The Middlewich breach

We are moored in a spectacular spot looking down on a body of water called Top Flash some hundred or so feet below us.

Top Flash before the rains came
Top Flash before the rains came

This would be a beautiful spot to laze away a sunny spring day, listening to the bird song and enjoying a rare high vantage point to take in the view. Alas it is not to be. Looking out over the river and the water below us the scenery fades to a misty grey in the distance and the colours of the new leaves on the trees are muted by heavy and persistent rain. The buttercup flowers are refusing to open up to greet the day and most of the dandelion heads have been stripped bare by the wind. No ducks, swans, swallows or songbirds are in evidence and even yesterday’s feverish farming activity in the nearby fields seems to have been suspended for today. As always there are some boaters that will travel in any conditions and I am anxious for all my carefully restored paintwork as they pass by, struggling to maintain a straight line in the squally winds. Staying put and waiting for tomorrow’s promised sunshine seems like the best option to me.

We can’t complain about the weather, we have been travelling for over three weeks now and it’s only the second day that we have felt obliged to sit out the rain and only once have we been caught standing on the back of the boat looking stoic with grim damp faces. The relentless east and northerly breezes have pegged the temperatures back well below the seasonal norm but occasionally in a sheltered spot the sun has hinted at what it has in store and the pure joy of the progression of Spring has kept our spirits high.

New ground, narrow bridge!
New ground, narrow bridge!

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark moment as we joined the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal. This section was closed last year due to a major breach that emptied the canal and washed away thousands of tons of earth, destroying a large section of the embankment that carries the route high above the fledgling river Weaver. It took months to repair it and as we passed over the newly formed embankment we were acutely aware of how precarious so many stretches of the canals are where they are raised up above the surrounding land. I love these high vantage points with extensive views but it only takes a minor collapse of the bank to start a process that can quickly escalate into a disaster. Escaping water from a minor weak point can rapidly erode the soil around it, deepening and widening the breach so that a trickle becomes a torrent with frightening speed and with devastating power to destroy everything in it’s path. History is full of records of such events and knowledge of them lends a frisson of excitement to the passage of these elevated and spectacular features.

The MIddlewich branch in 2018
The MIddlewich branch in 2018
Repaired Middlewich Branch today
Repaired Middlewich Branch today

Days like this are an ideal opportunity to reflect and to be grateful to the navvies and engineers that risked lives and reputations to build this amazing network of waterways and to appreciate how precious but also how fragile they have become after hundreds of years of use. It’s always nice to get going again after a wet day like today but we need to be grateful for the rain now and then as it forces us to stop and really get a feel for a location and makes us take the time to absorb the landscape and the history all around us.

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The washing machine drama

After one and a half years living on our boat we have come to a decision; the washing machine has got to go. I knew you’d be interested.

It’s all a question of balancing space with practicality and luxury. Having an automatic washing machine on board is very definitely a luxury but we have decided that it isn’t worth the space it takes up and the amount of electricity and water that it uses. It’s fine in the marina on shore power but when we are travelling it’s just too greedy for resources and it’s using valuable space that we could really make better use of. So, decision made, we have found a good home for it (no not in the canal) and my brilliant sister and brother in law are coming to pick it up from us. All of that is the easy bit. The hard part is getting it off the boat.

Obviously it came onto the boat somehow but I have been doing a bit of measuring and more than a bit of thinking and it’s going to take all of my A level physics and the help of another friend to extract it. There are two problems as I see it; the first is that getting the thing onto the boat must have been made much easier because of the way gravity works and the second is the doors that it will have to pass through. When I measured the width of the washing machine I found that it was 59.5 centimetres which was OK because the top of the door opening measured 60cm. Then for some reason I decided to check that the door opening was also 60cm at the bottom. It is not! It’s 59cm at the bottom.

Irregular doors at the top of a stair case, what could possible go wrong.

It turns out that we are living with irregular doors and that presents a not inconsiderable problem when juggling about 80kg of domestic appliance five or six feet off the ground and trying to pass it through a hole that is only big enough at the top! I do now have a plan and there may well be photographs of the escapade but equally I may be writing the next blog post from the nearest A & E waiting room. This could be very much a case of “watch this space”.

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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.

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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?

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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
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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
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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
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Funny old life

It’s a funny old life, living on a narrow boat. We set sail yesterday on our six month summer adventure and here we are, twenty four hours later, three miles from the marina, settled for a few days in Burscough. It feels like five minutes since the gun went off for the start of a marathon and we are sat by the side of the road having a picnic having run two hundred yards. We have even been shopping in Tesco this morning, the same Tesco we have been shopping in all winter. Yesterday, shortly after we moored up, one of our boating neighbours came by with his dog and another boat from the marina is moored just a few yards down the canal from us. It’s all a bit surreal.

We are mainly sitting tight because Gill has to pick up new glasses tomorrow and there are strong winds forecast all day so it wouldn’t be much fun travelling anyway. And talking of strong winds …..

Wind’s up!

We have an unwritten rule, passed on to us by experienced boating friends that if the forecast wind speed is over fifteen miles per hour it isn’t worth going out on the boat. That’s because handling a narrow boat in those conditions is really tricky. It may weigh sixteen tons but the wind will toss it across the canal like a puck on an ice rink and close manoeuvres such as pulling into lock landings or leaving locks is really just a game of chance. With this in mind I stood on the end of our jetty yesterday morning waiting for friends to arrive and watched my new wind direction indicator flipping around like a ballet dancer on acid. The forecast said fifteen miles an hour gusting to twenty five and I was thinking, stay at home. Unfortunately said friends had been promised a ride and there was additional pressure to leave in the form of more help at the other end of the Rufford locks from boaters Alan and Jacky who we met whilst travelling last year. All I could think about was the last two weeks of painstaking rubbing down, priming, undercoating, glossing and blacking and the narrow marina exit with it’s rough concrete edging and rusty iron work protruding. I could have cried.

In the end I managed to get out with only minor contact between hull and stone, in fact the wind practically blew us out onto the canal which turned out to be a haven of calm as the first few hundred yards is well sheltered from the east winds. We passed through lock No. 7 and a swing bridge without a hitch, survived the male mute swan that shepherded us past his partner sitting pretty on her rather magnificent nest and there was just enough straight calm water to let Jackie have her first experience of steering the boat.

Phillip helping. Or is he Morris Dancing?
Pan flat West Lancs

From then on it was a constant battle with a strong east wind from our left blowing across the pan flat West Lancashire fields. They were actually harvesting turf on one side of the canal, a fitting crop for an agricultural area that has the profile and wind resistance of a bowling green. I doubt Gill and I would have carried on on our own, so difficult was it to pull the boat in against the wind as we stopped at each lock, but with more than enough willing hands we were soon through all seven obstacles and mooring up for a well deserved late lunch with lashings of tea and yummy cakes. (It’s beginning to sound like Famous Five go Boating).

It’s really hard to reconcile the amount of effort required to travel through seven locks and two swing bridges whilst covering a little over three miles. It feels as if we should be in another time zone, speaking a different language and maybe even seeking out our passports for a border crossing. Instead, we are round the corner from our local Tesco. As I said, surreal.

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Time for another adventure

Time for another adventure. We’re off for another six months of meandering lazily around the waterways and I won’t be sorry to get away. We love the marina we live in during the winter and it’s been great to have the time to do work on the boat but the swallows are here and it’s time to follow their example and get moving once more.

OK, elephant in the room, no blogs all winter I know. No excuses I just haven’t felt inspired to write for some reason so with the full intention of making up for it over the next few months I’ll start with a quick run down of our second winter on the boat and the first of our retirement proper.

I say proper because after retiring in April last year it felt like I was on holiday until we came back to Rufford in October. I got no real sense of what retirement felt like and to be honest I was a little bit apprehensive going into the winter months. Newly retired folks seem to fall into two categories, those that get bored really quickly and either go back to employment or throw themselves into voluntary work and those who say, “I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work”. I appear to fall into a third category, that of enjoying doing lots of things whilst revelling in not having to do any of them. Choice has never felt so good. I’ve always liked choosing. Choosing a book in a library, a meal in a restaurant or a route for a walk or a bike ride, but being able to choose just about everything I do is totally liberating. But there’s a catch. It didn’t take long to work out that whilst I could choose to be idle all day every day, or spend every day busy as a bee it turns out it’s all about balance. Isn’t it always? I’m getting the hang of it but maybe it will take a little longer to fine tune things and who knows, I may even choose to write more.

Nice to be home

Coming back to Rufford was a joy. Like a real home coming. We were enthusiastically welcomed by old friends and warmly accepted by all the new floating residents that had moved here in our absence. The marina is full now and it’s such a lovely community to live in. Totally relaxed, peaceful, stress free and friendly. We are surrounded by nature and in tune with the ticking of the seasonal clock. I have loved being immersed in the transitions from autumn to winter and eventually spring. To really have the time to notice the falling leaves, first frosts, frozen water, snow drops, catkins and daffodils and now, our first fledgling mallard ducklings have marked that passage with a reassuring sense of inevitability. Our regular walks along the tow path have rewarded us with so many sightings of kingfishers we have reached the point that it’s disappointing not to see them. Barn owls, roe deer and hare have all surprised and delighted us whilst the sight and sound of thousands of pink footed geese passing overhead are as much a part of winter as frosted window panes and frozen hose pipes. I have loved it all.

Piggy backing: an early sign of Spring

Converting the spare bedroom on the boat into a sitting and eating area with storage has kept me busy while Gill has been honing her skills as an artist. She seems to have uncovered a treasure chest of hidden talent whilst I have become a dab hand with a tin of emulsion and four inch roller. It’s been great to ‘put our mark’ on the Golden Girl and she now feels well and truly like home. We are now frantically finishing a long list of final preparations before departure and wondering why we didn’t start the list sooner or at least make it shorter. It can feel a bit pressured until I remind myself that since we are actually going away in our home with everything in it there isn’t really a departure day at all. Like the seasons, it’s much more of a transition from our stationary winter mode to what we hope will be another wondrous wandering summer.

Gill’s painting is really coming along

Our route this year is no more precise that ‘vaguely heading south’ but we will be passing through some glorious countryside. I don’t like to promise but I’ll try to blog a little more than last year and if anybody fancies meeting up at a waterside hostelry or two it would be lovely to see you.

Teenagers in the making
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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

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