11 Aug

Week 13 – Liverpool At Last

August In Melling

Saturday 10th August really did live up to its billing, being grey, wet, windy, then very wet, then very windy and ending in extensive gales. There were breaks in the rain but, as it turned out, not long enough to complete even a modest walk in the area without getting drenched. We know this because we tried it. The only good news was that it was entirely expected and we had no plans to move the boat today.

What was a really quite modest drop in temperature was so exacerbated by the effects of the wind that we even contemplated lighting the stove. We know, from various posts on Faceache, that there are those out there who did weaken, but to us it just felt wrong to be doing that in August. One good thing about a narrowboat is that, if you just need a short boost, you only have to light a couple of gas rings for ten minutes and the saloon soon warms up.

Of course, the gas then ran out but that is the first bottle we have finished since March. We had a spare and this was a chance to enjoy the benefits of designing the boat to store the gas in a stern locker on deck. Switching over the supply in the wind and the rain and the dark isn’t half as uncomfortable when you have a deck light mounted right over the bottles and you are not balancing on the slippery steel of the bow trying to work inside a traditional forward gas locker, with the steel hatch continually dropping on your head.

Hell For Litherland

When we had first started enquiring about good places to moor as you got near to Liverpool the one name that kept coming back was Litherland. The initial thought, that there must be a sale on, proved incorrect. It seems that Litherland is an actual place somewhere between Crosby and Bootle.

There is a CRT depot there with a full set of services and a short stretch of mooring that is secured from the land side. There is a very large Tesco store right beside the CRT site. Boats using the Liverpool Link can only go in at 13:00 and can only leave at 09:30. As it is just a little over an hour from the top of the Liverpool Link, Litherland provides an ideal staging post to moor overnight, top up or empty out and re-provision the boat, before making the final assault on Liverpool. For those coming the other way it is a chance to do the same, after up to seven days in the city and to get down the weed hatch to clear all the debris that is bound to have accumulated around the propeller.

As Sunday dawned the winds had, indeed, eased and as expected, the rain cleared away quite quickly. We were a little short of a recently automated swing bridge that crosses quite a busy road just at the top of the Aintree Racecourse. It is programmed to prevent boaters opening it at peak times so we knew we couldn’t leave before nine thirty. Heading down there from our overnight mooring, despite the grey skies, it was a little warmer again and there were even signs of the clouds lightening up.

Instructions on the bridge begin: “1. Ensure the bridge is clear of traffic”. It gives no specifics on how to do this if the traffic refuses to clear. The road across is single track, so if it clears in one direction there is usually a queue of people waiting to come the other way. If you are going to find a gap, then Sunday morning is probably your best chance and eventually we got the bridge open. The automated bridges go through a sequence of traffic lights, crash barriers and bridge operation that run very slowly with long pauses between them. In the meantime, to the untrained eye, it looks as if you are just standing there holding up the traffic on a whim. It shouldn’t really be the case but we always feel a bit awkward as the queue of cars builds up around us.

This bridge is just on the outskirts of Aintree and as you move on from the swing bridge you arrive at the famous racecourse and can identify some of those iconic names that will resonate with anyone who has ever heard a commentary on the Grand National. You meet the course at the Canal Turn, of course, then pass Becher’s Brook to your left and run alongside the back straight across the Melling Road until the track peels off towards The Chair on the first lap or the Finish line on the second.

The canal continues past Aintree through the Netherton swing bridge on what is, thankfully, a slightly quieter road. It then meanders South to run beside the Rimrose Valley Country Park and Crosby on the right to arrive at the last swing bridge, a footbridge this time, right before Litherland and the CRT site there.

When we arrived the mooring looked quite full and we were a bit surprised to find how limited the space was here. It is a popular, safe spot and must attract a lot of boats but you could only get half a dozen in here. There are no rings or bollards to tie up to, so every boat has to hammer in mooring pins when they arrive. Having found ourselves doing the decent thing at Netherton Road, by letting a couple of following boats through the bridge before closing it, we would have been a little put out if there was no space for us to moor. However, a couple of boats were moving out and one of the beneficiaries of our generosity, who had already secured his boat, had been grateful enough to ensure we could take the space.

Throughout the morning the weather had continued to improve and as we banged in our pins at lunchtime the sun cleared away the clouds for a very pleasant summer’s afternoon.

Moored Up At Litherland
View From Litherland

The Liverpool Link

Our appointed day for going into Liverpool was the Glorious Twelfth, which turned out to be a reasonably fine Monday. To avoid arriving too early we had to wait until late morning and had ample opportunity to see the boats that had left Liverpool that morning arriving at Litherland. One by one, as each successive craft arrived, the owner would disappear down their weed hatch and haul out skeins of rancid weed and plastic. This clear warning that the channel beyond here was exceptionally choked up made us bring our departure time forward a little, so that we could hasten more slowly and hopefully minimise what we collected.

Not quite the clear watery motorway you might imagine
We hadn’t seen a mounting block actually in a canal before

There were a couple of boats, who were travelling together, that left ahead of us and we arrived at the top of the link just after one o’clock. We were somewhat surprised to have already had a phone call from CRT, bang on 13:00, to confirm we were definitely coming down.

Top of the Stanley Flight with the clock tower in the distance

Heading down into Liverpool is a very different experience from dropping through the bowels of Manchester. Where the latter dares you to enter and forces you to overcome a series of unnecessary and unpleasant obstacles to spit you out into a take it or leave it mooring with no facilities or support, Liverpool has invested in welcoming you into its heart and provides safe, secure, pre-booked, well serviced moorings with water and electricity provided free of charge. The approach is well managed and supported so, while it is a little challenging, it is an enjoyable experience not a gruelling, solo trial by ordeal.

Use of the Liverpool Canal Link is unusually strictly controlled. Only half a dozen boats can be booked to go down on a given day and there is no access on Tuesdays. If you book in you must book passage out at the same time. You can only stay for a maximum of seven days and cannot return within twenty eight days. You can only go down between 13:00 and 16:30 on your booked day. You can only leave between 08:00 and 09:30. All this is because you are moving through a huge, operational and potentially hazardous dock area, different parts of which are owned by different authorities and companies with their own rules to be followed. I have cobbled this together from some notes provided by CRT and other sources:

In 1981 Merseyside Development Corporation was established to revitalise the South Docks area to attract inward investment, business and visitors. A huge amount has been done since then. As a part of this British Waterways (now Canal & River Trust) negotiated a ‘right of passage’ through Liverpool Central Docks with the Dock owners. Now, the Liverpool Canal Link (LCL) provides a navigable route from the bottom of the existing Stanley Lock Flight on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Liverpool’s South Docks. The route includes two new locks, open channels, tunnels and culverts.

This doesn’t really do justice to the amount of other works that went into creating a safe, navigable and identifiable route through a complex maze to get to the final destination, which is a set of secure pontoons in Salthouse Dock, at the heart of the Albert Dock tourist centre. The very specific and quite convoluted route passes through a series of wide docks, with large expanses of deep, open water exposed to the wind. There are channels marked by orange buoys. Sometimes these must be kept to the right and sometimes to the left. There are a few overhead obstacles to avoid and the locks and tunnels to negotiate. There are also stunning views of some of the most iconic landmarks of the city to be seen from the water.

Our lives were made considerably easier by a number of factors. To start with the weather was dry, with fairly light winds. Although the funnel effect of some of the structures we passed could be felt, you could also tell that stronger winds in the open water would change the game significantly. We found that CRT had quite a few staff on hand and despite the emphasis in the “skippers guide” that the locks are all boater operated they really did most of the work, walking across from the Stanley Flight to get ahead of us at Princes Dock Lock and Mann Island Lock further on. Finally, we joined Nigel and his wife on “Tam Shaz” for the trip, who clearly knew everyone and everything, They had their boat built thirty years ago and have been cruising on it and taking it in and out of Liverpool ever since. All we had to do was follow them and revel in Nigel’s endless stories and advice as we sat in the locks. All the ‘lockies’ clearly knew them very well and were keen to look after them. They told us that Nigel had just been operated on for bowel cancer, while his wife has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Very sad for them, of course, but you would never have known it from their cheerful attitude.

Some photos of the approach through the docks

At the last lock we were encouraged to go out first, leaving “Tam Shaz” to collect the CRT Lock keeper and give him a lift. Following the directions through five right angle turns between different dock basins was actually not too bad. We were stumped, however, as we were set to go into Albert Dock itself, as the navigation light we had been told to ensure was green currently showed red. Floating there in a big open dock, hovering outside the giant entrance we had no idea what to do. The instructions had been very clear that you must ensure that the light is green but had omitted to say what action you should take if the light was not green. We began to wonder if we had got mixed up about what light to look for etc. and where we could moor to wait. At that point “Tam Shaz” hove into view and the lock keeper was on the bow shouting for us to go through anyway. Chatting to him later it was his mistake, not ours, it seems. He should have set the light to green before heading up to the top lock and had forgotten to do so. Still, no harm done.

Down On The Docks

We found our pontoon quite easily and where I expected the three point turn in the middle of the dock expanse to reverse into the seven foot gap between it and the next boat might prove challenging it actually seemed to go pretty well. Having tied up about three o’clock we didn’t waste too much time getting out into the city to look for a late lunch. We did pause for a moment, however, to admire the thousands of moon jellyfish we could see rising and sinking in the surprisingly clear water around the pontoons.

Salthouse Moon jellyfish in their thousands

Moored as we were, right in the heart of the tourist centre but secure from passing gongoozlers, with water and electricity ‘on tap’ and a daily garbage collection, we were ideally placed to explore. Liverpool ONE, the big central shopping centre with the flagship John Lewis store is literally just across the road. Albert Dock has a colonnade around the open water with more bars, restaurants and eateries than shops. The concert arena is across the other side of the dock, with one of those big wheels that have become so popular everywhere and the Adventure Dock, an inflatable obstacle course in the water. The Three Graces, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the Museum of Liverpool, the ferry across the Mersey, memorials to the Titanic and many other events are right behind you.

Safely berthed at Salthouse Dock
Our view from the mooring

We couldn’t really do justice to more than half of the immediate area that afternoon but it was very nice strolling around in the sunshine among a busy crowd of holidaymakers, despite a strong breeze.

Whistle Stop Liverpool

The following day we dredged up a walking tour of the city online and followed that around the rest of the Albert Dock and Pier Head area, up to Lime Street Station, both of the cathedrals and back round past Chinatown to the docks again. It was probably quite a superficial tour but we had a fantastically sunny day for it, though still with a very strong wind down by the sea, and we got a decent feel for the place.

Have you heard of The Beatles? Take a trip to Liverpool and you certainly will have. You would be forgiven for thinking this popular beat combo was the only worthwhile thing Liverpool had ever produced. As well as the big glossy Beatles Story, the Cavern Club and the souvenir shops all around the dock, every cheeky chancer in the city clearly feels entitled to hijack the band’s reputation for their Fab Four tour, taxi, sandwich, tattoo parlour, kebab shop, strip bar etc.

The Three Graces are a famous group of three buildings on the Pier Head: The domed Port of Authority building, the Cunard Building and The Royal Liver building topped by the two Liver Birds who provided the title for an old situation comedy set in Liverpool that a few of us may remember. They do look magnificent, even dwarfed by the modern blocks around them.

The Three Graces

Like every other city we visit, the whole place seems to be in the throes of construction but that probably never changes. Having said that the whole place seems to be very prosperous, everywhere we went was busy with people going about their business in a city that generally seemed clean, tidy and well managed. There seems to be higher ratio of drinking and catering establishments per capita than we have seen in the UK outside London. Close to the docks area it is very difficult to find even a blade of grass for Bracken and that seems a general issue as we walked around. As we found when visiting Aintree Boats any scrap of grass that does exist in Liverpool is heavily defended. We did manage to sniff some out, however, including the very nice St. John’s Gardens by St. George’s Hall, near Lime Street station.

All grass in Liverpool is heavily defended

No city seems to be at its best around the railway station and as we climbed up Mount Pleasant towards the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral the area seemed a bit more run down, more like West Croydon than the West End. Perhaps the fact that this seems to be the university or student quarter has something to do with that. It only affects a small area, however. As we wandered away from the cathedral down Hope Street things quickly improved again and we stopped for lunch at Pimpernel, a gastro pub with wicker furniture placed all around the outside which, at least in today’s sunshine, reminded us both of being in Rome or Paris.

Some Pictures from Our Whistle Stop Tour (No Beatles)

Fortified by a large G&T with a grilled ham & prosciutto on sour dough sandwich and a shared bowl of fries, we carried on to view the Anglican Cathedral off Upper Duke Street. Both this and the Metropolitan Cathedral are surprisingly recent additions to the city with the latter completed in 1967 and the Anglican one in 1978. From this high point the building doesn’t look that impressive so we were also surprised to hear it was one of the largest cathedrals in the world. When you get down below, however, you begin to appreciate its real scale. Crossing Cathedral Gate gave both of us another reminder of a visit to Rome, where we chanced upon the Ministry of the Interior, which has a similar vast forecourt high up in that city.

Further down the hill the magnificent Chinatown Gate at the entrance to Nelson Street, which leads to what we are told is Europe’s oldest Chinese community. Something we need to explore on a future visit. For now we carried on down Duke Street to take us back to the docks.

We only had a day this time. We had deliberately kept the visit short as we didn’t know how Bracken would handle it and weren’t too sure how much we would enjoy it ourselves. Based on this brief reconnaissance, we came away with a very positive impression of Liverpool and would hope to come back in a couple of years for a longer period.

Passage Out

An early start on Wednesday to prepare the boat to be at Mann Island lock for 08;00. It turned out that the boat next to us, whose owners had returned the previous evening from a trip to their home, was also leaving this morning and it looked as though we were the only two making the trip that day. It had been very wet overnight but wasn’t too bad at first, despite a poor forecast, we had occasional light drizzle and attempted sunshine on the way back to the top of the Stanley Flight. Importantly, the winds were fairly light at that point. The lock keepers were as helpful and hardworking on the way up as they had been on the way down. As we knew our way around by now and weren’t fighting the elements, we had more chance to take in the views on the way back and it is a great trip.

As we reached the top of the flight and joined the main canal any traces of sunshine vanished and the rain intensified to chase us back to Litherland. We were moored up there again before eleven o’clock for the obligatory trip down the weed hatch. You couldn’t imagine a greater contrast with the day before and given the current conditions and the forecast we had decided that it would be best to settle here for the day and move on in the better weather being predicted for Thursday. For once, this turned out to be the right decision. After the restrictions of our stay in the docks it was quite nice to be able to make our own schedule again.

What we could do was start to put some more detail on the next part of our trip, including booking a temporary mooring to let us return home in a few weeks time. We figure we should be near Crewe, which has a direct line to Leamington Spa but could only get a slot at Swanley Bridge Marina on the Llangollen canal. Looking into that a bit further, we realised the marina is above Hurleston Locks, one of which is restricted pending repairs this winter to rebuild it and restore it to full width. Boats have been stuck in it and it is limited to a maximum beam of 6′ 10″. Would you believe our beam is supposed to be exactly 6′ 10″, provided Aintree Boats’ tape measure was accurate that day! We spoke to CRT who were really helpful, as they always seem to be despite the moans we see on Faceache. Within ten minutes, at a time when the local office was officially closed for the day, we had a call back to say that the Area Manager had been contacted and confirmed that there was enough leeway to say, with confidence, that at 6′ 10″ we would be fine and should continue with our plans.

Heading Home

Thursday morning, following continual heavy rain all the previous day and overnight, started damp with rain squalls continuing until about nine o’clock. From then on the high winds that had really kicked in the night before managed to shred the clouds enough to let some sunshine in and the rest of the day was dry and bright but very blustery. As luck would have it a boat arrived at the Litherland water point just as we were preparing to move up there and that delayed us for an hour. Normally it wouldn’t matter but today’s plan was to stop at Wally’s Steps, by Bridge 7D, which gave access to the road across from Aintree Retail Park. There were a few things we planned to get, mostly for Bracken at Pets At Home. However, we had to be back on the boat and through Handcock’s Swing Bridge before its restricted hours began at 14:00. Late leaving Litherland meant less time for the side trip and a leisurely shopping trip became more of a supermarket sweep. Nonetheless, we managed to get everything we planned to and get back on our way with a little time to spare.

As we finally left Litherland it had turned out that we need not have been delayed after all. As the other boat pulled away and we moved up we saw that, tucked away around the side of the CRT office, there is a second water tap that is perfectly accessible from the canal. Something to remember for the future!

Once again the forecast was for a next cycle of low pressure to drown us all on Friday. The aim today, therefore, was to make hay while the sun shone, make as much distance as we could and find somewhere to moor where we could ride it out again the next day. Arriving at Downholland’s Cross there is a short section of mooring with rings to tie up to right next to the New Scarisbrick Arms. This is not a pub, as such, but a rather nice restaurant, much lauded on Trip Advisor, with a garden looking out over the canal. It is signed as Visitor Mooring 24 hours only but we felt that we could probably stretch a point, arriving one evening, to leave on Saturday morning.

By now, not only had the rain stayed off and the sun been out much of the day but the wind, which had kept things interesting at every one of the nine swing bridges we had had to pull over to operate on the way, slowly began to drop. As rebellious rule breakers in respect of the mooring we felt no shame in pushing our luck and asking the restaurant if they would serve us a drink even though we weren’t dining there. They were very nice people and more than happy to take our money as we sat in the garden enjoying a well earned pint in the lovely, calm, evening sunshine.

New Scarisbrick Inn

With no deadlines to meet or schedule to follow it makes good sense to stay put when it is clear that you are only going to get wet and miserable if you try to move on. Having said that, with so many such days arriving so close together this summer, it has started to seem more like the rule than the exception and begins to feel a little claustrophobic. Friday’s rain started at seven o’clock in the morning and kept going right through until gone seven o’clock in the evening, accompanied by high winds just as predicted. Again a good decision to sit tight but for how many more days like this can we keep ourselves amused if we don’t get a spell of more settled weather soon?

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NEIL PAYNE says:

Totally understand the issue with dogs and no green space in cities.

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