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.
Today we sold the wheelchair lift that we didn't use on "Hazel". It came from the old "Still Waters", built by Cammell Lairds apprentices, which sank and was sold off. The new owners donated the lift, but it needed a lot of work. We got given a better (unused) one later. It's gone to Lincoln to be refurbished.
As we needed some muscle to shift the lift I invited people to come and help. Aaron, Tony and Kim came along and we spent the rest of the day tidying and sorting out the yard. Still plenty to do but sales of surplus tackle are gradually clearing space.
We stacked a pile of cabin building timber on top of one of the containers. This is Leylandii, surprisingly, though I don't much like the tree, it produces good, rot resistant timber. This lot came from a friend's garden in South Manchester. It was felled by the excellent tree surgeon Joe Hodgson and planked at a local fence manufacturer. There's a pile of smaller wood to collect for keeping us warm when we get a chance, and Joe has another bug tree to fell there, which may yield more useful timber.
On Monday 23rd October we
started our canal clean ups. We were expecting two groups to join us
and I was a bit concerned that there would be more people than I
could find jobs and equipment for. It was drizzling. Phil Smith from
CRT arrived with lots of litter pickers, grappling irons etc. Luke
arrived and we decided to hang on to wait for others. No-one showed
up, so me and Luke set off for lock 1W. We hauled out a few shopping
trolleys then went up the lock.
Aaron and Kim joined us and we looked
for the obstruction in Whitelands tunnel. I think it's mostly stone,
which we're unable to get out, but Aaron and Kim pulled out a huge
lorry tyre which couldn't have been helping things.
(This series of photos by Luke Clarke)
At lock 2 we used
the boat to access an area covered in rubbish that had been annoying
me for ages and cleaned it up. Kim had to leave above lock 3 and time
was pressing so we moved on to Stayley Wharf.
It had been a bit
disappointing but we had a respectable haul. I cycled down to
Portland Basin to get the van and, as dusk fell, me and Aaron loaded
the van with scrap iron, piled cut foliage in a neat heap and piled
non recyclables on the bank.
Being a Monday I was fasting, so I
enjoyed a bit of solitude aboard “Forget me Not”, reading a book.
I went to sleep early but was up again well before dawn. I drove to
the boatyard to pick up batteries and more scrap, then to Portland
Basin to pick up even more scrap and change batteries on various
bilge pumps. From here I went to Mullaneys scrapyard up near
Hartshead Pike, unloaded the scrap, then back to Portland Basin where
the van was to be collected for shop deliveries. I cycled up the
towpath to get back to the boat about 9.30 in time for Phil to pick
up the rubbish.
Tuesdays team were mostly volunteers
organised by Peter Hawley, the Stalybridge Town centre Manager. About
half a dozen arrived. I suggested backing up to clear the narrows
near the aqueduct as this is a favourite place for getting stuck if
the level is down a bit. Trainee skipper Alan took the controls as I
steered the reversing boat with a shaft from the bow. We got plenty
of road signs, bikes and trolleys out of the narrows. Some of the
trolleys were so embedded in mud that we had to drag the grappling
irons with the boat to get them out. One raised concerns that the
iron might be caught on a plug to drain the canal, but it was only a
Some of the volunteers preferred litter
picking, and there was plenty to find. They dragged bulk bags along
the towpath to contain it all. Above lock 4 Phil met us with the CRT
pickup to take away the rubbish. As I pulled away with the boat I
noticed that the grappling iron that I was towing was causing much
disturbance and globs of oil. I'd hooked on to a motor scooter which,
with much effort, we dragged on to the bank, then pushed to above
lock 5 to load it. I informed the police of our find.
The mess on the counter after landing muddy stuff with the grappling iron.
The narrows below Armentierres Square
is a happy hunting ground for shopping trolleys. “Forget me Not”
stuck on one, but we soon had it out.
With the deck well loaded with soggy
smelly scrap again everyone left at lock 6 and I travelled on alone
then winded and backed up to the boatyard. This wasn't
easy as a wind had sprung up and there was stuff on the blade. A
passer by helped me remove some clothing from the propeller and I
told him about recycling trips which he says he'll join us on. With
the boat tied at Knowl St I was off home for the night.
Wednesday was a sorting out and
repositioning day. Tony and Aaron arrived to help unload the boat,
filling the boatyard with dripping smelly bikes and trolleys. We
loaded on to the boat foliage from the boatyard trimming of the
previous week then set off back down the locks, collecting the brash
that we'd left at Staley Wharf. At the railway bridge behind Asda
there was a stack of trolleys that someone had previously fished out,
rusting in the undergrowth, so we stopped and loaded these up, then
ferried them to the inaccessible space under Cavendish St Bridge,
where they were exchanged for more foliage which someone had left
there and some bags of rubbish.
At Portland Basin we turned left into
the Peak Forest canal and unloaded the brushwood at the intended
site for the Samhain fire, a patch of himalayan balsam next to the Great Central railway bridge.
We haven't used the winding hole at Jet
Amber Fields for a few years, since a huge raft of american pennywort
prevented us from winding. However, this seems to have subsided, so
we decided to try it, rather than carry on to Hyde to wind. “Forget
me Not” just managed to get round, though I doubt if we would
succeed with “Hazel” as she is deeper at the bow.
We tied the boat at Portland Basin to
await the next days adventure.
Thursday was the day for dibbling for
rubbish in the Peak Forest canal. As well as the usual suspects we
had Albert and Adam from the shop and a couple of new volunteers who
had seen it advertised. We started right at the exit from the basin,
looking for whatever the boat had bounced over there the previous
day. We found nothing, it must have moved. Slowly we worked our way
through Dukinfield to the lift bridge. Our new volunteers tended to
hang back, constantly and mostly fruitlessly casting their grappling
irons in the same spot as the boat left them behind.
I managed to gather everyone together
at the lift bridge, a known trouble spot, and do some intensive
grappling. The results were disappointing, though we did pull out
some tyres. I found a clue to the problem here when I pulled out a
brick with the keb. I think someone has tipped a load of rubble in
here, which will need one of those rare and fabulous beasts, a
dredger, to remove it.
I was eager to get to more problem
areas further up the canal. The Great Central railway bridge was the
next one. Some homeless people were camped on the old pit loading
wharf there. It had been adopted as park land but appears to have
been abandoned by the council as a result of funding cuts.
“Forget me Not” frequently touches
the bottom along here but my hunch was that the problem was mostly
railway ballast, carelessly cast into the canal by the railway
authorities. This turned out to be the case, though we found quite a
lot more debris in the water which we were able to remove. This
included quite a lot of scaffolding, I suspect lost by contractors
painting the bridge girders, and several more tyres.
I had an idea about the source of the
tyres. Some time ago I had noticed a load of tyres dumped near
Dunkirk bridge. These had now disappeared. My hunch was that they had
found their way into the canal, which would explain the difficulty
sometimes experienced in traversing this narrow bridgehole.
Tempus was busily fugiting so we
hurried on to the afformentioned Dunkirk bridge, which “Forget me
Not” frequently struggles to get through. Here, as anticipated, we
pulled out lots of discarded tyres as well as the usual bikes,
trolleys and what looked like the remnants of a pottery kiln.
A grappling iron got hooked on
something that all the huffing and puffing of volunteers couldn't
shift. I followed my usual procedure of attaching the line to the
dollies and towing it out, but this time the line parted, so, we were
one grappling iron down.
At the M67 motorway bridge there was a
line of items that someone had clearly pulled out before us leaning
against the concrete (there's a You Tube video of someone
fishing them out with a powerful magnet) They included a large
number of wheelclamps! We went through the bridge and winded. I would
have liked to have backed up to Manchester Road bridge, another
trouble spot, but time was pressing and volunteers were ebbing away.
Returning through the motorway bridge we picked up the wheelclamps
etc and enjoyed the trip back to Ashton in the fading light.
Friday was spent clearing away the
spoils of the week and preparing “Hazel” for some overnight
Early on Saturday morning I started
getting “Forget me Not” ready for the trip. Our guests were a
family from the North East, though coming originally from Chelmsford
and all round the world. One of them was celebrating a milestone
birthday and his wife had booked the stay on the boat and a trip to
Roaches lock and back as a surprise.
Some were dubious about our ability to
get to Roaches in a day. Though it's only about 5 miles and 14 locks
it's on the difficult and unreliable Huddersfield Narrow Canal. As
well as the usual suspects, myself, Tony and Aaron, Luke joined us
again and I had recruited tree surgeon Joe and leaflet deliverer
We started at 9 and were soon starting
to work up the locks towards Stalybridge. The weather was dull and
drizzling. Things went smoothly at first, though I was a little
concerned that, though the water levels were OK, there was no water
running over the weirs. This made me think that there may be trouble
Trouble presented itself in the pound
above lock 8, Grove Road. The pound was well down. This was a
surprise as several substantial streams feed this pound. I've no idea
where the water was going but it wasn't feeding down the canal.
I walked on to set the next lock, but,
before I reached it, I got a call from Tony to say that the boats
were stemmed in mid channel.
The affected pound is long by
Huddersfield canal standards. The next one up is short. I virtually
emptied it supplying enough water to bring the boats up to the lock.
This meant I had to run down water from the pound above to get
through this pound, thus lowering the next pound up. Going uphill, if
you get a low pound you are constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul in
Between 11 and 12, through Scout
tunnel, the pound is slightly longer and I hoped to get through
without robbing any water from further up. Sludging carefully along
the middle it looked like we would succeed, until the boats firmly
stuck just a few yards from lock 12. This meant stealing more water
to get into the lock.
The next pound up runs through Mossley
and was the longest that we would pass through. Despite this, getting
the boats those last few yards took enough water to drop it a few
inches below weir level.
Still, things looked good and we made
steady progress until the second bridgehole, where “Forget me Not”
got firmly stuck. It was only after much hard work that we got her
By the time we got into lock 14,
Woodbank lock, it was dark. Some of our crew were getting anxious
about getting home and our guests were expressing anxiety about their
6.30 booking at the Roaches Lock pub. There was only a short distance
of winding canal to traverse and Tony made a good job of steering the
pair through the pitch black.
As we reached the wide below Roaches we
breasted up and, as a moored fibreglass cruiser loomed up ahead of
us, tied rather clumsily just short of it. Our guests hurried up the
bepuddled towpath to the pub whilst our crew trudged off down the
road towards Mossley station, where the trains turned out to be
buses, so they got a bus instead.
With the boats secured I went out in
search of food, which I found in an Indian takeaway. I sat on the
balance beam of lock 16 in the continuing rain, eating my meal and
listening to the water running over the weir.
That night, the clocks changed. I used
the extra hour to tidy up and organise firewood. I wondered if the
crew would arrive on time. It was important to get moving early to
avoid running on into the night. I walked down to the lock and got it
ready so that, if necessary, I could start the boats moving with just
a little help from our guests.
Today the usual suspects were to be
augmented by Keith and Elsa Williamson, who gave some people lifts
from Ashton. I'd just got the engine started when they began to
arrive. A towpath walker warned of a low pound in Mossley.
Soon we were winded and on our way,
working smoothly through Woodbank lock. A short pound brought us to
lock 13, where we saw with dismay that the walker had not been
exaggerating. The longest pound of our trip, through the centre of
Mossley, was nearly empty.
We ran the motor down the lock and she
sat, with her counter well out of the water, on rubbish in the
bottom. We drew the top paddles then rushed to jump aboard at the
tail of the lock as the boat, carried by the rush of water, shot out
like an express train, only to stem up and sit awkwardly across the
I walked to the next lock to see if I
could find the reason for the problem. Elsa was ahead of me. We found
that a top paddle was up and the bottom gates were leaking badly. I
was worried that it could be our fault, did we leave a paddle up?
Thinking back to the previous day I recalled that, at that particular
lock, I had repeatedly asked one of our crew to shut the paddle until
he eventually did, so clearly the problem wasn't our fault. This is why I try to drum into new crew members to
shut the paddles as soon as the gates are open, otherwise its so easy
Later we heard that , the previous
night, a dog walker had chased off some kids who were messing with
the lock machinery. On this particular paddle the anti vandal lock
Our crew began running water down, but
the short pound above the lock would soon be depleted so I walked up
to Woodbank lock to steal some water from the longer pound up to
Roaches. Eventually, Tony rang me to say that “Forget me Not” was
afloat again. I shut the paddles and, after working the butty down,
the pair set off, carefully, slowly, sludging along the muddy middle
of the canal. Aaron stayed at lock 13, alternately filling and
emptying the lock to send waves of water along the canal to lift the
boats over any obstructions.The boats stuck solid in the same
bridgehole that we had had problems with on the way up.
I ran down more water from Woodbank to
help the now nearly empty short pound then, when I dare take no more,
returned to the stuck boats. Elsa, who had stayed at lock 12 asked if
she could bring an uphill boat up the lock, then we could use the
same water to take our boat down. I asked her to hold the boat below
the lock. Taking a lockfull off the pound would delay getting our
boats unstuck, we wouldn't be able to pass each other and the leaky
gates would soon empty the full lock anyway.
Eventually, with the pound nearly full
and the ballast tanks emptied, we got moving again. Elsa rang again.
The Eastbound boater was getting impatient. I explained that we were
nearly there, as we stemmed up again. This time it just needed a bit
of work with the shaft to get the boats moving . We reached the
lock, worked the motor through, the impatient boat came up then the
butty followed down and we carried on through Scout tunnel.
We were now on a waterway well supplied
with water. Things went smoothly for a while but it was already well
into the afternoon. At lock 7, near the boatyard in Stalybridge, some
of our guests had to leave to catch a train. They thanked us
profusely for the trip and said they would be back.
The procedure for working the pair down
a narrow lock is as follows:- First the motor is worked down while
the butty lies against the top gate. The lock is then refilled and
the motor backs up, tiller removed, to sit with her fenders against
the bottom gates, ticking over in reverse gear. It's very important
that the boat is in contact with the bottom gates. When the bottom
paddles are drawn to bring the butty down a powerful eddy holds the
motor in place. The steerer can do nothing so they can go into the
cabin and attend to the range. If the motor is not against the gates
it will be brought back and crash into them with tremendous force.
When the lock is empty the reversing boat simply pushes the gates
open, the steerer picks up the towline and attaches it to the dollies
and the pair steam on along the next pound.
As we approached lock 7 I had been
preparing 6 bacon and egg butties for the crew. 6 rounds of bread
were buttered on the table and the fillings were cooking on the
range. I asked the motor steerer to back up to the gates and finish
making the butties (sandwiches). We worked the butty (boat) down, but
when I went to see about distributing the butties (sandwiches) I was
told we had a problem. The swans neck was pointing in completely the
wrong direction. The rudder had got turned far beyond its normal arc
of operation and was now jammed under the counter, where it had hit
the propeller and stalled the engine.
Clearly the boat had not been against
the gates when the paddles were drawn and the rudder had caught on
something as the power of the eddying water hammered the boat
backwards. Our attempts to untangle the ironwork only resulted in
bending the tiller. As I tied up the motor to allow the butty through
the butties (sandwiches) were distributed. I was rather miffed not to
There was nothing for it but to bowhaul
the butty for the rest of the trip and leave the disabled motor where
she was. Me and Aaron took turns at bowhauling, Tony was suffering
from a bruised leg as a result of being hit by a flying pallett
during the cleanup, so he steered. Luke lockwheeled without a
The remaining locks were dealt with
quickly and efficiently in the gathering dark. At the Asda tunnel
some of us lay on the roof and stretched our legs up to walk upside
down along the smooth concrete, then we shafted the boat along the
towpathless stretch past Cavendish Mill to tie up at Portland Basin
at about 6 PM.
I had been a little concerned that our
guests may have been disappointed with their experience. They had
spent most of the trip inside the cabin and didn't seem to be taking
much interest in the boating activity. As they left, however, it was
quite clear that “Hazel” had worked her magic on them. They told
us they had really enjoyed the trip. They had rather stressful jobs
and had appreciated the relaxation afforded by their time on the
Once everyone had left I headed back up
to Stalybridge. There had been some young scallywags hanging around
the town centre as we passed through so I wanted to make sure that
“Forget me Not” was safe. After spending a pleasant night in the
back cabin I started shafting the boat down the locks. Near the Tame
aqueduct she stemmed up in mid channel. A little work with the keb
brought out a tyre, one that we missed during the cleanup. At the
Clarence St moorings the boat stemmed up again, this time on a
submerged tree trunk. It took the efforts of myself and several of
the residents to dislodge the boat then recover the offending log.
One of the moorers caught me up at lock 3 offering to help, but I
turned him down, partly because you can't really have 2 people
shafting and partly because I was just enjoying doing it on my own.
As I neared my destination I got a
'phone call from Janet, our neighbour at Knowl St. She thought that
someone had climbed into the boatyard. As soon as I got the boat
tied abreast of “Lilith” I cycled post haste to Stalybridge.
There had indeed been an intruder as I could see that things had been
disturbed, but I couldn't identify anything as missing. I collected
the van and drove home for a good rest.
Tuesday night should have been the
night of the Samhain fire, but I was too busy to organise it so the
brushwood will have to wait until the Winter Solstice before it is
I had arranged to meet a police officer
on Friday morning to hand over the motor scooter. When she arrived at
the boatyard I led her to the place where we had unloaded it. There
was nothing there! Perhaps this was the target of our Monday
On Friday evening I shafted “Forget
me Not” to Ashton Packet Boats boatyard in Guide Bridge. On
Saturday morning they pulled her out on the slip and we found that
the damage was nothing that a few good blows with a sledgehammer
wouldn't put right. With the rudder untangled “Forget me Not” was
ready for action again, just in time for the November recycling
trips, which were excellent.
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.
Thursday 9th February. "Hazel" the boat was in Stalybridge but we needed her in Ashton for the Valentines trips (still undersubscribed if you and your lover would like to book a place). Anyway, it was an excuse for a training trip.Tony had invited his friend Joe who found us after a mystery tour of Ashton. We took "Forget me Not" up the 3 locks to Stayley Wharf, Kim Tranter having his first go at boat steering, which he took to like a duck to water. We then left her in the care of Joan Wainwright while the rest of us walked up to Knowl St Heritage Boatyard to collect "Hazel".
Nigel Carpenter shafted the boat down to the winding hole and winded her, before working down lock 7.
Jannice Brown and Barry Atherton joined us Tony Hewitson bowhauled down the locks through Stalybridge town centre. George Hewitt took on her usual role of lockwheeler in chief.
It was a dull cold day with occassional flurries of snow so everyone was well wrapped up but in good spirits.
Back at Stayley Wharf, Joan had been heating up some delicious soup that had been donated by Bev Ackford who was unfortunately unable to join us for the trip. This was shared out and consumed as Joan steered us along the long pound to lock 3.
Then down the two locks and along the next pound to lock 1.
From lock 1 it was a level run through the Asda tunnel to Portland basin, where our crew made an excellent job of breasting up with minimal instruction from me.
It was an excellent trip. Everyone worked well together and enjoyed themselves, mostly just seeing what needed doing and doing it without having to be told.
When we were tied up, some had to go, but the rest of us went up to the shop as it was Hazel the person's leaving do. After a little mix up we found her in the nearby Station Hotel where she organises a Knitting and Crocheting session on a Thursday afternoon. For the last 2 years Hazel Mayow has been our volunteer organiser but, now that the funding has run out, we'll have to organise ourselves or return to anarchy. Hazel has a liking for cake, so we covered the pub table with extreme ceam cakes from the Polish shop. Poles seem to excel in the art of cake making. Luckily Hazel hasn't completely gone as she wil be coing back as a volunteer. I took my camera with me but clean forgot to take photographs, sorry.
All in all it was an excellent day. Thanks everyone.
Monday seems to have become the main work day at Knowl St Heritage Boatyard so last Monday I enlisted some help to lever "Hazel" off the mud and get her floating on an even keel again. This meant that we had to deploy the wheelchair ramp to access the boat, but it was a lot easier to work inside as the boat was no longer at an uncomfortable angle. The water level remained about a foot down all week.
Saturday 26th November was the appointed day for the Stalybridge lights switch on and Santa's floating grotto. We would need to move "Hazel" down one lock and tie her at Armentierres Square above lock 6. On Friday I checked the levels and found the pound where we needed to go almost empty. The same applied to the long pound between locks 3 and 4. The trip boat, "Still Waters" had intended to come up to Stalybridge on Friday, ready to do trips on Saturday, but had to cancel due to lack of water.
There were several streams feeding the cut between locks 7 and 8, so there should have been enough water, but, the lowered weir on that pound meant that all that water was running to waste in the river rather than feeding the canal between Stalybridge and Ashton. Consequently, any pound with leaky lock gates was getting depleted. It occurred to me that if I cracked open the paddles on lock 7 to let through water equivalent to the amount running in from streams, then it would divert water to feed the canal without dropping "Hazel" back on to the mud again. I did this then went home, had my tea and took Em to the cinema with a couple of tickets won in a raffle. After the cinema I went to check. Everything was fine, the level was OK above lock 7 and it was slowly rising below. By the morning I estimated that the pound through Armentierres Square would still be low, but usable.
10 AM was the alloted time for moving the boat, so, about 9.30 I arrived to find "Hazel" sitting on the mud again, but the pound below prettywell full. At first I thought I must have miscalculated the paddle setting. Later I found that a pair of CRT men had drawn the paddles to fill the pound below, thus dropping "Hazel on the mud, exactly what I'd been trying to avoid. CRT are fo course world renowned experts on water management.
With much effort and ingenuity we got "Hazel" into the channel and floating again, then shafted her down to the winding hole and amazingly were able to wind. We worked through the lock then bowhauled past Tesco to tie just above lock 6. Phil Ash volunteered to stay with the boat to talk to passers by whilst the rest of us went to Ashton to bring "Forget me Not" up.
It was a very cold and frosty morning. I was a little concerned about getting the engine started but things turned out to be worse than I imagined. The battery was not exactly bursting with joyful exuberance and, though the engine turned over slowly, it simply would not fire. Suddenly, a horrible smell of hot electrics filled the air and everything went dead. Clearly that boat was going nowhere in a hurry. We returned to Stalybridge in the van to announce that we would have to bowhaul on the morrow.
Lots of kids enjoyed meeting Santa on board the boat through the evening and there was a constant queue of kids, parents, grandparents, aunts etc waiting in the freezing cold to get aboard. I kept an eye on things from the back cabin hatches, never having had an ambition to be an elf. Eventually all the children had gone home to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. Santa, elves, marshalls, Dan Cocker, who had organised the whole thing, and mys elf enjoyed a brew and mince pies aboard the boat. When everyone had gone home I banked up both fires for what promised to be a chilly night, then settled down to sleep in the back cabin.
I had a dream about living with a cloth snake that loved me to bits but which I regarded as treacherous. I also, in the dream, had two cats. I had to keep feeding the snake lest it should consume one of the cats. Analyse that if you can!
Sunday morning at about 9.30 everyone began to arrive. We had a good team, Tony, Phil H, Aaron, Alan, Neil and me. We worked down the first three locks smoothly and efficiently, then we were on to the long pound, still about a foot down. We took it in turns to play horse and it was hard work as the boat was dragging in the mud. She stopped on an obstruction at the first bridgehole but we were able to deal with this by dragging her back a short way, then all pulling hard to take a run at it. A little way further on she jammed again, in a narrows where there was once a bridge. We tried the same technique, but to no avail. I decided to walk back to the locks and send down some more water. As I left I noticed that the stern end had lifted about 3 inches on the underwater rubbish.
I drew a paddle on each of locks 4 and 5, but as these were short pounds they would soon be depleted. The next pound up had boats in it which had been sat on the bottom on Friday but were now floating again. I drew the paddles and carefully watched the water level as it dropped. I didn't want to empty the pound. I was just about to shut the paddles again when Tony rang to say that "Hazel" was past the obstruction. I walked back down the towpath, shutting paddles as I went, and caught up with the boat at Clarence St Bridge.
I climbed aboard and put the kettle on. As we approached the lock I could hear the bottom of the boat grinding over submerged stones. The towpath washwall has collapsed in places and, though parts of it have been rebuilt, there are lots of rocks in the canal. We stopped in the lock to enjoy cups of tea and consume the remainder of the mince pies. It seemed unlikely that anyone else would want to use the lock.
The next couple of pounds were nicely full of water and I was able to take some photos as we went through Whitelands tunnel and into lock 1.
Lock 1 has been closed for a month for repairs. For years it has been leaking profusely from the chamber into the towpath tunnel. CRT have dealt with it by injecting expanding foam into the wall, a process I'm familiar with for keeping old wooden boats afloat. It seems to have worked.
Aaron legged the boat through the bridge, then I took over bowhauling. Everyone else climbed aboard. As we approached the Asda tunnel Neil and Alan climbed on to the roof and prepared to leg. They had been selected as leggers as they are the tallest. Asda tunnel is difficult with an unpowered boat as it has no towpath, it's too wide to leg off the sides and the roof is a long stretch to reach too, but possible. The technique is to lie on your back and reach up with your legs, then simply walk along the concrete roof upside down. A few feet above shoppers are busy filling their trolleys, unaware of the boat moving below them.
The tunnel opens into an artificial ravine with no towpath. There used to be one but, in 2002 a retaining wall started to collapse and had to be supported with half a mountain of limestone. Since then no-one has been prepared to put up the money for a proper repair. Tony took up the long shaft and expertly propelled the boat under Cavendish St bridge and past the mill of the same name. Where the towpath resumed I took up bowhauling again for the last 100 yards, before throwing the line back aboard for Tony so that he could guide the boat to tie abreast of "Forget me Not". An excellent trip!
On wednesday the water at Knowl St was nearly over the copings, on Thursday it was down so that "Hazel" was sat on the bottom, thpogh I estimated that we'd be able to get her afloat with a struggle. Friday morning the water was well down and the boat tipped at an unpleasant angle. Two men in yellow jackets came down the towpath so I asked them if they knew what was going on. They said it was because of the work at lock 8, regating. they were on their way to lock 7 to let more water out. It was going to be like this for a
fortnight. This is a problem as "Hazel" has an appointment with Santa at Armentierres Square next Saturday.
One of the men got on the 'phone to his gaffer. He re-assured me that as soon as they had been able to get the stop planks in on the bottom gates the level would be allowed to rise again.
Later in the day our shop got a call from a neighbour who was concerned about the angle that "Hazel" was lying at. I cycled up there again to find the water a lot lower and the boat at more of an angle. I put out a couple of extra restraining lines to the timberheads as I was beginning to have a niggling worry that if the water got much lower she could roll over as she seems to be sitting on the edge of a ledge. With this done I rode up to the work site to see what was going on. They had stop planks in but were struggling to get them to seal. The workmen assured me that the level would rise again over the next couple of days, however, they've taken a plank out of a weir that overflows into the river and they're not going to put this back in, so the level will remain about a foot down. I think we'll be able to get off at a foot down but I'm dubious about winding at Mottram Road as that winding hole is shallow at the best of times.
The pound above lock 8 is also partially drained, which probably explains the excess of water on wednesday.
Sometime in the dark
time before dawn I turned over and woke with my hand on something
cold and gooey. My slow brain gradually worked out that it was a
slug, Ugh! I picked it off my groundsheet and threw it as far as I
could, then found several more and gave them the same treatment
before dozing off again.
I returned to
consciousness as the first light of day eased itself through a thick
layer of cloud. The wind had not abated but its chill was no longer
tempered by sunshine. Slugs were everywhere. I was reluctant to get
out of my sleeping bag and lay there drinking my coffee and dreading
making my first move. With my coffee finished I had no more excuse,
so I got up, pulled my trousers and boots on then quickly loaded my
bike. I rode slowly along the grassy path whence I had arrived, the
grass dotted with more little black slugs than I’ve ever seen in
I descended a bank
to rejoin the main track, which had become a tractor rutted chalk
road. I tried different ruts to ride in, and the grassy mound in the
middle, but all were difficult for cycling. After about a quarter
mile I reached a main road and followed it for a short distance
before turning into the lane to Yatesbury. After a fairly level and
straight ride I passed an old aircraft hangar on my left, and the
remains of a second one. This was one of the earliest military
airfields, opening in 1916, mainly for training purposes. After some
civilian use in the 1930s it once again became a training centre for
the RAF in 1939 and finally closed in 1960. The hangars, including
some from the first world war, are now listed buildings.
I made a 90 degree
turn towards the village and had a decision to make. My line went
across fields from here and my copy of the Ordnance Survey map showed
footpaths travelling quite close to it. However, there was a gap
between bits of OS map and my smaller scale map that linked them up
only showed roads. My alternative route was to cross the fields to
Winterbourne Monkton then follow the A361 most of the way into
Swindon. Memories of the footpaths to nowhere in the Windrush valley
and the fact that I had already felt the odd drop of rain caused me
to choose the latter course.
I passed through
part of the village known as Little London and was surprised to see a
bus shelter with timetable. This tiny village of 150 inhabitants
actually has a bus service.
My route across the
fields was another rutted track that was difficult to ride on. A low
hill to my right, Windmill Hill, bore Monkton Camp, presumably an
iron age hill fort but I can find no information on it anywhere. It
seems to me that this area must have been pretty violent in ancient
times for it to have been necessary to fortify so many places, at
enormous cost in time diverted from growing food etc.
Monkton I dropped into a valley, passed a derelict farm and stopped
at a concrete bridge over a dry river. The name Winterbourne means a
stream that only runs in winter. The chalk rock here is porous so
rain tends to soak into the ground. Only in winter is there enough
rainfall for the rivers to run.
I used up the last
of my hot water for cocoa and ate my morning muesli. A rope was
rigged from a tree where children had been enjoying swinging out over
the empty river bed.Thus refreshed, I moved on to the A road. This
wound up and down through a wide rolling hillscape of mainly arable,
the golden crops awaiting the combine alternating with fields already
I almost missed my
left turn, signposted Saithrop, simply the name of a farm on my map.
The road zig zagged up a gentle slope among corn fields, horse fields
and little bits of woodland, then suddenly plunged down the escarpment
that had done for so many of the parliamentary cavalry back in the
seventeenth century. In the valley the road flattened and
straightened with wooded borders. I reached the route of my old
friend the Wilts & Berks canal. A right turn took me parallel to
it and soon I was able to pick out a towpath hedge and ditch
following the contours to my right.
Where the canal
crossed the road my planned route took me along a public right of way
straight along my line, but a big notice saying “Private Road
Locked Gates” put me off. I elected instead to continue along the
road, past Wharf Farm, then turn left over the M4. I found that new
roads had been built to access a Waitrose supermarket. I turned past
the front of the new shop and found, to my amazement, a stretch of
re-opened canal with a little trip boat. There was no way down to the
towpath but a friendly cyclist, who I met coming out of Waitrose,
advised me of a route. This took me over the hump backed bridge that
I could see.
The next bridge was that of the old Midland & South
Western Junction Railway, now a cyclepath. I very nearly got the
classic photograph of a heron perched on a No Fishing notice, but the
bird was camera shy and flew off as I aimed my lens.
The canal route led
me into a pedestrianised shopping area. I was feeling peckish again
so I looked around for a fast food outlet. I noticed “Swindon
Tented Market” so I thought I’d look in there as I like markets
and I’d rather buy from a local trader than a multinational chain.
The market is not really a tent, it’s a building that is made to
look like one. Inside was a sad sight with more empty stalls than
active ones. I found a food stall called Eggilicious and was welcomed
by its proprietor who was sitting outside reading a paper whilst
someone prepared food inside the stall. He persuaded me to have a
minted lamb wrap. His name was Ash Mistry and he had relatives in
Ashton, in fact, his brother in law lives on the next street to me.
He told me the story of the market. It used to be run by the council
but, being good neo liberals, they had leased it to a property
company. The property company submitted redevelopment plans to
replace the downmarket market with upmarket coffee shops etc. The
plans were rejected, but most of the traders had moved out and now,
though the company is at least pretending to try to get stallholders
back, uncertainty and high rents are persuading them otherwise. At
some point the management will of course claim that there is no demand
for market stalls.
driving me to get on a train and, as my ticket as far as Cheltenham
was for any train, I thought I would go there and explore a bit. I
found Swindon station and presented my ticket at the barrier. It was
accepted and I pushed my bike through and lifted it up the steps to
the platform. Soon an HST for Cheltenham arrived. The announcement
said that bicycle space was at the front of the train, but as I
turned to head that way the announcer, probably robotic, added that
only pre booked bicycles could travel on that train.
I headed back
towards the barrier and asked the ticket collector, “what’s all
this about having to pre book bikes”? He said that it had been
Great Western (them again) policy since May, like it was obvious and
everybody must know. I pointed out that as I had come from Greater
Manchester (yes there are places beyond the reach of the Great
Western) it was unreasonable to expect me to know. The implied but
unspoken question was ‘why the hell didn’t you tell me when you
checked my ticket’? I went to the ticket office to book my bike but
the booking clerk said that as the next train was a unit not an HST I
wouldn’t need to book. “Check with the guard” she added. Back
on the platform I headed for the bay where a diesel multiple unit for
Cheltenham was waiting. The platform display bore the details of the
journey, headed by the dire word “Cancelled”. The guard was on
her ‘phone. When she had finished her call I explained my
situation. She told me that because of a points failure the HST which
had been waiting for ages in the opposite platform had to be
diverted. Its driver didn’t know the diversionary route, but her
driver did. They had cancelled her train so that her driver could
take the more important train to South Wales. Very helpfully she went
off to make arrangements for my bike to travel on the next Cheltenham
train, another HST. When it arrived, after an hour sitting watching
trains and people and typing up an account of the first part of my
trip, I found it had six bike spaces, only two of which were taken
by my bike and one other.
Back in the bad old
pre nationalisation days of British Rail there was a single national
policy for bikes on trains. It wasn’t always perfect but at least
you knew what the rules were wherever you went. Now with myriad
different franchises running the trains, and tickets booked in
advance to save money but not necessarily knowing which company’s
trains you will be travelling on, there’s all kinds of scope for
getting stuck somewhere because they won’t take your bike. Clearly
travelling with bikes was getting popular on Great Western so, rather
than making more bicycle space, they slapped on restrictions. A very
British solution. Of course, increasing bike space might reduce
passenger space for no extra revenue which, as the railways are run
for profit rather than to serve the public, could not be allowed.
The run to
Cheltenham was uneventful. I enjoyed the ride from Sapperton tunnel
through the Golden Valley with brief glimpses of the Thames &
was busy. I negotiated the crowded footbridge to reach the booking
office as I wanted to be sure of room for my bike for the rest of my
journey. This was to be on a Cross Country Voyager such as I had
travelled on from Manchester to Birmingham on Monday. On that
occasion I had noted that Cross Country’s bicycle policy was to
take just one booked bike and one unbooked bike on each train. I had
been lucky, there was a space, but I wanted to be sure for the return
trip. With my bike booked I headed out into Cheltenham.
A Voyager at Cheltenham.
My first port of
call was a cafe, as it was early afternoon and hunger was creeping up
on me. Some of the Cheltenham ladies in the cafe found my bike
amusing. After an unremarkable ciabatta I went to explore the former
Great Western route, now a cycleway through the centre of the town.
Once this was an alternative main line to the midlands, reaching
Birmingham via Stratford on Avon. According to Dr Beeching it was a
duplicate route, a waste of money, and so it had to close. Much of
the route now is used for running steam trains.
I went off cycling
down the roads to explore a bit. Realising that my ‘phone was low
on battery power I thought I would sample a pub and charge it up. I
chose the first one I came to, the Kings Arms. It was not really my
sort of place with continuous sport on a big screen and not much in
the way of real ale, but I enjoyed my pint of bitter and was enjoying
With some charge in my ‘phone I went back to the
station and sat on the platform writing and enjoying watching trains
come and go.
A Train for Maesteg, South Wales, at Cheltenham.
When my train
arrived I loaded my bike into its pre booked space, on Voyagers you
hang your bike by the front wheel to save space, then found my pre
booked seat. I became a little conscious of the fact that I hadn’t
really washed for a week. I wondered if that was why the rather posh
and fragrant lady sitting next to me moved to another seat.
At Birmingham New
Street my bay in the carriage filled up. Opposite to me sat a retired
couple returning from a holiday in Penzance to their home in Glossop.
Beside me was a Wiganer who reminded me a little of Alf Hall, the
stereotypical simple Lancashire man. He had been to visit an elderly
aunt in Worcester. A conversation was carried on between the three of
them in which everthing that the Glossop couple said they’d done
the Wigan man said he’d like to do, then asked all kinds of daft
questions about it. This would be followed by an explanation of his
bad knees and speculation as to how much they would restrict him. I
imagine that the couple were retired teachers as they seemed to have
a shallow smattering of knowledge about almost everything. I was
tempted to join in when they came round to talking about canals, but
decided that I would get irritated by the banality of it and returned
to studying the passing countryside.
Suddenly my muscles
painfully locked up in my right leg causing me to exclaim “owwwww”
and ask to be let out of my seat. I marched up and down the corridor
until the pain went away and my leg would work properly again. I
regained my seat with apologies, explaining that I had been cycling
for 5 days. The Wiganer, of course, wanted to know all about it, then
began speculating about whether he could do the same. He started
listing all that he would need to carry with him, which would require
a support vehicle, to carry it all. He wondered how his knees would
stand up to it. I suggested that he start with really short bike
rides and gradually build up. The teachers nodded sagely. They were
concerned about me camping on private property without permission,
very bourgeoise. I explained that I left no mess, though I now regret
not explaining to them my rather anarchistic view of land ownership.
“I think”, said
the Wiganer, “you must be at least ten years younger than me to
cycle all that way”. “I don’t know” I said, “I’m 63”.
“Oh bloody ell” he exclaimed “yer older”.
I thought I might be
tired after my travels so I had booked a ticket all the way to Ashton
rather than cycle up the towpath. They routed me via Stalybridge so,
at Picadilly I rushed to the distant platform 13 to catch a Trans
pennine train which whizzed me past Portland Basin. At Stalybridge I
sat enjoying the cooling evening air as I waited for the local train,
until a bunch of noisy smoking swearing pop music playing teenagers, lads and lasses,
arrived to spoil the atmosphere. When my train arrived I headed for
the opposite end of it for my short one stop ride to Ashton. A brief
bikeride from the station and I reached home, where Em had a tasty
curry ready for me.
We now begin the long slow task of spiking up the bottoms to the
garboard strakes. About 400 holes to be drilled from the top of the
garboard through the 9" width of that plank and through the 3"
thickness of the bottom boards. A big 10mm square spike then has to
be driven up from underneath (an excellent job for anyone wanting to
increase their arm muscles) to pop out at the top edge of the plank
where it will be bent over. That bottom is not going to fall off!
Just a note on boat jargon. Sorry, I forget that not all readers
speak boat. The garboard strake is the first plank of the sides of
the boat. This is attached to the flat bottom of a narrow boat by big
iron nails or spikes driven up through pre-drilled holes through the
bottom boards and through the width of the plank. It's hard work.
I was surprised to see, when I logged in, that it has been 25 days
since I last wrote anything. How remiss of me! The fact is that I
don't seem to have had the time to sit down and write. I did have a
bit of time off. Emuna and I went to Llandudno for a couple of days
for her birthday. Stuart has been away too. He had a weeks work in
When I returned from Llandudno on 13th October I found that Stuart
and Ryan had spread the oak boards out on the ground as a sort of
flat pack boat. Stuart started laying out the spiling boards and
selecting the timber for the new planks. It turned out that the logs
that I had bought were rather too straight and this restricted the
amount of planks that we could get out of them. "Hazel"s
planks are curvier than I thought.
Meanwhile, the sides of the boat were steadily being removed until
there was virtually nothing left of them. Just the new bottom with
the 1951 conversion propped up on sticks. We decided to get the knees
shotblasted, so they went off to a shotblasters, then to another as
the first one nearly tripled the quoted price after they had done one
knee. The idiots also removed the identifying marker that Stuart had
put on the knee, despite being firmly told not to. It's a good job
they only did the one, or we would have been totally unable to work
out which knee went where.
Stuart thinks we need timber for 5 more planks. I heard of some
trees being felled in Cumbria and so had a day out looking at them.
They're mostly too thin, but there are a couple of useful ones. I
just have to arrange transport now.
With the stempost in place I started work on the sternpost. Now
that is nearly ready.
We have a few new volunteers. Jake is travelling regularly from
Lincoln to help. Bernard has started taking care of the tools. Nick
is coming for a day each week and Rita joins us when she has a day
off from social working. At the moment Reg is up from Rugby,
carefully planing bevels on the edges of the bottom strakes. What we
need now are some fundraising volunteers to magic up the rest of the
money that we need. Any offers?