I've had a tiring couple of weeks.
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 trolley.
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 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 through 7,
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 guests.
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 Andy.
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 ahead.
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 this way.
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 moving again.
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 canal.
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 to forget.
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 was broken.
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 get one.
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 bicycle.
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 boat.
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 ignited.
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 intruders.
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.