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.