Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Canal to Nowhere is the copyright of Jim Shead - Cruising the Caldon Canal. First published in Waterways World March 2006.
Canal to Nowhere
A visiting boater turning off of the Trent & Mersey Canal at Etruria Junction onto the Caldon Canal might wonder where Caldon is and why it is important enough to have a 17½ mile canal named after it. I have to admit that although this is my fourth trip up the canal I have never been to Caldon or - as will later be revealed - within a mile of it.
Stoke-on-Trent to Hazelhurst
A short way from the junction we encounter our first locks, a staircase of two that lifts us above the summit level of the Trent & Mersey Canal. At this point we are still in the middle of Stoke-on-Trent and surrounded by old houses and industrial buildings, which continue past Planet Lock. About a mile from its start the canal passes through Hanley Park where there are visitor moorings. The iron railings that once separated the park from the towpath have now been removed making the waterway feel less of an interloper. In fact the canal had been here for over a hundred years when the park was started in 1892. Still travelling through the city we come to the electrically operated Ivy House Lift Bridge, which is on a road that does not have too much traffic.
Bridge 14 marks our exit from the city and we are soon in fields, albeit with the scruffy look so often found on the edge of large towns. The first village we pass through is Milton, the destination for the last regular commercial traffic on the canal. In the 1980's pottery was transported from Hanley, where it was made, to Milton to be decorated. Three specially designed and built craft were used for this work - the Milton Maid, Milton Queen and Milton Princess.
We pass the Foxley pub, with moorings, which is at the point that was once the junction of the five furlong Foxley Branch. After this we meet with some modern housing then more rural scenery before arriving at Engine Lock, 5½ miles from the start of our journey.
The mile long pound between Engine Lock and Stockton Brook Bottom Lock is bucolic and has two manually lifted bridges, both of which require a windlass. The road through Stockton Brook village is in the middle of the flight of five locks that take us to the canal summit level. Before arriving at Hazelhurst Junction we pass a strange circular obstruction in the canal before bridge 27 - there is not much room on either side of this but you can pass on both sides. At Park Lane Bridge, number 31, there are BW moorings and facilities.
From Stockton Brook Top Lock to Hazelhurst Top Lock is only about two miles although lock free cruising extends to over four miles if you turn onto the Leek Branch at Hazelhurst Junction rather than descend the locks.
Hazelhurst and the Leek Branch
The Leek Branch was opened in 1802 and was built both to extend navigation to the town of Leek and to improve water supplies to the main line of the Trent & Mersey Canal, the Caldon Canal being owned by the Trent & Mersey Canal Company.
When the Caldon Canal opened in 1779 its summit level was shorter ending at Endon where three Park Lane Locks took the canal down to the Cheddleton level. Because the water from the Leek Branch needed to feed into the Caldon summit level the Park Lane Locks were removed and the summit level was continued to Hazelhurst.
A staircase of three locks here took the Caldon line down to the lower level while the Leek Branch turned off to the left with an embankment crossing the line of the old Caldon route.
The staircase locks at Hazelhurst were probably delaying traffic and in about 1841 they were abandoned. In their place three single locks took the Caldon line down to the old main line at a point just before the Leek Branch Embankment and a new aqueduct was built to take the Caldon under the Leek Branch.
All these changes mean that you can find yourself going round in a circle - which is not always a bad thing as we realised on our way back from Froghall. We arrived at the Holly Bush pub by the Hazelhurst Aqueduct too early to stop there for lunch but as we were planning to go up the Leek Branch we went up the three Hazelhurst Locks, turned at the junction onto the Leek Branch and moored immediately after crossing Hazelhurst Aqueduct. It was then just the right time to walk down the steps for lunch at the Holly Bush below.
It is worth taking the trip up to Leek. The branch winds its way up the side of Churnet Valley and passes through the 130 yard Leek Tunnel before reaching its final turning point just beyond West Bridge where there are pleasant moorings. Leek is quite an agreeable little town although from the canal it is a dreary walk through an industrial estate. There is a Morrison supermarket just past this point if you don't feel inclined to walk the full mile into the centre.
Rudyard Reservoir was built to supply the branch with water and soon became a local beauty spot known as Rudyard Lake. It was here that Rudyard Kipling's parents first met and later used the name for their son. It must have been a choice he approved of for he used "Rudyard" in preference to his first name "Joseph".
Hazelhurst to Froghall
After Hazelhurst Locks the Caldon continues along the bottom of the valley and is soon joined from the north by the River Churnet, it then follows the river valley all the way to Froghall.
The next locks are at Cheddleton where a flight of two takes us down sixteen feet. Beside the locks is a plaque commemorating the re-opening of the canal on 28th September 1974, a reminder that much of the canal was un-navigable in the 1960's and that it was one of the many canals that were restored largely thanks to the efforts of waterways enthusiasts. At the top of the locks is Cheddleton Flint Mill where flint was ground for the pottery industry.
Further up the Churnet, at Leek, is Brindley Mill, built by the famous millwright and canal engineer, James Brindley, who was the engineer of the Trent & Mersey Canal and who set up his business in the town in 1742. He was the builder of the Trent & Mersey and many other canals.
However, his last job was to do a survey for the Caldon Canal. While surveying in bad weather between Leek and Froghall his clothes became saturated and he did not change them for some time. It has also been suggested that the damp bed at a local inn contributed to his catching a chill. This was aggravated by his diabetes and shortly afterwards he died.
Just after Cheddleton the canal is joined by the Churnet Valley Railway, which can occasionally be seen on the left-hand side and is much easier to spot when steam trains are running. The line runs five miles from Leek to Froghall and is operated by a volunteer-run organisation that provides passenger services pulled by steam and diesel powered engines.
We pass The Boat Inn on the right then, less than half a mile on, we come to Wood's Lock. As the canal makes its way down the right-hand side of the steep Churnet Valley the hillside above changes from open fields to the darker hues of Consall Wood and we soon arrive at Oak Meadow Ford Lock. Here the navigation enters the River Churnet so there are the usual marker boards below the lock which indicate water levels that are unsafe for river navigation.
Below the lock the numerous bends remind us that we are following the course of a natural river, although the bends decrease as we approach Consall Forge. Here there are water and refuse disposal facilities just before the bridge. The weir is on the right and the navigation channel on the left next to the Black Lion pub.
From hereon the channel narrows as we pass under the Churnet Valley Railway bridge and soon pass so close to Consall station that part of it overhangs the canal.
At the next and last lock, Flint Mill Lock, number 17, we found that a tunnel gauge had been added to the lock exit since our last visit. The gauge is similar to the new one that has been installed at the entrance to Froghall Tunnel and consists of plastic strips with the tunnel profile marked in red. I was later told that this gauge is four inches below the true height of the tunnel. I can't vouch for the truth of this assertion but I was also told by some people who had got through the tunnel that this gauge predicted they would not.
The last mile and a half to the canal terminus at Froghall is mainly through a narrow channel as the canal makes its way along the steep hillside with occasional glimpses of the River Churnet in the valley floor. Industrial buildings on the towpath are a clue that we have arrived in Froghall and the winding hole soon follows. We turned here and reversed into a towpath mooring as our boat is too high to fit through the tunnel. The last few hundred yards of the canal we explored on foot. The 76 yard Froghall Tunnel is very low and narrow and is crossed by a road which leads down to Froghall Station with the excellent Railway Hotel pub next to it. A path goes over the tunnel to the final bridge where we encountered more changes in the shape of a new lock and basin. This is not a new lock on the Caldon Canal but the first lock of the Uttoxeter Canal.
Froghall and the Uttoxeter Canal
The Uttoxeter Canal was promoted by the Trent & Mersey Canal Company and was therefore another branch of that canal, although it was authorised by a separate Act of Parliament passed in 1797. The canal ran 13¼ miles from Froghall to Uttoxeter and had 17 locks. It was opened in 1811 and abandoned in 1847.
A legacy to the Inland Waterways Association for this restoration acted as a catalyst to fund-raising for the project. Work was started in February 2003 and completed in July 2005.
Close to the Junction with the Uttoxeter canal is the wharf at the end of the Caldon Canal. But where is Caldon? The village is over three miles beyond the end of the canal and is now spelt "Cauldon" but it was not the village that attracted the canal builders but rather its quarry, still marked on the map with the old spelling as "Caldon Low".
To bring the limestone down the steep hill from the quarry to the canal head a railway was constructed and was probably being used at about the same time as the canal was opened.
The first railway not entirely successful and in 1802 John Rennie was called in to build a new one, a double tracked line that had five inclined planes with a total rise of 649 feet. This is how thousands of tons of limestone were shipped each year, keeping the canal in operation all through the years of railway competition right up to the early years of the twentieth century when the quarries were worked out and abandoned.
In the last hundred years the canal has declined and been restored, switching from industrial to pleasure use, it is again a waterway that attracts boats. Today the name "Caldon" invokes a tranquil and scenic route and few visiting boaters associate it with the quarry that was its raison d'Ítre.
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