So long swallows, see you next year

A few days ago I sat on the back of the boat with the hot sun warming my back and a squadron of swallows swooping and diving overhead. It could have been mid summer were it not for a hint of gold adorning some of the nearby trees or the distinctive autumnal song of a robin in the hedgerow. Today, autumn has stifled the summer’s last gasp and those golden leaves are dancing on the rippling surface of the water, dislodged by a bracingly cold breeze. I haven’t seen a swallow since then. Maybe, like us they are now on their way to their winter grounds. The next time we enjoy their display they will be skimming the waters of the marina next spring and we will be preparing to set out once more on another summer of adventure.

Looks like autumn, feels like summer

We are now on very familiar waters, retracing our steps and counting down the days until we make the final turn onto the Rufford branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal and descend the seven locks to our marina to hunker down for the winter. Any journey’s end is a time of sadness but it’s mixed with the satisfaction of having created another bagful of memories that we can dip into during the long dark nights ahead. We met up with a couple of friends on their narrow boat yesterday and they asked us an often repeated question, “why do you go back to the marina in the winter? Why not just carry on cruising?” It’s a question we often ask ourselves, in fact, it was always our original intention when we bought the boat to spend the first winter in a marina and then take off with no plan to return and nothing to pin us down. What got in the way was community, friendships, the feeling of belonging somewhere and having roots. There are practical difficulties and discomforts to winter cruising that put us off but it’s mainly the people that draw us back to the same place each autumn. Like the swallows, we have become migratory.

Our third summer of wandering the waterways got off to a late start due to lock down but what we have missed in weeks we have more than made up for in new discoveries. We were more or less resigned to sticking to routes we have done before but a last minute change of plan gave us the opportunity to sample the Caldon, Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals and they proved to be some of the most rewarding we have ever done. They are mostly quiet peaceful places reaching deep into the heights and beauty of the Pennine hills.

Spectacular views on the Macclesfield canal

Towns and villages are small and sparsely scattered, entertainment is in the form of wildlife, expansive views and an abundance of flowers and bird song. The once busy and gritty industrial nature of the canals has been softened under a mantle of wildness, occasionally uncovered or preserved to add interest but only rarely dominating the scene.

The Golden Girl in her elements

There are great opportunities to combine walking with narrow boating in all of these areas and it’s relatively easy to gain amazing views from minimal effort. An hour or so of gentle climbing brought us views across the Cheshire plains to Welsh hills and north over Manchester to the Pennines. Quiet moorings were easy to find with nothing but the stars and silence for company. Places where you can watch a heron or a kingfisher catching its prey or a kestrel riding the breeze. Magical moments are two a penny on all of these canals and we are already talking about return visits to sample them in the early spring perhaps.

Beautiful turnover bridges on the Macclesfield

As always we have met some lovely people along the way and although it hasn’t been quite so spontaneous because of the Covid effect we’ve still enjoyed the company of boaters, fishermen and tow path wanderers as we have meandered along. People always have questions about life on a narrow boat but then we always have questions about the locality so we are happy to trade information. We even managed to keep smiling and saying good morning to each and every one of the sixty five competition fishermen strung out along the bank that we passed the other day. With each season that passes we are increasingly likely to come across familiar boats and boaters and it’s always great to catch up and exchange a story or two whilst carefully tip toeing around the fact that neither of us can remember each other’s names or where we met. Most encounters start with “oh look there’s that couple from *insert boat name here* and I have no doubt they do the same. We really should write things down.

Foggy autumn morning in Altrincham

It’s several days now since I started writing this and the last few mornings have found us rummaging around looking for gloves and thermals so it was a delightful surprise to see more swallows today still skimming over the canal optimistically looking for food on such a chilly morning. In a few days we will be settled back into our berth while they will be setting out on their amazing journey to Africa. When it’s cold and dark and the water in the marina is freezing over this winter I’ll look forward to seeing the first of the swallows return in April to start the cycle all over again and herald another great summer on our Golden Girl. Whenever we get to this part of a summer’s journey it always feels like we are going home. Maybe that is what would be missing if we just cruised throughout the year with no base to return to. We often consider the idea of just travelling endlessly but for now we’ll just stick to being swallows.

So long summer, see you next year

Bumbling around Bollington

Bosley Cloud

Our very leisurely progress along the Macclesfield canal has brought us to the small town of Bollington and the scenery along the way just keeps on getting more spectacular. It’s so rare to be in such hilly terrain but this area even gives the Leeds and Liverpool Pennine section a run for it’s money. On a short evening stroll along the tow path we found ourselves peering down onto roads fifty feet or more below us with steep climbs to and from the tow path. The high embankment that carries the waterway towers over rooftops in places and in 1912 the town paid the price of this ambitious construction when the waters breeched and cascaded to the streets below. Building the canal through such terrain was incredibly ambitious and you can only admire the sheer audacity of the engineers and the belief they must have had in themselves. The towering Adelphi and Clarence mills that loom high above the water are further evidence should it be needed of engineering excellence from the early nineteenth century.

The nature of the landscape and the twisting route of the canal through Bollington make it difficult to get a perspective of where the town centre is. We chose our mooring for it’s proximity to a handy boatyard for supplies and because it offered plenty of light and open space for what we wanted to be a two night stay. Being reasonably fit and mobile we never considered how far it might be to amenities like pubs or restaurants but for the poor folks who arrived and moored behind us it became quite an issue.

The very confusing back to front map

We were alerted to their arrival by the loud roar of an engine and excited voices which predictably put me in meerkat mode to see what was going on. What I found was a hire boat with five mature people on board trying to moor. They had the prow in about ten feet behind us and one chap managed to step off and attach a mooring hook to the steel Armco which seemed like a perfectly good start. The helmsman then decided to give the boat full power with the tiller hard over to port which had two effects, one desirable, one not. The rear of the boat moved towards the tow path which was great but the whole boat also took off at speed in a forward motion which was inevitable. With their boat now six inches from the back of ours they managed to get a couple of the crew off to desperately pull on ropes. The voices had gone from excited to full on panic mode now. During a brief lull in the bedlam I politely pointed out that we were about to run our engine to top up the batteries and heat up water to which they replied that it would not affect them as they would be out and about exploring. My intention had been to give a subtle hint that they might like to pull back a few feet but it passed them by.

The gentleman on the front of the boat asked if there were any pubs or restaurants close by so I referred him to the large map on the towpath showing all the local amenities and left them to it. About ten minutes later curiosity got the better of me and I looked out only to find them still tying up. The man on the prow seemed to be weaving some kind of rope sculpture around the T bar on the front of the boat whilst the rest of the crew wrestled with centre and rear ropes with mixed results. They did get settled eventually and after a quick spruce up they gathered excitedly around the map to plan their evening out. They didn’t seem to be able to make a decision so I popped my head out and pointed out that the map was actually back to front and had to be read as if in a mirror to make any sense of it. I thought that this information and the fact that they had engaged a local jogger to interrogate would be sufficient to steer them towards supper but it seemed not. It was now forty five minutes since they had arrived and they were all back on the boat. Gill and I came to the conclusion that after much dithering they had decided that all the eating places were beyond their walking abilities and they were preparing to move to a more convenient mooring. The man on the front was peering at his macramé and wondering how to undo it.

On our late evening stroll we found their boat abandoned about a mile up the canal. It was loosely tied to mooring pins amongst a jungle of vegetation. The back end was about two feet from the bank so presumably they had all had to clamber off the front and as we looked down from the canal there they were heading off in the fading light in search of a late supper. I really hope they had a nice relaxed meal and that they do a bit more planning before their next stop. I also really, really hope that after a few drinks and arriving back in the dark they remembered to get back onto the front of the boat rather than the back!

We’ve had a good look at Bollington this morning and can confirm that it’s very hilly indeed. Think of an upended egg box with a canal running through it and you’re pretty much there. It seems to have a couple of nice looking restaurants and pubs so we plan to call here on our way back and get some healthy exercise whilst eating and drinking to excess. It’s all about balance isn’t it? Oh, and maybe a bit of planning.

Nine rounds with the Caldon

The last blog ended with us moored at Milton and shortly after writing it a boat came by looking for a mooring spot. I gave him what information I had but pointed out that it was our first time on the Caldon so my information was sparse. His response: “yes mate, my first time too and most definitely my last!”. Boaters are funny like that, they either love or hate a particular water way and we were about to find out which camp we fell into on this particular canal.

The Golden Girl – bruised but not broken

I was always told that the most risky period for anybody using dangerous machinery was when they become very relaxed and confident with it. That’s when they let their guard down. I was beginning to think that I had probably reached that point with the boat but it took the Caldon canal to prove my instincts were correct. Challenging is the word that springs to mind, followed quickly by quirky, crazy, unexpected and impossible. I do now understand why not everybody falls in love with this very unique canal but for me it became like a wild eccentric friend. Somebody that you can’t help but love despite the fact that they always manage to embarrass you in public.

It started as soon as we left Stoke with a couple of unusually low bridges which required a whole new skill, that of steering the boat from a crouched position, head just above the roof line in a narrowboating meets yoga kind of way. If boat yoga ever becomes a thing that one will be called Crouching Canal Turn. And so it went on with surprises around every bend and surprising bends where we least expected them.

Mind your head!

Not all the bridges were low but they had other tricks up their sleeves. I can handle narrow bridges, even narrow bridges on bends, but narrow bridges on bends completely overgrown with vegetation had me stumped. Steering the boat through a jungle of weeds with a bridge hidden somewhere amongst it is always going to end painfully and I’m afraid it did once or twice. They were mostly glancing blows that did more damage to my ego than they did to the boat. Or bridge I should add.

I don’t know if it’s down to less traffic or less maintenance but the Caldon has a wild, earthy feel to it more akin to a river than a canal. The reed beds and grassy banks are untamed and often reduce the waterways to narrow channels where passing another boat takes care. There are many wooded sections and it’s not uncommon to find trees partly blocking the channel or hanging so low that there are moments when the front of the boat has taken centre stage through a curtain of foliage while we on the back are still blindly waiting in the wings and hoping there is nothing coming the other way.

I wonder what’s around that corner?

There are single and staircase locks to negotiate, manual and electric lift bridges, a short tunnel and even a river section where the river Churnet flows through a valley so narrow that it and the canal simply run out of options and merge for a mile or so.

The other Golden Girl at work

The terrain that has to be negotiated is so torturous in places that you have to wonder just how valuable limestone was to warrant building the canal at all. The restored Churnet valley steam railway joins the party at times and practically dips it’s sleepers in the water’s edge. It’s not often that locomotive driver and narrow boat helmsman get the chance to exchange a passing “good morning”. At Consall Forge there was so little room for the station alongside the canal that they cantilevered the platform and waiting room over the water. It makes for a buttock clenching five minutes as you steer the boat under the structure with a few inches either side and above and nowhere to go if another boat appears.

Coming through
Anybody for the 9:30 Golden Girl to Froghall?

There are more narrow channels towards the end of the line and at Froghall there is a tunnel that is so low that very few boats can pass through it. We were one such boat and as we missed the last winding hole I got the opportunity to practice reversing further than ever before. I am quietly proud to report that no boats or canal infrastructure were harmed in the process.

All of these challenges are set amongst the most delightful mixture of lazy pasture and dense woodland with regular sightings of kingfishers, jays, herons and the sweet perfume of late wild flowers. It must be an absolute delight in the Spring time. There are old lime kilns to explore and a restored flint mill complete with working water wheels. The whole area is steeped in industrial history but somehow retains an air of wilderness and tranquillity. At Denford an extension to the Caldon branches off to connect with the town of Leek. It’s a fascinating feature as the main line drops through three locks and the branch turns 90 degrees and passes over it on an aqueduct. It’s a bit of a stretch I know but it felt like we were travelling on the Spaghetti junction of the waterways.

Which way now?

I do understand that there are difficulties on this canal and not everybody will be comfortable with them but for me they just enhance the rewards. As is so often the case in life the best things are worth fighting for and I would definitely advise boaters that the Caldon is worth getting in the ring with. Somebody said to us that you shouldn’t go on the Caldon if you have just had your boat painted. I get that and I’ll admit that we may have lost a bit of paint here and there but the eight days we spent discovering this fascinating corner of the network will stay with us forever. We loved it.

No harm done really

Today is not a good day

Today is not a good day. The rain is determined, the wind is persistent and the summer has retreated with its tail between its legs. Looking out of the window at what should be the far bank of the canal but is, in reality just a boat width away, I can see the trees thrashing about as if they are desperate to break free from their roots and move to somewhere more hospitable. I would go with them if I could but this is not the weather for boating.

What you might call a close pass

We are on the Caldon canal, a branch of the Trent and Mersey that leaves the centre of Stoke and winds its way through the outskirts of the city determined to escape the overcrowded space and find some peace in a more rural environment. It has a reputation for remoteness and quiet places but the tranquillity has to be earned. To get here had involved passing through Stoke from the south and as always entering the city by narrow boat is pretty predictable but most definitely not pretty.

Canalside garden

Wealthy suburbs of detached houses with tidy, manicured gardens decorate the water’s edge, gradually giving way to more practical dwellings; full of children’s play equipment, lawns in need of a trim and the slightly chaotic look reflecting busy young families trying to keep heads above water. At the margins of the city huge new distribution warehouses feed endless products into countless lorries to be scattered across the country in a never ending frenzy of consumerism. Run down factories and tired, tatty workshops follow as the canal takes on a shabby, litter strewn complexion. Every discarded bottle, can and takeaway container seems to end up floating in the water alongside the odd palette or traffic cone. As we reach the city centre a veil of gloss in the form of smart street furniture, glamorous looking offices and apartments and neatly tended islands of municipal garden give the impression of order and prosperity. The up and coming city is keen to give the impression that it is going places and will be dragging all the shabby peripheries with it. It could be any medium sized city centre in England, probably in the world for that matter. A smart glittering jewel set in a cheap shabby mount.

The unpretty city

The locks here are deep and dark. The walls are draped with dripping mosses and I have to share them with a varied collection of rubbish. Fumes from our dirty diesel engine waft around me as I wait for the water to raise me up into the sunshine and welcome fresh air.

Deep and dark

Alongside the second lock a pair of homeless men have set up camp under the railway bridge. A complex arrangement of plastic sheeting and old railings surround makeshift furniture and although it’s still early they are busy blurring the reality of their situation with a few cans of strong lager and a roll up or two. They aren’t interested in me or the boat, we live in different worlds, they don’t respond to my cheery good morning. What do they have to be cheery about?

James Brindley; A fine canal builder. Not sure what he would have made of the houses.

The nature of the canals is such that these dreary surroundings can be replaced just a few minutes later by a delightful setting of new housing juxtaposed against ancient remnants of the original canal infrastructure lovingly restored and given a new life in the form of a museum. The junction of the two canals is just such a place and it’s a welcome relief after all the dirt and drudgery. After making the tight turn from one canal to another we climb up the deep staircase lock at the start of the Caldon and into what has been described as a dodgy area not recommended for mooring.

Stairway to heaven?

Obviously that information comes from another era because in all directions there are smart new houses and apartments and efforts have been made to encourage the boaters with new places to moor. Sadly, all this new facade is let down by old walls covered in ancient fading graffiti that line the canal and tell the story of this area’s former life. The grim, blurred and illegible artwork reflects the past times of unemployment, poor housing and all the consequences of the once flourishing pottery industry gone to rack and ruin. The occasional bottle kilns are a nod to former prosperity, looking odd and out of place sitting as they do amongst the new homes. It’s nice that they have been retained but shameful that they are now a home to sprouting weeds and shrubs. They have been saved but nobody seems to care about them.

Bottles and boxes

The Caldon canal is narrow and twisty and requires a level of concentration that I clearly can’t maintain as I fail to negotiate one of the tight bridge holes at a particularly sharp bend. It gives the two young lads who are fishing there something to smile about as I bump my way through. The battle scarred edges of the bridge and the look on the boys’ faces tell me they have seen it all before. The outskirts of the city finally begin to fall away as woodland and open fields herald the end of the urban landscape and the village of Milton provides us with the first good opportunity to moor. Knowing that storm Francis is on it’s way we need somewhere to sit out a day and two nights and this seems ideal. It satisfies all our needs; secure rings to tie up to, an open aspect to take advantage of any solar power and reasonable internet access to keep us entertained. The fish and chip shop and local butchers and bakers we discover later seal the deal. It’s cosy when other boats go by but they are careful and pass by slowly for a change.

I don’t particularly like the fringes of the cities we pass through but they are inevitable. The canals were only built to link centres of trade with ports and each other. The towns, cities and docklands were the only things that mattered one or two hundred years ago and the countryside was an inconvenient obstacle between them. Now, for me at least, it’s the exact opposite. This branch of the Trent and Mersey has a reputation for dividing boaters. Some love the quiet natural feel to it whilst others are impatient with the limited mooring opportunities and constant vigilance required to navigate its sinuous lines. Tomorrow we will find out which camp we fall into but I suspect I already know the answer.

A quiet evening out

I think I may be crepuscular. It’s one of those words that are pleasing to pronounce and refers to animals that favour twilight. It also means dim and indistinct so make of that what you will.

I spent a wonderful couple of hours last night sitting out on the boat enjoying the transition from wet and dreary afternoon to clear and perfectly calm evening through to starlit night. It was magical. First I was struck by the silence, then the stillness and finally the sounds amplified by the silence. You need silence first before you hear the very small sounds that normally go by unnoticed and you need the complete tranquillity that brings the quiet in the first place. It doesn’t happen often and there aren’t that many places where it works in this small busy country called England so when it does happen it’s special.

A quiet spot

Dragon flies were still active among the reed beds despite the cooling air moving as they do in their unique acrobatic way. I love how they fly to a precise spot in thin air and stop momentarily before accelerating from a standing start in pursuit of their prey. It looks fun. A small fish broke the surface of the water in apparent chase of something as it skitted in wild directions more out than in its natural medium. Then silence. For a few moments nothing moved, nothing broke the spell, I became aware of my own heartbeat, struck by the absence of any other sound. Then the train came.

The main west coast railway line runs alongside the canal in this area and although it was a mile from our mooring the sound of the passenger and freight trains carried through the still evening air to break the peace from time to time. Somehow it seemed to enhance the experience. Each train would begin as a distant, indistinct sound, a roar made feeble by space and time but gradually it would build to a crashing, grinding, speeding, spinning crescendo before fading to nothing and rendering the quiet even more stunning. Gradually my ears re-adjusted to the new status and the small sounds returned. A pigeon took flight from the trees behind me and I could hear the distinct squeak of its wings accompanying the more obvious flapping sound. Some distance away the distinct, high pitched ‘chik, chik, chik’ of a blackbird told me that something was causing it concern. A cat or stoat too close to its nest or young perhaps. A drama unfolding out of sight as the light began to dwindle.

All around me colour was fading now. Greens, blues, reds and yellows were all losing their distinction as the night robbed them of their brightness and reduced everything towards the same inevitable shade of dark. Mist began to form over the expansive open area of the canal that gives this place it’s name, Tixall Wides. Pale and mysterious it gradually enveloped the nearby boats and moved towards me chilling and damp. Gill opted for an early night but I was determined to see the drama out and the first stars that would announce the end of the show.

Can you see the bat? Me neither

I moved to the back of the boat and glass in hand, concentrated once more on soaking up the quiet atmosphere. The view out of the open window now was almost monochrome, crisply outlined black leaves and branches of the trees decorating the icy cool sky. A sudden flash of movement caught my eye and moments later the first bat came around again on its quest for supper. Its crazy erratic flight was hard to follow and identification even more difficult but the small size and its commonality suggested the tiny pipistrelle. A pair of young swans were mooching among the reeds looking for a late night snack. Their paddling feet could clearly be heard as could the tearing of vegetation as they fed. Finally, the sound that makes any night like this complete came to me from distant woodland, tawny owls calling out, declaring territory no doubt. I had to strain to hear them but there was no doubting the distinctive sound. Finally the first star appeared as if from nowhere. It was so bright I wondered why I hadn’t see it moments ago and before long it was joined by a second and a third. Gradually the constellations were forming as the night time took hold. The arms of The Plough were now just visible in the darkening sky whilst its blades were still buried somewhere in what was left of the daytime.

A late night freight train rumbled into earshot shattering the moment once more. The show was over and my glass was empty. It was time for bed.

Rewards per mile

Everybody talks about narrow boats travelling at four miles per hour because in theory that is the maximum speed allowed on most canals. In practice the majority of boats average nearer two and a half or three miles an hour. We aren’t going to set any new records as I have just brought the logs up to date and it turns out that after nineteen days we have covered eighty miles at a stately four miles per day. It might not be very many miles but I can assure you that at this pace every one of them has something rewarding to offer.

We are travelling with new friends and boaters Debs and Colin, our neighbours from the marina. After three months of getting to know them under strict socially distanced circumstances it’s great to be able to accompany them on their first big trip on Woody, their brand new narrow boat and home.

Over these last couple of weeks I have been constantly reminded of how important it was for us to have more experienced company on our first journey as we negotiated all the new challenges of locks, tunnels, swing bridges and other obstacles. Finding safe and suitable mooring spots, dealing with re-fuelling and watering or even the best knots to use in different circumstances were all a complete mystery to us so it was a real pleasure to pay back the support we had from Bob and Marie two years ago.

After the rigours of the Rufford locks we caught our breath at Parbold which is rural, peaceful and the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon of tow path socialising. Chewing the fat with other boaters and passing walkers is a big part of the boating experience and I never tire of it. It’s always useful and interesting to pick up snippets of local information and in exchange we are happy to respond to conversations that always seem to start with; “Can I ask you a really stupid question?” Leaving the next morning ornate landscaped gardens give way to lush green farmland interspersed with dark, earthy woodland where the overhanging branches provide excellent practice as we steer between them. These are the kind of places where kingfishers skim above the water like an electric blue bullet and herons fishing from the bank will twitch nervously as we approach. The herons seem to weigh up the danger before losing their nerve and rising lethargically only to land a few boat lengths down the water’s edge before repeating the process.

Heron in fright/flight
Picture by Gill Pearson

I always think that this is what boating is all about in places like these but then the outskirts of Wigan come into view and bring with them a new perspective. Now we are reminded of why the canals were built in the first place as we pass by disused warehouses with the remnants of infrastructure for loading and unloading bales of cotton or tons of recently dug coal.

A shy Golden Girl taking on water in Wigan

The Wigan Pier area is being renovated again and soon smart apartments will overlook the sanitised scene where once all was grime, graft, dust and dirt. The deep and wide Poolstock locks lower us off the Leeds and Liverpool canal and down into a huge area of subsided land that is gradually falling back into the shafts and mines and the old coal seams below.

Entering the Poolstock locks

Great expanses of open water have formed in the sunken hollows turning what would have been a forest of tall chimneys and skeletal pit head gear into a tranquil haven for wildlife and a playground for sailing, fishing and bird watching. It’s lovely to see nature returning but I am also happy to see on the horizon the huge winding wheel on top of its spindly rusting supports that marks the site of the Lancashire Mining Museum at Astley Green. The legacy of back breaking graft and devastating loss from collapses and explosions are juxtaposed against the warmth of strong community and camaraderie of the miners at this fascinating place. Well worth a visit if only to see one of the worlds biggest steam engines which has been brought back to life by a dedicated army of volunteers.

For the next twenty miles and more we are accompanied by an eclectic mixture of ducklings swimming amongst beer cans, stunning graffiti on otherwise dull concrete flyovers and run down factories interspersed by painstakingly maintained waterside gardens. This is the outskirts of Manchester and Salford and whilst it is fascinating we aren’t tempted to moor here so we head out through Sale and into rural Cheshire and settings more likely to appear in the imagination of the aspiring boater.

Canalside in Lymm: Yours for £750,000

We are now on the Bridgewater canal with no locks but a new challenge in the form of the Preston Brook tunnel to add a spice of variety. The tunnel is long with a couple of kinks to keep you on your toes but Colin negotiates it easily enough and we pop out into the daylight and onto the Trent and Mersey canal. Counting branches, it’s our fifth canal and with a tunnel, re-fuelling, services and shopping stops Debs and Colin are ticking off all the experience boxes.

Woody on Croxton aqueduct
Picture by Gill Pearson

These canals are wide, designed for twelve or fourteen foot barges rather than our skinny seven foot wide narrow boats and Colin and Debs have a shock in store that I remember very well. With no warning, as we approach Middlewhich, we come across Croxton Aqueduct perched above the river Dane and at just eight feet wide it looks impossibly narrow after all the wide locks and bridges. It’s a taster for what is to come and the last place that we might see a wide beam boat for many weeks. Safely through it’s time for another shopping trip in Middlewich and then the first narrow locks of this journey.

By the time we reached Nantwich, one of our favourite places on the network it feels as if we have well and truly let go of Woody’s reins and our fellow boaters are now more than capable of going solo. Gill and I are heading south now whilst they hang back to meet up with friends and family and then head north to Chester. We plan to get together again later in the summer and no doubt we will both have lots of stories to tell as we head off into Wales and the Llangollen canal.

We are taking a couple of days to relax in a quiet spot called Coole Pilate. It’s a lovely place to chill while we brace ourselves for the twenty five locks that will take us up beyond Market Drayton and to an appointment with a boat cover maker for some badly needed maintenance for our tired and shabby pram cover on the back of the boat.

Chilling at Coole Pilate

Four miles a day: So much to see and so much time to see it in.

…and they’re off!

HELLOOOOO! It’s me, Tony, your unreliable blogger. Today is day two of a new travel chapter on the good ship Golden Girl and I am inspired to put keyboard to screen and start out as I almost certainly won’t continue with a new blogging phase.

I can’t remember exactly when my creative juices dried up last year but let’s not go back over old failings eh? It’s a new journey, the Covid-19 lock down is temporarily over and I am feeling positive despite the rain and the dog poo I have just scraped off my shoe. We are hoping to be allowed stay out and play for the next three months but like blogs and boozers, boating is about as predictable as our good old British summer this year. Needless to say there isn’t much news from the last three months so let’s pretend that the world began again last Monday and take it from there.

We made a tentative plan to leave the marina on the 6th of July, weather and any other unforeseen circumstance permitting and when the day finally arrived it was windy. Very windy. If you are a regular (ha, ha) reader here you will know that the coming together of narrow boats and strong winds usually ends in tears so we delayed our departure until 4pm when the weather forecast laughably predicted a steady calming trend. Let’s just say, the forecast was a little inaccurate and we left the marina ably resisted by the wind. It’s a well known fact amongst marina dwellers that if a boat engine fires up every man, woman and dog within earshot will come out to see who is moving and they will all be hoping, at the very least, to see a fine example of how not to handle a boat and at best a sinking.

Is that a boat?

At precisely 4pm I turned the ignition key and as if by magic my audience appeared. I didn’t disappoint. I don’t mean that we sunk, but let’s just say I departed in a round about way and leave it there.

Don’t let that sky fool you. Those clouds were racing I tell you, racing. (Photo by Deb Woodward)

The stretch of the Rufford Arm which links our home berth to the historic Leeds and Liverpool canal is a beast. It is a modest three miles long but boasts seven badly maintained double width locks, two swing bridges and so much aquatic vegetation that at times it is more like ploughing than sailing. It traverses the richly fertile arable farmland of West Lancashire which is notable for two things. Firstly, it is rich and fertile because for many years in the days before the introduction of sewage systems the kind people of Liverpool solved their waste problem by simply dumping the stuff on the fields around here. Secondly, it’s flat. Pan flat. The fertility simply means that we have an abundance of very nice vegetables grown locally but the flatness is a problem for narrow boats when it’s windy. The west wind blowing off the Irish sea is given free passage all across the land. It is totally uninterrupted as it rushes inland in its quest to reach some mystical eastern destination. It seems to be unstoppable, that is until it finds a boat to play with. Then it amuses itself by tossing the boat around as if it were made of balsa wood and laughs at the helmsman or woman who tries hopelessly to keep it going in the right direction. Despite the wind having so much fun that it didn’t know which way or how severely to blow next, we finally made it through the last lock and onto the L&L. One more swing bridge and we threw in the towel and moored up for the night. Enough of this watching the world drift slowly by in a haze of tranquil relaxation. Time for a beer or two on the tow path before sleep and dreams of being becalmed on the Rufford Arm.

Sheltering from the wind in a lock

The second day dawned bright and calm but it couldn’t even wait for us to have breakfast before it decided wet and calm would be much nicer. It was a short damp plod to Parbold with just one swing bridge to break the monotony and to add a little zest to the morning commute for the drivers we held up. They love it when they see those red lights start flashing and the barriers descend indicating that some time in the distant future a narrow boat will appear and make it’s ponderous progress through the bridge while they contemplate that important meeting they should have been at. Sorry drivers. By the time we moored up in Parbold the light rain had got all professional and determined and it was a case of settling down to a day of reading, dreaming and maybe a little writing. Let’s hope it’s sunny for a few days now or you could end up with a very detailed and boring blog about our three months of lock down.

Maybe it will be sunny tomorrow

Where There’s A Will – Emily Chappell

‘Where There’s A Will’ is Emily Chappell’s second book. It’s very good indeed.

The face says it all

There are two types of books in my experience, those that you simply read and those that grab you by the hand and take you on a journey leaving you emotionally exhausted but subtly wiser than when you started. ‘Where There’s A Will’ falls squarely into the latter category for me. If you had any illusions about your suitability for riding extreme cycle races you will know the truth by the end of the book without turning a pedal because Emily has the uncanny ability to take you on the ride and immerse you in every nuance of the experience. She peels back her own emotions laying bare the raw pain and joy in such a way as to expose the fragility of us all. Constantly teetering on the limits she reveals the brutal commitment it takes to win but also the crushing despair of losing. She writes so beautifully that I found myself re-reading sentences and paragraphs for the pleasure and poetry of the prose. This is most definitely a book to read more than once. It’s about so much more than riding a bicycle ridiculously far in an unbelievably short time. It’s very definitely about love and loss, friendship and passion and all those tricky bits of life that constitute the race we all find ourselves in, even if we can’t remember signing up for it. If you are looking for inspiration, affirmation or just a really good cry I can’t recommend this book enough.

ISBN-10: 1788161513 ISBN-13: 978-1788161510

Travelling life

New day, new view

The last few days have been a great illustration of the variety we experience living and travelling on our Golden Girl and they have given me a better insight into the appeal of this lifestyle. Storm Hannah gave us a fair old battering in Lymm last week but Sunday dawned calm and much brighter and we were more than happy to untie and move on. First stop was Stockton Heath just a few miles to the west and that was our first port of call to catch up on a range of routine chores.

The services at Thorne Marine are adjacent to a bridge with moored boats on either side and I recalled being a bit stressed last year trying to work out where to pull in. I’m much more relaxed about these situations now and I was happy to tread water while another boat finished off filling up with water before vacating the spot we needed. We have become quite slick at these service stops and without any discussion we were soon filling up with water and diesel and after emptying the bins and toilet cassettes there was still time to browse the chandlery section of the shop for a couple of clips and shackles that we needed. I laid out my shiny new bits of hardware on the counter in an “experienced boater” kind of manner and I was all ready for a bit of salty Jack tar conversation but somehow the proprietor and I ended up talking about Excel spreadsheets and our respective inability to remember numbers as we got older. Maybe I need a stout pipe and a broad Cornish accent before I’ll be taken seriously as a nautical type.

Photo by Gill
Pit stop at Stockton Heath

The water tank was finally full and after the usual wrestling match with the hose pipe we moved away from the services and tied up once more. Shopping time! Stockton Heath seems to be quite an upmarket kind of place with a selection of smart boutique shops and eating places. As neither of us urgently needed a new ‘outfit’ we settled for a meal deal from M&S for tonight’s tea and a main shop in Aldi for everything else. We always do supermarket shopping with a list and we are pretty good at sticking to it so the large red and black wheelbarrow wheels that definitely weren’t on that list looked a bit incongruous as they sat amongst the extra virgin olive and oil and breaded ham at the checkout. But that’s the problem with Aldi isn’t it? There’s always something to tempt you and knowing our boating friend Bob was looking for a pair of wheels as a mooring aid it seemed churlish not to buy them. I should say at this point of course that other German supermarkets selling a variety of obscure domestic hardware and sports goods alongside the baked beans and cheap wine are available.

Look what I got Bob!

We left Stockton Heath with everything that could be emptied empty and everything that could be filled full, including ourselves after a very tasty Cajun chicken pizza. (£1.69 from Aldi)

The next two days were spent moored in a fabulous spot with neither a town nor village in site and little but birdsong and the occasional Virgin Pendolino for company. We were quite close to the main west coast rail line and still not clear of the Manchester airport flight path but these things were a minor price to pay for an otherwise peaceful and isolated mooring. We were now on the Trent and Mersey canal and the beautiful river Weaver was just a twenty minute stroll away. We spent hours and hours exploring the Longacre and Birds woods nearby with their breathtaking displays of wild garlic and bluebells.

Garlic anybody?

Back on the boat Gill was busy transfering her recent photographs to the computer while I spent a relaxing hour sitting on the prow and watching a very patient heron fishing. The heron eventually caught his supper but not before a kingfisher had paid a visit and a sparrowhawk had shot across the canal in pursuit of some prey or other. A David Attenborough voice over wouldn’t have gone amiss but I guess you can’t have everything.

Photo by Gill
Painted lady butterfly
Photo by Gill
Heron fishing

Later whilst washing the dishes from our very tasty M&S dinner for two I was struck by the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of this existence we are living. Like the pendulum of a cranky old time piece we swing effortlessly between home life and wildlife without a pause. Our domestic circumstances are really not any different to those when we are stationery in the winter, but the travelling adds a completely different and ever changing backdrop to the everyday routines of our days. I think the appeal lies in the perfect blend of adventure and predictability. The familiarity and comfort of home but in a never ending variety of new places just waiting to be explored and discovered.

Any port in a palindrome

You must have heard the phrase “any port in a storm”, no doubt sailors are glad of any shelter they can find when the seas rage and the winds roar. OK I may be over egging it a little but we are taking shelter from storm Hannah in the picturesque, if somewhat battered little town of Lymm. We spent the first night right in the centre of town, almost in the town square in fact but more on that later. We have now moved out to moor amongst what look like premiership footballer’s houses. The large sturdy three story dwellings are dwarfed by huge mature trees which in turn are made to look puny as the wind throws them around like weedy saplings.

Hannah, going either way

We have been in this same spot for thirty six hours now and it has barely stopped raining for most of that time. The wind has increased as the day has gone on but we are happy to snuggle up by the fire and indulge in the three r’s of reading, writing and relaxing. We think it’s the sensible thing to do when the weather turns foul like this but then we are lucky enough to have no schedule, no dead lines and even, if we choose, no particular direction. That can’t be so for the many boats that have passed by today, battling against the wind and rain, their stoic captains standing firm on the back of their boats wrapped from head to toe in water proofs and looking for all the world as if they are on a vital mission to ‘get the cargo through’. To be fair to them they almost certainly have a limited time slot in which they have a fixed route to cover, particularly the hire boaters, and for them a day off is simply not an option. You might expect them to be grim faced, even miserable in such circumstances but the astonishing thing is that they are no such thing. We feel each boat approach from some way off as the water it is displacing strains us against our mooring ropes with a groan and I’m grateful that I took the trouble to hammer in double pins to hold us fast.

Moments later these defiant warriors of the waterways glide swiftly past us, ignoring the normal etiquette of passing moored boats slowly, as they fight to control their craft in the gusty winds. We peer out at them through misted, rain obscured windows and without exception they wave and grin back at us as if there is nothing more pleasant than being cold and wet for hour upon hour on the back of a narrow boat. It’s amazing but they look genuinely happy with their lot. I know from experience that their beer, wine or tea at the end of the day will taste sweeter than ours will, but I’m also happy to sit in the warmth by the fire and wish them safe passage. Each to their own as they say.

I promise you they were smiling

Despite the awful weather I really like Lymm. We had a wander around yesterday before the storm set in and it’s a delightful little place. It has a river that has been dammed to form a tranquil lake, a fine selection of pubs and eating places, a lovely little heritage centre and a grand square that is unique in that it isn’t where it used to be. Unfortunately for Lymm and its peaceful residents that lived quietly overlooking the original village square things took a turn for the worse back in the eighteenth century. The Duke of Bridgewater was building a canal to move coal about and make his fortune during the industrial revolution and when he and his agent John Gilbert reached Lymm they hit a bit of a problem. They were disappointed to find that the place was a tad hilly and in order to route the canal around the village they would have to spend time and money building expensive locks. Unfortunately for Lymm they also noticed that the village square with it’s surrounding picturesque cottages just happened to be on a single convenient level and in exactly the right direction so they solved all their problems by just digging their canal straight through the square. It must have been like an early version of HS2 and if your home or the hub of your community happened to be in the way of ‘progress’ it was just tough luck. The house on the left in the picture has had it’s corner cut off to prevent it interfering with the line of the canal bank, what you might call a close shave in terms of compulsory purchase. Aside from this act of vandalism and profiteering on a grand scale the canal did bring prosperity and a disproportionate number of ale houses to Lymm so maybe all was forgiven and forgotten in the end.

Close shave (the car is not moored in the canal by the way, it’s an optical illusion)
The new old village square

Something remarkable also happened here in that we just happened to be here on the right night to enjoy some live music. We always seem to land in places the week before or the week after events of interest but to our excited delight we discovered that on our first night here there was an open mic session at the Brewery Tap pub. The local Lymm brewery ales were superb and whilst the music varied from stunning to stumbling it was all received in a generous manner and we found ourselves staying up well past our bedtime. I probably should have resisted the temptation of the Lymm Dam ale at 7.4% but heh, when sailors reach a safe port in a storm, well, that’s what they do isn’t it?