Lawton Treble locks - an example of the doubled lock chambers on Heartbreak Hill
Although our guests had a taste of lock work yesterday it was only today that they perhaps realised just why we had invited them along! From Wheelock a series of 26 locks in just over six miles lifts the Trent & Mersey Canal from the Cheshire Plain to the summit level at Kidsgrove at the edge of the Potteries conurbation.
Known to boaters as the "Cheshire Locks" the flight also bears the alternative name of "Heartbreak Hill" given by generations of working boatmen. Built in the 1770s, commercial traffic was so heavy that in the 1830s most of the locks were duplicated to reduce delays. With the post-war decline in commercial traffic many of these duplicate locks were allowed to fall out of use or were even removed so that today only 17 duplicates remain open. The remaining locks have also gathered a reputation for being difficult to operate and with boat traffic now reaching levels not seen since the hey-day of cargo carrying a campaign has been set up to call for improvements and re-opening of the duplicate locks.
Starcross left Wheelock wharf at precisely 10.17 (I'm not usually so precise about recording timings, but this time I was) and stopped for lunch above Pierpoint locks at 13.05 - lunch being taken on the towpath due to the fine weather.
A well-deserved lunch stop for the crew above Pierpoint Locks
We re-started at 14.35 (due to the hot weather) and Robina, 8, took a turn at the tiller. Like many children and other non-drivers she took to it instinctively - not having to unlearn any car driving skills.
On the Red Bull flight we met a solo boater in a small cruiser who seemed to be having difficulty negotiating the locks - we had to remind him to close the top gate! Asked if he was in trouble he said no - but admitted he was new to it. He asked how far it was to Wheelock - his intended destination for the night and was horrified to learn that he would have to pass through another 20 locks -which came as a complete surprise!
The locks were busier now and after several delays following other boats plus a visit to the services at Red Bull we arrived at the top lock imprecisely some time after 18.00, but not before squeezing under this ultra-low headroom bridge at Kidsgrove.
Bridge 134 at KidsgroveAt Red Bull the main line of the Trent & Mersey passes under the Hall Green branch and rises through two locks to Hardings Wood Junction where the branch leaves the main line and doubles back on itself before crossing the aqueduct in what is an early form of a "grade separated junction" of the sort found on modern-day motorways. We followed the branch and after dropping off Annette and Robina to collect their car from the station (and yes, it was still there) we tied up just over Red Bull aqueduct at 18.50.
Poole Hall Aqueduct and the Hall Green branch as seen from the main line
Starcross on the branch just over the aqueduct