The final day of the walk, I am well rested after a lovely stay with Jenny from the museum, in farm house just over the border in wales. I have a merry band of walkers with me for this last 8 miles; Derek, father of Charles who joined me for part of the first Birmingham leg and is a well travelled (Boat and Feet) expert on this stretch of the canal, Linda from the archives, Janet Ollier who is the promoter of the wonderful Goosetree Festival in Goosetree (which I am taking my show about the history of my flat in Birmingham to in October, bit of shameless promotion) and my very own Mum. We start off at Telfords Warehouse, a pub that stands on what looks like a smaller version of his Warehouse that burnt down in the 1970’s at Ellesmere Port. I have become blasé in the mere 8 miles of today not packing sandwiches or many snacks as I anticipate that we will get there by lunch time. This isn’t really Telford’s stretch of the canal, though many people think it is, Derek tells me the plans were all signed up and drawn when Telford became part of the project in his early days, under the supervision of Jessop, this is where Tommy Telford cut his teeth. We see it has none of his straight lines to the point routes. It meanders a little across the country side. I line up Taylor’s boat yard from an old picture from the 1950’s. Later that day I hear stories of a film maker who filmed scenes there, the boat makers as traditional as ever. Much joy is had by the party when I unlock the toilets with my BW key. We have gone about 100 meters.
It is a different pace of walking in a group to on my own, my Mum and Janet are up ahead planning a revolution, while Linda, Derek and I talk of histories passed, both personal and canal based. It starts raining early on, the worst rain I’ve had since beginning the walk, an unusual combination of too warm for a coat, but too wet without one. Very typical British weather. We just about spy the clock tower from The Countess of Chester Hospital, once the Asylum, Derek tells me it’s clearer later on in Autumn, when the leaves are sparse enough to see through the branches. It is Blackberry season but the best berries are on the other side of the water, reachable only by the boaters. To the right of us a golf course rises up in hills and holes, what lies beneath those landscaped curves and flags is alleged to be landfill, of an unknown variety, the original creator long since sold off the site. I think of glowing refuse underneath golf cart wheels, sludge that descends into the water and wildlife. Perhaps. Past the new crematorium, smoke rising, that looks like a beached whale.
Railway Bridge No 132 high brick arched where trains trundle over head. As it’s known locally 11 arch bridge, and then you notice those tall arches duplicating out away from the canal for support. Conversations are had of trains coming off tracks on foggy nights, mini chocolate brownies are handed out and my mum suggests I walk the last two miles in bare feet.
This is off the back of a conversation involving a historian who walks bare feet and my mum’s suggestion that those Wolverhampton Walkers would have worn through their boots, leather flapping off to reveal the soles of their feet. I suggest that they probably would have got those shoes cobbled along the way (Market Drayton, Nantwich) that the boots would have been made to last, to work, not for comfort. The possibility of clogs is mentioned.
Past the bridge, and to the right, just about if you tip you head and listen, you might be able to hear the roar of lions from Chester Zoo. Maybe. Talk of abandoned plans for extensions and a zoo wharf to widen out public appeal.
I hear about dialect of boat people ‘Bobby Dazler’ referring to the light on a boat in the dark of the tunnel. A right Bobby Dazler. And Gongoozling. Those who stand gawping on the canal tow path. Staring, mouth open, watching the workers on the waterways. It has been appropriated as the name of a hobby, watching the canals. Going a Gongoozling. What I have been doing all this week. More origins in words of distances, furlongs from furrows measured from hooves. As usual the signs in distance that accompany us vary differently to the miles on the canal planner I have or the distances measured on GPS. Signs saying we’ve 5 and half miles to go, but we’ve already walked a whole 3. Other signs saying something other, a peculiarity that feels, it seems quite precisely British in it’s corroboration of distances. We hold up an old photograph to Caughall Bridge, where I have read somewhere of passenger package ships and lives lost.
It is, it seems a very unassuming bridge, low with no sense of danger. It is called I’m told ‘pretty bridge’ locally, a balcony in black and white railings. It is nice, but I have been witness to a lot of bridges in these last few days. Which has either made me a bridge expert or I fear I may have developed a bridge blindness. They begin to look the same. Some which lead to nowhere, were walked over once, if at least by troops of cows, and now no more, just grass and fauna. Some fenced off as part of famers lands, others climbable up to leading to dirt tracks and views which take in the canal walked and the canal to come. Some not originally built for the traffic they start to carry later on their lives are reinforced by new materials, sagging slightly in the middle taking the weight of tyres.
More signs in varying distances and then up ahead, a bridge that isn’t a bridge for human crossing, in white and yellow piping Derek tells me this is Pluto. Code name for Pipe Line Under The Ocean. A WW2 operation to travel oil to France not over sea but under it, so as to go undeterred by German bombings. A feat of engineering endeavored quickly. This part travels it from somewhere further up north of the country over canal out toward and under the ocean. Still, I think functioning.
We stop at Bridge 136a for a small digression in lunch at The Bunbury Arms. Potentially the best chips I’ve eaten throughout my travelling in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. No really. I highly recommend them.
Taking our time as we have we tramp on through the flatlands of Cheshire. Old telegraph poles for telephone exchanges when wires were plugged to different code areas reached by manual operators. Nature has grown up over some of these reclaiming the wood as a place to creep up over it’s leaves. Making it a tree once more.
A sign for Boat building, diesel and pump point hanging from a gas pipe bridge no longer in service, with a phone number no longer in use. No records of this boat station although the missing digit on the number since the added 1’s on house phones suggests, 10, 15 years before.
You can see the old moorings, as land makes way for vans used in large removal, mirroring the use of the water it stands next too. Bridges becoming squarer, new for roads, the sound of the motorway becoming louder, running adjacent to our water. Ellesmere Port the town separated from the canal that built it by the passage of the M53 that passes through it. Past egg cup bridge (have I got the local slang right? There’s a pipe with a metal filter in that looks like an egg cup. To me. And possibly others).
And then we stop along a place that looks like any other place along the canal and across the water, hidden by trees, and beyond the M53, I think, are the roads that housed the Wolverhampton Walkers. Built for them, like a smaller Port Sunlight, to start a new life close to the Mersey. Salt on the wind, somewhere, closer to the sea than they’d ever been in the landlocked black country. Walked along the water that’s controlled and manipulated by man. Not tidal. On the winds. Here onland we control the ebb and flowing up and down of water.
Underneath the concrete bridge that carries the motorway over head. Cavernous spaces,canvas for graffiti, concrete double arched, rumors of some closure of this arm of the canal. It’s not much used the wateralong this stretch, it finishes in the museum. Busy in the boat rallies but it’s a destination stretch of water, you’d have to turn around and boat back down to Chester. Unless you braved the Mersey, as some have been known to do on narrow boat and barge, accompanied and sanctioned to sail in waters.
Beyond the bridge we see the skelatol remains of the building on the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company. Iron red reflecting in the water. My feet have made the journey from the place it no longer stands all the way back in Wolverhampton to where it clings onto it’s remains here in Ellesmere Port. The remains of an old docking point for goods and services. Under rusting railway bridge used to shuttle products and materials across from the works? Possibly. And there are photographs of the building in various states of use and disrepair, somewhere in the archives its slow and steady decent into the last of it remains in Iron structure.
The last bridge up in sight; 147 then 147a (the new addition for a slipway of the road). And I am nearly done. 90 miles, on my own feet from my front door to here.
I wonder at what point the Wolverhampton walkers stopped, unpacked, try to settle in after days and nights on the tow path. It didn’t stop there, it was an act of transport, the cheapest kind, means to an end, not a end to make meaning. As I am doing now. I get a round of applause from the café, some pictures, tea and cake. Later that night I watch the brilliant Chalice Media’s Macbeth, a contemporary, moving interpretation, in the upper Island Warehouse, another story added to the floorboard’s of this building, and this place.
After miles and miles of water whose edge I can see the side of, the next day my Mum takes me to swim in Colwyn Bay. I submerge myself under salty cold, my limbs not walking, being held up by the water.