The Wigan Flight and my new friend Joe.

It seems the canal network is full of kindness but it is also full of characters too. Put the two together and you have Joe.

Joe and his son Malcolm.

I’ll come to Joe in a minute but first a bit of context. All the way through our maiden trip on Golden Girl we were acutely aware of a particular elephant in the room. Most trips and adventures have renowned obstacles that have to be overcome and our route back to Fettler’s Wharf Marina was no exception. We had already conquered the Foulridge Tunnel; at 1640 yds long it is the fourth longest on the network and boasts a great anecdote about a cow that fell in the canal at one end of the tunnel and for reasons best known to itself decided to swim to the other end where it was reputedly rescued and revived with brandy.

That exit to the Foulridge Tunnel is a long way away!

The tunnel was challenging but didn’t compare to the ogre that was constantly playing on our minds; the Wigan flight. It consists of 21 locks squeezed into a two mile stretch of water which takes boaters through the town of Wigan and drops over 200ft in the process. It is notoriously hard work and because of water shortages the top and bottom locks are only open for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Although there is a place part way down to stop it isn’t the most desirable of mooring places so once entered the locks effectively have to be completed in one hop.

We had been concerned about this section of the trip because of our limited experience and everybody told us that we needed to ‘double up’ with another boat to make the job easier and quicker. That’s where Joe and his son Malcolm came in. We met them as we moored up at the top of the locks the night before the big adventure and although wary of Joe’s appearance at first he turned out to be a real rough diamond and a seasoned traveller of the waterways. His boat was practical rather than pretty and at sixty years old it was still ten years younger than him. Both boat and boater had a ‘used’ look about them but what they lacked in style or finesse they made up for in years of hard earned experience.

We were up and away by 8am and whilst Gill went off with Malcolm to organise the first lock I was given a little pep talk by Joe and challenged to follow him via the “really tight turn” into the lock. I nervously tracked his wake and made it in neatly alongside him without bumping into anything and only later found out that Joe had been tempting Gill into a small wager on whether I would make it first go or not.

Nervously approaching the top lock.

What followed was four hours of hard graft, some really great inside knowledge of technique and an endless succession of stories from Joe that got taller and taller as the locks got deeper. I got a bit over confident at one point and got caught by the currents between locks and before I knew it I was heading down the culvert that takes excess water around them. With racing heart and a good deal of thunderous reverse I managed to back away but it was a timely reminder not to take anything for granted and to maintain concentration. Joe didn’t say a word as I came in alongside him but his face clearly said, “don’t get cocky lad, you’ve still a lot to learn”.

Gill and Malcolm did an amazing job. Gill was always one lock ahead making sure it was full and the gates were open for us to enter whilst Malcolm worked the lock we were in. I was given a free passage for the first couple of locks but then Joe gradually introduced me to tasks that I could manage by leaving the boat briefly to shut a gate or drop a paddle before nimbly, and nervously, jumping back onto our boat as she began to descend into the watery depth.

There was a definite element of master and apprentice about Joe and I and whilst he was a great teacher he couldn’t resist a bit of teasing at my expense. I got completely soaked by a cascade of water leaking from the side of one lock and as Joe chuckled at my predicament he wryly commented, “Aye they do tend to let a bit of water in on that side”. Now I knew why I was on the left and he was on the right!

Doubling up in a lock

In less than four hours and having had a break half way for a brew we were through the flight and whilst Joe and his son went off for a few well earned pints and some dinner we plodded on to our evening halt at Crooke in the pouring rain. We were more than a bit soggy by the time we tied up but nothing could take away the feeling of achievement and a fair bit of relief at having overcome that particular demon. As our friend said later in a text message, we were very definitely not lock virgins any more.

A tale of three halves

A tale of three halves

It would, of course, normally be a tale of two halves but I decided that the flight of six locks at Blackburn required a half all of its own. This is the account of just twenty four hours on our first trip on the narrow boat and I hope it gives a flavour of the huge variety of emotions and experiences that we are going through.

We moored about a mile outside Blackburn on Sunday evening in what appeared to be a quiet and safe location but it didn’t stop us walking down the canal towards the town to assess the situation and we chained the boat to the steel banking just for extra security.

A haven of peace and tranquillity. We hoped.

I’m sure we will relax in time but for now it’s all belt and braces. Being the only boat in the vicinity made us feel more vulnerable and three youths pushing a broken down scooter along the tow path soon after we had moored did nothing to bolster our confidence. However, the night passed peacefully and we were up early, determined to have plenty of time to pass through a proud industrial northern town which sadly, has a very dubious reputation amongst boaters. We had already met a couple two days ago that had had all their windows on one side of the boat smashed when they left it for an hour to go shopping in one of the local supermarkets. This and all the advice we had been given suggested just passing straight through without stopping but this wasn’t an option for us today.

There are six locks in the middle of Blackburn and between the fourth and fifth lock is a service station. This is a facility provided by the Canal and River Trust to take on water and empty toilets. As I had hinted at in the previous post, we hadn’t been very clever with our waste management which had left us in desperate need of these services. To add to any anxiety about the situation my good friend Neil had warned me that getting the boat onto the mooring as you come out of the fourth lock was really tricky. I had, apparently, “to get my arse right across the pound”.

We cruised steadily towards the industrial side of town keeping a wary eye out for floating debris, a particular hazard to boats in these locations. There was plenty of rubbish and even a floating wheelie bin to avoid but no dreaded ropes, wire or shopping trolleys to snag on the propeller. Well at least if there were, we didn’t see them. The scenery transitioned from well heeled up-market car dealerships on the outskirts with high tech security and millions of pounds worth of stock to run down, semi-derelict Victorian factories which must have been a wonder and salvation to their workforce when erected but now looked sad and decayed. TRIM, a local graffiti artist was everywhere. Every bridge, wall, gantry and information sign for the next five miles carried his, or her tag. We marvelled at some of the precarious situations that must have been required to apply the signature. Nothing was too much trouble for TRIM.

Well done TRIM

As office workers in smart town shoes made their way along the canal tow path to work, nearly all with a cheery hello for us, we relaxed and tried to enjoy the positives of this once significant cotton industry hub. Very soon we were at the first lock which just happened to be situated right next to the scene of a recent major fire.

Entering the first Blackburn lock

The combination of the stench of burning and the abundance of unsavoury litter and objects in the locks didn’t make for a pleasant sensation as Gill opened the gate paddles and I began to descend into the stinking hole, inch by foul inch.

 

Gate paddle blocked by Blackburn’s finest filth

But soon I pulled out of the fourth lock and I’m proud to say that I got ‘my arse across’ without too much trouble and after doing our chores we were on our way and through the final two locks. The seedier side of Blackburn gave way to suburbia and a pleasant lunch time rendezvous with friends who wanted to see our new plaything.

Filling up with water. (We didn’t take photos of the other operation)

And so to the third half. The next couple of hours were a sheer delight. Nothing but green fields, golden tinted leaves and an abundance of wildlife surrounded us as we motored gently towards our evening stop. The only obstacles in the water were ducks and swans and the smells were earthy and rich, and full of a hint of change from summer to autumn. A little, low, late afternoon sun was all that troubled us as we meandered around gentle contours, under an abundance of strong, stone arch bridges. The corners of the under arches carried deep grooves, worn by the ropes that were used to tow the barges by horse in the days when the canals really had to earn their keep. The idea of leisure boating would have been alien to those tough old boating families that kept the mills of Blackburn supplied with fuel and materials a couple of hundred years ago. By comparison our day had been easy but then we have been softened by the luxuries of modern day life. So we were glad to pull up adjacent to the Top Lock Pub at Wheelton and the prospect of a cosy evening of food and a beer or two and the company of fellow travellers.

Safely moored at Top Lock

Any hint of anxiety that had preceded the day had evaporated long ago, smothered by the glorious experiences of the afternoon. Such are the ups and downs of this particular journey.

You lucky gits!

“You lucky gits!” Said the lady behind the counter of the convenience store. She offered us a bag for our shopping and having initially refused we quickly remembered how useful bags are on a boat and changed our minds. When we explained that we had come into the village on a narrow boat she sounded genuinely pleased for us and just a little bit jealous, hence the lucky gits comment. She is right of course, we are incredibly privileged to be bobbing about on the canals on our own boat but what she didn’t know is what a steep learning curve it’s all been. I have heard it said that you should never make the same mistake twice because there are plenty to choose from. There are plenty of boating ones to make I can tell you for sure.

Not only are there lots of things to get wrong, there are whole categories of things to mess up. There are technical ones related to electricity and plumbing, including toilet related issues of a cassette capacity nature. There are lots of boat handling mistakes that can result in simple things like failing to land on a mooring properly due to wind aggravated problems that leave you pinned helplessly against the wrong side of the canal for about half an hour. See this post for details of our rescue. There are also silly practical ones that I am only owning up to purely for your entertainment so please laugh in private and not in our faces next time we see you.

Swinging Bridges, whatever next.

We have left the boat for a few hours without shutting the stove down sufficiently and come back to a floating sauna which nearly rendered the sofa a molten blob of plastic. Ooops, quite serious that one. We convinced ourselves that the aerial for the telly was broken until a friend pointed out that when you relocate your home every day you have to retune the T.V. Duh. Oh and we have settled down for the evening more than once only to realise that we haven’t put the chimney up and then had to scramble onto the roof to affix said appendage. In addition, we have forgotten to take it down but I count that as a different mistake.

Our troublesome chimney with impressive decking background

Getting used to travelling at less than three miles an hour and having a form of transport that is severely restricted in where it can go has meant a fair bit of planning when it comes to shopping and keeping the cupboards stocked. We have managed to get that one mostly right and haven’t had to go on emergency rations yet. Cash hasn’t been a problem as the ubiquitous ‘hole in the wall’ pops up in the most convenient of places.

How convenient: A hole in the wall.

We have also proven to be pretty hopeless at planning how far we can get over a period of days because of delays like locks, swing bridges, (especially on windy days) and getting stuck for a couple of nights because we don’t particularly want to travel in horrible weather. Then there are the stoppages. There are issues on the canals like broken locks, low water levels or inconvenient fires close to our route. (See BBC News for details) This latter one has just closed the Blackburn locks but we are hoping it will be open again tomorrow. All of this has resulted in a bit of a last minute dash for our home mooring at Rufford in order to be back there by Friday. Not what we intended and a really good reason to retire and never have a deadline again. You see that’s what I mean by learning from our mistakes.

Leaving a lock without sinking or drowning. Phew!

On the whole though it has been a blast. Testing, stressful, relaxing and demanding all at the same time but overall I think we can definitely say that we are two very lucky gits.

Welcome to our Golden Girl

Well in terms of blogging drama I’m afraid I have disappointing news. Today we completed the purchase of our Golden Girl.

She goes on forever!

The survey went really well. Our surveyor, Peter, gave us the thumbs up after giving the boat a thorough going over. He scratched and scraped her bottom and submitted the poor girl to a detailed and intimate prodding with his sonic probe and to the great relief of all concerned he declared her to be generally very thick skinned. Which is a very important quality of a steel hulled craft that is prone to rusting away whilst sitting in the canal.

Our lovely surveyor Peter and the even lovelier bottom of Golden Girl

There were a few minor issues of an electrical nature which the current boat owner is addressing but nothing that will stop us roaming the waters and setting forth on our next exciting adventure. (Edit: these have now all been resolved)

As always I don’t like to make promises but it is my intention to document what will no doubt be a catalogue of predicaments that we will get ourselves into over the coming months and maybe years while we literally learn the ropes. In the mean time I can only offer those who are sufficiently interested, a few more details of our lovely new home.

First off, she’s a narrow boat. She’s not a barge and she certainly isn’t a long boat. Long boats usually came with lots of oars and a crew of hooligans hell bent on mischief of all kinds. We don’t have any oars.

This is the pointy bit at the front which we call the prow.

She’s 57 feet long, 6′ 10” wide and has a draught (the bit that sinks below the water surface) of 1′ 9”. Working from back (stern) to front (prow) we have:

A small back yard where we will stand to steer the boat and hold social gatherings of an evening. Technically it’s called a cruiser stern but it’s amply big enough for two chairs and a bottle of Chablis on ice.

All back yards should have a life belt of course.

A lounge/diner complete with wood burning stove, comfy but dodgy looking leatherette sofa and compact dining table with two chairs. Guests will get a tray on their laps (assuming they get dinner).

The galley (kitchen to all you land lubbers reading this) is fully equipped as they say with stove, grill, fridge, freezer and washing machine. There is loads of storage space which on a narrow boat is a particular luxury and I am already eyeing up at least one cupboard for tools. (You don’t get a shed on a narrow boat unfortunately)

“Put the kettle on darling”

After the kitchen comes a spare bedroom. Now I know you are all busy checking your diaries and visualising life on a free floating Bed and Breakfast but I should warn you that we will probably convert this space eventually into a sitting/dining/getting-away-from-each-other space so get your requests in quickly.

The bathroom is compact but nicely fitted out with a good shower, hand basin and caravan style cassette toilet which guests will be invited to take their turn in emptying. Unfortunately there is only a door on one end of the bathroom, the other one being open to the main captain and lady captain’s bedroom. (You can go back to your diaries now and cross out all those prospective weekends you have pencilled in).

Note the posh toilet rolls that came with the boat.

The main bedroom has a double bed but as is common in many boats it is hard up against one side of the hull and negotiations are still on going as to who will be doing the gymnastics several time a night to go to the bathroom. When I say negotiations, I mean Gill has told me it will be me.

Main bedroom and front door.

Finally we come to the prow. This has another outdoor seating area which I suspect will mainly be used by guests who will be able to sit and watch the world go by at 4mph whilst sipping an early evening gin and tonic as Gill and I wrestle with locks and swing bridges. (Maybe you shouldn’t have been so hasty to cross out those potential visits after all eh?)

Despite appearances these are NOT spare wheels.

We have solar panels, central heating and all manner of boaty bits and pieces, the purposes of which we are hoping will become clearer with experience.

It make take a while to get the hang of everything!

The plan now is to use our two week holiday at the end of September to get to grips with the boat and then move it to its new home in Rufford. No doubt there will be a story or two to tell and no doubt those stories may involve the forty odd locks along the way!

P.S. We have just made our maiden voyage from the dry dock to the marina but that’s another story.

Those necessary nerves – 24 hours to go

Golden Girl will be surveyed tomorrow and we should know by the end of the day if we are buying her or not.

Will she be our dream girl?

There is something delicious about being on the very cusp of an adventure. I love the feeling of anticipation; that exquisite cocktail of excitement tinged with fear and the magnetic attraction of the unknown. The fact that this particular step into the unknown has been over two years in the making ratchets up the expectation and as the time left to the finish line diminishes the emotions grow stronger and the waiting gets harder.

I’m not really sure when this journey started. I’ve always loved canals and often wondered what it would be like to live on a narrow boat. It may go back ten or twenty years or even longer. The problem with ideas like that is that life gets in the way and we rarely get beyond the dreaming part. It’s just too easy to think of a million and one reasons why we can’t follow our dreams and convince ourselves that something we would really like to do isn’t an option. When we were planning our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we heard it over and over again; “Ooh, I’d love to do something like that but….”. The fact that we did actually break the tradition and go and do it changed us fundamentally and it has given us the ability to get beyond the dreaming and make something a reality.

Cheers – remember this?

That’s why we plan to part with what seems like an insane amount of money later this week and buy our boat. I wouldn’t say we aren’t nervous about it and things will ramp up another notch or two when we put our present home up for sale and commit to life on the water. (I can’t even swim!) But that’s the whole point I suppose. It must be nice to be really content with the status quo but we are all different and I’m just grateful that Gill and I are similar in that we are always looking for what is beyond the next horizon.

I have been holding off from writing any more about this whole boat business until the sale has gone through but now that we are so close to the finishing line I have realised how important this period of anticipation is. I have been really guilty over the last twelve months of wishing the time away. Wishing somebody would come and view the house, put in an offer, get their survey done, exchange contracts. Wishing the right boat would come up for viewing at the right price. Wishing the money would come through so that we could make an offer and finally wishing that the boat survey would happen so that we could complete the purchase. I’ve become a little obsessed about the next step rather than trying to enjoy the journey. Finally, with just hours to go I’m trying to savour every last morsel of sweet anticipation before reality smacks us in the face and the inevitable “what have we done” moment occurs. I’m a bit more prepared this time though. It happened on the first morning of our big bike ride as I pedalled along the road out of the village I was suddenly daunted by what we were doing and scared of what we had committed to. The feelings soon passed once the journey for real was underway and now at least I know from experience that those early nerves are just a necessary component of any great adventure.

I’ll update the blog at the end of the week or early next week and tell you what it feels like when a dream comes true after two years of anticipation. Or, if she turns out to be a rust bucket destined to sink in the first lock she encounters, how it feels to have your dream snatched away when it’s just inches from your grasp. I suppose it will make a better blog if she turns out to be a rust bucket.

Dream on

We might have bought a narrowboat

Do you remember this?

Well look at it now!

I have just re-read my last twelve months of blogs which started with an announcement of our plans to buy and live on a narrowboat. With a few diversions into bird watching and house plant management there was a heavy emphasis on bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t actually buy a boat until we sold my Mum’s old bungalow. Well I guess I deserve a bit of a slap on the wrist for not keeping you up to date because, like my indefatigable palm tree, our plans have suddenly sprouted new and exciting life.

May we introduce Golden Girl

We finally sold the property last month and after a few weeks of renewed searching we found our dream boat. Barring any untoward findings during the out of water survey which takes place next month we will be the proud and considerably giddy owners of Golden Girl. 57 feet of pure loveliness and with an engine that purrs like an overfed pussy cat. She’s really lovely.

All mod cons

The process of getting from that blog to finally owning a boat has been like torture and when I shook the hand of Golden Girl’s current owner the overwhelming emotion that flooded through me was one of relief. I had expected joy, happiness, excitement and maybe even a touch of anxiety and a little sinful pride but no, it was just pure unadulterated relief. At last we could relax and stop worrying about viewings and surveys, false promises and lost dreamboats and just get on with living our dream. Well, at least that’s what I thought.

Cosy lounge

Buying a narrowboat is not unlike buying a house in some respects in the sense that it is common to have a survey of your prospective new home carried out by an expert. In the case of a narrowboat however this involves hauling it out of the water somewhere so that the surveyor can get a good look at its bottom. I already had a surveyor lined up so everything seemed straightforward when I rang up Burnley Dry Dock to book us in only to be told that they had no availability until late October! I think I may have overdone the tearful disappointment in my voice a little but it worked because they found us a shared slot with another boat early next month. So that’s it. So long as the surveyor doesn’t come back and tell us that the Golden Girl has completely lost her lustre we should be the new owners by the end of September or sooner. Of course if it turns out that her bottom is rusted and rotten we might have to pull out of the sale. I expect there could be tears so don’t miss the next episode and the possibility of high drama!

That’s it for now really. I’m hoping that this new development might inspire me to more regular and even creative writing as we set forth on our watery adventure. It should start with moving the boat from Burnley to its new home at Rufford via forty seven locks so if that doesn’t provide me with something to write about then I don’t deserve your further attention.

There is so much more to tell you but I feel I am tempting fate until we actually have the keys in our hands and our bank account is empty. We will know for sure on September 12th but until then I will simply ask for your best wishes. See you on board soon, we hope.

Learning Narrowboatian

Buying our narrow boat is totally dependent upon the sale of a property that we have a share in so we were very excited to finally get the bungalow on the market, one step closer to life on the water. Or so we thought. Of course we didn’t expect to the sell the house immediately but that didn’t stop us getting excited and intensifying our search for the perfect floating home and that’s when sod’s law took effect.

Of course we should have guessed that the total absence of any interest in the house whatsoever would be in direct contrast to a veritable flood of near perfect boats coming up on our searches immediately. We have a fairly detailed and strict criteria against which we are matching our floating dream home and it was unbelievably frustrating to tick all the boxes against the sales ads whilst knowing that with no interest in our property for sale there wasn’t really any point in organising a viewing or even making a tentative enquiry. That frustration has now got the better of us and having dropped the asking price on the bungalow we are busy organising visits to view boats that are for sale within our as yet, imaginary price range.

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, ...

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, …

This brings me to the topic of how you choose a narrow boat to live on, which turns out to be very similar to choosing a house. In both cases it is common to lay out the basic requirements of style, price range, age, number of rooms, outside space etc. before selecting properties/boats to view based on those requirements. However, listening to other boat owners that have been through the process reveals that like buying a house, all those carefully thought out requirements will all be abandoned the day you step on to the perfect boat and fall in love with it. It turns out that it’s more akin to choosing a dog at the rescue centre in that the boat, apparently, will choose us rather than the other way around. It doesn’t mean I am abandoning my carefully constructed spreadsheet that, in theory, identifies our perfect craft. It simply means that we have to be prepared to fall head over heels in love one day and we will need a level headed friend to point out that the new love of our lives won’t last five minutes on the canal before it sinks and hopefully they will stop us wasting our relatively easily earned cash on it. A bit like the way your heart sinks when your precious teenage child comes home all doe eyed with that totally inappropriate girlfriend or boyfriend in tow and it’s your job to delicately persuade them that they really could do better. Love is a dangerous thing.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

The similarities with buying a house wain by virtue of the fact that most houses don’t have an engine and you can’t, therefore, drive them around. A narrow boat on the other hand is the essence of freedom and mobility; provided, it turns out, that it is of certain dimensions. There are two thousand miles of navigable canals and rivers in England and Wales and we want to explore all of them. That means that our craft can’t be longer than sixty feet and no more than seven feet wide if we aren’t to be restricted by certain locks on the system. We are advised that since we want to ‘liveaboard’ (that’s what we canal people call living permanently on the boat) we will also require at least a fifty seven foot boat to give us enough space so it would appear that our choices are actually quite narrow in more ways than one.

Restrictions may apply

Restrictions may apply. Photo: Canal and River Trust.

In the mean time we go on looking and I am busy learning the new language of Narrowboatian so that I can converse with the salty dogs that are hanging up their windlasses and retiring, hopefully, to a nice two bedroomed bungalow close to the sea.

Swapsies?

Swapsies?

Anybody want to swap a short fat bungalow for a long narrow dream home?

 

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