The Cheshire Ring
If you’re a regular visitor to WillCycle, you’d know that I’m quite a fan of cycling the very many canals in the UK. The reasons are simple, and very obvious: canal routes are often extremely stunning, are almost entirely traffic-free and are relics from the Industrial Revolution. I freely admit to being a huge fan of remains of the Industrial Revolution, despite acknowledging the enormous environmental harm done during that period. Now the Cheshire Ring is actually a route known to canal boaters, and comprises of six different canals. Despite the name, the route isn’t a circle, but rather a large triangle, just about 100 miles in length.
A Travelling Ouballies Ride
If you didn’t know what a Travelling Ouballies Ride is, nor how to to pronounce it, I suggest you go read this post first, before returning here. For me to do a route guide for a ride, I need to first draw it on a map, then I need to go ride it. There simply is no substitute for riding a route to see what it’s like. Some canals are covered by Google Streetview, but looking at those images cannot tell you if the towpath under your wheels is soft and slippery, or not. As a result, I always go ride a route, before creating a route guide.
I live in Devon, and Cheshire is a long old way from me. I looked at various options for getting there, but sadly the most cost-effective option was to drive there in my van, and pick Caspar up along the way. That meant I started driving at 4am, and despite two stops at motorway services, we were in Sandbach by 9am. Sandbach (pronounced Sandbatch, not Sandback) is a small village in East Cheshire, right on a main train line. James was catching the train down to meet us there, and the day started with breakfast in a delightful little café in the centre of Sandbach.
From the centre of Sandbach, we had a short stint of cycling on roads, before joining the towpath. Almost immediately we were presented with a set of barriers where my best option for getting past them was to physically lift my laden bike over. Disappointingly, we would encounter many anti-cycling and anti-disabled barriers throughout the route. It seems the county of Cheshire truly despises cyclists and disabled people, preferring to make things as difficult as possible for them. However, the towpath itself was rather good to cycle on, and we made good progress.
If you’ve never cycled on a towpath, you need to understand a few things about it beforehand. For starters, towpaths are not cycling infrastructure! They were built for the horses that pulled the canal boats and horses can cope with far rougher terrain. Secondly, canals were waterproofed by lining them with clay, in a process called “puddling”. That was cheap and effective (1700s technology, you see) but also meant that a lot of clay ended up on the towpath. And wet clay is as slippery as black ice! Many towpaths have been upgraded, with surfaces varying from self-compacting gravel, to loose gravel, to effectively builder’s rubble, to smooth tar, and to (often extremely bumpy and slippery) cobbles.
Hierarchy of use
It’s important to understand that there’s a hierarchy of use along towpaths, with pedestrians having the highest priority. Most of the time, pedestrians will step aside to let you pass, but where there’s any doubt, just stop to let them pass. It will make things so much easier for everyone. Equally importantly, just like cyclists don’t want drivers passing them at speed, along narrow lanes, so pedestrians don’t want cyclists speeding past them on often very narrow towpaths. Please do slow down before passing pedestrians?
Trent & Mersey Canal to the Macclesfield Canal
From Sandbach, we followed the Trent & Mersey Canal to Kidsgrove. By towpath standards, it varied from fine to good, with the caveat that there are barriers along the route. Canal towpaths are in general certainly not accessible!
At Kidsgrove we were forced to loop back on ourselves for a short bit, to pick up the Macclesfield Canal. This is a narrow canal, but of course that’s a limitation that only applies to boaters. The canal runs through the heart of rural Cheshire, and it certainly is very scenic. We briefly left the canal, to have lunch at the gorgeous Sutton Hall, but before long we were back on the towpath. The forecast was for rain, but it’s been dry up to this point. Well, until Caspar commented on the lack of rain, which resulted in the rain almost immediately starting!
I had Covid not very long before the ride, and was still recovering. In fact, the ride was just three weeks after I was testing negative for Covid. I was testing my peak air flow by blowing into a special meter. When I first tested negative, I managed just 200 litres/minute (normal for me is around 650 to 700 l/m) but in the last week that improved to 450 m/l. Nevertheless, I knew I hadn’t fully recovered, and that I needed to take it easy. Caspar and James were patient, and both kept the pace down so I didn’t have to push hard.
We were soon in Macclesfield, where the towpath was suddenly closed, and we were diverted away from the canal. Annoyingly, there were no signs after leaving the canal, but after just one wrong turning we were soon back on the towpath. On the far end of Macclesfield we left the canal to ride along the Middlewood Way, a disused railway converted to a shared path. The rain was still falling, but remained light, and because of the improved, flat, wide surface, our average speed went up. We sped along through Bollington to the edge of Poynton, where we planned to call it a day.
Travelling Ouballie rides always involve wild camping, and this ride was no exception. The trouble was where we opted to camp: in Poynton, there’s a lovely flat, grassy area between the two old platforms, just down a ramp from the Boar’s Head pub. It’s a great spot for camping, because it’s so flat, and the proximity of the pub. The trouble is that camping in a spot like that can also attract the attention of local busybodies, so we were forced into an extended stay in the pub. The struggle is real, I tell you!
Once darkness fell, and after perhaps at least one too many drinks (plus food, obviously) we left the pub and pitched tent (in my case) and bivvies (Caspar and James) in the dark. I woke in the early hours of the morning from loud voices of passers-by up on the road, but as we weren’t visible even from the houses, we were left in peace. The dawn chorus however, was a different story and woke all three of us early. Far too early for breakfast in the pub. James carried an AeroPress Go, as did I, so he made himself a brew, while I made coffee for Caspar and me. Soon, we were packed up and riding again.
Originally, my route diverted over a (long-since rebuilt) Roman footbridge, but that also involved a fair bit of climbing afterwards. On balance, given the state of my lungs, I figured it best to simply stay on the Middlewood Way (which has many A-frame barriers!) That took us into Marple, where we joined the Peak Forest Canal. Someone had warned me that the towpath was very poor, and overgrown, so I was a bit wary about what we’d encounter, but we pressed on, past Marple Locks. The towpath was in the main pretty good, with some muddy segments every now and then.
As we still haven’t had breakfast, around Hyde we started looking for somewhere. Google maps directed us to a a café just off the canal, only it was closed. A bit more searching and a bit more riding brought us to Tea At Nr 77, on Market Street, Hyde. It’s a very nice and unpretentious little café that served a great breakfast at excellent prices. If you’re in the area, I suggest popping in. After breakfast, we simply reversed our steps back to the canal. The towpath was fine to ride on all the way to where we joined the Ashton Canal, in Manchester. The exception to that is the spiral ramps to and from some of the bridges, where the towpath changed sides – some of those were lethally slippery, and I almost ended up on my rear-end while walking my bike down one!
I like Manchester. It’s an industrial city that’s filled to the brim with industrial heritage. Some of that is crumbling, but even in that there is beauty. The towpath along the Ashton Canal was a bit of a mixed bag though. Most of it was good, but there are these annoying little speedbumps built across the towpath. Obviously, whomever built that thinks everyone is terrified of riding too close to the edge, as they tend to stop about 30 cm from the edge. As a result, I used that narrow segment to bypass the speedbumps. However, there were cobbled ramps at each of the locks, and those were bloody awful! If you bought a brand-new Brooks B-17 leather saddle, and wanted to break it in quickly, simply go ride up and down the Ashton Canal a few times!
The route passes right by Manchester Piccadilly station, and we had to leave the canal for a while. I was live-sharing our location at this point, and we were joined for a while by Jon (follow him on Twitter, as he’s a good guy). James showed us some touristy places, like Turing’s statue, and the rather underwhelming Vimto bottle, before we stopped for a while at another pub, right by the Roman Gardens. I really love old ruins, but the Roman site was, well, not exactly the best I’d ever seen. I’ll leave it at that. Soon enough we were riding again, this time along the Bridgewater Canal, but soon after Jon had to turn off, and we said our goodbyes.
Coffee and a water park
I’m a total coffeeholic, and insisted we stop somewhere for coffee, as the pub didn’t serve any! We stopped at a coffee shop right on the canal. It was a great cup of coffee, so if ever you’re in the area, go treat yourself. The Bridgewater Canal towpath was rather good, but also very busy, and we found ourselves having to stop for congestion every so often. Later, we made an unplanned diversion around the Sale Water Park, to have lunch at Jackson’s Boat. The coffee was a bitter disappointment, but the pizza was good. More importantly, Caspar has a chance to dry out his bivvy and tarp in the warm sunlight. We circled the water park before rejoining the canal.
Trans Pennine Trail
By Oldfield Brow, cycling on the towpath became verboten but we were always going to divert along the far better surface on the Trans Pennine Trail. It’s a great route, except for the many A-frames along it. Our camping spot was meant to be in a field just a short while further on, around half a mile from a pub. Previous Ouballie rides taught us that sometimes, if you’re lucky and ask nicely, pubs allow you to camp in their gardens, and we were going to ask the nearby pub. First we scouted the potential camping spots, then rode back to the pub. Only to find it was closed for renovation!
Plan B was hatched: we’d simply cycle to the next nearest pub, the Axe and Cleaver, as we needed food. Caspar and I were seriously scouting for more camping sites nearer that pub, but in the end that proved to be unnecessary. As we ordered a round of drinks, Caspar asked the owner if we could camp in his garden, and almost without hesitation he agreed. That meant we didn’t have to ride any distance after our meal, and that we didn’t have to pitch tents in the dark. As an added bonus, we could have breakfast there the following morning. James, however, was hearing the siren call of his bed, perhaps 30 minutes ride away, and decided he would leave to go home, then rejoin us in the morning.
The last day
In addition to recovering from Covid, I am also nursing a torn meniscus cartilage in my right knee, and I used a cam strap around my leg, just below the knee-cap. I yank it as tight as I can, and it literally makes the difference between being to walk and ride as normal, versus hobbling along in pain. However, the strap is quite rough, and after wearing it for 48 hours, it was rubbing my skin raw. That made me take it off, and that was a mistake, but I’d only discover that later.
James rejoined us just in time for breakfast (impeccable timing!) and soon enough after we were on our way again. We reversed our route until we were back onto the Trans Pennine Trail, and simply followed that. I was suffering a bit, which I put down to normal fatigue, and tried to maintain a reasonable pace, but Caspar and James often had to wait for me. We were aiming for a pub called the Leigh Inn, in Bartington, where we were to meet two other cyclists Prestwich Pootler and Mel – do yourself the favour of following them both. We were late, and that was because I had to stop so often.
Part of the reason why I was going slow is mud being trapped between my tyres and mudguards. At some point Caspar dug a fair bit out, and that made a big improvement, though I was still slow and suffering. The towpath varied in quality between us rejoining the canal and Barrington, but was mostly OK for riding, even if a little muddy. After Bartington, it improved for a while. Mel joined us for the ride back to Sandbach, which was another 18 miles down the canal. Soon after the Anderton boat lift the towpath quality nosedived. Effectively, we were cycling on wet clay. It was slippery, and hard work. I was rapidly running out of steam, and had to stop more and more often.
After a while, I told James and Mel to continue without me. Caspar was reliant on lift home from me, so stayed with me, and we slowly pushed on. I was struggling to get enough air into my lungs, and even small amounts of exertion left me puffed out. Needless to say, I had to stop even more often, to catch my breath. As I said to Caspar, it didn’t feel like fatigue from riding. Instead, it was as if a very large person was sat on my chest, and no matter what I did, I simply couldn’t get enough air in my lungs.
Caspar suggested we walk for a while, and so we did. I was feeling dizzy, so was grateful to not be riding. Eventually, with five miles remaining, I couldn’t go on anymore. Caspar’s insured to drive my van, so he headed off on his own to go fetch it, and I slumped down next to the towpath. My body was tingling all over, similar to having needles and pins, and I was feeling very cold suddenly (men were walking past topless, as it was a pleasant day out).
I think I now understand what happened. My lungs very obviously hadn’t yet recovered from Covid, and I suffered exercise-induced inflammation of the lungs, which massively reduced my lungs’ ability to breathe. I finally got home just after midnight, and Monday morning I did a peak flow test again. I was disappointed to see that my maximum peak flow rate was back down to just below 200 l/m. I had vastly underestimated how much Covid set me back, and I was lucky to be riding with such a supportive and patient riding buddy as Caspar.
I’m also annoyed, because I came close to ruining a ride for others. This was the first ever ride on which I was a casualty, and I never want to be a casualty again. I also severely dislike people having to wait for me, so will pay far greater attention to my health before future rides.
Despite all of that, it was a great long weekend, and a wonderful adventure. I saw parts of the UK that many people who lived here all their lives will never see, and I met some absolutely wonderful people face to face.