Day 5: Audlem to Beeston Locks.

The lovely Reg and Liz have come to collect my series of bags from the B&B in Audlem and drop me back off by the canal (its only a short distance, but any amount of walking saved is good for me!), I’m staying on a Boat this evening by Beeston Locks, Amaryllis, offered to me by Timothy and his wife who live at the lock keepers cottage there.

I walk up and down the 21 locks at Audlem, taking pictures I didn’t quite manage the day before, Audlem busier than it was in the early evening yesterday. Boaters making their way down the locks, groups out for walks with their dogs. I stride out along this well looked after stretch of the canal, stopping briefly to talk to a man who is moored up in the Jack of Diamonds, out walking his elderly and some times (he tells me) cantankerous collie. He’s been on the boat 12 years, it was choice, after retiring , of France or Ireland or living on a boat. He chose a boat and hasn’t looked back since. Fell in the cut the first year, mind. Hasn’t fallen in since. He likes mooring up at Audlem, friendly and easy to get supplies. Gives me tips for where my archive photos might match up to the present day. Wishes me well on my way. Tells me to be careful, walking on my own. A recurring theme that is more often than not based on gender. I have noticed surprise in eyes from boaters in the more deserted parts of The Shropshire Union, based possibly on my being a woman. The large digital camera adding some sort of professional purpose to my wondering. And I am grateful for these assumptions in the authority the camera brings,  but I am a fraud behind the lens with my automatic setting and lack of understanding of the digital camera.

Further up I see a man walking, probably the first real proper walker that I’ve seen, I think, and there seems to be a code in caguals and back pack amongst those that are out for more than a stroll.  He started at 8.30 this morning a round route ending back up in Audlem. Never used to be a walker really, and then his wife died and needed something to do, to take up, and a friend of his, he used to be a climber, but injury, two knee replacements, and age has stopped the more extreme end of his outdoor activities, so this man joined his former climbing friend in trekking out. Now his friend is not so well but he carries on himself. Likes to get going early in the morning. He is unreactionary to my 90 miles trip, wishes me luck in getting to Beeston.

Past an dismantled railway line, trains thundering over head of canals reminding them of their speed. But this railway line never lasted the time and now ducks perch on bricks fallen from that felled bridge.

Gun shots and train still running somewhere in the distance, and I see a woman I’m sure with a sleeve of roses and castles Tattoos.  This is a well kept part of the Shropshire Union, signs along the way with history and detail. I’m starting to get an aching for water I can’t see the other side of. Not man made. Something I could swim in. Bridge numbers counting up, signs in distance from where I’m come from counting up. Some sense of achievement. I see a brown heritage sign for The Hidden Bunker, with a large arrow, which strikes me as amusing in my own internal way. But when I look for The secret bunker I really cannot see it. It is a museum, a dedication to a bunker that would have been the centre of regional goverment in the cold war era, had war broken out. I am desperate to visit this, but distraction from the canal leads to delays. I press on. Towards Nantwich where after grassy bank of Toll path evens out into pathed concrete, a welcome relief for my feet walking on the wonk (it turns out uneven grass walking is the most difficult part of canal tow path walking). And I can start to hear the sounds of a town, new houses being built, old houses as toll houses being done up. People out on walks with little dogs.  I walk over the Natnwich Aquaduct which travels the canal over road, a typical Thomas Telford structure in wrought iron and arches. Those waterways in this sky.

About halfway through the miles for today I stop at Nantwhich Marina, feeling part of the club as I wind my way around to cafe that sits by all the moored boats. A cheese toasty in honour of cheshire cheese shipped from here throughout the world. Boats covered in cloth to protect the cheese. Those fly boats, running horses to take the perishable goods. Boats and boats in shrouds of cloth. Famous cheshire cheese (which if I’m honest is a little bitter in taste and crumbly in texture for me, a big cheese fan). And then later in the 1920’s when The Shropshire Union finally sold its fleet, those working boats at rock bottom prices, so many wanting new ownership, you could walk from one side of the basin to the other.

Nantwich marks the beginning of walking along what was originally The Chester Canal, earliest part of The Shropshire Union, built in the 1770’s with no eminent engineer associated, a series of hirings and firings,  a way for Chester to try to claim it’s importance in business, salt and pottery this way rather than the weaver and the mersey. Lords and businessmen at heads. Built wide to accommodate the barges, they tried to encourage and generate business. To no avail. They were subject to collapses in their locks and disinterest in their route. It was saved only by by continued joining to other canals and promises of offshoots.

Hurleston Junction with a turn towards the Llangollen Canal, narrow through singular locks. I match up an archive picture from 1959 with the old toll house, at the junction that no longer exists. Taller trees grow, a couple sit on a bench in front of the iron railings the only clue that house was there. Even in 1959 its windows were boarded or bricked up, it’s end in sight. A cross strapped to iron railings ,in memory of Merlin the dog.  A wooden sign without the milage.  Birmingham, one way. Chester, the other. Where I’ve come from and where I’m going to and more besides. I chat a little to the couple, enjoying their sit down and watch, they are impressed with my walking from Birmingham, saying they’d done half a mile, and that’s quite enough for today. Though they’d like to walk further.  There is temptation to walk some of the Llangollen branch, break from my one way distance, but there is not time. And tonight I stay on a boat.

Back to uneven grass, when up ahead I spot a familiar figure. Wondering if I am having some sort of canal mirage, I see, I think Celia, the woman whose walk inspired me and whose research on the Wolverhampton Iron Company has informed me. And yes, it is her coming to accompany me. She managed to miss me at Nantwich (and I am, as has always been from day to day late running on my walking). With brief chats with people along the way, I didn’t realise how glad I would be of consistent company. The motion of walking encouraging a frankness and ease in talking about lives, futures and pasts in the rhythm to our footsteps. I am glad to listen to others stories as I spent so much time narrating my own head in these past days. Celia is not sure how long she’ll stay, expecting to have seen me sooner, and she has already walked from Beeston to here, so back all the way she has come.

To Barbridge Junction the turning point of the Middlewich Branch of the canal, and the joining point between The Ellesmere and Chester Canal company and The Birmingham and Liverpool branch to finally form The Shropshire Union. In archive pictures warehouse stretch over that no longer exist trying hard to place the picture without these long gone buildings to line up. The bench on which Celia sits beneath the Barbridge bridge used to be home to British Waterways Sign. Its a busy junction still, beeping boats as the corner is tight and no one wants to bump. A closed down pub opposite that used to be, by all accounts, allright. These would have been an epicentre of work and transport, potteries loaded from boat to boat. Those smooth running waters still a better option for precious pottery some time after roads were more in use. Cheese warehouse would stretch out along this route. I imagine the smell of curd and cream.

Celia continues with me, we stop for a cup of tea, beside the canal and a place where they sell cheese of all flavours. Refreshed we carry on, no turning back now, she tells me of making the trip with her and a friend, inexperienced where their tipped their boat Bunbury locks. Briefly we stop to talk to a group of people drinking tea outside their boat on the canal tow path.  Maureen, Peter and a man who is a photographer, he used to take pictures of people, New York, London, takes beautiful pictures of setting suns in the countryside now, but its the people he really likes. Maureen tells of travels along the tow path in her motorised scooter all the way to Birmingham QE hospital for an operation she needed, Peter along side her on the boat, two weeks, I think they said. They tell me of Kate Saffin, a writer, performer and boater. We are offered tea but I can see that we’ll never leave from chatting and hearing more unless we press on to the locks at Beeston.

Celia remembers walking this way for her five or more years before, but she walked the other way, and further than me coming back up the loop on the trent and mersey through The Potteries, walking through Beeston locks early one October morning and hearing the Stags rutting on the hills by the castle.

The shifting sands of this area meant the canal once took a route closer to The Lock Keepers cottage than it does now, a difficult part of the canal that would slip and collapse, the Stone lock earlier on journeying down to the Iron Lock, both built by Telford demonstrates his own journey in this short stretch from Stone to Iron. When I first visited here, Timothy warned of the depth of the Iron lock, smooth sided with no ladder to maker your way up it could be one of the most dangerous locks on the canals.

And so to bed, with a little help from Celia, and Timothy’s next door neighbour to get the gas working (An organ player and mathematician living in the beautiful thatched cottage there for 400 years or before, certainly before the canals) aboard Amaryllis. Spending time in the boat, listening to Radio 4 and eating a pie that I had bought along the canal the previous day. Cosy in the cabin to wake up on the water the next day. I could see me getting the boating bug.

Day 4: Knighton to Audlem

I am gradually updating each day from The Canal Walk (there is more detail from Day 2 and Day 3 that I have added. I’ve opted at present to leave out pictures, knowing that I will get distracted in the picking and placing of them). Please see storify.com/FranMillicanS/walking-the-shroppie for images. 

The day starts with an onslaught of rain, but it is only 12 miles today, an opportunity to take my time a little, walk through infamous Woodseaves cutting, explore Market Drayton on route. Staying in Forton, near Newport I take a taxi back to Knighton Wharf, knowing I will have to scramble down the bank to start where I left off. The taxi driver is bemused but unperturbed by my strange mission, dropping me off in a place where there is nothing but the Frozen Food Factory. He tells me of a time he went out walking through Cheshire and had to get his wife to collect him close to the end, so tired he was. I think he said it was 5 miles. I am smug in my walkers ways. I’m wished luck and return to tramping through a field and scrambling down a bank which is not as steep as I recall it from the slight panic of the previous day. Having returned to my notes, I know that creeping wharf that sat over the canal is The Cadbury’s Wharf (still expecting something lighter, less industrial despite it being a site for industry), I have this confirmed by a sign that sits in the shadows, 2 feet tall or so, pinned to the the corner of corrugated iron shelter wharf, paint peeling, green moss growing around, red frame of paint, barely visible in the dripping rain.

NOTICE

This wharf was used between 1911 and 1964 for the processing of locally collected milk products and shipment of chocolate crumb by canal to Cadbury’s Ltd, Bournville.

The Cadbury’s is written in the familiar font of it’s chocolate bars. The canal mud brown, boats in disrepair moored up waiting for shipments that they will no longer take, the sound of food being frozen and mens shouts from the working factory. And this wharf is left untouched, unchanged by progress, an acknowledgement of it’s small history, but not cared for or made shiny. The cupboard out the back, the loft that no one goes in, the drawer you should clear out. The canal, the wharf the probable reason why The Knighton Food site sits where it does. Dot and Andy, who picked me up yesterday talked to a young man who worked there, who didn’t even know this wharf existed. And progress, or change, or the inevitable has continued to happen to the company Cadbury’s as it’s stocks are sold, and brand bought out by the american company Kraft. May no longer be British milk in a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

I had bought one with me, a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, envisaging me eating it on the old wharf, reality never quite mirroring an artistic fantasy of place, despite google earth and research, I’m been seeing pictures from the 1950’s in my eyes. I unfortunately cannot find the said Dairy Milk in my bag and have to use a Cadbury’s Brunch bar as a substitute. It is raining persistently and inside my head Billy Joel sings about drinking Pina Colada and getting caught in the rain. I’m still fussing around in the rain taking pictures when I see Too Hoots coming up the canal-their surprised to see me, thinking I might have set off a little earlier to get to Audlem. They ask me if I’m walking through Woodseaves cut, Gwen knows that at some point last year the tow path was closed because it wasn’t safe to walk down. They say if they see me they’ll give me a lift, it may be unwalkable, or if not from them I should try and thumb a boat.

They carry on ahead, at a pace faster than mine as I continue with trepidation towards Woodseaves, 21.3 metres deep and just over a mile in distance, it was cut out of the ground at the behest of Thomas Telford to get the straightest route. Deeper than the earlier Grub street cutting where the Ghost monkey lives, it is said that the sides go up almost vertically. There is no getting off the canal once walking through Woodseaves. Navies hand digging away through rock, horses, wheel barrows, no motorised machinery, excavation. I pass through Cheswardine where the people of the village lay suspicions of poaching on the 100’s of navies working close to their quarters. Untrustworthy these wondering men who took the work where they could get it, sweating aching muscles during the day, drinking until they slept in the night.

I’ve passed no walkers walking this way, and I’m slightly concerned as to how bad the conditions might be. But this is a canal walk through Cheshire or Stafforshire (I’m unsure which county I am now in.). Not The Danube. The rain has eased off for the moment, I ask a boater tending his craft as I stop to take a picture.

‘Have you been through Woodseaves recently? Is it walkable?’

He exhales through his teeth, a shake of the head.

‘Bout six weeks ago, but its rained since’

He looks at my shoes.

‘Expect mud then?’ I say.

‘Ankle deep, at best’ He grins.

The bridges are growing taller, slowly as the sides of the canal rise up. But a wide path has been gravelled, grey stones encased in wire bolster the foot of the drops. Branches have been cut and piled up on the path and I think ahead, and pick up a large stick for support. Now this feels like an adventure. Despite it still simply being a walk along a tow path. One Boat going the other way, look at me strangely and check my feet.  It is the last boat I see for the rest of Woodseaves.

The tow path narrows to puddles as a main path, worn cobbles, smooth from over flowing water of the canal looking like a more secure surface, but that much closer to the canal, and that much easier to fall in from.  After experimenting with balancing on these wet and worn stones, I think the safety of the a deep puddle is a better option than a drop into the canal. I have a propensity to fall in water if I look at it for too long, and this alone, but for the birds and trees is not a place to do it. I cannot even hear the reassuring putter of an engine either way. Ankle deep in mud seems a better option, green algi or something floating on top, making these undisturbed puddles more like ponds, microcosms of life beginning as I cautiously ,at first, to splash my way through them. Stick in first to measure the depth of the puddle this soon becomes pointless as my feet couldn’t get much wetter. But I am enjoying this tramp. A let up from the constance of low bridges and water stretching out. Concentrating on my ground, taking my time. Deep green walls of vegetation stretch up either side, as these hand built bridges match their height. I cannot hear a motorway or car or sign of human at all. I’m in middle of this man made place,  that nature has taken as it’s own. Tree’s growing up and out at right angles, roots twisting, plants that seems tropical, or Amazonian. This country with it’s hidden surprises,  walking through it’s safe twee images of rolling hills and fields to two miles more or so into this dramatic change. Perhaps it is because I am alone. Perhaps because there is an element of danger, even if that danger is very simply put aside by not falling in the canal, but that magic returns in the canopy of trees, the idea of scale, height, not something I had associated with the waterways.

Pictures do not do justice to the bridges that were not built to walk over but to hold up the sides of this excavation. Their looming out of the green 20 or so meters tall, in copper coloured sandstone, marked with black through age, their height lengthening in reflection of the almost still canal. But it is still moving, drifting, slowly.  And to think alone as I am now, this path would have sounded with hooves, and mens boots, no time for looking up at the greenery. On this route so familiar it was done in plodding method. Aside from the thundering of the fly boats, no slipping up of hooves. And watching still for this cut has always been unstable in the slipping of rock from high above. And those Wolverhampton Workers from the smog of The Black Country, how would the ground have been under their feet over 100 years ago, trees not as thick, younger, the sky more visible. But mud is still mud, perhaps the tow path in better repair, as it was trodden much more than it is now. Would those walking workers have been warned as I had of the conditions of this cut? Would have they hitched on boats more frequent than my journey now. Long skirts lifted to not drag in the mud. Children carried. Etched into that sandstone of the bridge the lines of ropes from horses pulling barges.

And before the boats, before the walking. The shout of men at work in foundations of these bridges. Excavating a channel, securing it’s water proof.  Building bridges brick by brick as is still the way. I guess. No high vis and helmets. Cloth caps and shirt sleeves. Hands in callouses and dirt. Steam in sweat from horses backs in carts full of rubble. And now, just me with a stick to steady and an iphone. Photographing imprints left of this working water way. Returning to a sense of discovery, even though I had traced the bridges that were here through old pictures, and new stories online. Alone, it feels like exploration of a forgotten world. And then I hear a plane or a helicopter over head, back to this world, now.

There are tyre tracks in the tow path, a brave cyclist down this narrow way. My feet are caked in mud, and in being careful on my step has taken longer than a tramp along grassy banks that have become familiar.  As I come through to Tyrley, blinking into human habitation, a boater chugs to enter through the cut and shouts

‘I bet you’re glad you’re through there!’

Red triangle signs warn of slipping rock. Diversions from the tow path strictly forbidden.

I travel down the steps of Tylrey lock, people now out for a stroll with their dogs or down the locks, the English countryside returned once more. I see a boat called Penny Lane, which lets up Billy Joel and starts the Beatles singing in my head instead.

I take a break a Market Drayton, a strange tangent for me, a pretty market town full of people and familiar landmarks from the trappings of urban life. Peacocks, the clothes shop, WH smith, a Kebab shop. I’m little overwhelmed by people, part of me still somewhere alone on the cut. And the pace of travel of foot I’m averaging 2.5 miles an hour (at best and that is an average), I am still surprised in the alterations of scenery and place I can go through in one day. Scone and tea, delays me a little as I hurry on to reach Audlem locks.  I see Too Hoots moored up and look in, I’m glad to see them, as they me so they know I got through the Woodeseaves cut. I make jokes of falling in and missing girls.  I’ve made pretty good progress, but I sadly turn down a cup of tea as I know I’m only half way through. Another 6 or so miles to go, and I need to make up for time spent wading through mud. Tony shows me a book about canal ghosts and I am heading for a 2nd haunting through Betton Woods (or where it was) the place of an MR James ghost story ‘A Neighbours Landmark’.

The canal has flattened out into familiar humpbacked bridges, the ruins of old railway bridges missing tops to carry the trains. Clouds are heavy above a blue strip of sky turning purple, as I head towards the place, I think, the ghost of Betton Woods walks. It is supposed that no one moors around this way because of that shrieking ghost. At first you hear a rustling, then a coldness in the air, and high pitch screaming that seems to pierce through you as if standing at your shoulder.  In the story by MR James, and rumours I have read the woods no longer exists, was cut down in an attempt to chase away the frustrated spirit that screams in its own anguish. But there are woods on either side, some boats moored up, smoke puttering from some of them, distanced apart. There is a change in atmosphere, something in the air. But it could be the weather. The closeness of the trees, the time of day or a nod to some inevitable tiredness in the walking. A rustle to the left, an animal of some sort. I tell myself. And that change in atmosphere could be that the birds are no longer singing. As if they know. I am perfectly capable of telling myself stories to scare myself, half wanting the fear and excitement, cynicism, logic and a touch of disappointment usually winning over. No shrieks, no high pitched sounds. I strive to look where Betton wood might have, or still is. Perhaps it was only fiction that cut it down.

Towards the end of the day, which has been the shortest in distance so far, but the hardest in some other ways, I am aching to start to see the beginning of the 21 Audlem locks but the canal stretching on relentless and even. Not a soul seen since Market Drayton. There’s a plodding tiredness I cannot shake. This is somewhat lifted by mini farm shops in unmanned stalls along the canal, selling homemade biscuits, bacon, pork pies, and quiches. Honesty box to put in the right change. A trusting moment from another time. All though there is a sign noting you are being watched on camera. And I start going down the locks, seeing people at last, dog walkers, men on bikes, the water moving down. And Maryon, my helper and companion for an evening meal waiting by one of the bottom locks in her red boots.