Underpants, a pony tail and bad vibrations

Warning: this is a blog almost entirely about things that go on in the engine room. It contains graphic descriptions of an engineering nature and some people may find it boring.

The beating heart of the Golden Girl

Our Golden Girl has always had the ability to shake rattle and roll with the best of them but only when over excited by an excess of engine speed. Anything over two thousand revs per minute would send her into a frenzy of vibration accompanied by a tooth rattling clatter that sounded like the engine was about to make a bid for freedom. I hadn’t paid it that much attention to be honest because it usually corresponded with me throwing the gear stick wildly backwards and forwards in a panicked attempt to avoid destroying a precious piece of grade two listed national heritage. The rattle only became a problem when it moved down the revolutionary chain over the last couple of weeks and began to kick in at twelve hundred revs. Then at eleven hundred and eventually at ten. We had reached the point where anything beyond a couple of miles per hour would set up a racket like an old fashioned football rattle on steroids and we were looking forward to passing under motorways just to drown out the noise. It was time to take action.

I set up a high level investigation bringing in various suspects from the engine room for interrogation. The mop bucket, the anchor, various fuel pipes and cables were all given a thorough going over in order to try to pin down the offender but without success. The anchor was severely muffled with rags, the cables were rendered motionless with pipe lagging, the fuel lines were made chatter free by the judicious application of cable ties and the mop bucket was put into solitary confinement on the front of the boat. The next morning we set off in optimistic mood but alas at one thousand revolutions per minute the rattle was back again and just as loud and irritating as ever. We drifted slowly along the canal getting in the way of sluggish swans and even the odd water snail while I pondered the problem and we argued over the precise location of the clatter.

Whether it was a dream or a nightmare I will never know but for some reason I woke up in the middle of the night excited by a new theory of what was shattering our dream of cruising gracefully and relatively quietly along the waterways. Before we set off the next morning I removed a large wooden shelf that sat over the batteries and which, in theory, protected them from non-existent falling objects that might short circuit them. I put it on the roof where it couldn’t do any harm and we gingerly left our mooring and accelerated. As the rev counter approached 900 I began to sweat with anticipation. At 1000 we both held our breath and strained our ears. At 1100 I couldn’t stifle the beginnings of a grin and at 1200 we rejoiced in the sweet thrum of nothing other than the sound of an engine doing what it is supposed to do with quiet determination. At 1500 rpm the only noise louder than the engine was the sound of swans wings flapping wildly as the poor birds flew for their lives. Surfers were eyeing up our bow wave greedily and water skiers were queueing up on the tow path looking for a ride. I did eventually come to my senses and as we approached a line of moored boats I dropped down to a gentle tick over and that’s when the new noise started.

This wasn’t a rattle or a vibration as much as a random clanking and thumping. At anything over tickover speed it went away but each time I throttled back it returned with renewed vigour. There was something irregular about it that made me nervous and some deep seated engineering gene that I didn’t know I possessed told me it was serious. We pulled up and lifted the engine bay cover and I set off again cautiously but now it was worse and the source of the problem was obvious. The engine was doing a fine impersonation of a drunken Dad at a wedding dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller; it was jumping around like a thing possessed and it didn’t look good. There was only one thing for it; we moored up and called International Rescue. We asked them to send whichever Thunderbird was appropriate and within an hour Jake arrived.

Jake was young and hip and he wore his cap backwards. He moved around the engine bay showing us a fine view of his fashionable underpants and when he dipped the oil he wiped the dip stick on his T shirt. I liked Jake. He seemed to know what he was doing but he couldn’t be sure of the problem from my description and after doing a lot of prodding and poking he asked if we could take a little cruise along the water. We set off, in tick over and it seemed touch and go as to whether the engine was going to come along with us or not. It was jumping around in a tantrum but this made Jake very happy because now he thought he knew what the problem was. We pulled up and he ran the engine in neutral and stood on it. There was a sound like a machine gun going off and Jake announced with a grin; “your engine mounts are shot”.

“shot engine mounts”

Twenty four hours later Phil knocked on the roof of the boat and announced that he had come to fit new mounts for us. Phil had a pony tail and a very impressive set of spanners and he oozed confidence. I liked Phil. Gill and I went shopping for wine and beer in order to celebrate finally getting to the bottom of the problem and to deaden the effects of the eye-wateringly large invoice that was heading our way. Phil packed up his tools, showed us how the engine could run at any speed without looking like Shaking Stevens with the DT’s and transferred most of the oil and grease from his hand to mine with a manly hand-shake.

This is Phil, he knows about engines

The big spanner being deployed

So we are rattle, shake and clank free at last and I am pleased to say that the mop bucket has been released without charge and retuned to the engine bay.

The joys of boating eh?

Drama in Market Drayton

We may have broken a record of some kind today having covered a total of one and a half miles before mooring up for the night. The achievement hasn’t come easily, we have had to work our way down with a couple of five mile days and then a three and a two until distances and times become meaningless and what dictates our stopping place is all about location. I think we made our break through on the day that we stopped for an early lunch in a beautiful elevated location and never got round to starting again. It’s amazing how much time you can spend sitting on the back of the boat watching the wildlife and just being lost in the peace and quiet.

Tyrley Wharf – sans pub

We spent last night at a place called Tyrley Wharf just outside and above the small town of Market Drayton. It was another case of stopping before we had really got started but we were so struck by the setting and the weather was so enticing it seemed like as good a place as any to pass an evening. We were actually so close to the town that we were able to walk down the flight of five locks and do a bit of shopping for our evening meal but we weren’t tempted by bright lights and strolled back to our quiet backwater. Our mooring was in the shadow of the old wharf cottages and associated buildings which have all been lovingly restored and converted to accommodation. Sadly the ale house that served the old working boatmen didn’t survive. We had no phone signal or TV to entertain us but it didn’t matter at all. There were other boaters to while away the time with and as the evening sun went down the bird song and activity more than competed with anything that the BBC might have to offer.

Plenty of neighbours to chat to

In the morning we topped up with water before beginning the descent of the locks in more glorious sunny weather intending to travel beyond Market Drayton and another set of five locks. An elderly couple on a very old traditional boat were behind us in the queue for the first lock so as the lock was ‘set’ and it didn’t need filling we let them go in front of us to save them a bit of work. Big mistake.

As we walked down and back up the flight yesterday we had learned that these particular locks had a few tricks up their sleeves just waiting to catch out the unprepared.

Looking back up the flight of locks

One boat had become completely stuck on a concrete shelf just as we were passing and other boaters had warned us of fierce by-washes that could push a boat off course and onto the shallow off side banks.

The dreaded by-wash – think narrow boat in a washing machine

With the help of a friendly volunteer lock keeper we passed through the first two locks without too much problem but then things started to get complicated. Other boats were coming up the locks so there was a bit of careful manoeuvring around each other and then on entering the fourth lock everything came to a halt. It seemed that the people on the old boat that had gone ahead of us had been washed to the off side by the strong current and then having got themselves unstuck had fallen foul of the concrete shelf on the other side. All movement of boats through the system came to a standstill and I found myself sitting in an empty lock for half an hour. This was the lock with the very strong by-wash at its exit and I was grateful to pick up a few tips from the lock keeper while I waited. It seemed that the trick was to use power to drive through the current and head for the next open lock in the manner of an express train entering a tunnel. The difference of course is that express trains are on rails and can’t really miss the tunnel, whereas I was not and the prospect of missing the entrance to the lock with sixteen tons of steel moving at full tilt wasn’t worth thinking about. These locks are much longer than our boat so I backed up and took a run at it. I’m not sure which was running faster, the by-wash or my adrenalin but with a bit of a shimmy and a hasty application of reverse I managed to land myself in the target hole without destroying anything more substantial than my nerves.

Video of the by-wash

That was quite enough excitement for one day so with a mile and a half of travel and five locks behind us we pulled up in the town and put the kettle on for a calming cup of tea and a second breakfast.

A round of applause please

What defines a holiday? I have been pondering this conundrum because somebody on a narrow boat interest group on the internet posed the question; “Do you feel like you are always on holiday no matter how long you have lived on your boat?”.

Speedwell Castle in Brewood

I would have said that a holiday is a break from work, responsibilities, worries and day to day routines. It normally involves lots of changes, such as location, activities, eating and drinking habits and people. I suppose you could wrap all that lot up with the word ‘different’. A holiday is very different from your normal daily life. So here’s a question; if you live and travel on a narrow boat all the time are you always on holiday or never on holiday? It feels like a holiday but it doesn’t match my definition. One or two of the respondents to the question on the internet replied that they had lived on their boats for five, ten or even twenty years and still felt like they were on one long holiday. Maybe if this wonderful weather breaks or something serious goes wrong with the boat it will all feel different but for now I’m just happy to just go with the flow and assume that the holiday will last forever.

Golden Girl and Rebecca on holiday

We are now on our fifth canal, the Shropshire Union and very beautiful it is too. We joined it via a tight turn off the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and straight into the mouth of a lock. I’m still working on my manoeuvring skills in these situations so to see a small crowed gathering on the tow path as I began my turn was a bit daunting. They were ramblers and I assumed they would carry on walking but no, they all stopped and began to discuss my chances of success amidst speculation as to how much damage might result from failure. I was relieved to make the corner without incident but then bitterly disappointed that I actually had to ask for my round of applause. Really, some people want entertaining for nothing!

Bob and Marie leading the way

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark in our journey because not only did we come to the most southerly point in our route and begin to head north, we also said goodbye to two people who have become very firm friends over the last few weeks. A chance meeting when we were having maintenance done on the boat led to a vague plan to travel with Bob and Marie and their boat Rebecca once we came back from our Liverpool break. They just happened to be going in the same direction at approximately the same time so we agreed to try travelling together and see how we got on. These arrangement can be tricky of course and if it turns out that you don’t hit it off you can’t just part company that easily. When you are both going in the same directions and with a top speed of four miles per hour, it’s not easy to give another boat the slip. The solution was to a have a very frank, upfront conversation and agree that either couple could end the arrangement without explanation at any time. Well that turned out to be a wasted conversation because we got on like a house on fire from day one and we haven’t stopped laughing for three weeks. Sadly, Bob and Marie are on a different time schedule to us so we have had to say goodbye and agree to travel together again another day.

On the beautiful ‘Shroppie’

Since leaving Stone our confidence has been rising as we have cruised through the locks with calm efficiency, negotiated on coming boats at blind bends with casual aplomb and even dealt with our first visit to a marina full of boats to obtain fuel without causing any damage. Nothing has really phased us but then nobody told us about ‘The Narrows’. It seems that in this corner of Staffordshire the canal builders came up with a cunning way of dealing with changes of level that didn’t require a complex and expensive lock. They simply dug a channel through solid rock to maintain the even gradient of the water. That’s a fine idea but digging through rock is time consuming so they halved the problem by only digging the cuttings half the width of a normal canal and only slightly wider than our boat. Some of the cuttings are short and you can see if there is another boat coming and hang back. Others are longer, not straight and you enter them with your fingers crossed and You Tube videos of how to reverse a narrow boat running through your head. So far we have been lucky and not met anybody head on but I know you are all now just waiting for our luck to run out because that will make a much better story. I hope I never have to tell it.

Entering the narrows

Fingers crossed

Just a quick reminder if you missed the last blog, I am now updating a map that shows you our route around the system. Click here to see it.

Photos by Gill (mostly)

We’ve been attacked!

We’ve been attacked! It’s not too serious but I have a couple of facial injuries and a damaged ankle while Gill got hit on the leg. We aren’t entirely sure how it happened but we think it was probably some kind of biting gnat that got us while we were enjoying the last of the day’s warmth yesterday evening. I have two lumps, one on each temple that are absolutely symmetrical. It was either two gnats flying in formation or one gnat with a severe case of OCD but whatever the cause I now look like I am about to sprout horns. We have also suffered a few afflictions at the hands of inanimate objects recently too. I was attacked by a cheese grater whilst innocently shredding parmesan and we have both been given a good kicking by angry windlasses whilst operating the locks. Fortunately none of these injuries have required anything stronger than a glass of red wine to remedy them and all in all we are in fine fettle and really enjoying the adventure.

The potteries at Stoke (could do with a bit of a trim)

We are now well south on the Trent and Mersey canal and clear of an intense stretch of narrow locks and the Harecastle tunnel. The previous twenty miles have been fascinating and challenging but certainly never boring. We approached the Harecastle tunnel with a little trepidation as it was far longer than anything we had been through at one and three quarter miles. Passage is controlled by Canal and River Trust staff and is strictly one way. We arrived shortly after other boats had entered the tunnel from the south and we were kept entertained by the highly amusing member of staff on duty. He asked me if I had ever been through before and when I said I hadn’t he delighted in telling me that there was nothing to worry about but to go and have a strong brew whilst waiting for our turn. Here’s a tip for anybody going through for the first time; don’t look at the faces of the people on the boats emerging and don’t ask them how it was or if they enjoyed it. After a short safety briefing and with lights and horns checked we were off into the longest blackest hole I have ever been in.

Don’t ask how it was.

It was actually OK once your eyes adjusted and the only concern was the sudden changes in roof height that threatened to decapitate anybody foolishly looking back to see how far they had come. Forty minutes later we popped out of the other end blinking in the sunshine and to the delight of about forty small children on a school trip who gave us a round of applause. Time for a picnic by the beautiful Westport lake.

Seen one tunnel, seen ’em all.

One other feature of the infrastructure on this section has been the double locks. When somebody mentioned them I imagined locks wide enough to take two boats side by side and as we had used these on the Leeds and Liverpool canal I wasn’t all that excited. In practice they turned out to be amazing pieces of Victorian engineering which are actually two narrow locks side by side and independently operated.

Double locks

As we were travelling with our new friends Bob and Marie we were like a couple of kids disappearing into the deep, dark, coffin like enclosures alongside each other but out of sight. Gill and Marie would then close the gates on us and begin to fill the locks. The water level would slowly rise lifting our boats up and after a couple of minutes Bob and I would majestically surface into the sunlight like a couple of silly meerkats grinning at each other as if we had just popped out of adjacent burrows. They were also a great opportunity for Gill to get more experience of controlling the boat in them as after managing eight in a row one day she suddenly decided that driving the boat for the next eight locks might not be such a bad idea after all. Needless to say, I am now a lot more experienced at turning a windlass and heaving lock gates open and closed. The physical side of this game is actually really good fun and it has the added bonus of making beer in the late afternoon calorie free.

Descending into a double lock

 

Pop-up-Bob

We have now had a little break in Stone where we have been generously wined and dined by friends there and we will be meeting up once more with Bob and Marie in a couple of days to continue onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. One or two people have asked if I will be updating an online map with our route. I hadn’t thought of doing it but it if helps here is a picture of the area we have travelled so far. If you trace a route from Liverpool via Wigan, west Manchester, Lymm, Middlewich, Stoke and Stone you should be able to get an idea of where we have travelled so far.

Edit: I have now updated the map on the blog so you can see all our stops indicated by the blue boat.

 

I would write more but I have just noticed that there are about ten million small flies gathered on the inside of the boat windows. I think I recognise one of them and I am off to have a word or two.

The dark and narrow road

Earlier this year adventure cyclist and all round nice chap, Mark Beaumont cycled 18,000 miles round the globe on his bike and he did it in just over seventy eight days. Just let that sink in for a moment. That’s an average of about 230 miles a day, on a push bike. It might help to create a little perspective when I tell you that I have just checked our logs and we have managed an impressive 115 miles in three weeks with the aid of a thirty eight horse power engine and an occasional tail wind. I think we may have achieved our prime objective of travelling slowly.

Long sunny days

I was hoping by now to be able to give a reasonably rounded assessment of what travelling on a narrow boat is like but I don’t feel qualified. I am very happy to tell you that I am only qualified to tell you what it’s like to travel on a narrow boat in near perfect conditions. We’ve had three weeks of mostly unbroken sunshine and for the last two, very light or no winds. It’s boating heaven and the longer it lasts the more nervous I become about what we might have to deal with later.

We are in Middlewich now and at the start of a new phenomenon in canal terms. We are about to embark on our first experience of narrow canals. It all changed over the last couple of days when the term narrow boat suddenly made sense. You see up to now we have mostly travelled on the Leeds and Liverpool and the Bridgewater canals They were both designed to accommodate barges up to fourteen feet wide. Bridge holes, locks and aqueducts are all built to this specification so travelling on a skinny minny like the Golden Girl is quite straight forward. You just aim her at the middle of everything and she slips through with room for a little wiggle on the way. Or so we thought.

Tight corner

After several days of no locks, swing bridges or obstacles other than the odd bicycle wheel or dead fish we set off last Friday for what promised to be an exciting leg of the trip. After a brief stop for our travelling companions to top up on fuel we would be leaving the Bridgewater Canal and joining the Trent and Mersey. We would be passing through one lock and no less than three tunnels and we hadn’t realised that our Golden Girl had been hitting the wine and cream cakes, or so it seemed. The lock was our first one that would only take one boat at a time and that’s when I first suspected that somebody appeared to have put a little weight on. Gill was handling the boat with confidence now and she elected to navigate the first tunnel after waiting for our time slot to meet the one way regulations. She entered cautiously and it was obvious that this was narrower than other tunnels we had been in. There was still plenty of room either side and no doubt it would all have been fine if Victorian engineers had had access to lasers and tunnel boring machines rather than pencils and pick axes. It was soon obvious that with each change of shift the navvies that dug this beast had changed direction! I won’t go into too much detail as it wouldn’t be fair but let’s just say we had a little bump and Gill took full responsibility for trying to create a branch line using our TV aerial pole mount on the side of the boat. It didn’t work and the boat came off worst. (It’s all fixed now so no serious damage was done.)

Here we go

Gulp!

It’s a bit dark in here

Who put that kink in the tunnel?

By the time we emerged from the third tunnel at the end of the day we had pretty much mastered the technique for staying in the middle and accepted that perhaps it was the canals that were narrowing rather than the Golden Girl’s waist line that was expanding. The challenges got greater over the next two days with narrow and winding sections of water which seemed to be occupied primarily by newly acquired hire boats travelling flat out and plainly not expecting to meet another boat coming the other way. Particularly at blind bridge holes. Words were exchanged on a couple of occasions, especially with the driver of the one that was travelling so fast that he couldn’t take any avoidance measures and ended up, rather satisfactorily, buried in the mud and reeds on the far bank. We left him and his crew, at a sedate pace of course, trying to dig themselves out with barge poles.

Not the place to meet a coal boat towing another one!

We only had another couple of miles to go before mooring up for the night and although I had found these new narrow sections with very tight turns quite tricky, I had actually secretly enjoyed the challenge. We hadn’t had any mishaps other than those caused by other boaters so I was feeling tired but a little smug when we came around the final bends. That didn’t last. As we rounded the corner I was trying to work out the line to take when the canal disappeared. Well at least it appeared to. No doubt perspective played a part but about fifty yards ahead the waters narrowed into what appeared to be a six inch channel over a river. I hastily looked around for an escape route, assuming I was going the wrong way but all I was faced with was impenetrable canal bank. Engaging reverse with more enthusiasm than the engine was keen on I slowed down and approached what looked like an impossibly narrow gap half the width of the boat. As we got closer I finally accepted that perhaps it was wider than us but only by inches and passed gingerly through to the other side. I swear the boat breathed in as we passed over the considerable drop to the river below. Now I really understood that we were on the narrow canals.

I don’t know how we did that.

The white water rapids and waterfalls that I was now expecting around the final turn didn’t emerge and we were able to moor without further trepidation just outside the small town of Middlewich.

We are having a little break now for two days and we are all on strict diets in preparation for up to twenty narrow locks per day and the tunnel from hell. More on that later.

Photos by Gill

Finding the good

These canals we are travelling are turning out to be like people of wildly different characteristics. Liverpool was like a crazy bunch of excited party goers in part and some down and out toothless old men in others. West Lancashire reminded me of gentle folk who don’t like change and keep themselves largely to themselves except when attending mass on Sunday. Moving west and south through Wigan, Leigh, Salford and Stretford was sad, nostalgic, intimidating but also stimulating. Like meeting a crowd of recalcitrant hooded teenagers but finding amongst them old mine and mill workers with fascinating stories to tell. This menagerie of places and history has finally spat us out through the leafy suburbs of Sale into the most pastoral Cheshire countryside. The gentle cooling breeze brings us a little relief from the unseasonally hot sunshine and the sound of spring birdsong adds to an air of chocolate box English scenery. I feel like I have been at a wild party for the last two weeks, full of the most amazingly diverse people, loud music, exotic food and finally arrived home in the early hours to a calm, quiet and familiar home and a warm cosy bed.

It probably hasn’t been quite what people first imagine when you talk about travelling on a narrow boat. All the marketing material features images like the one below.

Tranquillity, just like in the ads

It’s always sunny, the canal is bordered by weeping willows kissing the calm and quiet waters which gently transport a traditionally painted craft and her passengers back in time to a golden age of unhurried tranquillity.

Early morning idyll

Admittedly, we have had a little bit of that, and we are hoping for a lot more of it over the coming months but the marketeers don’t mention that all this idyllic scenery is joined together by large, dirty and sometimes downright ugly bits of urban sprawl. Our journey so far has consisted of rather more of the sprawl and not so much of the neat and tidy but the irony is wonderful. Towns and cities like Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester may owe their very existence to the canals that connect them. For us, they represent fascinating but often unattractive obstacles that have to be traversed in order to get to the glorious countryside that makes travelling on a narrow boat so relaxing and satisfying. To the great canal engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the exact opposite.

Mining and canals went hand in hand

Travelling through some of the industrial landscapes can be depressing, even daunting, with tales of evil drug users lurking under every bridge, just waiting for an easy, slow moving target to rob or simply vandalise. It’s easy to become blinkered by this image and to only see the negative. The mindless destruction of the graffiti rather than the artistry and skill it demonstrates. The irresponsible discarding of the ever present bobbing beer bottles and not the fun and laughter of the youngsters who consumed the drinks by the canal because they had nowhere else to go. The dark, windowless warehouses and factories that tower dark and menacing above the water linger in the mind like nightmares. But there are bright new waterside developments of apartments, bars and restaurants in equal measure that are bringing new life to these old arteries of the industrial revolution. There is positive everywhere if we look hard enough and history and heritage galore.

Out with the old (To be fair this was being saved)

In with the new

 

Art or vandalism?

We have probably started our journey with a disproportionate share of the dark and dreary but it looks very much from where I am sitting tonight that the balance is going to be redressed over the next few weeks. When the barons of the industrial revolution had made their fortunes from mining and building canals at the expense of near slave labour they built grand houses in places like Cheshire to retire to away from the filth and poverty of the cities. Now it’s our turn to go and have a look at how the other half lived.

Hello Cheshire

All photos by Gill

Liverpool, what a journey!

Consumerism, culture, catastrophe and carnival. Just a few of the words that spring to mind when I reflect on our experience of Liverpool so far. We have one more day tomorrow to absorb a little more of this amazing complex city which, like our journey here, seems to be divided into so many conflicting elements.

After several days of peaceful rural surroundings we knew things would be very different as we approached the big city but the contrasts of the final few miles was quite staggering. The first part of the journey gets progressively more depressing as you leave the countryside behind to pass through increasingly downtrodden areas. Dead factories line the canals decorated by garish graffiti and long ago broken windows. All manner of garbage floats on the water while determined swans and coots sit unconcerned on their nests, hell bent on bringing new life into a cesspool of filth. We are constantly on the lookout for anything that might get wrapped around our propeller having been warned by so many boaters of the dangers of bikes, mattresses and even tents discarded in the water. It’s a relief to arrive at the top of the Stanley Locks and know that we will soon be out of this depressing section of the journey.

We are joined by another narrow boat, Penny Less for the descent of the locks and Alison from the Canal and River Trust along with a volunteer are waiting to assist us with the passage into Liverpool. I’m a little apprehensive having watched a couple of videos of the trip. It will be our first experience of deep open water and we nervously don our life jackets in readiness. We share the locks with the other boat and Gill gets some more practice handling the boat. With many hands to make light of the work it seems like no time at all before we are deep in the final lock, waiting for the heavy wooden gates to open and give us passage into our first open dock. Our new friends on Penny Less agree to go first as they are more experienced and we emerge into a whole new world. The expanse of water looks huge and is surrounded by high, cliff like warehouse walls which we pass beneath in our tiny craft. Turning left between massive stonework we enter Sid’s ditch, a long narrow passage between a dock wall and raised embankment which separates us from the river Mersey. I’m struggling to keep up with the other boat as our engine complains at these new demands.

Boating chums waiting at the top of the locks

Emerging nervously from the bottom lock

Scary open water

Huge reminder of the past

As we cross more open docks we get our first glimpse of famous landmarks. The Liver Building with it’s famous Liver birds appears in the distance and I struggle to concentrate on following the guiding buoys and the rapidly receding stern of Penny Less whilst wanting to drink in every aspect of the iconic dockland landscape. We enter Princes dock and after passing through another lock the first, and longest, of three tunnels.

Light at the end of……

Entering the tunnel everything looks black despite our headlight but my eyes quickly adjust and it’s easy to follow the twists and turns to emerge into blinding sunlight once more. More bridges, famous buildings, a cruise ship on our right and then suddenly the huge angular facade of the Museum of Liverpool is directly above us.

Hello Liverpool!

O look, a cruise ship

Not a view of the Museum of Liverpool I have seen before

Into the Albert Dock

The final bridge

Tourists on bridges wave and call to us. It’s hard to hear what they say over the sound of the engine but I do hear “Welcome to Liverpool” which makes the impossibly wide grin on my face even wider. One more lock and we are making the tight turns now through Canning dock under yet another bridge into the famous Albert dock. Finally we enter our allocated place in the Salthouse dock without embarrassing ourselves too much and tie up on jetty S3.

We made it.

All of a sudden the sun comes out and it’s hot. Friends appear from another boat to greet us, the kettle is on and we are sitting on the deck talking excitedly about the adventure. Just trying to take in how surreal it is to be right in the heart of the Liverpool docks and to have arrived here on a narrow boat is difficult. Tea is followed by beer and finally it begins to sink in that we have arrived. There is only one word for the experience and our situation and it’s another ‘C’ word. It’s just plain crazy.

On our first full day the hot sunny weather brought the crowds out and as we walked through the bus station with visiting friends I witnessed a perfect example of the diversity of this famous port. Several buses were delivering their passengers for a day out; about seventy percent turned right into the Liverpool One retail extravaganza while the remainder turned left for the docks, museums and art galleries. A young couple strolled arm in arm in the bright sunlight looking as if they were heading for a glamorous photo shoot. He was handsome and tanned. Many hours of hard sweat in the gym had earned him an enviable muscle bound physique which threatened to burst out of his fashionable designer shirt. His partner was slim and beautiful with perfect hair and make-up and his strong arm supported her as she teetered on her needle like heels over the rough cobbled paving. Expensive perfume and after shave followed them in the breeze. They changed direction to avoid what appeared to be a pile of rags and rubbish. A couple of grubby looking sleeping bags, old newspapers and assorted debris piled against some railings. They didn’t notice the movement, as the homeless man, about the same age as them, raised his unshaven, ragged haired head from within the smelly heap. They showed no recognition as he lit his roll-up, took a deep satisfying drag, coughed, spat and reached for the half empty bottle of Lambrini to ease the pain of his miserable situation. This place, I thought, is definitely a place with many faces. Somewhere that is crying out to be scratched well beneath the surface.

After four days we are exhausted and I am reeling from the onslaught of contrasting emotions, information and images. Cultured or crude, rich or poor, modern or ancient; Liverpool has got it all in buckets and I love it.

We are coming for you Liverpool

I am sitting in the boat listening to rain rattling on the roof and watching the branches of a large oak waving in the strong breeze on the opposite bank. Spring, it would appear, is back on hold and it seems like a good excuse for a lazy day off.

We left the marina on a glorious sunny morning four days ago and other than it being a little chilly, and occasionally breezy, it really has been a wonderful start to our journey to Liverpool. The passage into the historic docks is controlled by the Canal and River Trust and we are booked to go in on the 4th of May. In contrast to the whole ethos of life on a narrow boat we have a schedule to stick to but rather than it creating any sense of urgency it simply means that we have a surplus of time on our hands and can afford to sit out today’s unseasonal weather.

Bye everybody, see you in six months

Pulling out of our home berth last Saturday was a strange mixture of the kind of excitement that comes with the start of any new adventure tinged with a modicum of sadness. We were leaving behind a wonderful bunch of new friends and a community that has enveloped us with warmth and support during our brief time on the marina. One of our neighbours gave us a farewell blast on his horn to send us on our way but we mistook it for a warning, thinking another boat was approaching as we emerged from the marina entrance. I suspect they are still chuckling now at my hasty engagement of reverse to avoid being sunk before we had even begun our journey.

Typical of the type of people we have found ourselves surrounded by in our new home, Paul and Dave were waiting for us just around the first corner to help us out at the lock. This meant that I could stay on the boat with Gill while she had a go at steering it in and controlling it as the lock filled up. The process is more daunting than difficult and she passed her first test with flying colours and I am pleased to report, without any threat of divorce. It makes lots of sense for both of us to master all the different skills in handling the boat and it also meant that with Gill driving the boat I would be able to work the lock mechanisms to control the water flow and to open and close the gates for her.

Here comes Gill into her first lock solo

and this is me putting my back into it.

Two locks later as I heaved with all my might at another monstrously heavy balance beam and contemplated what felt like the beginnings of a blister on my hand I became aware of a terrible flaw in my strategy. As Gill proved to be more than competent in her new role I tried to put a positive slant on the situation and told myself how much fitter and stronger I would be after six months of hard physical labour.

We have been very slowly making our way west towards the big city, enjoying a sociable time with Mick and Sara who are also on their way there and from our home marina.

Tow path friends

Golden Girl has been showered with compliments and photographed so often it’s like being in the company of a minor celebrity. I’m worried she will be wanting her own dressing room soon.

Golden Girl admiring herself in the reflections

So four days, seven locks and eleven swing bridges later we find ourselves a staggering seventeen miles from where we started. We were determined to take this new adventure at a leisurely pace and so far I think we are doing quite well. A couple of people we have chatted to on the tow path have suggested that we are like a snail carrying our home with us. The main difference though is that a snail would probably be in Liverpool before us.

Passing through a swing bridge with new found boating friends

Brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked

We are in a frenzy of activity here as we prepare for our first major trip on the waterways.

Isn’t she looking lovely?

The Golden Girl is like a bride-to-be being primped and preened for the big occasion though the analogy breaks down a little in that most brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked. Allow me to explain.

Most narrow boats are taken out of the water every two or three years to check for corrosion and mechanical problems and to clean them off and re-paint the bits that are normally inaccessible. The term ‘bottom blacking’ is slightly misleading as the actual base plate underneath the boat doesn’t get done but I’m not going to miss the opportunity to play with such potential for a little cheeky anthropomorphising.

The actual procedure simply involves taking the boat across the canal from our home marina to the one opposite where they provide the service and floating the boat over a trailer which is then hauled out of the water by tractor. Four days later, once the cleaning and blacking are done, the process is reversed and we can bring our shiny new girl home. Simple eh? Well apart from the fact that our home will be stuck in a shed on a trailer and we will have to find somewhere else to live for a few days. Being homeless for four days simply meant that we could visit family and friends and on the whole I was quite looking forward to the experience. Then I made the mistake of speaking to another boater that had recently had his boat blacked.

Alarm bells started to ring when he asked me if I owned any Wellington boots. I hesitated but couldn’t stop myself asking why and that was the point that ‘getting the boat blacked’ became a completely different prospect. He went on to explain, with a mischievous grin on his face, that because of the steep angle that the boat would come out of the water the rear end, the end I would be standing on, would probably go under water! Apart from the prospect of trench foot, there was also a possibility of the engine bay getting flooded if the bilge pump couldn’t cope. It sounded like the equivalent of sending the bride for extensive plastic surgery a week before the wedding.

I don’t know what it is about my mind but armed with this new knowledge of possible catastrophe it decided to explore all the other things that might go wrong with ‘getting the boat blacked’. I lay awake in the small hours envisaging the boat tipped up at some alarming angle and wondering what would happen to our furniture and belongings under such circumstances. Would they all end up in a broken heap at the back of the boat? Would the sudden shift of weight send the stern even deeper under water? Would I be able to hold on? Should I wear a life jacket? Then, for no logical reason whatsoever I decided that it might be blowing a gale on the morning of our appointment and I would be faced with smashing recklessly into our neighbours homes as I thrashed around trying to manoeuvre out of our marina and into the next one. By the time I finally got to sleep I had managed to conjure up a tragedy that made the Titanic disaster look like a paddling pool accident.

Of course it all went smoothly on the day. I didn’t fall overboard, our belongings never moved, no neighbours boats were destroyed and I didn’t even have to change my socks. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience and our Golden Girl is positively blushing.

Here are a few pictures in case you are wondering what on earth I am wittering on about.

Waiting patiently to be hauled out

Here we go, onto the trailer

Testing the pressure washer. Oops! Sorry madam.

This is great fun!

Out we come

Our Golden Girl’s bottom.

Going back into the water and this is as bad as it got.

Are you sure she’ll fit through there?

We have a plan! It involves Liverpool and a black bottom.

The two most frequently asked questions to anybody going off on a trip or adventure are: “What’s your plan?” and “Have you planned your route?”

Sometimes people genuinely want an answer, sometimes they do not. Some of them really do want all the details but I suspect the majority are just being polite. Either way the answer, in our case, is usually “we don’t have a plan” and, or, “No, we don’t have a route”. In the case of the our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we didn’t need much of a plan other than; get up, eat, pack, cycle, camp, eat, sleep and repeat. As for a route, that was largely dictated by the boundary between the land and the sea. That’s just the way it is if you are cycling around an island. We have, up to now, adopted a similar attitude to the six month canal trip.

For ages now I have been giving the same, slightly facetious answers to the same questions about it. I have even refused to put a definite start date on the trip, answering somewhat glibly that we will simply wake up one morning and decide to leave because it’s a sunny day or we don’t have any reason not to, or we have run out of cornflakes or something. Well for all those people that I have irritated with my non-committal answers I have some news: WE HAVE A PLAN!!

To everybody that has asked about our route the closest I have got to any kind of answer has been, “we will be going vaguely south”. I can now reveal that we will be going west, and not vaguely, but purposefully. You see based on a whim, and what better premise is there for formulating a plan, we decided the other day to look into the possibility of going to Liverpool on the boat. I don’t mean that we began researching whether or not there were canals that went to Liverpool, there are. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal kind of gives the game away in it’s name. What I mean is that I had read that it is now possible to float your way right into the heart of Liverpool docks courtesy of an assisted passage provided by the Canal and River Trust. All you have to do is book a return journey on specific dates and once there you can stay in the shadow of the Liver birds for up to a week free of charge. So that’s what we plan to do. After that we will head east and then vaguely south.

I had heard that these assisted passages into and out of the great metropolis were very popular so we didn’t think we stood much chance of finding one at such short notice. However, to our considerable excitement, we discovered that there was one slot left available on the 4th May. We snapped it up pronto and then started to read a bit more about the journey. It seems we will be navigating several open dock basins (life jackets have been purchased), a couple of tunnels and possibly some rather big obstacles in the form of ships.

Room for a little un?

If it all goes to plan we will end up sailing majestically into Salthouse dock right in the heart of the city where we can stay for six days. Tourists can look forward to some hilarious entertainment as I try to manoeuvre onto to our allocated pontoon without bashing into any visiting cruise liners. Pretty cool eh?

Look out Liverpool, we are coming for you.

So that’s the glamorous start to our journey sorted. Before that can happen our Golden Girl will have to endure the rather undignified procedure of being hauled out of the water by her prow to have her bottom blacked. That’s happening on Thursday so we are de-camping to stay with family and friends for a few days. Apart from not being allowed to stay on the boat while she is out of the water I don’t think she would want us watching such a process anyway.

So there it is. A real life plan with dates and everything. The next person that asks; “have you got a plan?” had better have an hour or two to spare to listen to the answer.

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