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.
We were seriously mob handed working down from lock 16 on the Ashton Canal to Lock 92 of the Rochdale, near Deansgate Manchester. Some were experienced, some were new to working a pair through a flight of locks, but it all went pretty well and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I'm back home now but the boats travel on to Middlewich for the Folk and Boat Festival.
When we reached Dale St lock, the first on the Rochdale, we were held up by a steel wide beam boat working down ahead of us. They were having trouble undoing the anti vandal lock on one of the bottom paddles and couldn't get the lock fully empty on one paddle. Our volunteers sorted it out and continued to help and advise as we followed them down the flight. We referred to them as the clown boat as all they lacked were red noses.
The clown boat, demonstrating where not to stand whilst steering.
The trip started a bit late because we found some Kittens aboard "Lilith" and had to move them. Good turnout and a lot to collect. Tameside Radio came along and did some interviews. Here's some pictures.
The media dubbed it "The Beast from the East", snow and freezing winds coming at us from Siberia. By the time it reached Ashton it was more of a pussycat. Despite this, Claire, our marketing person, had to drive her disabled son to school because the bus company had cancelled its services.
I woke in "Forget me Not"s back cabin at about 5.30 AM. I revived the fire to warm the cabin up. Outside was uniformly white. I had a lot to do as the boats were a bit messy after the tree planting trip and there was lots of stuff in the van that needed unloading before it went to do deliveries for the shop.
At about 7, after enjoying coffee and muesli for breakfast, I went out and started lighting fires. Both the squirrel stove and the back cabin range feed into the central heating on ""Hazel". Our guest for the day hailed from hot places like Sudan, so I wanted the boat to be nicely warmed up. The van was unloaded, it was mostly firewood from Knowl St, then I started rooting about in the snow on "Forget me Not"s deck for bits of scrap we'd pulled out of the cut.
At about 9.20 I started to panic. No crew had arrived yet and the first guests had showed up whilst I was moving "Southam" out of the way. The guests went off to Asda and Aaron and Tony arrived about 10.30 and started clearing snow from "Hazel"s roof and salting the steps to make them safe.
In fact our guests, a group called Refugee Action, didn't arrive until well past 10. The safety talk was translated into Arabic and Sudanese then, with everyone aboard, we set off. I steered the motor, Aaron steered the butty and Tony dealt with the lines. The floating snow had coagulated into thin ice which we cut through easily.
It was a shame I couldn't take photographs as many picturesque Christmas cardy shots presented theselves as we went along. Just after Walk Bridge a couple on the towpath photographed our passing. I invited them to come on Sundays recycling trip.
Though only thin, the ice made winding at Lumb Lane difficult. On the outward trip the low sun shone brightly, but, as we winded, the sky greyed over and snow began to fall. Tony took over steering. As we headed into the East wind I began to regret not putting on even more layers.
As we passed the railway sidings at Guide Bridge Tony pointed out a group of orange clad workers sitting in a minibus. He told me he had a friend who worked on railway maintenance but in bad weather they weren't allowed to do anything (elfin safety) but would just sit around chatting for their entire shift. The world's gone mad!
Our guests spent most of the trip indoors, not surprising really, but they came out all smiles saying they'd enjoyed it. After a short break we welcomed another dozen refugees on board. This time Aaron and Tony took the motor and I enjoyed a lovely quiet ride on the back of "Hazel", feeling the warmth from the back cabin range. We headed off into a snowstorm, then the sun came out again.
We finished the second trip at about 2.45. Our guests departed and we sat down in "Hazel"s warm fore end to have a brew, before shafting "Southam" back into the basin then going our various ways home. A good day.
Today Tony and me got a few more trees planted, near the motorway in Audenshaw. I also cut back some sycamores that were threatening trees planted in previous years. We pulled out some shopping trolleys and a bike. Back at Portland Basin we tried to breast up to Southam but "Forget me Not" stemmed up in mid basin. The level is about 9" down but the water should be deep here. I poked around with a keb and managed to move something big but couldn't get it out of the water. It felt like a submerged tree trunk. Here's some pictures of "Forget me Not" around Guide bridge.
Today was supposed to be a canal clean up but CRT hit us with a load of paperwork that I haven't got round to completing yet, so I thought I'd get a few trees planted. All unofficial guerrilla planting. I only invited a couple of people as I'm not very sociable at the moment. Niether of them showed up as both were feeling ill, the winter lurgi that keeps coming back I think.
After waiting a bit and having trouble starting "Forget me Not"s cold engine I set off up the Peak Forest on my own. The level was down and almost immediately I stemmed up in mid channel. When I eventually got away a wheelie bin rose to the surface then sank again.
I got up to the site of our Solstice fire that wouldn't burn, removed the remnants of the bonfire then planted an oak in the ashes. From there I carried on to Hyde where I winded the boat and started heading back. Joe Hodgson, tree surgeon par excellence rang. He had just arrived at Portland Basin. He walked up the towpath and met me at Well Bridge.
At Globe bridge I got off and walked on to work the lift bridge. Joe successfully got the boat through the Great Central railway bridge and the lift bridge, both sources of trouble, then stemmed up un the same wheelie bin back near Portland Basin.
When we eventually got off this we turned left towards Guide Bridge and I got off to take these pictures. We planted more trees on spare land at Guide Bridge, winded at Lumb Lane and got back to Portland basin at dusk. A nice day.
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.
September 30th was the 10th birthday of Tameside Radio and they chose to celebrate it by having a ride on our boats. On Friday 29th we got the boats ready and took "Forget me Not", "Hazel" and "Lilith" down to Fairfield. Some people from the radio station joined us in the morning and we set off. This went a bit embarrassingly. I put "Forget me Not" into gear and turned the speedwheel, but it stayed on tickover. A nut had dropped off the linkage and disappeared into the bilge. I rigged up a length of string to control the engine. The boats were now all over the place but I tried to start off again. Immediately she picked up something big on the blade. After a lot of struggling I got it off, it was a big thick onesy. We got going at last with the 3 boats in a train. "Forget me Not" pulled well. I connected the bit of string to the cabin slide so if you pull the slide back t speeded up and push it forward to slow down. It worked well.
I was aware that arriving at Portland Basin with 3 boats would be tricky and there would be a lot of eyes on us. It turned out to be busier than I anticipated as it was also the official launch of "Community Spirit 2" so there were lots of civic dignitaries about. As we came into the basin I signalled to Tom, steering "Hazel" to throw off "Lilith"s towline. Aaron shafted "Lilith" across the basin to breast up to "Southam" while we breasted "Forget me Not" and "Hazel" and tied on the towpath side. As soon as we were stopped "Community Spirit 2" came through, loaded with dignitaries.
Terry the Lion appeared to present us with a cheque for Marple and Romiley Lions Club's annual sponsorship. along with a plaque celebrating their long term support. We were interviewed on radio, photographed, then spent a bit of time meeting different people and showing them round the boat, before setting off with just "Hazel" in tow to work up the 3 locks to Stayley Wharf.
It's rare to work up these locks with adequate water. This time all the weirs were running hard and we didn't even stem up in Whitelands Tunnel. At Stayley Wharf we winded the pair and tied up. Our guests left and we stopped for a brew before setting off back down to Portland Basin. The trip went very smoothly with everyone working co-operatively with little need for advice.
We had had some problems getting "Lilith" out of the arm ready for this trip. The water level had dropped, leaving her sitting on something solid. I didn't want to put her back in the arm so we dropped "Hazel" alongside "Lilith" and I put "Forget me Not in the arm alongside "Still Waters", the trip boat.
Sunday 1st October was recycling day. I was concerned that we might not get enough people as the weather forecast was bad. In fact the weather was mostly OK and we had a good team, including several new people. Everything went smoothly and we got quite a good haul. A couple of good days.
I didn't take many photos but these are they.
The 3 boats waiting at Portland Basin to set of for Droylsden.
Today we took "Forget me Not" and "Hazel" to Marple. Our guests were people who have been dealng with depression. It was wonderful to see them enjoying the positive ambience of the boat and the waterway. That's what "Hazel" is for!