Saturday 25 April 2009

Just in time

Just in time
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 vi
a 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 o
f 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

Escape the Rat Race (EtRR)

Escape the Rat Race (EtRR)

Every now and again I come across something on the web that makes me stop,
pause and take a second look.

Today I stumbled across the web page for Escape the Rat Race and their offering of a number of "more mature" narrowboats, available for long term rent. Interesting, I thought - particularly the minority ownership aspect which is presumably employed to get around the commercial licensing issue.

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

Gailey painted narrowboats

Gailey painted narrowboats
19th April 2009
Staffs and Worcester Canal

6 Miles
0 Locks
2 Hours

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.
I therefore spent my Sunday afternoon boating with Tilly, under the pretext of checking WB out to make sure she is ok. It was a lovely afternoon, the first of the year when a tee shirt is enough for even a southern softie like me.

Martin (W) had warned me that he had been unable to get WB pumped out before he left her and that there was also a fair bit of water in the bilge from the burst pipe, so that was reason enough to visit and take a short run down to Viking Afloat at Gailey. Canaltime struck, as it always does, firstly with several gallons of water under the engine, closely followed by an inspection down the weed hatch which revealed a couple of metres of mooring rope tightly wrapped round the prop. By the time I had remedied these problems, had a good chinwag with the the other Martin (S) and set off for Gailey it was already getting late.

I warned Tilly that we could get all the way to Gailey only to find no one there. "That's OK", she replied "its a lovely afternoon just to be out on the boat". She can shows great discernment for a 16 year old!

As it turned out the pump out machine at Viking Afloat was broken and awaiting a strip down the following day, so we winded in the already chaotic winding point just above Gailey Top Lock and Tilly steered all the way back past Four Ashes, giving me the freedom to take some photos.

The bridges at Hatherton Junction have all been repainted in brilliant white and look spectacular!

Well, that's it, just a short entry about a short but very pleasant trip. Back to the South Pennine Ring series tomorrow.

Monday 20 April 2009

Belle's Blog - The Waterways Code

Captain Ahab’s Word for the Day: ‘Ah, the Code! More a set of guidelines really.’

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

The Bark is Back

Wand'ring Bark returns from the first circuit of the South Pennine Ring of 2009
10th April 2009

Wand'ring Bark is back from its Pennine travels, and is the first craft to complete the arduous South Pennine Ring in 2009, including the inaugural day of self steer through Standedge Tunnel. When I say back, I mean that the Captian and his crew have returned - Wand'ring bark is still making her way back via the Peak Forest Canal with a relief crew aboard.

The closure of the Peak Forest canal forced us into a detour via Manchester and the 13 day trip involved 187 miles, 254 locks and 109 hours of cruising. The South Pennine Ring had a lock count of about three per mile for 9 days solid - and our backs ache!

I am too weary to do any more than down load my 300 photos and let you all know that we are safe and well. I have maintained a handwritten log of the journey and will post a record chronologically over the next few weeks.

There were many highlights, but special mention must go to:

1. The Huddersfield Canal Society and their passion for one of the most spectacular canals on the network. In particular, their work with BW to achieve the self steer experience through the Standedge Tunnel which was fantastic, and is a must for all enthusiasts.

2. The sheer helpfulness, enthusiasm and professionalism of the BW staff without whom the route wouldn't be possible.

3. The summit plummet experience from the breathtakingly beautiful pass at the Yorkshire / Lancashire border to the urban grot and deprivation of Rochdale and outer Manchester.

I will reveal all as we go along but for now here is a particularly lovely mooring on the Calder and Hebble Navigation at Woodend Mill Lock, which provided a ton of faced stone for a new water feature. What better way to carry stone from Yorkshire to the Midlands than in a narrowboat?

South Pennine Ring, the changeover

South Pennine Ring , the changeover
10th 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Safe Moorings in Birmingham

Safe Moorings on the Birmingham Canal Navigatons
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.

Sneyd Junction
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.

Norton Canes
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.

Anglesey Basin
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.

Longwood Junction
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.

South East
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.

City Centre
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.

Cambrian Wharf
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)
Primrose Hill
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!

South Pennine Ring, Chadderton to Little Bollington

South Pennine Ring, Chadderton to Little Bollington
9th April 2009
Rochdale Canal and Bridgewater Canal

21 Miles

29 Locks

12 Hours

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.

You can't fault the BW team - they were great. They clearly know the area very well and took every opportunity to chat to the locals, spreading goodwill and cheer. They are really good ambassadors for the canal and BW generally. We were told that with an 8.30am start from Failsworth we should have an uneventful passage, but the same couldn't be said for boaters who roll up at 10.30 am, by which time the local youth have surfaced and are out looking for amusement. There is absolutely no way I would willingly run this particular gauntlet without the support of BW.

The inadequately dredged pounds have another negative consequence. The current capacity is severely restricted and is incapable of accommodating an additional lock full of water. Even by draining the locks slowly the water levels rose alarmingly, pooling around the next lock and sending water cascading over the bottom gates. At least the floating rubbish was moved on a bit!

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.

The estates were mercifully quiet, with a cold wind kicking up the litter and the splattering of rain discouraging visits to the great outdoors. The individuals we saw were young, male and uniformly dressed in cheap hoodies, trackies and trainers - all with a pinched and furtive look topped off with a skinhead haircut. The label feral wouldn't be far off the mark. But in some ways I can understand their frustration. They live in some of the most deprived areas in the country and here comes some rich posh bloke (relatively) parading his shiny boat (toy) right through their patch. The hassle they cause isn't right, but then again the inequalities within our society arn't right either. Don't ask me for an answer; I can see the problem but not the solution!

My notes from the trip illustrate what you can expect along this stretch:
  1. Locks 68-69. Keep to the extreme left - underwater debris surfaces in mid channel
  2. Expect constant surface debris preventing the full opening of gates
  3. Prop never fully free of poly bags
  4. Three serious prop foulings requiring removal in lock chambers
  5. Lock 71 - stench of petrol from sunken motorbike
  6. Beam thief has struck at lock 73 - half balance beam sawn off - vandalism the hard way!
  7. Filth eclipses the Walsall Canal - my previous low water benchmark
The housing stops at lock 71, after which the going becomes easier in a more industrial environment. The feeling of menace receding for a while leading to the attractive Regal Basin, which has been lovingly transformed.

But then a change. The adjoining estates are devoid of life and boarded up awaiting redevelopment, with New Islington extending up the canal and crossing over from the bottom end of the Ashton Canal. Ancoats is an area reborn, with structures like Royal Mill converted into high class offices and apartments.

The "A Team" left us at Butler Lane Lock (81) at 12.00 noon, 3.5 hours after we started from Failsworth - 18 locks and a complete absence of trouble ago. We paused in Piccadilly Basin to have some lunch and then cracked on down the Rochdale 9. We had never descended the flight before, and were therefore unaware of the flooding the lack of by washes causes. At times the increased volume of water overwhelmed the following lock and towpath to the extent that pedestrians has to find alternative routes to their destinations. This issue was particularly severe at Dukes Lock, the last on the canal. The surplus water was so great that 10" was flowing over the gates and this last hurdle was the closest we came to getting stuck. It tool all our combined strength to prise the gates open and pass through.

Just as we were about to exit Dukes Lock we were surprised to see nb Annabel 1 nosing up below. A lovely old gentleman draped in a well worn IWA sweatshirt appeared beside the lock and announced that they were heading up the Rochdale, aiming to moor at Failsworth where they would meet his family. The gentleman had failed to read his navigational notes or appreciated the magnitude of the task which lay ahead. We left him and his wife in the chamber of Dukes Lock engaged in a serious telephone discussion with BW!

Rather than overnight in Castlefields, we decided to make for the country. We travelled for three hours down the Bridgewater, this time passing a great many boats from Worsley and Preston Brook Cruising Clubs, out for the Bank Holiday weekend. In the end we moored just beyond the Bollin Aqueduct, ready for a changeover with Martin and Adam the next day.

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

South Pennine Ring, Rochdale Summit to Chadderton

South Pennine Ring, Rochdale Summit to Chadderton
8th April 2009
Rochdale Canal

10 Miles
28 Locks
9 Hours

It blew a gale last night, with storm force winds howling through the pass causing WB to tug on her mooring lines, which has loosened as the level rose 12 inches from surface water run off.

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.

Mindful of Rays’s warnings, we kept a weather eye out for possible trouble and before we had even reached the outskirts of Rochdale trouble found us. At Newbold we spied a gang of lads cavorting around the towpath half a mile ahead, messing around and chucking stuff into the canal. Time for urban hot spot mode – one on the boat and one on the towpath. Jeff steered the boat steadily down the cut with the Captain marching his 6ft 3in frame down the towpath, windlass in hand. The boys had scurried up behind a bridge parapet, fully stocked with an arsenal of stones. I emerged from beneath the bridge about 30 seconds before the boat, rounding on the lads, camera in hand. “How about a photo for the family album lads?” With looks of horror on their faces and their plan in tatters they fled, chucking their ineffectual stones over their shoulders as they went. “Well done, and welcome to sunny Rochdale!” proclaimed a lady dog walker, who had witnesses our expertly implemented flanking movement.

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.

By way of recompense, the canal then offers a very pleasant stretch down to Chadderton. First up is a technical bit where the canal worms its way under the Motorway using an ex road bridge complete with its floating towpath, deviating from its original line through Blue Pits New Lock. This unassuming concrete chamber formed the battleground between the infamous Farmer Jones and BW, with an angry Mr J first taking a chainsaw to the balance beams and then a JCB to the embankment. Both actions temporarily closed the canal and nearly landed the worthy farmer in prison. Things seemed to have calmed down with steel gauntlets added to the balance beams and the breach repaired. I was explaining all this to Jeff when who should drive over the access bridge but the man himself, with Jones Turf Supplies emblazoned on the side of his van.

From here on the canal achieves an air of semi rurality, with light industry on one side and grazing on the other, leading to the the Slattocks flight with its six well spaced locks. Aside from the section immediately below the summit, this is probably the prettiest bit on the west of the Pennines. The locks may be attractive to the eye but dangers lurk beneath the water. Some of the old chambers are badly deformed and rocky projections abound, waiting to catch unwary boaters.

We finished for the day at 5.30pm, mooring on a newly rebuilt stretch of wall just before the River Irk Aqueduct. BW recommend this spot over and above the Rose of Lancaster, which is the more usual rostering point for the descent into Manchester.

As we were cutting logs on the towpath we were stopped by an elderly dog walker, who seemed to be bursting to ask a question. "Why, after all the millions of pounds that have been spent on the canal, don't we see more boats?" He explained that his mother used to tell him stories of commercial boats working the canal before the second world war, and he has been so looking forward to seeing the same thing for himself. He appreciated that commercial boats were gone forever, but what about the pleasure craft? All this effort and for what? A mere handful of boats?

What does one say? The western side is hard work and not particularly beautiful, all with a an ever present threat of danger involving actual bodily harm. Add to that the water restrictions which limit the summit to four crossings per day and the need for a hefty BW chaperone into Manchester at the other end and it isn't exactly a recipe for a relaxing family holiday. I think I mumbled something like "hard work but worth it" and retired to ponder his comments further.

Why did we restore this canal?

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Cromford Canal - walking the missing link

Cromford Canal - walking the missing link
Whatstandwell to Buckland Hollow Tunnel
Approx 14 miles there and back - four hours.

8th 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.

However, things take an abrupt turn for the worse as you pass under bridge 16a, a redundant railway bridge which now carries three huge water pipes. The canal quite literally disappears. One moment it is there and the next it isn't. There is a sturdy row of steel piling and then ... nothing, literally thin air!

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.

Following the line of the canal is challenging in the Ambergate area, but a network of footpaths exist winding over the hills and through the woods, which eventually lead you to Bull Bridge and then across the railway tracks and up to the dry remains of the canal bed at Sawmills.

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.

South Pennine Ring, Hebden Bridge to Rochdale Summit

South Pennine Ring, Hebden Bridge to Rochdale Summit
7th April 2009
Rochdale Canal

7 Miles
24 Locks
8 Hours

After steak and Old Peculiar I slept like a baby, the the cold evenings being a reminder that ,in spite of the unseasonal daytime weather, it was still early April. With the fire banked up for the night I fell asleep and missed most of the episode of 24 - requiring a further viewing, much to Jeff's irritation.

We woke to the sound of birdsong backed by a steady drumming. Not the bongo sort of drumming that emanated from The Stubbing Wharf function room last night, but an altogether softer but more persistent drumming of rain on a steel roof. With 24 stiff locks to navigatet oday this was bad news, but thankfully it eased off before we slipped our mooring ropes at 9.00am. I must have still been weary because as I looked back there was our front spike, standing tall and proud in the towpath, exactly where I had left it.

After Hebden Bridge the valley narrows, squeezing the road, rail, river, canal and houses together. Sometimes the towpath served as a back doorstep and at others access was only possible via cantilevered gantries extending over the water. The close proximity of boaters and residents could be seen as an invasion of privacy were it not for the scarcity of boating traffic. Just before Callis Lock there is another waterborne community, complete with the well tended "Callis Community Garden" and a Tee Pee (or is it a Wig Wam?) at its core. This is clearly a long established community of boaters and I suspect that they have a story to tell, were anyone awake to share it.

The Rochdale Canal runs broad and deep in this area, with an abundance of winding holes, either testimony to a busy industrial past or to give boaters every opportunity to abandon their ascent of what is described locally as the Himalayas of canals. At lock 14 we gained our first views of the moorland up ahead, and by the time we passed through Lobbs Mill Lock (16) the valley had widened out with industry giving way to farming, complete with lambs racing down to the waters edge.

After seven days of relentless locking fatigue was setting in, and mistakes were being made. Yesterday Jeff pulled a muscle in his back as he tried to climb out of the bridgehole before the Salterhebble Guillotine Lock. I therefore bore the brunt of the heavy Rochdale locks, working probably 20 of the 24. I figured that he had better have a rest before we tackle the summit plummet back down into Manchester over the next two days.

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.
The solution was another guillotine gate which was mercifully electrified, although the sluice paddle was manual and called for 50 revolutions with the long handled windlass. With so little traffic moving we attracted interest wherever we went, and we completed Library Lock (19) under the careful scrutiny of about a dozen Todmordians.

The town also lays claim to its own famous wall, the Great Wall of Todd, which was built to support the railway and falls sheer into the offside of the canal, consuming an estimated five million bricks in the process. The plan was to clear the five lock Gauxholme flight before lunch, but we were hit my a sharp hailstorm as we ascended the first, necessitating an impromptu stop at the landing bollards and sounding a temporary retreat to the warmth of the cabin and a bowl of soup.

The Gauxholme flight carry a variety of operating instructions on the balance beams. Some you leave empty, some you leave full and others just havet o have their top and bottom paddles closed. The reason for this variety wasn't clear but we complied none the less. We were told at Standedge that BW has moved from traditional black grease to a new biodegradable alternative, and we assumed that the bilious green stuff which had been plastered on the lock gear was the new substance. It looks horrible - a sort of luminous lime green snot! Everything is plastered in the stuff and a thick wad of kitchen paper became as essential as a windlass. The Todmorden handcuff locks were mostly broken and twisting free in the wind, but the locals seem to respect the canal and we saw no evidence of malicious damage.

Water levels are erratic in the area and we found ourselves well and truly aground between locks 25 and 26, only reaching the safety of lock 26 by stealing a foot of water from the pound above. Whilst waiting for the locks to fill it was interesting to note that the restoration had used a sponsor a gate scheme> As a result we found gates bearing the names of big businesses like Marks and Spencer, Halifax and Nat West Bank. Its a good job they arn't tapping the government owned banks for sponsorship today. By the time we reached Bottomley Lock the trains had given up the battle of the incline and dived into a summit tunnel, but there was no such reprieve for the canal, which had another four locks to go before it topped out at 600ft.

By the time we reached the pretty town of Walsden there were notices appearing telling boaters to turn unless a summit passage is planned. The locks now acquire an antique air, with vegetation growing from the mortar and the woodwork sagging and cracked. The canal feels out of its element, with increasingly strong gusts of wind blowing down from the pass ahead and side winds making navigation across the expansive pounds difficult.

Finally, after eight hours we crosses back into Lancashire to reach the visitor moorings in the penultimate pound, where the wind rocked Wand'ring Bark too and fro and made her base plate grind against the underwater masonry. I placed a confirmatory call to Ray, the lock keeper assuring him that we would be up and ready to tackle the summit at 8.30am the next morning as planned.

Monday 6 April 2009

Belle's Blog - Clothes Maketh the Man

Captain Ahab’s Word for the Day: ‘It’s not the wrong sort of weather, merely the wrong sort of clothes.’

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.

South Pennine Ring, Salterhebble to Hebden Bridge

South Pennine Ring, Salterhebble to Hebdon Bridge
6th April 2009
Calder & Hebble Navigation and Rochdale Canal

10 Miles
15 Locks
8 Hours

In spite of it's apparent beauty, last night's choice of mooring was unfortunate. A factory stood nearby on the valley floor and its owners hadn't heard that there is a recession on. It remained operational all night emitting a steady mechanical drone, which in itself was ok. However, the drone was accompanied by some sort of pressure relief valve which clanged open every few minutes with all the subtlety of someone taking a sledgehammer to a sheet of steel. It didn't seem too loud when we moored up, but in the stillness of the night the sound echoed off the wall behind us and left us with a rather disturbed nights sleep. We should have continued right into Salterhebble.

We were stopped in our tracks at the lower of the three Salterhebble Locks. A huge guillotine gate blocked our path and attached to the control panel was a note of apology from BW, stating that the mechanism was broken. Access could only be achieved with the assistance of a BW employee between the hours of 8.00am and 10.00 am, 12.00am and 2.00pm and 4.00pm to 6.00pm. A quick look at my watch revealed that it was 9.55 - but no one was around. Mobile phones are great things. One quick call and a relief lock keeper assured us that he would be down in 10 minutes. He arrived as promised, extracting my watermate key which I had unwisely inserted on the lock and hot wired the jury rigged hoist, which creaked and groaned lifting the heavy gate high enough for us to slide underneath. He then continued up the flight, setting the locks for us and refilling one the the picturesque circular intervening pounds to a navigable depth. The Calder and Hebble maintains its attachment to the hand spike right to the very end, and even the last lock can only be accessed using this crude instrument.

I can't resist taking a look down odd canal arms, and the Halifax Branch to Satlerhebble was too good to miss. It's only half a mile long but offers good moorings if you don't mind being beside the town sewage treatment works. There are more good visitor moorings on the mainline near the junction, but again they are blessed with yet more sewage works.

There then followed a three mile pound to Sowerby Bridge, the longest stretch of lock free water since the Standedge Tunnel. It is clearly popular with the locals as the local council were busy laying a tarmac surface. Everywhere we went we saw Yorkshire Terriers taking their owners for walks along the towpath. The canal narrows along this stretch, clinging ever closer to the hillside on one side and giving fine view of the rooftops of Copley on the other.

With our last pump out 10 days ago at Autherley Junction, WB was starting to list and in urgent need of relief. Apart from the DIY machine at Diggle there had been no services since Preston Brook, so a visit to Shire Cruisers of Sowerby Bridge was an absolute must. We met the Stevens family during our visit, who have owned the business for mny years; Nigel who kindly looked out a door catch from the stores; Susan, who accepted our cash; and their son who did the pump out and topped up the diesel tank. The amazing thing about this route is the amount of diesel you don't use. As you may have noticed, our typical daily mileage was between 6 and 10 miles, with the boat spending most of its time idling either before, in, or after a lock. As a result we used a mere £6 per day based on a 60:40 split.

If you want to hire a boat to cruise these waters Shire Cruisers are the only show in town. So it's just as well that their fleet of 15 narrowboats are maintained to such a high standard. Eight had been repainted during the winter months and were so shiny that they actually squeaked as I walked along the gunnels.

After an hour or so we were ready to move on and, as recommended by the Stevens, we moored Wand'ring Bark by the bottom lock and walked up to see the lock keeper at Tuel Lane, and find out what was what. The strange thing was that after climbing up to the high street, the canal disappeared. Where there should have been a canal there stood a very solid looking pub. With a backwards look over my shoulder I figured that the canal tunnel must follow the line of the road so I ducked round the back of the pub and came face to face with the chasm. I say chasm because at 25ft, this is the deepest single lock in Europe and was the restorers answer to the problem of connecting the final 50 metres of the Rochdale with the Calder and Hebble - which became severed during abandonment in 1952. The lock is, in fact, two locks (3 and 4) combined and dropped the canal to a sufficient depth to get it under the main road junction via a cut and cover tunnel.

The lock keepers hut was like the Marie Celeste. Music was playing from the radio but there was no one there, not even in the loo round the back. Then I noticed the sign: "Gone to lunch - back at 1.55pm". Hmm, you can't begrudge a chap his lunch, so I wandered back to WB and prepared some pizza and garlic bread whilst we waited.

By the time the hour had passed two more boats had arrived, nb Dorothy out on loan for the first time and rising with us, and nb Cygnet, a smaller craft making a descent. Rob took the downward boat first, which was great because it presentedan opportunity to watch from the top, before adopting my own worms eye view.

The massive depth of the lock makes BW assistance essential for the eight or ten craft which use it in a typical day. The record number stands at 20, but it's just as well there isn't much traffic. The chamber consumes 140,000 gallons of water and that is by using the "short gates". If a 70 footer passes through (less than 0.1% of the time) you can add a further 50,000 gallons making a whopping 190,000 gallons. That's nearly four times the consumption of a typical broad lock on say the Grand Union. Whilst BW has a three mile pound to draw on to fill this monster, the water supply is often inadequate and an arrangement exists with the EA to pump up from the river for 40 days per year free of charge, after which BW have to pay. That sounds a lot but when 10 days have been used by May its a real issue.

Rob was delighted to show off the lock and explain it's history, following the descending boat down and helping Wand'ring bark and Dorothy up the flight of three (or 4). Whilst the lock and its adjacent tunnel are impressive, the first intervening pound was terribly shallow and we both stuck fast on an evil smelling mud bank, only coming free when additional water was sluiced down.

And so we entered lock 2/3 and the "short" gates were closed behind us. On entering from the curved tunnel you are faced with a solid slab of shining concrete, the biggest upper sill you could ever imagine. Unsurprisingly, there are no gate paddles and the water enters without fuss through three apertures on each side of the lock, gently lifting you up 25 ft in just inder 15 mins. It is hard to provide an indication of scale of this lock, but the following view of Rob, peering down at us from the top gates may help.

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.

The lack of water on the Rochdale is nothing new. Most of the lock chambers were built with recesses for an additional set of lock gates, minimising water when used by a short Calder Flats. Whilst this may have been a good idea in theory, the recesses never contained lock gates and have now been redeployed to usefully house safety ladders.

We approached Hebden Bridge in a light Pennine drizzle, but this did nothing to dampen the charm of the place. The local residents we so pleased to see the canal restored that they took a unilateral decision to ban polythene bags, and what a difference it has made to the canal. Not a hint of rubbish anywhere. The town's commitment to the canal didn't stop at the bags they use. They have also reconstructed the central square to embrace it, and very pretty it is too - complete with new civic buildings and an expansive recreation area.

The houses are attractive too. Narrow streets sit end on to the canal giving boaters an intimate glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants. In some places the back doors open right onto the towpath, their sandblasted stone revealing a honey coloured hue which is in stark contrast to the soot blackened masonry of unrenovated buildings dotted about. A darker reminder of the areas industrial past

By the time we passed through Hebden Bridge dusk was falling and we were tired. So tired that I started to make stupid mistakes, like the paddle gear whose ratchet just wouldn't disengage. After 10 mins I despaired of my poking and prodding and was on the verge of calling BW, and then I realise that I had inadvertently applied the lock by depressing the button on the underside of the casing. Stupid or what!.

Acting of the recommendation of Rob, the lock keeper at Tuel lane, we moored outside The Stubbing Wharf and enjoyed an excellent steak, washed down with a couple of pints of Old Peculiar. An excellent gastro pub and an excellent mooring.