So long swallows, see you next year

A few days ago I sat on the back of the boat with the hot sun warming my back and a squadron of swallows swooping and diving overhead. It could have been mid summer were it not for a hint of gold adorning some of the nearby trees or the distinctive autumnal song of a robin in the hedgerow. Today, autumn has stifled the summer’s last gasp and those golden leaves are dancing on the rippling surface of the water, dislodged by a bracingly cold breeze. I haven’t seen a swallow since then. Maybe, like us they are now on their way to their winter grounds. The next time we enjoy their display they will be skimming the waters of the marina next spring and we will be preparing to set out once more on another summer of adventure.

Looks like autumn, feels like summer

We are now on very familiar waters, retracing our steps and counting down the days until we make the final turn onto the Rufford branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal and descend the seven locks to our marina to hunker down for the winter. Any journey’s end is a time of sadness but it’s mixed with the satisfaction of having created another bagful of memories that we can dip into during the long dark nights ahead. We met up with a couple of friends on their narrow boat yesterday and they asked us an often repeated question, “why do you go back to the marina in the winter? Why not just carry on cruising?” It’s a question we often ask ourselves, in fact, it was always our original intention when we bought the boat to spend the first winter in a marina and then take off with no plan to return and nothing to pin us down. What got in the way was community, friendships, the feeling of belonging somewhere and having roots. There are practical difficulties and discomforts to winter cruising that put us off but it’s mainly the people that draw us back to the same place each autumn. Like the swallows, we have become migratory.

Our third summer of wandering the waterways got off to a late start due to lock down but what we have missed in weeks we have more than made up for in new discoveries. We were more or less resigned to sticking to routes we have done before but a last minute change of plan gave us the opportunity to sample the Caldon, Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals and they proved to be some of the most rewarding we have ever done. They are mostly quiet peaceful places reaching deep into the heights and beauty of the Pennine hills.

Spectacular views on the Macclesfield canal

Towns and villages are small and sparsely scattered, entertainment is in the form of wildlife, expansive views and an abundance of flowers and bird song. The once busy and gritty industrial nature of the canals has been softened under a mantle of wildness, occasionally uncovered or preserved to add interest but only rarely dominating the scene.

The Golden Girl in her elements

There are great opportunities to combine walking with narrow boating in all of these areas and it’s relatively easy to gain amazing views from minimal effort. An hour or so of gentle climbing brought us views across the Cheshire plains to Welsh hills and north over Manchester to the Pennines. Quiet moorings were easy to find with nothing but the stars and silence for company. Places where you can watch a heron or a kingfisher catching its prey or a kestrel riding the breeze. Magical moments are two a penny on all of these canals and we are already talking about return visits to sample them in the early spring perhaps.

Beautiful turnover bridges on the Macclesfield

As always we have met some lovely people along the way and although it hasn’t been quite so spontaneous because of the Covid effect we’ve still enjoyed the company of boaters, fishermen and tow path wanderers as we have meandered along. People always have questions about life on a narrow boat but then we always have questions about the locality so we are happy to trade information. We even managed to keep smiling and saying good morning to each and every one of the sixty five competition fishermen strung out along the bank that we passed the other day. With each season that passes we are increasingly likely to come across familiar boats and boaters and it’s always great to catch up and exchange a story or two whilst carefully tip toeing around the fact that neither of us can remember each other’s names or where we met. Most encounters start with “oh look there’s that couple from *insert boat name here* and I have no doubt they do the same. We really should write things down.

Foggy autumn morning in Altrincham

It’s several days now since I started writing this and the last few mornings have found us rummaging around looking for gloves and thermals so it was a delightful surprise to see more swallows today still skimming over the canal optimistically looking for food on such a chilly morning. In a few days we will be settled back into our berth while they will be setting out on their amazing journey to Africa. When it’s cold and dark and the water in the marina is freezing over this winter I’ll look forward to seeing the first of the swallows return in April to start the cycle all over again and herald another great summer on our Golden Girl. Whenever we get to this part of a summer’s journey it always feels like we are going home. Maybe that is what would be missing if we just cruised throughout the year with no base to return to. We often consider the idea of just travelling endlessly but for now we’ll just stick to being swallows.

So long summer, see you next year

Bumbling around Bollington

Bosley Cloud

Our very leisurely progress along the Macclesfield canal has brought us to the small town of Bollington and the scenery along the way just keeps on getting more spectacular. It’s so rare to be in such hilly terrain but this area even gives the Leeds and Liverpool Pennine section a run for it’s money. On a short evening stroll along the tow path we found ourselves peering down onto roads fifty feet or more below us with steep climbs to and from the tow path. The high embankment that carries the waterway towers over rooftops in places and in 1912 the town paid the price of this ambitious construction when the waters breeched and cascaded to the streets below. Building the canal through such terrain was incredibly ambitious and you can only admire the sheer audacity of the engineers and the belief they must have had in themselves. The towering Adelphi and Clarence mills that loom high above the water are further evidence should it be needed of engineering excellence from the early nineteenth century.

The nature of the landscape and the twisting route of the canal through Bollington make it difficult to get a perspective of where the town centre is. We chose our mooring for it’s proximity to a handy boatyard for supplies and because it offered plenty of light and open space for what we wanted to be a two night stay. Being reasonably fit and mobile we never considered how far it might be to amenities like pubs or restaurants but for the poor folks who arrived and moored behind us it became quite an issue.

The very confusing back to front map

We were alerted to their arrival by the loud roar of an engine and excited voices which predictably put me in meerkat mode to see what was going on. What I found was a hire boat with five mature people on board trying to moor. They had the prow in about ten feet behind us and one chap managed to step off and attach a mooring hook to the steel Armco which seemed like a perfectly good start. The helmsman then decided to give the boat full power with the tiller hard over to port which had two effects, one desirable, one not. The rear of the boat moved towards the tow path which was great but the whole boat also took off at speed in a forward motion which was inevitable. With their boat now six inches from the back of ours they managed to get a couple of the crew off to desperately pull on ropes. The voices had gone from excited to full on panic mode now. During a brief lull in the bedlam I politely pointed out that we were about to run our engine to top up the batteries and heat up water to which they replied that it would not affect them as they would be out and about exploring. My intention had been to give a subtle hint that they might like to pull back a few feet but it passed them by.

The gentleman on the front of the boat asked if there were any pubs or restaurants close by so I referred him to the large map on the towpath showing all the local amenities and left them to it. About ten minutes later curiosity got the better of me and I looked out only to find them still tying up. The man on the prow seemed to be weaving some kind of rope sculpture around the T bar on the front of the boat whilst the rest of the crew wrestled with centre and rear ropes with mixed results. They did get settled eventually and after a quick spruce up they gathered excitedly around the map to plan their evening out. They didn’t seem to be able to make a decision so I popped my head out and pointed out that the map was actually back to front and had to be read as if in a mirror to make any sense of it. I thought that this information and the fact that they had engaged a local jogger to interrogate would be sufficient to steer them towards supper but it seemed not. It was now forty five minutes since they had arrived and they were all back on the boat. Gill and I came to the conclusion that after much dithering they had decided that all the eating places were beyond their walking abilities and they were preparing to move to a more convenient mooring. The man on the front was peering at his macramé and wondering how to undo it.

On our late evening stroll we found their boat abandoned about a mile up the canal. It was loosely tied to mooring pins amongst a jungle of vegetation. The back end was about two feet from the bank so presumably they had all had to clamber off the front and as we looked down from the canal there they were heading off in the fading light in search of a late supper. I really hope they had a nice relaxed meal and that they do a bit more planning before their next stop. I also really, really hope that after a few drinks and arriving back in the dark they remembered to get back onto the front of the boat rather than the back!

We’ve had a good look at Bollington this morning and can confirm that it’s very hilly indeed. Think of an upended egg box with a canal running through it and you’re pretty much there. It seems to have a couple of nice looking restaurants and pubs so we plan to call here on our way back and get some healthy exercise whilst eating and drinking to excess. It’s all about balance isn’t it? Oh, and maybe a bit of planning.