MY CRAZY BROOD

because raising a large family isn’t for the faint-hearted

The Cheshire Ring Circular Canal Route Review

We love Canal Boat Holidays, but sadly my parents had sold their share in the canal boat Sunseeker as it was now too small for us. Sunseeker slept 6 and we now numbered 9 following the birth of Reese in 2013. We had our last holiday aboard Sunseeker in 2014.

group shot sitting on a boat saying the pride of middlewich, two male adults, five children and a black puppy
The crew! L-R Ruby (8), Granddad, Rhian (5), Daddy, Reese (2), Becky (10) and Ryan (12) holding Gwen (the puppy). Also part of the crew but not pictured, Mummy, Nanny and Bess (the dog)

In 2015, because we were missing the canals, we decided to hire a boat which would be big enough for all of us and a route to travel. I’ve always liked circular routes, as every day has something new to see. Plus, there’s no feeling of the holiday coming to an end when you have to turn around and go back the way you came. I had fond memories of doing the Cheshire Ring with my parents when I was about 17 so we decided to do that route again.

Map of the Cheshire Ring
The Route we chose to do. The Cheshire Ring.

We hired a 10 berth boat from Andersen Boats in Middlewich named Stavanger Fjord. This offered us two fixed double beds and 4 single beds. Two of the single beds were known as “pipe cots” and hung above the fixed single beds. There was also the option of turning the sleeping area in the lounge to either two singles or a double bed. Towards the end of the holiday, hubby and I started using the made-up double bed in the lounge, as it gave us more room. Especially as we had my 2yr old and my 6yr old joining us each night!

The layout inside Stavanger Fjord hire boat.

Anderton Boat Lift

After collecting our boat from Middlewich, we headed along the Trent and Mersey canal towards Anderton and the famous Anderton Boat Lift. I was really excited about seeing the lift as the last time I had seen it it was a derelict shell. In 2002 it reopened after a successful restoration. The Anderton Boat Lift is an impressive structure and an engineering marvel when you consider it originally opened in 1875 and is 143 years old!

https://youtu.be/vHSMwab9KHU

In 1777, when the Trent & Mersey canal was opened, it carried clay and flint to Staffordshire and finished pottery back to Liverpool. People quickly realised it was a good way of transporting cargo and that the canal could be used to transport the salt that was produced in Cheshire, which was sent along the River Weaver. They began to look at ideas on how to join the river and the canal. Locks would have taken up too much room and water, so Edwin Clark was asked to design a boat lift.

The original Anderton Boat Lift in 1875

In 1875, when Edwin Clark originally built the lift, it used two tanks (caissons) which balanced each other. Extra water was then put in the upper tank to make it heavier and as it moved down it would push the lighter tank upwards This system worked well until the salt in the water from the factories caused it to break down and they had to come up with a new plan.

Anderton Boat Lift in 1908

This is where Colonel Saner entered in 1908 and converted the lift to electricity. He used electric motors and huge big pulleys and weights to move the tanks and a strong frame had to be built to hold the extra weight. It worked well with Colonel Saner looking after it’s operation. However, as time passed and there was less money available for repairs, it started to work less well.  Fewer and fewer cargo boats used the lift as quicker roads were built after the First World War. After the 1960s it was used mainly by pleasure boats until it shut in 1983 because problems developed and it was thought to be unsafe to use.  Eventually, money was raised and the lift was restored and reopened in 2002. It uses modern hydraulic systems, adapting some of Edwin Clark’s ideas but using oil instead of water and modern materials to help prevent corrosion.

Anderton Boat Lift is the world’s first and is currently England’s only working boat lift. There is a drop of about 15 metres between the canal and the river and the boat lift is about 25 metres tall.

collage of photos from the anderton boat lift ride down the lift
Our ride on the Anderton Boat Lift

We had looked at taking our hire boat down the lift ourselves, but in the end, we decided it would be easier and safer to ride one of the boat trips instead. The lift is one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways and the revamped lift is complete with a visitor centre, cafe, play area and woodland walks and it was a fun place to visit, even if you don’t arrive by canal boat. We spent several hours looking around and learning more about the lift and its working and the children tired themselves out in the play area. Of course, the highlight itself was the ride on the lift and I would happily do it again!

Along the Trent & Mersey

After spending several hours at the Anderton Boat Lift, we carried along the Trent & Mersey canal and through the first tunnels of the holiday; Barnton tunnel of 672 yards, Saltersford tunnel of 424 yards and Preston Brook tunnel of 1239 yards. We also hit our first lock of the holiday at Dutton Stop Lock just before Preston Brook tunnel. Preston Brook tunnel isn’t wide enough for boats to pass inside, so we had to wait our turn to enter. But it was a good chance to stretch our legs and have a cuppa.

Bridgewater Canal

After Preston Brook Tunnel the Trent & Mersey met the Bridgewater Canal and passed underneath the M56. To our left was the Bridgewater Canal branch to Runcorn, but we continued along the main Bridgewater Canal.  Slowly the rural sights became rarer as we entered the suburbs of Altrincham and Sale, an urban sprawl broken only by the green corridor of Mersey’s floodplain.

The dolphin statue at Trafford Centre

Finally, we reached Water’s meeting a junction where the Bridgewater Canal’s Leigh and Manchester lines meet. Here we took a detour along the Bridgewater canals Leigh branch, passing Trafford Centre shopping centre where we stopped for a days shopping and whilst the menfolk took the children to Legoland Discovery and Sea Life Centre, mum and I took the baby shopping and bought her her first pair of shoes. In the evening, I snuck off with the eldest to enjoy a movie at the cinema!

collage of images of Barton Swing Aquaduct

We carried along the Bridgewater canal as far as Worsley, heading towards the Leeds and Liverpool canal. We spent the day exploring Worsley, before turning back towards Water’s Meeting and back on the Cheshire Ring. But why did we detour to Leigh? That was easy, we wanted to go over the Manchester Ship canal on the Barton Swing Aqueduct and another of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. It still swings occasionally, when big ships travel down the Manchester Ship Canal, but sadly there was no sign of any boats when we travelled over. You can see the Barton Swing Bridge from the M56 and whenever we travel on the motorway and spot the bridge, it brings back fond memories of the day we went over it by boat.

Back on the main Bridgewater Canal, we continued on our way towards Manchester and much to my husband’s delight, we passed beside Old Trafford, the home of his favourite football team of Manchester United. There was even a game playing that night, but sadly we didn’t have tickets for him to go watch. If I had known we would have made it to Old Trafford in time, I would have bought him some tickets as an anniversary present!

old trafford from the canal
Hubby was excited to pass Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United football club

We decided to moor in Manchester for a few days. Originally we moored up outside the YMCA near the Roman Fort but decided to move to the quieter and safer Castlefield Quay. Whilst in Manchester we visited the city centre as well as the Museum of Science and Industry which the children enjoyed and hubby took the boy to Old Trafford and a tour of the stadium.

Rochdale Nine and the Rochdale Canal

After an enjoyable few days in Manchester, despite the trouble when we were moored by the YMCA which encouraged us to move moorings, we then had to face the Rochdale Nine! This was the worst part of the holiday and puts me off doing the Cheshire Ring again.

photos of locks under buildings in manchester
Rochdale Nine Locks through Manchester

The Rochdale Nine (locks 92-84)  passes through the area known as the Gay Quarter and a very rough neighbourhood. The bottom lock is known as Duke’s Lock because it was actually built by the Bridgewater company. Later it was renumbered in the Rochdale sequence as lock 92 on the canal’s epic Trans-Pennine journey from Sowerby bridge. Knowing the reputation of the Rochdale Nine locks we were all up early to get through them as early as possible. The children were ordered to remain inside the boat at all times with the dogs, whilst my dad was in charge of steering the boat and hubby and myself were in charge of the locks. The Rochdale Nine certainly lived up to its reputation and just doing the locks left me feeling sick and badly in need of a shower. Everywhere you looked you saw disgusting human debris, from human excrement, dirty discarded pants, needles, condoms and signs of homelessness and despair. One lock was in the basement of a building, something which would normally be an exciting and rare site, but all we saw was CCTV cameras and signs warning people not to get up to certain behaviours as they were being watched! Knowing that there was CCTV watching this section of the canal, did help us feel safer than we would otherwise have felt.

I was so glad to leave the Rochdale Nine and the Rochdale canal behind as we reached Piccadilly basin and the junction with the Ashton canal.

Ashton Canal

children playing card game inside the boat
The children playing cards whilst we tried to get the sofa out of the canal

Passing past the new Etihad Stadium and home to Manchester City, the canal was certainly an improvement after the Rochdale, especially after the Commonwealth Games of 2002 did a lot to improve the canal looks. However, apart from this section, the rest of the canal was full of pitfalls to be avoided, from trolleys and other rubbish in the canal. At one point it took us several hours to get through the lock as we had to remove a sofa which was trapped and stopped us opening the gates wide enough to get the boat in. Finally, as the Ashton approached Portland Basin and the Peak Forest Canal, we started to leave Manchester behind and began to feel safer and cleaner.

Peak Forest Canal

Marple Aqueduct and Viaduct

The Peak Forest Canal made a welcome if challenging difference to the canals of Manchester. After passing through the one-way Woodley tunnel and Hyde Bank tunnel it was time to go over the beautiful Marple Aqueduct before hitting Marple Locks. Finally, we had left the urban city centres behind and we were amongst beautiful woodlands. Marple Locks was certainly a challenge but also very satisfying. They were also very popular for walkers who would often stop and chat as we manoeuvred our boat through the locks. The sixteen locks at Marple raise the canal by over 200 feet and took around two and a half hours for us to complete and your legs really felt the strain. However, the challenge was worth it and we all felt like we had done a satisfying hard days work when we had completed them and rewarded ourselves with a drink in the pub at the top of the flight!

Travelling along the challenging Marple Locks

Macclesfield Canal

Leaving Marple, the woodlands now changed back to the rural countryside you expect on a canal and Manchester was a distant memory. The Woodford Aerodrome appears in the distance as we meandered along the canal. My dad commented on how two very famous and important aircraft designs were tested here, the Lancaster bomber in 1941 and the Shackleton reconnaissance plane in 1949. As we went under bridge 25 I spotted an inscription saying “Lovers Leap June 1894” and learnt of the tragic story of a married man, who left his wife and 3 children for another woman. Public opinion was so bad against this man who deserted his family and the woman who destroyed the family that his home was set alight and a safe house had to be found for the “other woman”. With feelings running so high against them, they made a suicide pack and leapt off the bridge to drown in the (then deeper) canal below. Slowly, the countryside began to become more urban as the canal entered the outskirts of Macclesfield, the town giving the canal its name.

Finally, after 17 miles and no locks, we finally encountered the 12 locks known as Bosley Locks. When they were originally built, they were impressively engineered to use less water. Once upon a time, each lock had a side pond which acted as mini reservoirs. When the lock emptied, half its water would run into the side pond and used for half filling the lock when it was next used. Theoretically, this system halved the amount of water used by the flight, but no one seems to recall exactly when the side ponds went out of use, but the Macclesfield Canal Society hopes to resurrect the side pond at lock 4 for demonstration purposes.

North of Bosley, the canal hits it’s summit level of 518 feet and travels along the foothills of the Peak District. Between bridges 49 and 50, it occupies a shelf above a steeply sided valley. Bridge 49 was an exciting and electrically operated swing bridge and the children especially enjoyed making the traffic wait whilst we slowly passed under the bridge.

Closing the Swing Bridge to traffic is great fun

Finally, we approached the Trent & Mersey and the final lap of our journey around Cheshire. My dad, the expert on the canals, explained how the Macclesfield and Trent & Mersey canals merge at Hall Green, rather than Hardings Wood Junction as you would expect. He explained that the Trent & Mersey didn’t trust other canals, which they saw as rivals. Far from welcoming the new Macclesfield canal and the trade it would bring, the Trent & Mersey only saw a threat to its established link between Manchester and the Potteries via Middlewich and Preston Brook. Feeling that they would be in a stronger position if the Macclesfield wasn’t able to gain access to their main line, they built a connecting canal out to meet the newcomer at Hall Green. Here, both companies regarded each other in a mutual distrust across a checkpoint of paired locks, paired lock-keepers cottages and paired stable blocks. Not even the railway age stopped their rivalry, for the Macclesfield belonged to the Great Central whereas the Trent & Mersey was taken over by the North Staffordshire. After Hall Green and now back on the Trent & Mersey, you head towards Hardings Wood Junction and the unique approach which sees you pass over the main Trent & Mersey line before rejoining it after the main line has climbed two locks and reached the same level.

The Harecastle Tunnel

Before heading back along the Trent & Mersey and Middlewich, we took a detour through the Harecastle Tunnel to Stoke-on-Trent.

The entrance to the Harecastle Tunnel and the rusty coloured water

The Harecastle Tunnel is a memorable tunnel, not least because of the colour of the water which is caused by local ironstone. The tunnel was built to transport coal to heat the kilns in the Staffordshire potteries and at 1.5 miles (2.4km) it was once one of the longest canal tunnels in Britain. Whilst there are two separate tunnels, the Brindley and the Telford, named after the engineers who constructed them and running parallel to each other. Today only the Telford tunnel remains in use. The tunnel is only wide enough to carry traffic in one direction at a time and boats are sent through in groups, alternating northbound and southbound. Ventilation is handled by large fans at the south entrance.

The closed enterance to the Harecastle Tunnel
The Southern portal of the Harecastle Tunnel

Brindley Branch of the Harecastle Tunnel

In 1973 two canoeists are pictured here exploring the Brindley Canal Tunnel, which was closed in 1914, due to mining subsidence reducing the headroom.
In 1973 two canoeists are pictured here exploring the Brindley Canal Tunnel, which was closed in 1914, due to mining subsidence reducing the headroom.
photos: © Staffordshire Past-track
Keele University – William Jack Collection
Borough Museum and Art Gallery, Newcastle under Lyme

The first tunnel was constructed by James Brindley between 1770 and 1777, but sadly Brindley died in 1772 and didn’t live to see its completion. At the time of its construction, it was one of the two longest canal tunnels in Britain, along with Norwood Tunnel on the Chesterfield Canal another tunnel by Brindley. To build the tunnel it was mapped over the hill and then fifteen vertical shafts were sunk into the ground and then dug out to create the canal. The tunnel has no towpath, so boatsmen had to leg their way through the tunnel, lying on the roof of the boat and pushing on the sides of the tunnel with their feet. It could take up to three hours to travel through the tunnel. The tunnel was 12 feet tall at its tallest point and nine feet wide at its widest, which proved to be too small in later years. In the early 20th century the tunnel suffered from subsidence and was closed after a partial collapse in 1914. Inspections continued until the 1960s but since that time there have been no attempts to investigate the tunnel. The gated portals can still be seen from the canal, although it is no longer possible to approach the mouth of the tunnel by boat. In recent times, water entering the canal from the Brindley tunnel has been blamed for much of the prominent iron ore, which gives the canal water it’s rusty colour and there are proposals to install filtering by using reed beds. The Brindley tunnel is 2,880 yards long.

Overgrown and gated branch of the Brindley section of the Harecastle tunnel
What remains of the old Brindley branch of the Harecastle Tunnel

The Telford Branch of the Harecastle Tunnel

Due to the amount of traffic and the slow process of legging, the Harecastle Tunnel was becoming a bottleneck of the Trent & Mersey. It was decided that a second tunnel was needed and Thomas Telford was chosen to build it. Due to the advances in engineering, it took just three years to build and was completed in 1827. It even had a towpath so that horses could pull the boats through the tunnel. After it’s construction it was used alongside the Brindley tunnel, with each tunnel taking traffic in opposite directions.

A pre-1914 view of the Harecastle end of Brindley’s old "legging" tunnel with a boat about to pass through.
A pre-1914 view of the Harecastle end of Brindley’s old “legging” tunnel with a boat about to pass through.
To the right of the photograph, you can see a horse that has just been unharnessed ready to be led over Boathouse Road to the other end of the tunnel.
Thomas Telford’s new tunnel can be seen on the left.

Between 1914 and 1954 an electric tug was used to pull boats through the tunnel and in 1954 a large fan was constructed at the south portal. Whilst all the boats are within the tunnel, an airtight door is shut and all the air is pulled through the tunnel by the fan. This allows diesel boats to use the tunnel without suffocating the boaters. Today the journey takes about 30-40 minutes.

In the late 20th century, the Telford tunnel also began to suffer subsidence and was closed between 1973 and 1977. The towpath, long disused, was removed, allowing boats to take advantage of the greater air draft in the centre of the tunnel.

A series of smaller canal tunnels are joined to the Telford tunnel. These tunnels connected to coal mines at Golden Hill and allowed both the drainage of the mines and the export of coal directly from the mines to the canal tunnel without the necessity of first hauling it to the surface. Small boats of ten tons capacity were used in this endeavour.

The Telford tunnel is 2,926 yards long, meaning it is 46 yards longer than the Brindley Tunnel.

A canal boat enters the Harecastle Tunnel and behind the boat you can just see the old Brindley branch
North Portal of the Harecastle Tunnel Telford branch with the older Brindley Branch just visible to the right – photo by Maurice Pullin

Travelling through the Harecastle Tunnel

Passage through the tunnel is in a single direction working since only one of the two Harecastle tunnels are in operation. Access to the remaining tunnel is controlled by the Canal and River Trust’s tunnel keeper team, who allow groups of boats to pass through in convoy, before reversing the flow of traffic. It is strongly recommended you check the tunnel’s opening times here before you travel.

Before you are allowed into the tunnel, all the skippers of the boats in the convoy group much attend a safety briefing. It doesn’t take too long but it is important to attend so that you know what to do in an emergency, such as someone going overboard, breaking down inside the tunnel or a fire as there have been accidents in the past. After dad returned to the boat following his safety briefing, he instructed us all on what he had been told and whilst I made sure all the children had their lifejackets on and the dogs were secured inside the boat, my dad tested the boats horn, lamps and navigation lights. Mum opened all the curtains inside the boat, switched all the interior lights on and made sure that the cooker and fire were off.

After preparing ourselves and the boat as best we could and when we were finally given the go-ahead, we slowly entered the north end of the tunnel. It was surreal entering the darkness, illuminated by lights for only a small section as you orientate the boat, all of a sudden the door was shut behind us and we were engulfed in darkness with only the light at the front of the boat giving a small illumination to the tunnel ahead.

The 30 minutes that it takes to travel the tunnel seems to last forever as your world closes to just you and your boat, the blackness that surrounds you and the sound of the engine and the fan at the south end of the tunnel which circulates the air. Thankfully the children weren’t too scared, helped by the fact we hadn’t told them the story of the Kidsgrove Boggart.

Eventually, just when we began to think we would never see the daylight again, the tunnel door suddenly opened and we were free to bath in the sun once more!

https://youtu.be/vIXfejfFhWg

Stoke-on-Trent

We left the Harecastle Tunnel in our wake and headed towards Stoke-on-Trent and Etruria. This was the perfect place to stop and we stayed for two days. You moor close to the retail park with a cinema and bowling, but sadly there wasn’t any film we fancied watching. We had planned on taking the children to Waterworld, the amazing water park and swimming pool in Stoke-on-Trent but sadly the day we were there it was closed. The older ones had been there before, several years ago when Sunseeker was at Etruria so they had been excited about going again and very disappointed that they couldn’t go. Instead, we went to Just Kidding soft play area and the children had an amazing time and said it was the best play area they had ever been too! Another option, which we might have done had we been there longer, is a bus to the nearby theme park of Alton Towers.

Back on the Trent & Mersey Canal

two people stood at the back of a boat in the middle of the canal
A rare photo of hubby and myself as hubby takes his turn at steering the boat

Finally, it was time to turn around and head back along the Trent & Mersey to Middlewich on the last leg of our journey. After another trip through the Harecastle Tunnel, it was time to face the challenge known as Heartbreak Hill and we were pleased to see that we were going downhill.

lock gates with another lock visible in the distance
Becky opening the lock paddles as we descend down Heartbreak Hill on the Trent & Mersey. I was so glad we were going downhill

The 26 locks in 7 miles aren’t as intimidating as it sounds and you do get into a rhythm. When we last passed through this section on my first journey on the Cheshire Ring, I remember my brother and I had such a good rhythm going that as there are duplicate locks, we were overtaking boats going downhill. Sadly, most of these duplicate locks have fallen into disrepair with only one set still working. But still, we made good time by splitting into teams of two, with one team dealing with one lock whilst the other team walked to the next lock to prepare it.

feeding apples to a horse
Whenever we saw horses the girls wanted to make friends

As my parents had friends who lived in Wheelock, we stopped off there for the night and they went to visit their friends whilst we spent the evening with the children and took them to the local park to tire them out. We knew that our two week holiday was quickly coming to an end! All too soon we were descending the Kings Lock and Big Lock of Middlewich and it was time to return our boat.

toddler girl holds her dad's hand as they walk under a bridge to get back on the canal boat
“”C’mon daddy! Back on the boat”

Conclusion

Two girls pull on a rope to pull the boat to the canal side
Helping to tie the boat up for the last time. Our holiday is over!

I’m pleased to say I have done the Cheshire Ring, especially as I love circular routes. There were several amazing sights to see and challenges to overcome, with every day bringing a new experience or vies.

It’s worth doing at least once, just to say you’ve done it, but I can’t see any of us wanting to do it again. Whilst the Rochdale 9 locks were the worst bit of the route, don’t let them put you off doing this route. With CCTV and modern policing, the area is improving. I just suggest you go through the locks as early as possible and keep children and pets indoors as a precaution, just like we did!

There were several points that we really enjoyed, like the Anderton Boat Lift, Harecastle Tunnel and Stoke-on-Trent. We also really enjoyed the challenges of the Marple flight and Heartbreak Hill.  I also enjoyed the detour which allowed us to visit Trafford Centre and travelling over the Barton Swing Bridge, although seeing it open would have made it better.

Doing the Cheshire Ring also gives you the chance to tick two of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways off your list, the Anderton boat lift and the Barton Swing Aqueduct.

I enjoyed being able to tick these off my Canal Bucket List, as my goal is to tick off all seven! So far, I have managed to tick off three of the seven and hopefully, after our holiday next year for my parents’ Golden wedding anniversary, we’ll tick off two more!

 

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Rachel (My Crazy Brood)

Parenting Blogger & Mum of 5

Hi, I’m Rachel, the poor mum of this crazy lot! We are; Dad (Bob), Ryan (17), Becky (15) Ruby  (14), Rhian (11) and Reese (7). We also have Gwen the staffy dog, 5 guinea pigs and 2 hamsters. Join us as we navigate the craziness that raising a large family with additional needs can bring.

Rachel

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