Friday, 30 September 2011

No great expectations

Tixall Wide to Little Stoke, 9.5 miles and 4 locks

Another blue, hot day with meteorologists and broadcasters on the radio excitedly anticipating and quoting record temperatures for a September day... Boats behind and in front of Cleddau left early from Tixall Wide, but Boatwif clung on, eager for one last photo opportunity, which was helpfully provided first, by a contractor’s workboat and dumb barge motoring by and secondly, by a couple of hire boats whose steerers’ signals proved more confusing than helpful!

Back at Great Haywood Junction there was time to top up the water tank and point out the new Canal Side Farm Shop building to the Captain. Time was when farm shops were trestle tables displaying bent carrots with a flapping awning overhead; now, and Boatwif can be emphatic about this, since she entered a second grand farm shop today, they are spacious, air-conditioned, refrigerated, spotless emporiums with automated doors, delicatessen counters, exotic preserves, birthday cards and flawless cauliflowers. There must be profit to be made in these places...?

Soon there was evidence of Work Being Done: at a lock two space-suited guys were spraying weedkiller, followed by another (lifejacket wearing) operator languidly carrying a lifeline. At Weston builders were hard at work on the housing development and just further along two chaps were fishing leaves from a swimming pool, readying it, presumably, for a splashy weekend. In the fields behind the hedges unseen tractors and machinery worked on the soil. But for some there is reward in the outdoor life: yesterday two guys lunched at a picnic bench at an idyllic spot. Work, rest – and play...

Near Weston nb Seyella passed by: Boatwif waved and proffered congratulations. Their boating blog describes their travels and Geoff’s recent Great North Run success. To another boating name: as Cleddau approached Stone the Captain became concerned for her thirst. Diesel would soon be needed. Just below Aston Lock is the recently opened large Aston Marina so here was an opportunity to refuel. The helpful marina staff supplied fuel, gas and pointed out the jetty where Terry Darlington’s boat (nb Phyllis May 2) is usually moored (this reference should be significant to Penvro Pals). Then later, while mooring up near Little Stoke, there was a “Monkton Moment”: an elderly well-spoken lady correctly pronounced and identified Cleddau, told the Captain how well she knew Pembrokeshire, having helped with harvest when a wartime university student, had sailed at Solva – and that a local man (Terry Darlington) had taken his narrow boat on sea-going voyages. Such exchanges emphasise how inter-connected are these isles.


In that second grand Farm Shop this afternoon (at Aston Marina, while two coach loads of visitors were feasting at the Bistro) Boatwif was faced with a surprise item: past the onions and the butchery, behind the birthday cards were a few books – and in pride of place was a twentieth anniversary hardback edition (in slipcase) of Michael Rosen’s We’re going on a bear hunt! (see blog dated Wednesday 28th Sept.) You just never know what you will find where! Then, with no great expectations, Boatwif took a short local stroll late in the afternoon. The infant River Trent crawls under a bridge about twenty yards away. Further up the lane is a chained and firmly locked gateway to a property hidden by trees. The heart missed a beat: surely this couldn’t have been the home of Miss Haversham? Are the rat-nibbled wedding cake remains still there...?


            Tonight Cleddau is moored close to the milestone indicating 46 miles each way to Shardlow (south and east) and Preston Brook (north) so she is at the midpoint of the Trent and Mersey Canal. Tomorrow, through Stone to Barlaston, south of Stoke-on-Trent.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Things domestic

Armitage (T & M) to Tixall Wide (Staffs & Worcs Canal), 8 miles and 2 locks

 “Uuh?”  you may say, if you are a keen canal route follower. “Aren’t you going the wrong way? Wasn’t there a plan to continue over the hill after the Harecastle Tunnel at Stoke on Trent, and to drop down onto the Cheshire Plain and then go down onto the River Weaver...?”   

There was... there still is, but the sun is shining and Tixall Wide is a glorious area, wide enough to turn a full length boat around and it’s only about a mile from Great Haywood Junction to rejoin the Trent and Mersey Canal.  So a relatively short boating trip today has led to a pleasant afternoon and overnight mooring in a favourite spot.

 This morning the Armitage Narrows were managed without incident – no oncoming boats, nor bears skulking on the sandstone ledges.  At the far end, still holding a torch aloft is the white night-gowned figure of... well, maybe it is Ebenezer Scrooge. Cleddau cruised onwards from Armitage to Rugeley, to moor briefly for a grocery restock. When you pass narrow gardens in towns you can often sense the personalities of the house owners from their choice of ornamentation - classical, contemporary or comical. In small spaces enthusiasts can squash decking, summerhouses, garden huts – and plants. More than in past years gardens with small chicken runs can be seen but the house with the swimming pool only five yards from the canal is up for sale now.

Once over the Trent Aqueduct at the far end of the town the canal vistas just get better and better. The river flows gently on the left along the valley, the trees and slopes of Cannock Chase providing constantly varying shape and form. To the right small scale farming is apparent: pigs and their piglets were snuffling in pig runs, sheep were dozing in the heat under trees.  Then there are occasional large houses with gardens and seating areas right down to the water’s edge.  Onward, towards Great Haywood.  On the left there is first a glimpse and then a fuller view of Shugborough Hall and the Shugborough Estate. Up Haywood Lock, past a garden full of lunch-time customers at the Lockhouse Restaurant, past a line of boats moored alongside the towpath and a left turn at the Junction, as if to Wolverhampton. Would there be space? Would Cleddau have to do a wide sweeping turn and go back to the Junction?  But in this very popular area luck was with us - a mooring space had just been vacated.

To the Things Domestic: not domestic servitude, not “having a domestic”, just domestic concerns. Shopping, laundry (washed and dried), carpet brushing, floor sweeping, boat exterior (left hand side and bow) dusted, washed and polished, window cleaning, touch up painting...  a busy day.  Boatwif’s eyes may have deceived her but she is sure she espied a full scale ironing board through the side hatch of one boat passed hereabouts; likewise her ears may have been deceived, but from inside a different boat there was an unusual but very distinctive sound, that of a pressure cooker.  Such enthusiasm for household duties... Late afternoon at the tiny little Toll Office embossed with the Staffs and Worcs Canal plaque for the first time an open door was spotted. Inside were the advertisements for CabinCare, a company which provides soft furnishings, blinds and deck tiles for boats.

Domestics done and interiors improved all make for a satisfied feeling - but time at Tixall is far, far more rewarding: smooth waters, geese on the wing, a stunning sunset and a clear night sky.


Tomorrow to Stone.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What a beautiful day...

Alrewas to Armitage, 7.5 miles, 8 locks

“We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt, what a beautiful day!” go the words of Michael Rosen’s wonderfully repetitive tale for toddlers. (

And beautiful it was today: oncoming boaters remarked endlessly on the perfection of a calm, sunny, cloudless autumn day. “We can’t complain,” smiled another boater. No bears were found in caves nor was there squelchy squerchy mud to wade through: certainly a day beyond complaint.

There was chance to scuttle through Alrewas again this morning while the boat was topped with water. What a lovely place it is, thatched cottages, half-timbered houses, large brick built Methodist Church, infill dwellings, grander modern houses all seeming to sit comfortably in a village which has its own dental practice, post office, butcher, newsagent, ceramic crock cafe and minimarket. A dormitory village for Burton, Tamworth and Lichfield, presumably. At the far end of Alrewas is the first lock – and the next six come fairly quickly. As the kettle just gets to the boil there is another lock to be worked! But no matter, a pause at the Fradley BW yard to drop off rubbish and prepare the next lock allowed for tea in pot, milk in mugs, tea onto milk – and since Boatwif was still on board she was able to drink the tea hot and fresh, the Captain managing a cooler slurp a while later...

Fradley Junction (last passed on Wednesday 14th September) is always a busy spot. Two open-top sports cars and a much-loved motor trike trumpeted enjoyment of the day. Before 11am Boatwif had witnessed more bare-chested chaps than she had all summer – and none of them looked under-dressed! Walkers, cyclists and a social care group were at the teashop alongside Fradley yard just below Junction Lock; above it a full length 70’ boat turned. People strolled to and from the nature reserve or further on up the towpath. The Kingfisher Cafe above the lock was doing brisk trade too. As on the last time we headed west up the locks from the Coventry Canal (August 2010) a queue of boats had built up. But in balmy sunshine crew helped with paddles and gates and eventually the locks were behind us. As the canal creeps towards King’s Bromley and Armitage it wanders past field and woodland. The sun squinting through the foliage provided sparkle on the water against a backdrop of rich foliage, now just beginning to show hints of autumn shades. At a narrow bridge a boat was lurking beyond, another was moored before it. There was some shuffling about, some reversing and then the boats passed safely.  Intrigued we were to read the moored boat’s name, Sanity Again, whose owner's daily blog of life as a continuous cruiser provides year-round reading. (No sighting though of Bruce or Sheila).

On towards Armitage: first glimpse of Cannock Chase, of Rugeley’s power station, then of the big factory works. There alongside the canal stand pallets and pallets of white toilets. This was Armitage, so the answer to last night’s question would be: Mr Shanks of Armitage! A little further on, just before the Plum Pudding pub, right opposite some well-tended allotments,  Cleddau was moored, and the hot afternoon drifted by.

As the sun’s heat lessened Boatwif took a stroll ahead, doing an advance check of tomorrow’s first challenge, the Narrows, a dark channel through rock just wide enough for a single boat at a time. No sign or sound or smell of a bear in there tonight... What a beautiful day it has been! Indeed, it was "Summat Special”.

        Tomorrow: beyond Rugeley, to Great Haywood Junction, and a left hand turn for a night on Tixall Wide.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

We will remember them

National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas  (about 6 miles on foot)

The National Memorial Arboretum is on a 150 acre site, just north of Lichfield, Staffordshire.  Boatwif had spotted the Arboretum on the modern Geo waterways map, had picked up a flyer at the weekend at Sawley Marina and found directions by road and by foot on the Alrewas Parish notice board last night.  This morning Boatwif and the Captain set off from the canal, clutching their written directions – but neither had a clear visualisation of what they were looking for. About 45 minutes later, after more than bargained for roadside trudging, they arrived.

It’s ten years now since the Arboretum was dedicated. The idea originated with Lord Leonard Cheshire, inspired by the Arlington Memorial in the USA, and with the help of John Major, Prime Minister in the eighties, gained agreement for a national site in the middle of the country – hence, Staffordshire. Now, alongside a working quarry and the River Tame a huge expanse has been planted with native and symbolic trees in clearly marked areas. About 60% of the memorials and memorial planting areas are dedicated to military associations, about 40% are civilian memorials.

The site is not a cemetery – yet names of individuals whose lives were lost in service abound. Prominent is the Armed Forces Memorial, white walls engraved with names, arranged by Service and Year – and if you have a name and a year of someone’s death on military duty since 1945 there you will find it. So there was the name of a wedding usher, killed in 1971. There too was the name of another contemporary of flying training, who went missing in 1990. No more names were searched for, although there are many...

Then there are memorials to those who had no choice - such as men who were conscripted into National Service between  1939 and 1963,  and the"Bevin Boys", conscripted to work in the coal mines until 1948.

But the Arboretum is about more than the military: yes, there are memorials to the Civil Defence forces of the Fire and Rescue Services,  Police, Red Cross , RNLI  (beautiful Chris Beardshaw designed garden) and so on  but also to the Inner Wheel and to SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Deaths Syndrome). Further out there is a children’s playground, close by the area of trees remembering individual children.  This is a place of great tranquillity, contemplation and remembrance.

Boatwif and the Captain walked back, in warm September sunshine, deep in their thoughts, past river, past quarry, alongside a railway line, over a trunk road, up a steep bank, down to the canal, past two locks, back to their mooring.

            As for boating tomorrow: through Fradley Junction towards Rugeley (and another power station!)  For any who read the names on sanitary ware please inform if you know whether Shanks Armitage refers to Mr Shanks of Armitage or Mr Armitage of Shanks....