Raising funds for The Felix Project and Craftivism Collectif
This is the fifth year of walking along the canals of England.
The Trent and Mersey Canal has been one of the most idyllic - very pretty and unassuming as it winds its way in a wide V south east from Preston Brooks, near the Mersey, and north east to the Derwent River where it joins the Trent River, through four counties - Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
At the time of its opening in 1777 it was a vital link for the potteries, and other trades such as coal and salt, to the Mersey via Bridgewater Canal in the west and the Humber via the Trent in the east, linking coast to coast. It is called the 'Grand Trunk' with good reason and was in use commercially for wellover 150 years.
It was Terry Darlington in his hilarious book, 'Narrow Dog to Wigan Pier' about his narrow boat, the Phyllis May, and his whippet, Jess, who first drew my attention to this particular canal.
Today, it is very popular with the hire boat trade - far more narrow boats than on any of the other canals I've walked in May. The canal is very accessible and links to the Grand union via the River Soar, to the Thames via Coventry and Oxford Canal and to the Severn via the Staffs and Worcester canal.
Part of its charm is its narrowness with most of the locks only taking one 7'x72' boat at a time. The bridges also have names as well as numbers which I hadn't met before and I found charming.
Day 1's excitement was the Anderton Boat Lift which I had read about and was dying to see. What a strange contraption! Needless to say, Victorian. But more importantly brought to life again by the local community in 2002, having ceased to work in 1983. And you can get married here, according to Towpath Talk, UK's No.1 read for waterway users!
It lifts boats between the River Weaver and the canal, a height of 50 feet. Here a tourist boat is taking a trip to Northwich.
Ever thought where your Saxa Salt comes from? Well, it comes from Middlewich, where I spent my first night. 'Wich' indicates salt which has been extracted from the Cheshire plains since roman times. This is the Lion Salt Works, now a museum and visitors' centre. It was a candidate for BBC's Restoration programme in 2004. In august 2016 it was named best UK heritage project by the National Lottery and was winner of a Civic Trust Award. Wished I could have stopped but it didn't coincide with a break time!
Day 2 One of the five tunnels on the Trent and Mersey is the Harecastle Tunnel, 1.75 miles long and unique by civil engineering standards of its day. It is at the highest point of the canal at about 400 ft, just east of Kidsgrove and west of Stoke. It was built by James Brindley, the canal's engineer, and was his crowning glory. Today, it is sadly disused (on the right of the photo). Thomas Telford came along and built a bigger one (on left of photo), now used and carefully supervised by a tunnel keeper. Only one boat goes through at a time taking half and hour! Better that the three hours it took to leg it through Brindley's tunnel!
Legend has it a headless ghost of a young woman is said to haunt the tunnel where she was supposedly murdered. I noticed they didn't print that on my canal map under useful information to know! I am always hoping I will coincide with a boat and hitch a lift through a tunnel but luckily this time there was no boat to be seen!
Middleport Pottery bought by the Prince's Trust for £9 million in 2011. When it started in 1888 it was the best example of a model pottery in the UK. Now the same handcraft techniques are still in use.
I was now into the Potteries, the name given to Stoke-on-Trent and its surrounding area. Josiah Wedgewood, who cut the first sod of the canal in July 1766 at Middleport, used to hike his pots over the hill before the tunnel was cut and complained bitterly of the amount of pots damaged by transport over the appalling roads! So the canal to him must have been a godsend. No wonder he was such an enthusiastic exponent and prime mover in getting the Act to construct the canal passed through parliament. He had just moved his pottery from Burslem, on the hill to the north, down to be canal-side at Etruria and I was about to spend the night in his house, Etruria Hall, courtesy of Best Western.
This is Etruria Hall, home of the Wedgewood Family, and now part of Best Western Moat Hotel. The house was restored for the Garden Festival of 1986, the second of five Garden Festivals celebrating the regeneration of derelict land between the '80s and '90s, when the steelworks were swept away and Etruria Hall was the centrepiece. Sadly, nothing remains of the 18th century interior and it is now used for conferences, meetings etc.
This is the modern Wedgwood factory, built in the '30s at Barlaston to the east of Stoke.
No time to visit the visitor's centre, sadly.
Day 3 and the heat kicked in. By the afternoon, I was down from 5 layers to 3. Easier to wear the clothes than carry them! The weather was going to get hotter and hotter so that evening I dumped a lot of stuff - gloves, socks, buff - cursing the Met for the forecast on the day before I left of cloud, rain on certain days and only 16 degrees!! How wrong could they be. By Day 5 I was waling in 30 degrees heat.
Today the river Trent joined me from the north. I couldn't decide if it was a large stream or a small river. It didn't look very Trent-like. It was also a day of noise. Not surprisingly as I was in the vast Trent plain with railway lines, roads, motorways and airports!
By 6 pm I was reaching for my taxi list with 5 miles still to go to Rugeley, my next stopping place.
Day 4 Hot and the half way point.
Lunch at Alrewas - never did find out how to pronounce that! Such a charming place, with even a bowling green in full swing! It is the southernmost point of the canal and adjacent to the National Memorial Arboretum.
My destination was Burton-on-Trent, home of Bass and Marston's Beers. The monks in the 13th century had discovered the local water had high gypsum content which made a very good ale and thus it continues to this day!
I knew I was in a 'beer' town as I had a bottle opener bolted to the table in my room!
The view from my bedroom - note the tallest building visible - the church tower. How unmodern is that! Delightful.
I loved Burton-0n-Trent - not at all what I expected. My hotel was the Travel Lodge in the ex-Midlands Grain Store no.2. As I walked out across the old weighbridge and off down the Kingfisher trail, I took my hat off to Travel Lodge and their owners for giving me an extremely pleasant and good value experience in a work-horse of a building continuing to be useful, productive and with great charm. Supper, bed and breakfast for about £50, including upgrade to a family room so I had a bath.
I had lunch in a pub at Swarkestone in the Crew and Harpur pub. A blissful hour out of the heat and away fro the sun. A small cairn in the garden attracted my attention. The plaque told me that this was the furthest point south Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite Army had reached on 4 September 1745. The might Trent had stopped him! There is also its huge flood plain to the south to negotiate, crossed by an impressive viaduct even older than the bridge.
My goal was Shardlow to which I had been following mile markers for 92 miles, the official end to the Trent and Mersey Canal. It does in fact fun on for a mile and a half to join the confluence of the Derwent and the Trent rivers.
I had wanted to stay here but a Bike Fest, to which I had been listening all day buzzing in my right ear at Castle Donnington, had put paid to that. The nearest hotel was a Best Western in Long Eaton five miles away. I staggered on for a couple of miles beside the Trent, fell into a pub at Sawley and called a cab.
You may think I am a wimp but I was kkkknackered and going nowhere further. Why don't these nice pubs have bedrooms for sore-foot heat-riddled travellers? They rarely do. Too much bother and too many rules and regs.
On the hottest night I found myself inches from the M1 and sleeping in the eaves, in, admittedly, an upgraded room so I could get a bath. About 3am I couldn't stand the noise anymore and closed the windows which barely opened anyway in case we all jumped out driven mad by the noise. Not a good night.
Day 6 First problem - find the head of the river Soar in the pouring rain amongst fields of broad beans and inquisitive cows! Took an hour and a half but find it I did. Headed south into the teeth of a howling gale. Bliss after all that heat!
Caught up with 'Towpath Talk' while seeking refuge from a downpour in a pub at Zouch. I was glad to read that 96.2% of boats held up-to-date licences and 101 boats were in breach of their licence terms and had had them removed! Fascinating stuff!
I was now in Leicestershire and waling through very pretty riverscape with fields of buttercups, assorted wildlife, more pretty villages, the occasional 'big house' with its toes dipping in the river, lots of bird life and busy river activity with gin palaces, canoes, kayaks, the odd narrow boat - quite quite different to my T&M canal. The dynamic of a river is so different, so much more energised and alive.
Day 7 The final lock before Leicester.
Leicester Cathedral was my destination to parley with King Richard. I joined the sung evensong on Sunday afternoon. It was a very moving experience and when the vicar asked me, 'And where do you come from?' I was thrilled to be able to say I had walked 125 miles from Preston Brooks to pay my respects to King Richard. He was impressed! And so was King Richard!