Never ending contrasts

The media these days is full of pictures of discarded plastic floating round on our oceans but the seas don’t have exclusivity in this problem. There were times today when it was depressing to see just how many empty bottles, beer crates, buckets and traffic cones end up in the canals and as they drift on the wind they always seem to end up buried in what would be beautiful reed beds. Plastic appears to make up about ninety percent of the debris in the water but that figure may be wrong because bicycles, bedsteads and shopping trolleys don’t float do they? It’s sad to see the canals abused in this way but the feeling never lasts long as nature has a way of absorbing the punches and coming back fighting to delight us with its resilience. The sight of a female mallard shepherding her brood of twelve new born ducklings puts things back into perspective and reminds us that things are not all bad. The youngsters dart about on the water like small jet propelled bundles of fluff, peeping frantically when our boat momentarily separates them from mum. The coot chicks by contrast seem more like grumpy teenagers as they mooch about in the reeds dressed in a covering of hairy black down and sporting punk like red hair styles. I’m sure their parents think they are beautiful.

Little bundles of trouble
Mum thinks you’re beautiful

Today we enjoyed another kind of stark contrast passing as we did through industry and countryside as we made our way around the outskirts of Wigan.

Shipmates Bob and Marie

Our boating friends Bob and Marie had joined us for dinner at the pub last night and over an excellent meal they had agreed to accompany us and help with the locks on our route. It was good to have a few helping hands on board as we anticipated that we might have problems with low water levels at the point where the Leigh branch of the canal leaves the Leeds and Liverpool in Wigan. Over the past few days we had been hearing stories of boats becoming stuck on the bottom of the canal and even one poor chap who was marooned overnight. Whilst Bob and Gill went on ahead to prepare locks for us I was entertained by Marie, a Wigan lass through and through as she explained the enormous changes she had witnessed over the years. The area around Wigan pier itself (not a pier but a point where coal was tipped into barges on the canal) had gone from a hub of industrial activity based around coal and weaving to a brief spell as a heritage museum and themed pub to what is now a tired and sad looking collection of uncared for waterside buildings in a state of disrepair. The decay and neglect however is once again counter balanced by the appearance of smart new office buildings and apartments overlooking stretches of the canal. All part of the ever changing history via the industrial revolution and beyond.

The Orwell pub, sadly closed and boarded up
Pit brow lass at Wigan Pier

After a late breakfast taken as we filled up with water we negotiated the last two locks on the Leeds and Liverpool and took the right hand turn onto the Leigh branch. On either side of the canal exposed rocks and debris clearly showed how low the water was, at least eighteen inches below normal levels. I had been advised to stick firmly in the centre of the canal to avoid grounding and all went well until we came to the approach of the final lock. Staying strictly in the middle channel was suddenly not an option as a boat was coming the other way and as I gingerly inched over to the right I was dismayed to see two more narrow boats entering the lock in front of us. Gill then put the lid on any idea of a simple passage through by announcing over the radio that a fourth boat was waiting to come up the lock. We crept cautiously over to the right hand bank expecting to ground at any moment but to our relief we were able to stay afloat on the mooring whilst the others manoeuvred though the lock.

Once through this tricky section the tensions eased as the water levels deepened and we had a delightful trip through the Wigan flashes. These expansive water features on either side of the canal are the result of mining subsidence and have become a haven for a huge variety of wildlife whilst providing a playground for water sports enthusiasts at the same time. The banks of the canal have had to be raised as the surrounding land has sunk creating the sensation of travelling above the surrounding countryside with expansive views in all directions. It’s yet another example of how travelling on a narrow boat is a never ending series of contrasts, all experienced at a pace that really allows you the time to absorb them for all their different merits. Our next destination is Astley Mining Museum and a chance to uncover more of the rich industrial heritage of this region. More on that in the next post.

Nature winning the day once more

Finding the good

These canals we are travelling are turning out to be like people of wildly different characteristics. Liverpool was like a crazy bunch of excited party goers in part and some down and out toothless old men in others. West Lancashire reminded me of gentle folk who don’t like change and keep themselves largely to themselves except when attending mass on Sunday. Moving west and south through Wigan, Leigh, Salford and Stretford was sad, nostalgic, intimidating but also stimulating. Like meeting a crowd of recalcitrant hooded teenagers but finding amongst them old mine and mill workers with fascinating stories to tell. This menagerie of places and history has finally spat us out through the leafy suburbs of Sale into the most pastoral Cheshire countryside. The gentle cooling breeze brings us a little relief from the unseasonally hot sunshine and the sound of spring birdsong adds to an air of chocolate box English scenery. I feel like I have been at a wild party for the last two weeks, full of the most amazingly diverse people, loud music, exotic food and finally arrived home in the early hours to a calm, quiet and familiar home and a warm cosy bed.

It probably hasn’t been quite what people first imagine when you talk about travelling on a narrow boat. All the marketing material features images like the one below.

Tranquillity, just like in the ads

It’s always sunny, the canal is bordered by weeping willows kissing the calm and quiet waters which gently transport a traditionally painted craft and her passengers back in time to a golden age of unhurried tranquillity.

Early morning idyll

Admittedly, we have had a little bit of that, and we are hoping for a lot more of it over the coming months but the marketeers don’t mention that all this idyllic scenery is joined together by large, dirty and sometimes downright ugly bits of urban sprawl. Our journey so far has consisted of rather more of the sprawl and not so much of the neat and tidy but the irony is wonderful. Towns and cities like Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester may owe their very existence to the canals that connect them. For us, they represent fascinating but often unattractive obstacles that have to be traversed in order to get to the glorious countryside that makes travelling on a narrow boat so relaxing and satisfying. To the great canal engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the exact opposite.

Mining and canals went hand in hand

Travelling through some of the industrial landscapes can be depressing, even daunting, with tales of evil drug users lurking under every bridge, just waiting for an easy, slow moving target to rob or simply vandalise. It’s easy to become blinkered by this image and to only see the negative. The mindless destruction of the graffiti rather than the artistry and skill it demonstrates. The irresponsible discarding of the ever present bobbing beer bottles and not the fun and laughter of the youngsters who consumed the drinks by the canal because they had nowhere else to go. The dark, windowless warehouses and factories that tower dark and menacing above the water linger in the mind like nightmares. But there are bright new waterside developments of apartments, bars and restaurants in equal measure that are bringing new life to these old arteries of the industrial revolution. There is positive everywhere if we look hard enough and history and heritage galore.

Out with the old (To be fair this was being saved)

In with the new

 

Art or vandalism?

We have probably started our journey with a disproportionate share of the dark and dreary but it looks very much from where I am sitting tonight that the balance is going to be redressed over the next few weeks. When the barons of the industrial revolution had made their fortunes from mining and building canals at the expense of near slave labour they built grand houses in places like Cheshire to retire to away from the filth and poverty of the cities. Now it’s our turn to go and have a look at how the other half lived.

Hello Cheshire

All photos by Gill

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.

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