Chester (Twice), Ellesmere Port and the Middlewich Branch

  On Tuesday 21st July, we left the lovely moorings beside Hurleston Reservoir, having spent two nights and a lovely relaxing day there. We set off early with Tony walking with Sal, passing the junction with the Middlewich Branch just over a mile along the canal. The canal widens at Hurleston Junction as bigger boats used to come down from Ellesmere Port to Nantwich and all the locks north of Hurleston Junction are double locks. We stopped for water but continued on, eventually mooring overlooking Beeston Castle. We buddied up in the locks, which made it a bit easier. Beeston Iron lock was a little different in that it’s completely made of iron – there were signs advising that only one boat go through at a time as the walls were bulging. It was quite a nice day and once we’d moored up, we walked with Sal up to and around the base of Beeston Castle, a very pleasant walk – although the best view of the castle was from where we were moored! There was a hairy moment when a huge and wiry farm dog came haring up the farm drive at top speed, looking quite aggressive, but Sal was friendly enough when she greeted him and he was friendly in return. Frightened the life out of me, though!

On Wednesday, we had a bit of an easier day as we only had to work one lock and just had a pootle along otherwise. We were starting to reach the outskirts of the city and moored in a residential area near the Cheshire Cat pub. We stopped just in time before it started to rain. On Thursday, we only went for just over a mile and stopped to go to Aldi, a short walk from the canal. The weather worsened, though, so we decided to stay put. Sal and I got very wet on our walk that afternoon – we walked the 1.5 miles into Chester city centre and back, scoping out moorings for the next day.

The weather on Friday 24th was, happily, much better.  We set off and worked the three locks which took us into the city centre, stopping and mooring up for coffee. We had a short exploration of the city walls which were immediately next to us – we were planning on stopping in Chester on the way back – so we just had a quick look. We set off again and had to negotiate our way through the Northgate Staircase Locks. I was hoping that there were going to be lock keepers but there weren’t and Oh, we had fun and games!!!! Tony was steering and I was doing the lock winding. I read the instructions, looked down the locks to check the water levels in the lower locks and opened the gates for Tony to steer in as the top lock was full and in our favour.. In theory, staircase locks should be quite simple – you have a full top lock, the middle and bottom ones are empty, and you take the water in the top lock down with you. In practice, it wasn’t nearly as easy! The instructions indicated that there were gauges to show the water level in the locks – I couldn’t see any gauges! If the instructions had said that you need to drain the locks in order to see the gauges, it would have been clear, but as it was, I thought the middle and bottom locks were empty, which they looked to be by normal standards. Looking back on it and thinking things through and how they’d gone a bit pear-shaped, I can see now that they weren’t, but there is no way of knowing that unless you drain them completely. It would help if the indicators showed the depth of water, then you’d have an idea, rather than a colour coded system that you can’t see unless there’s no water in the lock! They are huge deep locks! So, as I was draining the water from the top lock into the middle lock, it filled and started to overflow – both over the gates and over the towpath, I was running back and forth like a blue-arsed fly trying to open the lower paddles to let the excess water through and the Gongoozlers were wishing they’d worn their wellies! Another boater appeared – they were coming up – and helped me to drain the excess water from the middle and bottom locks, finally closing the paddles again when the water level was lower. The trouble was, I’d left the paddle on the top lock open as we needed to drain the top lock, but by the time we’d sorted the overflow, the top lock was a bit too empty and Tony was nearly sitting on the bottom! It’s then that I realised just how deep the locks were!! I couldn’t see the cill, even when the water was so low but to make sure that he had enough water in the locks to get over the cill without scraping, I decided to let a bit more water in the top and  wait for it to equalise over the two locks. That was a problem in itself as the top gates are so leaky, the top lock fills quicker than the bottom paddle lets it out!   Finally, the levels in both locks were near enough the same and with the help of the Gongoozlers (of which there were quite a few by this stage)  we were able to open the gates and let him through to the middle lock. The descent through the following two locks was without problem, thankfully!  In hindsight, I should’ve closed the top lock paddle again when the water started overflowing so that I could get rid of the water from the middle and bottom locks before we carried on, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and I still don’t think I would’ve realised that the other two locks were only half empty. Anyway, we got through and the worst thing that happened was that I wasted a bit of water – and there seems to be plenty of that, at the moment!

As we left the staircase locks and turned the corner into the Basin, we started to leave Chester to continue our journey up towards Ellesmere Port and the British Waterways Museum. The canal was still quite nice and wide, but it started to get very weedy and quite shallow in places. We stopped as soon as we could for lunch and a well-earned rest, and then continued on. We decided we’d just see how we got on as to whether we pushed all the way to Ellesmere Port or whether to stop on the way. Although the canal is quite rural (which I found surprising, I thought it would be very urban) the northern part runs alongside the M53, so it was quite noisy. We decided to push on. We finally arrived at Ellesmere Port to find only 4 spaces for boats of our size to moor, one of which was vacant but badly silted and the nearest we could get into the side was over two feet away, not good for Sal! We moored there temporarily,  cleared the weed from the propeller and walked down to the lower basin to see if there was any space. It was really weird, though – there was not a soul about and there is no signage either, indicating that there are mooring spaces in the basin below. If we hadn’t watched a couple of YouTube videos, we would’ve been very wary of going down there, but we figured, as the locks were open, it should be OK. We had little choice anyway! So, we worked the last two locks of the day (absolutely choked with weed to the point of having to clear the prop again in the bottom lock – thanks to YouTube, I knew there was a sunken boat to avoid and wanted full control of my steering!) and descended into the basin, taking the first obvious mooring spot. The basin is, unfortunately, quite unkempt, though, with weeds growing through the brick paviors and four sunken boats within it. It could be a lovely, income generating resource for the CRT; instead it looks a bit run down and sad – and empty!  The basin is home to one or two historic boats (wrecks??!!) and borders the Holiday Inn on the other side to the Museum. It was very quiet apart from the continual hum of the hotel’s air conditioning system – quite a loud hum, at that, but it wass secure, at least!

It was so secure, in fact that we were apparently imprisoned within the grounds of the Museum! Tony took Sal for her morning stroll and was walking round all the Museum exhibits – there was no apparent way out! He fully expected to be confronted by someone but didn’t see a soul, and we still didn’t until about 10.30, after the museum was open. We walked up to Reception, told them we arrived last night and as there were no moorings available at the top, we had gone down into the basin. It was fine and it turns out that there are a couple of exits – our British Waterways key would have allowed us through the locked vehicle access on one side of the basin, or out through the bin enclosure!! We paid for our moorings, walked around the museum (some of the exhibits were not open – Covid – so it was free entry) and went out of the museum grounds to have a walk round to see the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey. You can see Liverpool quite clearly and also the John Lennon Airport, with all the grounded Easy Jet planes!

We left the basin at Ellesmere Port on Sunday 26th, and it was quite breezy so it was a little tricky to get out – first, I had to reverse out of the mooring and turn the boat. Then I had to steer into the entrance of a narrow lock at an awkward angle, avoiding the sunken boat, with the wind making me crab across the basin!

I was pleased when we got to the top. Tony had to make a second visit to the weed hatch, having checked it before we left the mooring – a rope fender was caught round the prop! We set the washing machine going, successfully left the Museum area and Ellesmere Port, and cruised until the washing machine had finished, stopping at the Chester Zoo moorings to hang it out. With it being breezy, it soon dried, so we continued on and moored a couple of miles outside of Chester. It was rainy the next day, so we stayed put, but Sal and I had a lovely walk round the old golf course next to the canal – lots of rabbity smells so Sal thought it was great! Tony repeated the walk the following morning.

On Tuesday, 28th we cruised on into Chester and moored in the basin. There was a hire boat moored and the occupants had gone off shopping. They hadn’t secured the front quite well enough, though, and they came back from their shopping trip to find it facing the other way – the stern was tied on and the wind had turned the boat for them whilst they were away and it was waving about gently in the breeze! We helped them to pull it back and re-moor, facing the way they’d come. It saved them a job, at least, in having to turn it themselves!

We walked down the River Dee Branch – a small spur off the canal that joins the canal with the River. Many moons ago cargo boats used to come in from the River and into Chester and beyond via the Branch, and in more recent times, pleasure boats used the Branch to do the same, but at some stage a weir had been built, which meant the tide had to be high enough to enable boats to float over the weir, making it a more difficult and considered endeavour. Over time, the river got more silted up, too, making the trip over the weir even more difficult, and boats stopped doing it, so the lock from the  Branch to the River had fallen into disrepair. The River Dee Branch is, however, one of the Silver Propeller destinations, and, to qualify, you have to go through two locks, turn a 90° corner, and take your photo by the lift bridge before the third lock. There is no winding hole to turn the boat, either, so anyone attempting it has to do all that and then reverse all the way back up!  It was so silted up and weedy, as well, so we decided that it just wasn’t worth the tick in the box!

We continued on into Chester, going up the Northgate Staircase Locks again, without any problems, this time, I still didn’t enjoy the experience, though! We moored briefly in Chester to pop to Tesco, then we continued on and moored near to the Aldi where we’d moored on the way in. All these supermarket visits were to stock up because Jim and Livv were due to visit us for a few days – lovely! We stayed in this spot for another day as, again, the weather was pretty horrible. 

On Thursday, 30th July, we made our way to Tattenhall Marina, mooring up outside on the towpath. It was a gorgeous day and the three of us enjoyed sitting out on the towpath in the sun. We had organised with the marina to stay overnight  on Friday 31st, the day Jim and Livv were coming, in exchange for Jim leaving his car in there for another three nights – a perfect, secure location for Jim’s fancy car! So, on Friday morning, we reversed the short distance up the canal past the entrance and went into the marina, getting settled into our overnight mooring on the pontoon. We spent the rest of the day getting ready for Jim and Livv (changing beds and cleaning!) and they duly arrived at about 6 p.m. Unfortunately, it had come over rather cloudy but we managed to have a few drinks sitting outside on the hillside slopes overlooking the marina and surrounding countryside. Another few drinks after dinner and we retired for the night, with three day’s holiday for Jim and Livv to come. 

On Saturday, we set off towards Chester, having an unscheduled stop on the way due to rain, and another stop for lunch. We continued on in the afternoon and made our way to the moorings in Chester; not particularly picturesque, but right in the heart of the city, so ideally placed to explore the next day. We ordered a takeaway for dinner – a delicious Chinese/Malaysian fusion, which was delivered to the boat – perfect! The weather had improved but it wasn’t exactly an ideal spot to sit out on the towpath, so we enjoyed our evening’s drinks sitting inside the boat.

On Sunday, after a fairly leisurely start and breakfast, we went off into the city to do our touristy bit. We walked around the City Walls, about three miles, and made small diversions on the way to look at the Roman Amphitheatre, The Rows (shopping area) and the Cathedral, although the Cathedral wasn’t open to visitors at the time. We passed the Racecourse and walked beside the River Dee for a short distance enroute. We also went to see the Northgate Staircase Locks as Jim was interested in the engineering behind it.  It was a very pleasant walk! We returned to the boat in time for a bit of lunch and so that Jim could watch the F1 from Silverstone. When the F1 had finished, and as the moorings weren’t very conducive to sitting outside, we decided to cruise a short distance back towards the marina, so worked 4 locks and a couple of miles to a pleasant spot with a wide grass verge. It was a bit chilly, though, so we didn’t sit out there for long. We had dinner on the boat and another few drinks and went to bed slightly earlier than the previous two nights, all a bit tired after our adventures of the day. Unfortunately, there is a train tunnel that runs under the canal – unusual – right where we were moored, and every time a train went through the tunnel, the ground shook and it sounded like thunder booming. Sal wasn’t impressed and we had a bit of a disturbed night with her pacing about until I persuaded her to lie down next to me and I cuddled her all night to stop her from pacing with every passing train. I enjoyed the cuddles, if not the disturbance!

On Monday, after another leisurely start, we continued our cruise back towards the marina. We arrived at the moorings outside the marina by lunchtime, so after lunch, we decided to cruise a little further to Beeston, where we moored overlooking Beeston Castle. We all had a walk to the base of the castle mound, then round by the road to the canal and back to the boat along the towpath. We managed to sit outside for an hour or so, with Jim cooking a Spag Bol and eating that outside, also. It got a bit chilly, though, so we packed up and went back inside.

On Tuesday, we set off early, with Tony walking Sal and me steering, whilst Jim and Livv showered and packed. We arrived outside the marina again and moored up for a bit of brekkie before we went in. Once we were in the marina, we waved Jim and Livv off – Livv had managed to get tickets for Chester Zoo, a nice way to finish off their short break. We left the marina and continued our cruise back down the Shroppie towards the Middlewich Branch, working a few locks and the Bunbury staircase locks enroute. We hadn’t seen many boats all day –  they were apparently all at Bunbury Staircase locks – it was rammed! They were even doing shuffles – one boat up and two down, with a swap over when the water was equalised. We didn’t have to do this as the two boats coming down were travelling together, so they elected to wait until we’d gone up (we were buddied up with another boat through the two previous locks so had arrived at the bottom of the staircase together) before coming down together. We went for a short distance further and decided to moor up for the night as we remembered that the moorings beyond this point aren’t overly special and we weren’t sure how far up the Middlewich branch we’d have to go before we found a mooring. The first rule of mooring is “if you see a decent mooring – grab it!”

We set off from our moorings on Thursday 6th Aug and stopped at the water point at Calveley Services, which was quite busy with a couple of boats filling and a couple more waiting. Whilst we were filling, Mark and Debbie came along, they pulled alongside to wait and we had a quick chat whilst our tank was filling. Once we were full, we set off and left Mark and Debbie to fill their tank. It was great to catch up with them again, even if only for a few minutes! We continued for a short distance and made the turn onto the Middlewich Branch, leaving the main Shropshire Union Canal. The Middlewich was very busy and we had a queue at the first lock but stopped soon afterwards at Venetian Marina to get oil filters for the engine service. Bit pricey, though! We also topped up the diesel tank, which was at a reasonable price, plus bought some electrical bits and bobs that Tony needed  in order to effect a permanent fix to the horn/tunnel light wiring. We continued on for a short distance, going through the second lock and moored on a very pleasant mooring just past Aqueduct Marina. We stayed there for the Friday, too, so that Tony could do the engine service. Tony also polished a brass plaque attached to the picnic bench – apparently it was Pat Murphy’s favourite mooring spot, so Tony thought it only right to give her plaque a bit of a polish for her!  On Saturday, 8th, we cruised for only a short distance so as to do a load of washing and stopped on another pleasant mooring overlooking farmland. As we now know, all of the moorings on the Middlewich are pleasant; it is a lovely canal! There is only one place on its entire length where we wouldn’t moor and that is where the main line railway passes over the canal – too noisy! Tony was finally able to do a permanent fix of the horn wiring so, happily, we now have a properly wired and fully functioning horn and tunnel light. 

On Sunday, we cruised for a short distance again – another load of washing to be done and hung out. By this time we were in Middlewich itself, and we were in need of another food shop, so I went off to Morrisons, about a 10 minute walk away. It was hot! Although we were in the town, the moorings were very quiet, so we decided to stop for overnight. On Monday, 10th, we went through the last lock on the Middlewich Branch and onto the shortest canal of the UK – the Wardle Canal. It is just 72 ft, not including the lock! At this point, we’d been on the same canal since the 20th March, with a detour up the Llangollen, for nearly five months! (Although, technically, both the Llangollen Canal and the Middlewich Branch are both branches of the Shropshire Union Canal, so you could say we’d been on the Shroppie for the whole time.)  On going through the lock, we turned left and onto the Trent and Mersey Canal, going through three more locks before we moored up again. Volunteer lockkeepers were on two of the three locks so we had an easier passage – great! We were round the other side of Middlewich and a little closer to the town centre to do a bigger supermarket shop. We were also planning on doing some maintenance work on the boat and as there was a small independent DIY store, we visited and got the things we needed. A visit to Lidl resulted in having a good stock up, too. The moorings were quite nice – next to a development of flats but with a wide grassy verge with trees, so they offered a welcome bit of shade, too. We had a short thunderstorm that night, but the lightning continued to flash virtually all night – Sal was very unsettled and even panicky – none of us got much sleep!

On Tuesday, 11th Aug, with another hot day forecast, we couldn’t make up our minds whether to stay in the shade or to venture onwards – Tony had seen a good offside mooring on a walk with Sal where we could’ve done our boat maintenance (we needed to unload the gas locker and leave its contents outside overnight whilst we painted it), but the boat would be in full sun. We decided that we would just cruise on and if we saw a suitable spot for painting, we would stop and do it, if not, we wouldn’t! As it turned out, we came across a gorgeous offside mooring, with access only from the canal, so to unload the gas locker contents onto the verge was completely safe and secure. There was room for three boats, the verge was wide and supplied with picnic benches. It had shade from the trees, too – pretty perfect! We pulled over and moored up and within a few minutes Tony had unloaded and was preparing to start the painting. Sal was happy outside on her long leash in the shade – the only downside of the mooring is that, with no access, it also has nowhere to go on walkies, but as it was so hot, we thought Sal would forgive us for a couple of days if she didn’t have her usual hour’s walk morning and afternoon. The boat wasn’t in the shade, though, even though the trees provided shade to the verge, so it was pretty hot working!! Whilst Tony was painting the gas locker, I was painting the bowthruster chamber, which is under the bed. Condensation had caused a bit of rusting and we didn’t want the boat rusting from the inside out!! Both jobs were somewhat difficult – both laying on our stomachs with arms outstretched into the bowels of the boat, scraping and wire brushing off loose rust before we could treat it. Tony had to do a bit of the bowthruster chamber, too, as my arms just aren’t long enough to get to the far corners! With scraping and wire brushing completed, we treated the surface with Fertan and let it dry overnight. It was a lovely evening so, after a much needed shower each, we sat outside until it went dark, enjoying the spectacle of a beautiful sunset. Once again, thunderstorms loomed overnight but this time I stayed in the lounge with Sal – she was in her safe place under the breakfast bar and seemed much happier. She seems to be more frightened of the lightning than the thunder, so by staying in the lounge and pulling all the blinds, we managed to keep most of the flashes to a minimum and it seemed to work, she wasn’t exactly happy but she was a lot more settled than the previous night.

Tony managed to get a coat of paint on in the gas locker on Wednesday, 12th , but the bowthruster chamber wasn’t quite dry enough – with it being the canal water on the other side of the metal, it’s obviously colder than the gas locker and needed longer to dry. After painting,  we sat outside again eating our dinner, watching a pair of dragonflies flitting and chasing in the evening breeze. They were getting very close to our open windows (we’d taken the windows completely out on the non sunny side to get maximum air into the boat)  – they are beautiful creatures and I love to see them but I didn’t want one in the boat! The thunder started to roll again and Sal took herself into the undergrowth to hide – we had to persuade her to come out and get on to the boat!!