After the excitement of the boat lift we had another look at our plans on Friday morning, as we were at another of those fixed points. Needing to be back at the house for next Thursday we had looked for a place to leave the boat and catch the train. The best we had come up with that could take us was Swanley Bridge Marina on the Llangollen Canal. We would need to get there on Tuesday, 3rd September. From where we were at Anderton we could probably have done that in a couple of days and we had four days available, so we would need to make sure we didn’t go too fast or we would just be moored up outside for a couple of days.
The distance wasn’t that great but it is an interesting, slightly convoluted section. First, you follow the Trent & Mersey almost circling through ninety degrees around Northwich, reflecting the River Weaver below at a distance. Eventually, you arrive at Middlewich, where you can take the junction onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union canal. After a few miles, at the end of the branch, you turn left on to the main line of the Shropshire Union for a short distance before arriving at another junction with the Llangollen Canal. Turning right up the Llangollen puts you within a couple of hours of the marina. With all the junctions and a few locks thrown in for fun, it keeps you nicely engaged on the journey.
In the interests of not going too far, too fast we didn’t leave until quite late on Friday morning with a view to stopping at the CRT services, just a couple of bridges further up the canal. If we wanted to kill time then I suppose it was helpful to find the Elsan point out of order and not expected to be fixed for a couple of days. Sizing up the options, while taking on drinking water, the best course seemed to be to reverse up all the way between the boats moored on either side to reach a service dock outside Anderton Marina. They would let us use their sanitary station for the princely sum of three English pounds. We don’t usually pay but we decided it was better to pay the money and get the cassette emptied than carry it around with us for another couple of days until we reached a working CRT site.
The reversing process itself is not so difficult, particularly with little wind, although some care is needed. As you can only steer going forwards, on a long stretch like this you often need to stop reversing and use the forward gear to realign the boat before reversing some more. As a result, it all takes quite a time. This is a really busy stretch of canal, with boats moored nose to tail on both sides and a blind right angle bend coming through a bridge immediately before the marina wharf. As such, the biggest concern was that another boat would suddenly come steaming round the bend wanting to get through when we were only half way there. We were not quite sure what we’d do if that happened but thankfully we didn’t have to find out.
As we moved on around Northwich we first encountered Lion Salt Works, now a popular heritage site telling the story of the salt production industry in this area. We are still pretty rubbish at this. We were two miles down the cut when I suddenly thought: “Why didn’t we stop there, then?” We weren’t in a hurry and could easily have moored up and spent an hour or two there but it just never occurred to us until it was too late.
Next up we found ourselves going past the premises of Thor Specialities and a series of small signs on the offside bank that said: “If the siren sounds evacuate the area immediately”. Apparently they are a “multinational manufacturer and distributor of biocides, flame retardants, personal care ingredients and other speciality chemicals”. Presumably some of these can get a bit lively but we did wonder exactly how we would accomplish the urgent evacuation being called for. A sedate walking pace in a straight line doesn’t feel like it would fit the bill.
As we turned sharply south things calmed down a bit before we found ourselves in the heart of another maze of industrial plant, massive pipe work and huge vats and hoppers of who knows what substances spanning the canal as we passed through TATA Chemicals Europe site at Lostock.
Passing two marinas opposite one another we left Northwich behind and were out in the open country. It wasn’t long before we came to a couple of ‘flashes’, large stretches of water created as a result of the collapse of old mine workings. The sun was out and we stopped for lunch in one of the flashes and watched ‘Dad’ blow up a rubber dinghy and show the kids how it was done by launching himself into the path of an oncoming narrowboat and losing control of both the stubby plastic oars. He got out of the way eventually and gradually mastered some sort of technique, then the kids just took off in it as if they were born to it, leaving him to help ‘Mum’ with the barbecue.
We carried on after lunch and had intended going beyond Croxton Flash. On the way we spotted a 48 hour visitor mooring unusually positioned on the offside that looked so beguiling that we decided to pull over and call it a day right there. There was a short section of nice clean bank with rings and Armco to tie up to and behind it a lovely wooded glade with steep sides rising behind and around it. There were picnic tables and metal barbecue stands scattered around the grassy area. This was ‘Bramble Cuttings’ a site maintained by the Broken Cross Boat Club, presumably based at the Broken Cross pub which we had passed a little earlier. It is based on an old quarry and bordered by private land with no right of access. This little dell can only be reached by boat and offered space for just three or maybe four boats to moor. A real haven, safe, secluded and ideal for Bracken to be let off to run amok until any other boats arrived.
Last year this would have read “Middlewich Breach” as in March 2018 2,800 cubic metres of the canal embankment collapsed and the route was closed to navigation until December. To their credit CRT have now completed the repairs and, apart from the neat newness of the concrete bankside along the previously collapsed section, you would hardly know that anything had happened. It was said, at the time, that a similar breach in yesteryear was repaired in a month using only picks, shovels and the sweat of very large numbers of navvies. That, of course, was before health and safety went mad and I would guess they also didn’t bother about saving 10,000 fish before they started. It could also just be Fakebook history, of course.
On Saturday 31st August we saw our old friends “Jubilani”, alongside whom we had moored in Liverpool and then locked with up to Wigan, drive past us at Bramble Cuttings. Sure enough we caught up with them going into the Middlewich Big Lock and they were helpful as ever in opening paddles to empty locks for us as they left them and so on.
Middlewich Big Lock is presumably so-called because it is a double lock. The three locks above it are single locks, so anything wider than a narrow boat can’t go beyond them. As we moved up towards Middlewich we also passed over the Croxton Aqueduct, which was also just wide enough for us to pass through. With the need to turn round, any wide beam craft would only really be able to use about half a mile of canal between two winding points inside these limits. It makes you wonder why it was worth having the big lock there originally?
After a cloudy, cool morning we were all drenched in a torrential downpour that seemed to come out of nowhere just as we began working the three main locks close together. There was no chance to take shelter in that kind of situation so we just got wet. Fifteen minutes later, as we entered the last of the three, the sky cleared for a dry, sunny summer’s afternoon.
Just after the Middlewich locks comes the junction where we were to turn right to leave the Trent & Mersey and head down the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. A tight turn straight under a stone bridge with a lock sitting just beyond and room for only one boat between it and the junction. Technically, it seems, this short stretch, the lock itself and few yards above it are actually the Wardle Canal. It was built because the owners of the Trent & Mersey insisted that there should be no direct link between their canal and the Shropshire Union at Middlewich and it enabled them to levy large compensation tolls for boats to pass through Wardle lock.
We didn’t go too much further before finding a nice mooring on Saturday night where we could enjoy a sunny but rather windy afternoon.
Sunday the first of September seemed to bring with it instant Autumn. All of a sudden we were noticing a lot of fallen acorns, leaves here and there were looking a little bit browner and the Sunday morning temperature dropped by 5°C on the day before. Early days but winter is coming. We have started to see huge crops of red berries on the trees and hedgerows. According to one old wife aboard, this is a sure sign of a particularly harsh season in the offing.
Our total for Sunday was five and a half miles and one lock with a stop at a marina for some fuel and services. The marina stop was fine, although it seems we arrived just as one of the residents had booked in for a pump-out. They accepted our ‘queue-jumping’ in good part. After all, how could we have known? We just got on with it as quickly as we could. The one short, heavy shower of an otherwise fine and sunny day coming in just as we were working the only lock of the day felt a bit personal but generally we had a very pleasant day and a relaxing afternoon.
Lurking In The Llangollen
Monday morning was a similar bright, sunny start but by now we were down to 9°C. We had even less distance to travel, just three and a half miles but a bit more interesting with two junctions and five locks to negotiate on the way. The fourth and last lock on the Middlewich Branch was just ahead of our mooring and lined with CRT volunteers, requiring little input from us. Barbridge Junction, out onto the Shropshire Union main line, suddenly became extremely busy as we approached. Boats were coming from all directions, turning in, turning out or cruising straight across the end. Our first gambit of hanging back to let them sort themselves out didn’t work as they kept on coming, including from behind us, so we threw ourselves into the melee. With a bit of give and take, we made it round without incident to move on the next half mile to tackle the junction into the Llangollen Canal.
It is quite a wide junction from our direction so the turn wasn’t much of an issue. Just a couple of hundred yards in, however, there are the Hurleston Locks. A straightforward flight of four locks, with some very short pounds between them, these shouldn’t present too much of a problem. However, the bottom lock, No. 4, is collapsing and becoming narrower. The maximum beam now allowed into it is 6′ 10″ and it is supposed to be closed and rebuilt completely in the winter maintenance schedule. In the meantime, CRT staff man the lock during the working day and lock it up overnight. Volunteer lock keepers man some locks but these guys were CRT ‘regulars’, full time staff who would normally be doing something more productive. They were friendly enough but made it very clear that we should touch nothing and would be best off just staying on the boat. Some boats have got stuck in the narrow parts in recent months and they wanted to retain full control so that they could manage the pace and stop things at once if anything began to go wrong.
Having successfully made it through the first lock we found the next three manned by the normal volunteers, who were unusually keen to do some of the work so we had a really easy ride this morning and were moored up for the night, just a couple of bridges short of the marina, by lunchtime. After a fine, dry morning it was becoming greyer. We set out for a walk around the area after lunch hoping to do a circuit round by the Hurleston reservoir, which we think is a similar construction to the Toddbrook reservoir at Whaley Bridge. However, on this occasion, the farmers and the weather won. We covered half the route on good clear paths and then found our way blocked by five foot high crops planted right across the right of way, with no real route around it, at the same time as the rain began in earnest. We beat an ignominious retreat, retracing our steps but consoling ourselves that while we might not have completed the planned route we had actually still covered the intended distance.
Tuesday morning was brighter if a bit windy and we had a very short trip up to the marina. Somehow, on this occasion, we managed to conquer the wind across the wide open water and slid neatly into the marina and then on to our berth without a hitch. By now it looked quite threatening with dark clouds building in the distance but still plenty of sunshine so, as well as taking full advantage of the industrial strength laundry facilities, we set about a much needed boat cleaning afternoon. We managed the roof, bow, stern and port side and it looked all the better for it so it was a satisfying afternoon’s work. With the wind still rising we chickened out of the option to leave the berth, turn round and back in again so that we could reach the starboard side. A wise choice in the end, as it started to rain shortly after we made that decision. Instead we turned our attention to packing for the trip South the next day.
With Bank Holiday weekend looming and a forecast of hot, sunny weather we could already see the signs of a busy time on the canal. In the morning, as we headed down into a large built up area around Sale there was lots of activity on the moorings, all along the way, with people uncovering their boats, washing them down and stocking them up.
We stopped for supplies ourselves on the mooring at Sale Bridge. It seems to be a very big town but the area by the canal feels quite nice. We had to go through the busy shopping centre to get to Tesco so we saw a little bit of the place and it certainly seemed to be thriving, compared to some of the areas we have passed through.
Knowing we had a fair way to go we got straight back on board and decided to have lunch on the move. There were no locks or bridges on our route today and it was a beautiful day for a cruise.
As we left Sale Bridge you could see it on the map as a huge sprawl of urban development. Although people on the far side would probably claim they were in Altrincham there doesn’t seem to be much division. From the water it doesn’t feel that bad. The towpath continues to be very well made up and runs past gardens, schools and parks. On the offside permanent moorings seem to go on for miles with the railway just the other side of the bank. It makes for slow going when reducing speed to pass these long stretches but it doesn’t make a huge difference overall.
Blame The Parents
You can never really blame the children. Equally you can only ever really blame a dog’s owner. However, it isn’t always easy to see what you have done or how you can make it better.
Bracken is a lovely puppy and will soon be a year old. She is gorgeous, charming, very intelligent, affectionate and forces us to be more active than we might otherwise, which really is a good thing. Nonetheless, despite all the socialization we tried to do, and the training we have been through, there are some fundamentals that are proving really challenging.
On the one hand, she was labelled as ‘wilful’ & ‘independent’ before she even left the breeder at 8 weeks old and that hasn’t changed. A couple of related behaviours in particular make our life difficult and in some ways, the more we try to address them the worse they seem to get. On the other hand, even after nearly four months on the boat, she is palpably anxious and distressed while we are moving, and positively panicky whenever we manoeuvre to pull in to the side or enter locks etc. We have also found that, as the more limited space means both of us are now with her almost constantly, her ability to be left alone for an hour or two, which we had built up at the house, seems to have deserted her. Bold and independent, anxious and unhappy to be left alone, she really is quite the contradiction.
Behaviours change quickly at this stage and it could just be the ‘teenager’ phase so we need to persevere but we are concerned that we may have to think carefully at some point. Both about the impact on us if we aren’t able to address some key issues and about whether, if she can’t adapt to life on the boat enough to stop spending at least part of every day stressed and exhausted, it is fair to impose this life on her.
Breaking free of the urban sprawl we were aiming for Lymm. Looking on the map it seemed like a nice place to stop, with a fish & chip shop, so we were hoping to stay there for a couple of nights and allow the forecast heat wave and the Bank Holiday weekend wash over us.
There are no bridge numbers on the Bridgewater Canal and the bridges over the canal all have names. Another feature in this area is that where the canal crosses over roads, rather than under them, the crossings are labelled on the maps as “underbridges”. We couldn’t work out why these were not either aqueducts, from a canal perspective or tunnels from a road point of view.
Coming through Lymm Bridge we could see that five o’clock on a Friday evening was not the best time to be arriving here looking for a mooring. We got lucky though, finding a straight spot, just long enough to take us, at the far end, just by Whitbarrow Underbridge. It was under some trees, which might often be a disadvantage but if it was as hot as predicted then it might work out to be a good thing for the next day or two.
People continued to arrive, even into the darkness, peering hopefully along the crowded bank before giving in to despair, either continuing on into the night or stopping their boat somewhere inappropriate and tying up to whatever street furniture they could find. One enormous wide beam pulled up in front of us with the centre of the boat resting on the apex of a tight bend. This left his bow and stern out in the middle of the channel reducing it to just about a single boat width and so generating queues of traffic on either side. Could he not see this when standing on the bank? Or did he just not care? Hard to say but he wasn’t Lymm’s most popular camper that night.
On Saturday morning we went and had a good look round, following the Lymm Heritage Trail downloaded from their site. It hides it well but you eventually come to see that it is a small town masquerading as a village.. The centre is quite pretty and well kept. The trail takes you out to the Trans Pennine Trail and a very heavily used cycle trail. You come back through Slitten Gorge, where you can see the remains of the water powered Slitting Mill. Apparently this was a business of cutting iron bars, often imported, into nails. It seems this was a vital industry for the country and of sixteen recorded slitting mills a disproportionate number were in this part of the country.
Passing under the canal and through the centre you head out through a pretty grove called The Dingle and find yourself at Lymm Dam. The most striking feature here is that this not a dam. There is no vast curtain wall holding back millions of tonnes of water, in the style of the Todmorden dam now so familiar to all, just a large lake with pleasant paths, fishing stands and picnic areas all around it. Local opposition prevented a new turnpike road from Warrington to Stockport, which is now the A56, coming through the centre of the village. It was re-routed across the valley below St. Mary’s Church, requiring that an earth coffer dam be built across a stream and pool, which then formed the Lymm Dam lake. The trail takes you all the way round the “dam” and by the time we were back in the village it was time to seek out the shade by the boat to avoid the heat of the afternoon.
The fish & chips on Friday were good, there were lots of recreation spaces, it was very busy with visitors and locals alike, there are plenty of nice pubs and bars, all in a bright, sunny picturesque setting, bustling with boats all weekend. Overall, Lymm lived up to its promise in a way that Worseley really didn’t.
Fun Days & Festivals
Sunday continued the uncharacteristic Bank Holiday heatwave. We had already been in Lymm for two nights and could happily have stayed for a third but mooring there was restricted to forty-eight hours so we had to move on. In any case, we needed to make progress toward the Anderton Boat Lift as we had a date there on Tuesday.
We only cruised for three and a half hours, with a forty minute service stop on the way, before mooring up just by Moorefield Bridge. We expected this to be a fairly isolated ‘wild’ mooring in the countryside. There were a few other boats there but it was pretty much as expected. Having moored up, as we started a late lunch, we were aware of a strange thumping noise in the background and a lot of loud screaming from across the fields.
The first noise was explained by a quick trawl of the internet. It seems that we were in ground shaking earshot of this year’s ‘Creamfest’. This is the kind of music festival I don’t think Ray Baldwin would be attending. We were able to recognise only one name in the line-up, Fat Boy Slim, and the music seemed to be the same drumbeat endlessly repeated, with pauses. The good news was that this was the last day and it was due to finish before seven o’clock. The major noise did stop then but there was a late night laser light show that we got for free after the sun went down.
The second noise, coming from the opposite direction, turned out to be from the Red Lion in Moore, so far across horse paddocks and a railway line that we hadn’t realised it existed. They appeared to be having some sort of Bank Holiday family fun day, involving children and a bouncy castle, which went on for the rest of the afternoon.
After a while we filtered the noise into the background and got on with the afternoon’s task of setting up the anchor with fifty feet of chain, fifty feet of rope and shackles to secure it all to the fixing point in the bow. Everything had to come out of the bow locker and be stowed away again afterwards so it took a while and given the weight of these things combined with the heat of the day, a fair amount of sweat and swearing. Finally, and for the first time this summer, we were ready to start the barbecue. We learnt a lot about lighting fires and barbecues on our trip last year, apparently all very easily forgotten. Nonetheless, two cooked burgers were eventually on the plate and they tasted pretty good.
Bank Holiday Monday was to take us down to Anderton ready for the next day. Another three or four hours cruising that took us through the Preston Brook Tunnel, to leave the Bridgewater and get back onto the Trent and Mersey, which we had left behind when we turned up the Macclesfield Canal back in June. Preston Brook Tunnel is one-way operation with timed entry. If you are travelling South you are allowed to enter the tunnel any time between thirty minutes and forty minutes past the hour. Passage is around fifteen minutes. Northbound traffic is allowed to enter anytime from on the hour to ten minutes past the hour. Somewhat surprisingly, this is completely unsupervised, so look before you leap! Whilst you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is far from straight. Its sudden curves will catch you out if you don’t pay attention and could even hide a boat that had jumped the gun. Immediately beyond the tunnel is a stop lock. With a fall of just four inches it seems a little unnecessary these days but it still has to be negotiated like any other lock.
Coming through onto the Trent & Mersey you notice a change immediately. The canal remains as wide initially but there is a lot more vegetation on both sides, the trees seem to close in and the reed beds along the offside seem to have just been left to expand at will, often restricting the channel to almost a single boat width. You get quite a sense of neglect and unchecked entropy compared to the Bridgewater that you have just left behind.
There are two more tunnels before you reach Anderton. Like the Preston Brook Tunnel, both are far too narrow for more than one boat at a time. The first, Saltersford Tunnel, is also timed entry, with Southbound traffic permitted to enter between thirty minutes past the hour and fifty minutes past the hour and passage taking only around five minutes. In this case you can’t even see the light of the far portal at all. Strangely, although equally kinky and the longer of the two, Barnton Tunnel has no such restriction. You just have to have a look and hope for the best.
Having made it through these without incident we stopped on the forty eight hour moorings almost opposite The Stanley Arms and a little short of the boat lift. The thing that was most immediately striking, wandering down to the Visitor Centre, was the huge industrial plant down in the valley, which turned out to be owned by TATA Chemicals Europe.
Winding Down To The Weaver
Tuesday was the morning we were booked to descend to the River Weaver, via the Anderton Boat Lift. You can only enter from one direction so first we had to go past the lift and turn round in the wide basin just beyond and be on the holding mooring half an hour before our booking. The structure is a huge piece of machinery. There are two caissons that boats can be driven into. Each of these iron baths will hold two narrowboats, side be side. We travelled down with a crew that had done the trip literally hundreds of times. They were canal traders who had been moored outside the Visitor Centre over the long weekend, selling their goods to the tourists and they were heading back to their house on the Weaver. I must say that rather undermined our vision of canal traders as hard-bitten, continuous cruisers plying their wares around the network all year round, come what may.
Anderton Boat Lift
As we went down, the other caisson came up the other way, with the trip boat in it. I used to think that the lift operated with the two balancing one another out but this is not true. Each can be operated independently or both can be raised or lowered together, if required. Apparently, I was half right, as our companions told me the operation used to rely on their being counterbalanced originally. When the lift was restored and electrified it was no longer necessary. Nonetheless, it still helps so they usually do work them together in opposite directions and when not in operation they leave both caissons at the bottom to save strain on the structure.
The operation is straightforward. The boats are driven in to the chamber and a barrier raised behind them when they are secured. The caisson descends, very slowly. As it passes the rising caisson you start to see the big column of the hydraulic ram that does the heavy lifting. When the descent is complete the forward barrier is raised and the boats can proceed onto the river. Our companions told me that laser sensors now determine when the descent is complete. It seems these take an age to register and they are often fooled by almost anything, from a slight misalignment through to a spider sitting on the lens. Such issues never dogged the old pressure switch, I was told, that worked much more quickly and had a degree of tolerance for the real world.
Once down at the river level we headed upstream. It was a little like going on the Thames last year, in miniature. As well as the hassle of having to set up an anchor, chain and rope ready to be dropped in an emergency, all the locks are much bigger than on the canals and operated by full time lock keepers. The other key features of river travel are the sense of space, the freedom to do a U-turn almost anywhere and a 6 m.p.h. speed limit rather than 4 m.p.h. Everything is on a larger scale, as some of the vessels using the navigation are getting on for small ships rather than boats. There are a number of swing bridges to accommodate them but most narrowboats can pass beneath without needing to get them opened them, as long as the river level is not exceptionally high.
The Weaver – Up And Down
We were due to go back up to the canal on Thursday afternoon so this was really a short recce to see what’s what on the Weaver and probably return for a longer stay another time. The navigable stretch is about twenty miles long, with the Anderton Boat Lift somewhere near the middle. Upstream you pass through Northwich town and two locks to arrive at the Winsford Bridge. When you pass through there you leave CRT jurisdiction and enter the Winsford Flash at your peril, it looks an inviting expanse of water but is very shallow and you will run aground. However, it is possible to turn and there is even a water point just beyond the bridge, as long as you don’t stray too far. Downstream takes you through two other locks as far as the Weston Marsh Lock, which you can go through onto the Manchester Ship Canal but only by making special arrangements in advance. The navigation does go past Weston Marsh Lock for a short distance around Runcorn to Delamarsh Lock but having been there we didn’t see anything to recommend it.
In the time we had we were able to stop off at Northwich for an hour or so and gained a rather favourable impression of the town. There were some older half timbered buildings as well as some old style shopping precincts and a brand new centre so quite a mix through the ages but it felt busy and vibrant and worth exploring further.
We carried on up to Winsford via Hunts Lock and Vale Royal Lock. All the locks are operated by CRT staff. They are huge locks compared to those we are used to so you phone them when you set out to let them know you are on the way and they try to set the lock for you while you are on the way. They then phone ahead to the next lock and let them know you are on the way to them. This does mean you can’t pass through after they knock off or before they clock on the next day. Unlike Neil Payne’s éclusiers in France, however, they don’t go off to lunch. There seems to be a rivalry between the locks and we were given insults to pass on as we left Hunts Lock.
A River Weaver Lock
We had heard a lot about this river and we expected to find a very rural landscape, all about trees and green fields and weedy river banks. All these are present and correct but the number of massive industrial operations along this section was a surprise. Having at least seen this stretch and turned, without grounding, beyond Winsford Bridge we moored up for the night at a spot just short of Vale Royal Lock. Although there is no requirement for a towpath on the river there was a good track running beside the mooring. Well-used by runners and dog walkers but it really only ran like a causeway between the river on one side and marshy wet ground on the other so not much scope for wider exploration.
River Weaver industry upstream
Wednesday started wet so we delayed setting out but eventually had to don wet weather gear and make a start. First call was Vale Royal Lock, of course, then back through Hunts Lock and Northwich, past the Anderton Boat Lift, through Saltersford Lock and Dutton Lock to Weston Marsh Lock, barring access to the Manchester Ship Canal.
Once past the huge TATA site opposite the boat lift on the way to Saltersford Lock the surroundings become much less industrialised and more like the gentle countryside we had anticipated. This lasts for quite a long way but gives way again to heavy industry as you pass the M56 and Rocksavage to approach Runcorn. All you can see on the North bank is a mass of steel frameworks, pipes, holding tanks etc. for what feels like miles.
Way downstream Runcorn awaits
We did go past Weston Marsh but at this point we were just passing acres and acres of industrial manufacturing plant with nothing else to be seen so we soon turned back. The rain had eased after an hour or so and despite one other heavy shower in the afternoon, much of the day was really quite pleasant, As we made our way to a small mooring just beside Dutton Lock it was a lovely, sunny evening. We found the mooring a bit confusing, as it was clearly marked as a forty eight hour mooring but was also a water point and there was no room for more than one boat. It seemed unlikely that we would be in anyone’s way, however. In any case we couldn’t go anywhere else as it was too late to go back through the lock today, so we tied up here for the night.
The weather on Thursday was much brighter. Having realised that we were short of milk we got going as soon as the lock was opened so that we would have time to go up to Northwich, pick up some shopping and get back to the Anderton Boat Lift in time to check in there half an hour before our booked passage at two fifteen. As ever, when you are suddenly on a schedule, there was a hitch. Saltersford Lock was not set for us, even though Dutton had phoned ahead. Apparently they had been waiting for a boat that was said to have been on the way down but never showed up. We didn’t see any craft heading that way after we went through either so who knows where they went.
Despite the delay we were back at the lift in good time and back up on the Trent & Mersey by three o’clock. The weather was still fine but the wind had picked up, which made both the ascent and the junction out into the canal more interesting. We only went far enough to get away from the Visitor Centre before mooring up. The nature park here was a great place to give Bracken a good run and hopefully wear her out enough for us to go and eat at the Stanley Arms.
We woke on Saturday to grey skies and more rain but also a wind strong enough to shred the clouds quite early on, leaving a bright and sunny day. After too much time spent waiting for the rain to stop it was great to get moving again. We had quite a busy (for us) day planned ahead.
We stopped in at Scarisbrick Marina for diesel and made surprisingly neat work of the entry and exit from the basin, even drawing applause from a small group of gongoozlers on the towpath bridge as we left. The strong winds had their fun with the business of turning round in the restricted space inside the marina, however. The wharfman knew exactly how to do it, of course, so I followed his instructions to the letter but ended up much where I started. I did ask him what I had done wrong then, to which he replied: “Nothing. The wind got up” so nobody really has all the answers. We tried a different approach that worked this time and we were soon on our way.
We were now simply retracing our steps up the Leeds & Liverpool towards Wigan. It sounds boring when you say that but even though it is the same land and waterscape you saw on the way down there always seems to be a different perspective as you travel in the opposite direction. We approached Burscough, bracing ourselves for yet another ill-timed encounter with the “Rose of Parbold” somewhere between here and her home mooring. It never came. On further enquiry it seems they only run their charity trips during the week.
We moored up in Burscough for lunch and a side trip to Tesco and, as it happened, a very short sharp shower before continuing on back past the Rufford Arm and on to Parbold itself. Only four swing bridges to negotiate today, as opposed to the nine we had on Thursday, but we were on the move for six and a half hours, which is a long day for us these days. We had a pint at The Windmill and treated ourselves to a Saturday night takeaway from the Chinese chippie by the station. There was nothing much wrong with it but it did remind us of what a Chinese takeaway was like in the seventies, we hadn’t realised how much they had changed down south. We ended up with the dishes we had ordered, which included a special fried rice, but a portion of rice with each dish as well, because that is what they do. A lot of waste, especially with the bag or prawn crackers thrown in but we couldn’t seem to refuse the extra rice and the only alternative on offer was a portion of chips instead.
Welcome Back To Wigan
At last the string of alternating rainy days seemed to have broken as Sunday was a beautiful sunny morning and, despite a couple of very short sprinkles on the way, was largely fine and dry until the evening. Today, we wanted to get past Wigan so it was going to be another fairly long one, with just the one swing bridge but eight troublesome locks in the way.
We set off about nine thirty, just as an army of anglers were assembling in the adjacent car park. We went through the first lock alone but were caught up by “Jabulani” at the next, as we took on water, so had help all the way up to Wigan. As we went in to the first lock after Wigan Pier the owner of “Jabulani” pulled onto a clearly defined landing stage on the right and left his wife to manage the boat. Only after she had pulled away did he find that there was no way through from the landing to the lock. We were all set to do one thing and now had to change plans in mid-stream. We were in luck as someone else appeared at the lock and opened the gates for us to go in while he found a way round in the end.
The guy who had opened the lock was not coming through. He was from “Sapphire” and had come all the way from Leeds, including the twenty one lock Wigan Flight, which they had done that morning, in the company of a single crewed boat heading for Liverpool. Clearly the journey had formed a bond. They were parting ways at the top of the Leigh Branch but he had offered to moor up before the turn and walk down to do the two locks in the middle of Wigan to help him on his way. A nice gesture!
“Jabulani” were meeting friends who were coming the other way so they set off down the Leigh Branch together. We moored up for lunch and services again. We both thought that, from the journey up, we remembered a water point that was certainly shown on one of our maps. Another, increasingly common, false memory, it seems, as there was no sign of it. Why would we need water when we had already filled up in the morning? Well, as it was dry and fine with the engine running all day, it was also a laundry day and that gets through quite a lot very quickly. Fortunately, we weren’t that low and would make it through to the next option tomorrow.
As we rounded the junction and were about to close the Poolstock Top Lock gates behind us “Sapphire” came around the bend. It was good to have the extra hands on these two, the last of the day. While working and chatting we learned that they were pretty keen to get to the pump-out at a place called Plank Bridge. They had tried four possible sites without success on the way and were now, understandably, anxious. I forget all the details but one had too short a hose to reach their outlet on the off-side, another relied on an operator who would not be back until one o’clock, which would have delayed them too long and a third had a tea room and couldn’t operate the pump-out until it closed at four o’clock, for ‘Health & Safety’ reasons. One could use this as an argument for the cassette toilet but to do so would only spark off another round of debate on the huge controversy that dominates any boating discussion eventually.
We moored up for the night at some mooring rings at a site called Dover Locks, which could be considered notable for having no locks. The lock structures are there but are now redundant and there are no gates etc. The Dover Lock Inn is there too, equally abandoned, locked up, unloved and forlorn. For once, perfect timing meant that we were tied up and indoors just before the rain started for the evening.
Stepping out for some air last thing, just after midnight, I became aware of music playing. One of the boats further down the mooring was playing his stereo quite loudly. Above it you could hear occasional argumentative shouting, although there only seemed to be one voice. Since the main songs were ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ and ‘I’ll Never Walk Alone’, I guessed it might be someone local. Inside the boat we hadn’t really noticed it but I’m glad we were no closer and we felt sorry for those that were.
Passing Through Leigh
We had some heavy rain overnight but Monday morning was bright. There was more cloud around and we had a couple of showers in the morning but not the endless downpours of the recent past.
First stop was Plank Bridge, an automated lift bridge across a busy road with a water point just beyond it. Here we found “Sapphire” again, at the one day visitor mooring that is still there beside the water point, even though they have built a marina entrance immediately opposite. They had been keen to get to the self-serve pump out facility just before the bridge and thought that, as it was again on the ‘wrong’ side, they would have to pass through the bridge, turn in the marina entrance, pass back through the bridge to use the pump out and then go back through the bridge a third time but in reverse to be able to turn again. Complicated for them at the end of a long day and annoying for the traffic being stopped three times. They had found they were in luck, however, as the facility had an extra long hose that would pass over the roof of the boat. They had been able to just stop there and then go through once and moor up for the night.
We filled up with water and carried on to Leigh. We had spent two nights here on the way up so knew the lay of the land and where to moor so that Sue could make a run to Sainsbury’s (Tesco simply doesn’t sell some of the things we depend on).
By then it was already lunchtime but the sun was out again so it was a nice cruise through the Leigh Bridge boundary, where the CRT Leeds & Liverpool hands you off to the Bridgewater Canal Company, with no backstop. The difference in practice is barely perceptible, apart from a change in signage. We passed the Bridgewater Marina at Boothstown, where we had checked in to meet the Belling engineer last time, and carried on to Worsley where we tied up about four and began to think seriously about the route ahead.
What About Worsley?
When we were deciding where to head for on Monday we remembered that Worsley had seemed like a nice place when we came through but we were booked in to the marina so we had just carried on. Coming back the other way we thought we should stop and have a quick look around.
A long straight section ducks under the M60 and takes a sharp right hand turn, just beyond which there is a series of mooring rings available to tie up to. As you take the bend the closed channel to the left goes off to the Delph, the entrance to the navigable levels of the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines. This basin is now being redeveloped as a visitor site to explain the history of the mines at Worsley, for which the canal to Salford was originally built.
The houses at this end of town are quite picturesque and the area has the appearance of a very desirable and affluent suburb. We hadn’t appreciated, as we passed through before, just how close it is to the motorway and how busy the road through the town is. The noise and smell of the traffic is quite noticeable. At the same time there are high sides to the cut and there are a lot of large, mature trees that, together, create a rather dark, dank and dingy feel.
At the back of the Bridgewater Hotel, a standard Greene King pub, we found a small courtyard that had a steadily shrinking patch of sunshine where we could enjoy a drink. There was the more upmarket George’s Dining Room & Bar just next door and we passed Tung Fong, a smart Chinese restaurant, as we walked around the Delph. There didn’t seem to be much else in the way of pubs, shops or restaurants that we could see.
All in all, I think we found Worsley a little disappointing when set against our fleeting first impression, or perhaps we just needed to give it more time in better weather.
After a few days of travelling quite a few hours each day, Tuesday was a very short one, just an hour or so from Worsley to cross the Manchester Ship Canal and moor up outside an entrance to the back of the Trafford Centre. There are a few rings here and very little around except some industrial units and a car park for the shopping mall. We had spotted it on the way up and Sue had declared her intention to shop till she dropped on the way back.
The Bridgewater is quite a wide canal but then, of course, there is the Manchester Ship Canal
“Carpe Diem” had left Worseley long before us and was now moored on the rings with a git gap before the little boat “Autumn” on the stretch before the entrance. We were about to start banging in pins behind “Carpe Diem” when Sasha, the owner of “Autumn”, came out to greet us. She told us that there were some more rings just the other side of the entrance, which might be easier, even though they were under some trees but we would need to be forward of the drain immediately outside the centre.
I’m not sure if ‘she’ was the original pronoun but that doesn’t really matter. Far more importantly, Sasha was a mine of information. Little “Autumn” fitted exactly onto a short concrete bank between the first two mooring rings and she moored there a lot as she works in the centre. She could reassure us that it was perfectly safe to moor here overnight as, once the shops closed, it was a mile in either direction along the towpath to get to anywhere, so you never saw anyone. With the lights of the centre security and the CCTV camera right overhead it was pretty secure. She also gave us a run down on where to find different things in this vast expanse of shopping centres, local intelligence on the mooring further down and the bridges to be wary of when going under, an appraisal of the services at Stretford Marine and quite a lengthy account of her life and adventures as a single woman living on her boat around Manchester. Quite a character but really nice and very helpful.
Looking ahead in more detail, now that we were close to moving back into the unknown, we had decided that we would rather wait to go down the Anderton Boat Lift until after the Bank Holiday. That meant that we would need to slow down and take our time along the Bridgewater main line to avoid arriving at the lift too soon. We would probably stay in one place for more than one night at a time but this should be different from riding out torrential rainstorms. As long as the weather was reasonable we would be able to get out and about or work outside on the boat, quite different from being cooped up inside trying to keep dry.
Breaking New Ground
On Wednesday morning we eventually got going when the sun came out and travelled the short distance past the Kellogg factory to the end of the Leigh Branch and on to the main line, at the junction where we had turned off after coming down through Manchester. Almost as soon as you turn right here there is a small marina basin on the right and a service dock just big enough for one full size boat. Of course, there was one boat already there and one other was just pulling up behind it to wait. We had nowhere to go while we were waiting but for once there was little wind and plenty of sunshine so we were fine just hovering there.
It wasn’t long before we could pull on to the dock and we found that, just as Sasha had said, the lady here was very nice and welcoming. Cheerful and helpful she took our rubbish away for us and filled up the diesel, chatting all the time. Bracken was fed biscuits and allowed off to play with her dog Vinny, as the dock area was quite secure. The facilities were the smartest and cleanest I have ever seen, including the sanitary station and there was a hose reel already connected for the water rather than having to drag out or own, a surprisingly rare phenomenon.
We asked about how safe and easy it was to moor down through Stretford and Sale. She pointed to Steve, who had just pulled up ahead of us, as someone who works locally but has a mooring at Preston Brook. He moors on the towpath round here all the time and has only ever had one minor incident. This was very much in line with what Sasha had told us. Her worst experience had been when moored against a particularly high bank side she had returned to find footprints on her roof but no other damage. Reassured we decided to look for somewhere just a little way down into Stretford.
As it happened Steve set off a little before us. We followed him down to the club house of the Watch House Cruising Club where we could see boats moored outside it but space against the towpath before them. We would just need mooring pins again. As we closed up on the first boat we saw Steve backing up towards us and I walked up to ask if he was intending to come in here. Continuing the theme of really nice, helpful people in this area he said he wasn’t, he was just backing up to tell us that if we carried on a couple of hundred yards to the other side of the boats there were again rings that we could use to save us the trouble. We were amazed that he would go so far out of his way like that and thanks to his advice we found an ideal mooring.
Settled In Stretford
Where we were was by an aqueduct the path under which led to a huge expanse of Sale Water Park and various nature reserves. Apparently the excavations and gravel created from building the M62 was originally planned to a landfill site. Then the local authority decided that it should remain as an overspill area if they ever needed to relieve flood pressure on the surrounding towns and instead a lot of work and investment went in to creating the wetland areas, a huge recreational lake and walks and cycle trails all around it, all with the River Mersey running through it. You can see on the map a real green corridor separating Stretford and much bigger Sale.
On our side of the canal was the Trans-Pennine Trail, The Bridgewater Trail, a big recreation ground, perfect for Bracken to chase a ball, with the houses starting well away from us across the aqueduct. The railway running parallel to the opposite bank was not that busy or noisy and we are well used to the affinity between rail and canal and while we could see the bridge carrying the M62 ahead of us we were far enough short of it to see or hear none of its traffic. We decided at once that this was a nice enough spot to stay for a couple of nights. The only issue turned out to be that the very straight and extremely well surfaced towpath running directly from Sale, through Stretford, straight up to the centre of Manchester or round to the Trafford Centre was a magnet for commuting cyclists. Any time between seven and ten in the morning or between four and seven in the evening it was mayhem out there and you really needed to be on your guard when you stepped outside.
The weather was not yet summer but a definite improvement on recent weeks. It was grey a lot of the time, windy some of the time and we had a couple of daytime rain showers but none too heavy or lasting too long. We had a nice walk along the Trans-Pennine on Wednesday afternoon and a good poke around the Water Park on Thursday.
On the domestic side we took advantage of a laundrette nearby to get a service wash for some of the heavier items, to spare our power and water but also to ensure they would be dried, without having to be draped around the interior of the boat for a few days. We were even able to use their photo booth to get a new digital photo for Sue’s passport renewal, the one we had taken at home having been rather sternly rejected by the Passport Office.
Preparing to move on a little on Friday we had to agree that, although the town itself might be nothing special, Stretford had proved to be a lot nicer than we were expecting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
We had planned to spend two weeks on dry land, slightly enforced by an appointment for the developer to do their five to seven month snagging at the beginning of August.
We checked in at home, collected the car, then headed down south where we had a dental appointment, arrangements to meet friends for a couple of very enjoyable nights out, plans to celebrate Nick’s birthday and to run a few errands before heading back home.
Loading and Unloading
When leaving the boat in the marina near Preston we had made a decision to do a run back up there, in the car, with things that we could do with but couldn’t carry by train and to remove things we now realised were just not needed on board. Accordingly, we had a list of things to look for and secure before we made that trip. Some items were easy to get with a trip to places like B&Q. Others would need to be ordered in or collected from individual suppliers so there were some complicated logistics involved to make sure we had everything needed to take with us delivered or collected in time
Among the most significant of the items we planned to bring home were our two bikes. We had found that, particularly with Bracken now in the mix, we really weren’t going to use them for fun and at the same time they caused a few issues from time to time. We decided that a small folding bike would meet our requirement for a form of transport to use in emergencies and be easier to manage. We did look at new models but while passing our old estate in Caterham we spotted Ross Cycles shop just across the road and thought why not try them? They are a small independent trader and don’t generally deal in folding bikes. However, the day we walked in they just happened to have taken one in second hand; one careful lady owner, a range of upgrades & accessories, sold fully serviced and in the sale. Kismet surely? A short test ride round the airfield later and we closed the deal.
We had Sunday to gather our various acquisitions together before setting out on the three hundred mile round trip on Monday. As Mike and Lesley Fielding were back from their own cruise around the Midlands we were able to meet up with them at the Stag in Offchurch that evening, to swap stories and compare experiences.
As part of preparing for the trip we had arranged to call in to buy a couple of fenders from a floating trader in Great Haywood and to collect some blacking and paint from the excellent chandlery in Stone. According to the map these were in a direct line between our house and Rufford. Normally there is an unseen complication waiting to cause problems when such things seem to align. In this case, not a bit of it. The weather and the traffic were by and large benign, both of the stop-off points were about where we expected to find them and had the goods available and ready for us and we were at the boat by lunchtime. A couple of hours to load and stow what we had brought and to pack and offload the things we were taking back and we completed the return journey in time to be home for six o’clock and a drink at our local pub, the Buck & Bell.
Builders & Snagging
The builders weren’t due until Friday. We had another engagement on the Saturday afternoon and we had already decided that, on past experience, we didn’t want to try travelling by train on a Sunday, so we seemed to have time on our hands. In fact, we had plenty to do, catching up on all the little domestic stuff that somehow gets forgotten once on the boat. Things like Tax Returns and renewing our passports. We had also arranged to have a session with a local dog handler, to look at alleviating some of Bracken’s anxiety on the boat along with a couple of other issues and of course, she was booked in to have her coat clipped.
The builders themselves had just a small amount of work to do and we had booked that date in for Friday, first of all, way back in June. They needed to arrange a plumber as well and had agreed to bring a landscape contractor round to discuss the lack of drainage in the back garden. We had managed to get all of these booked in for the same day. Needless to say it was rather a disappointment to get a phone call on Thursday afternoon to say that they wouldn’t be able to get to us for the work on Friday and their Customer Relations manager had some personal issues and wouldn’t be able to attend either. That just left the plumber and the landscape contractor. Just to prove that they really hadn’t been paying attention when we had discussed these arrangements initially, their suggestion was to re-schedule for next Tuesday, when we would be a hundred and fify miles away.
We agreed a new date for the decorative work, the plumber duly turned up fairly early and was there for thirty minutes at the most, by which time the landscaper had been and gone. We unexpectedly had the rest of the day to ourselves and had to wonder if our journey was really worth it.
A Side Trip To Oxfordshire
Our last engagement before we returned to the boat was a visit to see Jen’s partner’s parents in Steventon, near Abingdon. They have a lovely house there, where they treated us to an excellent lunch involving far too much salmon and frangipane cake, before showing us around the village. It is a beautiful place and has a lot of history imprinted on it. Many of the houses are very old, including a couple of cottages that formed part of the Priory and are now owned by the National Trust who let them out to tenants.
The North Star, a sixteenth century pub offers a real step back in time. A couple of low ceilinged rooms, traditional high backed settles and plain tables, with service straight from the beer store or else through a hatch into the ‘lounge’ bar. There is no bar as such. This might once have been its main claim to fame but it seems to be more renowned now for ‘direct action’. A lovely story from 2003, recounted over lunch, described how, having been refused a drink by the barman on New Year’s Day, it’s new owner fetched a JCB and wrecked the building while a number of customers were still inside. This is not the only example. An article pinned to the board by the servery tells how the villagers, having watched turf being laid all day, swept in and tore it up in the evening because they believed it infringed their right of way. On the wall of an outbuilding was hung a bicycle. On closer inspection it turned out to be parts of several bicycles. We were told they had recently been dismembered and mounted by the landlord, armed with a chainsaw, but we were unable to get to the bottom of what offence they had caused him.
Return To Rufford
After record temperatures while we were in Surrey, the torrential rain and high winds during the next week, dying down towards the weekend, seems to have set a pattern for a weather cycle forecasted to be repeated over the next few weeks, covering most of August and seemingly targeted directly at the North West of England. Most particularly, of course, we were following events in Whaley Bridge from the first of the month. We had been barely aware of this town and completely ignorant of Todbrook Reservoir until our visit to the Peak Forest Canal at the end of June. Having been there so recently the evacuation of the town and the work going on to prevent the collapse of the dam was fascinating; a month earlier we had been moored effectively at the foot of that very dam.
Notwithstanding plenty of bad weather our trip back to the boat on Monday was dry and largely sunny. Our first train, to Wolverhampton, was crowded and the second, from there to Preston was even worse. Still, they were more or less on time so we missed no connections and the final two-carriage hop from Preston to Rufford was both punctual and comfortably spacious.
With no lunch en route it was time to sample the delights of tea and cake at the Boathouse Brasserie in St. Mary’s marina once again.
One of the residents had tipped us off to Steak Night at the Hesketh Arms so we decided to try that in the evening. A little disappointing – fillet, rib-eye and the mixed grill were all off when we got there. Still, they rustled up a couple of sirloin steaks with a free bottle of Merlot and it was still sunny enough to eat outside.
We now had a booking to go into Salthouse Dock in Liverpool on Monday 12th August. It would take us a couple of days to get there, in theory, but we weren’t really sure how safe or pleasant mooring would be the closer we got to Liverpool, outside of that CRT managed haven. There are also more restrictions the nearer you get to the city. We would need to time our run carefully.
Our plan was to stay around the Rufford Arm until the Saturday morning and then stage at a place called Haskaynes Bridge on Saturday night. We had been told that there was safe mooring by the CRT offices in Litherland, an hour or so from the Liverpool link itself, so we would moor there on Sunday night and drop down into the docks on Monday afternoon (the link doesn’t open for inward passage until 13:00 each day). As we watched the forecast, however, the prognosis of impending doom grew ever stronger for Saturday. A minor modification then, get closer to Litherland by Friday and be able sit tight and ride it out on Saturday.
Tuesday started fine as we prepared to leave Fettlers Wharf but with a very unwelcome stiff breeze. Of course, the rain began as we were ready to cast off and we feared the worst. On this occasion, however, a short shower was all we got and by the time we had reversed out of a very tight space where we were moored, taken on fuel and been blown out into the canal it was a fine, sunny day that continued all afternoon. Two hundred yards from the marina was the first lock and just beyond it a lovely stretch of bank to moor up in the sunshine. Enough for one day.
While we were here we got the latest update from the developers about the issues with the garden drainage. The meeting with the landscaper had gone unexpectedly well. He acknowledged the issue immediately and proposed a solution he said he would recommend to Bloor Homes. After an exchange of e-mails today it became clear that he had made the recommendation but Bloor had decided to take refuge in some warranty clause that said they were not obliged to rectify any issue that is more than three metres from the building. A disappointingly nit-picking conclusion to a transaction that had otherwise been, by and large, very positive. Our only recourse now is to appeal to the NHBC who issue this guidance but we don’t expect to get much change from that.
The next day was another short hop. With impeccable timing, after a largely sunny but very lazy morning, we set off five minutes before a cloudburst. We pulled in on the landing for the next swing bridge and went below to wait it out. The rain passed in about ten minutes, although we were already drenched, and we were just gathering ourselves to carry on when another boat suddenly appeared. Here we were, plainly in the wrong, blocking the landing, so we had to scramble to get outside, apologise and offer to open the bridge for them. On the plus side, though, we could follow them through and had an extra crew with whom to share the next two locks and related hard labour. By the time we were through those and found our mooring spot, half way to the next lock, the sun was shining again and once again it was a relatively fine afternoon, apart from a very strong wind. I even set about spending the afternoon touching up the paintwork on the hull. This was when we discovered that the owner of the boat moored next to us in the marina, who had been repainting his own craft, had managed to splash spots of white, gloss paint over our coachwork. So now the first job became removing his paint before applying our own.
Thursday had been advertised as this week’s good day, a forecast that for once proved to be entirely accurate. We hoped to take advantage of it by moving up through the junction onto the Leeds & Liverpool main line and getting as far as Haskayne Bridge for the night. We laboured up through the first three locks and had wound up the one working bottom paddle on the fourth, which was extremely stiff, when an entire squad of volunteer lock keepers suddenly emerged from their little hut under the bridge. I might have thought that, with four of them on duty, they could have spread out on the flight a bit more but we were grateful for any help we could get. They let us through the swing bridge and we rounded the junction to be almost immediately confronted by the “Rose of Parbold” once again.
A Lack Of Thrust
On the way up Sue had tried to use the bow thrusters and they did not seem to work at all. Not even a beep when switched on. I had once been rather sceptical about the value of bow thrusters but given predicted high winds and a planned navigation through Liverpool Docks we felt that it would be a good time to have the bow thrusters operational, so we really wanted to get this fixed even though, at this point, we also wanted to keep moving.
After some rummaging around in the manuals, and some phone calls with Aintree Boats and Lenny the Electrician, we eliminated the 5 amp car fuse and the 100 amp mega fuse, to arrive at the 250 amp ceramic main fuse, which even I could see was clearly burnt out. Of course, this is a specialist fuse from Vetus for which we had no spares, so the first challenge was to locate one. While we proceeded to Haskayne Bridge we made calls to a few places that Lenny had suggested, none of whom answered their phones, although a couple did call back later. Twenty minutes after we had passed the entrance to Scarisbrick Marina they, too, returned our call and could confirm they had one fuse in stock.
Having moored up, the bank was low enough, and the water clear enough, to be able to see the mouth of the lateral tube the bow thruster is housed in, sitting six inches below the waterline. Weeds protruding through the grille offered an explanation for the blown fuse. If the propeller gets clogged it will blow the fuse rather than burn out the motor. Cue half an hour or so on your belly, poking around underwater to try and tease out the weed like so much wet spaghetti. At nearly seven o’clock we had had enough for one day and headed for The Ship Inn for a well-earned pre-prandial drink.
The forecast next morning made it clear. If we wanted to get to where we planned to moor over Friday night and Saturday we should do it in the morning. However, Scarisbrick was by far the nearest place to get a fuse, even though it now lay behind us. Time for the folding bike to earn its keep already, but first to dismantle the burnt out fuse.
I really shouldn’t be encouraged to get involved with the random vagaries of electrickery. Lenny hadn’t mentioned that just isolating the bow thruster battery and motor would still leave one lead fully live. As well as generating sparks from the spanner, my ring and the lead itself, as each made contact with the metal hull in turn, it appears that this could have blown another fuse on the charging lead. However, I wouldn’t be able to tell that just by looking at it.
Arriving at the marina I found that the only person in the office had gone out on a job and wouldn’t be back until the afternoon! However, all was well as he had left the fuse with the tea shop in case I turned up. Lucky I went in and spoke to them then. Returning, triumphant, to the boat we followed Lenny’s latest instructions to remove the grille from the bow thruster tube and got as much weed out as we could reach. Of course, we couldn’t fix the grille back on as it had only been held in place by cable ties. I fitted the fuse, reassembled the fuse boxes and battery cables, closed the circuit and tried the ‘on’ switch. The usual steady beeping to indicate it was ready, entirely absent yesterday, was most reassuring. A very tentative touch on the starboard thruster blew out a little weed but it kept working. An equally cautious touch to port produced much the same result that side. Things were looking good, but if I had blown the second fuse all that would happen is that the battery would run down. I was supposed to talk to Lenny so he could explain how to check but he was at a funeral until later, so we left it at that for now.
One o’clock already, so we had to get going. With pinpoint accuracy, as we cast off the last mooring line, the first raindrops fell. This had been forecast as the start of a prolonged period of rain for the rest of the day but despite being quite unpleasant, it stopped after ten minutes or so and the rest of the afternoon was largely dry and even sunny at times. The odd light shower quickly passed and it was a decent evening by the time we moored up out in the countryside at Melling. On the way up, Lenny had phoned in from outside the crematorium and talked me through checking whether the charging circuit was now shot. Result! All was well and we should be able to use the bow thrusters as normal. We were now poised for the run down to Liverpool, once tomorrow’s predicted torrential rain, flooding and gales had passed us by.
Having worked out that Liverpool would have to wait, we had some time to kill before the various commitments that would drag us back home to Long Itchington and points South. The Leeds & Liverpool carries on from Wigan all the way down to Liverpool, as the name implies. However, there is a branch heading north from Lathom Junction, about ten miles from Wigan, that goes via Rufford to Tarleton where the canal ends and a final lock allows access to the tidal River Douglas. An adventure for another time would be to book passage through this lock and join the escorted convoys that are managed along the Ribble Link which gives access to the Lancaster Canal via the tidal rivers Douglas and Ribble. We wouldn’t be able to do that now but the Rufford Branch itself is only about six miles long so we should be able to take our time getting down there, going up to the end and back down to Fettler’s Wharf, where we were booked in for Sunday 21st July.
Having agreed to partner up with last night’s inexperienced late arrival and leave about nine o’clock in the morning we had no time for the leisurely Sunday morning cooked breakfast we had planned and opted for a sausage sandwich on the move later in the morning. A little irksome, therefore, to get a knock on the boat about five to nine, accompanied by the smell of bacon frying, to say they were running behind and it would be another half hour before they would be ready. Still, we would certainly benefit from the extra manpower so it was worth our waiting for them.
What became apparent through the morning was that the owner’s daughter was pretty capable but was the only person on the boat who was in control of everything; the children, the cooking, the steering and everything else involved. She was right on top of it while the others contributed precisely nothing in any sphere whatsoever. One has to be charitable and assume this is because it was their first day and they simply had no idea what to do or how to do it, in this environment, until they had found their feet. Or they might have been lazy buggers who thought they could just switch off and leave it all to her.
It turned out that, leaving Wigan Pier, there is a very sharp right-hander into the Seven Stars Bridge, which caught me out quite badly and took us right across to the bank. Perhaps I should have looked at the map? If it threw me a bit it certainly took advantage of the novices behind and it was a while before they caught us up again.
We had four locks to do together and they were all in very bad shape. At the last but one, Lock 90, I arrived on foot just as a boat that was leaving finished closing the gate (they hadn’t seen us coming round the bend). In the two minutes it took me to walk up to the lock and try to move the gate it was already too heavy and I had to open every paddle again before the water going in was sufficient to overcome the water leaking out the other end. The two guys from the other boat may not have shown much initiative but they did lend their significant weight to the winding gear and balance beams whenever they were instructed, so not completely useless.
Just as we were about to leave the locks behind, there are none beyond Lock 91 until you reach the Liverpool link itself, you are introduced to the alternative obstacles that proliferate on this section, i.e. the swing bridges. Many are electric but still involve someone getting off, operating the bridge and then getting back on. Often the controls are on the off side so you can’t get to the boat until the bridge is closed again. This is particularly awkward for single crewed boats when you think about it. Also, once your key has been inserted you can’t remove it until the full open / close operation has been completed. For both reasons, no-one arriving at the bridge while it is open can realistically take over without closing the bridge first and then opening it again. On this one we arrived first and I opened it, then ended up waiting for four other boats to pass in different directions before I could close it again. All under the baleful scrutiny of car drivers waiting with varying degrees of patience for us to re-open their road.
On our way we passed the Wigan Athletic stadium we had been warned about on Saturday. It was a rather sad contrast to the highly organised, spick & span appearance of Old Trafford from this angle. We also went through Crooke’s Bridge where we had planned to moor on Saturday night and it seemed to us it would have been OK, in fact. Only if the locks had been open though.
We arrived at Lock 91, the last one. At this point there used to be two locks, marked on our map as Appley Upper Shallow Lock and Appley Lower Shallow Lock. These are now disused, abandoned and bypassed by a single deep lock, which is known as Appley Deep Lock. Generally, you have to admire the inventiveness of the early canal engineers but perhaps not so much in the field of assigning names. They certainly tend to “say what they see”. Here we found ourselves in a bit of a queue. This was our first encounter with the “Rose of Parbold”, an old wide beam with a home mooring in Parbold and adapted to be able to carry disabled groups on trips up and down the canal from here to beyond Burscough and back. A worthy cause, of course, nonetheless it has to be said that ‘The Rose’ became a thorn in our sides for the next few days, always appearing at the most inconvenient moment and blocking the narrowest gaps. On this first encounter she was going down the lock ahead of us and we had quite a wait while the elderly crew, who seemed to be under training, sorted themselves out and conducted a risk assessment, complete with clipboards.
A Pause at Parbold
A mile or so beyond the lock we were approaching Parbold. The warning in Wigan made us think that you need to get the other side of Parbold before finding any civilised society and implied that Parbold, itself, was still quite rough. We already felt that this had been exaggerated and we had passed a few places we would have been happy to moor overnight already. Finding a nice bit of straight bank, with Armco to tie up to, exposed to the sun for the solar power and surrounded by nice fields and woods, we pulled over and wished our companions luck on the rest of their journey. They had told us that they were booked in to Salthouse Dock in Liverpool for the Monday afternoon and we did wonder whether they would make it in the time and where they would find safe mooring tonight. Presumably, the boat’s owner had given them the benefit of his experience on that.
There was a well used path along the opposite bank behind a screen of undergrowth. The map showed a nature & wildlife reserve beyond that, as well as a large area of recreation ground and playing fields. As we finished mooring we could hear the sound of music and occasional announcements played over a public address system. Naturally the first thought was that it was, of course, Bastille Day and these would be the local celebrations. As it turned out it was actually the annual Parbold Village Show in full swing. Once again we had arrived on the local community’s big weekend. This begins to feel less like a coincidence and more as if village fete committees across the north west are monitoring our progress and timing their events to greet us.
As it happens, we couldn’t offer the show our patronage as we settled down to watch the men’s singles final at Wimbledon just after lunch. At the end of that gruelling event we were probably more exhausted and mentally wrung out than either of the two active participants and the show was effectively over. The most we could manage was a short walk for Bracken with a stop by one of Parbold’s pubs for some much needed liquid refreshment.
Having initially thought we were being warned off Parbold we were very pleasantly surprised at what we found there. It is quite a large village, with its own railway station, a couple of pubs, coffee shops, art galleries etc. Not many of them have resisted the temptation to use adjectives like “artisanal” and “organic” in their marketing or menus but they seem pleasant enough. There is plenty of space to walk around and everywhere seems clean, neat and well cared for, with a few extra touches, such as this help yourself herb stall. It was so nice that we decided to stay there for another day, since we now had time in hand.
Maybe it was Parbold but Monday was a proper, hot summer’s day, the first for a while. The whole area has a good network of public footpaths around it and after a morning spent fiddling with paint, varnish and rust converter we set out for a walk up to a local view point on Parbold Hill. There was indeed a great view from there, as well as a pub and an ice cream van, neither of which we resorted to on this occasion. We came back down through the far side of the village, on the other side of the tracks but it was all as clean and well-ordered as the area we had already seen. A lot of the houses here are quite large villas so we assume they were the homes of the management rather than the mill workers. We did try one of the tea shops when we got back. Despite a slightly off-putting description the ginger and polenta cake was very nice. I may have mistaken the word polenta for placenta. It turns out that polenta is a kind of cornmeal and I assume they use it because in this day and age, of course, they must be gluten free.
Up And Back Again
Tuesday stayed fine as we continued westward. We wanted a service stop before going up the Rufford Branch so the plan for today was to pass its entrance, stop off at the CRT services in Burscough and moor in one of a couple of places marked in our guide before turning and coming back to the junction tomorrow. There are several swing bridges on the way and at the third one we found ourselves in a queue, as the first boat up was having a problem operating the electric controls. The lights would flash but the barriers wouldn’t come down across the road and the bridge stayed resolutely shut across the canal. Several men had a go and all failed to read the fine print in the instructions closely enough. It turns out that, if you get a lady to read it, the process for resetting the system by pressing Open and Close buttons together is quite clearly explained. By the time this had been pointed out and the bridge was open there were five boats in all. With only room for one or two on the landing the rest were drifting about at various points in the canal.
Having overcome this hurdle and then made way for the “Rose of Parbold” again we passed Lathom Junction and were the third boat in the convoy to arrive at the water point in Burscough, where a couple coming the other way had themselves just started to take on water. That boat had a one thousand litre water tank, which the owner acknowledged he had run pretty dry coming out of Liverpool, as well as it being said that water pressure here was very low. We ended up breasted up against “Roger Dodger”, as there was no room on the side, where we waited and chatted together for a while. That turned out to be about an hour and a half and with two other boats wanting water ahead of us it was well over two hours and at least one more trip for the “Rose of Parbold” before we moved on from there.
The first of the spots identified as a possible mooring was immediately before Crabtree Swing Bridge. It was a space signposted “CRT Visitor Moorings – 24 Hours” right alongside the trestle tables of the Slipway Inn, which gave us pause but it was empty and we were ready to stop so we moored up there. There was almost a stand-off with Lancashire Canal Cruises who operate a trip boat from the pub down to the Rufford Branch and back as they use the landing here as a place to embark and disembark their passengers. They say they have an arrangement with the pub but we don’t know if they have permission from CRT. Happily we found a solution that allowed us to moor and left them space for their boat to land so there was no need to go into the rights or wrongs of their enterprise.
The next day we had to go up through two swing bridges to get to the next winding hole and back through the same two bridges heading back to Burscough. The wind was up this morning so I was quite happy that it was me who had to work the bridges and Sue who had the job of turning the boat, which seemed to go quite well. After a short stop in Burscough to visit a Tesco store and another brief encounter with the “Rose of Parbold” there, we were back at the Lathom Junction.
The Rufford Branch
Immediately on entering the branch from the main Leeds & Liverpool Canal, just under the bridge that carries the towpath over the junction, there is a manually operated swing bridge right in front of a lock. All the paddles and controls are secured with anti-vandal locks requiring the handcuff key and I anticipated a lot of running back and forth undoing and then re-securing these while Sue was bringing the boat round. We were in luck, however, as two volunteer lock keepers were just about to pack up and go home having spent the entire morning in their little hut without seeing a single boat. When they saw me starting to work the swing bridge they suddenly popped out ready to help us through, including doing up all the handcuff locks after we passed by.
We had wondered if we might have a problem in the locks on this branch as some sources said that, although they were still double width, they were restricted to 60 feet in length. We are 59 feet long so the margin was small to start with and we have fender buttons at bow and stern as well as the two bikes to take into account. I asked the lock keepers and they hesitated before guessing 58 feet, which was even more of a worry, although they were happy to see what happened. I took the fact that they didn’t actually know as a sign that it was unlikely to be a problem or they would have been better briefed. Sure enough having entered rather gingerly and checked how the gates closed and the cill position it was clear that we had several feet to spare. Checking the CRT website gives the dimensions as 62 feet long but even that is probably a conservative estimate.
The lock keepers effectively did the first three locks for us and then left us to carry on. We did Lock 4 and pulled over for lunch, entirely alone in the open countryside having seen no other boat in either direction. We had picked a spot where we thought we might moor for the night that was a bit further on after Lock 6 but with rain threatening any time this afternoon decided to take Bracken for a walk to check that out and only move if there seemed to be some real advantage. We finished lunch, opened the back doors and were surprised to find a boat called “Gerty” moored behind us with her nose virtually sniffing our rudder blade. Britain’s first stealth narrowboat; we hadn’t heard them approach or moor up at all.
We didn’t find much to recommend tackling the next two locks but we did identify a better, slightly more open spot just around the next bend and out of sight of “Gerty” so we moved up and moored there for the night. The best of both worlds, as we got to moor on our own for once but could enlist their help in getting through the rest of the locks tomorrow. By then the rain had started so we were glad not to be going further today.
Thursday was a better day weather wise if a lot more breezy. “Gerty” joined us through the next three locks, which are the last before Lock 8 at the end of the arm takes you through to the Ribble Link, which we would not be doing. They were going into St. Mary’s Marina just after Lock 7 where they would be leaving the boat for a few days, just as we planned to do after the weekend. There are two marinas here, literally facing one another across the canal but as far as we can tell there is no animosity between them. We had chosen Fettler’s Wharf, entirely at random and because the name had a nice ring to it. Although we were not mooring here until Sunday night we did pull in and get some diesel etc., which gave us a chance to make sure we had an electricity card and a key for the gate to the outside world and to get some local intelligence about the winding hole at the bottom of the branch and the amount of mooring available there.
We provided plenty of entertainment exiting the marina in what was now a fairly strong wind. Marinas are always areas of open water that give any breeze free rein but on entering this branch you drop down quite quickly to the level of the surrounding countryside and increasingly the landscape reminded both of us of the fens; very flat, though perhaps not as flat as Norfolk, wide open and with lots of reeds in evidence. Ideal terrain to allow the wind to do its worst even in the confines of the cut. It continued to make life interesting as we negotiated a few more swing bridges, at one point absolutely pinning us to the bank on the lee side. We only managed to get unstuck by poling the stern right out across the canal, reversing at full revs to take us across to the opposite bank against the wind and taking a run-up in forward to give the rudder a chance to bite before we could be blown to the other side again. Progress from there was mainly achieved by keeping the boat at 45 degrees to the line of the canal. Exchanging greetings with a succession of boats that must have been the day’s convoy arriving from the Lancaster Canal across the Ribble Link they did all look as though they were enjoying having that experience behind them.
The visitor mooring at the bottom of the branch lies just beyond the last swing bridge. The last winding hole large enough to take us that is marked on the map is just before the swing bridge. For that reason the plan was too turn the boat at the winding hole, open the swing bridge and reverse up through it and along the visitor moorings to whatever space we could find. In the conditions this was a plan that made me slightly nervous but as it turned out the turning point was a little sheltered by trees and very wide so that part was fairly easy and the whole reversing thing seemed to go OK.
Tied Up In Tarleton
The settlement at this end is called Tarleton. Despite the inconvenient wind the weather was bright enough this afternoon so we had a look round. On paper it looks as if Tarleton should be similar to Parbold. A large dormitory village with most of the amenities you would expect and a lot of phases of new housing development around it. The cafe’s and heavy reliance on the organic and artisanal were there but in practice it just didn’t have the same feel. We decided that the main factor was the traffic and the lack of open space. Everywhere we went the pavements were very narrow and the traffic very close. Often there was only pavement on one side and that would keep changing from one side to the other with no crossing place to assist the pedestrian. The road junctions were remarkably busy again with no crossings for anyone on foot. There were a lot of sports fields and some woods at the far end of the village, which seemed to be very well used but they were the other side of a large housing estate with no paths through it so that it was a twenty minute walk to get there. There also seem to be very few footpaths around to make up a walk around Tarleton and there don’t seem to be any other parks or recreation grounds around.
One reason for being moored here was to meet Dave from Aintree Boats for some more snagging. On a truly filthy day for rain there was work to create more ventilation around the stove and fitting the replacement stern locker lid. There was no progress on the central heating as they are still waiting to discuss it with the boiler supplier but the issue we really wanted to resolve today was what is happening with the water tank. Fill it to the top and five minutes later the gauge sits at three quarters and the level seen through the filler hole has dropped. An extra jubilee clip, a better understanding of the water tank geometry and a recalibration of the gauge itself should mean this has been resolved. So far, the theory seems to be holding up but most of the pudding to provide the proof remains to be eaten.
There was a lot more rain to come that Friday so being moored up for the day was a good thing. We felt for another small flotilla of boats coming past that must have just crossed the Ribble Link in the wet. We did get out for another walk along a canal path and back around the town but the first impression held true. This was a place that people used to sleep and drive in and out of with no concessions for the pedestrian.
Returning To Rufford
On Saturday, a much better day weather-wise, we set out for Rufford, which gives the branch its name and lies roughly half way along it. There is a lot going on here. There are two marinas facing each other across the canal just past Chapel Bridge, with Rufford Lock immediately beyond their entrances, a railway station two minutes walk to the left, visitor moorings just before the bridge and Rufford Old Hall, a National Trust property we were planning to visit, opposite the moorings. It was a nice simple cruise for the morning and we found plenty of space at the moorings, as well as a kingfisher. We haven’t seen that many this year but this one appeared to have built a nest on the off side. Small groups of people appeared beside the boat at intervals in the afternoon to watch it flying back and forth, some of whom told us they had been coming down every day to monitor its progress.
Rufford itself seems a nice well-kept village with lots of old buildings that have been bought up and converted in different ways. There is very little in the way of shops compared to Tarleton but the pavements are wider and easier to negotiate. There is a little post office and convenience store, closed on a Saturday afternoon and a pub the other side of the busy A59. The local garage is well-established and, unusually, doubles as a gunsmith. Similar to Tarleton there is a lack of any recreation ground or park, so nowhere for Bracken to run and chase a ball, although the towpath is always available. We did visit the hall and it was an interesting property but the grounds are very small and half of them are closed to dogs for some reason.
Strangely, the jewel in Rufford’s crown appears to be the café at St. Mary’s Marina. From our very first lock on the Rufford Branch we had been told that their cakes were unparalleled in Lancashire and everyone we had met on the way repeated the same glowing recommendations. Saturday tea, then, was in the diary and we duly wandered up there. They confused us a bit by advertising themselves as The Boathouse Brasserie but it turned out this was the marina café and an excellent establishment it was. There is a wooden building with a large terrace that overlooks the marina, the canal and their competitors across the water with plenty of green fields in the view. They offer an extensive menu covering everything from breakfast to teatime via midday sandwiches or full luncheon meals. Being close to the A59 and National Cycle Route 91 it soon became clear that it was a favourite destination of both bikers and cyclists but on a busy Saturday afternoon all of it seemed very efficiently served at a reasonable price. The much talked about cakes certainly lived up to their reputation.
Sunday was another fine day and the threatened heatwave for the coming week began to seem more likely than it had in Friday’s rain. As we only had to travel about five hundred yards to enter the marina we were booked into, it seemed only right to go back to the café and enjoy a proper Full English breakfast before undertaking that journey. When we did move up it turned out that there wasn’t quite enough room, by about three feet, to come into the entrance and straight round onto our berth without backing up into the main lagoon first. Sadly we didn’t find that out until we had tried and failed the direct route so an embarrassing period of backing and filling ensured our arrival did not go unnoticed. Even so we were moored up on our berth by eleven o’clock.
The next week would be dedicated to seeing friends and family back in Croydon, after we had picked up the car from home. Then we had a date with the house builders to do their minor snagging at the end of the following week. All in all we would be away for a fortnight so it was useful to have plenty of time and decent weather to clean around the boat and square things away before we caught the train the next morning.
A slightly calmer and less alarming week to follow the excitement of getting into Manchester.
We were finally deposited in Castlefield Basin about two thirty, safely before the schools let out, and ended up moored directly opposite the entrance to the Rochdale Canal we had just emerged from. Following a hot, sunny morning it began to rain just as we tied up, so after a quick lunch we went out to have a look around Manchester as it should be seen: damp.
As far as we could tell, it was very much a work in progress. We weren’t far from Deansgate, which seems to be a major thoroughfare and one that we had heard of. It is obviously a very crowded, busy city. The area we walked through seemed to be largely made up of Estate Agents and Interior Design business of one kind or another. We did come to an area that seemed to be much more devoted to the legal profession and there were smart bars and restaurants, already packed with post-work drinkers at four o’clock on a Monday afternoon.
Busy and cosmopolitan it may have seemed but that was also quite a thin veneer. We tried a couple of side routes to cut across to where we were heading and as soon as you took a couple of steps off the main drag you were back in the dingy, dirty back alleys that were uncomfortable to walk through. It made you feel you had stepped back in time as well as space and not in a good way. With that on the one hand and vast construction sites on the other we had probably had enough and headed back to the boat in time for tea, followed by a pre-prandial pint in the rain outside one of the nice pubs there. I have a feeling we might get more out of Manchester if we made a trip especially to do that for a couple of days, by car and staying in a hotel in the centre. As it is we’ve yet to see something that would make us want to come back.
Onto The Bridgewater
In order to provide a fixed position to book an engineer from Belling on Wednesday we had booked in to Bridgewater Marina in Boothstown for Tuesday and Wednesday night. Accordingly we set out on the Bridgewater Canal on Tuesday morning, putting the horrors of the Rochdale Nine firmly behind us.
The Bridgewater Canal is not owned or managed by CRT but is run by the Bridgewater Canal Company. We are able to travel along it for up to seven days at a time by virtue of a reciprocal licensing arrangement with the CRT. The contrast between Monday’s suffocating, subterranean adventure and today’s journey couldn’t have been more stark. We were now in the world of double width locks and wide canals. It was like emerging from the West End straight on to the M4, only without the traffic. The channel was wide and deep and we could comfortably travel at a flat out 4 miles per hour with plenty of room to pass oncoming traffic without slowing. Not that we saw much oncoming traffic.
The countryside around us was hardly stunning but it was open and flat, a lot of it brown field and as always there was plenty of development going on as we headed down past an area called Old Trafford. At one point we passed a large stadium belonging to one of the popular Association Football Clubs in the area. All credit to them for the condition of their facilities. The whole huge structure, all of the surrounding acres of car parking and all the various bridges and infrastructure elements across and around the canal were extremely clean and fresh looking, completely free of graffiti, clearly signposted and marked. Quite a refreshing change.
Shortly after this we turned off the main canal and up the Leigh Branch of the Bridgewater. Unsurprisingly, this eventually leads to Leigh. It seemed possible that this branch might be less wide or well-maintained than the main channel but not a bit of it. The junction was wide and easy to turn into and the canal continued broad, deep and uninterrupted, just as before. It might have been almost boring but there was plenty to see and it was a real pleasure to be able to just keep going without the obstacles and excitements of the Ashton & Rochdale.
Soon we passed an entrance to the Trafford Centre, which was very visible on our left. I managed to sneak us past before Sue noticed but I suspect we may find ourselves stopping there on our way back. We carried on and crossed the Manchester Ship Canal. Here the towpath, which at this point was carrying Bracken and I, is diverted over a separate crossing from the canal itself via a main road and re-joins some distance on the other side. Various aspects of this crossing, such as the possibility of the Barton Swing Aqueduct being closed to boaters, might have caused us issues but it was all plain sailing with no unexpected challenges.
Looking at the map, this whole journey up the Leigh Branch runs through a heavily built up area but we had no real sense of that at all. It was mostly kept quite firmly at bay behind wide grassy banks. The whole of the trip was accompanied by a very well maintained smooth-surfaced cycle path and for a lot of it a parallel path seemed to run along the off side. From the ship canal a fairly long straight stretch heads north to Parrin Lane where it rounds a bend to the north west. While the built up area carries on to the left, it drops away on the other side for Broadoak Park and Worsley Golf Club.
At this point the colour of the water had changed to a strange rusty brown colour and there seemed to be more weed around. Just as we came round the bend we found ourselves behind a big wide-beam work boat, travelling quite slowly, which we had actually watched leaving Castlefield Basin earlier in the morning. At the time we hadn’t seen any significance in the name “Water Womble” but watching the men on board it became clear that they were scooping up litter of all kinds from the canal. I later found this video about their activities:
Apparently they travel the length of the Bridgewater Canal scooping up all sorts of rubbish and wreckage to keep the canal clean. Whether they just do this for fun or they have a contract with the Bridgewater Canal Company is unclear.
Ahead, a hire boat had come into the towpath side and run itself aground in thick silt there. They were struggling to get away from the bank back into the main channel and in the process were looking rather unpredictable. The two men on the barge shouted advice but were not really in a position to help and could only hang back and wait until they were back in control. As I was walking the towpath with Bracken we were able to help push them off and we could all carry on in a little procession to Worsley Bridge.
Worsley Bridge is where the canal takes a fairly sharp turn to the west and it seems like a really nice, leafy community, well kept, with moorings and a services block there. You really feel that here you have finally shaken off the grime of Manchester and are back in the countryside. Unfortunately, as advised by the Water Womble, the water to the services block was turned off in May this year and ‘they’ are refusing to turn it back on, which seems pretty disappointing. It is unclear whether ‘they’ are the water company, the local council or the Bridgewater Canal Company. Fortunately, this time, it didn’t matter to us, as it wasn’t much further down the same broad, clear waterway to Bridgewater Marina where we would have access to all the services we could need.
Bridgewater Marina is not as new as Droylsden and seems to have grown up in a series of jetties and sheds around the outside of a bend in the canal. Nonetheless it has all the facilities, is locked and secure at night and there is a Greene King pub that sits on one side of the basin. There was a big field just beside the entrance for Bracken and access to the longer footpath that runs down the off side of the canal towards Worsley. We were allocated a floating pontoon, that was barely half our length, on the side closest to the main canal and had an entertaining half hour trying to work out the best way to ensure we were tied up securely with no way to secure a mooring line at the bow.
The Belling engineer was with us promptly on Wednesday morning and it came as no surprise to be told that they believe the issue is that the cooker has not been installed with the recommended space for ventilation and that is causing the igniter to keep clicking despite the grill being alight. Back to Aintree then, to modify the installation to meet the requirements printed in the owners manual. Since we were in the marina and could offer a postcode we had also been able to organise a supermarket delivery from Sainsbury’s to replenish our stores.
While reviewing our, rather sketchy, plans in the marina we realised we would not be able to get down to Liverpool, which has to be pre-booked and has a limit on how long you can stay, get back out again and make it to a secure mooring in time to leave the boat there for two weeks while we made our next trip down south. That also meant that we had time on our hands so we shouldn’t rush. We made a rough plan for the next couple of days, starting with a short hop to the junction with the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Leigh on Thursday.
There is no junction here, as such, just a meeting of the Bridgewater Canal (Leigh Branch) and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (Leigh Branch) with control passing back to CRT for the remainder of the route up to the main Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Wigan. There is a mooring just past the changeover point at Leigh Bridge and we pulled up here for a couple of nights and a bit of a re-think.
Leigh has every type of supermarket and superstore you can think of, some of them, like ASDA and Aldi have more than one site in the town. Nearly all are in the main town to the north with only Morrison daring to be different and setting up a superstore just beyond the town and well to the south right by Pennington Flash Country Park. Apparently the flash is a body of water created by the original rivers & streams seeping into and flooding the areas of subsidence created by extensive mining in the area. It isn’t good for much else so it has survived as a huge nature reserve and country park, with a golf course on one side of it. Apparently we are going to see a lot more of these flashes as we head on up towards Wigan. We went down and made good use of Pennington Flash with Bracken on Thursday afternoon.
A damp Friday morning with frequent showers until lunchtime gave us an opportunity to do exciting things like renewing our car insurance, which was due for renewal at the end of next week. A brighter afternoon took us up into Leigh to run a number of errands, such as a trip to Specsavers to fix Sue’s glasses, which they did immediately and for free, with a full service and clean thrown in. Leigh itself is a busy place. Quite a big sprawl with a large pedestrianised precinct, a lot of run down and empty commercial premises but also a lot of signs of recent development. In the end it was very hard to tell if it was on the way up or on the way down. If the latter it probably can’t go down much further.
Our schedule gets set by strange priorities. Initially we were looking to be in Croydon sometime near Nick and my Mum’s birthdays. Our dentist is still in New Addington and the few days he works meant we had had to book both our routine check ups early on Wednesday 24th July. To get there we would need to pick up the car from home and drive down from Long Itchington on Tuesday 23rd July. With all the uncertainties of public transport we would have to travel down from the north on Monday 22nd July, which means we would need to have the boat settled in a marina for the night of Sunday 21st July, so we are ready to catch a train the next morning.
Looking at the options we found a marina halfway up the Rufford Arm of the Leeds & Liverpool that could accommodate us at a good price and was a very short walk to the station. We now had eight days to get there. A direct trip would probably take us three days. We reckoned that we could have a couple of quiet days on the way, explore the Rufford Arm and perhaps have a look at Rufford Hall on the way and then get back down the arm to the marina in time. The first step would be to get past Wigan.
Welcome To Wigan
Wigan sits on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at the top of the Leigh Branch. It has a flight of twenty-one locks but thankfully they lie to the east of the junction. We would be heading west. Nothing about Wigan, from the name itself, to the sprawl on the map, to the reputation in the guides, had made us want to be there overnight so we had intended to pass through it and moor out in the open country beyond at a place called Crooke Bridge.
We had a straightforward run up to the end of the Leigh Branch where the Poolstock Locks lie just ahead of the junction. These are double locks but like the ones in Manchester they are secured with handcuff keys to try and deter vandals and are generally quite hard work. As it turns out, all the locks from here on, through Wigan and beyond, follow the same pattern but at least they are all above ground. By the time we reached the junction and made the turn it was already early afternoon.
Wigan doesn’t seem to have embraced the type of waterside development approach taken by many other towns. It pays tribute to its gritty industrial heritage by leaving it to decline, unmolested, to bear witness to the past and present. This strengthened our resolve to get through it as soon as possible. A shame really, as having dropped down one lock and entered the next lock, a couple of locals gave us two pieces of advice.
Firstly, they strongly recommended that, particularly on a Saturday, it would be unwise to proceed further unless we intended to get beyond Parbold. They said that from the point we had already reached it gets a bit rough especially past the football stadium. Although it generally pays to take notice of local intelligence like this and we hadn’t intended going that far we might, nonetheless, have pressed on were it not for their second bit of news. It seems that, as part of measures to save water, the next two locks were being padlocked closed from 15:00 each day until 08:00 the following morning. Since it was already 14:30 we didn’t feel we had much choice but to moor up here in the centre of Wigan and sit it out until morning.
Emerging from Lock 87 the published visitor moorings between Lock 86 and Lock 87 already lay behind us. However, on the short stretch between the lock and the next bridge, there were mooring rings on the towpath side and we could see a pontoon, with three boats moored against it, just beyond a water point and before the bridge so there were other boaters around. The unforgiving stone bank this side of the water point was a little higher than would be comfortable but was just about manageable and alongside the towpath were just a handful of tiny terraced cottages which looked inhabited and very well cared for with flowers in their little gardens. There seemed to be nothing around us that would attract any foot traffic up and down and in some afternoon sunshine it looked safe enough to moor here.
When another boat came down the lock, intending to stop for water and move on, they realised they couldn’t get through the next locks and moored behind us, so all the better. There was an older guy with two couples and a few kids. The older guy knocked on our boat a few minutes later. It turned out that this was his boat but his daughter was borrowing it for a few days and none of the others had ever been out on one before. He also asked if we would help them down the next few locks tomorrow as he would be leaving them tonight. Obviously, that worked for us. These were all hard work and two crews are better than one.
There is a Wigan Pier. It was just through the next bridge and round a left hand bend with a very short arm off to the right, which was still being used commercially by a trip boat. It seemed we were wrong about Wigan having made no attempt to exploit its canal side potential. At some point this area had been developed as a tourist destination with reference to Orwell and large pieces of mill machinery were positioned and displayed all around the buildings, one or two of which were actually intended to be museums. Here statues of working men were posed around the site and the centre piece was The Orwell, which advertised refreshments, boat trips, souvenirs etc.
Looking more closely, however, you can see that these were the remnants of an attempt to revive the area as a cultural quarter starting in the eighties. It doesn’t seem to have been that successful anyway but failed completely when the financial crash came in 2008. The Orwell was derelict, the statues were disfigured and smashed and the whole site, along with all hope, was abandoned again. There are rumours that they’re about to have another go but I suspect it will mostly turn into apartments rather than public spaces.
Another day’s snagging on Wednesday addressed some issues and showed we were reaching that familiar 80:20 point. Most of what was left or was now coming to light was hardly worth worrying about. However, the small number that are significant remain of real concern and are pretty much the same as they were on Day One. Dave had come armed with a pump to fit to the central heating but when asked if this would specifically solve the problem or make any difference at all, the answer was ‘I don’t really know’. We agreed not to make another invasive change on the basis of suck it and see and I gave him the details of a contact at the boiler supplier to go and talk to for more advice.
After that enforced stop on Wednesday it was time to set off down the Lower Peak Forest Canal, via sixteen locks from our mooring at Marple Junction. In order to make life easy for meeting the service engineer on Friday we were booked into Portland Basin Marina at the junction of the Peak Forest and the Ashton Canals from Thursday night so we did need to cover that stretch on Thursday.
Marple is one of those ‘M’ words that sounds a bit grim. Even though where we had been moored was actually quite pleasant we had got an impression that, heading down the locks, things would start to be a bit more gritty and hard going. In fact, the passage down was really quite pleasant. It was a dry, sunny day and Marple seemed to be quite a nice, clean town with plenty of well-maintained amenities, parks etc. The towpath was continually busy with the occasional hiking group and people strolling, cycling, exercising their dogs or walking their babies.
The locks were in reasonable shape though, with only a couple of boats coming up, we didn’t get much help to work them so it was a fair days work by the time we reached the end. Even though we had come down quite a long way, over two hundred feet, as we emerged from the last lock we still seemed to be quite high up above the surrounding countryside. Crossing the Marple Aqueduct near Upper Watermeet there was a great view of the railway viaduct alongside.
We also had a couple of tunnels to pass through and although they were quite short they had the added complication of being one way operation. You have to peer ahead and make sure no-one is approaching before committing to going through.
It was only really as we crossed under the M67 motorway bridge coming into Hyde and Dukinfield that we began to feel a more built-up, urban vibe with houses closing in and various small businesses generally choosing to show their worst face to the canal. The last bridge (or first, as it is actually Bridge No. 1) was the manually operated Dukinfield Lift Bridge less than half a mile from the junction.
At this point we started looking out for our marina on the right hand side, just before the junction. We spotted the entrance and successfully threaded our way through it into a narrow backwater channel, hemmed in by boats on either side. We passed a diesel pump and could see an office ahead so we stopped and spoke to a guy who came over from one of the boats they were working on. He explained, patiently, that this was a boatyard not a marina and we must be boooked in at Droylsden Marina, which they also operate. He was keen to elaborate on what a wonderful amenity that was, with showers, laundry facilities, secure access etc. and point out that, as we were heading towards Manchester, it would be closer to our destination when we left. The fact remained that when we made the booking there had been no mention that the actual berths were in Droylsden or that that was two and a half miles further on. Doesn’t sound such a big deal in a car. By boat we were talking fifty minutes more to get down there just when we thought we were finished for the day. As ever, there was no point in prolonging the debate. It was a bit irritating but we had deliberately aimed not to be too late here, as there always seems to be a wrinkle, so we had time in hand. Fortunately we did stop to ask if there was fuel available at Droylsden. There wasn’t and we would have to fill up here before we left.
Once we had filled up we had the challenge of backing up all the way down the channel to the entrance and reversing into the main Peak Forest Canal. We seemed to get away with that and headed up to the junction to turn left onto the Ashton Canal towards Manchester. The channel here seemed a bit wider and there were fewer yards along the way with various housing estates visible at a distance. We passed a pub on one side and the Snipe Retail Park at Ashton-Under-Lyne on the other and while it was far from the upper Thames it generally felt quite civilised, although there were some stark contrasts to be seen side by side.
Droylsden Marina has a basin that sits off a place called Fairfield Junction (although there is no longer a junction) right at the top of the next flight of eighteen locks that we would be taking down to Manchester. Arrival here was altogether more straightforward. Despite being directed right down to the far end and required to make a three point turn to reverse onto the jetty we managed it with aplomb and received a very warm welcome, both from the lady who looks after things there and from a number of the longer term residents. We felt quite at home immediately, as well as feeling quite secure, despite the basin being surrounded by houses and flats. It reminded us of the basin at Aylesbury. There was no Waitrose beside the dock here but a Tesco Superstore was only a couple of hundred yards away across the main road.
We were due to stay here over Thursday and Friday nights. Almost the first conversation we had with the natives was that heading down, intending to spend Saturday night in Manchester Piccadilly, was not the best idea. As we had already heard similar things from other sources we decided to stay an extra night and head off there on Sunday.
Hanging About In Droylsden
Since we had moored here specifically to make it easy for our engineer, Gary, to get to us and do the engine service on Friday morning it was a bit disappointing that, when I sent a text with confirmation that we were in place, he replied that he probably couldn’t make it on Friday and asked if we could do it on Saturday morning. It was no consolation that the reason given was that Aintree had a boat going out on Friday afternoon and the engine due to be fitted two days earlier was now only arriving there on Friday morning. We knew what that meant: yet another Aintree boat on the water to claim more of Dave’s attention even before ours was finally sorted.
As we had already decided to stay Saturday night it didn’t seem too big a deal to get it done on Saturday morning. On Friday there was plenty of stuff we could do around the boat. It needed cleaning and we could use all the electricity we could eat for vacuum cleaners etc. plus we could use the laundry, instead of hammering our on board machine.
We also had to find a way to make an appointment with Belling to look at our cooker. A minor issue with the starter on the grill but they need a static postcode to be able to book an appointment. We found another marina further down our route and tried to book in there to meet Belling. That conversation became just a little awkward as it turned out the lady who manages the bookings had suddenly and unexpectedly died the day before. They don’t do succession planning in marinas so it was no surprise that this had thrown them into a degree of chaos; all the more so as it transpired she had actually been the boss’s mother. All credit to them, however, as they gathered their thoughts and rang me back a couple of hours later, able to confirm our booking. I was then even able to get back to the same person at Belling and confirm their appointment. A lot of phone calls but a result in the end.
Saturday dawned and with it a steady rainfall that lasted all morning. It could be argued that you only really see Manchester in its true colours in the rain, it just seemed to suit it better than yesterday’s sunshine, somehow.
We eventually had a text from Gary to say he was on the way, via a stop at Aintree Boats to collect his tools. The hours ticked by and no sign of Gary. We had just decided he was going to let us down when another text came in confirming he would be with us in half an hour and to start the engine in preparation. A relief at this point but a day late and a wasted morning, just waiting for him to arrive while it rained outside. To add insult to injury he finally turned up just as the sun broke through for a nice, sunny afternoon and evening.
By the time he finished it was quite late but we still managed to walk up to the retail park to the delights of B&Q, Pets at Home and Argos etc. These are things we can’t easily get to so we usually have a list of stuff to get when we can reach them.
Droylsden offers a lot of closed and shuttered shops and some quite seedy looking tattoo parlours and takeaway shops of all kinds with a few rather run down traditional pubs. Not a lot seems to be open and the tram line runs right through it (but doesn’t take dogs). On the major crossroads just up from the marina and in the heart of the high rises, however, we had spotted The Silly Country. Billing itself as a ‘bar & bottle shop’ it looked quite nice from across the road and was packed with people, inside and outside, many of whom seemed to be stopping off on their way elsewhere. It seemed as if it must be the only decent bar in Droylsden and we certainly enjoyed an hour there, despite the rather raucous atmosphere.
Descent Into The Unknown
We had discussed our plans with various people in the know and it was clear that you couldn’t just cruise into central Manchester and drop in a couple of pins to moor on the towpath. Most people suggested that it was unlikely that you would be molested directly but you would certainly be subjected to the sights and sounds of Manchester in full party mode, you were likely to witness unpleasant scenes of an urban underclass attempting to satisfy its more unsavoury predilections, you would probably be unwise to leave your boat unattended and if, by the morning, nothing was taken it was entirely possible something unwanted would be added.
Having delayed our passage to avoid Saturday night in the centre we were aware that we needed to set off early on Sunday. CRT had issued a notice about the Swing Bridge No. 15 last Thursday. It had been damaged and was now padlocked. CRT would attend only between 08:00-09:00 and 16:00-17:00 each day to open it for boats until such time as it was repaired. We had to get through two locks before we would get there and in the end we arrived at 08:50. Quelle surprise! There was no-one there. A phone call to CRT gave us an emergency number to be used only in the case of danger of sinking or to life and limb. Still, it was the only option we now had so we called it and soon someone rang us back to say they would be there in fifteen minutes.
Sure enough they did turn up in that time and we could get on our way. There were eighteen locks on the Ashton Canal, counting down, to get to Piccadilly. With two behind us we arrived at Lock 16 to find a hire boat broken down and moored on the landing. As we arrived so did the men from their boatyard. By the time we had passed through the lock they had managed to re-mount their rudder on the cup it should sit in (knocking this out in shallow water is quite a common issue) and persuaded the couple on board that, rather than get a taxi back to their car and abandoning the boat, they should carry on, with some assistance from the hire team to help make up some time. I am not convinced that the distaff side was entirely happy with this outcome; she looked as if she had had a ‘get out of jail free’ card snatched from her grasp.
From our point of view, although there was a slight sense of pressure from behind, this was actually quite useful. These locks were an awkward design, all with handcuff keys required to unlock anti-vandal measures on each of the paddles and no way to get from one side to the other than to walk all the way round the far end, several times per lock. Most of them were in poor shape and particularly difficult to open. With an eager Scot and his two children, keen to push on, following us down we made a lot more progress than we would have on our own.
We were surprised again that despite being on the outskirts of such a big city the area the locks passed through was relatively open and fairly clean for the first fifteen or so. On a sunny Sunday morning there was plenty of activity on the towpath and it was all quite pleasant despite the hard work involved.
As we neared the bottom, of course, the urban reality came far more to the fore. The towpaths were messier or surrounded by tall new buildings, more and more bridges came at us thick and fast as the road crossings increased and even on a sunny Sunday lunchtime we were greeted with the sight of some lost soul with his trousers round his knees struggling to find a vein. What the family behind made of that I can only imagine.
Much had been made of the height restriction in the Harecastle Tunnel. Full time staff in attendance checking loads and giving briefings and a gauge at the entrance to ensure you would fit through before it was too late. Why, then, are the bridges in Manchester completely devoid of any warning whatsoever? We had sailed through the Harecastle with only the helmsman needing to duck. At least three of these bridges we passed under forced us to crouch down below the cabin roof level and one actually caught our top box, it was so low. It shifted it an inch or so but only the cover was slightly damaged, still you can’t help wondering why there wasn’t even a sign and the headroom is not even mentioned in our various guides.
After some careful research we had decided to moor at a site called Thomas Telford Basin in Piccadilly Village. It had been recommended by a number of people. It has the peculiarity of being a space for public mooring sitting right in the middle of a gated residential complex. Secure, as only residents could pass in and out of the complex. Possibly a little too secure as boaters, being non-residents, might be able to get out to the surrounding streets but had no way to get back in.
We hadn’t been sure what this arrangement would look like or if we might sail past without recognising it. In fact, it was very obvious. The nature of the buildings around us suddenly changed to red brick, smart apartments with gardens and flowers around them, clearly signed as Piccadilly Village and a neat sign from CRT indicating the entrance to the basin. We found that we were the only boat there and could pick our spot.
I chatted to one or two of the residents. They felt the estate was very secure but people still climbed the fence and the odd car was still stolen, somehow. They were clear that it was a bit rough around the edges and by that they meant right at the edges of their gated enclave, so it sounds like Fortress Piccadilly. It does feel very nice in this area and the properties must have been much sought after but there are now horrible high-rise developments going up that must overshadow and devalue them.
The extent to which even a short period of enforced containment can grate is really quite surprising. We were aware of the terms of our incarceration and thought we were well prepared, with food, drink and entertainment on board. However, on a warm, sunny afternoon, we were soon seized with an almost irresistible desire to go out into the city and find a bar or at least view some sights. Even walking Bracken was an issue and any real exercise for her was out of the question. I think that, as we were clearly on a boat there, the residents might well have given us a gate code if that were all it took. However, they have changed their system to a personal key fob now and it seemed a bit too much to ask for the loan of one of these.
We survived until a bright, sunny morning bought our freedom and after a hearty breakfast we girded up our loins for the ordeal ahead. The junction from the Ashton onto the Rochdale Canal lay just ahead. Turning left presents you with just nine locks that drop down through the city centre and emerge at the Castlefield Basin, an area that is also deemed safe and secure but without the constraints of the previous stop in Piccadilly.
The Rochdale Nine
The description above sounds straightforward but we had discussed this stretch with various people at different times and with each telling the reputation of the Rochdale Nine became darker and more ominous than before. Pulling together all the different reports we had heard this is the summary we took away:
These locks take you right into the darkest, deepest underbelly of metropolitan Manchester. They are in poor condition and very hard work both to operate the paddles and open the gates. They are often overtopping, making it difficult to equalise the water pressure or sometimes left open by vandals, flooding the lower towpaths and draining the pounds above. You are likely to be offered some form of assistance by any number of misfits and ne’er do wells hanging around in the darker corners, often where the locks pass underground through the foundations of office buildings. A polite refusal may well cause offence and even if you are not accosted directly, you are likely to see things you really wish you hadn’t. You should keep the doors and stern hatch closed and locked at all times. Start in the morning and under no circumstances get caught on ‘The Nine’ when school is out. Whatever happens, your passage will be slow and arduous and the survivors will have earned the right to wear the T-shirt.
Our experience was consistent with most of these reports, By some way the dirtiest, most awkward and uncomfortable arrangements for working locks we have ever encountered. You have a couple of tight turns and then are almost immediately plunging under the surrounding buildings where we found a few strange individuals moving back and forth in the near darkness with no apparent purpose. They left us alone but it was still a bit unnerving, especially as with just two of us Sue was often ahead of me and on her own for some time while I closed the lock.
We got through the first two locks relatively unscathed and approached the notorious Lock 86. The particular feature of note here is that, most unusually, there is no access to the lock from a towpath. That ends shortly after Lock 85 and picks up again from Lock 87. In fairness, this is very well advertised in all the guides, so we were ready for it and the whole crew was on board leaving Lock 85. It wasn’t easy to operate. In fact, I had to enlist the help of a construction worker, who happened to working on a site right beside the lock, to get the top gate open. but we got through it, got back on board and moved on – three down, six to go.
As we approached Lock 87 we could see something in the water by the lock landing. We realised it was part of a sunken motor cruiser and by now our bows were already floating over it. Since it had obviously been there for a very long time we assumed it was possible to drive past it into the lock so I jumped off and began to raise the paddles.
The previous week I had discussed with Aintree my feeling that the boat had a slight list to starboard. As I waited for the lock to fill and looked at the bows I was thinking: “You know, Dave, we are definitely right, she does list to starboard, however slightly”. Then I realised that this phenomenon was becoming even more pronounced and began to hear shouting from Sue who was just out of sight of where I was standing. Finally cottoning on to what was actually happening, I dropped both the paddles again very, very quickly and we tried to work out what to do now.
The sunken cruiser was not just at the side of the canal it was right across it. As the lock began to fill, the pound above emptied and lowered our steel boat onto the wreckage. As the weight settled on to the Tupperware hulk we began to list more and more to one side. If this continued there was every risk that we could even turn turtle.
Attempting to put panic to one side I managed to stand on the cabin of the cruiser, now exposed above water, to get a centre line from Sue, which I secured to the steel pontoon that served as a lock landing; this in the hope that it would prevent the boat tilting any further over. Then I asked Sue to get the phone that I wasn’t carrying, for obvious reasons, and ring CRT.
The solution to this problem was to go back to the previous lock, open those paddles and let a lot more water into our pound sufficient to float us off and to allow this lock to fill and then get the gates to open and our boat inside. There were a few issues with this approach. You will recall that there is no access to the previous lock other than by boat. Also, that lock was more or less empty, as we had just come through it. Finally, my phone was on board so I couldn’t communicate with Sue when I was out of sight.
I walked back along the busy city streets street to the point where the lock was, which took about five minutes. Sure enough I could see down into the lock but couldn’t get down to it. However, I did manage to pass my windlass over the barrier to the very same friendly construction worker and explain to him how to open the front paddles. Then I headed back down to the boat, where Sue had managed to get CRT on the phone. They said they would be there in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, what water had come down had helped a little but not nearly enough. So, back up on the street to Lock 86 again. This time there was nothing for it but to climb over the big, glass barrier and drop down onto the lock to open the paddles on the top gates and let more water down from the pound above. I did this under the close scrutiny of a whole class of schoolchildren, whose teacher tried to explain what was going on. With no boat in sight he was really struggling with that!
After a while I closed the paddles (I didn’t dare just walk off leaving them open) and clambered out of the forbidden lock to head back to the boat and see if it had done any good. CRT were in attendance and we were able to get the lock gate open but still didn’t have enough water to float the boat off the wreckage. Off he went to do the same thing I had done. Finally, ten minutes later we began to float and were able to pull the boat into the lock and shut the gate behind her. What are CRT going to do to avoid this situation in the future? Absolutely nothing, apparently, as it isn’t their boat.
Four down and five to go. We cleared Lock 87 and eventually Lock 88. We did lose another fender leaving here but otherwise got through it without any real incident and carried on to Lock 89. At least this was in the open but by now all the offices were turning out for lunch, so we were greeted by a crowd of gongoozlers operating on a strictly look, but don’t touch, policy. While this lock was emptying I walked all the way back with my boat pole to fish for the fender in the previous lock, deposited my catch on the rear deck and opened the gates to carry on.
Sue sailed off towards Lock 90 and I followed along the towpath. That was until I reached a very serious padlocked barrier with a notice that the towpath was closed here and one should follow the diversion that was rather obscurely outlined on the accompanying map. Trusting that this would, of course, lead me to the next lock, off I went, once more on foot through the city with windlass in hand.
What happened was that, twenty minutes later, I ended up the other side of Lock 91 facing an identical impenetrable barrier on the towpath in the other direction. I still didn’t have my phone to contact Sue, who must be wondering where the hell I was and I couldn’t find any way past the locked gate. Retracing my steps I could just peep down into where the boat was, waiting at Lock 90 but with no chance of communicating. I was by the station and the whole area is a demolition site. I found an entrance, demanded to speak to the foreman and explained the problem. Despite having had strict orders to the contrary he was very helpful and I persuaded him to take me down to the barrier, for which he had a key and let me through. By now, Sue had opened the lock, taken the boat in and was in the process of emptying it so we were able to pick up from there.
At Lock 91, the last but one, we met another boat coming in the opposite direction. They had encountered the same problem with the barrier but had realised in time and with their help it was a fairly simple passage to get through that one and on to the last lock.
Lock 92 drops you straight down into Castlefield Basin at the junction with the Bridgewater Canal. This last lock on the Rochdale Canal is situated between two pubs and immediately under a bridge that is busy with foot traffic. We arrived and I filled the lock and tried to open one of the gates. Just as I was doing this two people appeared on the other side and walked across them! So I suggested that they should help me open the gate which, in fairness, they did, saying they hadn’t realised what I was doing.
I carried on emptying the lock, having to cross back and forth over the foot bridge through a number of people standing, watching. Then I went to open the gates using the winch mechanism provided here. There was simply no movement whatsoever, I couldn’t move them an inch. After a few minutes one man who was passing by realised what was happening and enlisted the support of the people who had been watching me struggle. In the end it took four strong men on one side and me pushing and heaving with my whole, not inconsiderable, bodyweight on the other, to shift them. At last we were through the Rochdale Nine and had lived to tell the tale!
Emerging through the Marple Junction you can see on your left the first of the sixteen locks that take the canal down towards Manchester. Turning right takes you onto what is sometimes called the Upper Peak Forest Canal. In many ways this doesn’t seem very different from the Macclesfield that we had just left behind but with the added bonus of now heading directly towards the Peaks that give the district its name. The scenery over the last week was very pleasant but on this section of waterway it is really stunning at times. It seems a million miles away from words like Manchester, Mills and Mining. Nonetheless, everywhere you go, you don’t have to delve very deep to find reminders that this was an industrial landscape.
We had originally expected to have taken on water back near Higher Poynton and to spend at least one night in Marple. Having decided to go straight through and then not having been able to fill up at Marple water point (other than Sue’s lungs) meant we were now on the Peak Forest earlier than expected, with an empty water tank and a lot of wet clothes. Without water it wouldn’t be practical to stop for the night where we had intended so we decided to pull over and re-group over a late lunch.
Having got clear of the junction we could see a boat moored against the bank with an inviting stretch of clear Armco before it, so we pulled in. It turned out to be a Judas boat. We were still yards from the shore when we heard the bottom scraping the hull and were in danger of being beached. We carried on further round the bend and after two more failed attempts it dawned on us that this was a feature of this canal, with very few stretches deep enough to get in fully alongside. If an attractive site seemed clear of boats it was probably because it was unusable. In the end we settled for no more than two yards from the shore.
Over lunch we reviewed our situation. The Upper Peak Forest is actually quite short, two to three hours will get you to the far end. Travelling now south-east from Marple, after about six miles, there is a junction. Half a mile up the left fork is the end of the canal at Bugsworth Basin. A different half a mile up the right fork is the terminal wharf at Whaley Bridge. There were a couple of key points in the schedule over the next week or so. Firstly, meet Dave from Aintree Boats to do some more snagging on Wednesday 3rd July, which we thought we would do in Marple. Secondly we had arranged to meet Gary the engineer to do a 250 hour service at Portland Basin, a day below Marple, on Friday 5th July. As today was only Thursday 27th June we needed to take our time over the next four days, so we had planned to stop at odd places en route. As far as access to water was concerned we knew that there were full services at the far end of each arm. However, there were two marinas on the way and reports were a bit mixed as to whether they would let passing boats fill up. We decided we would carry on to the marinas, chance our arm and if that failed, keep on going to Bugsworth, fill up and moor there for the evening.
Water, Water everywhere . . . not a drop to drink!
New Mills Marina was, typically, around a blind bend through a bridge, with the service dock immediately by the bridge hole and set quite wrong for the prevailing wind. Having presumably watched us struggle to pull in and tie up, a lady came down and stood in front of a large sign advertising diesel, pump out, solid fuels, gas and crucially, water. She asked how she could help and when we enquired about water she told us that they didn’t have any water except for the yellow hose reserved, for obvious reasons, for the pump out. Although it was tempting to question this statement from a variety of standpoints her demeanour made it clear that it was going to be a flat ‘no’ so we didn’t waste our breath and moved on. Passing Furness Vale Marina not only was there no evidence of anyone in attendance but there didn’t seem to be any obvious place to pull in anyway. Bugsworth Basin it was then, the whole outward journey done by the end of Thursday.
Bugsworth basin is run by volunteers from the Bugsworth Basin Heritage Trust in conjunction with CRT. It has been cleared and restored so that it is very easy to see how it must have operated in its heyday, with dozens of boats moored, loading, unloading, manoeuvring, arriving and leaving. Most of the buildings and machinery have gone and the lime kilns are just ruins but there are really good information boards and displays that help you understand how it all worked. It was completely dry and derelict when they started in 1968 and was finally opened for boats at Easter in 1999, which gives a good sense of how long term these projects are. Even longer since it had to close again almost immediately, due to severe leakage once powered boats arrived and was not finally opened again until 2005.
Today, apart from the heritage signs, what you see is a wide open area between the hills, with the main stone wharves and individual basins, all equipped with mooring rings for visitors and connected by a network of bridges, ramps and tunnels. There is plenty of grass, there are various benches etc. A popular cycle trail runs through it along the old tramway and The Navigation Inn sits a few hundred yards from the water, above and slightly apart from the main site. Apparently they get 50,000 visitors a year but it didn’t seem all that crowded when we were there. All in all it was a lovely site to moor in. As we were early arriving we were happy to spend the maximum two nights here before moving on.
Friday, despite a bit of grey cloud during the morning, was mainly sunny and became very warm. The wind continued to be quite fierce, however. When I asked one of the volunteers they said that was quite unusual and I was rather glad we weren’t moving the boat that day. Instead we went for a walk. To the north east we could see Chinley Churn and Cracken Edge but despite appearing to have recovered from her stomach upset we thought that might have been a bit far for Bracken, so we headed south east and climbed up Eccles Pike. The famous Kinder Scout is over 600 metres high and Chinley Churn is 451 metres, so at 370 metres Eccles Pike is hardly one of the high peaks. For a relatively unimpressive pimple, however, it offers a panoramic view way beyond its stature. It was well worth the climb, for which we were very much out of practice and it gave us a great excuse to have lunch at The Navigation Inn when we got back, before tackling some odd jobs around the boat.
The next day we innocently set out for the short hop to Whaley Bridge. It was a fine enough day but very humid and as the day went on it continued to get hotter and steamier. It only took half an hour to round the junction and arrive at the wharf on the end of the canal at Whaley Bridge. Being Saturday, we didn’t think much of the numbers of people we saw walking the towpath but as we reached the end of the arm it became apparent that, once again, we had inadvertently turned up on a special day for the local populace: it was Whaley Bridge Carnival Day. There were balloons, crowds, runners participating in events throughout the day, an extraordinary quantity of Carnival Queens from all around the district and a big parade.
The moorings were probably fuller than normal, especially as some events were based on the wharf and canal but we got some helpful advice from a guy on the water point, turned and were able to moor up a bit further back down the arm and very handily placed for the Tesco Superstore. Naturally, we went for a mooch around the festivities.
Whaley Bridge seems rather wedged in to its valley alongside the River Goyt and presents a long, thin town based on the busy main road that runs right through it. Overall it seems quite a nice town but perhaps a bit austere on a normal day. Today, however, all decked out in bunting and balloons with enormous crowds thronging the street it was very festive. The middle aged men in women’s clothing theme, which seems to be compulsory at these events in the rugged north, was very much in evidence. Every pub was surrounded by a crowd of drinkers blocking the pavement and the one we chose to try had a queue out of the door just to buy a drink – so we passed. We did get a hog roast roll and we enjoyed a stroll to get our bearings and take in the sights before heading back to the boat just as the parade was passing.
The afternoon continued to get hotter and more humid as we finished a couple more of the seemingly endless list of small jobs to be done. In the evening we took Bracken to find a park and have a run but even she seemed a bit listless in the heat and we soon found ourselves at The Shepherd’s Arms towards the far end of town. Here we squeezed into a space in the garden before getting a drink, served unceremoniously in plastic glasses by a bar staff that had clearly had a difficult day. It always feels a bit strange going into an environment where everyone has been drinking all day and you haven’t. At this point the whole town seemed a bit wasted and emotional and I had to make friends with the locals in the bar while I was waiting to be served. However, the people seemed friendly enough, if a bit northern and the mood, if slurred, was still good natured.
At this point, out of nowhere, there was a shower of warm rain. It lasted no time at all but scattered some of the crowds and gave us a chance to have our first drink in peace, following which the mood began to seem a lot less abrasive and rather more mellow. After a second glass we felt part of the crowd and went in search of a takeaway pizza. We had passed quite a few people carrying a particular design of pizza box and we tracked down the source, as that seemed the most popular takeaway in town. It turned out to be excellent, quickly prepared and deliciously baked despite being such a busy evening.
The temperature dropped quickly overnight and the next day was cooler, steadily brightened up through the morning and was much less oppressive. Opening the deck boards on Sunday morning I found the whole, normally very dry, engine bay running with water with a pool of it across the floor. I couldn’t find any real source for it and there was no diesel or anti-freeze in it. In the end, even though temperatures were not that cold, we were forced to conclude it was merely condensation arising from the extreme heat of the day before and the abrupt change overnight.
Wanting to avoid climbing steep hills today we set out to try to find a walk around Todbrook Reservoir, just across the Memorial Park. As expected, walking through the town, there was a distinctly hungover feel everywhere. Just a few people were starting to venture out and make their way through the discarded kebab wrappers. This was one aspect of the carnival that the committee had clearly overlooked. When aiming to encourage a large influx of visitors and townspeople to spend the whole day enjoying themselves in the sunshine you need to schedule bin collections throughout the day. This clearly hadn’t happened. All the bins were overflowing and surrounded by the litter people had still tried to force in. There are scum everywhere who will not even try but you have to give the people who want be responsible a fair chance.
We rather failed in our attempt to find a walk on the level. A path that seemed set to circumnavigate the reservoir led us a long way round before heading straight uphill above the incoming watercourse and forcing a bit of a detour to get to the road where we could cross it and come back down again. Recent development had also played havoc with some of the rights of way we could see on the map, so we ended up coming back right through the town. By now it was pretty much awake and into its second cup of coffee. We passed a really nice bakery / coffee shop near the wharf and picked up a sandwich for lunch. There were lots of people sitting outside on the pavement and it was only spoiled by the constant traffic trundling past on the main road.
Return to Marple
One additional complication of having Bracken with us is that only one of us can go into a supermarket at any one time. That needs to be Sue but if she buys everything on the list then she can’t carry it. Being by Tesco was a great chance to stock up and by staying over Sunday night we could have two bites at the cherry before we left. On leaving, we would need water etc. The services were behind us at the wharf so we either had to reverse all the way back or go down to the junction turn, come back to the services, turn again and then head off on our way. We weren’t due in Marple until Tuesday night and hadn’t anywhere specific in mind on the way there. We had enjoyed mooring in Bugsworth Basin so much that we decided that a much easier solution was simply to hop round to use the services there and moor up for Monday night.
On Tuesday we set off from Bugsworth and were back in Marple by about two o’clock. We had wondered if we would find mooring or would need to turn back up the Macclesfield Canal to moor there. As it happened there was one space, quite near the junction, where we could get into the side and moor up, as long as we kept the lines loose and put out fenders to keep us a little way out from the shelf lurking under the water. All in all a good place to meet Aintree Boats for their snagging visit on Wednesday.
Having returned to the boat in Stoke On Trent on Tuesday afternoon we didn’t plan to take it very far. Two miles north of the marina there is a large expanse of water managed as a wildlife and bird watching centre called Westport Lake that sits right beside the Trent & Mersey Canal. There is a long stretch of two day mooring here that provides a convenient stop just short of the Harecastle Tunnel, which is quite a feature in itself.
Set aside as a leisure area by a local farmer as long ago as 1890, the lakes apparently descended into wasteland before being reinstated in the mid 1980s. It seems a bit of a shame that the new housing development has then been built right opposite and looming above it. There is a big Visitor Centre and café, in the base of which is a CRT service area with showers, toilets, a sanitary station etc. Given that level of investment, the lack of a water point on the mooring seems rather a strange omission.
On our trip south we had picked up a list of things to complete little jobs around the boat and we stayed on here on Wednesday to get some of those done. Walking Bracken down to the start of the tunnel and having a look at what we would be facing the next day was sufficient procrastination to ensure that some rain had arrived and forced us to focus on jobs inside to start with. As it brightened up a bit later we managed to dry out the bilges from all the rain that had accumulated in the last couple of weeks and cleared the drainage channels that may have contributed.
Harecastle Tunnel & Beyond
We set out on Thursday to negotiate the Harecastle Tunnel and then turn off on to the Macclesfield Canal. The Harecastle Tunnel is not the longest on the network but is over one and a half miles long and only accommodates one-way traffic. The height of the tunnel varies considerably along its length but at its lowest can be less than seven feet at the sides. That also varies depending on the depth of the water at any given time. No ventilation shafts were built into the tunnel originally as the boats had no engines but now there are huge fans which start up as you enter, to ensure that diesel fumes do not overcome the helmsman or the crew passing through. Doors close across the southern portal to ensure the fans are effective as well as to prevent unauthorised entry. Of course, you can’t just turn up and drive on through. The traffic is managed by CRT tunnel keepers who inspect the boats arriving to make passage, provide safety briefings to their crews and check that nothing on the boat touches the gauge suspended from the main tunnel entrance. With an average transit time of forty minutes you don’t want to just miss the last set of boats allowed in or you’ll be waiting an hour and a half to be allowed through.
Thursday having been trailed as a fine, dry day offered a grey start with light rain as we set out. We thought we would fill up a water point at the tunnel entrance, on the opposite bank to the queue, while waiting to be allowed in. In the event, having set our course to glide in to the left bank, we realised that the doors were open, so boats must be about to emerge. That meant we didn’t have time to water up and should really be in the queue on the right bank and a couple of lengths behind us. As with any sudden change of plan, farce ensued. The rain intensified accompanied by strong winds that disrupted the attempt to reverse smoothly back up and move across the canal. The lead boat appeared from the tunnel far too soon to find us sideways across the cut and their crew were clearly wondering what we were up to. They could stop, of course. However, behind them in the darkness of the tunnel would be a handful of other boats with no idea that there was an issue. We did manage to sort ourselves out fairly quickly, clear the passage and get in line for inspection but it was an entertaining few moments for all concerned.
Air draft is one statistic not included in the specifications the builders provided se we had wondered whether our top box might give us a problem with the height. In fact we were well clear of the gauge as we entered the portal and the only thing that didn’t clear it were my head and shoulders. At first the tunnel seemed to be a more comfortable size than expected but the lowest sections are from near the middle onward. Sure enough I could just see the roof coming down to meet me and ended up crouched down on the rear deck trying to steer completely blind with only six inches clearance on either side. Still, we made it through without incident and emerged into a slightly brighter and drier daylight than we had left forty minutes before.
Beyond the tunnel, at Kidsgrove, the Trent & Mersey continues North West while a junction provides access to the Macclesfield Canal, which heads off North East to Macclesfield and Marple. Given this description it may seem surprising that we had to turn left at this junction. Apparently, when the upstart Macclesfield was approved to be built, the owners of the Trent & Mersey insisted on building and retaining control of the first one and a half mile stretch of water to meet it. The channel takes a convoluted route to turn sharp left, then sharp right to run parallel to the course of the original canal and sharp right again to cross it via an aqueduct, the Trent & Mersey having, by that time, dropped down to a lower level via a flight of locks. Apparently this is one of only two flyover junctions on the network, so we assume the other must be the junction with the Leek arm that we encountered on the Caldon Canal a couple of weeks earlier.
As we entered the Macclesfield there was quite a different feel. Suddenly the banks were overgrown with lush vegetation and the trees hung close over the channel. Everything was wet but the sun was shining now and the birds were celebrating. All in all it felt a little as though you were travelling up the Amazon in an oversized dugout. Despite plenty of reminders of the different industries it served, the cotton mills, silk mills, coal mines and stone quarries, our overall impression of this canal is that it is prettier and a lot more rural than we had expected. The bridges are attractive features like these at Hall Green and Congleton:
The milestones along its length, badly weathered now, are quite distinctive and show the distance from Marple on one side and Hall Green on the other. Apparently, during the war, they were removed and buried to confuse enemy paratroopers. When the canal was being restored The Macclesfield Canal Society found and reinstated as many as they could and had replicas made for the missing ones.
The banks continued to be very green and overgrown wherever there was no specific mooring and we were often switching between open country and deep woods all along its length. We were travelling north, parallel to the Peak District National Park and as well as the fields, woods and lush, uncut vegetation around the canal itself, we were seeing views opening up of the hills in the distance, particularly as, for the most part, the canal seems to run quite high above the settlements that have grown up along it.
Another feature that continues along its length is the impressive array of stonking, new-looking stanking plank stores. They mostly seem very posh compared to the run down, weathered affairs we are used to seeing.
On this Thursday afternoon we stopped on the aqueduct crossing back over the Trent & Mersey as we had a parcel to collect from the Post Office in Kidsgrove and would also pass a large Tesco on the way there. Urgent supplies were needed, notably Sue’s wine. In the brief view we had of it Kidsgrove seemed a very ordinary place dedicated to the canal and the railway in its hey-day and now, although busy, a bit lost.
We didn’t linger long and carried on to Hall Green Stop Lock where the true Macclesfield Canal begins. There is no real need for a lock here. It exists purely to satisfy the paranoia of the established Trent & Mersey company that the Macclesfield interlopers might take advantage in some way. It is only a 1′ 4″ rise on to the new cut, it is actually hard to tell by eye whether you are heading up or down. Originally, apparently, there was a pair of stop locks here, each with an accompanying lockkeepers cottage and stable block. It became something of a Checkpoint Charlie with employees of the two companies housed on either side, glaring at one another in mutual mistrust. Their antipathy was only perpetuated when each was taken over by a different railway company during the canal’s decline.
Little Moreton Hall & Congleton
On the way back up to the boat we had discussed how useful it would be to draw up a plan that mapped out where we expected to be, on what day and what services would be available at what points etc. We had concluded with a solid agreement that someone definitely ought to do that.
While waiting to see if the rain would stop on Thursday morning we had put something together for the next week or so. We stopped, as planned, at Bridge 68, a very pleasant, remote mooring site with nothing to distinguish it, not even a name. The one key feature here was a footpath running down from there directly to Little Moreton Hall, a National Trust property we had thought we would visit this afternoon, combined with a longer walk. We would then stay over a second night and move on to Congleton on Saturday morning.
Naturally, life intervened. Bracken had just stopped eating on Wednesday evening, then began vomiting and had now developed diarrhoea. As we had discovered over breakfast that it was now Friday we thought we should see a vet today, rather than having to wait until after the weekend. That would also mean moving on to Congleton today rather than tomorrow.
The sun was shining and having rung to secure an appointment with a vet in Congleton for four fifteen, we had time to walk down to Little Moreton Hall and have a quick look this morning, before we left. The hall was a moated manor house, quite interesting to look at, a real crooked house. It was hard to tell if any given feature was built that way or was sagging under its own weight. It seems it is particularly well preserved simply because a reversal in fortune of the family that owned it meant that they didn’t have the money to make the kind of modifications to keep up with fashions over the years that would have changed its character. Sadly, dogs were not allowed to cross the moat, a draconian policy that meant we didn’t have time to explore inside, going in one at a time. We couldn’t even take advantage of the café.
Returning back up the footpath we set off for Congleton, three miles up the cut with no obstacles in the way. We managed to get the last mooring by the Canal Road Aqueduct with sunshine on the boat and the solar panels well into the evening of this, the longest day. A nice spot and an ideal place to get down into the town for the vets and have a look around..
The town centre is ten minute walk from the canal and is best described as tidy. It is fairly compact, has a pedestrianised main street with the usual amenities. There were not many of the high street chains represented, although, of course, they had a Costa. They had plenty of charity shops but it managed to avoid feeling too run down and there seemed to be quite a few nice restaurants and bars as well.
The vet was reassuringly expensive, although a lot cheaper than ours at home, never mind the animal bandits in London. A consultation with a shot to stop the vomiting, instructions for a diet of chicken & rice with some stuff to put in her food for the next few days and we were on our way.
There was time for a stroll around our mooring site just by the aqueduct. It was a pleasant wide area in the sunshine and the towpath led down to a nice changeover bridge with a bridle path running across it.
Exploring just a few yards up the bridle path above the bridge we came across clear evidence that, despite sitting alongside reminders of the leisurely communications of the past, Congleton is ready and willing to embrace the 21st Century, right on its doorstep!
The Longest Day
Well, technically, the longest day was on Friday but by the end, this sunny Saturday this felt like a very long one to us. We planned to move up to just short of Macclesfield and then go into the town the next day. It was about eight and half miles but also involved the twelve locks of the Bosley flight, a couple of swing bridges and, as it turned out, an element of trauma.
The first lock leads to a very sharp left hand turn to get into the second. I can’t imagine anything longer than fifty foot being able to make it in one, so there was a certain amount of backing and filling in the pound to get us lined up. Having got through that one we could start to try and get into more of a rhythm for the straighter run up the rest of the flight, with Sue going ahead to start the next lock while the one I was in was filling and then coming back to close the gates. While waiting, I tried to work out any way I could help closing the paddles and opening the gates once the lock was full.
Even at my age my capacity for stupidity and clumsiness can still surprise me. I was distracted by looking at the set-up of the locks and thinking about how to work them most efficiently, instead of focussing entirely on what I was doing. After many years of repeatedly reminding myself that the one thing I mustn’t do is let my fingers get caught in the lock mechanism, I let my fingers get caught in the lock mechanism. It happened so quickly that I still don’t quite know how it did come about but the crushed digit bleeding onto the towpath told the story. It was only one thumb and the left one at that but the pain was as intense as bashing your thumb while banging in a nail. Over the next few days I was given repeated reminders of why having two, fully operational, opposing thumbs was so critical to the development of human civilisation. Whilst effecting some running repairs we reflected on the irony that, only yesterday, we had walked past Congleton’s minor injuries unit, handily situated a few hundred yards from the canal and had even congratulated ourselves on not having needed such a facility thus far.
Ready to carry on we got back to work, sliding into the fifth lock of the day we started it filling, rose to the top, opened the gates and engaged forward gear to move slowly into the pound. Nothing happened, in itself a very odd sensation. A bit more throttle, still nothing. Eventually came the realisation. The top of the lock must be narrower than the bottom and the power of the tons of water entering the lock had forced our six foot ten inch hull up between the four inch thick rope fenders on each side and firmly wedged us in the lock chamber. On closer examination we could see that one of the fenders had been torn off altogether and was missing. The only solution was to let some of the water out, very slowly, allow the weight of the boat to take us back down to where the walls were slightly farther apart, lift the fenders out of the way and then refill the lock. Simple but time-consuming.
By the time we had completed the flight and moored on the service dock at the top it was already three o’clock and the sun had been fully out and beating down for several hours. While we were taking on water we chatted to a guy who was single-handed and was waiting for a friend to join him and help him down the locks. Despite his obvious experience he did not regard it this flight as really being feasible to negotiate alone. We told him where we planned to moor and he offered a better, more open spot which might be nicer. It is always worth listening to local knowledge so, even though it would add a little more distance, we decided to take his advice.
As we moved on through the electronic Royal Oak swing bridge, which is where we had planned to stop, we could see what he meant as it was deep and dark in the woods and would be a shame to bury ourselves there on a rare sunny evening. The site he had recommended was only a mile or so farther on and bathed in sunshine along the axis of the canal, so we would have sun in the evening and in the morning, if there was any.
Having moored up and looked at the map we realised we were only a bridge or so away from a pub called Sutton Hall, highly recommended by Lesley Fielding when we saw her the other day. It was a lovely evening for a walk and this would be a chance to exercise Bracken. It felt like we had had quite a day and deserved a treat and something to ease my throbbing thumb so we made our way down to the pub. It is a great place. Perhaps it once really was a squire’s hall? It certainly had extensive grounds, its own carriage drive and a lot of interesting connected spaces inside. As luck would have it, however, we had arrived on the day on which it was acting as one of the checkpoints for the annual Sutton Eight charity walk. As such, it was absolutely packed and at seven o’clock had clearly been under siege for many hours. The barmaid told us she had started her shift at nine that morning and all the staff looked a little frazzled. The garden was occupied by groups of middle aged men in fishnet stockings or turquoise lycra and pink leggings, so we think the Sutton Eight may have been a fancy dress affair with an eighties theme. If they were at point seven in an eight point walk they showed no sign of moving on. At this time of year, however, they had plenty of daylight left to burn so perhaps they would eventually.
Getting a drink didn’t prove too difficult but food was already up to a forty minute wait from when you ordered, with more people arriving all the time, so we didn’t eat there on this occasion. It was lovely just sitting in the garden in the sunshine at eight o’clock in the evening, though, so we had another drink and then set off back to the boat. On the way you could just see the beacon of a Burger King sign a short walk down the road from our nearest bridge. Every now and then it is quite nice to indulge in a guilty pleasure after a particularly trying day. It was too late to want to start cooking now, anyway, so we gave in to our basest instincts and I went to play the hunter / gatherer and Sue returned to the boat to put the kettle on.
On Sunday we intended to move up to the town moorings at Macclesfield. Having heard good things we thought we might stop here for two nights and explore a bit more. There is a three day mooring site marked on the map, which is where we were headed, the only thing was that they were at the far side of the town with nowhere flagged as suitable to moor once you were past them. It turned out that there was only space for four to five boats on a jetty made up of scaffolding poles with a kink in the middle. At the time we arrived, they were full. Just beyond the next bridge we found a section of repaired bank with nice new Armco to tie up to. We soon found out why no-one else was there. Below the surface the bank was lined with huge stones and you couldn’t get the boat alongside. We didn’t have much option, though, so it was a chance to unship the gangplank and use that to bridge the four foot gap to the shore. It seemed quite workable on a warm afternoon although not entirely comfortable.
With large parts of the country under threat of thunder storms and flash flooding one thing we weren’t prepared for was the gale that gradually blew up over the course of the evening, rocking the boat and shifting the vital gangplank around. At that point, however, even if our position felt a little exposed now, any attempt to move to a different site further on would only make matters worse. In the end, the wind blew through, a smattering of rain died out overnight and we never saw a flash of lightning or heard a clap of thunder, never mind experienced the threatened deluge.
During Sunday afternoon we had had a brief foray to the local park and of course the nearest supermarket. In our original plan, as we had been told that Monday would be a mostly rainy day, we had thought we would look around Macclesfield on Monday and stay on there another night. By Sunday evening we decided we would rather only stay rocking on the gangplank for one night but at the same time we were also advised that the weather on Monday would not be that bad after all. Accordingly, having survived the night without harm, we decided to have a look round during the morning and move on later in the afternoon.
We set out into the town on Monday morning, via a run in the park for Bracken, heading downhill from the canal to the ring roads and the station. First impressions were not that favourable, with the area we walked through reminding both of us quite a lot of Croydon old town and the flyover there – not a recommendation.
The market place is really the centre and sits on the top of a steep hill. The rest of the town seems to have developed around it, flowing down the sides as time went on. It is a steep climb up narrow cobbled streets to get to the top but once you emerge on the summit it creates a much more favourable impression. We picked up a free heritage trail from a very helpful Tourist Information office and followed its directions around forty four points of interest. You only ever take in a proportion of these things but they do help you to get a feel for a place and ensure that you cover the areas you might not have thought to visit. It was interesting to see the way the growth of the silk and button trade had fostered the town’s development and it became very evident that most of the town’s prominent citizens and owners of the grander houses had essentially been part of the legal profession.
The current modern town is pedestrianised for a good part of the summit and sports all the surviving high street names you can think of. There are still smaller independent traders of all kinds to be found in the surrounding streets and a plentiful supply of pubs and restaurants. The overall feel is of a safe, clean and prosperous town. The people are very friendly. We found ourselves engaged in conversation with passing locals a number of times, often initially attracted by Bracken, who will talk to anyone. One lady, who had seen us studying our guide at the side of the road, even stopped her car to ask if we needed any directions, which seemed very kind.
We left the centre with a much kinder view of Macclesfield than we had had when we arrived there and headed back down the steep mound to cross the valley bottom by the station and climb back up to the canal.
Our next port of call was Bollington, only two or three miles further on and as we arrived at the moorings there the sun had started to break through. We were in time to find the recreation ground and the adjacent pub called The Vale. It was nice to sit outside with the late sun shining on their new decking overlooking the cricket clubs nets practice. A nice pub with friendly staff, featuring beers brewed in their own Bollington brewery across the street, the one oddity is that the only way to get from the bar to the terrace is to leave the pub, walk past a handful of unrelated cottages and then through the pub car park at the end of the street,
Bracken seemed perfectly fine in herself and had certainly stopped the vomiting following her injection on Friday. Nonetheless, her diarrhoea just didn’t seem to be clearing up. There was a large board on the towpath, just beyond where we had tied up, advertising Bollington Veterinary Practice. At the same time we were now expecting a wet Tuesday. Since we had left Macclesfield earlier than planned and arrived here only in the afternoon we chose to stay an extra night in Bollington, pay another visit to the vet and spend Tuesday exploring there.
Our Pearson’s Guide says: “. . . Bollington is as spick and span and as pretty as any hill town in Umbria”, so it sounded very promising, although I do wonder if that was a misprint for Cumbria. From the perspective of the canal traveller the town is bounded by two huge cotton mills, one at each end, known as Adelphi Mill and Clarence Mill. Neither are operating as mills any more but are presumably protected and trying to attract modern businesses to use the space for offices and the like. Despite the scale of these buildings they don’t really dominate the whole area as much as you might expect.
The towpath is used a lot by dog walkers, runners and cyclists and there are footpaths all around the town that take advantage of the woods and fields to avoid the main streets. The canal follows a contour on steep hillsides and is carried by a high embankment and an aqueduct across the road that seems to connect the two sides of Bollington. To the west, below the canal, the road drops away and then runs through a section that seems residential and commercial, keeping itself at a respectful distance and height from the River Dean in the bottom of the valley, which seems to have supported the original water driven mill industry. The new Co-op supermarket is here, surrounded by estates of red brick houses from the eighties and newer developments using materials more in keeping with the original properties. These seem to have been built between the road and the river. Presumably they are built on the sites of some of the old mill buildings with centuries of experience that says they won’t flood. The main road continues to the east and climbs steeply from the valley where it passes under the canal through the area with most of the pubs and amenities in it, towards the moors and peaks beyond. Strangely, the most famous landmark high above the town, known as White Nancy, can seldom be seen from its streets as there always seems to be the shoulder of a hill, an ancient tree or a fine old church building blocking the view. Being white, it also easily disappears into the overall cloudscape on a grey day.
Overall, we liked Bollington. It is bigger than it first appears, has a lot of character and is clearly well-loved and looked after but also has all the amenities you could need, from Indian Restaurants to canal-side cafes and its own Community Radio Station. It seemed busy and prosperous and although it is likely most of its residents are commuters these days, there were a lot of social activities in evidence from canoeing to art classes taking place in the street. In terms of negatives, the main road through the town is horribly busy, with narrow pavements and few crossing places and then there is the simple fact that everywhere you go it is so damned steep!
Up The Junction
On Wednesday it was time to move on, although not too far. As we had been moored immediately opposite Bollington Wharf it was, theoretically, a very simple matter to move across the canal in order to take on diesel and water and empty our various wastes. In classic style, we had just untied the first mooring line as a boat came past and asked if we knew whether he could get water there. We could hardly stop him calling in there so we had to tie back up and wait a while. He didn’t take too long though and we were able to try again, with more success, just twenty minutes later. We even bought a new rope fender to replace the one lost back at Bosley Locks.
Higher Poynton was only chosen as a staging post where we could stay the night before the final assault on Marple Junction. We tied up a little before Bridge 15, which turned out to be a centre of activity. Beyond the bridge lay a long stretch of mooring on the off side that seems to be operated by Bradbair Boats, who also have the boatyard by the bridge. There is Bailey’s Trading Centre by the bridge and a tea room as well as the Boar’s Head. The Middlewood Way, based on the disused railway runs right through between the canal and the pub and has been developed into a really nice picnic area and cycle trail and there is a wide network of footpaths and bridleways covering the area, including a route to the Lyme Park National Trust site to the east. The village itself lies a little way further west, beyond the pub but details of the various businesses and amenities are clearly displayed around the towpath and in the car park there. This has a small Visitor Centre with displays on the history of Nelson Pit. They make interesting reading as you compare the bucolic village sitting in the sun outside with the work and conditions described on the display boards. Nelson Pit was just one of many small collieries owned by the Lords of Vernon that dotted the area in the not so distant past. They closed in about 1935.
It all made for a nice walk, an interesting afternoon and a very pleasant overnight stay, we could have stayed longer and visited Lyme Park but in the end we decided to press on. Our plan said we should take on water at the bridge and then stop at Marple on Thursday night. However, we had also decided that we would actually go beyond Marple on Thursday and moor a little further up the Peak Forest Canal. Accordingly, we bypassed the water point at Bridge 15 as we knew that we would be stopping at the services just before the junction.
Never pass up the opportunity to fill or empty your tanks should be every boater’s motto. It was a very pleasant run down to Marple, just a few miles in warm sunshine. Marple on the map looks quite a big place. As you are approaching on the canal you can see the big mill that would have marked its outer limits and I assumed we were about to enter a longish stretch of built up area and derelict industry. However, around and opposite this building there is also a large, well maintained golf course. In fact, the canal appears to skirt the eastern edge of the main town and then turn down its northern side. so for us, although there were some big buildings to pass through, it didn’t seem much more urban than Bollington.
As we approached the last bridge we passed a boat going in the other direction. He informed us that if we wanted water there were four boats in the queue already and it was taking an hour and a half to fill each boat due to the low pressure. We had passed up water this morning, we needed water today but if we waited six hours to get it we would not be moving on to find a mooring until about seven o’clock tonight. When we arrived at the service dock there were indeed lots of boats queuing and they confirmed what had been said. The people currently at the water point had moored overnight and been waiting all morning.
We decided we would not get water here but would use the other services so as we asked the boat that was already filling if we could moor alongside. They were fine with it so I started reversing the boat as best I could, mainly looking to stern. As we came alongside Sue stepped onto their gunwale with our centre line to secure us to their handrail. I was still looking backwards but when I heard a strange noise I turned to ask Sue what was happening, only to find that she wasn’t there! She had fallen in the water, hence the noise.
It is never as easy getting someone out as you think and we were probably lucky that so many people were on hand to help although, as always, that did entail a lot of loudly shouted, contradictory advice and instructions. I am pleased to report that when she was retrieved Sue was still clutching our centre line! Heaven forfend that she might have allowed the to drift off into the canal unmanned. That might have given us a real problem ;-).
All in all we were quite lucky. It was a warm day and even the water wasn’t cold. She bruised her shoulder on the way down but no other injuries and she avoided being crushed between the two hulls. With all the boats queued up at the water point she was also lucky enough to have a captive audience for the whole episode, who will no doubt dine out on the incident for years.
Having recovered a little from the shock Sue went below to have a shower, I finished our business at the services and we moved on through the junction to leave the Macclesfield Canal behind us. Despite the experience of the last half hour we left with a very positive view of the week we had spent on the Maccie and Sue can now call herself a real boater at last. Having had this trip through we know a bit more about where we might want to stop, for how long and what there is to see around it so I think we will certainly do it again sometime.