The Wigan Flight and my new friend Joe.

It seems the canal network is full of kindness but it is also full of characters too. Put the two together and you have Joe.

Joe and his son Malcolm.

I’ll come to Joe in a minute but first a bit of context. All the way through our maiden trip on Golden Girl we were acutely aware of a particular elephant in the room. Most trips and adventures have renowned obstacles that have to be overcome and our route back to Fettler’s Wharf Marina was no exception. We had already conquered the Foulridge Tunnel; at 1640 yds long it is the fourth longest on the network and boasts a great anecdote about a cow that fell in the canal at one end of the tunnel and for reasons best known to itself decided to swim to the other end where it was reputedly rescued and revived with brandy.

That exit to the Foulridge Tunnel is a long way away!

The tunnel was challenging but didn’t compare to the ogre that was constantly playing on our minds; the Wigan flight. It consists of 21 locks squeezed into a two mile stretch of water which takes boaters through the town of Wigan and drops over 200ft in the process. It is notoriously hard work and because of water shortages the top and bottom locks are only open for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Although there is a place part way down to stop it isn’t the most desirable of mooring places so once entered the locks effectively have to be completed in one hop.

We had been concerned about this section of the trip because of our limited experience and everybody told us that we needed to ‘double up’ with another boat to make the job easier and quicker. That’s where Joe and his son Malcolm came in. We met them as we moored up at the top of the locks the night before the big adventure and although wary of Joe’s appearance at first he turned out to be a real rough diamond and a seasoned traveller of the waterways. His boat was practical rather than pretty and at sixty years old it was still ten years younger than him. Both boat and boater had a ‘used’ look about them but what they lacked in style or finesse they made up for in years of hard earned experience.

We were up and away by 8am and whilst Gill went off with Malcolm to organise the first lock I was given a little pep talk by Joe and challenged to follow him via the “really tight turn” into the lock. I nervously tracked his wake and made it in neatly alongside him without bumping into anything and only later found out that Joe had been tempting Gill into a small wager on whether I would make it first go or not.

Nervously approaching the top lock.

What followed was four hours of hard graft, some really great inside knowledge of technique and an endless succession of stories from Joe that got taller and taller as the locks got deeper. I got a bit over confident at one point and got caught by the currents between locks and before I knew it I was heading down the culvert that takes excess water around them. With racing heart and a good deal of thunderous reverse I managed to back away but it was a timely reminder not to take anything for granted and to maintain concentration. Joe didn’t say a word as I came in alongside him but his face clearly said, “don’t get cocky lad, you’ve still a lot to learn”.

Gill and Malcolm did an amazing job. Gill was always one lock ahead making sure it was full and the gates were open for us to enter whilst Malcolm worked the lock we were in. I was given a free passage for the first couple of locks but then Joe gradually introduced me to tasks that I could manage by leaving the boat briefly to shut a gate or drop a paddle before nimbly, and nervously, jumping back onto our boat as she began to descend into the watery depth.

There was a definite element of master and apprentice about Joe and I and whilst he was a great teacher he couldn’t resist a bit of teasing at my expense. I got completely soaked by a cascade of water leaking from the side of one lock and as Joe chuckled at my predicament he wryly commented, “Aye they do tend to let a bit of water in on that side”. Now I knew why I was on the left and he was on the right!

Doubling up in a lock

In less than four hours and having had a break half way for a brew we were through the flight and whilst Joe and his son went off for a few well earned pints and some dinner we plodded on to our evening halt at Crooke in the pouring rain. We were more than a bit soggy by the time we tied up but nothing could take away the feeling of achievement and a fair bit of relief at having overcome that particular demon. As our friend said later in a text message, we were very definitely not lock virgins any more.

A tale of three halves

A tale of three halves

It would, of course, normally be a tale of two halves but I decided that the flight of six locks at Blackburn required a half all of its own. This is the account of just twenty four hours on our first trip on the narrow boat and I hope it gives a flavour of the huge variety of emotions and experiences that we are going through.

We moored about a mile outside Blackburn on Sunday evening in what appeared to be a quiet and safe location but it didn’t stop us walking down the canal towards the town to assess the situation and we chained the boat to the steel banking just for extra security.

A haven of peace and tranquillity. We hoped.

I’m sure we will relax in time but for now it’s all belt and braces. Being the only boat in the vicinity made us feel more vulnerable and three youths pushing a broken down scooter along the tow path soon after we had moored did nothing to bolster our confidence. However, the night passed peacefully and we were up early, determined to have plenty of time to pass through a proud industrial northern town which sadly, has a very dubious reputation amongst boaters. We had already met a couple two days ago that had had all their windows on one side of the boat smashed when they left it for an hour to go shopping in one of the local supermarkets. This and all the advice we had been given suggested just passing straight through without stopping but this wasn’t an option for us today.

There are six locks in the middle of Blackburn and between the fourth and fifth lock is a service station. This is a facility provided by the Canal and River Trust to take on water and empty toilets. As I had hinted at in the previous post, we hadn’t been very clever with our waste management which had left us in desperate need of these services. To add to any anxiety about the situation my good friend Neil had warned me that getting the boat onto the mooring as you come out of the fourth lock was really tricky. I had, apparently, “to get my arse right across the pound”.

We cruised steadily towards the industrial side of town keeping a wary eye out for floating debris, a particular hazard to boats in these locations. There was plenty of rubbish and even a floating wheelie bin to avoid but no dreaded ropes, wire or shopping trolleys to snag on the propeller. Well at least if there were, we didn’t see them. The scenery transitioned from well heeled up-market car dealerships on the outskirts with high tech security and millions of pounds worth of stock to run down, semi-derelict Victorian factories which must have been a wonder and salvation to their workforce when erected but now looked sad and decayed. TRIM, a local graffiti artist was everywhere. Every bridge, wall, gantry and information sign for the next five miles carried his, or her tag. We marvelled at some of the precarious situations that must have been required to apply the signature. Nothing was too much trouble for TRIM.

Well done TRIM

As office workers in smart town shoes made their way along the canal tow path to work, nearly all with a cheery hello for us, we relaxed and tried to enjoy the positives of this once significant cotton industry hub. Very soon we were at the first lock which just happened to be situated right next to the scene of a recent major fire.

Entering the first Blackburn lock

The combination of the stench of burning and the abundance of unsavoury litter and objects in the locks didn’t make for a pleasant sensation as Gill opened the gate paddles and I began to descend into the stinking hole, inch by foul inch.

 

Gate paddle blocked by Blackburn’s finest filth

But soon I pulled out of the fourth lock and I’m proud to say that I got ‘my arse across’ without too much trouble and after doing our chores we were on our way and through the final two locks. The seedier side of Blackburn gave way to suburbia and a pleasant lunch time rendezvous with friends who wanted to see our new plaything.

Filling up with water. (We didn’t take photos of the other operation)

And so to the third half. The next couple of hours were a sheer delight. Nothing but green fields, golden tinted leaves and an abundance of wildlife surrounded us as we motored gently towards our evening stop. The only obstacles in the water were ducks and swans and the smells were earthy and rich, and full of a hint of change from summer to autumn. A little, low, late afternoon sun was all that troubled us as we meandered around gentle contours, under an abundance of strong, stone arch bridges. The corners of the under arches carried deep grooves, worn by the ropes that were used to tow the barges by horse in the days when the canals really had to earn their keep. The idea of leisure boating would have been alien to those tough old boating families that kept the mills of Blackburn supplied with fuel and materials a couple of hundred years ago. By comparison our day had been easy but then we have been softened by the luxuries of modern day life. So we were glad to pull up adjacent to the Top Lock Pub at Wheelton and the prospect of a cosy evening of food and a beer or two and the company of fellow travellers.

Safely moored at Top Lock

Any hint of anxiety that had preceded the day had evaporated long ago, smothered by the glorious experiences of the afternoon. Such are the ups and downs of this particular journey.

image_pdfimage_print