Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Enjoying the Delights of the Caldon Canal

Since the last blog we’ve climbed to the summit of the Trent and Mersey Canal, faced and overcome the perils of the Harecastle Tunnel and turned off at Stoke on Trent to explore the Caldon Canal.  We’re now almost as high above sea level as we were when we crossed the Leeds and Liverpool over the Pennines.

Helen woke up early on Monday morning and caught this lovely atmospheric picture of an early morning cow.  It looks almost like an old fashioned sepia print but I’ve not edited it at all.
Cow in early morning mist
 Having climbed to the summit of the Trent and Mersey we passed Harding’s Wood Junction where we had turned right onto the Macclesfield Canal in June. This time we carried straight on and now we’re onto new waters once more:
Sign Post at Harding's Wood Junction - we took the right arm shown
Half a mile after the junction you meet the North Portal of the Harecastle Tunnel.  At one and two-thirds miles this is the fifth longest canal tunnel currently navigable in the UK.  Here are some photos of the experience:
North Portal of Harecastle Tunnel

The view from the tiller

The South Portal - doors are closed and fans run to freshen the air

The tunnel is one way at a time and starts out plenty wide enough but there are some very low and some narrower sections to catch out the unwary.  The passage through took us about 40 minutes and the level of concentration required was such that we stopped for coffee soon after coming out and had a walk round Westport Lake to calm down!

Soon after coming out of Harecastle you are firmly in the Potteries as you pass through Stoke on Trent.
Pottery Kiln at Stoke on Trent
Some parts of Stoke look a bit sad with demolished industrial premises which have just been left.  We turned off left onto the Caldon Canal where there is a statue of James Brindley who started as a millwright around Leek before he turned to building canals including the Trent and Mersey
James Bridley with  his theodolite
The Caldon Canal was built to carry limestone down from the Staffordshire Hills.  It climbs immediately away from the summit level of the Trent and Mersey starting with a double staircase lock.  It even has some lifting bridges and passes through some delightful scenery.  The canal is a real test of skill in steering a narrow boat being very narrow with many sharp twists and turns.  I bumped Leo today where a bridge hole had a stone projection hidden by overgrowing brambles.  There are also one or two fierce bywashes close to the entrance to locks.
Bywash and stream to push boats off course

Coming up the top lock of Stockton Brook flight

Just to give you an idea of the difficulties there is a permanent obstruction before a bridge which in turn is just before an acute right angle bend:
Obstacle Course
What fun!

Above the Stockton Bridge locks you reach the summit level of the canal and then come to the junction where the Leek branch goes right but later loops left over the main line to Froghall which by then has gone down through three locks:
Caldon Canal Junction - Leek Branch goes right

Main Line dropping down locks

Aqueduct - Leek branch on top and main line below

This is all a bit like motorway flyovers and junctions.

We have taken the right branch over the aqueduct and on towards Leek.  This short branch of about 3 miles has a very narrow tunnel near its end:
Leek Tunnel
The tunnel, about 130 yards long, is barely wider than the boat and leaves from a wide expanse of water which doubles as a winding hole.  The wide water and the narrow tunnel made me think for one awful moment as we approached the tunnel mouth, “What it if doesn’t fit?”  Fortunately it did!

There is another winding hole close to the end of the branch and we turned here (as you must) and then backed just off the winding hole to our mooring tonight:
Leo moored near the end of the Leek Branch
We’ve walked to the end of the branch and followed a little further a leat which brings water from Rudyard Lake a couple of miles to the North.  Part of the rationale for the Leek branch was to bring water to fill up the summit level of the Caldon and ultimately the Trent and Mersey too.  We’ve really fallen for this canal. The scenery is delightful, driving the canal is challenging and fun and the fact that the sun is shining has been an added bonus.  Our aim tomorrow is to explore the other branch of the Caldon towards Froghall which sounds from the Nicholson guide to be even better than the Leek branch.

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