Here is a picture of summer on the Chesterfield Canal:
That’s hail, that is. It made a friendly visit to Felucca along with its buddies thunder, lighting, and torrential rain. Imagine the dulcet tones of marbles fired by a thousand paintball guns onto a large kettle drum, and you’ve got a pretty good idea what this was all about.
And this just twenty minutes after we spied some massive carp and a two-foot long pike gliding happily about in the sun. I’d quickly texted my dad to tell him to bring his fishing rod on his forthcoming visit: the water was crystal clear, and the finny denizens of the deep abundant and ripe for the taking… Deliriously, pescatorial pater quickly texted back, “Hurrah, I shall bring two rods!”
Naturally enough the storm has blitzed the mud, clay and sand on the bottom into a heady blend, the colour and crystal-clear-ness of tomato soup. Happy fishing, dad!
This unwelcome break to an otherwise rather pleasant June has given me a chance to update the dear reader on our progress. We are on the Chesterfield Canal, a waterway pleasing to the eye and the soul. Its upper stretches are some of the most charming on the system, yet boats are few and far between: each time we pass one, the crew of both craft are summoned on deck to gawp and wave at this rare sighting. This scarcity is further evidence to support my admittedly totally unscientific theorem, “Walker’s Law”. This states that there is an inverse relationship between the loveliness of a waterway and the number of craft who venture there:
Apart from a few outliers, it’s an interesting pattern, no? Though I am sure other boaters will react with fury to some of the contentious and entirely subjective data, e.g. the relatively poor showing in the beauty parade by the Oxford Canal… Sorry!
Anyway, one reason the Chesterfield is “under-boated” is that it is a dead end. Understandably, boaters like to go in circles rather than turning tail and going back the way they came. So routes like the Oxford, Trent and Mersey, and Grand Union are popular because they constitute part of cruising circuits such as the Cheshire Ring, Four Counties Ring, Stourport Ring, etc. Most marinas and hire boat bases are built on such circuits.
Not on the Chesterfield, though. This has always been a cul-de-sac. It starts at West Stockwith on the rather scary tidal River Trent, and heads roughly westwards and mostly uphill for forty-odd miles to Chesterfield in Derbyshire:
At least, it used to go all the way to Chesterfield. Sadly, the general decline in waterways traffic coincided with the collapse of the tunnel at the summit of the canal in 1907, which rendered it unnavigable. (In an irony typical of many waterways histories, the commodity that brought the canal about in the first place caused its demise: the tunnel fell into coal workings dug into the hill beneath.)
So although the Chesterfield Canal Trust and others have got the eastern end up and running, the short Chesterfield section remains cut adrift:
To be fair, it’s easy to see why not many people make it up this interesting canal. As well as being a cul-de-sac, it requires the intrepid boater to navigate the scary tidal Trent to get to it. Even then you still must steer across the rushing tide to get into the awkwardly-angled lock. The first twenty-odd miles from W. Stockwith to Worksop are pretty enough without really setting the heart racing. And there are regular sections clogged with weed, which makes for a fun expedition down the hatch to relieve the propeller of a thick slimy necklace of gunk, mud, fishing line, and plant matter.
Apart from my backside sticking up in the air as I fiddle around in the bowels of the boat, there are still some things worth seeing:
However, it is the incredible final section that wins all the prizes. After leaving Shireoaks, the lucky boater ascends what is surely the loveliest flight of locks in the country. There are longer and steeper flights elsewhere, and countless examples where the locks are bigger, deeper, and scarier.
But Thorpe Locks, a.k.a. the Giant’s Staircase, are not just an engineering spectacle but also a triumph of landscaping and a haven of forest and birdsong. In the space of just a couple of miles, the canal ascends 23 chambers towards the doomed tunnel. Rather than a regular parade of single locks, it uses a mixture of singles, doubles and trebles: these latter known as “staircase locks”, comprised of two or three lock chambers telescoped together into a single structure.
These are beautifully maintained and a joy to operate. Water rushes through sluices and down weirs. The chambers are built of handsome old stone, and surrounded by tidy sloping lawns. The wooden gates are not painted black and white as elsewhere, but are an unadorned, attractive brown timber. The gates and paddle gear are simple to operate and glide smoothly into action, without any of the usual swearing and slipped discs that are a fixture at too many creakily-maintained locks.
And all this in a sylvan setting, with a dappled canopy of great oaks overhead, the dark glades of woodland on either side, and the birdsong going nuclear in all directions.
(I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or the part of the country, but it’s riotous: on Saturday, we moored in a spot that had two song thrushes bellowing at one another across the canal for almost 24 hours without pause. Last night it was countless skylarks in the meadow where we moored. And now I can hear a blackbird, chiffchaff, wren and wood pigeon, all at the same time. Glorious!)
And so one passes a pleasant, warm morning, going nowhere very fast, enjoying the water, the birdsong, the exercise, and the sun dappling playfully on one’s back…
What one does not enjoy, however, is bridges built like this:
See the right-hand part of that arch? It looked pretty low to me, and Felucca being a big-boned old thing, I worried we might not fit through…
Fear not. It is tradition this time of year on Felucca to give the chimney and stove a good smashing: https://nbfelucca.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/spot-the-difference/
So, as sterling types who would never turn our backs on a great and valuable tradition, we revved up and gave Felucca’s chimney a good clobber against the brickwork. In keeping with previous years, we managed to move the 250kg cast iron stove down below three inches out of place, heartily ripping out the screws fastening it to the marble hearth into the bargain. But rejoice! We managed to get under the bridge eventually, and added a hideous scrape to the other two hundred hideous scrapes adorning the underside of the arch: testifying that boaters have been enjoying this particular pastime ever since traffic began on the Chesterfield, around the time of the American War Of Independence.
But I digress. At the top of the locks, it gets very gorgeous indeed. Hardly anyone gets up this far: 2-3 boats each week, according to the cheerful lady selling delicious ice creams at Turnerwood. One feels blessed to have it all to oneself, and baffled that not more make it. Apparently, very few of the folks moored in the marina at the bottom have even made the journey, apparently put off by the ascent; and several dog-walking locals were intrigued to know what was at the top of the hill, having never considered exploring for themselves. Strange and sad!
The canal continues for two miles before it reaches its enforced terminus at the tunnel, winding through trees, stone cuttings, and old quarries. The last 400 yards is completely unboated, being after the final turning point, and is crystal clear, with floating water plants and shoals of fish gliding here and there: pike, chub, and carp escaped from a nearby lake during a flood a decade ago. It’s idyllic. There’s even a jolly pub, the Station Hotel, to w(h)et one’s whistle and/or appetite.
And then, after three days at the top – including jaunts to Sheffield and London from nearby Kiveton Park station – we did it all again on the way back down. Happy days indeed!