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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.

 

A Cycle Touring Festival. Really?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill on route to the festival

A Cycle Touring Festival? Really? It does sound a bit unlikely doesn’t it? In actual fact though it proved to be a huge success and very enjoyable indeed.

I’m not really surprised. Whenever we meet other tourers when we are away it inevitably leads to great conversations and many wonderful evenings in pubs or hostels swapping stories and sharing tips about gear and locations. The idea of bringing over two hundred cycle tourists together in the same location for a weekend could only ever result in much, much more of the same. Add to that some great food, a stunning location on the banks of The River Ribble in Lancashire, tales of amazing journeys by bicycle from all around the world and a couple or three beers and you have a heady recipe for a memorable weekend.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Although most of the speakers and slide shows revolved around amazing journeys, often around the whole world, there was no sense of feeling second class if your longest tour was a week or two in the Dales. I loved the fact that when you started talking to somebody you really didn’t know if you were going to end up discussing bikes on Virgin Trains or running out of water in the high Andes mountains. I particularly enjoyed the various snippets of conversation that I overheard as I wandered about. Things like; “then we ran out of money in South East Asia” or “we are touring novices, we’ve only done one trip. From Chorley to Istanbul”.

It’s tempting to make reference to the high points of the weekend but to be honest that implies that there were contrasting low points but there weren’t. Apart from when it was hammering on the tent in the middle of the night I wasn’t even aware that it rained for most of the first twenty four hours. Such was the quality of the entertainment and conversation all day long.

We have come home with a real feeling that we are part of a genuine community. We have made new friends, caught up with old ones and enjoyed some great laughs, mostly related to the ridiculous predicaments that cycle touring tends to generate. As a measure of how outstandingly friendly and generous people were Gill and I expressed an interest in trying out a tandem for touring and before we knew it we had not one, but three offers of a loan of one from tandem owners. The trust and generosity were truly moving.

Dinner with friends old and new.

Dinner with friends old and new.

The same message came over in talk after talk and in countless conversations; the world is full of kind and generous people, all you have to do is ask.

Pendle again but on the way home.

Pendle again but on the way home.

There is only one way to measure whether such an event was a success and that is to pose the question would we go again. The answer is a resounding yes from us, as it was from everybody I asked during the weekend. Well done to Laura and Tim and all the folk who helped to make it such a great weekend.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.