The Scotsman - July 06

Cold Comfort Canal

See the world from the deck of a slow-moving canal boat on a relaxing break in the Staffordshire countryside

UNBEKNOWNST TO ME, and I do get about, Stoke-in-Trent held the National Garden Festival in 1986, two years before Glasgow.
But the orchids, daffodils and other exotic fauna have long gone from the festival site at Hanley. The former 18th and 1 9th-century steel and pottery works centred on Josiah Wedgwood's stately Etruria Hall and the Trent and Mersey canal, is now replaced by a retail park and the colourful and busy Black Prince boatyard.

The boatyard - one of six run by Black Prince Holidays, including a base at the Falkirk Wheel to serve Scotland through the Forth and Clyde, and Grand Union canals - is easily found, just ten minutes from the M6. When we arrived we made our acquaintance with the Duchess Emma, 65ft with a flat bottom, and with Les Armstrong Jones, 5ft 8in with fearsome beard, who owns the boatyard.
Emma - we dropped her class title through familiarity after a very short time - had plenty of storage with lockers and drawers set into the partitions that sectioned the boat cabins off from each other, as well as a lounge complete with television and sound system.

The galley was much as you would expect for a self-catering holiday, compact but with a four-ring cooker, fridge, sink, and plenty of pots and utensils.

Further astern along a narrow corridor we had a full-size double bed, closed off from the rest of the boat by doors if required, the toilet and shower cabin, and then the aft cabin with two single beds accessing the stairwell and hatch to the tiller deck and cockpit at the stern.

So where were we to go in this magnificent vessel? Time for a history lesson first. James Brindley was a parent of the Industrial Revolution. With 375 miles of canal building to his name he was at the core of midlands waterways and, with the Bridgewater Canal in 1765, he oversaw the beginning of the great age of canals right across the country.

His Trent and Mersey Canal was majestic, with a 90-mile course through the very heart of the factories, mills, potteries and quarries whose livelihood depended on it, feeding a frenzy of revolution and commerce in a way that now seems unimaginable.

By 1772 as Brindley was dying, it is said from overwork, he designed the Caldon and Leek Canal, the minor masterpiece that ought to be compulsory for any narrowboat crew, which opened in 1778. A branch of the Trent and Mersey close to our boatyard at Hanley, the Caldon is entered past a statue of the great man. There are only 17 miles to navigate, but these include a three-level viaduct, a flight of locks almost unequalled in height and a newly restored tunnel.
My boat experience consists of an island childhood and some Indian Ocean racing, but I did worry a little about having to guide a flat-bottomed cigar tube three car lengths long around some very narrow spaces, even at 4mph. However it all came back after a short tuition period and I was confident about the baptism of fire which involved climbing the three-chamber, 250ft rise Bedford Street locks immediately after negotiating a very tight "S" bend that forms the entrance to the Caldon and Leek.

We did it, kids on the lock gates and paddles (lock sluice gates wound by handles provided), me on the tiller, and Mrs Para Handy reading Canal Companion Vo14 for support By the time we were through this imposing staircase, where the water went, and why, all made sense to us.

Interestingly history records that the wharf at this junction was once the setting off paint for a midlands "clearances" in the 1840s, when a collapse of the pottery trade forced workers out, many embarking on narrowboats on a journey that would take them to the New World to establish a community in Wisconsin, USA. called Potteryville.

History plays a part locally still, with the excellent Potteries Museum, which includes a section on local boy Reginald Mitchell who designed the Spitfire, and the Etruria Industrial Museum, once a mill to grind animal bones for "bone" china, now restored to include a steam beam engine which is run regularly for enthusiasts.

The first few miles of the Caldon will be disappointing if you've come for the view. Remember this is the heart of the Six Towns, known the world over as the Potteries, and so we slipped past the backyard of a long-gone industry past overgrown yards, broken windows and unkempt quays.

But take an interest - which at the national 4mph canal speed limit you surely must - in the passing kettle kilns that have stood smoking as visions in red brick for two or more centuries, and in the more recent crockery plants which provided the last vestiges of canal commercial trade in the area until recently.

Once by Milton, almost suddenly, we reached the countryside we had been promised, with the canal now heading into the Churnet Valley, in the direction of Cheddleton, Froghall and Leek.

On its way, at Stockton Brook, there is a flight of five locks which carries the canal up to its highest level and into the Pennine landscape.

At Hazelhurst Junction the Leek Branch of the Caldon Canal heads off on a brief but astonishingly pretty journey. In little more than three miles we appeared to glide along the hillside past lovely waterfront houses, their personal narrowboats lapping as we passed through a pristinely planted woodland complete with a blanket of bluebells, under ornate bridges, over aqueducts major and minor, ending in a delightful turning pool, reached through a restored 13 Oft bore tunnel, a mile or so short of the town that gave the canal branch its name.

Configured as a figure-of-eight down three single locks under the Leek Branch viaduct the canal heads off deeper into Staffordshire, towards the flint mills, limestone quarries and iron ore mines that made its construction necessary. Once free of such liquid engineering splendour the canal winds its way towards Froghall in increasing solitude, apart from landmarks such as Consall Forge, whose station waiting room cantilevers over the canal, requiring delicate navigation, and Cherry Eye Bridge, a unique design said to reflect the bloodshot eyes of the local ironstone quarrymen.

From day one we tried to plan how far we would travel, what time to allow for this or that, and failed miserably on most counts until we figured out that the only way to enjoy ourselves was to do whatever came our way. The canal dictated our speed, the standard 4mph often reduced by waiting for locks to fill or empty. Maybe there would be something interesting round the next bend -in one case a cricket pitch used to stretch younger legs. Our eating pattern was governed by passing pubs well worth a visit for the local brews. Once we found a farm shop that had some wonderful fresh lamb for sale that cooked beautifully with fresh rosemary in Emma's oven.

Fellow canal people on their own shipshape vessels, shouted greetings across the water to us, although some did show concern about our boat's wash. And I did catch the odd worried murmur floating across the murky waters, when my nautical skills allowed Emma to dent something near a lock, including my pride.

The Caldon and Leek, once open as far as Uttoxeter, a little off-shoot of Brindley's genius, is always going to be a short visit, 17 miles of just about everything that the canal system has to offer. So go and explore like we did.