Canals are flat. They must be. Think of it from the viewpoint of the canal designer, James Brindley perhaps, my wife Karen’s great great grandfather: Any gradient means a lock; a lock is expensive, and slows down the barge traffic, and requires maintenance; and perhaps a lock-keeper, and a lock-keeper’s cottage. Where you have a lock you have wastage of water. The higher section of the canal needs to be constantly topped up, which means you need stream water or, if that isn’t available, you have to construct elaborate dams and networks of channels and sluices to keep the canals full of water. Rudyard Lake near Leek is one of these, built to top up the Cauldon Canal. Much better, surely, to take a longer route which is level and follows the contours.
So canals should be perfect for cyclists. Quiet, traffic-free, level, meandering through pretty countryside with picturesque narrowboats and pubs along the way.
Up to a point, yes. So why do I hardly ever come home along the canal, which seems – on the map – to connect Sandbach nicely with Alsager?
I tried coming home on the towpath a while ago, and I have to say I didn’t much like it. The towpath was not surfaced, so it was soft in places and slowed me down. I hasten to add that I wasn’t in a hurry. Being slowed down is a psychological phenomenon where you feel the drag and it’s not quite right.
Then there are the obstacles: At most bridges there is very little headroom and you have to go very carefully. At every lock there is a nasty little steep bit, sometimes with annoying steps. And every so often you need to cross to the other side of the canal. (Iwonder about this: Why does the towpath change sides at regular intervals? Was it to stop the horses getting lopsided, or the barges getting too scratched down one side only? Somebody must know!)
The picture (Map geeks: This is bridge 140 at Rode Heath) shows the problems, poor surface, bridge to cross, narrow gate, dog-walkers getting in the way…. I sound like an irritable cyclist in a hurry. Next week I shall ride the towpath again in a positive frame of mind, enjoying its quirks and foibles. Taking it slow. Stopping to chat to passing narrowboaters. A pint at every pub along the route. Pat the dog! Feed the ducks….