The dark and narrow road

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

Long sunny days

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

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

Tight corner

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

Here we go

Gulp!

It’s a bit dark in here

Who put that kink in the tunnel?

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

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

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

I don’t know how we did that.

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

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

Photos by Gill

Finding the good

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

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

Tranquillity, just like in the ads

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

Early morning idyll

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

Mining and canals went hand in hand

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

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

In with the new

 

Art or vandalism?

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

Hello Cheshire

All photos by Gill

Liverpool, what a journey!

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

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

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

Boating chums waiting at the top of the locks

Emerging nervously from the bottom lock

Scary open water

Huge reminder of the past

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

Light at the end of……

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

Hello Liverpool!

O look, a cruise ship

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

Into the Albert Dock

The final bridge

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

We made it.

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

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

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

We are coming for you Liverpool

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

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

Bye everybody, see you in six months

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

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

Here comes Gill into her first lock solo

and this is me putting my back into it.

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

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

Tow path friends

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

Golden Girl admiring herself in the reflections

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

Passing through a swing bridge with new found boating friends

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