Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Cheshire Ring is the copyright of Jim Shead - A trip around our first "Cruising Ring" thirty years after its reopening. First published in Waterways World March 2004.
The Cheshire Ring
The Cheshire Ring is composed of the Macclesfield Canal and parts of the Peak Forest, Ashton, Rochdale, Bridgewater and Trent & Mersey canals and can claim to be the oldest cruising ring on the waterways. The idea of circular cruising routes is probably as old as pleasure cruising on the canals but it was not until 1965 that the term "ring" was applied to what had previously been called the Peak Forest circular route. The term was not coined by a boat hire company with a flair for marketing but by the Inland Waterways Association fighting the threat of complete closure of the Rochdale Canal. The IWA Bulletin dated July1965 called for "a vigorous Campaign to be inaugurated immediately, for the development and complete restoration of this circuit of waterways best described by the phrase 'Cheshire Canal Ring' ". In the next issue of the Bulletin in November this was shortened to "Cheshire Ring". Now our waterways have more rings than a high street jeweller but it all started with the Cheshire Ring.
On this trip, having come up from the Midlands on the Trent & Mersey Canal we joined the Cheshire Ring at Hardings Wood Junction. At this point we had the choice of either turning left on to the Hall Green Branch of the Trent & Mersey leading to the Macclesfield Canal or to do the ring in the opposite direction, which we did, and continue straight down the Trent & Mersey. Close to the junction we came to the first of the Cheshire Locks that took us less than 7 miles to Wheelock through 26 locks. This is also known as "heartbreak hill" but the locks are better than their reputation suggests as there are plenty of places to stop, pubs at Rode Heath and Hassall Green, pleasant countryside and most of the locks are paired so that there is a better chance of finding a lock in your favour. The duplication of these locks was carried out as part of canal improvements in the 1890s.
Just after the second lock we passed under the Poole Aqueduct that takes the Hall Green Branch over the main line. Beyond the next lock is the BW office with facilities that have been greatly improved in recent years. After Hassall Green the final eight Cheshire locks form the Wheelock flight. Below the bottom lock there are moorings that are close to Wheelock village which has an Italian restaurant by the canal and pubs, including the old Cheshire Cheese. In the six miles between here and Middlewich there are only four locks and the character of the navigation changes as it enters a flatter landscape and meet more industry.
Middlewich is a town on a canal junction where the busy Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union forms part of the Four Counties Ring as well as giving access to the ever-popular Llangollen Canal. There are two hire boat companies here and all the services you would expect in a small town. Three narrow locks descend from the junction then, after passing under the main road bridge, there are convenient moorings for the town before arriving at Middlewich Big Lock. As the name implies this is a wide beam lock and also the last lock, except for Dutton Stop Lock, for over forty miles. The canal was intended to take barges from Preston Brook to Middlewich but at the end of the nineteenth century Croxton Aqueduct just north of the big lock was rebuilt with a width of only 8 feet 2 inches so that barges could no longer reach the lock. There are four miles of rural cruising before Northwich including passing through two flashes where the wide waters are favoured mooring places.
We passed Northwich by its back door where the many pipes of huge chemical works cross the canal and columns of steam rise from various points in the complex labyrinth of vessels and pipe-work. To see the much more attractive front door of Northwich you need to cruise the River Weaver. We were soon through the works, passing Wincham Wharf and out into the countryside again heading for Anderton Lift. If you haven't seen the lift working you will want to stop here. There are now moorings both before and after the lift for the increasing number of boats visiting. The last six miles of the Trent & Mersey Canal are very scenic with some brief views of the River Weaver as the canal makes its way along the side of the valley. There are two short tunnels: Barnton (572 yards) and Saltersford (424 yards). They both have entrances on a bend and twist about more than any other tunnels I can recall. The canal ends with the odd shaped Dutton Stop Lock followed by Preston Brook Tunnel. This 1,239 yard tunnel is operated in one direction at a time with northbound boats entering on the hour and for ten minutes after, with a similar arrangement for southbound boats on the half-hour.
Once though the tunnel we were on the ¾ mile Preston Brook Branch of the Bridgewater Canal and passed the Claymoore Navigation hire base and Midland Chandlers before reaching the Bridgewater mainline. On the left is the way to Runcorn while we turned right to Manchester. This is a wide canal with a character all of its own. The first 15 miles are a mixture of rural and suburban landscape with plenty of interest along the banks including the cranes used to handle the heavy stop planks at the wide bridge holes. There are moorings on both sides of the canal before Lymm Bridge with the attractive little town just below. Three miles on is the River Bollin Aqueduct and between here and Dunham School Bridge are some of the last rural moorings before reaching the outskirts of Manchester. There are nine miles of mostly urban cruising to the end of the Bridgewater Canal. On the way we passed the Stretford and Leigh Branch which leads to Barton Swing Aqueduct and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The Bridgewater Canal ends at Castlefield Junction where there are overnight moorings available.
The next part of the ring is a short section of the Rochdale Canal consisting of nine locks up through the city centre. On our trip we had to book our passage through and were accompanied by BW men because of problems with one of the lock gates. At the top of the locks things had changed since our last visit, not only did we no longer have to pay £30 for use of the Rochdale Nine but we also found ourselves at a new canal junction. Now that the remainder of the Rochdale Canal has been reopened a junction has appeared where there was no trace of a canal before. Unfortunately, the newly reopened section, which we had planned to cruise, was closed again because of major failures to some locks, so we turned right on to the Ashton Canal to continue the Cheshire Ring. Shortly after the junction is Piccadilly Village, a new housing development, where there are overnight moorings.
There are 18 locks from Piccadilly Village to Fairfield Top Lock, which took us just over five hours, including some time spent down the weed hatch clearing rubbish from the prop. Purple orchids seem common in June on Manchester's canals and we passed several derelict buildings with them growing outside. This part of the route has improved in recent years with new developments for the Commonwealth Games but misbehaving children can still be a problem. From Fairfield Top Lock there are 9½ lock free miles, the first 2½ miles still being on the Ashton Canal to Dukinfield Junction. Here we turned right onto the Peak Forest Canal while the Ashton goes straight on for almost half a mile before joining the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.
The Peak Forest Canal has an increasingly rural feel as it heads south towards Marple. Although much of the journey is through built-up areas of Greater Manchester the canal, taking a route along the side of the Tame valley, remains a thin green band through the industry and housing. About four miles on the canal leaves the Tame valley and passing through two short tunnels (Woodley 167 yards and Hyde Bank 308 yards) crosses into the Goyt valley to pass almost 100 feet above the River Goyt on the Marple Aqueduct. The aqueduct was completed in 1800 and the Marple flight of sixteen locks in October 1804, a tram-road having been used to connect the lower and upper sections of the Peak Forest Canal before the locks opened. By the early 1960s the locks were in a poor state and in 1962 part of the side of the aqueduct collapsed. Although Marple Aqueduct was fully repaired by 1964 it would be another ten years before the locks were restored. This was another part of the IWA's campaign to save the Cheshire Ring.
At the top of the flight is Marple junction where the Macclesfield Canal joins the Peak Forest. If you have time it is well worth making the trip down the remaining 6½ miles of the Peak Forest to Whaley Bridge and to walk down to the canal terminus at Buxworth. Turning right onto the Macclesfield Canal we came to the BW yard and facilities with moorings opposite. From here it is only a short walk into the small town of Marple. From here there are sixteen miles of level cruising taking us through some of the best scenery on the ring. Having left Marple most of the first seven miles is open countryside passing a couple of mills, some boatyards and marinas, and a fair sprinkling of pubs. Bollington ends this rural section and is soon followed by Macclesfield. Mooring near Buxton Road Bridge No 37 gives the closest access to the town centre, which is about half a mile away. A little further on we passed the impressive Hovis Mill by the boat basin.
After Macclesfield four more miles of scenic boating we came to the top of the 12 Bosley Locks, surely one of the most attractive lock flights in the country. Three miles after the locks the canal skirts around Congleton getting to within three-quarters of a mile from the town centre at the closest point at the aqueduct at Congleton Wharf. At Rowndes Bridge No 86 there is a footpath that leads to the sixteenth century Little Morton Hall about ¾ of a mile away. For several years this route to the hall has been blocked due to a dispute over rights of way. Now a new section of footpath has opened up the route to the most picturesque half-timbered house in the country, owned by the National Trust and open to the public.
Less than two miles from here is Hall Green Stop Lock which marks the end of the Macclesfield Canal and the start of the Hall Green Branch of the Trent & Mersey Canal. Once through the stop lock we left the narrow bridge holes of the Macclesfield Canal and found a navigation with more generous dimensions. We crossed over Poole Aqueduct that we went under at the start of our journey then turned sharp left to run parallel with the Trent & Mersey main line for about ¼ of a mile before turning sharp left again to bringing us back to our starting point at Hardings Wood Junction. This type of junction - where the canal branches off on the "wrong" side then cross over the canal on an aqueduct - is unusual, the only other example of it that I can think of is Hazelhurst Junction on the Caldon Branch. A similar situation occurs on the Birmingham Canal Navigations between Bromford and Smethwick junctions where the old and new main lines meet but it is not an exactly matching case. We had now completed the Cheshire Ring a journey of 95 miles and 92 locks which took us a little over 50 hours cruising time on six canals with a great variety of scenery and some memories to cherish.
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