Shop front in the summer

Sunday, 6 May 2012

There and back again - see how slow it is

HERE at Norbury we are trying to persuade our boaters to stop going around in circles - unless they really want to.

We are experienced boaters ourselves and we think you get more out of the waterways if you take your time and don't aim to rush round one of the so-called canal rings in the all too brief week or two available to many hire and share boaters.

Over the coming months we will be looking in more detail at some of the attractions available within a short there-and-back trip from Norbury, whether you have two weeks, a week or just a few days to experience the true joy of a relaxed, unhurried potter in a narrowboat. We begin with a wonderful place visited by far too few holiday boaters but only 2-3 days travel from us at Norbury, moving just eight hours a day.

The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port is reached by travelling to the northern terminus of the Shropshire Union Canal - past Market Drayton, down the beautiful Audlem flight, through Nantwich and Chester and finally past Chester Zoo into the industrial town of Ellesmere Port.

I won't pretend that last section is pretty but it is fascinating, with the tank farms of towers of the massive Stanlow oil refinery on your right as you head towards the canal's junction with the Manchester Ship Canal, writes Peter Underwood.

It is appropriate that the Museum sits on this junction as it brings together a unique fleet of historic boats from both the narrow canals, like the Shroppie, and the wide canals of the north as well as the rivers and the Ship Canal itself in the historic docks at Ellesmere Port.

The town itself is unprepossessing but the museum, with its stunning location on the banks of the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, extensive in-door displays, boat trips and historic buildings, is a great day out.

It began life in the 1970s as the North West Museum of Inland Navigation, later The Boat Museum, and was started by a group of enthusiasts passionate to preserve a vanishing way of life - the Boat Museum Society - and large collections of boats and other items such as traditional clothing, painted canalware and tools were bought together.

In the 1990s The Waterways Trust took on the management of the National Waterways Museum. Funding from Heritage Lottery Fund helped create new displays and improve visitor facilities.

The handsome Victorian buildings that house the Museum's displays sit amidst a scene of locks and moorings vibrant with historic and visiting narrow boats and rich with canal wildlife.

Designed by Thomas Telford under the direction of William Jessop, the docks at Ellesmere Port were still in use as late as the 1950s. They were a marvellously self-contained world and when you visit the museum today you can still walk round its locks, docks and warehouses and visit its forge, stables and workers cottages.

Walking the seven-acre site takes you through a landscape of Victorian buildings, docks, locks, stables, cottages and canal basins.

With lots of green spaces the site is full of lovely spots to sit and watch the world go by, and the waterways attract a wide variety of wildlife and especially many wild birds.

The Island Warehouse was built in 1871 as a store for grain and now houses the two largest display areas.

On the ground floor you will find displays about the history of boat and canal building.

Alongside historic boats and re-creations of workshops there are ingenious hands-on displays and touch-screen interactives.

Watch archive film of the spectacular launch of a narrow boat, find out how canal 'ice breakers' worked and see rich displays on the crafts and skills of boat makers.

Up stairs, find out what it would have been like to work on the canal as a boat or dock worker in our exhibition Life on the Cut. Plus a special display on the history of the Manchester Ship Canal.

Inside the building you will walk around boats of all shapes and sizes from a coracle to a canoe and from a gleaming leisure cruiser to the beautiful narrow boat 'Friendship'.

Set just aside from the rest of the museum, Porter's Row and its traditional cottage garden present a lovingly recreated picture of domestic life through the ages in Ellesmere Port's canal docks.

Originally built in 1833 the four cottages of Porter's Row were, over the years, home to shipwrights, blacksmiths, railway workers and, of course, porters and their families.

Today the cottages recreate homes from the 1840s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s - each with the decor and features of its time, from oil lamps to electric light and from coal-fired coppers to early hand-operated washing machines.

The Power Hall is packed full of gleaming, beautifully maintained engines, all themed around water. The engines are looked after by museum volunteers.

Looking after these boats is an on-going task and you will see boats and narrowboats in various states of repair.

Boaters arriving at the museum will find British Waterways' visitor moorings in the upper basin, near the Museum entrance. To stay overnight, please contact Museum reception which is open 10am to 5pm daily.

Visiting boats are usually directed to the lower basin, through two sets of locks inside the museum complex. It won't cost a fortune to moor right in the heart of the museum itself. You pay £6 per person for the first night and that gives you entrance to the museum for as long as you stay there. So a boat with two people would pay £12 to visit the museum and moor there for one night and only another £4 a night for any subsequent night's moorings.

Dogs are welcome, and there is fresh water and refuse facilities as well as a facility for Elsan pump out.

This has to be one of the most interesting locations to moor at in the UK. The stunning setting combines the historic Ellesmere Port canal docks with a vibrant museum and an iconic location beside the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey with views of Liverpool across the water.

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