy, we ploughed on regardless, eventually mooring right outside the Fox & Anchor by bridge 71. We didn’t visit the pub, soaked to the skin, we just put the heating on and relaxed before going to bed.
September Holiday day 5
Tuesday morning got off to a nice sunny start again, so we moved off at eight towards the junction with the Shropshire Union canal at Autherley. This part of the journey took an hour and after rounding the junction we took on water and carried on towards Brewood. We explored this village and found a fabulous village shop selling fine foods. We stocked up on paté, blue cheese and locally produced butter before returning to the boat to have lunch consisting of the newly purchased goodies and they were all delicious! A quick drink at the Bridge Inn to wash it all down and we were ready to move on again. It had taken us more than five hours to travel from Penkridge to Brewood, the distance by road is only five miles! We moved on to Wheaton Aston where we took a drink of beer at the Hartley Arms and gave the boat a drink of diesel at the local garage. This garage is mentioned in the guide books for its cheap diesel and sure enough it cost us 20p a litre less than we had paid in Hinckley. After Wheaton Aston we pushed on again, this time to Anchor bridge but again we couldn’t be bothered to visit the pub.
September Holiday day 6
Another sunny morning but quite a chilly one for our trip to Market Drayton. We moored near the town at midday and went for a wander round. It’s fair to say that we were a little disappointed with Market Drayton so with the knowledge that we probably wouldn’t be travelling much on Friday due to bad weather, we moved on again. Then the rain started and got heavier and heavier, the dull day was only brightened by the sight of a kingfisher. This is only the second one that we have seen since we took the canals. We were pretty soggy when we tied up at the bottom of the Adderley flight at six o’clock. On checking the weather forecast for Thursday, we decided to give ourselves a full day cruising and perhaps make it to Middlewich, the most northerly point on our trip. That way, we should be able to complete our journey even if we did lose time on Friday.
September Holiday day 7
Our spirits were low, there is no denying it. The weather had gotten the better of us and the worse was yet to come. The following day was set to bring high winds and a deluge of rain. We hoped to stop at Nantwich but feared that competition for moorings would be such that we would have to pass on by. Our waterproof clothing had taken such a battering over the previous few days that it let in water. We were a day and a half ahead of schedule but now faced the toughest part of the journey. Turning around wasn’t really an option at this stage because we would have hadto descend the Audlem flight before re-ascending, meaning that the return journey is not much better than carrying on. With heavy hearts we got out of bed at half past six, donned our weatherproofs and set off just after seven o’clock. Within half an hour we were at the first lock and so we began our descent into Cheshire. The trip became easier at the third lock when we started to meet oncoming boats. At the twelfth lock, we took on water as well as emptying the rubbish and the toilet in preparation for our stormy dayahead. Our old friend, the rain turned up as we completed the descent and we were plunged back into misery again for another half an hour. Our spirits were lifted with strong tea and a couple of rounds of butter saturated toast. The rain slackened off to monsoon levels as we passed through the locks at Hack Green, near the so-called Secret Nuclear Bunker. The sign is a temporary one, presumably because of the way the current government is playing a game of brinkmanship with Russia. Another hour and we reached Nantwich, we got a mooring, we visited a chip shop and two lovely pubs, found some quality food shops and bought new waterproof jackets. Within the space of a couple of hours everything had turned around and we were happy again! We would spend Friday in Nantwich, weather out the storm and set off again on Saturday.
September Holiday day 8
We had a nice easy start to the day, walking into Nantwich mid-morning. It was still raining but of course we were all kitted out with our new waterproof jackets. We had a coffee before shopping for fresh fruit and veg. We found Clewlow’s butcher and delicatessen where we bought some more patchwork paté. Crossing the road, we had a lunchtime sandwich at The Vine before making our way back to the canal. Once again, we considered turning around for the journey home, not that it would save any time but we would have an easier trip in terms of the number of locks.
September Holiday day 9
We decided to carry on with our clockwise trip around the four counties ring. We set off at 7.30, making use of the Nantwich services a few minutes later. The rain stopped just after eight and we were on to the Middlewich branch just after 9am. The sun came out for the pleasant trip to Middlewich and when we stopped for lunch near Minshull, we were able to sit out on the deck. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the junction with the Trent & Mersey where the canals join with locks in all three directions. We found a good mooring at Wheelock just after five o’clock and the rain re-started at six thirty. We had enjoyed the day’s cruising in the decent weather so felt no need to complain at this stage.
September Holiday day 10
We always knew that this day would be the most difficult with the number of locks. We set off early and made great progress up Heartbreak Hill despite the fact that these locks were the most badly maintained that we have encountered so far. There was a desperate moment or two just outside the second lock when the water rushing out started to suck the bow of the boat downwards. I realised that the front locker would be starting to fill through the drain holes and wasn’t sure if there was a chance that we might sink. I got Sue’s attention and she dropped the only paddle that she had opened, stopping the flow and solving the problem. It was my own fault for getting too near the bottom gates and not realising how fast the water would flow out. Whether these locks are always this fierce or this was just a combination of being at the bottom of a steep hill after heavy rainfall, we don’t know. Whatever the reason, we only opened one paddle when filling the locks just to keep the boat under control as we ascended the flight. We didn’t encounter enough oncoming traffic to make the ascent easy but nevertheless we did well and reached Church Lawton just after one o’clock and stopped for lunch. We had passed through twenty locks and realised that we could be in striking distance of Harecastle Tunnel, if we could get through another six locks before it closed. Sue rang British Waterways to check the opening times and was told that the tunnel closed at six o’clock but that we would have to be there by four to ensure passage. We calculated that we should be there for quarter passed three so we cleared away the food that we were eating and set off again with renewed vigour. The remaining locks were in no better condition than the previous twenty but we made short work of them and reached the tunnel just after five past three. We were immediately greeted by the tunnel keeper who told us that we were too late to pass and that we couldn’t moor for the night because it was a dangerous area inhabited by drug takers! We had already seen three teenagers loitering near the last lock who appeared to be out of their heads on something, then there was someone who appeared to be unconscious on the bank. The whole problem had been caused by BW giving out inaccurate information and the keeper said that he had no authority to let us through. We stood our ground and eventually spoke to someone who, we were informed holds the second highest position in British Waterways. We were assured that we would get through the tunnel, which was infinitely better than trying to reverse the boat for half a mile back to the junction with the Macclesfield canal, turning around and then heading back down the locks to escape run down and dangerous Kidsgrove. The northbound traffic emerged from the tunnel and were asked by one of the boaters if we were going through, when we told her that we were, she grinned and said, “You won then!”, clearly they had all been told of the argument that was going on at the other end of the tunnel. We cleared the tunnel at quarter to six and moored near Westport lake. This side of the tunnel is completely different to Kidsgrove on the other side of the hill but we were still woken at midnight by someone bawling the top of his voice that he was going to kick someone’s teeth in.
September Holiday day 11
Another early start on Monday saw us start the descent through Stoke on Trent. There has been a lot of regeneration work alongside the canal but there is still a lot to do, in fact it is only south of Trentham that the scenery becomes palatable again. There are still some areas where the canal is used as a dumping ground, in fact we joined in by losing our chimney under a low bridge near Etruria. Strangely, there is only a warning sign for those travelling from the south so for people like us travelling from the north, the chimney doesn’t stand a chance. The weather showed some signs of improvement as the morning progressed and we took lunch on the deck when we stopped at Barlaston. We made use of the services at Stone and although we were tempted to stop for the night, we decided to press on and make the most of the dry weather. Sue was still taking the boat through these locks and faced her biggest challenge with the lock situated between two pub beer gardens packed with customers. Needless to say, she entered the lock with great ease and precision, earning the admiration of some observers. She had been joking with some other boaters that she was under strict instruction not to spill the beer that I had got balanced on the handrail. That beer was safe all through the flight, well, until I got back on board and drained the glass. I got into conversation with an Australian couple who told me that they had once been on a canal holiday and really enjoyed it. I offered the old boy the opportunity to drive the boat out of the last lock but he declined. We carried on with our journey until we finally moored just below Hoo Mill Lock.
September Holiday day 12
We made another early start, it was raining again of course but nothing a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich couldn’t cure. We soon passed through Haywood Junction which signalled the end of our trip around the four counties ring, needless to say, we had no desire to turn right and go around again! A short stop by bridge 66 in Rugeley allowed us to take on some supplies at Morrisons. At Fradley Junction we marked our return to the Coventry canal by making use of the services. The weather then closed in with more torrential rain and we moored to the south of Streethay Wharf. Near some pylons, close to the railway and under an oak tree which was dropping acorns on to the roof might not sound like the most idyllic mooring. However, inside with the fire roaring, we didn’t care.
September Holiday day 13
Once again, we were up and about early, we had stopped earlier than we had intended yesterday so we wanted to get a good enough start to ensure that we reached Atherstone in the afternoon. At Fazeley, I offered Sue the opportunity to turn right on to the Birmingham & Fazeley for a trip into Birmingham but for some strange reason, she wasn’t interested! We pushed on through the two locks at Glascote with no trouble and by two o’clock we were half way up the Atherstone flight. We moored between locks five and six before walking up to the town. After a bit of shopping and a late, light lunch in the Red Lion, we returned to the boat for our final night on board.
September Holiday day 14
Another early start and more rain for the last leg of our journey. The ascent through the top five locks was made easier by the fact that the lock keeper had been managing water supplies and all the locks were set in our favour. Unlike our trip back in June, we had no desire to stay on the boat for the remaining days so we made our way through the familiar waters of the Coventry and the Ashby until we reached Hinckley and the Marina by half past one. We ate lunch before clearing the boat and heading for home.
September Holiday (final thoughts)
It is a shame that we had so much rain because the route that we followed should have given us more enjoyment than it did. With the exception of the poor condition of the locks between Middlewich and the Harecastle tunnel and the usual problems associated with passing through cities, the four counties ring offers varied scenery and passes through some towns and villages that we would not normally have visited. Day after day of heavy rain turned the trip into one where we just kept ploughing on through all weathers before spending the evenings drying out and warming up on the boat. On a positive note, Sue gained lots of experience handling the boat in and out of locks. This means that future trips can be planned with less consideration to the number of locks travelled through in a single day now that we know that the work can be shared. The boat performed well, despite the early fuel problem and we made use of the new inverter to power a hairdryer, a blender and slow cooker.