Destination Portland Basin . . . or not!
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!