Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Moored in Manchester

The Beetham Tower in the city centre
Here we are moored in central Manchester, looking out at the bright lights of the improbably proportioned 47 stories of Beetham Tower from our spot where the world's first industrial canal met the world's first passenger railway at the site of the Roman fort that marked the beginnings of Manchester.
Quite a historic spot and rightly designated an 'urban heritage park' though, in truth, history barely gets a walk-on part in an area that, despite its few bars and restaurants, seems just a little shabby compared to the nearby city centre.
Joining the queue for the daily Plank Lane bridge opening
It's been an easy run here – no locks on this canal - punctuated only by an enforced stop at Plank Lane lift bridge, a busy bridge which had failed to lift properly and was waiting repair, the queue of boats either side being let through each day at 2pm for a few minutes.
On the gloriously sunny Bank Holiday Monday, the watery procession became quite a local tourist attraction with a small crowd watching our progress through.
The whole of this length of canal is flanked by derelict mine workings which have been reworked into nature reserves and lakes. It has become a fantastic resource for local people in what is still a pretty deprived area and was teeeming with walkers, runners, cyclists and people simply hanging out in the sun.
Disturbingly, among the hangers-out we spotted a shambling drunk with can of Stella, Staffie, equally drunk female partner – and a couple of air rifles in a gun-bag over his shoulder. I'm not sure he was actually doing anything illegal but it was not a nice sight.
Last time we were in Leigh we saw a youth riding a high powered motorbike along the towpath and a couple of days later a youth riding a high powered motorbike along the towpath was killed when he crashed into a bridge. Leigh is not my favourite place!
At a bridge in the middle of Leigh the Leeds Liverpool Canal Leigh branch becomes the Bridgewater Canal in a seamless transition of ownership from C&RT to Peel Holdings marked only by a modest sign. There's a handy Aldi right by the canal here, too, (new I think) so that was a 'must moor' moment.
Tucked up for the night by the Swing Aqueduct
Re-stocked, we plodded on looking for a mooring, caught in that trap between it being too early to stop and then too late to be travelling but still unable to find a suitable spot. By now we were in the seedy edge of Manchester but finally we tucked into a handy spot on the moorings for the Barton Swing Aqueduct.
Modern Manchester is steadily moving outwards
Today we pottered on into Manchester along a route familiar from previous trips, past the massive bulk of the Man U ground, the high level Metrolink tramway and, across the Ship Canal as it now ran beside us, the modern towers of glamorous Salford's Media City.
The graffiti saturated lock onto the Ship Canal
Here along the canal was still the familiar graffiti ridden squalor, though the towpath itself has been much improved, but modern Manchester is steadily eating into the dereliction of the old as a mass of building sites testify.
Tomorrow it's time to tour Manchester.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The road from Wigan Pier

A last look back at the final Wigan lock
Goodbye Wigan Flight; we won't be seeing you for a while – a long while, I hope. As a lady boater going the other way said: "the Wigan Flight and I are old enemies." A sentiment we share after our fourth traverse of the 21 locks.
To be fair, it wasn't such a bad day. The forecast rain held off and, indeed, the sun shone almost too fiercely at times. We were on our own (only once have we done this flight in partnership with another boat) but we are a skilled team: I lockwheel; Mrs B brings the boat in and out and, after coming in, pulls her gate shut and works the paddles on her side.
The view that says one hour done but three more to go
We are, as I said, razor sharp and but for the fact that we were following a somewhat slow moving pair in front, would have been down in rather less than the four and a half hours it took us. It wasn't their fault they were slow: one was single handed so they strapped the two boats together to free up an extra lock operative.
Ah, but the Wigan doesn't take kindly to such tricks: some lock gates don't open fully so a pair of boats struggle to get in together and the devilish Lock 75 (is this the worst on the system?) has a final trick - should you open both bottom gates fully, you'll need a passing rugby team to haul them shut again. Open them fully? I barely managed to open them at all!
A lock-keeper was on duty but his main duty was clearing out the ever present weed and keeping lock pounds full. He helped us through one lock but for about 17 of the remaining 20 we had to do the full George – fill them; go in, empty them and go out. In other words, very few boats were coming up the locks: its reputation goes before it.
A shame; it's not that bad (well, actually, it is) but the locals are largely friendly and you get considerable job satisfaction at the end of it all. With just a tad more maintenance, though, it could be so much better.
Anyway, we finished the flight and turned onto the Leigh branch of the canal where two final locks are waiting like a couple of after dinner mints. Despatched, in each case, before a fascinated audience of families and small children (BTW in sufficient numbers these are admirable lock beam operators) we were finally free of locks for the next few days.
I'd been wearing my old pedometer for the occasion and gave it a check: it reckoned I'd walked 7.5 miles. It certainly felt like it!

Some serious walking the plank tonight
But the views across the flooded mine workings are fine
The Leigh branch is surrounded by old mine workings, now water filled nature reserves. The views are fine; the moorings are not. We hung ourselves a few feet from the shallow bankside and settled down to enjoy a suitable post Wigan feast, prepared in double quick time by Mrs B – pork fillet followed by the traditional lockwheeler's dessert – steamed treacle pudding. And a bottle of red wine to dull the aches of weary muscles.

Wigan volcano erupts? No, just clouds

Saturday, 27 August 2016

A hard day on the towpath

Bandoliered with bottles and only 85 more miles to go
I suspect a few of you have done a 5km charity run in your time. Now just imagine doing 40 of them in succession, non-stop, through the day and night.
Crazy? Well that's what the ultra marathon runners on the towpath today were doing. They had started from Liverpool at six a.m. and were aiming to be in Leeds, 127 miles away sometime tomorrow.
Bandoliered with water bottles and with running vest pockets brimful of energy bars, sweeties and any other carb filled goodies, some were still running well at 40+ miles while others looked fit to quit but probably wouldn't. Good luck to you all, you completely barking mad buggers!
Still running smoothly at the 45 mile point
Compared with theirs, my struggles on the Johnson's Hill Locks were minor. They were still hard work, though – worse than I remember. Some gates wouldn't open, others wouldn't shut.
At the bottom we met a very unfortunate single hander coming up. He'd climbed the Wigan flight the day before; gone early to bed, knackered and woken up today to find his bike, brass roof vents and windlass all stolen. He didn't discover the last of these until arriving at the Johnsons locks - so he had to walk to the boatyard at the top, buy a new one and walk back down to his boat. Poor bloke.

Passing the canal festival at Botany Bay mill
After the locks we passed the Botany Bay Canal Festival but, with no traditional boats to admire, decided to press on past motorway noise plagued Chorley, finally stopping at Adlington – described in the guide as 'a small industrialised town'. Precisely.
By now the craving for fish & chips was three days old. Last night we found the village chip shop had closed down; tonight we found the local chippie didn't open on Saturday nights. I settled for f&c from the local all-purpose kebab, burger, pizza and f&c parlour. My stomach wishes I hadn't: a grey piece of fish in a leathern batter and oven chips which tasted as though they'd been re-heated several times since leaving McCains.
A fine pike sadly found dead in the water
Speaking of fish, Mrs B hooked a magnificent pike – sadly it was a dead one which she landed on the bank and showed a little gaggle of fascinated small children its terrible teeth. Nightmares tonight then. Only joking, dear.
Tomorrow the 21 Wigan locks. Thunder and lightning is forecast. Bring it on!
 (I should add for the benefit of single-handers and others dreading Wigan that there's a Facebook group 'The Wigan Flight Crew' who will help to pair up boats and can even turn up to help you through the flight. What a great bunch.)

Friday, 26 August 2016

Bye bye Blackburn

Everything looks better on a sunny day
First the weather report: today was a good day – by northern standards anyway. The sun shone, though the wind made it too chilly for tee shirts (unless you're northern and have developed that weather resistant skin which even young girls have these days).
Anyway it was a brief run from our country stop into the urban sprawl of Blackburn, a place that's as bad as its name. The canalside is the usual post-industrial mess of dereliction while the canal itself has a scum of floating plastic bottles and food cartons, and under the surface lurks a formidable quantity of weed mingled with semi-sunk rubbish.
Vast piles of weed hauled out at each lock
The weed can't be helped; it's summer, weed grows. At each lock are heaped vast piles that canal workers have hauled out yet there's still enough to foul the prop repeatedly. We spent 15 minutes in one of the locks heaving a tangled mass of weed and the remains of a large zipped holdall from round our prop.
I'm sure there are nice bits of Blackburn but they aren't round the locks. At one we encountered a local lad, spaced out on something considerably stronger than the can of lager he was holding. Mumbling incoherently, he offered to help – and I had to haul him back from falling in the lock. We left him sitting on a lock beam, drifting into a world that was probably nicer than the one he actually lived in.
Further on a couple were walking a muscular Staffie wearing a muzzle on a harness you could restrain a disturbed adult with. He kept taking hungry looks at Brian who – aware of the muzzle and harness – stood on the boat roof and barked back.
The 'bungalow garden' with buzz cut lawn and no flowers
Leaving Blackburn behind I got a chance to indulge in one of my favourite boating pastimes – back garden viewing. It's a bit like nosing in your neighbour's living room window but even better.
A lovely and lively canalside garden
Back gardens are fascinating, from the 'bungalow gardens' with grass buzz cut to a green glow and not a plant in sight to elaborate waterside concoctions created by someone who watched too many Ground Force episodes. No collections of gnomes on this stretch though.
The 'I don't actually like the canal' garden
This afternoon we ran through countryside that, while lacking the Pennine dramas, was still pretty in the sunshine, to finish up at the Johnson Hill Locks - a seven step prequel to the upcoming Wigan flight.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

We're in Lancashire so it must be raining

Even rubbish has its uses
And it is! Raining. If the stretch of canal west from Burnley wasn't dreary enough then the weather has added its own dark charms today. It's been dank, damp and finally downright wet.
I'm grumbling two days in a row, which I try not to do but, frankly, I would say the dozen miles we've done today show the canal at its least endearing. Out of Burnley it's unloved and unkempt, passing decrepit old factories, derelict sites and scrappy housing. As for the canal, that's treacly with silt, weed and rubbish. And all to the backdrop of that M65.
Pendle Hill last month
The weather makes such a difference to your spirits - six weeks ago we sat moored in glorious sunshine looking out at Pendle Hill. Today we were huddled inside, supping soup, crouched round the back cabin stove at the same spot, with Pendle shrouded in misty gloom.
And Pendle Hill today
And on to Church - not to worship but perhaps to pray for some change in fortune for this little town whose run-down, tumbledown canalside seems to sum up everything that has changed about northern England in the last hundred years. It's so sad to see sliding into irreversible ruin the once wonderful warehouse building with its large arch under which barges loaded cargo.
Slipping slowly into ruin, the fine warehouse at Church
From Church – halfway spot on the canal – the waterway twists and turns along the contour line of steep sided hills, crossing over the M65 at onre point (that must have taken some doing) before weaving past Rishton and closer to Blackburn.
That's not a town whose six locks you want to tackle at night in the rain so we shoved ourselves as close as possible to the bank (which wasn't very close) and battened down the hatches.
Tomorrow it should be brighter - and so should our moods.
But there's nowt like rainwater for washing with

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Down in the dumps

A huge and empty mill, one of many along the canal here
Back in the long gone days when I was a motoring hack I went to the launch of the Austin Princess, a vision of ugliness that was yet another nail in the coffin of the British motor industry.
A witty fellow hack summed it up with pithy precision: "It looks like the chap who designed the front and the chap who designed the back weren't talking to each other".
I could say that about the Leeds Liverpool Canal. It is, as they say in football, a game of two halves. And I can't help but think that the chap who designed the Yorkshire side and the one who designed the Lancashire side where we are now weren't on speaking terms.
The Yorkshire side runs through glorious countryside along almost all its route; it actually seems to avoid centres of industry (of which there are plenty). It challenges the boater with staircase locks and swing bridges.
Across the county border, the Lancashire side seems to gravitate towards industry; purposefully aim itself through the nastiest of it. And it squirms and twists about to keep locks to the minimum - saving them all up for Wigan at the end.
An oasis of charm among the industry
So one drops down from the Barrowford locks with a bump. Metaphorically. Gone are the distant views of green hills. Instead the canal is trapped between the now semi derelict Victorian warehouses of Nelson that harbour mechanics' workshops, tile depots, builders' yards and merely pigeons, and pressing it on the other side - out of sight but never out of earshot the M65 motorway.
It's a sorry mess and even the cheery waves of the brightly dressed Asian ladies on the towpath can't do much to lift the mood. Only a few days ago we were up in those glorious Pennines.
There is just one spot where Nelson lifts its head and smiles back to the boater: rows of terraced houses along cobbled streets drop down to a tree edged mooring spot, with a church spire beyond. It looks unchanged from the days when the canal began, and probably is - apart from the inevitable double glazed windows.
I had moored and walked through the streets there to find a supermarket on a previous trip: they teemed with little Asian kids out on the roads playing games of cricket. Just as kids had been doing for a hundred years.
Down at the water's edge, an elderly householder in a union jack tee-shirt toiled in the immaculate garden of his small house, where another ensign flew on a flagpole. I'm not sure he felt comfortable with the changes he'd seen. If that's so, it's a shame.
Burnley, fine old buildings can't hide the depression
And now we are in Burnley, a town whose whole purpose for existence disappeared with the death of its cotton weaving industry. In the town centre fine old Victorian stone buildings are interspersed with the worst of 1970s concrete-and-cladding development. It's not a pretty sight.
Tomorrow we will be on the edge of Blackburn and then comes Chorley and then Wigan. As I said, this is a canal of two halves.

Friday, 19 August 2016

The only way is down

Barnoldswick Square and, under canvas, the beach
We've reached the summit of the Leeds Liverpool Canal after a short, enjoyable day's cruise and a longer, even more enjoyable evening.
We climbed through the final three, Greenberfield Locks in the company of a laid-back Lancashire couple on their first hire boat holiday and enjoying every minute of it. Their cheery company made up for an encounter with one of those Admiral of the Fleet types who insisted on bossing everyone around at the lock as if we were novice numpties.
We left our cheery chums behind to stop at Barnoldswick for some emergency food shopping. The town doesn't promise much from the canal - all factory frontages and houses with England flags – but what a surprise it proved. The centre is a delight; it seems to be a magnet for retro-cum-junk shops (we found three) and there's a cobbled market square lined with cafes that was quite continental on a sunny day. It also held a huge marquee which turned out to be 'Barnoldswick Beach', full of specially laid seaside sand and beach activities for this miles-from-the-coast town. What a clever idea!
A mile beyond the town we moored up at Salterforth - right in front of our locking buddies once more. We were both planning to head to the canalside Anchor Inn for a meal but first 'northern daughter' had to run back along the towpath to retrieve her car. For someone who can manage 15 miles of trail running, a mere five up a flat towpath was a mere jog.
The Anchor's amazing stalactites
And so to the pub. It's renowned for the stalactites in the old cellar so we took a look and they are just impossibly spectacular. A mass of pencil thin lime strings dangle from ceiling virtually to the floor like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
It was going to be a simple pub meal but Thursday is quiz night; Alan and Julie joined us and – in between rounds of drinks – we racked up high enough scores in the quiz rounds to come third.
Today, remarkably hangover free, we waved them goodbye as they headed back to base while we sat and looked at the rain which has suddenly dispatched the sun. Well, I guess we are in Lancashire now and it always rains here.
Saying goodbye to our boating buddies