The Old ports of West Lancashire.

Em had a plan. She wanted to go and see Lancaster Castle and go on one of the witch tours. So, off we trolled to Lancaster on an overcrowded Northern train. Isn't privatisation wonderful? We stayed at the Sun Inn in Lancaster. Nice room, ridiculously expensive drinks. In the evening as Em rested I went for a walk. I was looking for the old railway track to Glasson Dock, but it seems to have disappeared under Barratt homes. Nice walk down the river though.

The square concrete things are Heysham Nuclear Power Station I think.

There was some sort of rescue going on from the other side of the river.

Another walk in the early morning took me to the Millenium Bridge.

The buildings in the distance are old warehouses from when ships from Ireland used to dock here.

Lancaster has some picturesque bits.

I'd like to show you a lovely picture of Em having a cup of coffee in a cafe but she won't let me.

Next day another crowded Northern train took us to Preston. Em went shopping while I went in search of the Ribble Steam railway, which runs trains at weekends on the former dock railway. The docks are now a pleasure boat marina, but I was surprised to learn how important they once were, handling ro ro ferries to Ireland as well as coal exports and imports of fruit, timber grain etc. Surprisingly large ships used to navigate the narrow Ribble. It all finished in 1981. The cost of constantly dredging the river had got too much for the dwindling traffic.

In steam for my visit was a lovely Hawthorn Leslie saddletank of 1930s vintage.

There's an excellent collection of mostly industrial locos on display. Many of them have come from the former Steamport museum that used to be housed in the old Southport loco shed. One engine I'd hoped to see was "Cecil Raikes", an 0-6-4 tank of the subterranean (and sub aqua) Mersey Railway. This used to be at Steamport but since its closure has been in store with its owners, Liverpool Museums.

I was just about to leave when I noticed a sign inviting me to look at inside the workshops, a rare treat in this age of elfin safety overkill. This was the best bit. There was no-one else about but in the gloomy interior I was surrounded by frames, boilers, cabs etc and locomotives part dismantled and part re-assembled.

There was the old Furness Railway 0-4-0 tender engine

And an old friend that used to be on the Keighley & Worth Valley, USA tank No 72.

As I trudged back towards the main line station and another Northern sardine tin I took some photos of the Hawthorn Leslie hauling its train up the line, then setting off for the return trip from the exchange loops.

Despite the docks having closed over 30 years ago the railway is still busy with freight traffic on weekdays. Trains of bitumen tankers arrive down the wobbly track from the main line and are handed over to a pair of Rolls Royce Sentinel diesels to be shunted into the discharge siding for the black stuff to be pumped out and refined.

The track on the Nework Rail operated part of the line looks a bit unloved.

Boxing Day train ride

It's become a bit of a Boxing Day tradition that we go for a trip on the east Lancashire Railway. This morning Em wasn't feeling well, so we thought we'd go this afternoon. By 2 PM she was still feeling grotty, though busy researching a friends noble bloodline on tinternet. She said I was getting like dog who's been promised a walk and more or less ordered me to go on my own. I decided to see if I could join a train at Ramsbottom but I was just too late. It was crossing the level crossing as I arrived. I parked up and watched it leave, tender first, towards Bury. I was puzzled by the locomotive. It looked a bit like a Great Eastern J15, but something about it didn't seem right.

The next train from Ramsbottom was a diesel multiple unit, which didn't appeal to me, so I drove to Bury where the train was still in Bolton St station waiting to leave for Heywood as I parked up. I photographed it leaving, volcanoing  black smoke into the fading light of the afternoon. I went to find a takeaway as I was getting hungry.

Having consumed my piri piri ratburger  I entered the station, all decked up for Santa specials. The booking office was closed and there seemed to be no staff about, though the platform bar was moderately busy. A man wearing a brown suit and brown trlby told me that trains were free today. He'd just had a free ride from Ramsbottom. This seemed unlikely, knowing the cost of coal, so I went back and dinged the bell at the booking window. I could hear voices inside but no-one opened it, then I saw the notice saying you have to pay on the train today.

Back on the platform the imminent arrival of the 15.45 to Rawtenstall was being announced. I decided to try to photograph it, even though the light was rapidly disappearing. The slightly shaky results appear below.

The brass worksplate on the side of the cab revealed the identity of this mystery engine. It said "Hunslet Engine Company 1943" along with its works number, which was also boldly displayed along the smooth, unrivetted tender sides, which betrayed its recent construction.

This loco is a bit of a pleasant fake. It started life in 1943 as one of the World War 2 standard design of shunting engine for the War Department, based on a design of 1937. These highly successful locomotives were spread around Europe after the war as well as being used by the LNER as class J94. Many went into industrial service and more were constructed up until 1964, particularly for the National Coal Board. In total 485 were built, not all by Hunslet, of which 62 survive on heritage railways, making them the most abundant surviving class. I must admit that I feel a little dismay when I show up for a steam train ride to find an austerity in charge, though, were I running such a railway I would be pleased to have one in my fleet as they are such reliable and economical locos.

Being so abundant, heritage railways have had no qualms about modifying these engines. One has been transformed into a replica of a Great Western broad gauge locomotive. One has been rebuilt as a side tank to play the part of Thomas the Tank Engine. This particular example has mutated into a tender engine and has sometimes played the part of another Rev W Awdry character, "Douglas".

On this occasion there was no nameplate or smokebox face. The engine was playing the part of an early 20th century goods engine. Only the purist rivet counter would be offended by the all welded tender and cab.

I boarded the leading coach and, hanging out of the window, listened to the hard work of the fireman as he readied his little engine for the long climb into deepest Lancashire. 5 BR mark1 coaches is no insignificant load for such a small loco and I could hear the injectors singing, the fire being stoked and the blower roaring as the crew worked to raise steam for the task ahead.

The engine made a spirited start away from Bury and I enjoyed its confident barking progress up the line. I like to be hauled by small engines that have to struggle a bit. A 9F, for example, would chuff along hardly noticing its rake of carriages while it quietly reminisced about hauling hundreds of tons of iron ore up from Tyne Dock to Consett. After each stop the engine hauled the train away confidently, its strident exhaust leaving a long white cloud in the still air.

Beyond Summerseat I enjoyed watching a firework display of red hot cinders as the engine hauled its train through the curving tunnels, the smoke reflecting the orange glow from the firebox door.

At Ramsbottom we met the DMU on its run back to Bury, carrying no more than a taxiload of passengers.

I had decided to gt off at Irwell Vale, the penultimate station, watch the train depart, wander about for a bit, then rejoin it for the journey back to Bury. I stepped down on to the dark platform and stood beside the engine as the fireman continued his constant stoking. The guard walked up to inform me that the train didn't stop there on the way back. I thanked him for saving me a long walk and resumed my perch in the leading vestibule to enjoy the ride through the pitch dark to Rawtenstall.

There was sufficient artificial light at the terminal station for me to get some nice pictures of the engine running round, its safety valves roaring with excess steam. The fireman had perhaps worked a little too hard. The singing of the injectors told me that he was now doing his best to quiet the boiler.

Still no-one had asked for payment. I mentioned this to the guard as he supervised the coupling of the loco to its train. He said there were ticket inspectors on board but they obviously hadn't found me yet. If they did I could pay, if not, it was on the house.

There were now few passengers aboard. Most had detrained to recover their cars at Rawtenstall. I, once more, hung out of the window in the leading vestibule next to the engine, though now at the downhill end of the train. The return journey was less exciting as, save for a few chuffs to get the train going after each stop, the engine had little to do and could leave most of the effort to the force of gravity on the gently sloping track.

This being the last train of the day it stopped in platform 3, the engine uncoupled and chuffed away to the shed. I took a couple of photos of this process then ascended the Christmassy steps and through the Christmassy corridor on to Bolton Street, my wallet still unopened.

Back home Em was still in bed. She was excited by what she had discovered about her friend via her laptop, having traced back through Norman nobility almost as far as the invasion itself. Ironic as the lady whose noble roots were being explored is an ardent socialist.

Neither of us felt like cooking so I went out to Al Bilal, the best takeaway in Ashton. As usual the proprietor and his bearded friend were watching Pakistani TV behind the counter. I watched too, trying to guess what was happening in the televised game show as I don't understand Urdu. The news came on with pictures of politicians. Someone had resigned. The only person that I recognised was former cricketer Imran Khan.

The bearded friend ducked under the counter to leave, then turned to me and vented his frustration about the corruption of politicians. Apparently, recent hacking of accounts have revealed that 540 Pakistani politicians have between them salted away countless billions in tax havens whilst the national infrastructure languishes for lack of investment. I tried to acquaint him with the concept of the psychopath. "Yes" he declared "they all psychopaths, they not Muslims". With that he left. The gentle old proprietor brought me my lamb bhuna. We wished each other goodnight and I returned home where we enjoyed our excellent meal.

A Grand Day Out 7th March 2010

2010-03-07 @ 18:53:58 by ashtonboatman

A Grand Day Out

It was my birthday on Friday. Emuna and I have a tradition that we have a day off on our birthdays but I decided to postpone mine to Saturday so that I could have a steam train ride. Though Emuna is a lot better than she was, her M E restricted the choice to local lines, which really means the East Lancashire Railway. I checked the timetable on Friday evening, only to find that it was a special diesel weekend! Never mind, I thought, it will still be a day out.

It's only a short walk from our house to Ashton station where we caught the 11.26 train into Manchester Victoria. Under the shattered remnants of a once grand glass roof we caught the tram to Bury and rattled through the North Manchester suburbs, through wooded cuttings and across the bleak country alongside the Bolton & Bury canal beyond Radcliffe to arrive at the buffer stops at Bury interchange. Emuna was dismayed to find that the escalators weren't working.

We walked through the busy centre of Bury to the old Bolton St station where we bought tickets from a very clerkish little man with round spectacles. The next train to Rawtenstall wasn't for a while so Emuna went to purchase coffee while I mooched around society stalls (The class 15 society etc) on one of the platforms. Rejoining Emuna, I realised that the bubble car (a nickname for the single railcars built in the early 1960s to replace steam trains on branch lines) standing nearby was about to depart for Ramsbottom. As we intended to stop for lunch in Ramsbottom we carried our coffees aboard and enjoyed them as we shaked rattled and rolled up the single track.

It was on this train (can a single vehicle be a train?) that I realised what an extraordinary band of passengers we had joined. Usually on a preserved railway one shares the train with a wide cross section of people enjoying a day out in a historic and slightly romantic environment. Diesel weekends, however, are strictly for hardcore anoraks! No-one was actually wearing one of these fabled garments, I don't know if you can still buy them, but they were all wearing clothing of uniform mundanity. Emuna suggested that they were all lads who couldn't get girl friends, but the presence of older members of the tribe with children, and sometimes spouses, suggests that reproductive success is not entirely unknown.

Along the lineside stood more diesel devotees armed with cameras to record for posterity the progress of our humble railcar.

Ramsbottom station is pretty much in the town centre. Years ago we enjoyed a pleasant meal in a cafe in sight of the station and had decided to pay it a repeat visit. It turned out to have been transformed into an upmarket coffee bar, so we walked up the main street, lined with charity shops, looking for another cafe. Nothing appealed so we decided to investigate the imposing "Grant Arms". This proved to provide very enjoyable meals. Outside it is a bizarre sculpture of a vase lying on its side.

Revived by a rest, a meal and a small amount of alcohol we walked back towards the station. Emuna insisted that I take a picture of a sandwich shop called "Big Butts" content which I suppose is some sort of joke on the towns name.

The next Rawtenstall bound train was headed by a rather boring locomotive, nicknamed a Hoover, but I insisted that we walk to the back of the train as there was a diesel of distinction, a Deltic, bringing up the rear. It turned out to be switched off, so I could not enjoy the highbrow tones of its engines as we traversed the stoneclad valley of the Irwell. Emuna took to gurning at lineside photographers.

We left the train at the Rawtenstall terminus and went to explore the town. Sadly, a lot of the shops are now closed, including an entire 1960s shopping arcade.

We came upon an establishment that claimed to be Britain's last temperance bar. Curious, we entered, and found ourselves in a dark wooden bar with a single plain table and spindly wooden chairs. The proprietor stood behind the bar and asked for our orders. I explained that we didn't know the options, so a pale young man with an oddly peaked grey woolen hat stepped forward with a menu. Emuna chose dandelion and burdock while I went for lemon and ginger. This was much nicer than the oversweetened pop bought from a supermarket, with a pleasant tingle from the ginger. All around were shelves of healthy teas and old fashioned advertisments for various concoctions.

A young woman floated in who would easily win the prize for best dressed person of the day. She wore a vivid electric blue dress with a huge silver cross that hung in the space where many women nowadays seem to prefer to display eye popping amounts of cleavage. From each ear hung another cross, smaller, but still a greater weight than I would like to dangle from my lobes. She eyed me with suspicion and conversed inaudibly with the lad in the peaked wooly hat.

More regulars arrived, including the girl's mother, who was surprisingly elderly. They all ordered drinks and Emuna and I gave up our chairs for our elders and betters. Two little ladies, whose husbands probably worked in a mine, in a mine, where a thousand diamonds shine, sat down and stared at us. We began to feel like we had strayed into some strange private cult. Perhaps the girl in the blue dress is the new Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born at Taleford, and raised in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England.

who is destined to give birth as a virgin to the new Messiah and Rawtenstall will be the new Jerusalem. Perhaps, deep in the vaults of the adjacent Methodist church is a box containing arcane truths revealed unto her.

We finished our drinks and walked towards the station, surprised not to have been asked if we were local in the Royston Vaseyish atmosphere of the pub with no beer. Reading some of the advertisements for the diesel weekend in the booking office I realised that the trains were actually going to run all night, and for a mere £27.50 one could have unlimited overnight travel between Rawtenstall and Heywood!

The train arrived, topped and tailed by class 37 diesels. We went to the leading carriage in order to be close to the engine. It was an open coach of the kind with sets of 4 seats facing inward to a table. Opposite sat two middle aged men and a boy of about 8, presumably the son of one of the men, who were encouraging him in the irritating displacement activity of repeatedly spinning a coin on the formica topped table.

In the next bay were a group of gricers who, judging by their estuarine vowels, hailed from the South Eastern corner of the land. Though almost certainly into their third decades of life, their humour was consistently teenage. It became clear that all of our fellow travellers at this end of the carriage were planning to avail themselves of the opportunity to travel all night.

The engine had been steadily beating like a giant heart, but, in response to the guard's whistle, it started to haul the train out of the station, demonstrating why this class are dubbed "growlers". Though they spent most of their 40+ years in service on relatively humble trains some of the class had a brief fling in the spotlight when Gerard Fiennes, then General Manager of the Western Region, had them re-geared to run in pairs up to 100 MPH for pulling the top expresses from Paddington to the West. Later Mr Fiennes published a book called "I tried to Run a Railway" which upset the transport minister and he was promptly sacked.

OK, so I'm a bit of a secret gricer myself!

Between Ramsbottom and Summerseat there are two tunnels close together. The driver braked through the first of these, then gunned the engine through the second, longer bore, to the delight of all as the prolonged growl of the engine was magnified by the tunnel lining.

Back at Bury, time was pressing and we hurried through the town centre to catch a tram. A stray gricer stood on the platform to photograph the tram. Back at Victoria we had a short wait for the Ashton train. As the train sped across the remnants of Ashton Moss my 'phone rang. It was Fian, our shop training co-ordinator. She was going to boatsit for the first time but had been unable to contact the boatsitting organiser to obtain a key. I arranged to meet her, walked home with Emuna and met Dave the driver who had just finished his days voluntary work. He handed the van over to me and I drove to the basin to meet Fian and show her the basics of staying in a back cabin. I drove home just in time to eat a lovely meal prepared by Emuna.

Hunger abated, we set out in the van to collect our friend Sandie from Stalybridge, then hurried to Rusholme for the Saturday night Latihan. The latihan left me with a stiff neck,lately I seem to be leaving the latihan with various pains that wear off in an hour or two. It's very odd, but that applies to everything about the latihan. (Who am I to talk about strange cults. Subud members are always pointing out that it's not a cult, Sometimes methinks they protest too much). After tea and biscuits and a long chat with a lady who is using Facebook for the first time, we returned to the van, now a little heavier with some donations for the charity shop from a Subud lady who is on a mission to declutter her home. Sandie and Emuna nattered about spiritual things, particularly the incompatibility between Subud and Gurdjieff work

We dropped Sandie off and went to visit a friend who has lung cancer. He's just had radiotherapy which burned his oesophagus and made it difficult to eat. Hearing that my birthday cake was chocolate he developed a craving for chocolate cake (made by Emuna to my mother's secret recipe), so we took him some. He enjoyed it in spite of swallowing still being painful. The conversation was of things on which I had no strong views and so, though I enjoyed the company, did not join in, drinking lemongrass tea and watching something forgettable on the TV instead. Tiredness was creeping over me, so soon we headed for home to draw the curtains on a grand day.