Saturday 27 July 2019


Today's Canal - Trent and Mersey

What a change in the weather! It has been wet all day, although fortunately only minor drizzle early morning. Not as energetic as the last two days, but we were still away just after 8 as we wanted to meet with an engineer before 12.

Just after we set off we passed a moored up work boat - hope that it is more successful than its political namesake!

We were slow passing through the first lock as a boat had slipped its mooring just ahead of us but was waiting in the lock with the top gate open as we pulled onto the lock landing. The steerer came back to explain that there was a cygnet in the lock and they did not want to empty it until it had left!

They were unimpressed with our lack of concern (we felt that the cygnet, being watched by a parent, would know what to do) and proceeded to try and tempt it out by feeding it copiously. This seemed to convince the cygnet even more to stay put! The eventually started on the descent but with a lot of bow thruster usage to keep the boat away from the cygnet.

Several of the collars on the bottom gates of these locks seemed unusually slack with the result that, combined with a distinct slope to the gate, meant that they swung open with an alarming rattle.

We found just enough room on the 24 hour mooring beside the shoppers car park and Christine went off to visit the bakery - seems that we have done this before.

We resumed the last part of this tip down to the marina. We already knew where we were placed so reversed straight onto the pontoon and tied up. Mike immediately went to speak with the engineer and made arrangements for a 750 hour service whilst we are away. Christine then went to pay our mooring dues whilst Mike hooked up to the electricity.

By now the rain had intensified and it was less than cool. As a result we were quite content to while away time inside looking out"!

3.5 Miles - 5 Locks

Friday 26 July 2019

Stone and Car Shuffle

Today's Canal - Trent and Mersey

We again woke with the alarm at six and were pushing away from the mooring just on seven. Although it was forecast to be another hot day, less so than yesterday, it turned out to be mostly overcast and sticky - just the day for a car shuffle!

But first we had to get withing walking distance of Stone Railway Station which is on the north western edge of the town. Both Barlaston and Wedgwood stations (which in former times would have been ideal as they were only short distances from the canal) have both been closed since 2004 with only vague hopes of seeing them re-open. (A notice at Stone that Mike saw later seems to suggest that the upcoming new timetable will achieve faster long distance trains at the expense of reducing the number of intermediate stops, passing the responsibility for that traffic to smaller, regional companies who will feed passengers in to larger hubs. Since the Northern Powerhouse HS3 is back on the agenda, perhaps someone will decide that small rural stops, not that Stone is rural but the other two are commuter villages, are worth re-considering even if the numbers are relatively small)

Barlaston Boatyard is now a private residence but they have retained space to moor a couple of boats.

This former railway bridge is one of the few visible reminders that this was once Meaford Power Station - a short branch from the nearby main line was used to bring coal down from Hem Heath Colliery, on the southern edge of Stoke. Both have long since closed, well before the push to eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.

There was a pleasant early morning cruise for about 45 minutes to the top of the four Meaford Locks. We passed another boat on the move just before the flight and then one in the middle, all helps with the locks.

However, the first one had already dropped a bit and took Christine a surprising amount of time to be able to open the top gate.

This bridge in the middle of the flight is a turnover bridge but not as efficient or elegant as the ones on the Macclesfield.

The rest of the flight was unremarkable and we pulled in just before bridge 96A as planned. The modern estate on the opposite bank looks especially well maintained and makes a feature of the winding hole. From here there is a footpath up to a road into town, crossing the railway line, no longer on the level, but up and over a high footbridge.

Mike set off in good time - the route he was expecting began with the 10:04 out of stone towards Crewe. He had tried to book tickets last night but the websites all persistently reported a problem and as it was not an Advance ticket he left it until this morning. Hence the need to leave in plenty of time as well as not being wholly sure about the walking route. In the end it was rather longer than anticipated - the entrance to the station is inconveniently located relative to the foot bridge! However, even after fighting an uncooperative ticket machine - there are no people at all at this station - he still had half an hour to wait. The train duly arrived albeit 5 minutes late.

By now Mike had checked the on-line live trains data and found that there was significant disruption to the trains out of Crewe. After consulting several staff at the station as well as various display boards, he found a train bound for Liverpool Lime Street that was ,much delayed and still awaiting a driver but was expected to leave within minutes. He was assured that his ticket was valid for that train - there was some doubt as some information told him that the next train to leave was a Virgin train and others that it was a NorthWestern - this matters in these days of privatised operating companies and a multiplicity of ticket interchangeability. In any event the train manager accepted his ticket!

That train arrived into Liverpool not much after the time that had been timetabled, even if it was a different train. There was then a short walk to Central station where Mike caught a Merseyrail train out to Ormskirk.

The final leg of the transport was a bus from Ormskirk to Scarisbrick Bridge. The original timing showed that he would have a reasonable time to walk from the train to the bus station. With the earlier delay he arrived at 22 minutes past the hour with the bus due out at 25. Heq uickly spotted that the walking route was signposted and a bit quicker than he though but it was right on 25 past when he found the right stand.

There were several people waiting and they conformed that the bus has had not yet left - it is an hourly service so if he had missed it, Mike would have had quite a wait. In the end it arrived ten minutes late but efficiently then took him out gto his final destination from where it was a shirt walk into the marina - all the quicker as he knew the short cut from when we passed by earlier in the month.

It was now lunch time and the marina has a very popular tea room and as he had not brought a packed lunch, Mike succumbed to the temptation of a hot turkey panini before hitting the road.

The car ride back to Stone took around 90 minutes - the second part on the M6 was somewhat tedious with several stop-start sections having no obvious cause for delay. Mike drove straight to the marina where we will leave the boat for the next couple of week whilst back home and in London. Unfortunately, the engineer had already left for the day so we will have to see whether we will be able to speak to him tomorrow when we arrive.

Time then to walk back to the boat - a bit further than anticipated but the afternoon was not quite as warm as the morning so a pleasant level walk along the towpath for three miles.

The A51 road bridge which was crossed in the car a short while earlier.

Near to Brassworks Bridge this splendid building was probably once a farm house, also called Brassworks. We have yet to discover the origin of the name as, although the bridge is given this name on early OS maps, there is no sign of any industrial site in that area.

Just below Yard Lock a statue called Christine recalls an infamous incident in the history of Stone. (see) Sadly, it is now almost completely overgrown and would be missed entirely unless previously seen.

Joules Brewery is an iconic feature of the canalside in Stone and was one of the early brewing brands - it adopted a red cross symbol even before it was used by the eponymous humanitarian organisation. It was a great rival to Bass who eventually took it over, then closing down the brewery in the 1970's. Bass then became sold on and the new owners of the brand were willing, in 2009, to let a new company recreate the brand with a small brewery in Market Drayton. They have subsequently built up a portfolio of around 40 pubs in this area. The new company is heavily involved in a regeneration of a site next to Canal Cruising, known as Crown Wharf, adjacent to the former brewery. The scheme which is expected to be complete in late 2020, will include a pub, a small 140 seat theatre and an information centre.

Although we have passed this way several times, this is the first that we have spotted this unusual garden shed. Stoneycombe Sidings were originally built to serve a quarry near Newton Abbott. Not yet discovered how the signal box came to be transplanted here after it became redundant.

Whilst Mike was away enjoying the delights of public transport, the motorway and strolling the towpath, Christine cleaned, washed, laundered and whatever was needed to spruce up the inside of the boat after a couple of weeks of continuous usage. By mid afternoon she was finished and opted to walk into town, along the towpath and visited a few shops - she would like to return to the bakery tomorrow when they are re-stocked. There best items had already sold out for the day!

By the time Mike was passing the last lock back to the mooring, Christine reported by phone that she was only a short distance ahead - we checked as she could then see a cyclist that had just passed Mike - but she still made it back in time to have the kettle already on when Mike completed his car shuffle for this trip.

Alas, energy levels (aka commitment and enthusiasm) had dropped a little and this blog was left until Saturday to compile!

3.0 Miles - 4 Locks

Thursday 25 July 2019


Today's Canal - Trent and Mersey

Te weather forecast for today was predicting a heatwave, with temperatures over 30C! As a result we decided to set the alrm for six and set off as soon as we could.

Indeed, we were on our way just before seven, passing nb Towy moored just above Stoke Top Lock. They have recently come from the Caldon Canal where they reported significant difficulties with insufficient depth over the cill at one of the locks. It has been quite a saga for them

We diverged from the Trent and Mersey onto the Caldon just sufficiently (around 50 m) go reach the service block which is that side of the junction, still part of the Etruria Maintenance Yard that has been here fora very long time.

After we had completed the usual tasks we reversed back to the junction and then began the descent down towards Stone and the marina where we will leave the boat for a short period.

Thee locks down and we passed these two preserved bottle ovens, built in 1887 and now listed. What we learnt yesterday is that there were different ovens for different purposes.These are described as calcining ovens and belong to the Cliffe Vale Pottery.The only parts of that factory, also known as the Twyford Works, hence the name for the nearby lock, that are still standing are the main office front, a short way down Shelton New Road and these two ovens, the rest of the site is now covered in housing. It was here that Twyford manufactured the first commercial flushing toilets.

At the next lock the main railway line through Stoke passes very close to the tail gates and pedestrians, cyclists and boaters have to dive down underneath. One of the balance beams just fits into a space beside the railway supports. We only hope that the rest of the structure is less corroded than the end closest to the canal!

We then passed under another railway bridge which now carries a short branch to the Cliffe Vale rail terminal. Amongst other things, trains of china clay wagons from Cornwall are brought here several times a week to supply the pottery industry.

Finally we dropped down through the very slow bottom lock which was re-built when the important A500 (known at the time as the D Road) was constructed and much of the local area was demolished.

A little further and we spotted yet another bottle oven - this one looked very slender to us, quite unlike the one at Middleport. This fascinating website describes the differences in some detail. Wikipedia has yet more information about how they were used. This one was part of the Dolby Pottery and used as a flint kiln.

We continued over the infant River Trent.

This towpath seat - no doubt a relief to many walkers and joggers - is a reminder that in this area there used to be important coal mines.

We saw nb Que Ser Sera when at Westport Lake but failed at that time to look up what it does. It turns out to usually trade along the Trent and Mersey on the Stoke area, selling filled oatcakes (a local delicacy) with a special trade on match days when Stoke City are at home, not far from where this photo was taken. It was still too early to be able to supplement our breakfast!

For a while we were in open countryside although commuter villages would soon reappear.

As we approached Bridge 106 at Trentham we had to pause whilst a work boat unloaded materials for a repair to the towpath bank. The crew were very pleasant and helpful and showed Christine how to get to the local shop (which she was planning to visit for a newspaper anyway) missing out the route temporarily close to pedestrians. Mike looked after the boat but did not have to wait long - would have been even quicker but for a boat appearing from the opposite direction and pushing its way through first! As soon as Mike had pulled in on the other side of the road bridge, Christine returned, paper and oatcake in hand.

Well before 10:30 we reached Bridge 104, after which we planned to pull in for the rest of the day - there was plenty of room but w e chose a pot which, at least for a while, would be in the shade.

Late morning Christine took a walk along the road that passes over this bridge towards the Wedgwood Factory. She had to pause at the level crossing - until 2004 local trains stopped here, and at Barlaston, but the service was suspended whilst major refurbishment of the station took place. Alas the service has never been reinstated even though the station is not officially closed! It is, however, a busy electrified line with trains from Stafford through Stoke to Kidsgrove.

Christine eventually reached the factory and the showroom but was a little disappointed that there were no factory visits available today.

The willow sculptures match the type of ceramic ware made here.

Without the imagination of Josiah Wedgwood who saw the potential of canals for transporting the fragile goods with much less breakage than on the road roads the available, we might not have had the era of Canal Mania.

5.4 Miles - 6 Locks

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Middleport Pottery and Etruria

Today's Canal - Trent and Mersey

Last night we booked online for a tour of the Middleport Factory, just a short distance from where we were moored. As the tour was not until 11 am, with about 20 minute walk, we had a slow start to the day although we had woken early.

Yesterday ended very warm but overnight there had been heavy rain and thunderstorms (although only one of us can testify to this!) By the time we set off to walk to the pottery the sky had cleared and the temperature rose quickly.

The pottery is one of the oldest still operating in Stoke on Trent. The company began in 1851 in central Burslem but was taken over by two people called Burgess and Leigh - hence the name of the product range, still used today, is Burleigh.  As the business expanded they needed a new site which they built at Middleport in 1889.

We arrived a the pottery with five minutes to spare but the guide was just beginning his introduction - so no time to dally. Throughout the almost two hour tour he was very friendly, informative and willing to take any questions thrown at him. There were just 8 of us on the tour. We began in the old Victorian offices, now preserved as a one part of the Heritage Tour.

We should explain (it was not obvious to us at the start!): The original design for the factory had seven bottle ovens, covering several distinct stages in the process. Gradually they were demolished as newer techniques were adopted and today only one remains, but is no longer in use. In 2011 the site was still being used to make Burleigh pottery but in a very poor condition and was bought by United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, (UKHBPT) who commenced a £9 million renovation project which included opening to visitors in 2014. The Trust organise the preservation and visitor side of things which Burgess and Leigh (now part of the Denby group of potteries) run the actual factory. In turn they have acquired other brand names including the famous Poole Pottery which is manufactured here alongside the Burleigh lines.

The factory abuts the canal which was originally very important for the transport of its products around the country as well as the arrival of raw materials - china clay from Cornwall gradually became an important component of the clay used, the majority continuing to come from local sources.

The site is still being developed and last year a Bath House was discovered in an otherwise long bricked up section. Burgess and Leigh were especially attentive to the welfare of their workers and the provision of on site washing facilities made a substantial reduction in the number of diseases caused by the lead and other ingredients used in production. Sadly, the overnight rain had flooded it so we were unable to see it for ourselves.

This view shows two of the historic structures - the one remaining bottle oven and also the drying tower. Inside the structure was a mechanism that, on a continuous basis, raised trays of products up to the top and back down again whilst a stream of hot air flowed upwards.

We now began our factory tour - starting with the slip production where the original clay is mixed with water in a large container and stirred to produce a pourable form. This is then piped into the holloware section.

Two part moulds are filled with the slip, excess drained out (and returned to the slip mixer) leaving the correct thickness of clay inside the mould. This is then left to dry before being carefully removed from the mould. At the same time, the large pieces of excess clay are removed.

At this stage the items are quite weak and have to be further dried, either in the air or in a heated space. It is just possible to see in the above picture that the items are fairly dry at the op but the bases still have some way to go.

Most of the production we saw was of Burleigh ware but these two pictures are from the Poole range, which is well known for its birds as well as he stylish shape of vases and bowls.

The next stage is fettling where all the rough edges are removed, mostly using damp (but not wet) sponges. This is a skilled and time consuming process. This worker has a large range of sponges, each used for a different part of the item.

Simpler items, such as plates, are processed with the help of these rotating sponge machines.

There is then a further drying stage as it is important that there is no water at all left in the clay when it goes for biscuit firing.This is the only time when it is possible to stack items that actually touch each other. From then on they have to be kept separate.

Our guide then told us about what he considers to be one of the ,most important inventions in pottery production - Bullers Rings. These date back to the days when the bottle ovens were used but are still key to ensuring that items are properly fired. In the bottle ovens. small gaps were left in the bricks so that the workers could pull one of the rings out to see whether the correct temperature had been reached.

They were tested using gauges such as the one above which gave a quick read out of the amount by which the ring had shrunk.

The 'proper' name today is pyrometric ring.

Some items are placed two together with an adhesive to keep them in place so that the rim is not distorted during biscuit firing.

The output from all the work up to this stage - by now each item has gained its final strength but has a kind of porous texture - is held here until the final work is ready, putting on the pattern and glaze

Here are a few more Poole items - in passing, but now in their decorated stage.

Burleigh pottery   made using the ancient tissue transfer technique, one of the oldest production methods that took over from hand painting. The design is engraved onto a roller - this takes between 1000  and 2000 hours of painstaking work.

The roller is then mounted in a machine that coats its surface with the oils that will decorate the surface of the product, only taking on their finished colour once they are fired for the final time. A sheet of tissue paper is then ;passe over the roller and the pattern transferred to the paper which is hung on a 'washing line' until a worker is ready to use it.

Burleigh style is mainly an all over pattern which means that the worker has to cut a suitable piece from the sheet and place it on the surface of the item, carefully rolling and smoothing it down to ensure that all of the ink goes onto the ware. Scissors and other tools are used to remove any excess tissue. The items are then sent through a catering sized 'dish washer' which removes the paper which would otherwise catch fire in the oven.

These products are under glazed decorated which means that they are now ready to have the final layer of glaze over all of the surface. Simpler items are sprayed. The glaze at this stage, usually pink, has that colour so that the worker can check that there are no gaps in the glaze - it ends up transparent after firing.

More complex items, such as teapots and jugs, are dipped by hand.

Once more they pass through a dryer.

After all that they are finally ready to be loaded into an oven.

And here is a batch that came out from firing earlier this morning.

After we had completed the factory tour we were taken inside the remaining bottle oven. To our surprise, the structure which is seen outside, once famously belching out large quantities of polluting smoke, contains a much smaller oven where the firing takes place. The items were packed into saggers, protective clay cases, and stacked 20 high in the oven. Fires were then lit around the bottom edge of the oven, in the space between it and the outer wall. The heat the rose through the oven and circulated back via the space between the walls. As far as possible, the smoke from the coal fires was directed away from the oven to avoid contaminating the products an spoiling them. Firing in these bottle ovens would take at least two days.

This one of the Burleigh designs that was on sale in the shop at the end of the tour - after all that skilled manual work, they are not cheap - that requires the impersonal work of industrial machinery used elsewhere, such as in the Steelite factory next door.

It was definitely lunch time now and we needed fortifying before walking back to the boat so we took advantage of the on site tea room - most of the tour participants did likewise!

After a quick look at a few features not covered by the tour, such as the Boulton steam engine, we took our leave and walked back. Just outside the factory is a row of houses that the Trust have bought and are planning to turn into a further exhibition.

Despite almost wilting in the heat we decided that we needed to be a little further on so we headed on for just over an hour to Etruria Junction - any further and we would have had to go some distance and at least five locks.

A little way and we spotted another couple of bottle ovens - such as that above - they seem go be waiting for decisions about their future. At one time over 2000 were dotted across the Five Towns, giving the area its colloquial name The Potteries. The local council is concerned to preserve the last of this heritage and has discovered that only 46 still remain in some stage of repair or dereliction.

We passed the Middleport Pottery, this time from the other side.

The canal then goes through open space that was once the huge Shelton Iron and Steel Works, long since disappeared.

Festival Park is now a small marina and one of the Black Prince hire bases.

We could not see from a distance any space to moor as we neared the top lock at Etruria but, luckily, as we arrived a boat pulled out leaving just enough room for us. By later afternoon, the sky had clouded somewhat and a light breeze brought the temperature down just a bit.

2.6 Miles - 0 Locks