Don’t miss the boat!

Sue Austin described her recent narrowboat holiday in the Shropshire Star supplement, published 24 August 2013.

Sue hired her canal boat from Drifters’ Peak District base near Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire, at the junction of the Trent & Mersey and Caldon canals.

Do you want to take a trip back in time to a bygone era – but stay close to home?

Then a trip on one of Britain’s inland waterways could be for you. Canal boat cruising has certainly become more popular, whether just for a short break – or as a way of life.

Even Indiana Jones himself – Harrison Ford loves a canal boat holiday.  Back in 2004, he was spotted cruising along the Llangollen Canal, in Shropshire, with girlfriend Calista Flockhart and son Liam.

And if it’s good enough for Indie, then it’s good enough for me.

We enjoyed a weekend away with Drifters Holidays, and chose to cruise the Caldon Canal between Stoke-on-Trent and Leek on the fringe of the Staffordshire moorlands.

The Caldon was built to supply the booming Potteries with materials such as limestone, flint, coal and iron ore, and opened 1779.

The managers of the Black Prince Marina, where we started our journey, were Barry and Angela from Ellesmere.  They gave us suggestions for our route, before staff member Dave took us for a tour of our narrowboat ‘Kiera’.

He then took us up to the first lock to give us advice on how to operate them properly.

After a day of cruising we moored for the night at Endon Basin. With our picnic table and chairs set out on the grass, it was an idyllic setting between an old white bridge and the distant hills.

We watched the sun set to the birds’ dusk chorus and, as we finished our meal a gaggle of Canada Geese swam single file under the bridge towards us, followed by a family of ducks who bedded down for the night in the shadow of our barge.

There are plenty of pubs along the route but what could be nicer than an evening with nature, good food, friends and a bottle of red beside the boat before retiring to our comfy double bedrooms?

The clever design of the Shakespeare narrowboat means you can have twin or double beds with the lounge converted to two more beds.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast on the towpath, we were bound for Froghall.

Along the way we moored at Flint Mill, which is run by volunteers. It used to grind flint, delivered by canal boat from the South East to make the finer pottery made famous by Josiah Wedgwood.

When we arrived at the mill wheels were not moving but the volunteers soon put them to action and the complex came to life.  With so much of the original machinery in place it was easy to imagine how it was once a hive of industry. Even the mill cottage was as it would have been at the time.

Later that day we arrived at one of the most picturesque parts of the canal, Hazelhurst, where the waterway branches into two, right to the Leek Arm and, to the left, towards the Froghall tunnel.

A succession of locks took us down into the beautiful Churnet Valley which also carries the Churnet Railway.

The canal narrowed quite alarmingly and, with high bracken and other water loving plants, it was like making our way through the jungle.

At the terminus of the railway is the Black Lion pub, which can be reached only by water, rail, on foot or bicycle. When we passed through it was thronged with visitors as it was the hottest day of the year so far.

With the pub on the one side and the railway station on the other, we glided under the platform itself, a strange feeling.
Soon we reached our destination, and had to turn around just yards from the tunnel.  And so we made the return journey with an overnight stop close to the mill and another fine meal watching the sunset.

An early morning run the following day made me realise how short a distance you travel on the canal.  A milepost told me it was 11 miles to Etruria, Stoke. I could have run there in a couple of hours.

Instead we took much of the day, with a leisurely brunch on the towpath.

We met some great people on our journey. They included a couple from Market Drayton who usually moor in Shropshire but were enjoying a two-week break in Staffordshire.

Then there was the couple who moved from New Zealand 18 months ago and live on the canal, staying two or three days at most in one place.  The woman, a Brit married to a Kiwi, revealed just what a different lifestyle it is when I asked her what they did when they wanted to go further afield.  “If it’s not far we walk or cycle, any further and we take the train or hire a car. It’s a much cheaper way of life than owning a house and a car,” she said.

Never again will I pooh-pooh a canal boat holiday. You encounter so many sights from your narrowboat, be it a family of tiny ducklings or a heron fishing, or the fascinating industrial architecture of the region.

Here in the Midlands we are fortunate to have so many inland waterways to explore, and from the Black Prince Marina you can be straight onto the Trent & Mersey Canal and enjoying the Four Counties Ring in no time at all.

I’ll certainly be back on board a barge sometime soon.

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