The object of this week's travel blog is a thoroughfare that connects Stoke to Uttoxeter. On first reaction this might make some readers question markontour's choice of weekend break, but now that its days as a raw material provider to the potteries are over the Caldon Canal is a place of natural beauty, tranquility and history and the perfect spot for a bit of bank holiday boating.
Like many of England's finest industrial waterways, the Caldon Canal was designed by James Brindley, a Staffordshire native and miller, whose engineering prowess was engaged to connect the mills and mines of the Churnet Valley to the potteries of fast-booming Stoke. Today, the primary remaining heritage of the industrial revolution unleashed by the genius of Brindley and his ilk is the wonderfully preserved Cheddleton Flint Mill, whose two waterwheels still turn on weekends and bank holidays much as they would have done in 1772 when Brindley first surveyed the valley's suitability for canalisation.
Flint, I learned today, was used to add strength and whiteness to pottery, mimicing the fashionable oriental styles brought back from China by an increasingly adventurous British merchant navy. But by the time flintn was being ground at Cheddleton in the second half of the eighteenth century, the power of its water had already been harnessed for over 500 years, with a mill standing on the same site since 1253 to variously grind corn, mix dyes, clean woolen cloth, and crush minerals.
The Caldon Canal was dug to run adjacent to the mill and a crane still guards the spot where the ground flint would have been transferred onto barges to be taken through to Wedgwood's Etruria pottery works 12 miles upstream.
Running parallel to the canal is another little heritage visitor attraction that is just a few decades younger – the Churnet Valley Railway, the lovingly restored steam engines of which can be boarded at little stations in Cheddleton or Consall, before chugging on through to Froghall. Cream tea is, of course, served on board and the volunteer railway staff have got to be the friendliest, most knowledgeable and, indeed, happiest weekend workers in the country.
With a mass of limestone kilns, mines, mills, trains and canal traffic, the Caldon Canal of two hundred years ago would have echoed to the sound of grindstones, picks, shovels and cranes loading sacks of minerals on to barges. Today, however, the rhythm of the train on the tracks and the occasional toot of its steam horn are the only things that interrupt the near constant chorus of hundreds of birds marking their territory and showing off about how nice it is to be able to fly.
Indeed, while the entries in my bird-spotting app were largely repetitive when the main opportunity to get out my binoculars was Walthamstow Marshes (“another noisy Moorhen with funny feet” etc), I seem to gain the privilege of meeting a new feathered friend on each visit to the Caldon Canal. The highlights so far include a Yellowhammer flitting around near a lock one morning, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, several Grey Wagtails, a flurry of lovely little Wrens, and what consultation with the bird bibles on our boat suggests must have been a Marsh Harrier (although I suspect Mr G, my more ornithologically informed boat co-owner, may advise otherwise).
The fields adjacent to the canal are also home to a several warrens of rabbit, including some particularly cute kits, all of whom seem to happily co-exist alongside a couple of lazy donkeys and a pair of ducks that prefer meadowland to water.
Like any decent waterway you can't go far down the Caldon Canal without encountering a pub. The Black Lion, perched on a hill at the Consall Forge end has the best views and some decent ales, but the food is pretty bog-standard. The Hollybush Inn at Denford near bridge 38 is markontour's favourite so far. Last night we enjoyed a refreshing pint of Wainwright golden ale, which we normally only get to sup in the Lake District, accompanying a decent vegan risotto, which the friendly chef offered as a supplement to a menu that already featured a decent selection of vegetarian option by generic pub standards.
Cruising slowly along the narrow and winding canal by boat is undoubtedly the best way to experience the Churnet Valley, but lack of a marine division need not prevent a trip to the Caldon Canal. A well maintained pathway lines the entire eighteen mile route and is great for walking, jogging or cycling. Meanwhile, there are fine woodland walks just off the path on either side. And while the narrowboats and steam trains still travel at nineteenth century pace, the Virgin pendalino rockets* through from Stoke to London in one hour fifty minutes, putting the Caldon Canal easily within reach of metropolitan weekenders – although I'm counting on the fact that only my Mum reads my blog to mean that there is little risk of an invasion any time soon!
Oh, and there's a Tardis in the woods.
* I mean “rockets” in the relative sense of speed for a British trainline starved of public investment for three decades, not in comparison to Chinese, Swiss, German, French etc actual high-speed trains.