Thursday, 15 October 2009

Steve Haywood and the 'hard' canals

Steve Haywood and the 'hard' canals
15th October 2009

Steve Haywood wrote a thought-provoking item in this month’s Canal Boat magazine concerning the lack of use of the less popular “hard” canals. In his inimitable style, he takes a swipe at “soft” boaters who, hearing rumours of feral youths and an undercurrent of danger, promptly strike the waterway from their list of possible options.

Specifically he was rueing the absence of boaters from this years IWA festival venturing up the adjacent Erewash Canal, and exhorting them to put at least one “hard to do” canal on their annual boating calendar to ensure that these hard fought for waterways are not lost.

I completely share his sentiment but have to admit that my motivation is not to travel the less frequented routes because I have to, but more because I want to. Whilst some may be a bit deficient in the beauty stakes, they tend to make up for it in historical interest and incident. A review of my blog entries for the far flung corners of the BCN, or the Manchester / Rochdale area, or the Erewash itself reveals that there is much to see and comment on.

Pushing up these backwaters engenders something of a pioneering spirit, accompanied by a wonderful sense of isolation.

But let’s not pretend that “doing” these canals will be a walk in the park, that one will arrive at the time expected, or that your progress will be as serene and stately as you would expect on say, the Shropshire Union. To enjoy these canals one needs to approach them in the right frame of mind, and with an acceptance that setbacks will occur, and come equipped with the tools needed to overcome them.

My personal approach is to do a bit of homework and preparation which includes:

  • Taking the right crew. I wouldn’t dream of taking Belle into the BCN backwaters around Walsall, but I have some beefy boaty friends who relish the opportunity of urban backwater bashing, even in darkest Harden.

  • Go at the right time. By this I mean avoid weekends and school holidays wherever possible. If groups of 14 year old boys are the problem, travel through their territories when they are least likely to be out and about.

  • If you do see groups of youths rush out of sight when your boat approaches, get a crew member ashore armed with a camera and phone, who can escort the boat through the area. The presence of someone on the towpath is usually enough to make them stop and find softer targets. Avoid catapults or other retaliatory measures as this just ups the ante and what were pebbles soon become life threatening half bricks!

  •  Pick the right season. Don’t venture onto the Wyrley and Essington or the Witham Navigable Drains after the end of June to avoid excessive weed.

  • Come prepared to clear the prop. Accept hourly visits to the weed hatch as inevitable and one completely stalled engine per day.

  • Tools for the job. I could right a book called “ nasty things I have pulled off my prop” and each calls for a particular tool / approach.

· Weed – probably best removed by hand.<!--[endif]-->

· Polythene bags – rip off the loose ones by hand and use a Stanley knife for those twisted to the consistency of string round the propshaft.

· Sheet polythene and road cones – Stanley knife / hacksaw (careful of fingers)

· Football nets and clothing – sharp serrated kitchen knife

· Rope and mattress covers – hacksaw
  • Mattress and chair springs – wire cutters

  • Talk to the locals. Their accents may be different to the point of being virtually impossible to understand, but if you can get close enough to interact with them, about the sate of the fishing of what is wrong with their motorbike, they tend to see you as a person and not a target.
  • Work out the possible safe moorings in advance, and have fallback plans in case you get delayed.

Top Tips:

  • Top Tip 1: Tie a length of string onto any tool you use underwater – it’s really annoying to drop your only hacksaw half way through a job.

  •  Top Tip 2: Canals and stuff in them are filthy. Use protective gloves and barrier cream if you can and make sure you wash thoroughly when you are finished.

  • Top Tip 3: Take a dustbin bag with you to put all the debris in. There is no point leaving the rubbish in the cut for the next boater to pick up again.

  • Top Tip 4: Use a lookout up front. In particularly bad areas, have someone watching out for submerged mattresses and chairs, giving you time to cut the engine and glide over the obstruction.

I have gained great enjoyment from my passages through the badlands and tough going sections, and have always made it to my destination in the end without any material damage beyond the odd chip or two in the paintwork.

I guarantee that these off piste adventures provide a rich seam of material for boating stories in the pub during those long winter evenings. Ask me about the Rochdale canal and I could talk about the beauty of the Yorkshire side for hours, but the bit you will want to know about was my passage back down into Lancashire through the likes of Rochdale, Failsworth and Ashton.

And in answer to your question? Yes, the Erewash is a canal worth doing. It is hard work and a bit dirty but the mills it passes are truly spectacular, reeking of an industry now long gone. And then there is the top end when the canal breaks free of urbanity. The last couple of miles into Langley Mills are beatiful and provide a slight hint at the wonders that will one day lie ove the next 16 miles to the north, when the Cromford Canal (a personal favourite of mine) is restored.

Go forth and discover.

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