Written April 20, 2023, at Stoke on Trent, England.
The experience of traveling England’s canals that date to the 1700’s is unique. But there are aspects that go beyond unique, and in yesterday’s case are otherworldly, or better yet “underworldly”.
Our 2019 travels on the canals included traveling hundreds of yards across valleys, our vessel elevated over 100 feet above the valley floor in a trough of water with no guard rails. Beyond unique.
There were also tunnels that we navigated, also hundreds of yards long. Again, beyond unique.
Before us today was the Harecastle Tunnel. Not just unique, not just beyond unique, but like traveling the legendary River Styx to Hades. Again, otherworldly and “underworldly”.
The Harecastle Tunnel is 1.6 miles long and for nearly 200 years the longest tunnel in the United Kingdom. It is actually two tunnels. The first, built in 1770 and its parallel twin built in 1824 served commerce on the canals with one dedicated to southbound traffic and the other dedicated to northbound traffic.
The canals are extremely tight with very low overhead. There is no walking path inside the tunnel. If one were to fall into the water it would be a very bad day for that person. The older of the two tunnels could not be economically maintained and has been closed since 1914.
The remaining tunnel now alternates traffic direction approximately every hour. It takes about 40 minutes to transit the length of the tunnel.
Time and limited Internet cell service do not allow me to go into detail about the history of these fascinating tunnels. I invite you to read about The Harecastle Tunnel on Wikipedia.
Written April 18, 2023, on the Trent and Mersey Canal.
Two days on the canal, and we have hardly had time to do anything but navigate, operate locks that date to the 18th and 19th centuries, and flatten the canal learning curve for Pat and Wendy. Yesterday was a half day since we had our orientation after provisioning the boat. Nevertheless, we passed through 10 locks yesterday and 28 locks today. Mind you, we operate the locks and they are all operated by hand. Even though we have been traveling by canal boat, Wendy has totaled over 16,000 steps today Christine over 12,000, and I just at 10,000 because I have spent the most time at the tiller. I took a few pictures, and rather than provide a lengthy narrative (I really don’t have the time or energy right now!) I will merely post the pictures in some order that might make relative sense. Tomorrow we enter the remarkable Harecastle Tunnel, dug between 1824 and 1827, which is nearly 1.6 miles long, cramped, damp, and pitch dark. At least the majority of the locks for the next couple of days are now behind us.
Our first of two full days in Middlewich opened with breakfast at our lodging, The Boar’s Head Inn.
This is a classic English pub that does excellent service as a traveler’s Inn. It is simple, clean, comfortable, and very reasonably priced. Our hostess, Liz, is a delight and to our surprise she has been following our travels through my website.
Most of our breakfasts over the last 3 1/2 weeks have by choice been a lighter fare. I decided to go all out this morning by ordering mine “full English“.
After breakfast we walked down to the Andersen Boats yard where Christine posed in front of the vessel we will take charge of on Monday, the 62 foot long Fjord Empress.
We also spoke with owner, Pauline, arranging for an early orientation and departure.
Christine and I walked about a mile down the Trent & Mersey Canal which we will soon be traveling. It was a like walking down a 2019 “Memory Lane”. The canal and locks were active and we took the opportunity to lend a hand and refresh our recollections on lock operations.
We also stopped by the well-maintained 12th century church, St. Michael and All Angels. The town itself dates at least as far back as Roman times when it was one of the largest salt producers for the Empire in Britain. In 2019 I wrote a detailed post about the church: St. Michael and All Angels Church.
Wendy & Pat arrive in Middlewich around noon tomorrow. We will be doing some grocery shopping to provision the boat and later enjoy the British tradition of eating an afternoon “Sunday Roast“.
Weather wise, our second full day in Liverpool (Thursday) began as a carbon copy of the previous few days. Cold, blustery, and dampness that makes your bones ache. Nevertheless, we made the best of it and by afternoon there were even some breaks in the clouds. The rain and cold returned today, Friday.
Earlier today we met our Kansas City friends, Pat and Wendy, at the Liverpool Lime Street train station for their arrival.
We enjoyed hanging out with them for a bit before we had to catch our train from the same station traveling on to Middlewich.
They will rejoin us at our lodging, The Boar’s Head Inn, in Middlewich on Sunday. The four of us will take charge of the 62 foot narrowboat, Fjord Empress, on Monday at Andersen Boats after first loading provisions and receiving operating instructions. Pat and Wendy will travel aboard with us for the first five of our 21 days.
Here are pictures and brief narratives of our Thursday activities in Liverpool:
We visited Saint John’s Gardens which until the late 19th century was a cemetery containing the remains of over 80,000 people. Among the deceased were nearly 30,000 who had died in a cholera epidemic that ultimately killed nearly a quarter of the city’s population.
During the conversion of the cemetery to a park the earthly remains of those who were buried were “disposed of”.
The monumental building seen above overlooking the park is Saint George’s Hall. The structure was completed in 1854.
It contains one of the most opulent spaces in the United Kingdom, a haven for the wealthy and important. Yet in the bowels of the building are dungeons that held the criminally accused and the criminally insane prior to trial. The Court, also situated in the building, is where at least 150 people were sentenced to die and thousands were sentenced to “transportation“ which meant banishment, most often to Australia. Sentences were extremely harsh. The theft of a piece of fruit or a loaf of bread could result in a sentence of 10 years or more.
Our wanderings took us by the Liverpool Lime Street railway station. The original station at this location is the oldest passenger train station in the world. Service began here in the 1830s.
Near Saint George’s Hall is the British tomb to the unknown soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.
In the same neighborhood is Liverpool’s huge science museum, library, and art gallery. They are located in stately 19th-century buildings.
The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, once a private men’s club, is an incredibly ornate pub that features what are perhaps the most expensive urinals in the world. They were custom-made in 1900 and are said to be insured for two million dollars. Paul McCartney and James Corden visited here and put on an impromptu concert during a Carpool Karaoke outing.
Next on our list was Mathews Street and the iconic Cavern Club, said to be the birthplace of the Beatles.
Liverpool was once the wealthiest city in the world. It was also, second only to London, the most bombed city in the UK during World War II. One incendiary bomb set the 18th century St. Luke’s church on fire. All that remained was the shell of the church. It was decided to leave it as a standing memorial to the losses suffered by the people of Liverpool.
And then there is the former Lewis Department Store. The building remains and is being converted into hotel and office space. It is reminiscent of huge department stores such as Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field & Company in Chicago.
In 1956 a heroic sculpture was dedicated above the main entrance commemorating Liverpool’s rebirth following the Second World War. Its formal title is “Liverpool Resurgent“. However it is more affectionately known by locals as the “ Dickie Lewis“ statue.
We are a day and a half into Liverpool with a day and a half here to go. The weather has been hell, commanding us to wear every bit of cold-weather clothing we have packed.
Nevertheless, we have enjoyed a number of sites and tours including the first day of a two day “Hop-on-Hop-Off“ bus ticket that gave us a nice overview of the city-center today. This has helped us craft tomorrow’s itinerary.
We also took a 90 minute Beatles history bus tour. While we were mostly protected from the elements, the weather did dampened these experiences (pun intended).
We visited a top-secret underground Second World War complex that had been sealed and forgotten until the 1990’s. This was the site where throughout the war Britain evolved the Allied’s anti-submarine tactics and directed the crucial Battle of the Atlantic.
On a lighter note there was also a visit to a gin distillery and bar.
Switching gears: Last Summer I put together our itinerary for this trip, and secured reservations in the various establishments that have hosted us. To date, we have lodged in 12 separate hotels, inns, and B&B’s. I selected each by relying upon patron reviews, price, and proximity to our needs. The choices have largely met our expectations. A few have been amazing standouts, and then there have been three “glitches”.
The first of these was not so much a glitch as a sad commentary on the economic times. I had secured the reservation in the small “mom and pop” B&B, including breakfast, for the price of £100 (about $125). At check out the proprietress rang the bill up at £120. I brought this to her attention. At first she indicated that I must be mistaken, but when I showed her the date of her confirmation email she agreed that it had been the price confirmed in 2022. With a sigh she began a sentence with, “Inflation has been so hard on us…“ and then trailed off as she corrected the bill. Christine and I looked at each other. 46 years of marriage meant that between us words were unnecessary. I reached into my wallet and placed an additional £20 on the counter. The hostesses look of relief was priceless and worth every pence.
The second disappointment was straightforward. The hotel was virtually on the path of the Hadrian’s Wall trail, it was of average price, and the staff was attentive. There was nothing else positive to say about it. The room was beyond “tired”. The walls, carpet, and bathroom were dingy, and it felt more like an hourly flophouse from a 1950’s detective movie then an overnight lodging. We were happy to be gone the next morning.
That brings me to Liverpool. We arrived yesterday for check in at 2:30 PM. The young man at reception took my credit card and had me sign the registration forms before he somewhat casually remarked, “I’m sure you received our General Manager’s email explaining that our elevator is broken“. No, I had not.
It turned out that the elevator had broken down a couple of days earlier. The General Manager did send me an email, but just two hours before we checked in, and coincidentally, after the time for us to cancel the reservation without cost had expired.
I took a deep breath. Since our room was on the “third floor“ the attendant offered assistance carrying our bags upstairs. In Europe the first floor is one higher than the ground floor. Also, this building dates to either the early 20th or late 19th Century. There are “mezzanine” floors. The “third floor” turned out to be multiple flights totaling 77 steps. I counted each one.
I returned to reception and engaged the young man in a “difficult conversation“. He said that he could not grant my request to cancel the reservation but that perhaps the evening on-site manager could get that authority. His name tag should’ve read “Pass the Buck Chuck”.
The night manager arrived about an hour later, a delightful young lady. She knew how to think out of the box. She arranged for us to immediately relocate to a first floor room (still 30 stairs from reception), and to receive a refund for the difference in the value of the rooms. Her attitude was the important difference in salvaging the situation.
I have intentionally omitted identifying these last mentioned establishments. There were good hard-working employees at each of them that I would not want innocently blamed.
The poor weather is predicted to continue tomorrow but our activities should be mostly indoors. If the forecast is to be believed there should be a dry warming trend in place when we take command of our narrowboat. Fingers crossed.
Peace Everyone. Pete
P.S. In a terse E-Mail to the General Manager of the “77 Step Hotel” I stated how unacceptable the situation and his communication was, adding, “…I’m 71 years old and my wife is 68…”. Later Christine remarked to me with a smile that, except for securing senior discounts, it was the first time I had ever pulled the “age card”. She was right, and I admit it was a bit disingenuous given my recent hike and having to help the young staff person carry our bags up the 77 steps.