To the Port of Ellesmere

Restored Shropshire Union horse boat Saturn, horse drawn to Ellesmere Port National Waterways Museum, Easter gathering of traditional historic boats, canal tug Greenman

A short but concentrated bit of canal boating over the earliest Easter period for years has left quite a tangle of emotions in its wake. The job was to tow the restored Shropshire Union narrow boat Saturn from her winter mooring to the historic boat gathering at Ellesmere Port for Easter, and then return home to Ellesmere proper with the Canal Junction tug Greenman.

The trip started well in cold but bright and promising weather. With an enthusiastic bunch of lock-wheeler friends joining us near Whitchurch the first day saw us tied up at Wrenbury with a good supper and nice beer at the dog-friendly Cotton Arms. The only minor drawback was that we couldn’t tie up in the most convenient visitor moorings because they were full of empty hireboats overflowing from the base in the canal basin opposite. Do they pay for inconveniencing everybody else? We’d met very few boats, seen a couple of kingfishers and I had been particularly struck by the seemingly timeless scene of a group of cattle standing in the water on the offside of the canal, stoically watching us float by in complete contentment. Ah, the rural idyll and spring coming too, surely? Lovely, although we were very glad of the cabin fires.

The next day was considerably colder, a bit windier and a bit more difficult, but very satisfactory nonetheless. We slipped down the remaining Llangollen Canal locks without trouble, enjoying the peace and the countryside, although the newly commissioned Swanley marina gives cause and pause for thought. As one passes this huge acreage of new boats and jetties one wonders what will happen if even half of them decide to go boating on the same day sometime in the summer. It will not be fun for anyone -- private boaters or the paying customers on the hire boats on this most popular holiday canal in the country. How will it be regulated? Will you have to book your passage through Hurlestone locks for a particular time on a particular day? What happens if you’re late? Shades of Heathrow frustration loom ahead. When will someone say enough is enough, that this canal is now full?

No such worries after Barbridge for the all pervasive A41 depresses the adventurous spirit for the first few miles, and long lengths of online moorings slow progress to a bore. At Bunbury there is the base for another successful hire company, so successful that they completely occupy the towpath, with boats breasted up right from below the lock to the first bridge. This makes it difficult for a deep draught boat to get by and impossible for the sort of barge width craft that the canal was originally built for (or for a pair of narrow boats breasted up.) Do they pay for the privilege of messing it up for everybody else? If so, do they pay enough? Bunbury to Bates Mill is still a delight and our second evening saw us tied at The Shady Oak under the dramatic gaze of Beeston Castle ready for the descent into Chester on the morrow.

Maunday Thursday launched a full northerly gale at us with occasional flurries of sleet for extra interest, but at least it was a head wind most of the time, keeping the boats roughly in line with the canal. Towing a butty in a cross wind is always difficult and at times impossible in a gale, especially if you try and go slowly and politely past the miles of linear houseboat moorings but we arrived at the locks without incident. Urban Chester provided some shelter from the wind as we worked down to Tower wharf below the Northgate locks to join a clutch of other historic boats gathering for the final assault on Ellesmere Port and the museum on the following day. But we had effectively turned right on coming into the basin and the wind howling straight up the Dee estuary gave us all a bumpy night. However, at least it seemed to constrain the activities of the late night yobbos for which Chester basin is becoming unfortunately infamous.

The last stretch into Ellesmere Port is only eight miles or so – a short morning’s boating normally – but arrangements had been made for Saturn to be horse-hauled on this last leg to the museum, to arrive triumphantly and historically into the bank holiday afternoon crowds, creating much interest and publicity. Unfortunately it was still freezing cold and blowing a gale and we had some doubt initially whether Buddy the horse would be up to pulling the boat fast enough to counteract the ferocious cross-wind. But we stripped Saturn down for action, removing topcloths and rolling down the sidecloths to reduce windage and an heroic crew and the gallant horse completed the journey in fine style to arrive exactly as arranged in the afternoon. Unfortunately the public we wanted to impress weren’t there because of the weather and our sense of achievement was rather undermined by the lack of an audience. If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But that has to be the luck of the draw, gambling an event on English weather this early in the year.

The weekend went well for those that were there – much boat gossip, beer and socialising – but the hoped-for museum customers generally stayed sensibly at home, in the warm in front of the telly. Monday morning saw an early start for the Greenman, the beginning of a very smooth three-day trip back to the sanctity and sanity of Ellesmere with a deepened appreciation of the qualities and contrasts of our extraordinary canal system. It felt like a steady climb towards the light, escaping the motorway noise, the rubbish strewn water and the urban dereliction and development of Ellesmere Port and Chester into the quiet Shropshire countryside again. The weather improved as I worked uphill and I had the bonus of travelling in the early spring with only a scattering of other boats about to disturb the calm. But I started to worry about my timeless cattle for on this, the busiest holiday canal in the country, there are very few stretches now that are not steel piled to protect the banks, with livestock firmly fenced away from the water. Difficult to remember that Rolt found it impossible to get up this canal for rushes and reeds in 1947. Now the last few rushes will soon have to be protected from the boats.

©Tony Lewery,
The Brow,
30th March 2007

(Except top 4 photos © Paul Higson Canal Junction)

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