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.
Sorry there are no pictures with this. I was too busy all day to take any. We were booked for a "giving back" trip for which we have some funding. The idea is to take local young people for a trip and give them each a go at steering, working locks etc (under close supervision). The trip is from Portland Basin, up 3 locks to Staley Wharf, wind and return. This should take about 4 hours.
The level on the Ashton pound was well down so we stemmed alongside Cavendish Mill (possibly on microwaves thrown from the flat windows). I had a phone call from Christine, our shop manager to say that someone had 'phoned to complain that they were bringing a boat down and it would be difficult to get past sunken "Southam" at Knowl st. The words bus, through and get spring to mind!
Working up the 3 locks was straightforward and our guests were enjoying getting involved. Above lock 3 is a long pound (well, long for the HNC) and I was dismayed to find this the best part of a foot down. It's tricky to get through even when full.
We removed a log and a huge plastic pallet from the paddle recess.
I asked Tony to go ahead and "find some water". A difficult task as the only source is the short, though relatively deep, pounds through Stalybridge. I warned him that there was a boat coming down, so he would need to make sure he left enough water for them to get through.
Right outside the lock "Forget me Not" stopped in mid channel. She would go neither forwards nor backwards (nor sideways for that matter. Tony rang to say that he'd let as much water as he dare out of 4-5 pound. Of course, its effect on the long pound was minimal. A lot of thrashing about and pulling on lines achieved a few yards progress, then we stuck fast again. Tony rang again to say that he couldn't get any water from the next pound up as it was already completely empty. I noticed it was like that earlier in the week, though it was getting a feed from above. He would have to top it up from the Armentierres Square pound.
I started emptying the ballast tanks and our guests decided to consume the buffet lunch that we had provided. Tony rang again very angry to say that the downhill boat had arrived and the people were very rude to him and accused him of stealing their water, oblivious of the fact that he was filling a pound that they needed to fill anyway. I think perhaps they imagined that he had emptied the pound, which he had not.
With lunch eaten and the ballast tanks completely empty I decided to have another go. I attached a long line to the back end rail and got all the young lads out of "Hazel" to join Aaron and Kim in pulling on it. When we finally got a co-ordinated pull the boat moved, initially for a short distance, but another effort got her moving properly. (just here the bottom is strewn with boulders from a section of washwall that collapsed and was rebuilt, leaving the original material in the cut).
Aaron carried on pulling on the line, which was fine as I didn't know when I might need more assistance. As we approached the Tame aqueduct Aaron was having trouble with his line catching in vegetation. I became pre-occupied with a couple of our young (and generally well behaved) guests who had climbed on to "Hazel"s roof. This is not allowed anyway, but I was particularly keen to coax them down before the aqueduct as a fall into the river would be very serious (and my fault). What I didn't notice, until the engine stopped, was that Aaron had let go of his line and it was trailing in the water. It had got itself wound round the propeller. Aaron has often badgered me to let him jump in to get rubbish off the blade. This time I let him, as the only alternative was me getting in.
With the rope successfully untangled and Aaron in the engine 'ole drying out we carried on, only to stick fast in the narrows, a favourite place for dumping as it's close to a secluded dead end road. Our tug o war team was deployed again and we were soon moving well, though bouncing over submerged bikes and trolleys.
We winded at Staley Wharf with some difficulty and immediately headed back. We stuck again at the narrows and just above lock 3 but, with the routine now established, were soon moving again.
Our guests had to leave as their time had run out. Despite (or perhaps because of) the difficulties it seemed they had enjoyed the trip
When the two arrogant men with windlasses appeared, strangely from the nearby road, "Forget me Not" was down lock 2, which was refilling for "Hazel", just being bowhauled out of No3. They complained that we had held them up for 2 hours, though I'm not sure how. I think they had some exchange with Tony, who was fuming. He has a short fuse. They asked me to stop and let them past, even though their boat wasn't even in sight yet. They headed off up the cut to join their boat.
It's not unusual to be asked to pass by speedy pleasure boaters. Most people have no idea how difficult it is to pass a deep draughted boat, especially one towing a butty. I usually try to help, sometimes at the cost of a stemming up, because I don't like being tailed by a floating sulk, but this request was ridiculous even if I had been well disposed towards these particular gentlemen.
We were soon through Whitelands Tunnel and working through lock 1. One of the aggrieved men arrived as we were hauling the butty into the lock. He sat down and started using his 'phone. When the lock was nearly empty he came over to me and asked me to talk to CRT. He had clearly given his distorted tale of woe about us terrible boaters to the duty manager, who was now telling me, via the 'phone, to let them past. So, presumably, we were being expected to wait below the lock for this boat to work through after us then go speeding ahead. Grrrr.
As we were closing the gates after the butty the fabled boat appeared at the far end of the tunnel. Despite getting stemmed on a shopping trolley behind Asda and making a pigs ear of breasting up, it was another 5 minutes after we were tied up and the engine stopped before the other boat arrived. On board was a well known local sourpuss.
We all know that the Huddersfield Narrow is a difficult and shallow canal. We also know that it is maintained on a shoestring. Wouldn't it be nice if boaters co-operated to help each other through such difficulties, listened to each other even, rather than jumping to conclusions and telling tales to CRT. I once got the cane in school because of that sort of behaviour. I still haven't forgiven Mandy Hough for telling those lies.
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.