Cruising North In The Fridge

I found my temporary hire boat home moored beside a disused service point next to the Hureleston flight of four locks at the junction with the Llangollen and Shropshire Union canals.

Although the January day was cold, it was warmer than the boat’s freezing cabin. I flicked the cabin’s Eberspacher switch and unpacked my bags while I waited for the diesel burner to flood my floating home with comforting heat. 

I flew through the handover checklist with Cheshire Cat Narrowboats owner, Linda. ‘Absolutely no walking on either the roof or the gunnels.’ I didn’t respond. Linda gave me a knowing look. As an RYA instructor, Linda knew how to handle boats. She also knew that, as a solo boater, I had to walk on the roof or the gunnels or both. I made a mental note to clean my muddy footprints off the cabin roof before returning the boat.

Linda made some last-minute additions to my boating equipment. She loaned me an anchor and life jacket for the River Weaver and an extension lead long enough to stretch from the boat’s only 240v socket in a stern cupboard to the saloon table near the boat’s bow. I hoped to write as much as I cruised and not break my neck on the trailing cable.

Linda left, I made a coffee, wondered why I could see thick steam clouds rising from the china mug and tried to determine the quickest way of silencing the incessantly barking dog in a nearby lock cottage.

I Waited for five hours for the Eberspacher to warm my cabin and the manic mutt to stop his barking. When neither happened, I decided to make the most of the day’s remaining light to move closer to my first holiday goal, Tattenhall Marina.

My love affair with Orient began at Tattenhall Marina in November 2018. I’ve run her stunning vintage Lister engine for 1,452 hours, cruised 2,221 miles and negotiated 1,477 locks since then. So now I planned to return to the marina in a hire boat, meet some good friends, drink far too much wine and remember where this chapter in my boating book began.

I dropped down Hurleston’s four lock flight, tied up in Barbridge at dusk and climbed into my cabin to check the Eberspacher’s performance. That’s when I decided to leave my two winter cruising fleeces on. And my hat.

I could see that the heating situation wouldn’t get any better. According to my iPhone weather app, the outside temperature was 9°C, not particularly cold for a winter’s day. But unfortunately, there was a cold snap forecast which wouldn’t help matters, nor would turning the heater off when I went to bed.

Although I wouldn’t say I liked the thought of waking on a January morning in an unheated steel tube, I had no choice. I suspected that my little domestic battery bank would struggle to run the diesel heater overnight, not that I could stand the noise of it droning away under the back deck ten feet from where I slept. So I turned the Eberspacher off and wrapped myself like a mummy in the bed’s 13.5 tog duvet.

I woke at 7 am, bracing myself to leave my duvet nest to reach the Eberspacher’s switch. The heater rewarded my bravery with a low moan, a few clicks and clanks and then… nothing. I repeated the effort with the same result. Even after running my engine until the 8 pm curfew, the 3 x 110 ah domestic batteries didn’t have enough charge in them to start the heater. I crawled back into bed and watched the minutes tick by until 8 am and an acceptable time to start my engine.

The Eberspacher fired up when I started my engine, but I was still freezing two hours later. I didn’t know how cold, but I knew that seeing steam drift slowly from my coffee cup to the cabin roof was a bad sign. So that’s when my boat name, formerly ‘The Angel of the North’ changed to ‘The Fridge.’

I warmed myself up nicely with a few locks, none of which proved quite as demanding as I feared. I started with the Bunbury flight of two staircase locks. There was nothing to them, really, as long as I filled and emptied the two chambers in the correct order. Tilstone lock next and then mounting tension as I neared Beeston’s two locks, one stone, the other iron.

Three years ago, my passage through the iron lock on Orient’s maiden voyage nearly ended in tragedy. Beeston Iron Lock was the first I had ever negotiated without an escape ladder. I foolishly tried to jump out of the lock, not understanding that the sheet-iron sides offered no handholds. I slid down the wall like a cartoon cat down a chalkboard and decided to jump blindly towards the boat roof rather than fall into the lock water wearing my heavy winter gear. I fell onto the boat roof, happy to bruise my back rather than drown.

Armed with that memory, this time I used The Fridge’s centre line to pull the boat out of the empty lock and a boat hook to retrieve the rope from beneath the lock entrance’s footbridge. The remaining three locks were hard work but similarly uneventful.

Much as I’m frustrated with my hire boat’s inadequate heating, I’m delighted with its ‘go anywhere’ status. ‘You can go anywhere in the network in a boat shorter than fifty-seven feet.’ That’s what people tell aspiring boaters. It’s rubbish. The boat’s draught is arguably more limiting than its length on the network’s increasingly shallow canals.

The Shropshire Union Canal in general and Beeston Iron Lock, in particular, are good examples of those limitations. Cruising the Shroppie in Orient is hard work. Negotiating Beeston Iron Lock in my deep draughted boat is dangerous.

The ‘Shroppie Shelf’ makes mooring close to the towpath difficult. The deeper the draught, the greater the problem. Beeston Iron Lock’s downstream landing is a pig in a deep boat. I couldn’t get Orient closer than three feet. Jumping off Orient’s little back deck onto a towpath covered in slippery mud was bad enough, but leaping off the towpath in mud-caked Wellington boots onto Orient’s four-inch ice-slicked gunnels was far more challenging.

I haven’t had any problems with my little hire boat. I can cruise confidently along shallow canals, sure that I can veer off the main channel when another boat approaches and moor whenever I like without worrying about grounding. Carefree cruising makes a welcome change, and I love it.

I stopped for three nights in Tattenhall Marina for a series of dinner invitations with previous customers, now good friends, Steve and Sue Ghost. They offered good food, wine and conversation and a warm cabin. My hire boat heating worried me, as did the number of hours I needed to run the engine each day to charge the little battery bank and keep the Eberspacher running.

I hoped to eliminate noisy and expensive excessive engine running on my marina mooring by plugging into the marina’s shore supply. Alas, that was not to be. The Fridge doesn’t have a shoreline connection, so I had to annoy the poor guy next to me on the marina’s temporary mooring block for hours each day with engine and diesel heater noise.

I became so obsessed with my cold cabin that I purchased a digital thermometer. It’s a basic model which shows the current temperature and humidity and the daily highs and lows.

The display read 1.5°C when I jumped out of bed the following morning to turn the heating on. I crawled back into bed and waited an hour for the cabin to warm up. The thermometer had risen to 5.5°C the second time I checked, so I made a breakfast which required two gas rings, the oven and the grill burning. That increased the cabin temperature to a bearable 14°C, providing I wore two fleeces and a hat.

Trying to view my frigid living conditions positively, I realised that after early morning breakfast in a cold cabin, standing on the unprotected deck of a cruiser stern boat didn’t seem so bad.

I had thirty miles to cover to reach my next target, The Anderton Boat Lift. I filled my diesel tank before I left Tattenhall. Because I’m data-obsessed, I wanted to know how much diesel the engine and the Eberspacher burned each day. The forty-one litres I put in didn’t please me. After four days on the boat, that meant that I had used ten litres a day, so I could expect to put another four hundred litres in the tank before I returned The Fridge to Overwater Marina. To put this figure in perspective, it’s about the same amount of fuel Orient needed to transport me 1,143 miles over 12 months last year.

Whartpn's Lock - Any idyllic spot for three days

I cruised for three miles to Wharton’s lock and stayed there for three days. One of the many aspects of winter cruising I love is the tranquillity. I see a few dog walkers and hikers at weekends, but the countryside is all mine most of the time.

Descending Wharton's Lock

I made the most of a cloudless sky on my second day and squelched through shin-deep mud along the Sandstone Trail to Beeston Castle. A firm surface to walk on justified the National Heritage £11 entrance fee.

I stayed for three hours admiring and exploring the 1,000-year-old ruins. Much as I enjoyed them, the roundhouse, recently constructed based mainly on guesswork and post holes unearthed by archaeologists in the castle’s inner keep, fascinated me more.

Enthusiasts invested 10,000 hours in the build and used replicas of the tools available to the Bronze Age builders. The guy I spoke to knew everything about the construction methods. I tried to catch him out when I asked why there was no roof hole to let the fire’s smog escape. He explained that an earlier roundhouse build attempt in East Anglia went spectacularly wrong when the ‘chimney hole’ allowed the fire to draw so well that it burned the building down. Mind you, at least they would have been warm.

Beeston Castle Round House

Discover Life Afloat

Discover all you need to know about living on England's inland waterways during a day on my beautiful narrowboat, Orient. You'll helm my boat on a 12-mile, 6-lock route through beautiful rural Warwickshire. During the day we'll discuss the designs, features, fitting and equipment necessary to live a comfortable and tranquil life afloat.

I waded back through muddy lakes to The Fridge and stood on the back deck for an hour talking to an aspiring boat owner. John was desperate for advice after being tempted by an irresistible offer. That’s never a good sign, nor was his determination to buy a narrowboat for £6,000.

John was walking along a London canal towpath when he heard a guy standing on a boat roof, touting for buyers. The boat, John says, has rotten steelwork, decayed wood, a decommissioned stove and probably a broken engine. Still, John thinks that the scrap pile is a bargain, so he wants to buy and live on it. I tried to persuade him otherwise.

John emailed me at length, still determined to buy the boat. I suggested he have a survey and a boat safety examination before parting with any money, but he didn’t like what I said. Nevertheless, John appeared convinced that he had found a bargain boat and wanted to move forward with the purchase. I pointed out that if this boat was in as good condition as the owner claimed, he could sell it instantly online at that price. There were so many warning bells ringing that I couldn’t hear myself think.

John didn’t contact me again after that. I hope he didn’t buy the boat, but I suspect that he did. With the market’s currently inflated boat prices, the prospect of purchasing a narrowboat for next to nothing might have been too much of a temptation.

I cruised towards Anderton, stopping at Calveley Bridge Service Station to do boating things. I filled my water tank and emptied both my cassette and bowels, but not in the same hole. Disappointingly, the Elsan sewage hole was cleaner than the toilet I used. Inland waterways cruising isn’t always glamorous.

I dropped a worryingly large bag of empty beer and wine bottles in the Biffa bins then cruised for a few hundred yards to Calveley Mill Cafe. I stopped long enough for a Cappuccino and a toasted cheese and onion sandwich and then continued my journey. Ah, the simple pleasures of life on the cut.

The thermometer dropped, ice formed on the canal and in my underwear, and I floated gently towards Anderton. I tinkled gently through the ice-broken paths forged by early rising boaters. The days were windless, quite possibly warmer than my cabin and perfect. The winter sun warmed my neck and blinded the few boaters I passed on my cruise.

I dropped down a couple of deep locks, turned left at the junction with the Trent & Mersey canal, descended 32′ through Middlewich’s three locks and then moored next to a dog shit bin, close to an industrial estate and a busy road bridge. So it’s just as well I only stopped to shop.

This is not my favourite mooring

I walked half a mile to Middlewich Morrisons store to buy food and, more importantly, replenish my exhausted Henry Weston supply and then tried to find the high street and a decent coffee shop.’ Sorry, love, we don’t have a high street, but you’re standing in the doorway of our only cafe!’ The elderly lady cackled as she staggered towards the bingo hall.

Narrow Middlewich Passage

Narrow Middlewich Passage

I cruised through ice through a pretty landscape marred for a while by steam-spouting chimneys at Rudheath. The canal passes through a bleak landscape here; run-down buildings, dilapidated boatyards and noisy roads and railroads. Yet, despite all this, some narrowboat owners choose to moor on dreary towpaths here. Why, when there are beautiful moorings a stone’s throw away?

The T & M passes through several flashes in this area. They’re expansive and exceptionally shallow lakes, separated by buoys and warning signs from the main channel. Dangerous, but very pretty.

I stopped on Anderton’s visitor moorings, tried and failed to find someone to talk to about my following morning’s lift decent and then enjoyed a couple of happy hours wandering around Anderton’s gorgeous nature park.

A friend, Joy, joined me for the fifty feet descent onto the River Weaver. The Anderton Boat Lift is an awe-inspiring structure. Built in 1875 and little changed over the following 150 years, it’s one of the wonders of the inland waterways. The lift cost £48,428 to build (£5,954,000 today) plus a further £7,000,000 to restore in 2001. Each narrowboat passage requires four CRT operators for up to an hour. The cost to narrowboat license holders to use the lift is a gift at £5 each way. So you get a great deal of value for your modest license fee.

Anderton Lift At Night

Oh, the joy of cruising on a deep waterway! We surged through the glass-smooth water to Hunt’s Lock, raced downstream to Saltersford Lock, dashed back to Norwich and stopped after twelves delightful miles at a Northwich riverside cafe. The river’s wide enough to turn a narrowboat wherever you want, deep enough (never less than ten feet according to one of the CRT guys) to eliminate any worry about grounding and almost deserted at this time of the year.

I thoroughly explored the riverside nature reserves, footpaths, towns, and villages for three days. Finally, I booked a passage through Hunt’s and Vale Royal locks for the fourth day of my Weaver stay and then did something profoundly and unusually sensible. I dipped my hire boat diesel tank.

I lay in bed thinking about my diesel consumption the previous night. Oh, how my life has changed. I remember restless nights with my mind filled with lovely images of naked and willing women. I’m happy enough with the boater’s equivalent of counting sheep these days.

Remembering that I used about ten litres a day during my first four days on this boat and realising that I hadn’t topped up the tank for ten days, I suspected I might not have much left. Tank dipping with my boathook confirmed my suspicion. I had enough fuel left to half fill a young flea’s football boot. I desperately needed diesel.

I phoned Northwich marina, another boatyard beyond Hunt’s lock and the local coal boat. Then I spoke to a guy on a liveaboard boat moored on the Northwich’s Odeon moorings. They all confirmed that no one sells diesel on the River Weaver. I knew I was in trouble.

I phoned CRT to see if I could book an emergency passage up to the Trent & Mersey Canal. I was out of luck. The lift only operates on Mondays and Fridays through the winter months. I phoned at 12.30 pm on Monday. ‘The lift’s already in operation for the day. If you’re lucky, they may agree to fit you in. Mind you; they might not!’ That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

I set a new Weaver record for the fastest narrowboat passage between Northwich and Anderton, skidded to a halt next to the lift moorings and sprinted towards the lift in search of help.

I shed a tear and dropped on bended knees to plead with the CRT guys and gals to take me up the lift to the canal. The guy I spoke to was super helpful, which is more than I could say for the lady on duty.

I assumed that she worked for CRT part-time because her full-time position as the chief lemon sucker for a huge citrus fruit processing plant must be a full-time commitment. Then I realised that she responded to my abrasiveness, modified my behaviour, and hoped she would forgive me. And, more to the point, persuade her workmates to extend their working day to help me out.

I waited, and I worried. Even though my fuel tank wasn’t quite empty, it was dangerously low. The engine fuel line would be slightly above the tank bottom and the diesel heater above that. So I could expect the heating system to fail first, followed shortly by the engine. I couldn’t last another four days until I could book the first available passage on the following Friday. The forecast for the next week was for sub-zero nights, so my frigid cabin would be unbearably cold without the heater. What’s more, I couldn’t generate any power without my engine.

The lady I had insulted returned ten minutes later wearing a frown. Was that because she saw me, or was she the bearer of bad news?

I’ll tell you the rest of the story next week.

Discovery Day Update

Just nine weeks remain until my first Discovery Day of the year. I thought I had an explosive start to 2021, but this year is even busier.

My ‘season’ begins this year in March and extends until the end of April. Then I’m off again until July. There are currently seven dates left in March and two in April. I expect all of those to go before the end of February so, if you want to join me for a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative day cruising through beautiful Warwickshire you can see and book dates here. And if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you can read about my Discovery Day service here.


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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.