Friday 19 July 2024

Blake Mere

Today's canals: Montgomery, Llangollen

We were up and away at the incredibly early hour of 8.30. When we booked for the return passage through Frankton Locks back last Sunday, we were the fifth boat to book and so we guessed that there might be even more by now. We had to moor last night on the towpath, with pins, as the visitor moorings were all full, with one more on the services point. We did not want to wait an hour below the locks when they open at 9 if all of them moved off first. So we made sure we were head of the queue!

Our wait was broken up by chatting to two grass strimmer chaps, whom we had spotted yesterday at Aston Locks. It seems that they have 8 days to do the whole towpath right down to Newtown.

Right on time the lock keeper came down from the hut at the top and unlocked the bottom gate paddle. We had already brought the boat in as the lock is left empty overnight.

Near the top, we spotted a decorative planter full with seasonal flower plants. In 'the olden days' when lock keepers lived in an adjacent cottage, they would have had time to tend their patch - some canal companies even ran competitions for the Best Kept Lock. Today, sadly, this is much rarer,

The top two locks form a staircase and as a boat had just started down, we had to wait in the previous lock until they had come through. Time to admire more of the flowers.

The lock keeper concentrates on the staircase, generally leaving boaters to fend for themselves in the two single locks. Staircases are not really difficult but can be daunting to someone encountering one for the first time. As we chatted he asked if we know about the Charles and Diana Brick. He then offered to take a photo for us - the commemorative brick is set just down from the coping stones on the lock wall. Taking a photo does mean getting down really low and it is  better if you know where it is! Wonder if the King remembers it or perhaps one of his days he might wish to forget . . . ? However, he is said to be very interested in the canals.

After completing the top lock we bade farewell to the very friendly and chatty keeper and a really interesting canal. All the best to those focussed on maintaining what is in use and bringing the rest back into use.

Now back on the main Llangollen Canal - we came from the left in the photo and Llangollen itself is ahead. We now made for Ellesmere where we hoped to find a good enough signal for a Zoom meeting.

Winston Farm Lodges look a great place to stay - today may well be a turnaround but all three looked empty but the spa hot tubs were being cleaned! The farm al so grows Christmas trees and Pumpkins - three for £10 in October half term.

Arriving at Ellesmere we quickly turned up the arm towards the centre of the town, which is one long visitor mooring apart from a winding hole right at the end. We found a space just near the junction - right at the far end would have been better as it is right outside the entrance to tesco! On the other hand, despite being told by a chap on the next boat along that we would not get a signal strong enough for Zoom, this slot was just right!

We immediately set off into town to pick up items from our two favourite Ellesmere shops - a butcher and a deli. They did not disappoint! They are next door but one to each right in the centre of the photo. On the way back we picked up three heavier items rather than leave those til later.

Enough time for lunch before it was time for Christine to set up her kit for the meeting. Hey presto! It all worked and she was able to make decisions on Faculties, a bit like Listed Building Consents but for works on churches. Meanwhile, Mike walked back to tesco for the main shopping. He used the scan and shop device but at the checkout the system called for a random check. The second item came up as not scanned (Mike clearly remembers 'shooting' the goose fat but the system had forgotten. This meant that the slightly miffed assistant had to do a full check and Mike was ushered unceremoniously away to a special corner for naughts boys where the whole lot was emptied out and re-scanned. Nothing else was missed but, of course, it was the most expensive item in the bags!

Back at the boat it was not long before the Zoom meeting ended and we opted to move on a little further - we could have stayed and at least known that we would have been able to stream tv or Netflix, but ahead is a more scenic section.

We reversed back down the arm and turned to continue our journey, . . .

. . . fairly soon passing through the short Ellesmere Tunnel.

Alongside Blake Mere, close to where we moored on the way up, we were seduced by the scenery, the shady trees and a patch of sunshine!

4.3 Miles - 4 Locks

Wednesday 17 July 2024


Today's Canal : Montgomery

The weather took a complete change today and we awoke to brilliant sunny conditions. Some pictures to capture the moment. Time for lighter clothes! 

We set off in good time, planning to make the end of the canal by lunch time and then in the afternoon to come some of the way back to where we began the day.

We started under two large bridges, the first is the old A5 and the second carries the new by pass.

Despite having to cruise at no more then 2 mph, sometimes even less, in no time at all we were at the top of the three lock Aston flight. No idea why there is a car parked precariously lock side!

The first two locks were full as a boat had very recently come up but the third needed a little filling before we could enter. Even so, we were through all three locks within half an hour.

The next section was a very gentle cruise - we met only one boat in this time - but very relaxing. Eventually we arrived at Crofts Mill Lift Bridge - a standard 57 turns up and 29 down.

In the past we have been tempted to leave the bridge open as we had to turn just ahead at Gronwen Wharf and come back again, no mooring the other side of the bridge (in fact we always closed it but that was hard work) But the next mile and a quarter to Crickheath was opened last year and so we were able to cruise a new-to-us section of canal for the first time.

Morton Farm Lift Lift Bridge is thankfully normally left open so we sailed through! (Well, we would have if we had had any and a mast to carry them!)

In the distance we spotted a large industrial building, quite out of character from its surroundings.

The building then disappeared from view, hidden by dense trees and vegetation, with but one glimpse through a gap.

The site has two businesses - the large building is an animal feed processing plant, powered in part by a large solar farm next door. Also here is the UK's largest independent supplier of pullets to farms large and small - their web site says that they have fulfilled order between 6 and 200,000!

Just ahead another, quite separate, solar farm is just starting constriction on what, we have been told is low grade marshy ground, so not taking away good agricultural land. Or so they say.

And then we arrived at Crickheath where, for now, the navigation comes to an abrupt and unceremonious end, with a temporary dam underneath the bridge.

When we had moored we discovered that, unlike Queens Head, there was an excellent mobile signal. It did not take to change plans so that we would stay here for lunch, walk down the next section under restoration and then stay the night. We have plenty of time - at least in theory - to get back to Frankton tomorrow, in time for our booking up the locks the following morning.

The next phase of restoration, which started in the spring of this year, is making good progress with effort focussed on monthly weekend working parties and intermediate contributions from other volunteers.

Phase 1a is from Crickheath to a farm crossing beyond what was once Crickheath Wharf. A tramway once ran from a quarry at Lynclyst to bring limestone to be loaded on to boats for distribution is the area. We understand that one part of the canal was funded by the landowners on the basis that their return was from better crops rather than a shareholder dividend. The wharf wall is being carefully restored using as much of the old stone as possible. Only a few coping stones to go. Most of this phase will not need to be lines, only a few metres at the far end.

Phase 1b follows after a farm crossing. We have been told that there was no bridge here originally but when the canal closed the farmer filled in and has been driving his tractors across ever since, this gaining access rights. As yet a plan for a replacement  bridge is still to be finalised but agreement is close. It is hoped that construction will commence next year. 

From here to Schoolhouse Bridge the canal will new lining and most of that work is now complete. It is, in part, a pilot project for the technique to be used in later sections. In particular, the two rows of hollow blocks on the top of the offside bank are an innovation to encourage the growth of vegetation. Apart from that, it looks very similar to what we have seen being constructed on the Wendover arm.

Schoolhouse Bridge was long seen as a major hurdle, the last highway project in Shropshire (there are some more once the canal crosses into Wales) The original bridge here (presumably one of the old style humped back bridges) was removed and a level crossing constructed during the time the canal was closed. Although volunteers have completed some substantial engineering works on this restoration, this build was seen as a step too far and take too long and so professional contractors have been used to construct it. The bridge has had to be built to modern highway requirements not just as a farm accommodation bridge (such as  back at the farm crossing) The bridge was officially opened to traffic just last month.

Volunteers were at work, moving some of the remaining spoil heaps into their final places - much is going back to the local farmer who agreed to part of his land to be used as a temporary bypass for traffic whilst the new bridge was built. This piece of land will be used in the short term to signore blocks for the new lining.

We had a long chat to a chap we think was overseeing the volunteers and also a trustee on one or more of the charities involved and we learnt a lot about the work being undertaken.

Phase 2 is from here to the next winding hole, a couple of bridges further on. Much preparation has already been done but nature keeps intruding and light vegetation blocks the view. A good surface to the towpath has been installed about half way but for the moment all work on Phase 2 has come to a halt because a badger sett has been discovered. Investigations are in hand and agreements being sought to relocate the badger to a less intrusive new home. The latest progress can be seen here.

We then walked back to the boat - Christine need time to prepare for a Zoom meeting on Friday, sending in her contributions by email just in case we cannot fond a mobile signal at the right time - we suspect it may be problematic, based on experience on the way here. But at this point, it is great! Alas, by the time we had had our evening meal (cottage pie) and this blog written we lacked energy to work out what to watch . . .

4.2 Miles - 3 Locks 

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Queens Head

Today's Canals: Llangollen and Montgomery

There had been plenty of rain overnight but by the time we were ready to set off it had reduced to a light drizzle.

By the time we had come under the last bridge before the junction (we had been moored in the far distance of this photo) it was almost dry and there was no recurrence of the rain thereafter.

As we turned down the Montgomery to Frankton Locks we could see the permanent lock keeper awaiting us with the top part of the staircase ready and waiting. As he began lowering us we noticed that he had left a top paddle up but told us that this was because the lock is very leaky and unless the top lock is really full, then there is not enough to get us into the second part of the staircase.

As soon as we were into the next lock and dropping down we could see really clearly the scale of the problem and we kept well clear! Since there is always a lock keeper here to shepherd boats through (all pre booked and in a 9 - 12 time window) fixing the problem is not as high a priority as it might be elsewhere with more boats passing daily,

A volunteer was covering the next two single locks, all part of the same flight, but he was also helping a boat come up so Christine had some work to do. She was rather concerned that the locks felt very slippery with all the rain water still standing around.

Even so, we were through the bottom lock half an hour after starting the first.

After a very short distance we arrived at the former junction of an arm that went a couple of miles but is now only about 300m coming to an abrupt end at the service block and an impasse of reeds. There is water a little further but the latter part is now dry.

We completed a full service - one of the strongest water tap flows we have encountered on a navigation! We then had to reverse back to the junction and turn before continuing on our way.

Not far before Graham Palmer Lock, named after the founder of the Waterways Recovery Group, the best known restoration volunteer group who have done, and still are doing, much of the work to bring this canal back to life.

This lock only has a small rise and fall and was not part of the original canal. It was added subsidence a little further on.

The restoration of a rural canal that been allowed to run wild often involves compromises between the needs of boaters and the environmental lobby, concerned to protect an unusual species of plants or wildlife that has established itself since closure. At times, the towpath is barely visible and the only walked we spotted was obviously having to force his way through the undergrowth. Much like many other canals in the days when we first started boating!

After some long straight sections we passed under a railway bridge that carries the line that passes over the Chirk Viaduct we saw earlier in this trip. It is not a busy line!

Another straight section with impressive greenery - from here on there are several places where the offside has been strengthened in a way that still allows certain species to survive as boats wash water into the small lagoons.

Approaching Queens Head, a small hamlet on the A5, we could see a boat moored in the distance. Mooring spots are few and sometimes far between and two years ago we found that this mooring can be very popular. Would we get in? As we closed in we could see that only one boat was moored and so there was plenty of room. That boat was only stopping here for lunch and then moved on but a GRP cruiser arrived later and also moored up. We opted to have a short cruising day today - we have until Thursday evening to return close to Frankton. It can be done in two days if needed but we felt it better to take a bit more time over it, especially as we hope to experience the next mile and a half that was competed and opened in 2023, after our last visit.

The mooring is at a former wharf and the main building has been converted into a water activity centre but was not in operation today. Inexperienced but enthusiastic canoeists can be an additional obstacle here at times!

So far the day had remained dry and quite warm but overcast with the occasional dark cloud threatening to spoil things, yet failing to do so. Late afternoon we did have a brilliant sunny and even hot spell. Think what might have been on other days . . .

We have now discovered a web site with a lot of information about the Queens Head wharf. We had already seen from old OS maps that a short tramway ran from here gto a nearby sand pit. 

4.2 Miles - 5 Locks

Monday 15 July 2024


Today's Canal : Llangollen

Still grey weather - the forecast was that rain would hold off until lunch time, which it did. We had moored only about 300m before the entrance to Whitehouse Tunnel.

This is relatively short tunnel and we could see that it was empty and we could proceed straight in. With the water flow in our favour, we came through in 4 minutes instead of the 6 going up.

We continued, passing Chirk Marina where quite a number of hire boats are turned around. 

At Chirk Tunnel we could see that there was a boat coming our way - it was not long in emerging. Before it did we thought that there was another boat following by then we realised it was the lights of two cyclists who also arrived at much the same time as the boat. We quickly entered, giving no time for any other boat to set off towards us. There is no control system here and at busier times, it can take a while to get a break in oncoming traffic. 

At the end of the tunnel we emerged inti the basin before the aqueduct which also serves as a winding hole for boats not wanting to go any further (which was what we did two years ago.

Alas there were no trains running over the viaduct alongside which we could include in our photo - the line only has one or two an hour each way so the chances of catching one are not great.

View through the picture frame of a viaduct arch.

As we came to the end of the aqueduct we also were informed that we were no back in England! (No mention of the football . . .) We will make a brief incursion back into the Principality in a few days, after we have been down the Montgomery.

After a mainly rural section we arrived at the two New Marton locks. These can often be a bottleneck especially at the 'wrong' time in relation to hire boat departures. We knew that there was a boat a few minutes ahead of us but we felt quite fortunate that it was the only one in the queue for the lock. The next upcoming boat did complain that there was a long queue below the bottom lock!

Leaving Mike with help from boats waiting below, Christine was able to take the long walk down to the necy lock. Here she found a boat with an American crew who were experiencing locks for the first time - so she helped to explain the operation to them.

There was indeed a queue below - we counted seven boats waiting, nearly all from one or other of the nearest ABC bases.

Bridge 6W, just before the hire base at Whittington is a splendid example of a turnover bridge. Only a few, mainly on the Macclesfield, have this circular arrangement which speeds up traffic as the horse could continue without having to be unfastened from the towline, and without long approach ramps.

Incidentally, we have now discovered that the W was added to all the bridge numbers from Frankton to Llangollen following a H&S review back in the British Waterways era and was intended to avoid confusion when calling out emergency service, otherwise there would be two very different places with the same number. The numbering itself dates back to when the separate sections were built be independent startup companies.

Shortly after this we paused on a Visitor Mooring to have lunch, leaving about 40 minutes run to Frankton Junction.

As we finished our meal the promised rain arrived but, despite a heavy shower at first, this quickly abated to a light drizzle and we completed today's target of the VM just before the junction, without getting badly soaked. As there was still room here we declined the chance of going through the bridge to see if we could moor in the waiting area above the Montgomery Canal and the Frankton Locks.

We booked online last night (after we had already published yesterday's blog) to go down on Tuesday and back on Friday. We were surprised that at that stage there were only two other bookings (out of a maximum of 12) but perhaps more will have joined by closing time today. It is not possible to book on the day of transit.

9.5 Miles - 2 Locks