From gritty Stoke-on-Trent to the idyllic Churnet Valley, Chris Wiltshire discovers the origins of Britain’s pottery industry on a watery meander.
You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning. Carole has been behaving impeccably for two days, navigating the tight turns and narrow bridges of the ancient Caldon Canal with commendable dexterity.
Her good looks and classic lines are drawing admiring glances from fellow cruisers out enjoying the Staffordshire countryside.
But 17 miles into our journey and confronted with the Froghall Tunnel, which is too small to squeeze through, she is forced to make an about-turn and shudders to a halt.
Carole then lets out an audible groan and slides to the bankside.
You see Carole, our Black Prince narrowboat – not my wife of the same name – is simply not built for turning. At 64ft and weighing more than 20 tons, she’s like a mini oil tanker.
At least that’s my excuse as I try to coax her to perform one more manoeuvre for the day before we can bed down for the night in the heart of the Churnet Valley.
Fortunately, Neil emerges from Curly Sioux to talk me through the tricks of the turn. “Press the bow hard into the bank, keep up the revs and let the boat slowly turn. There’s no rush, remember you’re on holiday,” he says with a knowing smile.
Minutes later, Carole is facing back towards our base at Etruria in central Stoke-on-Trent and I’m tucking into a welcome brew.
I take a moment to savour the timeless beauty of the valley, where ancient oaks and hawthorn line the canal that once carried limestone for the iron works and flints for the pottery industry.
To my right, I can make out tracks for the Churnet Valley steam trains now emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown and giving holidaymakers a taste of what it was like to travel in the 1950s and 60s .
Off to the left, remnants of 500ft-wide lime kilns, slowly devoured by brambles, give a hint of the quarrying industry that took place in the area towards the end of the 18th century.
I learn that limestone was loaded on to canal boats or burnt in the kilns and then transported to the potteries or further afield.
It’s not hard to see why the Caldon Canal, a tributary of the Trent and Mersey Canal, is regarded as one of the most interesting of the 2,000 miles or so of waterways that criss-cross the country.
Any narrowboat holiday is an adventure but few offer 17 locks, including a daunting staircase lock, mechanical and manual lift road crossings, an aqueduct/viaduct and countless beautiful small bridges, many with inscriptions dated in the mid-1800s, over such a short distance.
To add to our own excitement, we help the fire brigade rescue a large Friesian cow that is stuck in mud just two miles into our trip, recover an old barge that is somehow separated from its moorings and retrieve my flat cap from the water after I send it flying when trying to put up an umbrella.
There is certainly plenty to chuckle over at one of several hostelries along the way, our favourite being the Black Lion at Cheddleton, which rewards guests who manage the steep climb from the canal with tasty pub grub and real ales.
Despite the dramas, I can feel work stress quickly evaporating, no doubt helped by the fresh air and the fact that canal boats have a top speed of just 4mph – no more than walking speed.
It’s also a relief not to have to wear a Covid-protecting mask for almost the entire trip.
Friendly families we meet at locks along the way share their experiences. One couple of similar age to us say they’ve taken early retirement, purchased a narrowboat and now spend their days traversing the country. “Narrowboat holidays are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or you hate them,” says the sun-kissed wife.
I’m not sure theirs is quite the life for me, but our two-year-old six-berth boat has all the comforts I could wish for and I’m thoroughly enjoying being immersed in the countryside.
The contrast between the gritty Stoke section of the canal and the Churnet Valley, often called Little Switzerland because of its unspoilt landscape, is crystal clear.
Dotted along the route are preserved relics of the famed ceramics industry that was a powerhouse of the industrial revolution, such as a pair of listed conical kilns close to the Black Prince boating base that proudly stand out against the new-builds.
As does the iconic Cheddleton Flint Mill, which used to grind flint for the pottery industry and has now been fully renovated thanks to the Cheddleton Heritage Trust.
Before jumping on board at Etruria, we visit the Emma Bridgewater and Portmeirion pottery outlets to pick up some pretty mugs and tableware and stop off at the huge Trentham Home and Garden Centre for a browse and a bite to eat.
And we finish the week with a trip to the vast World of Wedgwood site at Barlaston in Stoke. It’s eerily quiet, with the factory shut down for its annual holidays. However, we spend an enjoyable hour in the museum and marvel at the beautiful craftsmanship in the V&A Collection.
We also have a stab at designing our own pieces of pottery in the decorating studio under the watchful eye of a friendly assistant, who tells us how the company have learned to adapt and are making specialist pieces, including a dinner set for a Dubai sheikh’s private yacht.
Driving out of the site, we cross a bridge and watch a family pottering along the canal, their brightly-painted narrowboat sparkling in the mid-day sun. It makes us all nostalgic and we vow to return for another blast one day, even if our Carole is not along for the ride.