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Towpath temptations

The lack of progress of our plan to live on a narrow boat has been pretty depressing when combined with the dark winter months and without actually discussing it we have refrained from walks along the local towpaths. In the same way that you might avoid walking past endless confectionery shops during a self-imposed abstention from sweet eating during lent, we have avoided the temptation of bumping into sickeningly contented and blissfully happy live-aboards enjoying the lifestyle that we so envy but can’t yet have. But you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Peaceful Lancaster Canal

Signs of Spring

It may have been a bunch of daffodils or snowdrops that did it but something lifted my spirits and gave me the urge to get back out there and start dreaming again. Come to think of it, it may have been those loveable thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales who were back on the telly, bumping into various obstacles on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and oozing love and contentment as they casually destroyed locks and jetties on a borrowed narrow boat. Better TV might have been to view the owners of said boat watching the program Goggle Box style and weeping quietly into their Pinot Grigio as their pride and joy bounces from one side of the canal to the other.

Whatever it was that spurred me on, it resulted in a lovely walk along the Lancaster canal. It’s not the busiest of canals at any time of year so in the depths of winter we knew we would be unlikely to bump into many occupied craft. As it happened we only saw three boats and whilst they all looked beautiful and homely I was relieved to see that none of them bore a For Sale sign or sign of life so we were safe. Safe from conversations about living on a boat that inevitably end with the well-meaning but frustrating advice to ‘just get on with it’ without any acknowledgement of the fact that getting on with it costs money that we don’t currently have. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions of the feathered, flowery and woody variety to keep us more than occupied spotting early signs of spring, or more accurately, the end of winter.

A male goosander taunted us by waiting patiently for us to get within about twenty yards of him and then just as I raised the camera he would take to the air and fly just far enough along the canal to be out of photographic range before repeating the process.

Not so close up goosander

Being teased by a Goosander

I got bored in the end and turned my attention to a much more obliging swan who seemed to think that I was a photographer from the avian equivalent of match.com or something as he paraded up and down like an over inflated gigolo.

What a splendid chap and didn’t he know it.

As far as we could see he was wasting his time as there wasn’t another swan anywhere in sight; unlike the female mallard that seemed to be enjoying being diligently followed by not one but two hopeful suitors. I’m not sure how she was going to make her mind up because it looked to me as if she was being pursued by identical twins. We had a really close up view of a moorhen next and what a stunning bird it is.

Look at those feet! (Photo from http://www.nerjarob.com/)

There is a perception amongst those not interested in such things that all British birds are small brown jobbies. Well this beauty is brown, black, white, red and bluish grey with huge striped yellow feet. I mean how exotic do you want?

We joined the arm of the canal that links it to the river Ribble and the rest of the national network.

Deep scary locks

A set of deep locks takes boaters down onto the branch and under the main road to wind through the suburbs of Preston.

Under the road

Canals in these situations are a haven for wildlife and it was a delight to see grey wagtail and long tailed tits busy amongst the budding trees and catkins. We took to a woodland path alongside the railway to get back to the Lancaster itself and make it a circular walk avoiding a stretch of boring tarmac. The trees are all like coiled springs at this time of year, just waiting for another couple of degrees of warmth and another hour or two of daylight to spur them into a frenzy of leaf production.

‘Now you see me’ nest.

Just a few more weeks and the stark outline of naked branches will be transformed into a rich vibrant green canopy hiding the nesting birds and providing food and shelter for a wide variety of life. The abundance of summer will be here before we know it and those that live all year on the canals will be joined by the weekenders and the holiday boaters. Fingers crossed we will be joining them.

 

Jam sandwiches

The thing I remember most acutely about riding my bike as a child was the sense of exploration. In the endless days of the summer holidays we would make up a few jam sandwiches and take off on another intrepid voyage into the unknown. The fact that so much is new during those tender years makes it easy to have an adventure. There is so much to discover and to wonder at. Whether it’s how far you can ride in a day or venturing deep into the woods to discover that witch’s grave we have heard about. It’s all a bit magical. Somebody asked me the other day how I got into cycling and I realise now that I gave them the wrong answer. I told them about how I started to ride a bike but that’s a subtly different thing. Learning to ride the bike is one thing but discovering what possibilities it opens up and going exploring on a bike is a whole new world. I think it was those early day rides that really got me into cycling and sowed the seeds of my life long cycle touring passion.

All this rose-tinted reminiscence was prompted by a short ride that Gill and I undertook last week. It wasn’t very long but it brought back all the wonderful sense of exploration and discovery that was so easy to find as a child. The idea for the ride came while I was looking at Google Earth and trying to work out exactly where in Preston the Lancaster Canal terminated. It was originally supposed to connect to the docks but it was never completed and its end point has been further truncated by a remodelling of the city centre. It now comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of a mixed residential and commercial area about a mile from the modern marina. It was strange to zoom in to what appeared to be closely packed terraced houses on narrow streets and find myself looking at the tops of narrow boats. This was something just crying out to be explored.

Inspiration

Inspiration

We picked up the canal along the wonderfully named Sidgreaves Lane and ducked under the first bridge bumping over the cobbled paving on our less than ideal touring bikes. We have walked this bit of the canal before and we passed under roads that were regular cycling routes but it wasn’t long before we were trying to work out the unfamiliar surroundings. It’s amazing how you can be in the middle of an area that you think you know well but when seen from a different perspective it all looks totally different.

Towpath tranquility

Towpath tranquility

The open fields either side of the water were soon replaced by sports facilities on the right and the odd bungalow on the left heralding the outskirts of the city. Modern houses, or urban sprawl if you prefer, encroached on both sides now and manicured gardens were adorned with private moorings and waterside decking. In contrast we glimpsed the Tulketh Mill chimney in the distance, a very familiar Preston landmark alongside the busy Blackpool Road reminding us that this watery artery would soon take us deep into the city. It was a marked contrast with the scene of peaceful serenity around us as moorhens and mallards went quietly about their business. A pair of proud swans glided by, protectively escorting their single tiny cygnet.

Mum, Dad and the little one

Soon we were passing right by the mill and under the main road and suddenly those terraced houses I had seen on the map were packed tightly along the far bank. Their gardens tumbled steeply down to the water’s edge, some immaculately terraced and trimmed, and others a wild riot of bramble and weed. More than one boasted its own private pub like construction complete with mock terrace bar and parasols. They were just crying out for our overdue summer to get underway and the opportunity to sip cool drinks in the balmy evening air. I was more than a little jealous of these idyllic havens hidden behind what would undoubtedly be unremarkable red brick terraced streets.

G and T for me please

G and T for me please

We had to lift the bikes over a short flight of stairs but there on the other side was the small marina and the narrow boats that had so intrigued me on Google Earth. That was it, the end of the canal and suddenly we were battling with busy city centre traffic as we made our way down to the marina. A completely new world of noise and fumes, traffic lights and five way junctions to negotiate, just yards from the canal terminus. It was like emerging from the peace and tranquillity of a cathedral into the chaos of the city centre. Ten minutes of mixing it with the traffic and we were at the old docks, now a smart residential and retail centre.

On the south side of the marina you can find Common Terns nesting. They have chosen to fly 12,000 km from Namibia to raise their new families in Preston. Sometimes nature is just beyond explanation. They squabble and bicker amongst themselves and with the coots, pigeons and seagulls that they share the nesting pontoons with. With their striking and sleek appearance they remind me of spivs, all slick and sophisticated on the outside but with a message that says, don’t mess with me.

Common Tern

Common Tern

We leave them to their aerial conflicts and head for the end of the dock and the channel that links it to the river Ribble. Massive lock gates control the tidal waters and I can see why narrow boat skippers are wary of this route back to the tranquil waters of the canals. There is no choice; it’s the only way to get from the Lancaster canal to the rest of the national network. Flat bottomed boats designed to cruise at 4mph are not well suited to fast moving tides and winds and it must be an exciting dash to the shelter and safety of still water.

Holding back the sea

Holding back the sea

Unfortunately the tide is out so there won’t be any boats on the river to entertain us today. That’s enough exploring for us and we turn tail and head for home on familiar cycle tracks and roads.

We had managed to spend over two hours covering a measly eighteen miles but it felt like a real voyage of discovery. The idea of riding into Preston city centre from where we live sounds about as appealing as an hour on a spinning bike in the gym but we had managed to turn it into a real adventure. For a couple of hours I was a carefree teenager once more, exploring the world around me and uncovering hidden gems right in my own back yard. It was wonderful, even magical.

We were starving when we got back. Next time I’ll take some jam sandwiches.

 

Dawn chorus

Usually when people set their alarm clock for 3am it’s because they have a flight to catch. More often than not the flight will be taking them to some warm and possibly exotic place to start their annual holiday so the pain of the alarm is quickly replaced by excitement. The cruel interruption to our sleep had an altogether different purpose. No sun soaked beach or lazing by the pool with a G & T for us. Our destination was a stretch of the Lancaster Canal and the dawn chorus.

Sunrise was at 5am and the first birds usually begin to sing an hour earlier so I was worried we might have cut it a bit fine as we made our way down to the tow path. I was also disappointed to hear the steady drone of traffic from the distant M55 motorway. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from road noise these days, even pre-dawn. The motorists were probably all heading for Manchester airport and a flight to some …. oh hang on, we’ve done that already haven’t we?

As we descended to the water’s edge the noise faded as this part of the canal is deep in a cutting and we were blessed with near silence. It was cool but perfectly still, not a breath of wind to disturb the atmosphere. The rich smell of damp earth rose to meet us, so much more distinctive this early in the day. We’d made it just in time because the silence was broken at that moment by the beautiful and distinctive sound of a robin announcing the start of what we had come to hear. It was still dark enough to require care as we walked slowly along the path listening to those first few notes. Robins are often the first to sing and this one was soon joined by others and the silence was gradually filled with their cheery song. These soloists were quickly accompanied by the blackbird and its flute like mellifluous tune cutting clearly through the crisp morning air. We startled, and in turn were startled by, a moorhen which skittered across the water calling in alarm, its cries of panic momentarily drowning out the early song birds.

Creeping past the live-aboard narrow boats so as not to wake the occupants we reached a bench where the canal passes through dense woodland and settled down to listen to the performance. By now it was possible to make out the outlines of the trees against the lightening sky and the mist that was forming at the edge of the woodland. A heron took flight just fifty yards down the tow path and settled under the arched stone bridge to patiently watch for its first catch of the day. By now the bird song was unbroken and first the wood pigeons and then the fabulous wren joined the orchestra. A bat was patrolling on a regular patterned circuit making the most of the final cover of darkness. It would soon be replaced by the swallows. There would be no respite for the flying insects today.

Heron's fishing spot

Heron’s fishing spot

We strolled on, passing under the bridge, forcing the heron to relocate temporarily and as we left the woods behind a spectacle of pure magic unfolded. Patches of dense mist clung to hollows and along stretches of the water creating a mystical feel to the scene. In places the water provided crystal clear mirror images of the trees on the canal bank but then the mist would swallow the image in its cold silky veil. The tranquil scene was broken as a male swan chased away a family of Canadian geese that were getting too close to his mates nest.  He flared his wings in a threatening gesture, swimming fast at the goose and letting him know who was boss. The female swan looked on anxiously then settled down again on the nest, fussing to ensure she had her eggs perfectly protected. Calm was restored.

Two trees for the price of one

Two trees for the price of one

Shhh, they may be asleep

Shhh, they may be asleep

The hedgerow was full of the song of wrens and the remarkably loud call of a warbler scolding us roundly for threatening her unseen nest. As the sun finally broke the horizon we turned tail and headed back towards home. The mist was clearing and the cacophony of song had now been replaced by the more familiar individual calls of pheasant, crow and wood pigeon. The performance was over for today and soon it would be over for this summer. For many of these early morning choristers the focus now will turn to raising their young and then preparing for another hard winter or a long flight home.

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Our experience was well worth the pain of that early awakening and we had the advantage of heading home now to tea and bacon sandwiches before climbing back into bed to catch up on the lost sleep. I couldn’t help but think about those early morning travellers, no doubt waiting nervously in their boarding queues checking and rechecking their passports and tickets. I had to admit to a tinge of envy when I thought of them soaking up the sun but then I reflected on the last two hours and remembered that sometimes the magic is right on your doorstep if you just go and look for it.

Tranquility

Tranquility