We are moored in a spectacular spot looking down on a body of water called Top Flash some hundred or so feet below us.
This would be a beautiful spot to laze away a sunny spring day, listening to the bird song and enjoying a rare high vantage point to take in the view. Alas it is not to be. Looking out over the river and the water below us the scenery fades to a misty grey in the distance and the colours of the new leaves on the trees are muted by heavy and persistent rain. The buttercup flowers are refusing to open up to greet the day and most of the dandelion heads have been stripped bare by the wind. No ducks, swans, swallows or songbirds are in evidence and even yesterday’s feverish farming activity in the nearby fields seems to have been suspended for today. As always there are some boaters that will travel in any conditions and I am anxious for all my carefully restored paintwork as they pass by, struggling to maintain a straight line in the squally winds. Staying put and waiting for tomorrow’s promised sunshine seems like the best option to me.
We can’t complain
about the weather, we have been travelling for over three weeks now
and it’s only the second day that we have felt obliged to sit out the
rain and only once have we been caught standing on the back of the
boat looking stoic with grim damp faces. The relentless east and
northerly breezes have pegged the temperatures back well below the
seasonal norm but occasionally in a sheltered spot the sun has hinted
at what it has in store and the pure joy of the progression of Spring
has kept our spirits high.
Yesterday was a bit
of a landmark moment as we joined the Middlewich branch of the
Shropshire Union canal. This section was closed last year due to a
major breach that emptied the canal and washed away thousands of tons
of earth, destroying a large section of the embankment that carries
the route high above the fledgling river Weaver. It took months to
repair it and as we passed over the newly formed embankment we were
acutely aware of how precarious so many stretches of the canals are
where they are raised up above the surrounding land. I love these
high vantage points with extensive views but it only takes a minor
collapse of the bank to start a process that can quickly escalate
into a disaster. Escaping water from a minor weak point can rapidly
erode the soil around it, deepening and widening the breach so that a
trickle becomes a torrent with frightening speed and with devastating
power to destroy everything in it’s path. History is full of records
of such events and knowledge of them lends a frisson of excitement to
the passage of these elevated and spectacular features.
Days like this are
an ideal opportunity to reflect and to be grateful to the navvies and
engineers that risked lives and reputations to build this amazing
network of waterways and to appreciate how precious but also how
fragile they have become after hundreds of years of use. It’s always
nice to get going again after a wet day like today but we need to be
grateful for the rain now and then as it forces us to stop and really
get a feel for a location and makes us take the time to absorb the
landscape and the history all around us.
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Well that’s our summer adventure over with and what an adventure it has been. A total of 673 miles, 386 locks, 60 lift and swing bridges and 26 tunnels. Then there were the four new engine mounts, four new batteries, one replacement fridge, about a dozen or so petty arguments but nothing too serious and an unknown quantity of lost paint. We’ve met some really tough challenges along the way but by far the greatest one is how to sum up such an experience in a few hundred words.
Lock approaching Liverpool
I started off keeping a daily log of highlights but that went by the wayside at an early stage so now I have to trawl my rapidly deteriorating memory to bring back the best and the worst bits of the trip. Actually when I cast my mind back the idea of best and worst makes a lot of sense because whilst I would describe the whole experience as hugely positive there were some difficult and unpleasant times to add balance and perspective. I hated the appalling abuse of the canals in some places, particularly in towns and cities where they are seen by some people as convenient places to discard all manner of rubbish. On the other hand some locations such as the Montgomery canal in Wales were amongst the most beautiful and peaceful locations I have ever spent time in. Idyllic landscapes full of an abundance of wildlife which probably represented about seventy five percent of the journey and even in the industrial parts there was always architectural and historic interest so I certainly don’t want to dwell on the bad bits disproportionately.
The fact that the backdrop to most of the last five months was a summer like nobody under the age of forty has ever enjoyed before helped to make what would always have been a great trip into an exceptional one. On many days we were leaving our moorings before seven in the morning and looking for a shady spot to stop by midday. I am almost relieved that the final four weeks were a bit of a mixed bag of weather if only so that we could experience a more typical period of cruising.
Oh for a shady tree
Highlights that spring to mind when I wander back down memory lane are certainly the journey into the heart of Liverpool and a wonderful week there exploring that fine old city and its culture.
In the heart of Liverpool
Meeting and making new friends amongst the boating community and all their generosity in giving advice freely and without any hint of patronising whilst treating us as if we have been amongst them for ever. Stunning sun rises and sunsets, especially on those magical occasions when the sky and trees were perfectly mirrored in the surface of the canal or the mist hung gossamer like over the water. Dazzlingly bright and colourful dragon and damsel flies and the incomparable blue of the kingfisher. Stumbling on a picture perfect canalside pub and making an impromptu decision to end the day there or more often, to mark it down as one not to be missed on the return trip.
Oh dear, another pub
Sitting in the late evening sun sipping a previously undiscovered local ale whilst perusing the menu and choosing our dinner. I confess that we did that far more often that we planned to because it was just so much fun. In fact one of the biggest problems of the trip was remembering that we weren’t on a two week holiday with unlimited funds.
There were long dark tunnels such as the Harecastle and dizzyingly high aqueducts like the Pontcysyllte which were unforgettable for being both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Bucket list items for most boaters and now well and truly ticked by us, twice!
Deep in the Harecastle tunnel
High on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
We encountered many fascinating towns and villages, often with histories intimately interwoven with the arrival of the canals like those based around the salt mines in Cheshire or the potteries in Staffordshire. The amazing engineering achievements of individuals such and James Brindley and Thomas Telford provided a fascinating background to our travels. From simple yet ingenious lock mechanisms to the goliath that is the Anderton Boat Lift, there was always something of interest to investigate and enjoy around every bend.
Mr. Brindley, canal engineer extraordinaire
Anderton boat lift
It is humbling to navigate those waterways that only exist because of the ingenuity and bravery of the designers, not to mention the sacrifice of blood, sweat, tears and even lives of the navvies that dug them. The many historic boats that we came across, both original and reproduction were beautiful and impressive but also a constant reminder of a brutally cruel bygone way of life which couldn’t be further removed from our pampered meanderings.
There was plenty of time standing on the back of the boat to consider the history of the canals and the industry they served. I sometimes wondered what those tough, hard working bargees and their families would have thought of our centrally heated home with all its conveniences of fridge, freezer, TV and washing machine. Their only focus was moving produce and materials whatever the weather and conditions. Comfort and living space was sacrificed to maximise carrying capacity and potential to earn with couples living in the tiniest of cabins and children often forced to sleep on top of whatever cargo happened to be in the hold. Not only did those people represent the reason for the canals existence but they are also now a source of endless fascinating social and industrial history that adds to the nature and beauty of the canals we travel today.
Ambush. An old barge now used as a fuel sales boat
We met some amazing people while we were away, some of whom will now be friends for life. We travelled for days and sometimes weeks with others, leap frogging them as we moved from village to town but often mooring up together to enjoy an evening exchanging tales that grew taller with each passing glass of wine or beer. Like most people with a common interest there is a camaraderie amongst boaters that means that you are never really alone. I have heard the two thousand miles of waterways described as a linear village and even with our limited experience I understand why. We would often get talking with fellow moorers and discover that we had common acquaintances on the network, even bumping into boats from our home marina in Lancashire. It didn’t take long to feel as if we were part of a very disparate but strangely interwoven community. An extended family of very different individuals all bound together by a common thread of life on the water and all the joys and challenges that it entails.
I’ll leave you with one more set of statistics that for me sum up the magic of our summer on the Golden Girl. It was a perfectly still, warm summers night and I was reluctant to leave the back of the boat despite the darkness; surrounded as I was by two hooting tawny owls, one screeching little owl and a total absence of cares in the world.
At the end of the day
All photos by Gill
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