Indigo Dreaming

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The Odyssey 2009: Day 41

Posted by indigodream on 3 September, 2009

Friday 28th August

Stoak to Acton Swingbridge (River Weaver) via the Manchester Ship Canal

Looking down towards the Ellesmere Port boat museum

Looking down towards the Ellesmere Port boat museum

We had a good night’s sleep on the mooring despite being surrounded by motorways and had quite a leisurely start to the day. Just as well, we had a BIG day ahead and several deadlines to meet.

We had to get to Ellesmere Port and the lock down to the Manchester Ship Canal by 12.30pm – BW have to open the lock, the local council have to swing the bridge over the lock, and Eastham VTS had to authorise our entry onto the Ship Canal (MSC). Richard had done a sterling job of making all the arrangements so we were good to go.

When he was making the arrangements, Richard found that some of the contact numbers in the guide books and websites aren’t accurate so he’ll publish the ones that he found to be most useful (and correct!) in a separate post.

Bridge 138, where we spent the night, is just under 3 miles from Ellesmere Port so we still had an hour’s cruise to get our destination. The weather wasn’t promising – the morning started with a torrential squally shower with associated strong gusty winds – I was worried. But then the squall passed and the sun came out, the wind dropped a little and we

Looking back up the Ellesmere locks - you can see where the canal has flowed over the lockside

Looking back up the Ellesmere locks - you can see where the canal has flowed over the lockside

set off down the increasingly industrial landscape.This last stretch of the Shropshire Union is not the most scenic, though we did see a few kingfishers here – on narrow canal section squeezed between the busy M56 and a giant oil refinery!

Note: There’s something submerged under Bridge 140 – it scraped right along the bottom of the boat and clanged against the counter. Might be worth coasting under this bridge until BW have had a chance to clear whatever it is. We did pick up some debris round the prop between here and the bottom lock so a prop clearance was essential before we ventured onto the ship canal.

The top lock at Ellesmere Port is surrounded by the historic buildings and boats of the fine  museum. There don’t seem to be any moorings at the top lock but there’s a large basin with ample moorings on the left after the second lock.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the museum – we weren’t even sure when it opened – it seemed deserted, as did the whole lock flight.

Part of the basin at Ellesmere Port

Part of the basin at Ellesmere Port

Our Nicholson’s shows three locks down into Ellesmere Port then another onto the Manchester Ship Canal; but there are only three locks. Richard got off at the top lock and worked the first two locks, with some difficulty. Now we know where all the water from Chester has come to – there was too much water in the pound and the lockside was awash, making it very difficult to set the levels and open the lock gates.

Note: there is no easy footpath between the second and third locks – make sure that your lock crew gets on board at the bottom of the second lock for the trip into the basin.

The weather became a feature again as we worked the locks – the winds were gusty were difficult to judge, one minute a gentle breeze, the next a gale, one minute from the West then a swing to the East – very unpredictable.

Not having been here before, we actually approached the bottom lock and regretted it immediately as we dodged the large sunken boat submerged on the right of the approach to the lock – beware – it is a considerable obstruction.

Indigo Dream and Indigo Dawn at Ellesmere Port

Indigo Dream and Indigo Dawn at Ellesmere Port

The third lock leads directly onto a small cut leading to the main ship canal and we realised as we approached that this was where the council-operated swingbridge was. Although there aren’t any lock moorings, I was able to drop Richard ashore to investigate. Just as well, he did a good job on the ropes, keeping Indigo Dream steady as I reversed her right round the corner and into the main basin. The basin’s huge – I reckon you could easily moor 40 or 50 narrowboats here. We shared it with one small narrowboat, though there were a few more boats on the pontoon nearby. A helpful man from a nearby office came out and warned us that the car park adjacent was gated and was locked overnight – useful information as our friend Ken was joining us for the trip and he might otherwise have got his car stuck there.

By now we were a little tense – I was worried about conditions, Richard was worried about the arrangements. Ken’s arrival with a home-made coffee cake did a lot to lighten the atmosphere but nonetheless there was work to be done. Richard has rung Eastham VTS and they’d asked whether we could get onto the canal a little earlier – they had a BIG ship due to come up the canal at 1pm and the earlier we left the less likely we were to encounter the ship. We were happy to oblige! However it did mean checking whether the council and BW could also come earlier to help us through that lock. Luckily they were helpfulness personified and by midday we were descending through the lock, the whole crew donned their lifejackets and we radioed Eastham VTs for permission to join the canal.

The Manchester Chip Canal

The cut leading to the MSC

The cut leading to the MSC

With permission granted, we set off onto the largest canal I’ve ever cruised, looking around for the ‘Buffalo’, a vessel that the VTS warned us that we’d meet a bit later on.

The wind had dropped by now and the sun had come out so we had time to enjoy the sheer scale of the canal. I was on the helm and the ship canal feels more like a tidal river with it sense of constant motion – it’s restless under the rudder. Of course it’s vast, almost like being at sea where it broadens at Weston Marsh. The right hand bank is lined with giant industrial complexes. In places, the air had a flat quality to it, too subtle to be called a smell, more a faint tang of chemicals – alien and unfamiliar. The sense of isolation, of being in a place where we didn’t quite belong, was heightened by substantial left bank which separates the canal from the Mersey Estuary just beyond. There’s no doubt that this is a serious place to be – there are long stretches where you can’t smoke (not that we do anyway) or light the gas because of the risk of fire and explosions at the nearby petrochemical works. It is not pretty but it is interesting and still largely functioning.

Our first view of the MSC (looking towards Eastham). That big ship moored there was what we we were dodging by leaving early!

Our first view of the MSC (looking towards Eastham). That big ship moored there was what we we were dodging by leaving early!

By contrast to the industrial right bank, the left bank is largely grassed over and deserted; though further along there were a few sheep grazing there – we have no idea how they got across the canal.

The trip from Ellesmere Port to Weston Marsh is only a few miles. We made good time with the wind behind us. There was a nasty moment when a squall blew up around halfway into our trip – the gusting wind whipped up little waves and rocked the boat. I was on the helm for the whole trip and now I know why this is not a waterway for the inexperienced. As I adjusted her trim by redistributing the ballast (i.e. asking Ken and Richard to move 🙂 ) and put on the revs to get more helm control I thought “if this had been a few years ago I’d have panicked by now”. I did find myself looking around, wondering whether Eastham VTS would allow us to tie up to the forbidden piers if we got into trouble. Then I stiffened my backbone and carried on – I was borrowing trouble when really I should have been giving all my concentration to the helm.

Passing the Buffalo....

Passing the Buffalo....

We’d been wondering how big the ‘Buffalo’ would be and were reassured when a small dredger came towards us, generating only the slightest bow wave. We’ve seen bigger on the Thames so I relaxed enough to wave cheerily at the crew and carry on with no concerns. Another small boat passed us further along – about the size of a large cruiser – again they didn’t cause any problems. We also waved at a little ferry boat operating between the banks – carrying workers from one part of the vast refinery to the other.

The boater’s guides for the canal are very helpful and we were in no doubt when we arrived at the turn for Weston Marsh Lock:

  • the canal widens to an open and windswept basin reminiscent of the tidal Severn
  • There’s a large wooden ‘buoy’ which marks the centre of the basin
  • There are numbered markers along the whole length of the canal which let you know exactly where you are
  • The schematic “plan” you get from the MSC has all the marker numbers indicated and it does make sense when you are on the canal/
  • There are red and green buoys marking the navigation channel to the lock
  • You turn right off the main channel and you can easily see the lock on your left
Waiting for Weston Marsh Lock to open...

Waiting for Weston Marsh Lock to open...

Unfortunately, as we approached the widening, a squall blew up and conditions became really horrible. The surface of the water was whipped into foaming whitecaps. Indigo Dream handled beautifully but I wouldn’t have wanted a puff more wind. As I pointed out to Ken, conditions were ‘marginal’ – he’ll tease me forever – being a bloke, he just thought it was a big adventure.

I’d hope that Weston March lock would be open for us but there’d been a glitch in communication along the BW chain and the lockies weren’t there. We had no choice but to tie up to a moth eaten wooden jetty to the right of the lock and wait for them.  Luckily the wind was in my favour and pushed the boat onto the jetty. Richard got onto BW – we needed to be off the canal – conditions were getting more unpleasant by the minute and watching the waves beating against the lock gates made me wonder whether I’d actually be able to get the boat into the lock.

The view back from Weston March lock

The view back from Weston March lock

Fortunately the BW lockies turned up within 15 minutes. Contrary to my expectation, I was able to get Indigo Dream off the jetty and in through the far lock gate without too much difficulty. But no force on earth could stop the wind from blowing her back end right across the lock after the lockie had tied the front. So there we were, neatly wedged at an angle across the lock. The boat only budged when the lockies closed the bottom gates and stopped the funnelling wind from pinning us to the wall, allowing Richard to pull us off straight using an extra-long centre rope.

The lockies were a cheerful bunch – Weston March lock is huge and the sheer physical effort needed to operate the paddles and open the gates is awesome. The top gate has to be opened with a trifor winch as the chain has come loose off its fixing. The BW guys said that they were waiting for divers to come in very soon but we suspect that the chain has been off for a while ….  I was just glad to be out of the wind and onto calmer waters.

MSC Musings:

Since our trip up the MSC I’ve had a few days to muse on whether I’d go there again. Here are my conclusions:

  • I see MSC as a means to an end rather than a trip in itself – I would definitely use it to move between the Weaver and the Shropshire Union. I wouldn’t want to go right up to Pomona Docks unless it was essential – it’s a bit far with no stops.
  • I’d want to investigate the weather more thoroughly. Eastham VTS will stop small vessels from travelling if visibility is poor. The visibility was fine but the squally winds were nasty and less than ideal.
  • We did ring BW as we left Ellesmere Port but clearly communications were not perfect perhaps needing another call just before we arrived at Weston March lock – we’d assumed that the lock would be open and it would have been easier if it had been.
  • Eastham VTS are dedicated to the safe movement of boats – I felt that we were in safe hands and that we weren’t in danger from other traffic on the canal.
  • Would I repeat this trip if all the conditions were the same? I was concerned and uncomfortable with the conditions at times but we did arrive safely without as much as a broken teacup. Cancelling would have been awkward and then with the required notice periods, it would have been 2 days before we could have made the next attempt – that would have made life very difficult for us. It’s a tough call.
  • The canal is interesting (especially if you like living industry) – maybe put it on you ‘once in a cruising lifetime’ list. As Richard is having fantasies about getting to Liverpool via the Mersey then I’m sure we’ll be back – we took lots of photos anyway – we’ll pop these in a photoblog.

The River Weaver

Weston Marsh Lock

Weston Marsh Lock

It’s very strange, but the slow-flowing Weaver feels much more like a canal than the MSC! It’s benign currents were a welcome relief.

The lockies at Weston March had warned us that the Weaver locks close early on a Friday and that if we were to get through Dutton Locks (and to the pubs beyond) we needed to hit the gas and ‘don’t spare the horses’. We sped past the city-sized chemical works and soon we were deep into the countryside – enjoying the lovely views.

Although we were on a deadline for the lock, we found time for a stop by Sutton swing bridge to pick Ken’s Sue up and to give the dogs a respite. After an initial joyful run down the towpath, both dogs just lay and rolled in the soft grass, expressing their delight at being off the boat.

Once we picked Sue up, we dashed to Dutton Lock. As it happens we were in plenty of time. I wasn’t quite prepared for the size of the locks on the Weaver – apparently Dutton ship lock can take 18 narrowboats – I can well believe it. The lock-keepers are extremely helpful on the river weaver – possibly the most affable on the whole network.

Change of scenery - the benign and beautiful Weaver

Change of scenery - the benign and beautiful Weaver

For reference, the procedure at the locks it to take the boat in to whatever side indicated by the lockkeeper. They lower a looped rope and you attach your mooring rope to the loop. The lockie pulls your rope up, loops it round the bollard and hands the free end back to you. The locks are really too deep for throwing a rope to the lockie.  The lockies are very cautious about filling the locks in order to avoid turbulence so you get none of the movement that you might expect if you’ve been through a Thames lock, for example.

The lockie at Dutton told us that the Weston Marsh lockies should have given us a boater’s guide with the lock times. They hadn’t, apparently they never do and none of the other Weaver lockies had copies to spare. The Dutton lock-keeper did kindly write down the lock times for Vale Royal – vital information – the lock only has FOUR passages each way every day at specified times.

Vale Royal Lock Times:

Monday to Friday

Down: 08.30, 10.30, 12.45, 14.45

Up: 09.00, 11.00, 13.45, 15.15

Saturday, Sunday, Bank Holidays

Down: 10.00, 12.00, 14.30, 16.45
Up: 10.30, 12.30, 15.00, 17.15

Dutton Lock

Dutton Lock

We met up with nb Penhale at Dutton Locks. We cheered up a bit when they expressed admiration at our intrepid spirit. They’d been down to Weston Marsh lock just to have a look at the MSC adn had thought it looked really rough. We met Penhale several times over the weekend – they’re from Bristol and know the Kennet and Avon very well (as do we) so we had a lot of things to talk about.The crew of the Penhale were very pleasant – they have a little whippet as well as a large german shepherd cross.

We were planning to moor up at Acton swingbridge and take advantage of the pubs there. But we got there really quickly and decided it was far too early to moor up. The weather had perked up by now (typical) though there was still the odd shower around and Ken’s Sue had only had a short cruise. So, we explored upriver, as far as Saltersford Locks. They were obviously closed by now but it didn’t matter. The big advantage of being on a broad river is that you can more or less turn wherever you like so it was easy enough to head back to Acton swingbridge.

Note: The Navigation Inn upriver from Acton swingbridge is not dog-friendly. The Leigh Inn, just on the bridge, does allow dogs in the ‘snug’.

Acton swingbridge - good moorings on the left

Acton swingbridge - good moorings on the left

There are good moorings here, though there is a bit of traffic noise from the swingbridge.  The Leigh Inn was very comfortable and the food was excellent. They had a discreet live band playing in the far corner so it was pleasant background music but not so loud that we couldn’t carry on chatting. I feel a bit sorry for musicians sometimes, but the reality is that if you’re meeting friends that you haven’t seen for a year then you just want to talk. When it was time to go home, the barman was particularly helpful in arranging a cab for Ken and Sue to get back to their car – we would really recommend this pub.

It had been a busy day, and no sooner had we waved Ken and Sue off than we were were ready to collapse into our own beds. There was a slight delay while Richard asked the cruiser moored behind us to turn off their rather noisy engine – they did so immediately, embarrassed at being asked. Peace reigned and a quiet night was had by all.

Photoblog (mainly of Blue and Lou – we’ll post the MSC photos separately!):

Weston Marsh Lock - looking towards the Weaver

Weston Marsh Lock - looking towards the Weaver

We're exhausted - the MSC takes a lot of concentration!

We're exhausted - the MSC takes a lot of concentration!

It's so good be back on dry land...

It's so good be back on dry land...

I mean it, this dry land is wonderful stuff....

I mean it, this dry land is wonderful stuff....

Lou thinks it's pretty good too....

Lou thinks it's pretty good too....

You silly hound....

You silly hound....

Blue and Lou at the Leigh Inn - it's been a busy day...

Blue and Lou at the Leigh Inn - it's been a busy day...

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