2nd April 2009
We woke to find that the weather had turned overnight. The warm spring sunshine had been replaced by a threatening South Wester, blowing over the Pennine ridge. The overnight rain eased off at dawn, settling into a pattern of heavy grey clouds scraping over the moors, sprinkling us with fine rain, but never becoming heavy enough to warrant waterproofs. This was just as well because working 30 plus locks in restrictive waterproofs is profoundly unappealing.
The seven locks down into Slaithwaite (pronounced Slawit as in "ow", it hurts) were a dysfunctional bunch, rarely sporting a full compliment of paddle gear and often with protruding blocks of masonry pushed out by the water held behind the lock walls. We discovered that two distinct gauges of spindles had been used on the ubiquitous handcuff locks, and resorted to pin nose pliers at Millpond Lock (26E) where both sides used the smaller gauge. Whilst we got through, we called BW asking if we should leave it undone. Within 10 mins a BW van rolled up, driven by the supervisor from yesterdays tunnel passage. He gave us a multi purpose device in the shape of a cross, and reckoned that it should see us through virtually everything on the system. This was provided free of charge and is a must for all boaters planning to make the crossing. We were informed that Bufta Drifta were making their way down behind us so we left the locks off till Slaithwaite and a note to re lock then as they passed through.
Slaithwaite is a another town which turned itself upside down to accommodate the restored canal. However, in this case the restoration sits a bit more naturally in its midst than Syalybridge, and the extent of reconstruction isn't immediately apparent.
As we exited Pickle Lock (22E) we were unexpectedly faced with another boat. Not moving or planning to enter the lock, just sat there, tied up on the water point, completely blocking our line of exit. Irritating, but not the end of the world. We poled over to the other side, went round her and then tied up as closely as we could to reach the tap. This manouver was conducted under the suspicious gaze of ponytailed Mark, occupier of said craft, with his dog. Subsequent conversations revealed that he was a reluctant boater, moving the craft from Keadby to Coventry for a friend to be repaired. He told us that he was iced in at Keadby in January and, "by working every hours God sent", he had managed to reach Slaithwaite, after four months! It can't be more than four days "real" travel.
Mark is one of those slightly eccentric characters one finds on the waterways. Angry with the world and anything which prevents him doing exactly what he wants, when he wants. I asked him when he was booked to go through the tunnel, which elicited a surprised response and then a rant that it isn't open at all times to all comers. He was then off on a rant about BW being unable to impede his progress and his ability to wield an angle grinder in the direction of padlocks. It was strange that he should be in such a hurry given the time it has taken to travel from Keadby! None the less, I like to be in good terms with other boaters so I nodded sagely and then helped him compare the air draft of his boat with that of Wand'ring Bark, satisfying ourselves that he could both navigate the bridges of Slaithwaite (a good name for a film?) and the low points of Standedge Tunnel.
As we parted company and moved into the next lock (there is always a next lock on the HNC) we saw Bufta Drifta sail into our recently vacated mooring spot, presumably to restock with water and provisions, and possibly replenishing their dwindling supply of beer ballast.
The empty pound came into view beyond Spot Lock (20E), and sure enough there wasn't anywhere near enough water to float WB. The pound is one of the longer ones at 400 metres, so we stole a foot of water from the town level, and then another from the subsequent one, which was just about enough to see us through. WB was on the bottom the whole way and could only be coaxed forward with the engine on tickover and the boat pole employed as if it were a punt, supplemented by a flush of water let through the lock by Jeff. We were every mindful of the need to leave enough water for Bufta Drifta behind us. Whilst I presented a confident face to Jeff it turned out to be one of the dodgiest pounds I have ever crossed, taking nearly and hour in the end.
Just down the canal from Slaithwaite you come to the curiously named Titanic Spa, a mill converted into an upmarket health hydro and swanky apartments. "All very expensive" according to the locals.
A feature of this canal is the volume of water which cascades from the lock walls as you descend. There must be cavities behind the masonry of epic proportions, all of which seek to empty themselves into passing boats at a beathtaking rate. On a couple of occasions I was saturated up to my thighs and, more alarmingly, the engine room bilge accumulated several inches of water in the brief seconds us to pass under the cascades. 16E was a veritable Niagara, and has succeeded in pushing out a huge block of stone 2 inches from the lock tail. It will be both spectacular and devastating when it is finally pushed free.
We finally passed our first oncoming boat as we attempted to leave Milnsbridge. I say attempted because as we exited lock 6E (Mark Bolton Lock) we grounded firmly on a huge shingle shoal and only managed to extricate ourselves with a good flush from the upper pound. The pound continued to be impossibly shallow all the way to Paddock Foot Lock and its adjoining Aqueduct, re crossing the river Colne. This stretch in from Milnsbridge is unquestionably dire, filthy, shallow and without redeeming features. There are no margins to the canal here, the bed simply rises above the surface giving to 12 to 18 inches of dry ground on both sides! Whilst the canal surrounds are uninspiring there is an dramatic view of the railway viaduct overhead.
The remaining lengths are interesting only for the ingenuity employed to restore a path for the canal. Firstly there is Sellers Tunnel, a curving "cut and fill" affair which passes under the car park of the now defunct Sellers Engineers Ltd. The sides are made of steel piling topped off with a concrete lid - brutal and functional, but never lovely. With Sellers closed there is talk of opening this stretch out once more.
As we exited the tunnel we noticed the signs telling us to blow out horns during our passage and to listen out for the same. Shame we didn't notice them before we entered, but with so little traffic on the canal the chances of meeting someone were virtually nil. Next came another new lock which dropped us under Bates and Co. This time the tunnel was formed with drilled and poured columns of concrete of the type favoured in apartment block construction. The section was finished off with a rather impressive arcade of steel girders, which hold the sides apart on the approach to Huddersfield University, which stylishly utilises yet more redundant mills.