Saturday, 25 April 2009
25th April 2009
We seem to have sneaked round the South Pennine Ring just in time.
Plan A had been to come in to the Huddersfield Narrow from the Trent, but this was quashed by the weir collapse at Cooper Bridge.
Plan B was to approach from the south via the Peak Forest, but this was impossible due to an oil leak.
Plan C worked out OK by approaching from Manchester and we got round without any significant problem.
Now I see that the Ashton is blocked by a tangle of wire under a gate and, if that wasn't enough, the repair to the Salterhebble Guillotine lock (which was jury rigged for our passage) has hit snags and is now closed to traffic.
The area seems beset with problems at the moment - it looks like we were very lucky with our timing!
Photos courtesy of Pennine Waterways.
Friday, 24 April 2009
Every now and again I come across something on the web that makes me stop, pause and take a second look.
Then I took a closer look at the craft on offer and the first one caught my eye - a 36ft Springer in a familiar shade of Dark Brunswick Green (aka British Racing Green). Hang on, I know that boat, it's the Honey I took down the Thames in 2005. It's the same Honey I painted British Racing Green in the first place at Calf Heath. She has been refitted and renamed Anna Devon but she is, without doubt, the same craft.
I remember seeing Granny Button's comments about this concept last October and then recalled some rumours that her owner had gone into "the canal boat business". I even remember a phone call from someone who had previously borrowed her asking for the exact colour of paint I had used.
All the bits fell into place. Honey was lent out one winter never to be seen again and here she is, still bobbing along the cut, probably with a leaky stern gland and noisy Lister engine. I have much to thank Honey / Anna Devon for. It was my travels on her that led directly to the purchase of Wand'ring Bark and all that has ensued. I also have a photo of her for my blog entry.
Thanks for the memories Alex and Tim.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
There are some days when you just have to be out on the water, and merely writing about it just isn't enough. It's barely a week since we returned form the South Pennine Ring, and only three days since Wand'ring Bark returned carrying her recovery crew, but I was already getting withdrawal symptoms.
Monday, 20 April 2009
The code of which the Captain speaks is the unwritten Waterways Code, and as anyone who has seen Pirates of the Caribbean will know, sticking to the Code is a sort of flexible arrangement. By and large the Code can be used to justify any action. It can be used to berate fellow boaters, whether they be ignorant, wilful or just plain stupid. It can be used to vindicate oneself in all circumstances. Kind of useful really. For instance if one is going too fast, other canal users are at perfect liberty to quote the code and insist on a speed reduction. If one is going too slowly, other canal users may quote the code and insist you speed up. Interpretation of the Code is entirely subjective and the only sure and certain thing is that the first person’s interpretation is always right. It can lead to some interesting moments but as narrowboating is an occupation of conservative excitement, these moments are to be treasured. Indeed they can be the stuff of folklore as boaters gather around the wood-burning stoves of winter and regale each other with tales of past summers’ glories. Captain Ahab is particularly fond of such tales as ‘The time a hire-boater jumped the queue for the lock’, or ‘When the lock gates were shut on my approach’ and ‘The day the paddles were left up emptying the pound’. Fortunately he doesn’t need much from an audience. He’s quite happy to wax lyrical over a steaming mug of tea and a Snickers Flap Jack with only occasional grunts to indicate attentiveness. Should he glance in my direction I’m hoping that the glazed look in my eye is misinterpreted as rapt amazement and total abandonment to the wonders of his tale. He doesn’t need to know that actually I’m trying to work out if there’s a clause in the code that prevents the excessive subjection of crew members to a Captain’s whimsical memories. I’m sure there is somewhere. I just need to find it. Hmm, I fear my landlubber ways are showing again. I should just do what all boaters do. Interpret the Code to suit my need. After all, it’s more a set of guidelines, really.
Friday, 10 April 2009
We woke to the unfamiliar sensation of boats passing us. Suddenly, the Bridgewater has become a circus with boats of all styles and dimensions scurrying to and fro.
The Bollin Aqueduct is a pretty spot and one which is clearly appreciated by the local Cruising Clubs that rendezvous in the area each Easter. These boaters must spend much of their time on the deep Bridgewater Canal as few made any attempt to slow down or curb their wash as they zoomed up and down.
After a lazy start we spent a couple of hours cleaning out two weeks accumulated dirt and rubbish, readying Wand'ring Bark for her recovery crew. You would think that with only half a mile to go to reach the handover point at Ye Olde No3, the trip was at an end and held no further surprises.
No, the trip had one last card to play. As I started the engine I felt is was a bit rough, but this settled down when under way. However, the vibration was back when we moored so I lifted the hatch and was greeted with a cloud of steam. A close inspection revealed two interlinked faults:
- The engine mounts were loose and the vibration ceased when I stood on one of the stern fixings. This was remedied by a couple of turns on the locking nuts.
- Secondly, and more importantly, one of the water hoses leading to the calorifier has been resting on the alternator and had chaffed through.
This sort of problem wouldn't be a big issue at home. I would simply buy some new pipe and replace the old. But we weren't at home, in fact we were about 5 days from the safety of Calf Heath and it was bank holiday Friday .
With nothing suitable to bodge the job on board I quickly cconcluded that outside assistance would be needed. Then I remembered reading Richard Fairbrother's disaster recovery article in the April edition of Waterways World (inspired by failed engine mounts by a bizarre co-incidence!), and his provision of a list of guardian angels around the system. There were three boatyards / chandlers in the immediate area, but none could offer help till after the Bank Holiday. By this time the relief crew had phoned to say that they were delayed on the motorway and would be with us in an hour. We needed a solution and we needed it fast!
Then I had another brainwave, and this time I had Granny Buttons to thank. River Canal Rescue - the AA/RAC of the waterways.
Their number was included in the WW list so I called: " Hi, its Captain Ahab here. I'm not a member but I have a problem and I am really wishing I was! Do you offer some sort of emergency joining service and I pay a premium?". It was like being stuck on the side of a motorway and one is willing to pay whatever price they pick out of the air - just so long as someone can come and rescue you.
No problem Mr Captain sir, she replied. We get most of our new customers this way - how did you hear about us? "Oh, a Waterways World article, your adverts, Granny Buttons blogsite, all over really". I could sense that I was digging myself into a hole here. With all those opportunities why, oh why, hadn't I ever taken up the offer. I suspect that there will be similar scenes at the pearly gates on the day of the great resurrection - but with slightly more serious consequences than two inches of coolant in the bilges!
RCR were great. They took my details (including credit card) and advised me that I could have instant Silver Membership for £105 plus a £50 call out fee, and an engineer would be with me within an hour. Would I like to join? Would I like a seat in one of Titanic's lifeboats? - Yes, yes, yeeeeessss!
Sure enough one of their smart little vans drew up 40 minutes later. The problem was fixed with some magic tape (probably made by the same people that make magic sponges for footballers) and some plastic ties. I was advised that they has rebuilt the wall of the pipe and all would be well for the six day trip back to the Midlands.
As it turned out, this wasn't the last contact WB had with RCR on the trip. As they started up the Marple flight two days later, the relief crew noticed steam coming from the engine and the thermometer light flashing red to the accompaniment of a warning buzzer. The temporary repair had failed. More calls were made to RCR who queried why the skipper was not the policy holder, but quickly added Martin's name to the list of those covered, as allowed under their Silver Membership. This time the hoses were replaced and all within three hours on a bank holiday Sunday.
If I was on Facebook I would announce to the world that I am a fan of RCR. They are so good that whilst I didn't join twice, I have decided to extent my membership to the Gold Service, and so offer their fantastic cover to the various friends and family that use Wand'ring Bark from time to time.
Thursday, 9 April 2009
10th April 2009
This has to be the most common question I am asked about boating on the BCN. Everyone fancies a trip into the BCN backwaters, but are worried about where they might end up for the night.
The following is a short list of moorings which I have used personally and can endorse with confidence. Its not exhaustive, and there are others which I would use at a pinch.
Taking the BCN in segments:
The North East
Ideally, moor below the bottom lock out on the Staffs and Worcester, and make an early start up the Wolverhampton 21. Alternatively, moor on the offside opposite the BW yard just above the top lock but expect some road noise.
I lovely spot, an hour or so north of Walsall. There are a few residential boaters here and whilst the "proper" moorings are on the towpath side, a courteous request will normally see you fixed up with a berth on the more remote basin side.
The boatyard out at the end of the Cannock Extension Canal offers very safe rural mooring opportunities. There may be some road noise form the A5, but this can be avoided by mooring at the Royal Oak, near Pelsall Junction on the Wyrley and Essington.
The M6 Toll has spoilt its tranquility, but the old basin is still a good spot in the Brownhills area. Moor up in the channel emerging from the Chasewater Reservoir dam.
There is an active boat club at Longwood, where the Daw End Branch and Rushall Canals meet. There is always safety in numbers and this site near Aldridge is a good bet, well away from housing.
Dog and Doublet at Bodymoor Heath
If you are approaching from the east along the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, the last good mooring point is at or near the Dog and Doublet pub. Quiet moorings are on the Fazeley side whereas the moorings near the pub are more convenient for a drink, but are close to the drone of the M42.
Salford (Spaghetti) Junction
As you get closer to the city centre safe moorings are harder to find. Whilst it will win no prizes for beauty, Cuckoo Wharf, just up the Birmingham and Fazely from Salford Junction, does offer a secure stopover point.
If you are making a trip into the BCN you will inevitably find yourself in the centre at some point. The area has been massively regenerated and most areas are highy visible and OK. The real danger here is prank stuff like late night revellers rocking the boat or casting off your ropes. I would suggest three options:
Gas Street Basin
Beast avoided at the weekend (Friday and Saturday) but otherwise OK. I particularly like the spot at the back of the basin under the Hyatt Hotel. Reverse in beside the collection of working boats.
NIA / Symphony Court / Sherborne Wharf
If you can find a cluster of boats to moor near in this area you should be OK. My personal favourite is just inside the Old Turn entrance to the Sherborne Wharf loop, which is covered by the local security cameras. Don't be tempted to tie up to the pillars behind Bannatynes Health Club - they are insubstantial.
This is the basin beside the top lock on the Farmers Bridge flight. You will normally find long term moorers here, offering safety in numbers.
The Northern trip to Wolverhampton
The Engine Arm
A hidden jem in sunny Smethwick. At first glance this is not an inspiring backwater, but there is one solitary visitor mooring in the winding hole, beyond a long line of residential boats. And therein lies the attraction! There are all the facilities, securely locked away in a gated community.
Black Country Museum at Tipton
My favourite mooring in the BCN. A full range of facilities, plus the ambiance of the living museum and a tunnel. Oh, and of course there is Mad O'Rourkes Pie Factory - a spit and sawdust pub that is a must if you are in the area. Moor as far in as you can go to avoid being target practice for kids on the bridge.
The West (the "other" side of the Netherton Tunnel)
If you are entering from the west, consider stopping at Primrose Hill on the Stourbridge Canal. It's as pretty as the name suggets and is the last open countrysude before you hit the Black Country.
Stourbridge Town Arm
This area is OK, and there are lots of pubs in the town but moorings within the locked zone are limited. There is a substantial residential community here who are a friendly bunch. If you arrive late there is always the option of mooring alongside the trip boat, under the Bonded Warehouse - but make sure you are away in good time the next morning.
Hawne Basin - Coombeswood
This is a real BCN outpost on the Dudley No2 canal, beyond the Gosty Hill Tunnel. It comes as a surprise to see a very substantial boating centre in Hawne Basin, and they are very happy to see visitors. A good, safe and quiet location.
For a hundred and someting miles of canals this isn't a very long list, but I never claimed it to be exhaustive. I have used all 15 sites in the last few years and at that time they felt very comfortable.
I am sure that other boaters have more favourites. If you are willing to share your sites please leave a comment and I will add it to the list . Hey, I might even use it myself the next time I am in the area!
9th April 2009
Rochdale Canal and Bridgewater Canal
Ray McDonald, the summit lock keeper, had advised us to allow 1.5 hours to cruise from Chadderton to Failsworth Top Lock, rather than to one hour suggested by Nicholson. Thus far his advice had proved to be very accurate so we were up by 6.30am and on the move by 7.00am.
Chadderton really does represent a threshold on the Rochdale Canal. All yesterdays greenery gives way and the Rochdale rapidly becomes squalid. However, the first section does contain a fair amount of engineering interest, firstly in the form of the Grimshaw Vertical Lift Bridge. This unusual mechanism lifts a busy section of road up in the air on four huge hydraulic rams. Interesting for us, but undoubtedly very annoying for the 100 or so vehicles we held up on their way to work. This structure is soon followed by a new stretch of canal which winds to and fro to get under and round the deafening M60.
We arrived at Failsworth Top Lock at 8.27am and there next to the lock was a BW van, complete with a crew of three. Uh oh! if they need three people to get us down things must be bad indeed, we thought. This crew referred to themselves as the "A Team" and set themselves a target of getting us down and out to Piccadilly Basin by noon.
The next four miles took us through the centre of some of the grimmest sink estates that Manchester has to offer; Failsworth, Newton Heath, Bradford, Miles Platting and Ancoates. The canal dosn't pussy foot its way through these estates. Instead, it strides boldly through the middle of them, with its 18 heavily vandalised locks rubbing shoulders with houses, broken bottles and burnt out cars.
It is clear that the restoration of the Rochdale Canal was intended to introduce a green corridor to these troubles parts but sadly, as in Rochdale itself, the area is reclaiming the waterway for its own - sinking back into a wasteland after eight short years. The actual navigation channel was never properly dredged and instead a narrow groove was dug through the infill on the towpath side, with the spoil banked up on the offside. The restorers appear to have tried to make this vice into a virtue by using the dredgings as fishing points, and at other times by fencing them of as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Scientific Interest my eye - most of the steel rods are still there, delineating the boundaries of the navigation and ecology zones, but the netting they supported is long gone and now lurks on the canal bed like police "stingers", waiting to trap passing boaters.
Judging by the muck and debris in these "conservation zones" I can only conclude that their inclusion was a sop to the environmental lobby, and to add weight to the restoration business case.
The estates looked like a city under siege. Ravi News at Shears Lock took on the air of a mini fortress, and the nearby Navigation Inn and local churches, which serve the various spiritual needs of the community, were crowned with razor wire. Not inviting.
My notes from the trip illustrate what you can expect along this stretch:
- Locks 68-69. Keep to the extreme left - underwater debris surfaces in mid channel
- Expect constant surface debris preventing the full opening of gates
- Prop never fully free of poly bags
- Three serious prop foulings requiring removal in lock chambers
- Lock 71 - stench of petrol from sunken motorbike
- Beam thief has struck at lock 73 - half balance beam sawn off - vandalism the hard way!
- Filth eclipses the Walsall Canal - my previous low water benchmark
In a strange way I really like these grim industrial sections. They are canalling in the raw, stripped back to the basics and echo the scenes I remember from the 1960's. The threat of danger insn't pleasant, but it does provide excellent material for "pub canal stories". The danger is that these are the stories others remember, with all the more positive aspect forgotten. Make no mistake, the South Pennine Ring is one of the inland waterways epic journeys. The dangers reported in outer Manchester and Rochdale and more in the mind than an actual threat, and are far outweighed by the magnificence of the remainder.
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
I woke with a heavy heart. The evening had been spent exchanging texts with the relief crew and agreeing a swap over point on the Bridgewater Canal. There was no escaping the fact that the this epic trip was rapidly coming to an end and from now on it is to be downhill all the way: downhill geographically; downhill socio-economically; downhill scenically and worst of all; downhill chronologically. There are only two days left! Hey Ho, all good things must come to an end, but we still have two days of unexplored canal ahead of us...
Ray McDonald’s silhouette appeared on the lock gates at 8.30 sharp, readying the lock for our use. We were advised that a Shire Cruisers narrowboat should have been following us up the Rochdale, with a view to crossing the summit. As they were a “no show” we didn’t hang around and entered the last eastern chamber at 8.40am – only the fifth boat to cross the summit since it opened at the beginning of March. Ray was one of three lock keepers when the canal re opened in 2001 but now he is the last one left, with cash hungry BW casting their eyes on his picturesque lockside house. Traffic is scarce and limited largely by the strictly metered water supply, which is just sufficient for two locks per day, and not a drop more. The canal used to be fed from a range of reservoirs in the surrounding hills, but access to this additional water-source was lost decades ago and BW is now at the mercy of their water utility provider. The summit is a mere half a mile long but was built to a staggering 8ft depth, and broad with it. This seemingly gratuitous size was not without a purpose. The width and depth was to compensate for its shortness and provide an additional reservoir of water.
The summit passage is quite beautiful, with the heather covered hills sweeping down the the waters edge and the hills towering above, topped off with surprisingly attractive electricity pylons mounted on either side. Ray accompanied us along the summit pound with his two Corgi’s trotting along the towpath as fast as their diminutive legs could carry them. He then proceeded ahead to assist us down to lock 44, regulating water flows and ensuring that the precious water wasn’t wasted. This flight was built without by washes as a water saving measure, and as a result the contents of one lock will often flood the next one down. This feature explained Rob’s attachment to his wellies. To mitigate this risk of flooding the locks are limited to one very baffled paddle, extending the emptying time to an interminable 20 minutes. Progress isn’t fast, even with BW assistance.
We parted with good wishes from Rob and a suggestion that we make for the aqueduct beyond Lock 63 – the last safe mooring before Manchester. As his parting shot he wished us luck and advised that when (not if) we encounter trouble around Rochdale we call the Police first, then BW – not the other way round. Not a confidence inspiring send off.
Our journey from east of the summit to Littleborough, the start of bandit country, had taken us three hours during which time the scenery and general interest quotient of the canal had been extraordinarily high. This was all set to change.
The wind continued to whip up the valley, spinning the windmills beyond Rochdale into a frenzy, and hopefully keeping any undesirables tucked away indoors with their games consoles and DVD’s. All went well through Littleborough and Smithy Bridge beyond it, although we did pick up a fleece on the prop as we exited Little Clegg swing bridge. This was quickly cleared and we pressed on towards Rochdale itself.
With the Rochdale Cowboys bypassed, I continued to shadow Wand’ring Bark right through Rochdale, keeping myself between the boat and our potential attackers. Imagine my relief when the Deepdale Swing Bridge was unlocked, giving me time at get WB past and closing it again before the lads were able to catch up.
I like to find the positive in the places I visit, but Rochdale from a canal perspective really is a mess. They clearly made an effort to clean it up for the grand reopening, but the squalor of the area has reclaimed the cut, filling it with putrid rubbish. The two locks in town were equally unpleasant, with paddle gear no so much inoperable and completely missing - probably sold to the local scrap metal merchant. The housing ends as you reach the town centre and thereafter the canal is lined by the more acceptable face of industrial units, allowing us to relax and lower our guard when we reached the three Blue Pits Lock. Basically, Rochdale is a six mile corridor of filth and danger, best navigated early in the day and out of school holidays.
Tuesday, 7 April 2009
Following on from out earlier exploration of the northern reaches of the Cromford Canal, another opportunity arose to explore the next section to the south east of Whatstandwell and the Derwent Hotel. There is a lot of maintenance underway in this area including retaining wall reconstruction and extensive tree felling, which has resulted in the closure of the towpath. As there was no one working in the area, we sneaked a look around the barricades and were impressed by the amount of effort being invested in the Whatstandwell area.
The first mile of canal is broad an open, if somewhat shallow due to reduced water levels and silting. There are a number of rather fine stone bridges including: Chase, Grattons, Poysers and Lime Works, all perfectly formed and well preserved.
The map suggests that the canal bed has been destroyed, but that is a huge understatement. An enormous water engineering site has been excavated and built over the course of the canal, followed by a massive factory (now redundant) eliminating virtually every trace all the way to Bull Bridge, mid way between the Navigation Inn and the Nelson Pub. You can find a scrap of stagnant water but within a couple of hundred yards two residential homes have been built slap bang on the Grade 2 listed embankment which red onto the Bull Bridge Aqueduct, demolished in 1968.
This mile of destruction represents the single biggest obstacle to restoration. A line could exist but it will take a lot of commitment on the part of the local authorities and restoration enthusiasts to see it realised. But a window of opportunity exists. In the main, the industry which occupied the line of the canal has closed and the area now lies in ruined desolation. My suggestion would be to caveat any redevelopment plans with a clause to say that a line for the canal must be included, possibly using the millions of tons of concrete and rubble generated by demolition work to create a sturdy embankment on which a channel can be built. Better an adjacent canal embankment than haul it to a distant landfill.
Whilst this stretch is devoid of water, the restoration team are hard at work clearing the undergrowth and, at the time of our visit, a Waterways Recovery Group work party was in full swing and doing a great job around Brick Yard bridge.
I was given a Friends of the Cromford Canal leaflet and was puzzled by the strangely familiar impression of what an aqueduct at Bull Bridge could look like. Puzzled, until they admitted to lifting the image from the Lichfield and Hatherton site and superimposing in onto their picture! The cheeky monkeys suggested that we donate the structure to them because" we will need it in water long before you guys do!"
As Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust gave me free life membership due to my application being the 2,000th, maybe I will join with the Friends of the Cromford Canal and pay them the princely sum of £6.00. Don't worry L&HCRT - you will still get a donation as well!
The towpath continues in to the east, but sadly the canal bed has been sold to local homeowners as extra garden, causing another blockage to the line. However, the line of the railway runs parallel at this point and, being owned by the local council, could feasibly be converted into an alternate canal bed. This would take the canal to Buckland Hollow Tunnel, which is perfectly preserved save for the Excavator Pub using the track as a car park!
It took us a good couple of hours to reach this point, to we slaked our thirst with a pint and then retraced our steps returning to the car park just above the Derwent Hotel.
The varied terrain makes this a very interesting walk, and the complexity of the "missing link" adds an investigative edge to the enterprise. It may not be quite at pretty as the four miles from Cromford but the "spot the remains" aspect adds masses of interest.
The trans Pennine railway is a constant companion, with trains singing down the steep gradients and diesels groaning as they heave themselves up to the summit. This gradient became so severe that the freight trains struggled to reach 20mph on the run into Todmorden. Tod presented another challenge to the restorers, where road widening had again removed scope for conventional balance beams.
Monday, 6 April 2009
From this you might gather that our spell of sunshine was short lived. We woke this morning to torrential rain and while I rolled over and went back to sleep, grateful for my wet weather exemption, Captain Ahab leapt out of bed, keen to perform a ship’s inspection. Some hours later, when the incessant drone of the engine was impossible to ignore any longer, I hauled myself up, donned what I thought was suitable attire, and stuck my head out of the back hatch. The sight that greeted me was this: Captain Ahab dressed in shorts, sandals and a waterproof jacket with the rain hammering down on his grinning head. I scuttled back to the galley utterly convinced that my bargain pac-a-mac (£5 end of sale, Millets) may not prove to have been such a wise investment after all. From the snatches of the Sex Pistols’s ‘Anarchy’ that came wafting down from the stern I could tell that while a little damp, the Captain was a happy man. Keen to keep this bonne hommie alive I scurried about the galley toasting muffins, grilling sausages and frying eggs. Before long, the number and frequency of locks absolutely necessitated all hands on deck, so I braved the elements in my aforementioned pac-a-mac, a pair of waterproof trousers (free with the pac-a-mac), thick socks and walking boots feeling that I was wearing the most appropriate garb for the day. During the gruelling set of only five but felt like thirty, I was perversely cheered by the knowledge that despite water trickling down my back, seeping through my trousers and squelching between my toes, I must surely be drier than he of the shorts and sandals. However, as I later discovered while I peeled myself out of my sodden garments and cursed the name of pac-a-mac, Captain Ahab was irritatingly warm and dry. It seems that his waterproof jacket was probably made by Ronseal, given that it did exactly what it said. His shorts had dried in the breeze following the downpour and I was mistaken in thinking he was wearing sandals, they were self-draining shoes. So there you have it. Once again the Captain is right, the weather is never wrong, merely the clothes. Note to self – contact Ronseal and enquire about their waterproof range on return to dry land. Either that or feign illness and refuse to leave bed on wet days.
A little further on the skewed Falling Royd Bridge is worth of note, a modern "armco" construction so long that it could be classed a short tunnel. It's length is accentuated by the black paint applied to its inside turning it into a drain hole to hell. Shortly after you enter the Mayroyd Moorings. These make a welcome change after the miles of boatless canal we have travelled, and the local boaters all vie for superiority in the the elegance and creativity of their adjacent sheds. Some are so idiosyncratic that one appeared to me modelled on the sentry box from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.