Sunday 5 April 2009

South Pennine Ring, Huddersfield to Salterhebble

South Pennine Ring, Huddersfield to Salterhebble
5th April 2009
Huddersfield Broad Canal, Calder & Hebble Navigation

10 Miles
9 Locks
6 Hours

We woke to the percussive sound of pneumatic drills hammering away in the neighbouring Sainsburys car park, interspersed with irritating beeps of vehicles reversing. This is clearly a temporary feature of the area and the moorings at Aspley basin would otherwise offer beautifully quiet overnight location.
The proximity of Sainsburys wasn't all bad though, as we were running low on essential supplies like bread and beer - things we overlooked during yesterday's hurried visit to the Co-Op in Slaithwaite. We therefore delayed our departure till they opened at 10.00am which, irritatingly, was then the car park demolishers packed up their machines and trundled off.

First up was the beguiling Turnbridge Loco Lift Bridge (17), an electronically operated lift bridge which raises the road deck horizontally on huge chains all dressed up as a fake antique, complete with winding drums hidden in old boilers. All very Disneyesque.

The Huddersfield Broad Canal is as deep as the Narrow is shallow. Five or six feet of crystal clear water flowed under our base plate, with fronds of weed arching backwards as we passed without a hint of the mud and filth we had become so used to.

For all their size, the nine 57’ 6” locks down to Cooper Bridge are well maintained and easy to use, with well oiled winding mechanisms. I particularly liked the on / off ratchet system which engaged and disengaged automatically as you turn the windlass. The canal continues down the Colne valley, broadening out with expansive flood plains, occupied by a succession of popular playing fields to the south and a long line of commercial properties to the north. This is in stark contrast to the HNC’s grovelling entrance from the west, slithering along like a snake in the mud.

We were soon entering the River Calder, just above Cooper Bridge Weir, which had recently staged a dramatic collapse barring navigation along the Calder and Hebble and access to the HBC. Thankfully, BW had completed a temporary repair just before we set off, allowing us to attempt the full ring. Whilst the Calder was in a benign mood at the time of our visit, the debris lodged among the arches of Cooper Bridge bore testimony to less pleasant boating conditions in the recent past. The Cooper Bridge Flood Lock stood wide open, inviting exploration to the east. However, with all our reserve time used up on the Huddersfield Narrow it’s a route which will have to wait for another time.

It was good to be on moving water once again, but this pleasure was short-lived as the river is heavily canalised and we were soon facing Kirklees Low Lock. With not other craft on the water we tied up to the landing stage and had some lunch, absorbing both food and the warming rays of a sparkling spring sun. Kirklees is the first C&H lock we had encountered and were immediately in need of the infamous Calder and Hebble handspike. I had read about this essential item in advance and was warned that it should be a baulk of timber 4” x 3” x 3’ with one end tapered to 2 ¼” x 1 ¾”. I had also read that an adapted pickaxe handle would do the trick so I had brought a new hickory sledgehammer handle. The handle was a little bit loose in the paddle gear but it did the job ok.

This ancient means of sluice operation is unique to the Calder and Hebble and should be retained if only to keep a bit of waterways history alive. However, it is as far removed from the technology of the HNC’s hydraulics as Henry Ford’s Model T is from my Mondeo. The handspike is inserted into a small capstan, and a very basic ratchet is thrown into the cogs. You then pull – sometimes you pull very hard and are suddenly rewarded with a solid block of water, which crashes into the bows of the boat and sends it rattling around the lock chamber. Historical it is but subtle it aint! Jeff departed all keen to work the first hand spiked paddle, but returned dejectedly five minutes later proving the adage that you shouldn’t send a boy to do a man's job! Not that winding the conventional paddles was any easier. In the end we wheeled out “Big Bertha” our long handled windlass and it still took every ounce of the Captian’s strength to get the water flowing.

The big question is: how are you supposed to close the paddles after use? I couldn’t see any way of achieving a gentle closure so opted for the direct approach of simply withdrawing the handspike and standing well back. Most times the paddle dropped down with a satisfying thunk, but some stuck and would only close if I either stood on it or gave it a good wack with the sledgehammer handle.

Yorkshire, and the Calder and Hebble in particular is the waterway for football collecting. Jeff has been an avid collector of canal footballs for years, ever since we started canoeing on the BCN. For the last eight days he had been eyeing every manky football wallowing in the reedy canal margins, reluctantly conceding that none were worth rescuing. Then suddenly, in the space of one afternoon, three absolute crackers, fully inflated and intact. Maybe their loss says something about the ball skills of the locals…

It felt odd to be boating in Yorkshire. Being both on the wrong side of the Pennines and the Tidal Trent gave a heightened feeling of distance from the main boating arena. It was almost like we were trespassing through someone else’s backyard. In reality it was great, miles and miles of deep water navigations all with no other boat traffic. Our original plan had been to spend the day travelling down to Dewsbury and back, mooring at Brighouse for the night. Given our shortage of time we decided to get a bit ahead of schedule, so we pressed on through Brighouse’s two basins and a lurch of local drunks (I dont know the collective for drunks!) and, of course, home to Sagar Marine - builders of award winning replica Dutch Barges.

With plenty of light left in the day we moved on towards Salterhebble, passing along a particularly attractive stretch with the canal hugging the valley side and the River Calder, playing a chaste version of kiss and run on the other - always close nut never quite touching. In the end we moored immediately after Woodside Mills Lock, prop dredging an offside spot alongside the wall of a ruined mill complete with arches, hanging foliage and rusty iron rings. The location was impossibly pretty with the last rays of the evening sun giving the stonework into a fiery orange hue. The picture illustrates this far better than my fumbling words ever can.

The local fishermen knew nothing of the mill's history, which appeared to have lain in ruins for over a century. It's remote location had preserved the finely faced stone so, after ten minutes of scrabbling in the rubble, we loaded about a ton into Wand’ring Bark’s bows destined to become a water feature in Birmingham. To move it back to the Midlands in a narrowboat seemed a fitting mode of transport.

The location offered poor fishing but some excellent photo opportunities, followed by an equally excellent chilli and a couple of episodes of 24 before an early night.

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