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.

Wheels
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.

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?

Lancashire Mining Museum

As we travel through Lancashire on the canals it’s impossible not to be aware of the role that they played in the industrial revolution and if further evidence of the history of that period were required the towering chimneys and majestic mill buildings give us a clue to the sheer scale of the cotton industry at that time.

Dark satanic mill becoming bright new apartments

There is talk amongst enthusiasts for such matters of the three C’s; Canals, Cotton and Coal and that together, these three threads wove the very foundations that the north west of England was built upon. Strangely, whilst the canals and mills are obvious symbols of that era, evidence of the coal industry itself is almost totally absent. It’s strange because the volume of mines dug in Lancashire was such that the land itself has collapsed into the old underground workings and shallow lakes and meres have formed where once a dark and smoking edifice of mining paraphernalia would have stood. The above ground structures themselves are gone, bulldozed to make way for new industry and housing. Of the hundreds of tall pit head winding gear structures that once dotted this landscape there now remains just one single monument to that time.

It appeared on the horizon as we rounded a bend on the Bridgewater canal, the giant winding wheels suspended on impossibly spindly legs high above the picturesque village of Astley Green. Like a creature from another time it stands out for it’s sheer rarity and it marks the site of a remarkable museum where Gill and I spent a fascinating afternoon.

Last remaining pit head winding gear in Lancashire

Astley Green mine was commissioned by the Pilkington Company in 1908 but such was the audacity of the the project that the shaft alone took four years to sink, descending as it did, nearly three thousand feet below the bogs of south Lancashire. The full story of the mine can be found on the museum web site here, but if you want a real hands on experience and the benefit of genuinely enthusiastic guides you really have to pay it a visit. The winding gear and main buildings were only saved by chance when it was realised that the engine house and steam powered winding engine itself were almost unique and the wrecking ball was stopped in its tracks even as it swung at the pit head winding structure. What remains is a fascinating and awe inspiring insight into the lives of a mining community and the physical infrastructure required to extract the coal from such deep seams. The engine house itself seems out of all proportion to the rest of the site until you climb the steps to the first floor and step inside. What greets you is the largest remaining steam winding engine in the world! The sheer scale of it is breath taking and it is a credit to the many thousands of hours that volunteers have invested over the 30 years it took to restore it.

Hard to convey just how huge this engine is

The museum is currently at what I would describe as a fledgling stage but the current band of volunteers have ambitious plans for the coming years and we will definitely be paying another visit or two in the future to monitor its development. There is so much equipment, infrastructure and memorabilia to see already that it is fascinating but it can only get better as more and more machinery is restored and the facilities and grounds are developed. If you are a fan of Peaky Blinders by the way, you may even recognise a scene that was filmed there last year featuring the pit head gear as a backdrop. Alan Shaw, the set designer, was so taken by the place that he has since become a volunteer himself and has created a detailed replica of an old miners cottage on the site with lovely period tea rooms attached.

One of many fascinating engines

We were lucky to have our visit enhanced by the wonderful Marilyn and Stephen who enthusiastically explained everything, filling in the gaps in the history with fascinating little gems gleaned from miners themselves that have visited the museum.

Marilyn – fount of all knowledge

As well as being a fount of all knowledge Marilyn was also insistent that Gill and I really got into the themed experience by dressing us up in period clothes and having us pose for photographs.

Tony with volunteer and history enthusiast Stephen

A twenty five minute video documentary tells the story of the mine and its eventual demise and closure in 1970 with wonderful scenes of hard labour underground and hard drinking (and singing) in the local inn.

For more information about the museum itself please visit the web page https://lancashireminingmuseum.org/ or look them up on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/TheRedRoseSteamSocietyLtd1/

If you’ve read this far then I suppose you deserve to have a laugh at our expense so here are the pictures of us playing dress up.

Must have been a Monday
What a lovely old couple

Never ending contrasts

The media these days is full of pictures of discarded plastic floating round on our oceans but the seas don’t have exclusivity in this problem. There were times today when it was depressing to see just how many empty bottles, beer crates, buckets and traffic cones end up in the canals and as they drift on the wind they always seem to end up buried in what would be beautiful reed beds. Plastic appears to make up about ninety percent of the debris in the water but that figure may be wrong because bicycles, bedsteads and shopping trolleys don’t float do they? It’s sad to see the canals abused in this way but the feeling never lasts long as nature has a way of absorbing the punches and coming back fighting to delight us with its resilience. The sight of a female mallard shepherding her brood of twelve new born ducklings puts things back into perspective and reminds us that things are not all bad. The youngsters dart about on the water like small jet propelled bundles of fluff, peeping frantically when our boat momentarily separates them from mum. The coot chicks by contrast seem more like grumpy teenagers as they mooch about in the reeds dressed in a covering of hairy black down and sporting punk like red hair styles. I’m sure their parents think they are beautiful.

Little bundles of trouble
Mum thinks you’re beautiful

Today we enjoyed another kind of stark contrast passing as we did through industry and countryside as we made our way around the outskirts of Wigan.

Shipmates Bob and Marie

Our boating friends Bob and Marie had joined us for dinner at the pub last night and over an excellent meal they had agreed to accompany us and help with the locks on our route. It was good to have a few helping hands on board as we anticipated that we might have problems with low water levels at the point where the Leigh branch of the canal leaves the Leeds and Liverpool in Wigan. Over the past few days we had been hearing stories of boats becoming stuck on the bottom of the canal and even one poor chap who was marooned overnight. Whilst Bob and Gill went on ahead to prepare locks for us I was entertained by Marie, a Wigan lass through and through as she explained the enormous changes she had witnessed over the years. The area around Wigan pier itself (not a pier but a point where coal was tipped into barges on the canal) had gone from a hub of industrial activity based around coal and weaving to a brief spell as a heritage museum and themed pub to what is now a tired and sad looking collection of uncared for waterside buildings in a state of disrepair. The decay and neglect however is once again counter balanced by the appearance of smart new office buildings and apartments overlooking stretches of the canal. All part of the ever changing history via the industrial revolution and beyond.

The Orwell pub, sadly closed and boarded up
Pit brow lass at Wigan Pier

After a late breakfast taken as we filled up with water we negotiated the last two locks on the Leeds and Liverpool and took the right hand turn onto the Leigh branch. On either side of the canal exposed rocks and debris clearly showed how low the water was, at least eighteen inches below normal levels. I had been advised to stick firmly in the centre of the canal to avoid grounding and all went well until we came to the approach of the final lock. Staying strictly in the middle channel was suddenly not an option as a boat was coming the other way and as I gingerly inched over to the right I was dismayed to see two more narrow boats entering the lock in front of us. Gill then put the lid on any idea of a simple passage through by announcing over the radio that a fourth boat was waiting to come up the lock. We crept cautiously over to the right hand bank expecting to ground at any moment but to our relief we were able to stay afloat on the mooring whilst the others manoeuvred though the lock.

Once through this tricky section the tensions eased as the water levels deepened and we had a delightful trip through the Wigan flashes. These expansive water features on either side of the canal are the result of mining subsidence and have become a haven for a huge variety of wildlife whilst providing a playground for water sports enthusiasts at the same time. The banks of the canal have had to be raised as the surrounding land has sunk creating the sensation of travelling above the surrounding countryside with expansive views in all directions. It’s yet another example of how travelling on a narrow boat is a never ending series of contrasts, all experienced at a pace that really allows you the time to absorb them for all their different merits. Our next destination is Astley Mining Museum and a chance to uncover more of the rich industrial heritage of this region. More on that in the next post.

Nature winning the day once more

Travelling slowly, with wildlife

I sometimes think we are living on the ark. In the past few days we have had to evict a beetle, several huge wasps, a spider that really didn’t want to go and two dogs, one of which having come down the stairs onto the boat was too fat to get back up them unassisted. We don’t mind sharing our home with a little wildlife but it already feels like high summer with the soaring temperatures and the sheer volume of wee beasties that have emerged. At this rate there won’t be room for us on the boat by August.

Halsall cutting: The place where the Leeds & Liverpool began

Hitch hikers aside we are determined that this year’s trip will be totally chilled and relaxed, even more so than the previous one. With this in mind we took things to extremes earlier in the week by setting off in entirely the opposite direction to our overall plan but it gave Gill a chance to practice turning the boat around and enabled us to fit in a quick train trip to Southport for much needed replacement summer sandals. We rediscovered a few favourite places from last year and found a couple of nice new mooring spots along the way. We are now heading the right way but we have ground to a halt in Parbold, five miles from our winter base. I think we are getting the hang of this slow travel business. It’s lovely to chill out and explore the local area a bit more thoroughly and being so close to home we are constantly bumping into other boating friends which also involves pub based research which I’m particularly fond of. At this rate we will be lucky to make it any further than Manchester before it’s time to turn round and start heading home again.

Mooring with blackthorn bloom

One of the things I have noticed already this year is that we are both more relaxed about the whole business of handling the boat and travelling. We couldn’t understand some of the people we met last year who seemed to spend so much time moored in the same spot but I think I’m starting to get it. A place changes when you spend time in it, more often than not for the better. It’s a chance to discover surrounding walks, to explore nooks and crannies that often reveal hidden architectural gems or to get to know the local wildlife and their habitats. Lots of birds such as kingfishers for example are territorial and once you have discovered their ‘patch’ it’s not uncommon to see them every day and to have the opportunity to observe them in greater detail. At this time of year every day brings new delights as more and more migratory birds return and the familiar sounds of summer like the chiff chaff, black cap and warblers fill the canal side woodlands with their songs. Butterflies are also about in dramatic fashion already with the brilliant orange tips, peacocks and speckled woods decorating the verges with dancing colour as they seek out early opportunities to feed and reproduce. Hawthorn, blue bells and wild garlic are all coming into flower as are the brilliant yellow celandines. It just such a wonderful time to start a journey and to watch the Spring unfold.

Peacock butterfly

If this first week is anything to go by it’s going to be a wonderful summer learning to treat time with all the respect and precious value it deserves as we potter gently south. That’s if we are going south. I think we are.

Saint Cuthberts, Halsall

2018 Summer adventure

Well that’s our summer adventure over with and what an adventure it has been. A total of 673 miles, 386 locks, 60 lift and swing bridges and 26 tunnels. Then there were the four new engine mounts, four new batteries, one replacement fridge, about a dozen or so petty arguments but nothing too serious and an unknown quantity of lost paint. We’ve met some really tough challenges along the way but by far the greatest one is how to sum up such an experience in a few hundred words.

Lock approaching Liverpool

I started off keeping a daily log of highlights but that went by the wayside at an early stage so now I have to trawl my rapidly deteriorating memory to bring back the best and the worst bits of the trip. Actually when I cast my mind back the idea of best and worst makes a lot of sense because whilst I would describe the whole experience as hugely positive there were some difficult and unpleasant times to add balance and perspective. I hated the appalling abuse of the canals in some places, particularly in towns and cities where they are seen by some people as convenient places to discard all manner of rubbish. On the other hand some locations such as the Montgomery canal in Wales were amongst the most beautiful and peaceful locations I have ever spent time in. Idyllic landscapes full of an abundance of wildlife which probably represented about seventy five percent of the journey and even in the industrial parts there was always architectural and historic interest so I certainly don’t want to dwell on the bad bits disproportionately.

Moorhen

Banded Demoiselle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that the backdrop to most of the last five months was a summer like nobody under the age of forty has ever enjoyed before helped to make what would always have been a great trip into an exceptional one. On many days we were leaving our moorings before seven in the morning and looking for a shady spot to stop by midday. I am almost relieved that the final four weeks were a bit of a mixed bag of weather if only so that we could experience a more typical period of cruising.

Oh for a shady tree

Highlights that spring to mind when I wander back down memory lane are certainly the journey into the heart of Liverpool and a wonderful week there exploring that fine old city and its culture.

In the heart of Liverpool

Meeting and making new friends amongst the boating community and all their generosity in giving advice freely and without any hint of patronising whilst treating us as if we have been amongst them for ever. Stunning sun rises and sunsets, especially on those magical occasions when the sky and trees were perfectly mirrored in the surface of the canal or the mist hung gossamer like over the water. Dazzlingly bright and colourful dragon and damsel flies and the incomparable blue of the kingfisher. Stumbling on a picture perfect canalside pub and making an impromptu decision to end the day there or more often, to mark it down as one not to be missed on the return trip.

Oh dear, another pub

Sitting in the late evening sun sipping a previously undiscovered local ale whilst perusing the menu and choosing our dinner. I confess that we did that far more often that we planned to because it was just so much fun. In fact one of the biggest problems of the trip was remembering that we weren’t on a two week holiday with unlimited funds.

There were long dark tunnels such as the Harecastle and dizzyingly high aqueducts like the Pontcysyllte which were unforgettable for being both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Bucket list items for most boaters and now well and truly ticked by us, twice!

Deep in the Harecastle tunnel

High on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

We encountered many fascinating towns and villages, often with histories intimately interwoven with the arrival of the canals like those based around the salt mines in Cheshire or the potteries in Staffordshire. The amazing engineering achievements of individuals such and James Brindley and Thomas Telford provided a fascinating background to our travels. From simple yet ingenious lock mechanisms to the goliath that is the Anderton Boat Lift, there was always something of interest to investigate and enjoy around every bend.

Mr. Brindley, canal engineer extraordinaire

Anderton boat lift

It is humbling to navigate those waterways that only exist because of the ingenuity and bravery of the designers, not to mention the sacrifice of blood, sweat, tears and even lives of the navvies that dug them. The many historic boats that we came across, both original and reproduction were beautiful and impressive but also a constant reminder of a brutally cruel bygone way of life which couldn’t be further removed from our pampered meanderings.

There was plenty of time standing on the back of the boat to consider the history of the canals and the industry they served. I sometimes wondered what those tough, hard working bargees and their families would have thought of our centrally heated home with all its conveniences of fridge, freezer, TV and washing machine. Their only focus was moving produce and materials whatever the weather and conditions. Comfort and living space was sacrificed to maximise carrying capacity and potential to earn with couples living in the tiniest of cabins and children often forced to sleep on top of whatever cargo happened to be in the hold. Not only did those people represent the reason for the canals existence but they are also now a source of endless fascinating social and industrial history that adds to the nature and beauty of the canals we travel today.

Ambush. An old barge now used as a fuel sales boat

We met some amazing people while we were away, some of whom will now be friends for life. We travelled for days and sometimes weeks with others, leap frogging them as we moved from village to town but often mooring up together to enjoy an evening exchanging tales that grew taller with each passing glass of wine or beer. Like most people with a common interest there is a camaraderie amongst boaters that means that you are never really alone. I have heard the two thousand miles of waterways described as a linear village and even with our limited experience I understand why. We would often get talking with fellow moorers and discover that we had common acquaintances on the network, even bumping into boats from our home marina in Lancashire. It didn’t take long to feel as if we were part of a very disparate but strangely interwoven community. An extended family of very different individuals all bound together by a common thread of life on the water and all the joys and challenges that it entails.

I’ll leave you with one more set of statistics that for me sum up the magic of our summer on the Golden Girl. It was a perfectly still, warm summers night and I was reluctant to leave the back of the boat despite the darkness; surrounded as I was by two hooting tawny owls, one screeching little owl and a total absence of cares in the world.

At the end of the day

All photos by Gill

Questions, questions

It’s amazing how many people are curious about narrow boats and the prospect of living and travelling on them. People we see on the tow path seem to fall into two categories; those who show absolutely no interest whatsoever and don’t even want to make eye contact and the larger majority who, given the tiniest hint of invitation will hungrily embark on a detailed interrogation about our lifestyle. The same comments and questions come up again and again so for those of you who have never had the opportunity to ask, here are the answers.

“Do you live on the boat?”

This is an interesting one because when we say yes we do we invariably get the same response which is something along the lines of; “Ooh, how lovely. I would love to do that. What a wonderful life you must have.” The reason it’s interesting is because they probably have almost no concept of what living on a narrow boat entails but they are confident that they would be ideally suited to the experience. It’s often followed by a second question that somewhat undoes their declared desire to abandon everything and move on board immediately and that is:

“Have you got a house as well?”

The question isn’t quite what it appears to be because what they really mean is: “Have you got somewhere proper to live like normal people?” Technically we have because we own a property that is rented out but as we have no intention of ever going back to live in it we don’t feel that it counts as the safety net that the questioner is hinting at. It’s usually at this point that I can sense them beginning to re-evaluate their initial rose tinted idealism and it leads to questions such as:

“Have you got a telly?”

The answer to that is yes we have but for some reason we stopped watching it back in July and haven’t missed it at all. I suppose we will watch it in the winter on the marina but while we have been travelling it just hasn’t appealed. Variations on this question are:

“Can you cook on the boat?”

No we just eat bread and drink cold water.

The Golden Girl doing ‘real’ cooking

“Is it cold in the winter?”

No because we have a solid fuel stove and diesel fuelled central heating. I can’t really imagine why anyone would choose to live somewhere that is cold in the winter. I’m sometimes tempted to reply with, “No, is your house cold in the winter?” But maybe I am being unkind now.

“How do you get on for shopping?”

Well we moor the boat up somewhere close to some shops and go and buy stuff actually. I guess for most people shopping starts and ends with a car in a car park and they have never considered it can take place any other way. We have been known to walk a mile or more each way to the shops but that doesn’t bother us and you would be surprised at how much shopping two people with a rucksack each and four shopping bags can carry. The only serious issue is when you see your favourite beer or wine on offer and you have to ration how much you buy.

“Can you just stop anywhere you like?”

I like this question because it’s sensible and the answer could have a massive impact on the joys of boating. That answer is, more or less anywhere, yes. There are designated mooring spots that have time limits of one or two days or maybe a week but generally so long as you moor on the tow path side and you are not obstructing a bridge hole or a winding hole then you can just pull up and stay for up to two weeks in one spot. In the earlier part of our trip we almost moored in some beautiful places. I say almost because before I was confident at reversing the boat we would usually just end up looking back longingly at some idyllic setting that we hadn’t noticed in time to stop. It’s better now as although I’m still no expert I can bring the boat to a halt and at least try to back into a nice location. It doesn’t always work and can lead to a little, shall we say, friction between the crew and the captain but we’re getting better.

I think I did actually reverse into this spot.

There are other practical and sensible questions about mail, doctors, dentists etc. and then there are the really ridiculous ones. Often they are heard as observations rather than outright questions. Things like:

“Look, they can stand up inside it”. Or, “They are eating a proper meal” and “That one’s got a washing machine in it”. These things are normally heard as people pass by and blatantly stare into our home without any thought for our privacy. It doesn’t actually bother me really and can be quite entertaining.

The one question that people rarely ask, though I suspect many would like to is; “What do you do about your toilet?” Well it’s quite simple, we use a porta potti just like caravaners do. I’m sure you don’t need any more information than that but one couple I met got a bit more. They were walking the tow path and stopped me to ask for directions as I made my way to the elsan disposal point carrying a heavy waste cassette. I apologised and explained that I couldn’t help them as I wasn’t local to the area at which point the man took in the situation and said; “Is that full of what I think it is?” I replied, bluntly but honestly, “yes, it’s full of poo”. The lady he was with went visibly pale and made a sort of squeaking sound before they hurried off. Probably in the wrong direction. Well, what did he expect me to say!

And finally, the most common question by far:

“Are you the Golden Girl?”

I hasten to point out that this one is always addressed to Gill. She smiles shyly and confesses that yes she is indeed that creature, whilst I usually stand behind her making gestures to indicate that actually she only thinks she is. I’m always tempted to say that I get my turn at weekends and on Bank Holidays but I don’t want to shock people.

I enjoy these exchanges with the people we meet and if the initial flicker of curiosity grows into a full blown desire to own a boat one day then good luck to them. Perhaps I just like being the object of intrigue but really it’s more about sharing something that I enjoy and enthusing about it.

Any more questions at the back there?

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