Canal Boating in Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 10:19 03 June 2014 | UPDATED: 13:56 23 January 2017
Leaving Middlewich, we would travel at little more than walking pace for a few dozen miles, and end up back where we started.
In theory, I admit, that does not seem like the recipe for a very exciting holiday. But try a few days aboard a canal boat, and I guarantee you will be hooked. The most familiar of territory takes on a new and intriguing perspective from the water. Nature is all around you: the lush expanses of Cheshire countryside, quizzical cows watching you scud by, birds of prey hovering in pursuit of an unwitting mouse and the herons standing like angle-poise lamps on the bank.
There’s history too, in the weathered timbers and clanking metalwork of the locks, and the very knowledge that you are doing pretty much what people were doing two centuries ago, when the canals were the arteries of the Industrial Revolution and hard lives were lived plying these routes in heavy barges dragged by horses.
A more luxurious alternative to that life of grim toil awaited us at Andersen Boats in Middlewich: a 69-ft, eight-berth Fjord Emperor, fitted out in oak with two double beds, a shower bathroom, two loos, central heating and a galley with gas cooker and microwave. It’s one of the larger boats in a range which runs from the four-berth 49-ft Fjord Countess to the 70-ft ten-berth Fjord Contessa.
Very many of Andersen’s boats head south westwards to the Llangollen Canal, crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, one of the most awe-inspiring feats of civil engineering anywhere in the world.
But Middlewich can also be a starting point for a trip around the Four Counties Ring - south via the Shropshire Union Canal and back north via the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, then Trent and Mersey canals. Or the Cheshire Ring, taking in Lymm, Manchester, Marple and Macclesfield. You could simply head for Chester - four days of relaxed cruising there and back.
After an hour’s basic training from Andersen Boats we were off and what fun it was. We chose to amble aimlessly hither and thither, heading along the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union - very soon finding ourselves in unspoilt countryside - and up the Llangollen Canal for a day to overnight at Wrenbury. Here we found the Cotton Arms - everything you’d wish for in a pub, reeking of history and with a hubbub of boaters’ tales being told.
We chugged back down the Llangollen to stop at Nantwich, before striking out north towards Chester. By now, the locks held no terrors, not even the Bunbury staircase lock - two locks together, requiring just a little head-scratching before wielding the windlass.
Those who are a little daunted by the very idea of navigating locks should know that everything moves very slowly indeed on the canals, the logic of the simpler locks is seldom more perplexing than running a bath, and there is often someone nearby only too eager to help.
You soon realise there is a community of canal folk, and the names painted so lovingly on the sides of narrow boats tell you much about the mindset of the owners.
‘It’s Later than You Think’ went one fatalistic legend. ‘G&T Time: Utopia’ said another. One boat summed up the creed of life on the water thus: ‘To Slowly Go’.
A healthy portion of that boating community are, undoubtedly, people sufficiently stricken in years that as time seems to go by more quickly, they want to spend it travelling ever more slowly. There is a zen-like combination of calm and concentration to be found manning the tiller at 4mph.
But alongside the grey-hairs, we also saw young families on holiday, and an alternative community of full-time boat-dwellers of all ages, their craft often piled high with wood for log-burning stoves.
The excellent Great Canal Journeys TV series, featuring Timothy West and Prunella Scales, seems certain to win even more recruits to a holiday on the water. How else is it possible to travel the UK in much the same way, and at much the same pace as our 19th century ancestors did?
Unlike a more static holiday, you also get to choose the view from your ‘hotel’ window every night. On our last night, we moored up on at a spot which afforded a lovely vista across the Weaver valley to the village of Church Minshull, and tiptoed down a muddy towpath to seek out another great pub, The Badger Inn.
We had our canal holiday courtesy of Andersen Boats, a family-run business of boat-builders and hirers with over 40 years’ experience. Andersen Boats is based at Wych House Lane, Middlewich, Cheshire CW10 9BQ, tel 01606 833668, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.andersenboats.com
Worth tying up for
The Cotton Arms, Cholmondeley Road, Wrenbury.
Named after the family who lived at Combermere Abbey, parts of the Cotton Arms date back to the 16th century and are thought to have been constructed from ship’s timbers. There was weathered old furniture, a real fire burning and hearty fare like Guinness and steak pie on the menu.
The Badger Inn, Cross Lane, Church Minshull.
Built in the late 18th century beside the striking St Bartholomew’s Church, The Badger was once a coaching inn and a venue for bare-knuckle fighting! Our only tussle - and very enjoyable it was too - was with a very superior burger and chunky chips while we were ensconsed in the smaller bar beside an open fire one damp evening.
The Wild Boar, Whitchurch Road, Tarporley.
A short torchlit walk from our mooring point at Beeston brought us to this grand Mock-Tudor pile with its modern European-style brasserie restaurant. Loved the roast lamb rump with twice-baked cheese soufflé, redcurrant and mint gravy.
Burland Stores, Wrexham Road, Burland, Nantwich.
Good to see a village which still sustains a proper village store, and one offering a friendly welcome and superior Cornish pasties, just a short hop from the towpath.