Thursday, 29 September 2016

Return from the north country

Waiting in that lurid orange water to leave The North
I think I can say that we are no longer 'oop north'. I know there's no official boundary between up there and down here but, on a boat, I reckon that the Harecastle Tunnel marks a pretty decent border. After all, one end is called the 'north portal' and the other the 'south portal'. And that's good enough for me.
We left the Macclesfield this morning, having moored overnight just shy of its finish. And what a finish it is: the canal crosses the Trent & Mersey below it on an aqueduct, then swings left to run parallel with it and finally swings right to join it in a watery tee-junction. Whereupon we turned right to head for the tunnel. (And if you're wondering how something that was initially above another canal be level with it half a mile later, well it's because the T&M climbs up two locks between the aqueduct and the junction.)
Clever stuff: the Macca goes over the T&M before they meet
The rusty red water of the T&M was a vivid orange in the morning sunshine. The colour is simply caused by iron oxides in the water but never ceases to amaze all the same.
We were the solitary boat waiting to leave The North and an hour later when we headed into the tunnel we were still first in a queue of one. It's a one-way tunnel, controlled by a keeper at either end. The tunnel is one and three quarter miles long (2926 yards in old money) and takes about 45 minutes to get through.
If you don't get through in 1hr 15min they come looking and that probably sounds flippant but there was a tragic accident a couple of years ago when a boater somehow got knocked off the stern and was killed. Since then safety procedures have tightened up to a degree - the bridge keeper didn't rate our horn and lent me an airhorn for instance - but you ar still on your own in there and need to pay attention.
It's actually the second of three tunnels here. James Brindley, who supervised the whole T&M construction, built the first: it took 11 years and when it opened in 1777 was something akin to the Channel Tunnel in its achievement. It remained a bottleneck on the busy canal so Thomas Telford built a second (in just three years) which opened in 1827. Brindley's gradually sank due to mining subsidence and has long been out of use. And the third tunnel? That was built after the others to carry the local railway line: it too is disused, the railway running on a different route.
I'm not a tunnel enthusiast and the longer and narrower they are, the less I like them. The Harecastle comes on my 'if I have to' list. It's long, narrow, wet in places, noisy because of the echoey nature of the inside of a rocky hill and the exhaust smoke puffing out of the roof from an old engine tends to choke the driver. But armed with a face mask and a head torch (to read the distance markers on the wall and my watch to see how much longer I have to suffer being choked and deafened) we set off.
Actually I have to say that Harrywoman, sitting on the front deck was choked worse than me. The tunnel has large extractor fans at the southern end to suck fumes out – which meant it sucked our exhaust forwards and right past her.
The exciting looking and eco-friendly Westport Visitor Centre
Anyway 45 minutes later we emerged into bright sunshine (proof that we were now in the south) and moored a mile later by Westport Lake. This is a magnificent municipal lake with paths, planting and much wildlife plus an excitingly modern visitor centre whose eco-friendly build includes straw bale walls, a 'living' roof and solar panels.
The lake was originally farmland above mine workings. In the 1880s Port Vale FC played there but when the pitch started to sag they sensibly moved away. Subsidence eventually created a lake which, in the 1970s, was taken over by the Council and turned into the lovely space it now is.
Canal Bridge 128 by the lake also happens to be the point where work on the canal began in 1766. And 250 years later we crossed it en route to the local Aldi. And I can't think of anything profound to say about that.
Hard to believe that Port Vale once played football here









Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The best £20 I've spent this trip

The higgledy-piggledy Hall bent under the gallery's weight
I've handed over £20 for a lot of things on this trip. Some of them good and some of them – particularly meals in pubs that should have known better – very disappointing. But, without doubt, today's £20 was the best spend of the lot.
It bought us two tickets for Little Moreton Hall, a higgledy-piggledy Tudor masterpiece of a house that must have used most of the local oak forests in its construction 500 years ago.
It was built and gradually extended by the Moreton family, not Earls and Dukes but wealthy and successful local landowners. At least they were for the first hundred years, then they backed the wrong side in the Civil War and lost more or less the lot except for the house.
They and their relatives clung on to that over the centuries, though most of the time they were too poor to live in it and instead rented it out to tenant farmers who took to using the chapel as a coal store and lived in the only two or three rooms that didn't leak.
The coal store notion didn't please one of the final inheritors who was a nun. She – rather understandably – didn't have any immediate family to pass it on to so she found a second cousin (who she'd never met) and offered it to him, though he wasn't allowed to sell it. He started guided tours – sixpence including a cream tea – to try and cover the repair costs but finally gave up and handed it to the National Trust in 1938. Who spent the next forty odd years sorting it out.
Grouped round a central courtyard like a piece of Tudor op-art
What they got was little more than a ruin but because it had never moved out of the family and because they didn't have the money to knock it down and built a Jacobean pile or a Victorian Gothic horror it has remained in its original Tudor, oak-framed guise. Which makes it very, very rare.
All this, and more, we learned from Sue our tour guide. Did I say that the tour was included free?
Original Tudor wall painting and wallpaper were hidden
The house is fascinating; richly timbered, with an original painted and wallpapered wall discovered when later panelling was removed. (Wallpaper was made briefly fashionable by one of George Osborne's Tudor ancestors.) It grew out of an original single storey hall house, upstairs rooms and then lavish bow windows were added as well as extensions all around. The amount of window glass is remarkable: glass was very costly so the Moretons were obviously extremely well off.
Richard Dale made sure his name would last
But it's the extraordinary twists and leans of the old frame that are its charm: it looks like a gingerbread house that has been left in the sun too long.
Apart from the obvious cause – it's 500 years old and built on virtually nothing – the real cause of the problem is that a 'long gallery' was built straight on top of the south wing's roof rafters. I'm sure the carpenter must have sucked his Tudor teeth (if he had any) and warned that the roof 'cannae take it, skipper' but, these galleries were fashionable so he was likely ordered to go ahead anyway.
The knot garden – clipping the hedges takes 80 hours
And, of course, the result is that the whole south wing virtually collapsed under the load. Today it is held up by steelwork cunningly hidden by National Trust craftsmen. But the roofline looks like the aftermath of an earthquake and the floor is not somewhere to stand your snooker table.
Guide Sue told us some of those fabulous factoids which I manage to hold in my brain when everything else goes straight through. Here's one: the original table was made of three long oak boards – one remains and it's a huge single piece of oak that must be 40 x 3 feet. The head of the family sat at the top of the table and was the only one with a chair – everyone else sat on stools or benches. Hence the phrase 'the chairman of the board'. There was also a board at the side of the room for dishes - the side-board. After the meal they turned the main boards over and played, yes, board games. And when actors or musicians came and needed a stage they used the boards so the actors 'trod the boards'. As you can tell, I was not bored by this information.
After a fascinating tour and a turn round the grounds with their exquisite knot garden, we had an equally excellent lunch in the cafe. Another twenty quid very well spent.












Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Down and nearly out

Looming out of the mist the Gothic ruin of Mow Cop Castle
We are on our final miles of the Macclesfield. Will we be sorry to leave it? Yes. And no.
On the plus side, it offers superb scenery, pleasant towns and the opportunity for fine walks. (Incidentally, given the option, I'd advise tackling it south-to-north as the enticing hills are always ahead of you).
On the minus side, it's shallow, badly needs dredging and, being up in the north west you'll inevitably get more than your fair share of rain. But it's the shallowness that irks and frustrates the most: even normal draughted boats run into problems; we're deep in the water so we were often reduced to less than a crawl.
Some of the bridgeholes are a disgrace – thick with silt and mud. The daft thing is that everyone knows it. Tell them you got stuck at Bridge 20 and local boaters nod knowingly and say: "ah yes, it's a bugger is that one." So why, if everyone knows it, isn't something done? I haven't a clue.
Anyway, rant over. We stopped at the canal's eponymous town (I do like that word). Macclesfield was once one of the biggest weaving towns in the country. It's all gone now of course and though the town sprawls for miles it doesn't offer the casual visitor a lot. The centre is small, lassooed in by a one-way system and has had much of its character smashed out of it in ugly shopping developments. It does have an Aldi though!
Entering the final lock of the handsome Bosley flight
Heading south we reached the only locks on the canal (bar the nominal stop lock at the end). The 12-lock Bosley flight is a handsome construction in hefty stone that drops the canal 120ft in less than a mile. We went down them in 90 minutes, thanks in part to the German hire boaters who'd just come up and, mistakenly but handily for us, left the top gates open behind them.
We moored at the edge of Congleton, second largest town on the canal, and woke up to rain. With no sign of it stopping, we bussed into the town – listening to an entertaining conversation at the bus stop on medical matters between two grannies: 'yes, he had a colonoscopy and a gastroscopy before they operated. And did you know, they glued him closed afterwards.'
Congleton is nice enough. It's seen better days but is trying hard and is a likeable little town. It even has an Aldi - but trying to cross the road to reach it would involve walking 400 yards of safety barrier to the nearest road crossing then 400 yards back. So we didn't. Why do planners assume everyone travels by car?
When the rain finally stopped we dashed (if that's the word) a few miles to a pretty mooring near the National Trust's Little Moreton Hall, which was shut.
Today it wasn't raining, just windy, so we took a walk up Mow Cop, the local hill which boasts a ruined castle at its top. Actually, it's not a real castle but an 18th century summerhouse which has gradually crumbled to Gothic ruin. Easy, in the mist, to imagine bats and vampires around the rocks.
It's a killer to walk let alone run up it in just 6min 50sec
To reach Mow Cop, it's a stiff walk - 1 in 5 and, near the end, 1 in 4 gradients. It took us about 45 minutes. They hold the 'killer mile' run up the same road. The record is just under seven minutes! The view from the top is worth the puffing – even on a misty morning you could see the Welsh hills far away in the west.
Mow Cop is also famous for being the spot where the Primitive Methodists were started at a marathon 14 hour service. It's a wonder anyone had the enthusiasm for Methodism after all that! Near the castle is the Old Man of Mow, a massive jagged rock that, you've guessed, looks a bit like an old man. Apparently the whole of the top of the hill was quarried for rock and the Old Man is all that remains of the old hilltop.
The Old Man of Mow looking rather stony faced
The hilltop also had several coal mines and, seemingly, there is even an old tunnel below it which was part of the transport system to bring the coal down to the canal below.
We walked down via the South Cheshire Way, which goes as far as Grindley Brook on the Llangollen Canal a full 50 miles away. A fabulous sunset tonight rounded off an enjoyable day. Tomorrow will most likely be our last on the Macca. Hopefully it will be a sunny one.
A stunning sunset tonight promises a fine day tomorrow










Wednesday, 14 September 2016

There and back again


We're killing time on a canal where time killing is no hardship at all. In a couple of days we will hop in a car and go family visiting but, meanwhile we've been to visit the spot where the first great canal builder, James Brindley, served his apprenticeship then turned around and returned to an earlier stopover at Bollington. And, in between, experienced the mother and father of all thunderstorms.
Born in 1716, Brindley was apprenticed to a millwright in Sutton near Macclesfield, to begin a working career that started as a millwright and ended as the master canal engineer. A plaque on the wall of the property that is now a house records the fact but why no official blue plaque I wonder? Forty years after his death, the Gurnet Aqueduct was built to carry the Macclesfield Canal above the river valley there and it's a few steps down from there to the house.
Just as well, as the skies turned black while we were out, thunder rolled and we dived into the local pub for a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor's while the heavens opened before braving the dash back to the boat.
You won't embarrass this nude sunbather in a canalside garden
Today the rain's gone and the sun has shone brightly as we headed back northwards to Bollington. It's simply impossible to believe the change in this pretty little town of gritstone terraces where wine bars and restaurants stand where once were ironmongers and butchers, and executive cars with their personal plates squeeze into parking slots on the cobbled streets that once echoed to the sound of miners and millworkers.
A quiet side street, once the main road through Bollington

Wine bars and restaurants are now the local shops

Bollington's fine cricket ground with grass viewing terraces
Less than a hundred years ago, it was all smoking industry chimneys, now it's 'happy valley' - a bijou commuter spot for Mancunians.
The huge canalside Clarence Mill, one of just two left here
The immensely knowledgeable Tim Boddington at the Discovery Centre in the huge Clarence Mill talked us through some of the town's history: how the ash from its three immense steam engines was ferried by tramway across the canal and piled high on the other side, the wharves along the aqueduct where coal was off-loaded down staithes and carted away in horse drawn wagons, the rebuilding of the aqueduct in stone to stop the sides slipping, the mining that went on all around the area. He was, excuse the pun, a mine of information.
The canal aqueduct: uniquely the sides are built in stone

















Monday, 12 September 2016

Walking over water


I'm afraid we haven't done too much boating since we arrived on the Macclesfield. It's that sort of a canal: so picturesque and so relaxing you simply don't want to rush through it. Instead of boating we've been walking – hence the title.
We moored over the weekend at Higher Poynton, once a mining area but now a spot that's slipped into tranquil rurality. It's a 20 minute walk to the nearest shops and old miners would I'm sure be shocked to discover that Poynton is now a desirable little outlying suburb of Manchester – there's even a Waitrose!
Up at the canal things do get busy at the weekend; it's a popular spot for visitors – there's a mining museum, the Anson diesel engine museum, a little cafe on the towpath and, of course, plenty of boats. There's always more than a few Braidbars around as the boats are built here. And our old chum Iain Bryceland, who used to own the firm, runs the moorings opposite so it was great to see him, as cheery and laidback as ever.
Manchester below us in the Cheshire plain
We went for a stroll over the canal bridge by Braidbar and kept on strolling and strolling steeply uphill until we found ourselves in the 1400 acre grounds of Lyme Park. The views from up here are stunning, especially down across the Cheshire plains where Manchester is laid out in the distance - you can even watch planes coming in to land at the airport.
The house itself is a monumental piece of work – the largest house in Cheshire (even bigger than Wayne Rooney's, then).
Up in the distance at Lyme Park is 'The Cage'
But the walker's target is 'The Cage', a hunting lodge high in the hills where noblemen's wives watched their husbands deer hunting below. It bears a close visual resemblance to the White Tower of the Tower of London where Lyme's then owner Peter Legh XII was twice imprisoned for treason, eventually being freed. Legend is that the design and the name 'The Cage' were a spot of irony on his part.
After a couple of walks around Lyme we decided to go boating again and headed down to the pretty little town of Bollington. Walking would have been easier – the canal was very shallow in place and a couple of bridge holes brought us to a standstill.
Bollington was a major centre for cotton spinning in the 19th century and we are moored by Clarence Mill, one of many that existed in and around the town. Most of the other mills have vanished and Bollington today is a sought after spot, its attractive stone terraced streets gently folded into the contours of a steep sided valley and nicknamed 'happy valley' by its residents.
Brian cools his feet in mid-walk
Walking mission today was 'White Nancy', a curious upside down eggcup of a building built on top of a steep hill to the edge of the town to celebrate victory in the Battle of Waterloo. It's said that it was used as a summer house but god help the poor servants who had to lug chairs and picnic hampers up the steep slopes below it.
The curious folly White Nancy and its far reaching views
It's a short but lung bursting effort but the spectacular views make it all worthwhile. You can see as far as the mountains of north Wales and the Pennine hills to the north and east.
From here a steeply sloping ridge, the 'saddle of Kerridge' (top picture) ran south for a mile, with Macclesfield stretching out below us in the west, before the footpath dropped steeply down to a country lane which headed back towards Bollington.
The overgrown remains of old quarries stretch along the road: trees have grown thickly up among the piles of scattered broken rocks and abandoned diggings to hide the sky and create a dark and forbidding atmosphere like The Wild Wood of Toad of Toad Hall.
Tom Clayton's mysterious chimney
Just short of Bollington a tall and ornate chimney lurked mysteriously in the thick trees and nearby a footpath crossed under the road and down precipitous stone steps. It had to be explored but, sadly, told us nothing more about the chimney – just add half a mile to our route home.
The chimney, Google revealed later, is known as Tom Clayton's Chimney and officially was a ventilation shaft for a coalmine. Except there's no coal mine shaft under there! It's all a bit of a mystery.
So will tomorrow be boating or walking? Who knows.














Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A pint, a pie and a walk


Stunning views all around from Eccles Pike.
Bugsworth Basin has an excellent pub – The Navigation, one of our favourites – and if you want to walk off the calories added by a few pints of Timothy Taylor and a massive steak and kidney pie then it also offers a useful guide to three walks up into the surrounding hills.
We decided to jump in at the deep end with the toughest: the four and a half miles of Cracken Edge, described as 'moderate'. Well if this was moderate then I'm not sure we'd survive 'tough'. It was very hard going, with a steep, steep climb out of the valley to the high hill behind it.
Cracken Edge; everywhere the remains of old quarries
But things improved dramatically as we followed a track, well trodden (by sheep as well as people) along the sheer edge of a hill that whose moss covered hummocks and endless piles of loose rocks and jagged outcrops were the evidence of years of quarrying to extract stone for paving slabs and roofing tiles. This went on until the 1930s, sending rock from this remote hillside down to the valley via tramways, the winding house of one still surviving on the top as a lonely relic.
This winding house, a lonely vestige of the quarrying industry
It was a long, lumpy walk back down the broken remains of an old drove road – boy, was life hard on those days – before an easier finish back to the pub for another beer.
The laminated rocks quarry naturally into stone for walls
Gluttons for punishment, we opted for another 'moderate' the next day in the scenic three and a half miler to Eccles Pike. This is on the opposite side of the valley so we could look across at yesterday's climb. The Pike's a renowned viewpoint but to get up there was another lung bursting, thigh burning clamber out of the valley. Worth it, though, as the views were spectacular in a 360 degree panorama as far away as Manchester, Yorkshire and across the Peaks. Fabulous.
Seadog Brian surveys the scene
Less fabulous was the route back. A lot of footpaths in the hills aren't fingerposted; you need to do some native style tracking to find them in the sheep fields and even the usually good instruction leaflet struggled to cope. After a couple of false trails, though, we found our way out – and back to the pub.
Buoyed with confidence we decided to tackle that at 7.00 pm after dinner. Two and a half miles: back before dark then! Hah!
I'm sure the instructions were correct once but introduce a herd of cows to a field, let them trample it into huge, muddy divots for a few months and then see if they make sense. "Strike out, through a gap in a barbed wire fence...across the slope...once over the brow of the hill you will see a stone step stile in the far wall."
Er. Oh, no we don't. Having struck out through the gap, negotiating a slurried drive, crossed a slope, we stood in the gathering gloom, up to our ankles in mud in the middle of a huge field of mud and goo with no stile in sight anywhere.
Fortunately, at that moment the farmer appeared on his quad bike, not shouting threats but happy to help these foolish southerners.
No, not with a lift (that's what I was hoping) but with the route to the mysterious stile. "Head for that big thistle in the field, keep going past it and you'll see the wall. Count twenty trees along [honest, this is what he said] and you'll see the stile."
From there it was easy, except for the moment when we opened a gate and from somewhere nearby the Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple of his mates started barking ferociously.
Finally, we were back to the boat in the pitch dark, boots and trousers thick with mud. And that walk had been labelled 'easy'!
How to close a canal; brute force and heavy timbers
Today we left Bugsworth – and Mrs B decided she hadn't had enough of walking and did the seven miles back to Marple Junction on foot along the towpath to operate the various bridges.
Just before the junction we passed a C&RT team getting ready for a winter stoppage to cure a leak on the canal by testing the stop planks to close off the water. And if you've ever wondered how stop planks are installed, the answer is with a man in the water in a wet-suit, a gang on the canalside and a lot of heaving and sweating to locate them in their slots in the bridgehole. It's a system that probably hasn't changed in a hundred or more years.
Tonight we are on the Macclesfield Canal and pointing south.









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Monday, 5 September 2016

Surrounded by history

This is just part of the huge complex withHarry in the distance
Around us tonight are the remains of a lost world, ruins of stone buildings and wharves so out of time with the modern world that they could be part of the ancient Roman empire.
We are at the remarkable Bugsworth Basin complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and all that remains of a once massive limestone processing and transport hub.
The model gives an idea of the extent of the site
Lime was a substance in huge demand in the early 19th century, used in everything from agricultural fertiliser to building mortar to textile manufacture. And a prime source of lime was the limestone hills of the Peak District.
So Bugsworth came into existence as a basin where limestone could be brought down from the surrounding hills by tramway, crushed or burned in huge kilns to produce quicklime and then transported away by the newly built Peak Forest Canal.
Another arm leads to even more parts of the site
Over the next half century it expanded to become one of the largest inland ports in England, handling over 600 tons of limestone a day. And then along came the railways. Bugsworth's importance declined rapidly and it closed in 1927. Amazingly, this vast place with its kilns, warehouses, railway tracks, offices decayed into an unrecognisable jungle as stonework was taken for other uses, undergrowth claimed the rest and the canal ceased working.
And beyond the bridge is yet another element
In 1968 volunteers began the monumental job of reclaiming it all from the undergrowth and getting the waterways fit for boats again: it took 30 years and even then had to be closed again for more work, only opening finally in 2005. (The work partly funded by the EU we'll soon be leving, incidentally). You can read more here.
It's a great place to be – like living in the centre of an archaeological site. All the same, it's worth remembering that in its working life this site was noisy, smelly, full of smoking chimneys and men worked physically hard in dangerous conditions for long hours at poor wages. It's all too easy to romanticise the past.
The remains of some of the lime burning kilns here
I must admit I feared the worst about getting here – we'd been through a lot of shallow, sludged up stretches. Yet this final seven miles, excavated with uncanny skill 200 years ago along the side of a sheer hill, proved a doddle. Yes, there were odd shallows and slow, silty moments but nothing to raise the pulse – indeed it's probably improved since we were last here in our previous boat. The sweet smell of Love Hearts and Parma Violets from the Swizzels factory at New Mills is unchanged though!