The Battlefield Line

The delight of the Ashby Canal is not only that the Triumph Factory and Museum nestle on its banks at Hinckley but also, not much further north along the towpath, is the Battlefield Line Railway.  A short stretch of rails that run north from Shenton to Shackerstone via Market Bosworth, more or less parallel with the canal.  To the east and ten minutes walk from Shenton Station is Bosworth Field and its Heritage Centre – The Battle of Bosworth Field (or Battle of Bosworth) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that extended across England in the latter half of the 15th century. Fought on 22 August 1485, the battle was won by the Lancastrians. Their leader Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, by his victory became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty. His opponent, Richard III, the last king of the House of York, was killed in the battle. Historians consider Bosworth Field to mark the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, making it a defining moment of English and Welsh history – Wiki – Battle of Bosworth Field.

The day was dark and damp which was entirely in keeping with a steamy outing.  My boyhood was spent hanging around once grand Victorian stations in search of trains and their numbers.  In the immediate post-war period these underfunded filthy cathedrals were a second home – the engines, the rolling stock, the buildings, the drivers and the firemen were all soot-blackened.  Rain, smog and the darkness were their perfect companions. This is what I remember, this is what I search for – judging by the volunteers of a certain age that run the Battlefield Railway, I am not alone:

5542 at Market Bosworth

5542 at Shenton

5542 at Market Bosworth

Paul, the ticket man

5542 at Shackerstone

5542 at Market Bosworth

Ticket Office at Market Bosworth

Waiting Room at Market Bosworth

Ticket Office, Shackerstone

The museum, Shackerstone


Like Runcorn, Worsley is another place I would never think to go but for the canals.  Also, like Runcorn, it is on a branch of the Bridgewater Canal although in this instance it ultimately leads somewhere – to Leigh and a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Despite its proximity to Manchester’s extensive motorways and the industrial centre of Trafford Park, Worsley is significantly more prosperous than Runcorn; it is almost prettified. The approach by canal requires a high level crossing of the Manchester Ship Canal, achieved by the remarkable Barton Swing Aqueduct – a waterborne route designed to swing open for the passage of ships beneath.  I don’t know if the aqueduct is still able to swing nor if it is ever necessary – large shipping into Manchester ceased many years ago. I last passed this way in 1980 when the bridge was still manned:

… crossing the Manchester Ship Canal by water.

… the Barton Swing Aqueduct – a view of the Manchester Ship Canal and Barton Road Bridge

The canal is at Worsley’s centre, overlooked by the magnificent Packet Housethis grade 2 listed building, and the Boat Steps directly in front of it, date back to 1760 and the half-timbering was added in c.1850 by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere. You would have purchased your ticket for the ‘packet boat’ at the Packet House and boarded at the Boat Steps.

To the right of the Packet House is the entrance to the Delph, a forty six mile underground canal system  which intersected with coal mines to the north.  It was built on four different levels and connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts.  There is a neat symmetry to this engineering marvel.  The underground waterways provided a connection from the mines to the surface, transporting coal on narrow thin-ribbed boats nicknamed starvationers.  The canals provided an effective drainage system for the waterlogged pits and the water from the pits helped feed the canal.  The bright orange of the system around Worsley provides ongoing evidence that the supply system remains in place. The Delph and its tunnels are my idea of hell – the creepy 2926 yard Harecastle Tunnel is as subterranean as I am prepared to get.  The final image shows an inspector legging a starvationer in the 1960s (I assume the water levels have risen since the tunnels were last used commercially, that or working conditions were even worse than I imagined).

The Packet House

The Boat House

Filling the water tank

… heading back to the Bridgewater mainline.

This photograph was taken during an inspection of the Underground Canal in Worsley in the 1960s – sourced from:

Return to Wallerscote …

… and elsewhere.  The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions – Michael Lewis – The Big Short (2010).  A quote out of context and some wishful thinking – it would good to imagine big bangs but I suspect none were involved. I assume Wallerscote Island soda ash plant was dismantled in a methodical, tidy whimper. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that these images were taken in June 2016, October 2016 and April 2017 respectively, the speed of destruction is remarkable.  Faced with such a monstrosity, the first question that springs to mind is “where the hell do we start?”:

The transformation is so complete that, from some angles, this stretch of the Weaver is beginning to resemble the Canal du Midi 😉

And yet, carry on south along the Trent & Mersey Canal and another TATA site is a reminder that not all heavy industry has disappeared from the Northwich landscape:

The Water Gipsies

The Water Gipsies was my mum’s favourite film, or was it the musical – it was possibly both. Based on a 1930 novel by A. P. Herbert it was turned into a film in 1932 and a stage musical in 1955.  I have vague memories of seeing the film repeated on the BBC in the 1950s – brightly lit and over-exposed in summery monochrome, it bore little resemblance to real life on the English waterways.

I was also very familiar with the musical soundtrack as this was one of the LPs that my parents bought when my sister was given her first record player.  Other dubious parental acquisitions included Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Noel Coward at Las Vegas – no wonder the Christmas that With the Beatles arrived was like emerging from a long dark tunnel into the light.

I still remember some of the Water Gipsies tracks, ingrained like scars: Castles and Hearts and Roses, When I’m Washing Up and Clip-Clop:

Clip-clop, clip-clop goes the old grey mare
She ain’t non-stop but she gets us there
I walk with Beauty on the path
In case she slips and takes a bath.

Subterranean Homesick Blues it is not.

(NB ‘Gipsies’ is the spelling for both the book and the film – I think it should be ‘Gypsies’)

In the late sixties, desperate to escape a dictatorial regime at home, I toyed with the idea of living on a narrowboat near Ye Olde No. 3 at Dunham Massey.  Lacking the finance and any awareness of the practicalities it was an odd pipe dream which came back to me as we moored for water at the same location last week.  In practice it was 1976 before I ventured onto the waterways, the same summer and the same canal as Timothy West and Prunella Scales started their life long watery journey. In a similar fashion I have been wedded to the cut ever since, so much so that I have a mental map of the English waterways which is at least as good as my grasp of the English motorway system – oddly, I can’t seem to overlay one on top of the other despite their regular proximity.

All of this is just an excuse to reproduce a series of images from our recent lazy trip along the Trent & Mersey and Bridgewater canals, from Anderton to just south of Altrincham – all very familiar territory with not a clip-clop to be heard:

... Oakmere entering Barnton Tunnel - 572 yards with a number of kinks

… Oakmere entering Barnton Tunnel – 572 yards with a number of kinks

... entering Saltersford Tunnel

… entering Saltersford Tunnel

... approaching Preston Brook Tunnel

… approaching Preston Brook Tunnel

... on the Bridgewater Canal

… on the Bridgewater Canal

... filling up at Ye Olde No. 3 - the Bridgewater, near Dunham Massey

… filling up at Ye Olde No. 3 – the Bridgewater, near Dunham Massey


… Moore Swing Bridge, across the Manchester Ship Canal

... into Preston Brook Tunnel

… into Preston Brook Tunnel

... very clean - pristine again at Anderton Marina after the trip along the Bridgewater

… very clean – pristine again at Anderton Marina after the trip along the Bridgewater

... final day on Oakmere, back at Anderton

… final day on Oakmere, back at Anderton

Wallerscote Island

Trafford Park, Billingham, Wilton, Winnington and Blackley were all part of my father’s lexicon. Each of these places were synonymous with large scale chemical plants which dominated the local landscape.  They may not have been pretty to look at but they had a certain grandeur and each represented massive industrial endeavor which generated wealth and employment on a large scale.  All of the plants were owned and operated by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), the company my father worked for all his life.

Sir Denys Henderson, who died on May 21st this year aged 83, was an Aberdonian solicitor who rose to be chairman of ICI and presided over the de-merger which ended the company’s ascendancy as a great industrial conglomerate. I don’t think my dad would have held him in high regard – he was deeply saddened when the origins of his pension changed from  Imperial Chemical Industries to meaningless AstraZeneca.

Sir Denys was possibly a gifted man but he was a lawyer well versed in winning an argument.  In my experience, the problem with lawyers operating outside the legal profession is that the argument is their entire focus, never mind its financial, ethical or technical merits.  With hindsight, it is evident that deconstructing ICI was not a noble endeavor nor a proud epitaph.  The evidence is everywhere.  Our recent canal trip, which started from Anderton, overlooks the original ICI Winnington and Wallerscote Island soda ash plants.

At Wallerscote, limestone from the Peak District arrived by train, brine was pumped up from beneath the Cheshire subsoil and the manufactured soda ash was exported on ships which came up the river Weaver via the the Mersey.  At it’s peak, the site employed 6000 people and now it is being demolished, like so much that has fallen into the hands of TATA The plan is to replace it with 3000 homes.  Given the ongoing demise of the local heavy industry, it begs the question, what will everyone be doing.

Eve of destruction ... Eve of destruction ... Eve of destruction ... Eve of destruction ...Eve of destruction ...

Old friends …

This morning we walked from Wharton’s Lock on the Shropshire Union to base camp at Beeston Castle.  This was somewhere we have been meaning to visit ever since acquiring a share in the narrowboat of the same name in 2006.  In 2010 we changed to narrowboat Winthorpe and finally, in 2014, moved onto narrowboat Oakmere. Within sight of Beeston Castle, Oakmere was moored a few hundred yards from narrowboat Winthorpe – a very tidy set of coincidences.

The ascent of Beeston Castle (remains of) must be saved for another time.  We had both left our money on the boat and didn’t have the required £7.40 demanded by English Heritage to reach the ruin on the hill – I am assuming they have installed high speed escalators with the option of a zip wire descent.

As an alternative form of entertainment, we walked the road that circles the castle hill and discovered a series of well-to-do, beautifully maintained old Cheshire farms – Castlegate, Castleside and The Home.  Classic preserved architecture, there was probably as much to see and  admire than at the castle (remains of).

On a narrowboat my perspective is narrowed by necessity – there is a clear division of labour – the good lady (not dressed in red for fear of cattle – see earlier post) works the locks while I (the high seas Captain) steer the boat – a huge responsibility. This means I am bound to the tiller with my camera – juggling tiller, bow thruster, gears (a push and pull rod just like a 2CV), accelerator wheel and camera shutter is a gift not given to many.  The downside is that there is a certain sameness to the images – A View from the Bridge:

Cruising through ... Cruising through ...Oakmere ...Iron Lock ...Oakmere ...

... below Wharton's Lock

Adios amigos – I must get back to the bridge where there is a complete lack of Internet connectivity.

Hibernation and life …

We have spent the last ten days hibernating aboard a narrowboat. There is much to be said for confining your life to the 59 x 7 foot space available on Oakmere which, in reality, is about half that length, once you take away the fore and aft decks and the engine room.

I have been taking canal holidays off and on since 1976 so no longer feel the urge to clock hours on the cut just for the sake of it. In the wind, rain and cold there is also the possibility of a mutinous crew.  So there are the excuses – we did not move from Overwater Marina for the entire ten days.  Instead we went to the Cheshire ‘wiches’ by car – Nantwich, Northwich, Middlewich and for good measure Chester and Sandbach.  Something I had not appreciated before, there is also a Leftwich but no Rightwich 😉

Some might consider this an overly active hibernation but locked in tight of an evening with the wind and rain lashing outside and the stove at full blast, we felt like Badger and Mole in The Wild Wood.  It is also an occasion to bury heads in books and ignore the outside world.

But all we can hear
is the rain, sounding
like dwarfs rushing through thickets.
Norman MacCaig – New Flood – July 1985

... on a frosty morning at Overwater - no plans to leave the marina this week - the crew would mutiny.Sheep among the turnips ...

FMC Viceroy ...

The problem is that this sad life intrudes regardless; we were stunned to hear of the sudden death of our good friend Norman Harris.  A distinguished sportswriter, he had a 20-year career with The Sunday Times in London and also wrote for The Observer and The Times. I came to know him in his latter years through Allendale Golf Club where he was variously, Chairman, Secretary, Captain and finally, the longstanding Seniors Captain. He would be the first to admit that his golfing achievements were limited but he thoroughly enjoyed the game, loved the course at Allendale and, remarkably, sank two holes-in-one within the space of a few weeks.

Search for ‘Norman’ on this blog and some of our joint activities will show up.  I was delighted to be associated with his last four publications, producing the website for Scottie, and the book covers for his memoir Beyond Cook’s Gardens and the sports books What are You Doing Out Here and At Last He Comes.  Inspired by this association I would also enter the literary fray, an endeavour which he enthusiastically and practically supported – I am proud that the words of “Norman Harris, The Times” grace the inside cover of Golf in the Wild.

Deeply entrenched with this love of words he had a keen eye for the striking image and the two came together in his passion for film – he was, for many years, an active member of the Allendale Film Club.

His departure is deeply saddening but the timing of his exit had an almost sportsman-like perfection.  By chance he was visiting Barnes in London, the place where he lived for much of his professional career.  He had just met a long-time friend and fellow sportswriter for lunch and then gone for a swim.  A cinema outing to see The Lady in the Van was followed by a first-time visit to a Persian restaurant, all in the company of his great friend JMP (Beyond Cook’s Gardens is dedicated to this good lady).  As last days go, there is much to envy.

For many years, phone calls from Norman on a variety of topics had become a regular part of life’s routine, as had cinema and restaurant outings.  He was booked in at our home for Christmas and we were looking forward to his annual quiz. The festive period will not be the same without him, nor life in general.  Rest in peace Sir Norman, you will be missed.

(There are a number of full obituaries available online including this enlightening version at  You can also listen to him talking on Radio New Zealand National).


Christmas does not arrive in November or at least it shouldn’t. If I ruled the world, any reference to the festive season would be barred until 1st December but I don’t, and it won’t. Governments are wedded to the strategy of debt –laden consumerism so nothing is going to change any time soon.

Fortunately my offspring are long beyond getting excited by Santa so I can only imagine the state of excitement induced in modern-day under-tens – come Christmas Eve they must be fit to explode. I just hope Santa gets it right, which reminds me of a sign in an Audlem shop window:

This year Santa, please give me a big fat bank account and a slim body. Please don’t mix those two up like you did last year. Thanks.

We are currently holed-up on the good ship Oakmere with a very slow and unreliable Internet connection, hence the lack of activity on WordPress. Yesterday we escaped to Chester and found this festive display in preparation in the Cathedral. I can only assume that Ebenezer has just seen The Ghost of Christmas Too Soon:

The ghost ... Father Chrstmas ... The Ghost ...

Crick to Overwater

This was a different sort of canal trip for us, not an out and back journey, nor a circular cruise, this was from A to B, from Crick in Northamptonshire to the boat’s base at Overwater in Cheshire. Narrowboat Oakmere had been on display at the Crick Boat Show and we had the task of bringing her home. Instead of the usual idle meandering, there was almost a sense of purpose. We would be delighted to do it again.

The waterways are a grumpy old gits paradise, there is always something or someone to moan about and if all else fails you can moan about the weather. This was ‘mixed’ for the first few days – gales, sunshine and occasional hailstorms but at the beginning of the second week everything turned for the good. This image of a near perfect June evening was taken from the Shugborough estate at Great Haywood looking towards the river Trent and the canal. Oakmere is moored with others, in the distance, beneath the trees.

... the view across the Shugborough estate at Great Haywood towards the Trent and the canal.  Oakmere is moored with others, in the distance, beneath the trees.
The standard meeting place is the lock where brief alliances are formed  and stories exchanged – the beloved is in her element finding time for animals and humans alike.  I am happier just grinning as I sink into the depths of the lock, cursing the crew for talking too much and taking too long to open the gates;-)

One man, his dog, his boat and a pint of beer at Great Haywood Junction, he seems to have found all that he requires from life:

... at Great Haywood junction

These are more postcards from the journey as Oakmere makes its slow journey north to Overwater:

Oakmere ...

Gailey ...

Descending ...

... on the Shropshire Union

Final stretch ...

... at Bridge 77 on the Shropshire Union

And finally, a strange but true golfing tale. While progressing in a southerly direction on the Staffs and Worcester Canal (Saturday 6th June about 11:30) there was a large clatter as a golfball bounced into the Oakmere’s rear cabin. First instincts were to look for some junior culprits hiding behind a hedge but then I noticed the familiar layout of a driving range through the towpath hedge (3 Hammers Golf Complex). Given the height of the protective fence, I would guess this was a severely hooked pitching wedge resulting in a “boat in one” – the rear hatch on Oakmere may be bigger than a golf hole but bear in mind it was moving at the time. Not so much Golf in the Wild as Golf on the Water.

Strange but true ...


The unavailability of an Internet connection on large parts of Britain’s waterways has turned me to drink. It is only from pubs and restaurants that I can get access to a usable wifi connection (O2’s rural 3G coverage is hopeless).  The exception was Braunston where we were moored opposite The Boathouse and we didn’t need to leave the comfort of the boat 🙂

Braunston is a Northamptonshire village which thrived on its position at the junction of the Oxford and Grand Union canals for over 150 years.  It continues to do well from the waterways even if the traffic is now pleasure based rather than commercial. The village sits on a hill above the canals as does its iconic church, the Cathedral of the Canals.

These are some ‘postcards’ from the early part of the journey, a trip which will take us from Crick back to Overwater.  The last of the images was our mooring at Hungerfield last Friday. Some 79 locks will eventually deliver us to Audlem.

(currently moored at Penkridge on the Staffs and Worcester)

... the Oxford and Grand Union junction, Braunston
... the Oxford and Grand Union canals meeting at Braunston
Oakmere ...Oakmere ...
Hungerfield ...