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