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

New life everywhere

Things are starting to blur around the edges. Unless I consult a map I’m finding it difficult to recall our route in relation to time and notable events are jumping around from day to day. Maybe that’s a good thing. A sign that I am relaxing into the trip and enjoying the moments as they happen rather than the anticipation. I suspect the memories will come later.
Things that stand out in my mind over the last few days are endless bluebell woods and carpets of wild garlic with their slightly sickly accompanying smell. Great big blousey bushes of gorse in vivid yellow flower dotted all over the landscape and the roadsides. Riding for hours along the shores of Luce bay imageto the sound of waves lapping on the beach and yet more aromas. This time it’s the rich smell of the sea and all it conjours up of past experiences from beach holidays to rock pool hunting or sitting on harbours watching the boats come and go. There is always the sound of birds. Sometimes woodland, sometimes shore and sea birds but there is never silence. It’s been a joy to hear skylarks regularly and watch the newly arrived swallows prospecting for nesting sites.

Gorse is everywhere

Gorse is everywhere

Views across the Solway Firth, Wigtown and Luce Bay have been stunning at times, even on the flat grey days that don’t lend themselves to photographs. Today was pretty special too as we looked out at the amazing spectacle of Ailsa Craig and the first glimpse of the Isle of Arran. Despite the endless ups and downs choosing to ride the coast was definitely a good decision.
We have had our first really challenging day of rain but it ended on a dry but breezy note and we have diced with death on both the A75 and today on the A77. Five more miles of thundering juggernauts and crazy coach drivers and we should be clear of the busiest roads as we take the quieter coast road to Ardrosssan and our second ferry of the trip.
The Solway coast was delightful for the most part and today we circled the northern half of the Stranraer peninsula on roads free of traffic and in glorious sunshine. Gill spotted a deer as it bounded across the road and later we came across a cow licking her calf imagewhich she had given birth to just moments before. A duck escorted her many tiny ducklings across the road, panicking at the sight of us on our bikes and crouching down so we might not notice her.

Panic

Panic

Everywhere there are signs of new life, even the flies that land on us are using us as their travelling passion parlour. It is these magical and unexpected delights that stay in the mind and come back to make us smile at the end of the day. (Well maybe not the mating flies)
Last night we camped on top of a cliff next to the ruin of Dunskey Castle and tonight we are on a run down Holiday Park just outside Girvan. The former was magnificent, if a tad breezy. The latter is depressing but it’s somewhere to sleep and the showers were hot. The variety is what makes it all so exciting and worthwhile.

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Dunskey Castle

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