The thoughts, fantasies and random ramblings of Ashton Boatman Chris Leah, largely, but not exclusively, connected with his work for the Wooden Canal Boat Society, restoring historic wooden canal boats and putting them to work doing good deeds for the community and the planet.
Yesterday I was working at Knowl St along with Dave, Kim and Stewart. I was mostly tidying up after the gales. Dave was welding various items for "Hazel" and "Forget me Not". Kim was renovating "Southam"s big ex army range and Stewart was making replacement sections for "Forget me Not"s temporary deck. There was a bitter cold East wind but we enjoyed our work in spite of this.
"Hazel" was booked for a birthday trip on Saturday 1st October so we loaded up our guests at Portland Basin and towed her with "Forget me Not" to tie near Marple aqueduct. The weather was sunny and the water up to weir level so it was a really good trip with good company. Our guests really enjoyed it. We left them there as some of them were staying overnight, running back to Portland Basin with "Forget me Not" ready for the recycling trip on Sunday morning. Once again this was in wonderful autumn sunshine, we had a great bunch of volunteers and a good haul of saleable stuff to go to the charity shop.
After the trip me, Tony and Aaron took "Forget me Not" back up to Marple ready to bring "Hazel" back on Monday. For the return trip our only guest was Bridget, who was testing the boat for wheelchair friendliness. She's suggested a few modifications but thoroughly enjoyed the trip and I hope she'll be back as a volunteer. Here's a few pictures of the recycling trip and the Sunday evening trip up to Marple
The days seem to be rushing by at the moment. I can't believe it was nearly a week ago that we set off back from Bollington. we spent the first day going nearly to Macclesfield to wind then heading back towards Marple. Here are a few pictures from our trip.
Today we ran a short trip to Lumb Lane and back for a group called Just Life. http://justlife.org.uk/projects/justlife-manchester/ It was a really enjoyable trip on a nice sunny day. We had a few problems (as usual) with rubbish on the blade. One of our guests was from Africa and he was really interested in the plants that grow in Britain. He didn't know about brambles, stinging nettles, rosebay willowherb etc that we just take for granted. here's some photos.Yes I did point out to our crew member that dangling his foot over the side was not a good idea.
I have a strange idea of holidays. Unless I go on my own or with
my partner or a few good friends, canal boating is work, though work
that I enjoy. I don't like too much heat, so travelling to hot
countries is out, even if I could afford it and didn't feel bad about
the carbon footprint. I don't like inactivity, so lying on a beach is
not for me. I don't have a lot of money, so that rules out all sorts
What I like to do is to get on my bike and cycle slowly through
the land, seeing what I see and stopping to explore whatever
interests me. In the evening I find a secluded spot, usually a bit of
woodland off the beaten track, and set up camp. I light a fire to
cook a meal and sleep under a tarpaulin stretched between trees.
I mark a line on a map between two points picked pretty much at
random, then follow that line as closely as I can. 5 years ago I set
off on a line from Ashton to Zouch, a little known row of houses on
the River Soar near Loughborough. I got as far as Duffield near
Derby. Last week I decided to continue the journey.
My plan had been to set out on Monday, but the need to collect an
engine for "Forget me Not" caused me to put it off until
Tuesday. All of Tuesday was taken up with sorting out bilge pumps so
that the boats had a chance of staying afloat whilst I was away. It
was on Wednesday morning that I was finally able to drop the van off
with a volunteer driver and set out.Full of the joys of the open road
I set out on my bike, with bags and pots and pans dangling all over.
I got about 300 yards when a telltale psssshishpsssishpssssish from
the back wheel informed me that I had a puncture. I unloaded the
bike, upended it and removed the tyre. Soon the tube was mended, but
I discovered that my brand new bicycle pump would not put sufficient
pressure into the tyre.
On a soggy back tyre I rode back to surprise the boatsitters at
Portland Basin as I searched for another pump. The only one I could
find had been sunk when "Hazel" went down and was a little
rusty. It also lacked the right size tube, so I had to walk up to
Wilkinsons to get a universal one. Their tube leaked so much air at
the joints as to be useless, but I was able to transfer the universal
adapter part on to another tube and get a bit more air into the tyre.
As I rode on through Dukinfield it soon became clear that the
pressure was still not sufficient. I plodded on and soon came to Hyde
North station, heaved my loaded bike over the footbridge and enjoyed
bread and Houmus as I waited for the train. Soon the hourly nodding
donkey to Rose Hill clattered over the points and stopped at the
platform. I hauled my bike aboard the lightly loaded railbus and sat
down as the engines started to rev. I was on my way at last.
It's the time of
year when we don't get much sunlight and so “Hazel”s batteries
need to be topped up from the mains every now and then. She has a
huge bank of batteries that need a special charger and can't all be
charged at once. Someone, normally me, has to stay to switch from one
set of batteries to the other sometime in the night. I don't mind as
I get to stay in “Hazel”s wonderful back cabin.
To charge up I have
to shaft the boat the short distance across the aqueduct to
Dukinfield and tie up beside the premises of Dixon & Smith, Motor
Engineers. Pat and John are kind enough to let us plug in whenever we
need power. Tying up is easier said than done because of all the
rubbish in the canal. To get the bow close enough to get on and off
the boat, the stern has to be pretty much in the middle of the cut as
there is something big that catches the middle of the boat and causes
her to pivot. There was nothing to tie the stern end to as the boat
lies along the end wall of a factory. Between the factory and the
water there is a small bank of rubble so, some time ago, I drove a
pin into this and attached an old ratchet strap to it. In order to
tie up I have to hook the ratchet strap with the cabin shaft and pull
it to me. I then pass the stern line of the boat through the ratchet
strap and tie the line to the timberhead. At the fore end there is a
chain with a hook on the end secured to a post on the bank. All I
have to do is put the fore end line into the hook and tie back to the
When tied like this,
the back cabin is facing the railway bridge and I enjoy hearing Trans
Pennine Expresses growling by, interspersed with the occasional
freight. If I open the doors I can watch them and wonder if the
passengers notice my cabin light below them on the canal.
For ages the weather
has been rainy. I've been fed up of the rain, especially as I'm
trying to work on “Forget me Not” on dock. Now, all of a sudden
the wind has turned to the North and we're getting those cold clear
winters nights that I love. Tonight the mopstick was frozen to
crunchiness by 8PM.
I've been writing
all evening, or rather talking to my computer, my friend Jackie will
type up what I've recorded. Now it's bed time. The cabin is so warm I
keep falling asleep. I tried opening the doors to let the heat out,
with the range roaring away it gets extremely toasty in here.
Whilst writing the
above paragraph I fell asleep. I woke again in a cooling cabin a
couple of hours later, so I turned out the light and snuggled into my
sleeping bag. In the morning it was cold. I had a flask to make
coffee so I decided not to light the range. All I had to do was to
shaft the boat back over the aqueduct to Portland Basin. I quickly
dressed and put on all the gloves I could find, then climbed out into
the crisp cold still dark morning. After disconnecting the charging
cables I untied the lines, stiff with frost, and threw the ratchet
strap back on to the bank. I then grasped the icy shaft with my
gloved hands and, taking care not to slip on the frosty roof, pushed
the fore end out into the channel, cat ice chinkling as the boat
pushed it aside.
The stern end was
stuck on something and, as I couldn't exert as much effort as usual
because I was standing on a slippery surface, it took a while to get
it free. By this time my hands were becoming very painful in spite of
the 3 pairs of gloves that I was wearing. I decided that I would have
to go inside to warm up. I went into the main cabin and lit a fire,
enjoying its heat while I drank a cup of coffee.
When I had thawed
sufficiently I climbed back on to the roof in the now bright and
shiny but still cold morning, and started to move the boat towards
the aqueduct, jumping down on to the towpath to give her a good tug
with the fore end line before climbing back aboard to swing her round
with the shaft and tie up abreast of “Lilith”. With everything
secure I headed for home to get ready for another day working on
“Forget me Not”.
Despite having to scrape a thick coating of ice off the van
windscreen I was surprised to find that the cut had frozen overnight
yet again. Fian had spent the night boatsitting and I was a little
concerned as she tends to feel the cold. Smoke was drifting from
"Forget me Not"s chimney, so she was obviously awake, but I
followed proper boating etiquette and avoided her cabin until she
emerged. She said she had had a wonderful night and actually enjoyed
being woken by squabbling geese at 3 AM!
After checking the bilges and feeding Captain Kit I carefully
climbed across the ice sugared boats and started "Southam"s
big engine to back her over to the towpath side for easy access by
volunteers. "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" made a
fine sight breasted up at the wharf. Soon people began to arrive and
I had a busy time allocating people jobs, giving out safe boating
information to first timers, of whom there were many and generally
checking that everything was ready, dealing with a closed damper on a
range that was causing people to be kippered etc.
As 10 AM approached I asked everyone to climb aboard and began
shafting "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" round to
face towards Droylsden. This was easier said than done as the ice,
though thin, was a great impediment.
With the two currently unpowered boats a little way past 90
degrees of their 180 degree turn I noticed that the person I had
asked to steer "Forget me Not" had taken it upon himself to
go and start "Southam". Despite my waving he untied the
boat and set off, but stopped again when my dancing, waving and
shouting was relayed to him.
I had a dilemma that often occurs when working with volunteers.
It's important for smooth running and safety that everyone follows
the skippers instructions, but if you're too severe in imposing your
authority you soon find yourself working alone.
I ran over to "Southam", which was now drifting in the
middle of the cut and could only be accessed by climbing down off the
footbridge. I found that the stern end mooring line was still tied to
the T stud, it had been simply lifted off the mooring pin and thrown
aboard instead of being untied and coiled ready for use as it should
be. Even worse, the mooring pins had been left in the towpath. I
climbed back on to the footbridge, retrieved the pins and re-gained
the boat, explaining, I hope tactfully, that I had good reasons for
my steering allocations and pointing out the shortcomings re lines
Moving the boat forward I nudged her past the bows of the other
two boats and quickly explained that as I towed "Forget me Not"
forward the line from "Lilith"s stem should be taken back
and tied on to "Forget me Not"s stern. I took the strain of
"Forget me Not"s line on "Southam"s T stud and
pulled her forward, though she bounced off the knuckle of the Peak
Forest turn because "Southam"s premature move had resulted
in the turn being incomplete. My instructions must have been
misunderstood because "Lilith"s line had not been carried
to "Forget me Not"s stern and, as the two boats had
separated, had to be thrown some distance. At the third attempt the
line made its target, but almost too late. Boats do not have brakes
so, once "Forget me Not" was moving her 15 tons or so was
not going to stop. Seeing "Lilith" lurch into line I
engaged forward gear again, but a few minutes later waving and shouts
of Stop caused me to pull the lever back to nuetral again. "Lilith"s
line had not been properly secured and was slipping off. There was no
way I could actually stop the train of boats so had to let them drift
while the line was re-secured. "Southam" stemmed up un the
outside of the turn by the old Junction Mill chimney, now an icon of
Ashton. "Forget me Not" wedged in alongside and, once more,
the ice made things difficult as we tried to shaft the boats off the
rubbish. As I tried to back her out "Southam" picked up a
sturdy canvas bag on her blades, which had to be cut off, hanging
over the side with a knife while young Daniel Cocker held on to my
Eventually we got going again. Julie Edwards had rung up earlier
to say that she would be late and would catch us up. She was waiting
at Margaret St Bridge and hopped on to "Southam"s sterndeck
as we passed, sharing with me the noise and smoke for the rest of the
Despite my efforts with the knife, there was clearly stil some
rubbish on the blades. The engine was struggling and making black
smoke, the rudder was juddering and the water was boiling round the
stern rather than going back in a clear stream. I kept giving bursts
of sterngear to try to throw it off. This had some effect, but never
got the blade completely clean and it would always pick up some more.
As we passed the site of Robertsons Jam factory, now nearly
demolished, a grunt from the engine indicated more rubbish collected.
I tried reverse again and the engine stalled. Restarting it, I tried
forward again. This unravelled the rubbish, but, looking down into
the water, I could see something trailing behind that would obviously
go back on to the blade if sterngear was engaged.
We tied up "Forget me Not" and "Lilith"
breasted at Fairfield Junction quite neatly and winded "Southam",
a manoeuvre slightly impeded by the crap on the blade, then everyone
unloaded themselves and started digging out barrows from "Forget
me Not"s hold. There were lots of new people and setting off on
the collection round was a little chaotic. Most people got the hang
of it quite quickly though and soon the two teams were busying
themselves collecting from the Moravian Fields estate.
With so many people the speed of collection made up for time lost
at the beginning of the trip. I became a little disappointed by the
quantities and began to wonder where half the volunteers were,
beginning to grumble that they were probably back at the boats having
a brew, only to find that they were actually all busy emptying a
garage full of stuff that had been donated.
When we had knocked on the last front door and barrowed the last
load back to the boats, Fiona started handing out dishes of the
excellent food that she had brought, with alternative options for
carnivores and herbivores. Time to relax and eat and chat.
After two plates of excellent grub, I picked up the cabin shaft
and started poking at the tangle of garbage on the propeller. This
turned out to be mainly carpet, which was wound tightly on and bound
with all manner of fibrous plasticky stuff. After much prodding and
pulling I managed to get it all off, building a great mound on the
The next task was to wind "Forget me Not" and "Lilith".
This is carried out by pulling them forward alongside "Southam"
then, as their bows approach the tug's stern, pulling back on their
front lines whilst shafting the stern ends sideways. This usually
swings them round quite neatly and puts them in a good position for
setting off, which was achieved quite neatly this time.
With the train travelling quite nicely along the canal and Kevin
enjoying having a go at tug steering, I decided to walk alongside,
stopping at Lumb Lane bridge (one of the lowest on the canal system)
to try out the video function on my new camera
The early morning frost had given way to a really nice sunny day,
with refreshingly cold air. I enjoyed my walk, but kept my eye on the
boats to make sure that everything was OK. I jumped back on board
before the tricky turns through Guide Bridge, which were negotiated
neatly by the steerers. I took over at Margaret St bridge to deal
with the tricky arrival at Portland Basin. The procedure here is for
"Southam" to head straight for the wharf then swing round
to run parallel to it. "Forget me Not" follows and, if you
judge it right, she will run neatly alongside the wharf to be stopped
with her back end line (which is on the front of the engine room)
while "Lilith" neatly slides alongside her. "Southam",
once the towline is thrown off, then goes over to the towpath side of
the canal to make it easy for volunteers to get off. She is then
shafted back across to tie alongside "Lilith" (trying to do
this by engine power is a nightmare because of the impossiblity of
manouvering this boat in reverse gear).
Very quickly all the volunteers melted away in the afternoon sun
and I made my way home.
On Saturday afternoon we took "Southam", "Forget me
Not" and "Lilith" for a trip to the bottom of the
Marple flight to be in position for today's trip for "Hazel"
sponsors. We took all 3 functioning boats partly because we didn't
know how many guests might turn up on Sunday, partly to provide extra
cabin space for volunteers staying overnight and partly because I
like towing trains of boats. On the trip out we had a lot of trouble
with rubbish on the blades and this contributed to the overheating
problems that we've been having with "Southam"s engine.
Bex, whose birthday it happened to be, brought a big pan of
chicken stew, and a smaller pan of veggie stew for any veggies- much
appreciated by Ike who eschews the eating of flesh. We stopped near
Hyde to eat this. It was followed by birthday cake made by Emuna, who
was too ill to come ( she has M E )
"Southam" only just fits through Woodley tunnel (she was
once stuck in it for 7 hours) so we went through very gingerly. All
was well and we reached Marple about 7 PM. The winding hole was full
of BW boats and Ike had to shaft some of them out of the way so that
we could wind the 3 boats. As we were doing this Neil Goodier's
hireboat "Border Rose" arrived. We tied "Southam"
and "Forget me Not" breasted, stem to stem with "Border
Rose", with "Lilith" behind under the railway viaduct.
With the boats secure we walked up the locks to Marple in the dark
and found a pub called, I think, The Bulls Head. I'm sure it was some
part of a bull. I very rarely drink and had more than is good for me.
Some very good discussions took place and Bex did much networking
around the bar. I expect everyone there to turn up for the recycling
trip next Sunday.
The return walk to the boats became a little tiresome, not least
because of the amount of flavoured petrol, or something very like it,
that some people had consumed! In an outbreak of religious fervour
Bex tried full immersion baptism in the canal. Fiona bent my ear
about formulating an alcohol policy for the society, probably a good
idea, though I'm not sure how you get people to adhere to it when
reason fails and it's too late or too far to send them home.
Sunday morning I awoke in "Lilith"s wonderful little
forecabin, built last year by Tony Forward, and drank coffee to ease
the dull ache in my brain. I dressed in my boatman costume and gave
Bex my work clothes as hers were still drying over "Forget me
Not"s range. Ike had been involved in discussions with nocturnal
ramblers interested in the boats and had not slept for a second
successive night. I don't know how he does it. Jim and Daniel Cocker
made bacon butties and we busied ourselves cleaning and tidying the
boats ready for our guests.
Lester and Janet Mayo arrived with Alan Crompton, the Lancashire
coracle man. It was good to see him as he's been unwell for a while
and unable to come on recycling trips. Pans of food were loaded on
and "Southam"s range stoked up. Soon the Marple Lions
arrived en-mass, a total of 19 "Hazel" sponsors in all.
With everyone arranged on the boats and numbers carefully checked,
we set off, trying, and failing, to avoid nudging "Border Rose".
Soon the convoy was snaking around the bends on the wooded approach
to Hyde Bank Tunnel. Of course, someone fuelled up the range as we
approached the tunnel and my eyes were stinging by the time we
emerged from the low Northern portal.
We tied up for lunch at Gee Cross, oposite a luxurious house built
with reclaimed bricks on the site of an old mill. Lester and Janet
served up an excellent meal of meat and pasta. The sun had come out
so we were able to dine al fresco on "Forget me Not"s
We had some difficulty getting going again as "Forget me Not"
was well and truly stemmed. I pushed her off from the bank and had to
walk to Captain Clarkes bridge while Lester steered "Southam"
I enjoyed the sound of her chuntering engine and the sight of the
train swinging round the tortuous curves of the canal. From Captain
Clarkes I concentrated on washing up, boiling water in the big old
copper kettle on "Southam"s huge ex army range. Chores
done, I enjoyed chatting with our guests in the fore end.
At Portland Basin we stopped on the Tame Aqueduct to unload
everyone. We couldn't hang about as a boat wanted to turn into the
Peak Forest and we were blocking their way. Lester took "Southam
round the turn and I used a long line from the T stud to strap her
off the junction strapping post. I then started shafting "Forget
me Not" and "Lilith" across to the wharf, only to find
that I was in the way of the Huddersfield Canal Society trip boat
which wanted to back out of the Warehouse arm. Soon the boats were in
place and the trip boat away, pans loaded into vehicles and everyone
on theirways home, except Chris and Kath who were boatsitting.
If you would like to become a "Hazel" Sponsor please click this link http://wcbs.org.uk/?p=393