My twin sister squealed!
“It's OK!” I shouted as the trimaran rolled off her trailer missing the side of the narrow slipway by millimetres. I had been confident she would fit because I'd slipped her here about a year before to do some work on the boat's trailer.
Ruth and her husband, Steve, yes his name is the same as mine and yes it does get confusing sometimes, had come up from Wiltshire to celebrate our birthday and to help me with this project – the circumnavigation of the Wirral peninsula. They certainly made life a lot easier and it was great to have them as part of the team.
The Tohatsu engine started first time as usual. I love the Japanese. Then we set off towards Chester along the Shropshire Union Canal. I could be fairly certain that this was the first trimaran to venture onto British Waterways network of canals. Who would even think of it? Trimarans are sailing boats and spend most of their time on the sea or on lakes. They are mostly too wide to fit through the locks in any case. But not this trimaran. We simply left her in trailing mode.
As the rest of Cheshire was commuting along the A41 beside us and the A55 above us we quietly buzzed along towards our first obstacle, a lock. Had I remembered the windlass that I'd bought at Nantwich a month or two beforehand? Yes, fortunately. But I only had the one and so I impressed upon the crew the importance of not dropping it in the water lest we be unable to lift and lower the paddles that control the flow of water into and out of each lock.
Although I'd been through many locks in my lifetime and watched numerous narrow-boats negotiate them I had never operated one myself. But a quick survey and a little logical thought revealed its secrets and we were soon through the first one. The second fell upon us almost right away and we soon had a routine worked out with me in the Magnum 21 and Ruth and Stephen on each lock gate. They walked along the tow-path between the locks if they were close together whilst I motored between them but we all jumped into the boat together if the gap between locks was a long one. It was fun doing this early in the morning in such an unusual boat and we drew much attention from passers by.
After about an hour we arrived at the Chemistry lock where usually it is possible to catch sight of one or two of the donkeys that reside at the lock-keepers cottage but disappointingly they were nowhere to be seen. Here was where I had arranged to meet up with the TV crew that I'd invited along to record this momentous adventure. But they were nowhere to be seen either. I had spoken with them on the phone as we'd set off from Christleton and after breakfast they were going to set off from the Mill Hotel, where I'd put them up overnight, and walk along the tow path with their tripod and camera to meet us.
They'd come from London without an essential piece of equipment, a telescopic boom for the microphone, and had popped into a nearby fishing tackle shop, of all places, to buy something that would do and they'd found just the thing but at a fraction of the price they would have expected to pay in an audio-visual shop. So it seemed we'd just gone past them. Good job I called again or they could have walked all the way Birmingham!
This was the first time I'd met my producer, Simon Kane, and our cameraman Ben, although we'd talked on the phone and emailed lots. They set to work with their camera filming some swans and cygnets and then we all got in the boat together and motored along the canal to the Mill Hotel to fetch their bags. Ruth and Stephen left us to go and spend the middle of the day with my eldest sister, June, at Chester Zoo and Simon moved his car whilst Ben and I did a little preparatory work at the Cow Lane Bridge winding hole.
As I understand it a winding hole is a wide place in the canal where you can use the wind to assist you in turning your very long and narrow boat. In the Magnum 21 it is easy to turn around so I went under the bridge a few times to give Ben opportunities to video from different angles.
The Cow Lane Bridge is so named because it is adjacent to the old site of the Chester cattle market. From here you can see Chester Cathedral and Town Hall.
Simon rejoined us and then we stopped around the corner under the King Charles Tower.
It used to be called the Phoenix Tower until King Charles I stood on top of it during the civil war to watch his troops being defeated at the Battle of Rowton Moor, which is just by where we'd launched the boat earlier in the day. He must have had a good pair of binoculars because I'm pretty sure that you couldn't see that far today.
The story goes that the king sent Sir Marmaduke Langdale out from Chester to Rowton to beat Poyntz back. This he did effectually, killing many of his men, and sent Col. Shakerley back to the king, who was lodging then at Sir Francis Gamul's house, to ask for further orders.
This is the best part of the story: his colonel galloped directly to the River Dee by Huntingdon House, got a wooden tub, used for slaughtering swine, and a batting staff used for the batting of coarse linen, for an oar, put a servant into the tub with him, and in this desperate manner swam over the river, his horse swimming beside him, (for the banks there were very steep and the river very deep) and ordered his servant to stay there with the tub for his return. He was with the king in little more than a quarter of an hour!
But those around the king made such delays that no orders were sent till past 3 o'clock in the afternoon, a full six hours after Poyntz had been beaten back, by which time Poyntz was able to rally his forces and with the help of the Parliament forces, who came out of the suburbs of the city to his assistance, put all those of the kings' to the route.
It's difficult to imagine fighting like this going on locally. Dreadful thing, civil war. Look at Yugoslavia! Yet all this fighting in England was to establish the right of the ordinary people to self determination through parliament. Prior to this the king had been all powerful and a bit of a spendthrift, waging wars hither and thither and continually asking parliament to tax the population to fund his whims.
But I digress. Now we are slipping quietly along a deep cut in the red sandstone, under the Northgate and under the Bridge of Sighs.
Well you would sigh too if you had been made to walk over it. It would have been your final walk – to the gallows!
At this juncture for some reason to do with video and seating arrangements I gave Simon the tiller briefly and we careered into the bank and scratched the outside of the port float! I wrested the tiller back from him. It wasn't his fault and it was my responsibility. Whatever the plan had been we scrapped it pronto and carried on along the canal.
And so to the famous Northgate locks, a staircase of locks. It is possible for narrow-boats to pass each other on this staircase but the Magnum 21 is just a few inches too wide for a narrow-boat to pass by it within the confines of the lock so we had to request a couple of narrow-boats that were at the bottom of the staircase to wait until we had descended.
When I first came to Chester in 1979 there used to be a narrow-boat for tourists that was drawn by a white Shire horse called Snowy and they used to use ropes to get through the locks and up and down the staircase like they always did before narrow-boats were equipped with engines. You can still see the grooves in the stone and ironwork today from all the bargemen that have plied their trade in this manner over the centuries.
So inevitably we also tried to use ropes with the Magnum 21. Not so easy as you might think if you don't have anybody in the boat. We managed one lock and then we gave up this idea and I used the engine to manoeuvre through the next two to save time.
At this point there is a great overlapping of infrastructure. The mediaeval city walls come to a corner near the Water Tower and the railway comes out of a tunnel and penetrates the walls on its way to cross the River Dee by a bridge originally built by Stephenson, of Rocket fame. The canal goes underneath and there is a road in between. Fascinating. Many centuries of engineering all in one place.
The Water Tower was a mediaeval attempt to extend the life of Chester as a port by reaching out into the river Dee so that small ships to could gain access to the city whose harbour, now the Roodee race course, had silted up since Roman times.
Finally we arrived in Telford's basin, which I had decided should be the start point for the circumnavigation of the Wirral because the canal between the River Dee and the River Mersey forms the south eastern boundary of the Wirral Hundred. Alfred the Great, famous for burning the cakes and founding the Royal Navy to fend off the Danes, was responsible for dividing the kingdom into Counties, Hundreds and Tythings in the ninth century. Originally Cheshire had twelve hundreds but during the reign of King Edward III this was reduced to seven. The Wirral was one of these hundreds.
Time for lunch at Telford's Warehouse.
This is an interesting building. It has a crane outside it and another one inside it for lifting goods from boats berthed underneath it. It was used as a store for goods transported along the canal to and from Ellesmere Port, where goods were transferred to and from bigger boats that plied their trade with Liverpool where sea going ships traded with the rest of the world, much the same as they had once done from Chester but with a far greater volume than in Roman times, of course.
Nowadays Telford's Warehouse is a pub with nice grub and real ales and more especially it has become a Mecca for live music. A great waterside venue.
We ate outside, as both Simon and Ben are smokers, and we all drank cranberry and orange juice, a favourite of Simon's.
Then we made our first attempt at what seemed to me to be a contrived piece to camera. All this TV malarkey was new to me and I did not exactly feel in my element but we had to start somewhere and we could always do it again, and again and again! Trouble was we had to get to Ellesmere Port before the National Boat Museum closed.
The weather was somewhat grey and overcast by this time and we set off in a somewhat sombre and reflective mood, first of all passing beside the dry dock as we went under a curious bridge with the spiral at one end. What's that all about?
This bridge is designed so that a horse that is pulling a boat can cross from the tow path on one side of the canal to the path on the other side without having to be disconnected from the boat. Very simple and very clever solution to a problem that nobody would even think about today.
The Dee Mersey Canal follows a natural contour and there are no locks for the whole 8 miles between Chester and Ellesmere Port. It is clear that something once flowed along here. Soil samples have revealed sea shells under the bed. So how was it in Roman times?
Surprisingly the Romans never mentioned the River Mersey in terms of a great estuary. They did mention the River Conway to the west and the Ribble to the north of the Dee but not the Mersey. How strange? If it had been there 2000 years ago they surely would have used it and certainly would have mentioned it. Whatever could have happened?
Well it is thought that the Mersey flowed along this contour, where the canal now is, and joined the River Dee, probably around where Telford's basin is now, so the flow of water out of the Dee estuary would have been much greater in those days, which goes some way towards explaining why it has silted up since that flow was cut off.
The Romans finally left Britain in 446 AD. Britain then entered the Dark Ages when there was nobody educated left around to make a note of the history so we know little or nothing of what happened hereabouts. It is during this period, shortly after the Romans left, that it is thought a great earthquake caused the Mersey to change its course and to enter the Irish Sea by its current route. This disaster is referred to in a poem, attributed to the bard Taliesin (520-570 AD), which is corroborated by the record of a great earthquake on September 6th 543 AD, included in the British Association list of earthquakes. Of course nobody knows for certain what happened.
Back to the boat.
So we're motoring along the canal, over the new Deva aqueduct over the link road, past the new police station at Blacon, under the railway viaduct that takes trains from Chester to Birkenhead and on past the back of the Dale Army Camp, where the local garrison is nowadays accommodated.
Chester was the garrison town for the Romans almost 2000 years ago of course. We slip under the A41 that links Birkenhead with Chester and continues on to London where it ends (or begins) at Marble Arch.
Then we're past the back of Chester Zoo, where anglers live dangerously, past a community of narrow-boats at Croughton and on towards Stoak where the M53 and M56 intersect.
Stoak used to be spelled Stoke, like Stoke-on-Trent, but the post office changed many spellings to reduce duplication of names and try to make sure that mail ended up in the right places. This was probably one such place name.
I used to to drive over this little hump-backed bridge every day on my route from Mickle Trafford, where I lived in 1980 to Wallasey, where I worked. Not sure how you make a telephone call here. Sign of the times.
There is a lovely little Church here that goes back to Saxon times and in the beautifully kept graveyard is a headstone marking the grave, Nelson Burt.
Nelson, aged 9, drowned in the River Mersey in the hurricane of 5th/6th Dec 1822, the year that steam boats started on the Woodside Ferry service. Hopefully not a portent of what lay ahead of us.
I came across a report of this hurricane.
On Thursday 5th December, 1822, the wind blew violently from the S. and S.S.W., and, about nine o'clock in the evening a complete hurricane ensued accompanied with heavy rain. It continued to increase, and, between ten and eleven o'clock, the work of desolation commenced: houses in exposed situations rocked from their foundations; stacks of chimneys fell in, and many persons quitted their housed from fear. The storm raged, with greater or less fury, until three o'clock on the following morning; and, when daylight came, it was awful to behold the ravages that had been made, and to hear the several tales of wo which survivors had to record. The details are given at length in the journals of the day. In Netherfield Lane, Everton, two beloved daughters of Mr. Dixon, the one eleven, the other thirteen years of age, were buried in the ruins of a stack of chimneys, which carried the roof of the house and the several floors through which they fell; in all probability, they suffered instantaneous suffocation. In Upper Islington, Mrs. Worral experienced a fate somewhat similar, leaving six orphan children. Three other persons were also killed, besides a number drowned by shipwreck in the Mersey, whose streams were covered with floating wrecks. The ravages of this storm extended to great distances.
We bumbled on towards Ellesmere Port making more of a wash than I would have cared to make because of our speed and the shallowness of the water but we were driven by our timetable. There quite a few obstacles to be negotiated too!
The Stanlow Oil Refinery hove into view and then the Cheshire Oaks retail park to where the hub of Ellesmere Port's commerce has moved.
Next up was the Cabot plant that makes carbon for use in road tyres.
We passed underneath the M53 motorway twice, once under a bridge an once via a concrete tunnel.
Eventually we emerged at the National Boat Museum – before it closed! The new director, Stuart Gillis was there to greet us and show us round and we just had time for me to interview him before we checked into the very convenient Holiday Inn that is on the site.
During our tour we discovered that the wide barge locks, through which I intended to take the boat down to the ship basin before entering the Manchester Ship Canal, was under repair! The narrow-boat locks are too narrow for the Magnum 21 trimaran, even in trailing mode. So we had a problem.
Fortunately Ruth and Stephen had delivered my car and the boat's trailer to the Museum and the water level in the canal is very close to the level of the bank so I was able to winch the boat out easily enough and take it by road around to the hotel car park from where we would be able launch it again in the morning.
Quick shower and change and then across the bridge to be greeted by all my family for our birthday celebration dinner in the Jabula Restaurant. You have to visit this restaurant. It's so bizarre. It's booked up weeks in advance and it's not surprising. It is owned and run by entirely by South Africans.
The décor is South African. The menu is South African, crocodile bites, springbok and so on. And the wine list is South African. I had a red sparkling wine for the first time in my life. You have to try these things. Finally they sing Happy Birthday to You (dear you two, in our case) not only in English but also in Afrikaans. And they are happy and smiling all the time. We really enjoyed ourselves. And one of the most amazing things about this restaurant is its setting. It is right beside the Manchester Ship Canal so quite regularly a ship will go by just a few feet from the window. And they are massive! At least they seem that way when you are eating right next to one as it goes by.
So quite an eventful birthday all in all. But it wasn't over yet. Oh no. There was the inevitable drinking competition. Ominously, Ruth and I had enormous bibs put over each of us and large absorbent napkins placed in front of us upon which were placed curiously shaped liqueur glasses with some sort of South African fire-water in them. We had to knock this back with our hands behind our backs and put the glass down without making a mess. Oh, and there was a penance for the loser. Which was me of course. The penance? I had to eat a worm and an ant! Seriously! They were not alive, of course. The waitress showed me the packet that they'd come from. Clearly they were some sort of delicacy in RSA. They weren't bad. The worm was a bit rubbery and the ant a bit crisp. As for the flavour, well you'll have to go there yourself to find out.
I'm setting off early tomorrow (my birthday) morning to sail around the Wirral Peninsula anticlockwise from Chester in a Magnum 21 trimaran. The end of the first day should see me with my TV crew arriving in Ellesmere Port at the Boat Museum.
On Friday 1st August we'll enter the Manchester Ship Canal at 9am and probably enter the Mersey at about 11am. Not quite sure how long we'll take to sail the Mersey as we may be stopping here and there for TV purposes but we'll be disembarking at the end of the day at New Brighton, hopefully having first taken a look at Anthony Gormley's "Another Place" on the opposite side of the river at Crosby sands.
Then on Saturday we'll have the cameraman up in a Microlite to cover the journey from Wallasey to West Kirby focusing on Leasowe Lighthouse particularly, it being the oldest lighthouse in England and the oldest brickbuilt lighthouse in Britain.
Finally on Sunday we'll catch the flood tide to take us up the seldom navigated River Dee back into Chester. Should make an interesting documentary!
Don't forget the North Wales Boat Show at the Vaynol Estate on the A55 near Bangor, Friday 25th to Sunday 27th July.
I'll be exhibiting a Magnum 21 and the NEW Magnum 18.
Starting from Chester on my birthday, July 31st, I'll be making a TV documentary of my attempt to cirmumnavigate the Wirral Peninsula in a Magnum 21. Fortunately somebody dug a canal from here to Ellesmere Port where I can enter the Manchester Ship Canal and thereby gain entry to the River Mersey at Eastham lock on August 1st.
I'll take the boat out of the water at New Brighton overnight and do the Irish Sea part of the voyage on Saturday 2nd arriving at West Kirby Sailing Club in the afternoon.
Then on Sunday 3rd I'll sail up the River Dee, as the Roman's used to do, take the mast down at Connah's Quay and motor under the remaining bridges all the way back to Chester. Should be fun.