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.
At the end of March we organised a trip from Ashton to Bugsworth and back over a long weekend, Friday to Monday. Unfortunately only one couple, Mary and David, booked a cabin, but we ran the trip anyway.
The weather was glorious, if a bit chilly at night. The Friday took us to Chadkirk, where lovely gardens run down to the canal and there's a mediaeval chapel, holy well and is handy for access to Romiley. On Saturday we worked up the 16 Marple locks and along the upper Peak Forest canal, turning off up the Bugsworth arm where we tied in the former interchange basins.
Sunday was an easy pootle back as far as Strines, where we tied under magic oak trees, then on Monday, down the locks again and back to Ashton. Our guests have now signed up as crew.
"Hazel" between Hyde and Gee Cross.
Kim steering at Romiley.
"Hazel" at Strines.
Phil demonstrating where not to stand when steering "Forget me Not".
After being unable to do recycling trips by boat for a couple of months because Lumb Lane bridge was being repainted it was great to get out on the boats again for the first Sunday in April. Here are some photos I took on the trip.
Thursday 9th February. "Hazel" the boat was in Stalybridge but we needed her in Ashton for the Valentines trips (still undersubscribed if you and your lover would like to book a place). Anyway, it was an excuse for a training trip.Tony had invited his friend Joe who found us after a mystery tour of Ashton. We took "Forget me Not" up the 3 locks to Stayley Wharf, Kim Tranter having his first go at boat steering, which he took to like a duck to water. We then left her in the care of Joan Wainwright while the rest of us walked up to Knowl St Heritage Boatyard to collect "Hazel".
Nigel Carpenter shafted the boat down to the winding hole and winded her, before working down lock 7.
Jannice Brown and Barry Atherton joined us Tony Hewitson bowhauled down the locks through Stalybridge town centre. George Hewitt took on her usual role of lockwheeler in chief.
It was a dull cold day with occassional flurries of snow so everyone was well wrapped up but in good spirits.
Back at Stayley Wharf, Joan had been heating up some delicious soup that had been donated by Bev Ackford who was unfortunately unable to join us for the trip. This was shared out and consumed as Joan steered us along the long pound to lock 3.
Then down the two locks and along the next pound to lock 1.
From lock 1 it was a level run through the Asda tunnel to Portland basin, where our crew made an excellent job of breasting up with minimal instruction from me.
It was an excellent trip. Everyone worked well together and enjoyed themselves, mostly just seeing what needed doing and doing it without having to be told.
When we were tied up, some had to go, but the rest of us went up to the shop as it was Hazel the person's leaving do. After a little mix up we found her in the nearby Station Hotel where she organises a Knitting and Crocheting session on a Thursday afternoon. For the last 2 years Hazel Mayow has been our volunteer organiser but, now that the funding has run out, we'll have to organise ourselves or return to anarchy. Hazel has a liking for cake, so we covered the pub table with extreme ceam cakes from the Polish shop. Poles seem to excel in the art of cake making. Luckily Hazel hasn't completely gone as she wil be coing back as a volunteer. I took my camera with me but clean forgot to take photographs, sorry.
All in all it was an excellent day. Thanks everyone.
I met Em on Ashton bus station in November 1988. We hit it off straight away but for years and years we lived in separate establishments. Hers a neat and tidy little house, mine a leaky old boat. Eventually, sometime after I became homeless because "Hazel" sank (this was before her restoration) she allowed my scruffiness to move into her house, and I learned to live with her regular cleaning frenzies. Neither of us were really that bothered about being married, being old hippies, and we certainly didn't want a wedding with all the fuss that it entails. The trouble is that we're both getting to the time of life where Google ads frequently send us links to funeral services. When one of us pops our clogs, unwed, the survivor would have an awful time dealing with the legalities of property, pensions etc. We're not going to follow the Hindu tradition of Suttee so, barring horrible accidents, one of us has to go first. We decided to quietly slip away to Cardiff and get a couple of friends to act as witnesses.
There was a fair bit of fuss really, I had to have a bath and wear posh clothes, Em dressed up and carried flowers from Victoria and Springy's allottment. It was a lovely little ceremony and we promised all kinds of difficult things then got a bilingual certificate to prove we'd done it. Thanks to Springy, Victoria, Joy and Ric for being witnesses. Afterwards we all went for a really nice meal in a pub near Taffs Well.
I hope nobody is too upset at missing out on the wedding of the year with carriages and top hats and the blushing bride done up like a meringue. Sorry, but both of us would have hated that.
I'd like to show you the wedding pictures but the only one of her that Em will allow is this one from our honeymoon.
"Hazel" was booked for a birthday trip on Saturday 1st October so we loaded up our guests at Portland Basin and towed her with "Forget me Not" to tie near Marple aqueduct. The weather was sunny and the water up to weir level so it was a really good trip with good company. Our guests really enjoyed it. We left them there as some of them were staying overnight, running back to Portland Basin with "Forget me Not" ready for the recycling trip on Sunday morning. Once again this was in wonderful autumn sunshine, we had a great bunch of volunteers and a good haul of saleable stuff to go to the charity shop.
After the trip me, Tony and Aaron took "Forget me Not" back up to Marple ready to bring "Hazel" back on Monday. For the return trip our only guest was Bridget, who was testing the boat for wheelchair friendliness. She's suggested a few modifications but thoroughly enjoyed the trip and I hope she'll be back as a volunteer. Here's a few pictures of the recycling trip and the Sunday evening trip up to Marple
While we were away at the Bollington Historic Boat Gathering I had to keep popping home to check on the boats as we had no volunteers able to look after the pumps. this involved various train journeys. I like trains, even modern ones. Here's a picture of a Cross Country Voyager set rushing through Adlington as I waited for the local train to Manchester on 16th September 2016.
On the morning of the 19th I got a train from Hyde North to rose Hill then cycled along the Middlewood way to Bollington. As I waited for the train a couple of nodding donkeys (class 142) arrived on a Manchester working.
Immediately out of the station they clatter over the pointwork to join the route from Hadfield (formerly the Great Central Woodhead route)
I was surprised by a class 66 with a train of stone empties heading for the Peak District, carrying on with the kind of work that the Peak forest canal was built for.
It was a hot sunny day and I was busy working on the boats at
Portland Basin when I noticed a wheelbarrow parked on the towpath
across the canal. As we have wheelbarrows on the boats for collecting
on recycling trips, I went over to see if someone had borrowed on of
ours. When I got there I could hear banging and slushing noises from
the other side of the stone wall. The ground drops steeply down about
20 feet of wooded rocky bank to the River Tame. I looked over and saw
three men sploshing about in the river and dragging out rusty bikes,
scaffold poles etc. One of them saw me looking and explained that
they had decided to clean up the river.
This public spirited explanation was slightly marred by the fact
that they only seemed to be removing metal objects, leaving behind
much, equally unsightly, but valueless, plastic.
They dragged their ochre encrusted booty up the bank, over the
wall and managed to load it into the sagging barrow ( which wasn't
one of ours). I imagine they must have had a van nearby because it's
over 2 miles to the nearest scrapyard that takes iron.
I think it's a good thing that people clear up and weigh in the
clutter that others have carelessly discarded, but I also see
desperation in the men's actions. I haven't seen this sort of
activity since the 1980s when long years of unemployment spurred the
picking up of beer cans, dragging ditches for scrap metal and other
forms of scavenging. Anything to make a few bob to try to make ends
meet. Are we now going to have another no hope generation like that
of the Thatcher years? Growing up with no understanding of the
concept of working for a living.
Despite having to scrape a thick coating of ice off the van
windscreen I was surprised to find that the cut had frozen overnight
yet again. Fian had spent the night boatsitting and I was a little
concerned as she tends to feel the cold. Smoke was drifting from
"Forget me Not"s chimney, so she was obviously awake, but I
followed proper boating etiquette and avoided her cabin until she
emerged. She said she had had a wonderful night and actually enjoyed
being woken by squabbling geese at 3 AM!
After checking the bilges and feeding Captain Kit I carefully
climbed across the ice sugared boats and started "Southam"s
big engine to back her over to the towpath side for easy access by
volunteers. "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" made a
fine sight breasted up at the wharf. Soon people began to arrive and
I had a busy time allocating people jobs, giving out safe boating
information to first timers, of whom there were many and generally
checking that everything was ready, dealing with a closed damper on a
range that was causing people to be kippered etc.
As 10 AM approached I asked everyone to climb aboard and began
shafting "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" round to
face towards Droylsden. This was easier said than done as the ice,
though thin, was a great impediment.
With the two currently unpowered boats a little way past 90
degrees of their 180 degree turn I noticed that the person I had
asked to steer "Forget me Not" had taken it upon himself to
go and start "Southam". Despite my waving he untied the
boat and set off, but stopped again when my dancing, waving and
shouting was relayed to him.
I had a dilemma that often occurs when working with volunteers.
It's important for smooth running and safety that everyone follows
the skippers instructions, but if you're too severe in imposing your
authority you soon find yourself working alone.
I ran over to "Southam", which was now drifting in the
middle of the cut and could only be accessed by climbing down off the
footbridge. I found that the stern end mooring line was still tied to
the T stud, it had been simply lifted off the mooring pin and thrown
aboard instead of being untied and coiled ready for use as it should
be. Even worse, the mooring pins had been left in the towpath. I
climbed back on to the footbridge, retrieved the pins and re-gained
the boat, explaining, I hope tactfully, that I had good reasons for
my steering allocations and pointing out the shortcomings re lines
Moving the boat forward I nudged her past the bows of the other
two boats and quickly explained that as I towed "Forget me Not"
forward the line from "Lilith"s stem should be taken back
and tied on to "Forget me Not"s stern. I took the strain of
"Forget me Not"s line on "Southam"s T stud and
pulled her forward, though she bounced off the knuckle of the Peak
Forest turn because "Southam"s premature move had resulted
in the turn being incomplete. My instructions must have been
misunderstood because "Lilith"s line had not been carried
to "Forget me Not"s stern and, as the two boats had
separated, had to be thrown some distance. At the third attempt the
line made its target, but almost too late. Boats do not have brakes
so, once "Forget me Not" was moving her 15 tons or so was
not going to stop. Seeing "Lilith" lurch into line I
engaged forward gear again, but a few minutes later waving and shouts
of Stop caused me to pull the lever back to nuetral again. "Lilith"s
line had not been properly secured and was slipping off. There was no
way I could actually stop the train of boats so had to let them drift
while the line was re-secured. "Southam" stemmed up un the
outside of the turn by the old Junction Mill chimney, now an icon of
Ashton. "Forget me Not" wedged in alongside and, once more,
the ice made things difficult as we tried to shaft the boats off the
rubbish. As I tried to back her out "Southam" picked up a
sturdy canvas bag on her blades, which had to be cut off, hanging
over the side with a knife while young Daniel Cocker held on to my
Eventually we got going again. Julie Edwards had rung up earlier
to say that she would be late and would catch us up. She was waiting
at Margaret St Bridge and hopped on to "Southam"s sterndeck
as we passed, sharing with me the noise and smoke for the rest of the
Despite my efforts with the knife, there was clearly stil some
rubbish on the blades. The engine was struggling and making black
smoke, the rudder was juddering and the water was boiling round the
stern rather than going back in a clear stream. I kept giving bursts
of sterngear to try to throw it off. This had some effect, but never
got the blade completely clean and it would always pick up some more.
As we passed the site of Robertsons Jam factory, now nearly
demolished, a grunt from the engine indicated more rubbish collected.
I tried reverse again and the engine stalled. Restarting it, I tried
forward again. This unravelled the rubbish, but, looking down into
the water, I could see something trailing behind that would obviously
go back on to the blade if sterngear was engaged.
We tied up "Forget me Not" and "Lilith"
breasted at Fairfield Junction quite neatly and winded "Southam",
a manoeuvre slightly impeded by the crap on the blade, then everyone
unloaded themselves and started digging out barrows from "Forget
me Not"s hold. There were lots of new people and setting off on
the collection round was a little chaotic. Most people got the hang
of it quite quickly though and soon the two teams were busying
themselves collecting from the Moravian Fields estate.
With so many people the speed of collection made up for time lost
at the beginning of the trip. I became a little disappointed by the
quantities and began to wonder where half the volunteers were,
beginning to grumble that they were probably back at the boats having
a brew, only to find that they were actually all busy emptying a
garage full of stuff that had been donated.
When we had knocked on the last front door and barrowed the last
load back to the boats, Fiona started handing out dishes of the
excellent food that she had brought, with alternative options for
carnivores and herbivores. Time to relax and eat and chat.
After two plates of excellent grub, I picked up the cabin shaft
and started poking at the tangle of garbage on the propeller. This
turned out to be mainly carpet, which was wound tightly on and bound
with all manner of fibrous plasticky stuff. After much prodding and
pulling I managed to get it all off, building a great mound on the
The next task was to wind "Forget me Not" and "Lilith".
This is carried out by pulling them forward alongside "Southam"
then, as their bows approach the tug's stern, pulling back on their
front lines whilst shafting the stern ends sideways. This usually
swings them round quite neatly and puts them in a good position for
setting off, which was achieved quite neatly this time.
With the train travelling quite nicely along the canal and Kevin
enjoying having a go at tug steering, I decided to walk alongside,
stopping at Lumb Lane bridge (one of the lowest on the canal system)
to try out the video function on my new camera
The early morning frost had given way to a really nice sunny day,
with refreshingly cold air. I enjoyed my walk, but kept my eye on the
boats to make sure that everything was OK. I jumped back on board
before the tricky turns through Guide Bridge, which were negotiated
neatly by the steerers. I took over at Margaret St bridge to deal
with the tricky arrival at Portland Basin. The procedure here is for
"Southam" to head straight for the wharf then swing round
to run parallel to it. "Forget me Not" follows and, if you
judge it right, she will run neatly alongside the wharf to be stopped
with her back end line (which is on the front of the engine room)
while "Lilith" neatly slides alongside her. "Southam",
once the towline is thrown off, then goes over to the towpath side of
the canal to make it easy for volunteers to get off. She is then
shafted back across to tie alongside "Lilith" (trying to do
this by engine power is a nightmare because of the impossiblity of
manouvering this boat in reverse gear).
Very quickly all the volunteers melted away in the afternoon sun
and I made my way home.
Friday morning at Portland Basin. The snow and ice had departed
overnight and so I was able at last to drive the van down the hill to
the wharf. I noticed Mr Woodcutter perched on the hatches of "Elton"
peering into the watery interior. I had been unable to keep the boat
afloat during the icy period. I think ice had prevented a bilge pump
from switching off, so it ran until the battery was exhausted, then
the boat filled up with water.
As I walked over to talk to the woodcutter my eye detected a
movement near the stern end of "Hazel". A flash of electric
blue whizzed out across the water as a kingfisher took flight. It is
years since I've seen a kingfisher at Portland Basin. I was
delighted. It seemed like an omen of good things to come in the
Mr Woodcutter came back across the boats and I set him up with
some waste wood to cut up for the boat ranges. He is the first
volunteer I have ever come across who never tires of cutting wood.
Consequently we have not had the usual Christmas firewood crisis this
Mr Woodcutter is an excellent fellow, and yet would be despised as
a scrounger by many, which is why I call him Mr Woodcutter. He is a
simple man, not in the sense of being a simpleton, but of enjoying
the simple things in life. He enjoys walking and physical exercise,
which is why he comes and cuts our firewood. Most of all he enjoys a
skinful of good quality ale (none of your cheap lager thank you very
much). Unlike many who get the taste for alcohol, Mr Woodcutter seems
to be very much in control of the drink, rather than the drink being
in control of him.
Mr Woodcutter's dislikes include employment, which is why some
people would have little time for him. Personally I feel that the
idle rich, who live by renting out their inherited assets, are more
of a brake on the well being of the populace than the few who choose
to take the pittance that the dole offers in return for a less
stressed life. Post triumph of capitalism that is an unpopular view!
Mr Woodcutter is an expert at staying one step ahead of the
system, and good for him. He is fascinated by the Loch Ness Monster
and often stays near Inverness, which he considers to be the best
place on Earth, in order to catch a glimpse of the fabulous beast. So
far he has been unsuccessful.
I lit fires in "Forget me Not" and "Southam"
to dry the cabins out, then started the petrol powered pump to raise
"Elton". As the water gushed from "Elton I started
sorting out the bilge pumps that had failed during the icy period.
Soon the boat was floating again and the woodcutter had run out of
work for his bowsaw. We picked up saw horse, bowsaw and firewood
sacks and walked the quarter mile to the bit of woodland that I look
after. Mr Woodcutter was happy to get to work cutting up the
sycamores that I felled a week or so previously.
Returning to the boats I put some pies in "Southam"s
oven and carried on sorting out pumps. Mr Woodcutter niether eats nor
drinks during the day so I enjoyed my meal alone. He cut loads of
wood, which I collected in the van later. By the end of the day,
which is about 3PM at this time of year, things seemed to be getting
back to normal after the disruption caused by wintry weather.