One Sunday we were passing the Ashton Packet Boat moorings on a recycling trip when someone called over, “Do you want to do some filming with John Sergeant”. “Possibly” I replied. “Ring Brian McGuigan” they said. Brian and Anne Marie McGuigan are the excellent couple who run our local fuel boat, delivering coal and diesel to boats around the Cheshire ring on the big motor Alton. Apparently the TV company had been in touch with them but they weren't interested.
A couple of days later I had a call from Oliver the producer and a long chat about what we could do with “Hazel”. He was a bit nonpluseed when I explained that the boat had to be towed. Knowledge of waterway traditions seemed to be a bit sketchy.
The timing was perfect. They wanted to film at the end of June and it was looking like Hazel would just about be ready to go by then. We were gathering a crew who needed some boating training and the project would need some publicity. A plan was hatched. We were to tow "Hazel" with "Forget me Not" to Bugsworth Basin where Mr Sergeant and the film crew were to join us for a 4 day trip back to Ashton.
A couple of weeks intensive work on Hazel had her just about ready to go and a merry band of volunteers, most of whom had not worked a lock before, bowhauled her through the centre of Stalybridge to join Forget me not, which I'd brought up from Ashton the previous evening, at Staley Wharf.
Working the pair down the next 3 locks with a team of green boaters was interesting. I had to be everywhere at once to make sure that everyone was following my instructions, and the occassional long distance bellow was required when someone was about to draw the wrong paddle. As we worked locks 2 and 3 a walker came over to me and said I should watch out for the following boat as it was in a dreadful hurry and had been ramming gates in their haste. Sure enough the boat appeared and its skipper asked to pass us as we were very slow. When I refused he claimed that it was the law of the cut that we should give way to him. I pointed out that in 45 years on the cut I had never heard of any such statute.
The Huddersfield Canal was unusually busy on this particular day. Usually, even in high summer, you can navigate these locks without meeting a single boat. At Whitelands Tunnel (opened out over 100 years ago but still very narrow) we had to hold back as an Eastbound boat emerged. They said there was another following, so we breasted up to wait. Inevitably our eager follower caught up and tried to pass, but was persuaded to tie up behind us and form an orderly queue. The skipper came along to chat and insist that they were very experienced boaters and the walker must have seen something that happened on the other side of the Pennines where they had to force the gates open with the boat because the leaks were so great that they couldn't get a level. I didn't want them breathing down my neck as I shepherded our trainees through the rather slow and awkward lock 1W, so, when the uphill boat appeared I let them go ahead.
When we were finally clear of this lock, hours later on our trip than anticipated, I sent someone ahead to get ready to strap us round the turn into the Peak Forest Canal. We went through the Asda tunnel and the awkward bit by Cavendish Mill where the retaining wall collapsed in 2002 and they're still arguing about who should pay for it, then into Portland Basin where Martin Gately was busy working on Lilith.
As we approached, someone on the bow threw a line to the person who had gone ahead. He took a turn on the strapping post that thankfully is still there (though the area is often occupied by anglers) and on my instructions tightened it at just the right moment to snatch Forget me Not's bow round into the narrow entrance to the Peak Forest Canal, releasing it again when instructed and passing it back onto the boat. It didn't go quite to plan as Hazel gave the copings a nasty bash, but that was my fault as i'd given her too long a line.
The 8 lock free miles from Aston to Marple allowed people to settle into the simple business of steering the boats. At Well Bridge we encountered a fallen tree, trimmed back but still almost impossible to miss with a full length boat. Forget me Not's engine was labouring as there was something on the blade that would simply not come off. In both Woodley and Hyde Bank tunnels we were accompanied by a following wind blowing at just the same speed as the boats. For some reason somebody always makes up the ranges when approaching tunnels, so we emerged red eyed in a dramatic cloud of smoke.
Its always tricky arriving at the bottom of Marple with a pair but not intending to work up the locks. There's a long low bridgehole with no towpath followed by a right hand turn into a basin that is usually lined with moored boats. Until you emerge from the bridgehole you cannot see if there is a 70 foot gap to slot into. On this occassion there was a suitable gap and our crew did well in breasting and tying up reasonably neatly.
It was pleasant to wake up early in Forget me Not's cabin and revive the fire which I'd kept in overnight with sawdust. To lie in bed drinking coffee with the doors open to the early morning sunlight, listening to the dawn chorus. Soon people were up and about and bacon and eggs were cooking in Hazel's kitchen. Eventually we were ready to go. Maxine Bailey had her painting work interrupted by this trip so she had come along. She went with Andy and a chap from one of the moored boats whose name I forget to work the motor boat on ahead while I showed the rest of the crew the techniques of bowhauling up Marple.
All went well except for a slight problem when the motor boat caught on a bottom gate, demonstrating that you have to be constantly alert whilst working through locks. Most lock accidents happen because no-one is watching the boat.
At the top of the 16 locks is the junction with the Macclesfield Canal. We were heading for Bugsworth* so the motor tied against a grassy bank just beyond the junction, having the first experience of the shallow rocky edges of the upper Peak Forest canal.
Working the butty up the locks I had enforced a strict rotation of duties, so everyone had their fair share of turns at drawing paddles, opening gates, steering and, of course, performing horse duty. By the time we reached the top and shafted across to breast up to Forget me Not they were all in need of rest and refreshment. I haven't yet explained to them that on future trips there may only be a couple of them to work the boat through the flight! It gets easier with practice.
The upper Peak Forest is narrow and shallow with rocky edges as already noted. It's also a lot busier than any of the canals around Ashton. When we were at last ready to set off we had to wait for ages for a suitable gap in passing traffic, then we had a struggle to get Forget me Not free from the shallow water.
The upper peak tested everyone's steering skills, especially on the deeper draughted motor boat. The slightest deviation from the channel would result in the motor stemming up and inevitably being caught up with by the butty. There are also numerous drawbridges, so a couple of our crew had some good exercise walking ahead to prepare these.
The previous night one of Hazel's two sets of gas bottles had run out, so I had hoped to replace them at New Mills marina. Unfortunately we could find nowhere to tie up reasonably near the marina, so we carried on. Eventually we reached the turn into the Bugsworth arm and plodded carefully up the narrow shallow waterway to tie, breasted, in the first of the extensive basins.
The next day was a Saturday and we spent the morning and a good part of the afternoon cleaning, tidying and waiting while filming took place elsewhere. We had been sworn to secrecy about the filming. A series of steel boats were taking water. I wanted to fill Hazel's tank but every time I prepared to move her, another boat nipped in. I went over to the water point to arrange a slot with the other boats. “Are you here to film with John Sergeant “ asked the man. “It's supposed to be a secret” I replied. “Oh, everybody knows, that's why we're all leaving”!
With the tank full it was time to wind. We started to do this at the entrance basin but were advised that most pairs couldn't get round there and we should go up to the wide a little further up. There was plenty of room to wind with Forget me Not powering the boats round nicely, then chugging back and backing into the lower basin to wait some more. I dropped Forget me Not astern of Hazel to facilitate our celebrity guest getting aboard, and carried on waiting.
At last they arrived, and instantly looked worried. "Who are all these people?" Asked Clive the director. I explained that they were our volunteers and not only were they interesting people but we were combining this fiming trip with crew training and they would be essential for working the boats down the locks and anyway we needed someone to steer the butty. They weren't happy but conceded that someone would have to steer Hazel, everyone else would have to stay inside with the curtains shut. Personally I think they'd have ended up with a much more interesting programme by including our volunteers, but what do I know.
We began filming with me introducing John to the boats and explaining why there were 2 of them. We got the cameraman and sound man on board then set off with Andy steering Hazel. Almost immediately we picked up something on the blade which made the engine smoke, much to my embarrassment. Regular applications of sterngear failed to throw it off.
John didn't seem too happy about perching on the gunwale and soon he was wanting to steer. We exchanged positions and carried on with our conversation, interspersed with constant reminders from me to stay in the middle. Inevitably, before long, we experienced the first of many stemmings up.
Secret crew members were surrepticiously unloaded every now and then to run ahead to drawbridges which magically opened ahead of us. We travelled on, with John acting a character that lay somewhere between the Queen and Paddington Bear. Behind us Andy was working hard to keep Hazel in a straight line while the motor boat zig zagged along the cut. “You know” said John “we've bumped into a few boats along here but I don't think they mind do they”?
The target for the evening was the Swizzels Matlow sweet factory at New Mills where they were planning to film on the next day. We dropped John off for the camera opposite the marina, then immediately filmed him getting back on again before continuing past the sweet factory to tie up in an elfin glade just beyond. We said goodbye to the TV crew and enjoyed the rest of the day making a meal and chatting.
Next morning Pauline cooked us all bacon and eggs as we waited for the film crew to arrive. They were a little late and there was some concern about keeping to the schedule. We soon resumed our leisurely progress, impeded by frequent encounters with the rocky bottom of the canal as John struggled to get used to steering a deep draughted boat. He seemed to be enjoying being treated like royalty by passers by on land and water.
At Disley some modern bungalows back on to the canal. John struck up a conversation with a man in the back garden of one of these. He turned out to be a chef who had just got home from his shift in an hotel. “Would you like some capuchinos?” he asked, so we waited and waved past a series of pleasure craft as he prepared the coffees. All grist to the mill for a lighthearted documentary.
The Peak Forest is not a canal that you can hurry. The director, hiding in Forget me Not's cabin, glanced at his watch with increased frequency and anxiety, for they had a busy schedule for the rest of the day.
John spotted some girls on horses and asked to stop. Being unable to get near the towpath, the only possible stopping point was in the bridgehole that the horses and their mounts were crossing. I held the motor in the narrows and hoped that no boats would wish to pass as the interview with the girls continued. When they were finished with, there developed a conference between director, producer and star. Sure enough, the top lock training boat came along and had to wait. Eventually I persuaded the film people that other people wanted to use the canal and we'd better get moving.
It had been agreed that we would tie up for the night at Brick Bridge, the last one before Marple top lock. Because the canal is fairly narrow there my plan was to tie up singly rather than breasting to make it easier for boats to pass. When we got there I struggled to find anywhere that I could get Forget me Not anywhere near the towpath because of all the rocks lying in the bottom of the canal. Eventually I found a spot, but Hazel, drawing about 2 feet along her length, would not come near. We had to pull her alongside the motor and hope that boats could get by.
Our TV friends went off to film at some nearby locations before John returned with the cameraman to stay aboard Hazel. Clive explained to us that for all kinds of complicated reasons the only people to stay on board were to be John and the cameraman. I had hoped that One of us could sleep in Hazel's back cabin, but the director said no. For “all kinds of reasons”, the only one that he specified was insurance, none of us could stay on the same boat as our celebrity guest. That left room for 2 in Forget me Not (none of us fancied sharing the cross bed or sleeping on the floor) but there were 3 of us. Luckily Tom and Pauline had brought a tent. The problem was, where to pitch it.
They said they would be back at about 6 pm, so we busied ourselves cleaning and tidying inside Hazel and making up beds for our guests. After much discussion we decided to try pitching the tent on Forget me Not's temporary deck. This worked very well, so we had our tea and waited, and waited, and waited. At one point our TV people showed up on the nearby road in a vintage car, then they went again. It got dark, and we carried on waiting. Eventually I decided that they weren't coming, so I went to bed on the motor boat's sidebed. As morpheus began to creep up on me I was suddenly brought back into the land of wakefulness by voices and lights outside. They had arrived. I got up and showed them into Hazel. John then acted out a rather Paddington Bear like scene of confusion and difficulty of dragging his suitcase through the boat.
The three of us crawled into our sleeping bags and spent the night aboard Forget me Not . I discovered that Forget meNot's gunwale still leaks. Andy discovered that I snore and John slept like baby in his tent. Aboard Hazel, celebrity and cameraman found their berths very comfortable..
In the morning I was expecting that we would enjoy breakfast with our guests, but instead they filmed Mr Sergeant making a big show of finding the cupboards bare (not true) and going off for breakfast in a greasy spoon. I was beginning to get concerned about the way that the film might portray Hazel and our society. Every time I had tried to talk about the boats on camera John had changed the subject. I pointed out to the director that we agreed to this trip on the understanding that the film would give good publicity to our project, reminding him of my lifelong hatred for Griff Rhys-Jones since he totally failed to mention the Wooden Canal Boat Society when he filmed a trip on Forget me Not. He told me not to worry, we would get a good plug in a voice over.
They said that they'd be back to film our descent of Marple locks in the early afternoon, so I decided to pop back to Ashton check on the other boats. Before I left a motorised River class boat, belonging to A &R Rothen, came along heading towards Whaley Bridge. The Rivers were some of the last working narrow boats built, made of welded steel they are rather like slimmed down Thames lighters. Only two motors were built, of a rather unusual and unsuccessful design. This one is a former butty that has been given a conventional motor stern and is now used for canal maintenance work. It was steered by our friend Fred who ran a recycling trip for us a few months ago when I was unable to be present. I was pleased and surprised to see that it got past our pair without difficulty. As I'd heard that the fuel boat Alton was heading our way I walked round on to the Macclesfield canal to warn them about the potential difficulty before heading for Marple station.
The railway from Marple to Guide Bridge (change at Romiley) is a very pleasant ride parallel to the canal. It's a surprising survival as most of the minor railways of the area disappeared in the days of Dr Beeching. With unstaffed stations and “nodding donkey” trains (Leyland buses mounted on wagon chassis) the line provides a good service to Woodley and Hyde and is quite well used.
Back at Ashton the boats were all floating happily and I had time to pop into the shop and call at home before getting the train back to Marple. When I got there our editor had arrived in the hope of having a trip down Marple locks. Colin Scrivener had arrived to enjoy the trip down the locks, but it was not to be. We spent a pleasant afternoon chatting and drinking tea, but by the time that Colin had to leave there was still no sign of the celebrity and his retinue.
Their eventual arrival co-incided with a sudden deterioration in the weather as squally gusts of wind whipped up wavelets on the waterway and dark clouds threatened more than the few droplets of rain that actually fell. A plan was decided on and cameras set up accordingly. Celebrity John was now steering Hazel with me on the roof trying to direct operations. Andy was steering the motor boat. A couple of people had gone ahead to prepare the lock, my plan being for Forget me Not to go straight into the lock. John's straw hat blew off, much to his overacted distress (he had a spare in case of such an eventuality). As we a approached the lock I realised that I hadn't explained my plan clearly enough. Not only was the top gate not open ready but the paddles were not yet drawn to fill the lock. I gesticulated wildly to our lock team to prepare the lock whilst formulating a revised plan. This involved much use of the long shaft to control the boat in the vicious gusty wind and bring her reasonably gently alongside the copings above the lock. Butties have no brakes and so sudden changes of plan can be difficult.
Quite how all that will appear on TV I'm not sure. Mr Celebrity was mainly concerned that the cameraman should rush back up the towpath to get a shot of his still floating hat. The secret crew had emerged from Hazel and were now plainly visible as they started working the motor, then the butty, down the 16 lock flight. Andy got told off for smoking as he steered Forget me Not as tobacco use cannot be shown on TV nowadays lest it be seen as a cool thing to do
After a few locks the TV people met up with representatives from the Marple Locks Heritage Trust. They fitted the motor boat with Go Pro cameras, little video cameras that can be clipped on wherever you want them and will record until the battery runs out, and sent us on our way while they went off to film something else. I re-organised our crew, electing to work the motor myself whilst everyone else was to work Hazel down. I stayed one lock ahead to keep ane eye on things and ran back occassionally to give advice. All went well.
Because we had started so late on the locks it was a close thing whether or not we would be finished before dark. At lock 5 it was getting dusk when Oliver came to reclaim the Go Pros. By the time we reached lock 1 the last glimmers of light were fading. We roughly breasted up below the lock and those of us who were staying fell into bed, while others faced a drive home.
The main job for us on the final day of filming was to capture the crossing of Marple aqueduct. This was to be filmed by a drone. We crossed the aqueduct slowly with the drone whizzing about above our heads while John and I discussed the splendour of the scene. We then had to do it again, so I took a line from one of “Hazel”s stern end timberheads and dragged the two boats backwards ready to repeat the procedure.
Ashton under Lyne is an interesting town. It was a boomtown of the mid nineteenth century growing rapidly as the cotton trade expanded, the burgeoning mills being fired by local coal dug from local pits and in many cases delivered by boat. At one time it even had its own religious cult, the Christian Israelites, who believed that it would be the site of the second coming of Jesus Christ and at the height of their influence planned to build a city wall to join up their four gatehouses. It is also the Northern terminus of the Peak Forest Canal.
It was with some difficulty that I persuaded the TV people that they should actually bother with the lower Peak Forest canal rather than terminating their journey at Marple. There seems to still be a view widely held in the South that “dirty Northern towns” have nothing of interest. With the aqueduct filming over, the plan was for the TV entourage to go off to Hyde and film at boxer Ricky Hatton's gym. The boats were fitted with go pro's again and set off for a pleasant journey along the winding wooded water route, to tie up, as arranged, just before Dukinfield lift bridge.
Another long wait began as, it turned out, a conference took place in a nearby pub. Eventually the star and retinue returned to the boats, but continued their conference for some time. At this point I witnessed the downside of celebrity status as some people tried to but in to the private conversation that was going on, calling on John to pose for their cameras. He deliberately turned his back on them in a way that could be seen as rude, but if this sort of thing happens frequently it's difficult to see how one could deal with it politely without disrupting ones working day. He was, after all, at work.
With the filming soon to finish we had a group photo taken, all sitting on Hazel's roof with our feet on Forget me Not. With this done the drawbridge was lifted, the engine fired up and we carried on the last quarter mile, stemming up only once. A dogwalker on the towpath asked john if Forget me Nots decked over hold was for him to practice for Strictly Come Dancing. “Thank you” said John as he turned his head away from the towpath joker. Apparently references to his star performance on that programme don't go down too well.
Arrival at portland Basin from the Peak Forest is quite a tricky manouvre with a pair. You have to give a burst of power as you leave the narrow Tame aqueduct to give the butty some speed, then immediately go astern to avoid crashing into the moored boats and allow the butty to slip alongside. The boats have to be tied abreast quickly and neatly, again, to avoid collisions, then, if you're quick, the buttys momentum is used to help the pair to swing round more than 90 degrees to tie up alongside the wharf. All went beautifully until I pulled back the gear rod to reverse the stern ends alongside the wharf. It came right back and the boat carried on in forward gear. The linkage had come apart and I had to rush through into the engine 'ole to pull back the gear lever.
With the boats alongside the wharf a final piece to camera was fimed, there were lots of thank yous and handshaking and a promise from the director to arrange for a donation to be sent to us.
It had been an enjoyable few days and I looked forward to seeing the finished product on the television. It was eventually screened in May 2016, which would have been an excellent time to tell the nation about “Hazel” and her mission to help people with mental health issues by taking them into the waterway environment. I had, however, an uneasy feeling that, a verbal promise from a TV director might not be worth the paper it was written on.
My fears were confirmed when I saw the programme. The only mention of the Wooden Canal Boat Society was in the credits at the end. There was nothing to explain that our star was travelling on important historic wooden boats, in fact, to the uninitiated the boats must have seemed a bit of a mystery.
Far be it from me to tell an established TV director how to make a programme, but actually these boats are very interesting to most people. Whenever we travel anywhere with them we see people aiming their cameras and 'phones as we pass and people with only a passing interest in waterways come over to as about them. When I mention their project to give time in the waterway environment for people who are mentally unwell, this often strikes a chord, for even if the person I am talking to has not themselves suffered mental illness, they will almost certainly have a friend or relative who has. By reneging on our agreement the director not only made me very angry but he actually made a much less interesting programme.
Unsurprisingly, the promised donation did not immediately turn up, however, shortly after the screening someone from the TV company rang up to ask if it was OK to pass my number on to someone who was interested in the history of the boat. I said that was fine, then went on to explain how disappointed I was at the lack of integrity that had been displayed. He was very apologetic and said that he would pursue the matter of a donation.
After a little while a generous donation of £100 appeared in the society's bank account. That's £25 for each day of filming! Shortly afterwards Beth and Arnold Allen, who have been great "Hazel" supporters, visited. Arnold said he would contact the company. He did so, resulting in a further £400 personal donation from the boss.
*The village referred to was the transhipment point between the Peak Forrest Tramway, which brought limestone down from quarries around Dove Holes, and the Peak Forest Canal. For centuries it was called Bugsworth but, during Queen Victoria's reign, the residents decided that they wished to expunge any suggestion that they may be troubled by small bitey creatures, so they changed the name to Buxworth. I prefer to use the original spelling.