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.
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.
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.
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!
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.