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

Coasting

Since we left the small seaside village of Staithes our adventure has taken on a decidedly laid back feeling as we slow things down on our way to Harrogate and our date with the Tour de France. We made arrangements to stay in Harrogate long before we decided to do this trip so it was always going to be an interesting logistical conundrum to fit the two things together. The best we could predict back in April was that we would be somewhere between Edinburgh and London on the east coast around early July and we would find a way to get to the Tour somehow. As we approached the English border it became increasingly obvious that we were ahead of schedule and the simplest solution was to slow down and ride directly to Harrogate.

Suddenly the driving force behind our daily routine has changed from making progress around the coast to ensuring we don’t get too far south too soon. The emphasis has been on filling up the time rather than eating up the miles. It’s been very relaxing to spend a couple of nights in places and have a day playing tourist rather than cyclist. To take time to absorb a place and to get to know the people around us has been lovely and we have even managed to catch up with some friends.

Busy Scarborough

Busy Scarborough

After spending a night just outside Scarborough we next camped at Flamborough Head where we had a very special visit from Pauline and Steve. They had always intended to try to come out and meet us somewhere on the east coast but I managed to give them even more reason to make the three hour each way trip by losing my wallet. It’s a complicated story but the details don’t matter, just the amazing act of kindness of both them and our friend Les who also played a part in the wallet re-unification act. It was strange but great fun to hook up with more folks from home and we spent a few hours walking the coastal paths and having a pub lunch before waving them off again and returning to our small tent and our nomadic life with just each other for company.

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Pauline and Steve who delivered the lost wallet

Actually we don’t just have each other most of the time as we are constantly meeting people who want to know about our journey and to share their own stories of adventure with us. We mostly meet them on the campsites we stay on. The bikes act as a magnet of curiosity and the conversation invariably starts with the question, “how far have you travelled?” Of course it’s great fun now because we can answer, “today or since we started in April?” This usually grabs their attention and has led to some great exchanges. I especially like it when it turns out that they have done something spectacular of their own and our journey brings it all back for them.
From Flamborough we finally left the hills behind and had a very easy ride down the coast, pushed along by a gusting tail wind. Just beyond Withernsea we found the best campsite of the whole trip so far. Mike and Kath run the Elm Tree Farm site which caters for a very relaxed five caravans and two tents. During our stay we only had two neighbours apart from the extremely vocal blackbirds and the ever present acrobatic swallows that constantly swooped around the tent. Perfect weather and a great village local all helped to make our two night stay a real joy. Unfortunately the tyre I had fitted to my bike a mere fifteen hundred miles previously had developed a serious flaw so we spent our day off taking buses into Hull and back to buy a replacement tyre. Maybe it was the sunshine or just our chilled mood but contrary to what we were told to expect Hull was a pleasant surprise. We located the bike shop after a bit of a trek and took another bus back into the city centre from where we strolled to the old town gawping at some splendid public buildings along the way. The county courts in particular are spectacular with their multi columnated frontage and huge roof top statues.

Impressive statues on the County Court building

Impressive statues on the County Court building

After a pub lunch we toured the Ferens art gallery. Those Dutch masters knew a thing or two about painting didn’t they? Some of the 19th century British work took a bit more effort to appreciate but the ¬†Game of Patience by Meredith Frampton captivated us both instantly.

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Patience

Speaking of art, we have dropped in on a few galleries on our travels and in all cases the resident artists have been fascinating to talk with. We particulalry enjoyed chatting with Mike Oxley in Craster and admiring his dramatic seascapes inspired by the beautiful Northumberland coast. Mike has been a keen cyclist himself in his time and he was very interested to hear about our experience. I love these brief but always enjoyable meetings that bring us into contact with such interesting and talented individuals.

Spurn Head lighthouse

Spurn Head lighthouse

We are now close to York and I am getting excited by the prospect of experiencing the Tour de France for real after years of watching it on the TV. But before then we have two more meetings with friends to fit in so it looks like the tent will be getting a well earned rest for a few days. We are looking on the next few days as a brief hiatus in this journey so we look forward to being back in touch as we pick up our route again on the Humber bridge. I do hope it isn’t closed.

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