22/23 May 2018

Stoke on Trent to Sandbach to Northwich.

But Northwich is arrival. Before that, many locks – many, many locks – down what’s called heartbreak hill onto the Cheshire plain, and before that, the incredible Harecastle Tunnel.

We were given our safety talk. Warned that some of the sections go as low as 5’ 9” so to mind our heads. A torch at hand is useful. That it gets cold and wet, so to have waterproofs. To travel forwards always and not to reverse, with a safe distance to the boat in front. We were told that if we didn’t come out of the tunnel in an hour and a quarter, they would monitor our progress and decide whether or not to call the emergency services.

We had to show our head light was working, and sound our horn. Just moments before I fiddled again with it, it blared out. There must be a loose connection somewhere. I didn’t think they would be impressed by Keith and Faith’s alternative. Remember?


We were told if in trouble, to blast for one long blast every 30 seconds and repeat until there are three short blasts back. I think it would have done the trick, if needed.

It’s over a mile long, takes 45 minutes of chugging in the dark and all the way you can see the light at the other end. Looking back, only intense, black darkness. Imagine – well, I did – legging it through as men used to do, to the sound of silence made louder by the dripping water, the periodic gushing water feeds. Did they shout to each other? Keep up a banter all the way through? Or was it just long, silent slog?

Incredible – to build so straight over such a distance. Brindley dropped fifteen shafts, which then were worked in both directions from each, and also from each end. How it all met up is beyond me. And the light was a pinprick – forty minutes in front.

Faith, Keith and Jenny spent most of the time in the forecabin, watching the ongoing darkness, drips and brickwork, leaving me in peace to helm. It took concentration to ensure the boat stayed in the middle – once or twice we hit the sides, and lost a little wood from on top. The trick is to keep the arc of light from the spotlight as equal around the boat as possible, and to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Never has a metaphor had so much literal meaning.


It was absolutely wonderful to have Keith and Faith with us. Here they are, arriving at Westport Lake, Stoke.

After the tunnel, we descended over 20 locks to the Cheshire plain. We talked and walked;


struggled with ratchets and heavy gates; enjoyed omelettes and flapjack made by Faith


and talked of many things. And slept on the towpath.

Friendship is very special. We haven’t really seen each other for thirty years, drifting apart through the busyness of life. But it’s as if nothing has changed. Except we’re all a bit older, with tummies to show.


They left us at Sandbach, walking to the station to catch a train to Crewe, and then back to Stoke. Can’t resist including this.


Jenny happy that she didn’t have to do all the locks by herself!


We moored up for the night, and next morning I set off for some milk.

This silver-haired man stood behind me, looking quizzical. He asked my name, and repeated it. ‘Frankie. Frankie.’ Like he liked it a lot.

‘That accent’s not from here’. ‘Guess,’ I said. ‘Further south,’ he hazarded, and so I explained how I was travelling with an Australian, and some of it has rubbed off.

I asked him if he’d always lived here, at Elworth, where I’d called in on spec to have my hair cut. His mother came from Cork, and married his father, who was a butcher from Wilmslow. His father recently died, a real character. He had loved his mother – there she was, a photo in the corner.

He told me he liked the colour of my hair. ‘It’s the same as yours’, I replied. ‘But yours feels better.’

He looked quizzical again, flirty, saying nothing, but obviously wanting me to tell him what I wanted. ‘As I walked along, I thought I’d like a number 12. Short.’ I said. He started cutting. ‘So?’ was in the air. I didn’t give much away, enjoying this man and the games he played. ‘You’ve got a lot of stories in you,’ he said.

‘Travelling.’ He had picked that up and presented it, a statement rather than a question. ‘I’m taking a narrowboat from March to Skipton. I’m on the canal.’

‘Oh, no. No. No. I wouldn’t like that.’

I asked, and he told me he’d owned the business for 20 years. He was settled. ‘I don’t have the same drive I did. You leave it behind when you’re our age. Other things become important,’ he said. I was impressed. Some hairdressers have it. The ability to probe with real insight into their customer’s lives. I intrigued him. I could see that. His ear for the pitch of others was acute.

‘So why?’

I explained we were relocating from Suffolk to Workington, in Cumbria. That the boat would be kept in Skipton. I knew he wanted to know why. He said it again. ‘You’ve got stories in you’.

I said, ‘you’re good to listening.’ He described how sometimes he just wanted someone to shut up. They would go on and on.

Silence for a while. Our eyes caught – both of us flirtatious. I gave in. ‘I’m a vicar. I’ve been running a busy Cathedral. My husband’s training to be a vicar. I’ve just finished a book. I want to write more,’ I said. He enjoyed his own sense of surprise.

‘So you believe there’s something when we’ve gone?’

‘Of course. I think love is the most important thing, and when we die, we are taken into God’s love. I’ve always loved the idea of God’s everlasting arms. Don’t know what it means beyond that; don’t think we can know.’ He told me of a funeral he’d gone to in Ireland of a friend of his aged 50, with two small children. The priest had begun the service by saying ‘God is good’. He said he couldn’t believe it. ‘But that’s Irish priests for you’.

He changed the subject by talking to his colleague about a customer, and then whether hair trimmers were made size 12. She said, yes, and went to look.

‘Were you christened, Frankie?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘No. Were you christened Frankie?’ ‘Frances’, I said. ‘I became Frankie when Frankie Goes To Hollywood was in the charts.’

‘Thought you were that, my sort of age.’

‘1959,’ I answered his question. He told me he was 62.

‘60 is the new 40s’, I said – it’s a great decade. I plan to enjoy every minute.’ He looked like he was going to. ‘It’s taken five years off you,’ he said. I grinned. ‘I don’t like to look mumsy,’ I said. ‘You look like a writer now’, he said.

‘Do you have any bad habits?’ ‘None I’m telling you,’ I said. I was enjoying the me who was enjoying the flirting. I looked at myself in the mirror. Impish, cheeky, my eyes on fire.

I got up to pay. £20, cash. He was onto the next customer. As engrossed with her as he had been with me. A priest in his own way.

Back on the boat, with eight locks ahead to bring us down onto the Cheshire plain, we left Sandbach in the glorious sunshine we now expect.

A lovely day, along a stretch of canal between Middlewich and Northwich that the Nicholson says is as beautiful as any in the country. ‘Often overhung by trees, the navigation winds along the side of a hill as it follows the delightful valley of the River Dane. It’s well written, this guide: ‘the canal circles around to the east, passing under a railway bridge before heading for the industrial outskirts of Northwich and shedding its beauty and solitude once again’.

Any town that has ‘wich’ in it – Droitwich, Middlewich, Northwich, Nantwich – will be a place where salt has been made – probably since Saxon times (as ‘wich’ is a Saxon word). We passed great chemical factories like Tata chemicals Europe,



And mountains of salt.


Yes, that’s salt.

The canal has subsided again and again through this section, because of the salt mining.

We pulled up outside the Lion Salt Works at Marston; too late to see around the works, but not too late to buy a guide, and have a pint in the Salt Barge pub, where all over the walls are pictures of massive salt mines.

I had no idea, when living only a little way north of here that this was such a salt producing area. See this.

According to the guide book, the geology of Cheshire is a large shallow basin formed between the sandstone ridge of the Delamere Forest to the west and the Cheshire hills to the east. In the Triassic Period, 220 million years ago, this was a large tropical lagoon that trapped sea water. Evaporated, it became halite, better known as rock salt.

There are two bands of salt under this ground, each about 25m deep, separated by 10m of brown marlstone. When ground water flows over the salt layers it dissolves the salt and creates underground streams of salty water or brine. The underwater brine streams were known as ‘Roaring Meg’, when the pressure forced the streams through cracks to emerge as streams.

From before the Romans there is evidence of salt production, using the brine. fragments of clay pots survive, in which the brine would be heated so the water evaporates, leaving the hard salt deposit. Outside the Lion Salt Works is a large pan that did the same: with fires underneath, the workers would rake up the salt, skim it, and lump it in tubs, turning it out in rows.

This method requires fuel – and, according to Mark Kurlansky, in his 2002 book Salt,


back in 1670, John Jackson prospected for coal on the estate of William Marbury near Northwich. At a depth of only 105 feet, he found a bed of solid rock salt and no coal at all. Marbury was disappointed. He wanted coal. He went bankrupt in 1690. Only a few years later, Sir Thomas Warburton opened four salt mines in Cheshire.

I studied Anthony and Cleopatra for A level.

Pompey’s description of the Egyptian queen has always stuck with me. ‘With all the charms of love, Salt Cleopatra, soften thy wanned lip!’

Salt has always been associated with fertility, so brides would have salt in their pockets, or have their feet sprinkled with salt. We get the connection when we call someone salacious.

I’ve not noticed folk from Cheshire being extra salacious ever before. But perhaps I’m wrong.

I’ve never had such a salty haircut.

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