Rewards per mile

Everybody talks about narrow boats travelling at four miles per hour because in theory that is the maximum speed allowed on most canals. In practice the majority of boats average nearer two and a half or three miles an hour. We aren’t going to set any new records as I have just brought the logs up to date and it turns out that after nineteen days we have covered eighty miles at a stately four miles per day. It might not be very many miles but I can assure you that at this pace every one of them has something rewarding to offer.

We are travelling with new friends and boaters Debs and Colin, our neighbours from the marina. After three months of getting to know them under strict socially distanced circumstances it’s great to be able to accompany them on their first big trip on Woody, their brand new narrow boat and home.

Over these last couple of weeks I have been constantly reminded of how important it was for us to have more experienced company on our first journey as we negotiated all the new challenges of locks, tunnels, swing bridges and other obstacles. Finding safe and suitable mooring spots, dealing with re-fuelling and watering or even the best knots to use in different circumstances were all a complete mystery to us so it was a real pleasure to pay back the support we had from Bob and Marie two years ago.

After the rigours of the Rufford locks we caught our breath at Parbold which is rural, peaceful and the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon of tow path socialising. Chewing the fat with other boaters and passing walkers is a big part of the boating experience and I never tire of it. It’s always useful and interesting to pick up snippets of local information and in exchange we are happy to respond to conversations that always seem to start with; “Can I ask you a really stupid question?” Leaving the next morning ornate landscaped gardens give way to lush green farmland interspersed with dark, earthy woodland where the overhanging branches provide excellent practice as we steer between them. These are the kind of places where kingfishers skim above the water like an electric blue bullet and herons fishing from the bank will twitch nervously as we approach. The herons seem to weigh up the danger before losing their nerve and rising lethargically only to land a few boat lengths down the water’s edge before repeating the process.

Heron in fright/flight
Picture by Gill Pearson

I always think that this is what boating is all about in places like these but then the outskirts of Wigan come into view and bring with them a new perspective. Now we are reminded of why the canals were built in the first place as we pass by disused warehouses with the remnants of infrastructure for loading and unloading bales of cotton or tons of recently dug coal.

A shy Golden Girl taking on water in Wigan

The Wigan Pier area is being renovated again and soon smart apartments will overlook the sanitised scene where once all was grime, graft, dust and dirt. The deep and wide Poolstock locks lower us off the Leeds and Liverpool canal and down into a huge area of subsided land that is gradually falling back into the shafts and mines and the old coal seams below.

Entering the Poolstock locks

Great expanses of open water have formed in the sunken hollows turning what would have been a forest of tall chimneys and skeletal pit head gear into a tranquil haven for wildlife and a playground for sailing, fishing and bird watching. It’s lovely to see nature returning but I am also happy to see on the horizon the huge winding wheel on top of its spindly rusting supports that marks the site of the Lancashire Mining Museum at Astley Green. The legacy of back breaking graft and devastating loss from collapses and explosions are juxtaposed against the warmth of strong community and camaraderie of the miners at this fascinating place. Well worth a visit if only to see one of the worlds biggest steam engines which has been brought back to life by a dedicated army of volunteers.

For the next twenty miles and more we are accompanied by an eclectic mixture of ducklings swimming amongst beer cans, stunning graffiti on otherwise dull concrete flyovers and run down factories interspersed by painstakingly maintained waterside gardens. This is the outskirts of Manchester and Salford and whilst it is fascinating we aren’t tempted to moor here so we head out through Sale and into rural Cheshire and settings more likely to appear in the imagination of the aspiring boater.

Canalside in Lymm: Yours for £750,000

We are now on the Bridgewater canal with no locks but a new challenge in the form of the Preston Brook tunnel to add a spice of variety. The tunnel is long with a couple of kinks to keep you on your toes but Colin negotiates it easily enough and we pop out into the daylight and onto the Trent and Mersey canal. Counting branches, it’s our fifth canal and with a tunnel, re-fuelling, services and shopping stops Debs and Colin are ticking off all the experience boxes.

Woody on Croxton aqueduct
Picture by Gill Pearson

These canals are wide, designed for twelve or fourteen foot barges rather than our skinny seven foot wide narrow boats and Colin and Debs have a shock in store that I remember very well. With no warning, as we approach Middlewhich, we come across Croxton Aqueduct perched above the river Dane and at just eight feet wide it looks impossibly narrow after all the wide locks and bridges. It’s a taster for what is to come and the last place that we might see a wide beam boat for many weeks. Safely through it’s time for another shopping trip in Middlewich and then the first narrow locks of this journey.

By the time we reached Nantwich, one of our favourite places on the network it feels as if we have well and truly let go of Woody’s reins and our fellow boaters are now more than capable of going solo. Gill and I are heading south now whilst they hang back to meet up with friends and family and then head north to Chester. We plan to get together again later in the summer and no doubt we will both have lots of stories to tell as we head off into Wales and the Llangollen canal.

We are taking a couple of days to relax in a quiet spot called Coole Pilate. It’s a lovely place to chill while we brace ourselves for the twenty five locks that will take us up beyond Market Drayton and to an appointment with a boat cover maker for some badly needed maintenance for our tired and shabby pram cover on the back of the boat.

Chilling at Coole Pilate

Four miles a day: So much to see and so much time to see it in.

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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