Brindley Country

22 May 2018

Sunday 21st May saw us moored up at Great Haywood, with the prospect of some retail therapy first thing – a garden centre and farm shop. Two different lavenders now join the French one atop the boat, and some really great provisions from the farm shop stock our little larder, including rosemary and raisin bread.


I set off for St Stephen’s Church – which was nice and full for Pentecost Sunday. The sermon began with the disclaimer that she wasn’t going to wave all her arms about and go on for 40 minutes. She – and everyone else – had seen the sermon of the Rt Revd Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of ECUSA. 14 minutes long, it had wowed the congregation at the Royal Wedding with its powerful words on love and fire.

Jenny sent through the Australian coverage.

Well, I wish we’d had more of it. As Annabel Crabbe of ABC news says, Archbishop Curry’s sermon was different to the ‘standard Church of England sermon, which tradition dictates should be delivered in the tone of a very shy person asking the way to the train station’. Our preacher at St Stephen’s wasn’t shy, but she didn’t set the place on fire – which somehow I always hope for Pentecost.

Richard Sudworth and I are editing the next Littlemore Group book. This group has been going since 2005, following Rowan Williams injunction that the CofE needs to ‘reignite the imagination of the nation’. The group has published Praying for England, Fear and Friendship, and For God’s Sake. Now it’s time to tackle preaching. Let’s hope we can bring something to the art and practice – alongside the other excellent books that are coming out just now – like Preaching, Radical and Orthodox.

A visit to the shop at Shugborough – though no time for the house or gardens – and there was the Nicholson’s guide book 5 that I’m needing for the North West and the Pennines.

And off we went to Stone, through Hoo Mill Lock (near where Simon’s Scholar Gypsy was part built), Weston, Sandon, Aston locks and into Stone, through Star and Yard locks, to moor outside Peggy and Martin’s wonderful apartment home.


They gave us gin and water (much to be recommended) and a fantastic meal. We talked of their boat Blossom, which they had sold six years before (little thinking we’d see it moored the following day at Stoke).


We talked of Leicester, of Bishop Tim, and of their imminent move to Glasgow to be closer to Julia, their GP doctor. We also talked of my PhD, to begin in the Autumn, on Edmund Burke, who was present in the picture behind Peggy and Martin.


Monday morning dawned hot and sunny, and Peggy dropped by two books for us – one of James Brindley and the crazy story of someone called Darlington who took his narrowboat from Stone to the Carcassonne.


This is Brindley country. His workshop was opposite Peggy and Martin’s home – derelict, though listed – much to their disgust.

By all accounts, Brindley was a brilliant civil engineer. Born in 1716, he worked his apprenticeship and made a name for himself designing and building systems to drain mines, restoring water pumps, earning him the name of the man who made water flow up hill.

So when the Duke of Bridgewater wanted a canal from Worsley to Manchester, Brindley was his man. With John Gilbert, Brindley turned attention to extending westwards across Cheshire to the river Mersey and Liverpool. Bridgewater had already purchased land for docks in Liverpool, so after the requisite act of Parliament, Brindley started work on the Bridgewater Canal.

This we will join at Preston Brook – the distance of 38 miles is posted on the towpath on milestone. But I anticipate.

Brindley was also crucial to the construction of the Trent and Mersey which joins the Mersey to the Thames and eastwards to Hull, giving the Bridgewater Canal access to the Potteries, and eventually London and Bristol.


The Duke of Bridgewater threw his enthusiasm behind the plan, as did Josiah Wedgwood.

Wedgwood had worked up from humble beginnings, suffering polio which meant his right leg was amputated, to transform the pottery industry. The only mode of transport was pack horse and wagon, which was slow and heavy in breakage. To create white pots required flint from south-east England, and china clay from Cornwall, so it was greatly in Wedgwood’s advantage to see canals built that would access his English customers, but also open up markets in America (though Liverpool and Bristol) and Europe.

The Trent and Mersey Canal Company held its first meeting on 30 December 1765. Josiah Wedgwood reported that ‘Brindley was called upon to state his plans, brought them forward with such extraordinary lucidity of detail as to make them clear to the dullest intellect present.’ Given the projects he oversaw, his communication skills must have been impressive.

With a bill through Parliament, the Grand Trunk Canal (as Brindley suggested it was called) was begun.

Brindley predicted that the whole canal would be finished by 1772, but this was not to be, largely because of delays with the tunnel through Harecastle Hill, west of Stoke-on-Trent.

As I write, Harecastle Tunnel lies before us, to be travelled on Monday.

We will be joined by Keith and Faith – two very old friends from the 1980s, when Peter and I met in the East End of London, and were part of a group that centred around the Franciscan community at Halcrow Street, and the ministry of Norry McCurry at St Dunstan’s, Stepney.

Keith was a Franciscan friar at that stage. A sojourn in the Solomon Islands didn’t cure love, though, and he and Faith were married in 1990, both then to train for the priesthood. They now live in Stoke, so we were shown around the town.

A meal together on Monday evening, and we planned to travel together on Tuesday, through the tunnel and onwards to Sandbach.

A bloke on the tow path said to be there for 10 am, where the staff would check the head light works, and also the horn. We would need something warm for the 40 minute transition, and needed to make sure we had a torch to see the roof for obstructions. A number of people had told us of the death a few years back of a man who’d knocked himself out, and into the canal. The tunnel had been closed for days while police divers found his body.

There’s a female ghost, apparently. And a skeleton painted on the right hand wall.

So I checked the horn – which didn’t work. I phoned Alan from Fox Narrowboats, and did everything he suggested. Still no joy. So Faith and Keith provided a horn that works.


Harecastle Tunnel cuts through a variety of difficult rock and quicksand. The first one was 2,880 yards long, 9 feet wide and 12 feet high. It was the first ever tunnel built solely for transport and needed to be dead level and straight. Brindley will have decided that he had to go through rather than around, because around would have required a number of locks and a water supply that wasn’t to be had. There are now three tunnels through Harecastle – one built in 1827 by Thomas Telford, and on by British Rail in 1848. All suffered difficulty in construction.

Brindley’s was begun in July 1766. A line was surveyed over the hill, with fifteen intermediate shafts dug down to the proposed level, and work was started at each end – so 32 faces were worked at once. The stone was so hard it was almost impossible to penetrate – and the presence of water was a great drawback.

Brindley didn’t see it out. He died in 1772; the tunnel completed by his brother-in-law Hugh Henshall, in 1777. The tunnel had no tow path, so the boats were propelled by the boatmen legging it. Their reward for almost one and three quarter miles, was 1s 6d.

Tuesday morning: th (1)

Monday saw us driving through Stoke by boat. A sad experience.

It’s really a federation of six towns, with Hanley the primary commercial centre. The other four towns are Burslem, Tunstall, Longton, and Fenton. It’s well known at the centre of the Potteries.


So much history; so little money to restore. We chugged through wastelands, where terraces had been demolished for new housing that was never built; old derelict warehouses and kilns.

We passed Etruria, where the Caldon Canal branches off, and the Etruria Industrial Museum is situated.


Middleport: the world’s oldest working Victorian pottery, where Keith and Faith tell us HRH Prince Charles has given support.

Through deep, deep locks that carved through the centre of the city.

IMG_3449 (1)I’m 12 foot down below, with massive gates closed behind me, and water about to pour and gush in front, lifting me – the lark ascending – to ground level again.

The city’s ceramics collection is housed in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley – and most of the major pottery companies have visitor centres, including The £10 million Wedgwood Museum visitor centre opened in the firm’s factory in Barlaston in October 2008.


There are also smaller factory shops, such as Royal Stafford in Burslem, Moorcroft in Cobridge and Emma Bridgewater in Hanley. My mugs came from here.


Keith says folk from here don’t have much and don’t expect much. There’s a sense of betrayal – of hopes raised of regeneration that never happened.

Working in the potteries would have been grim. Lead poisoning a reality, causing early death and disability.

Since the late 1980s and 1990s Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the general decline in the British manufacturing sector. Numerous factories, steelworks, collieries, and potteries were closed, and the sharp rise in unemployment was further compounded in 2008.

It’s a city crying out for a new start – like so many places in the North of England. It’s thought to be one of the most cost-effective place to set up a new UK business, with affordable business property, surrounded by the Peak District National Park, Stone, south Cheshire, and having excellent road links via the A500 and nearby M6 and rail links.

Will it happen?



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