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 decided to take "Hazel" down to the Castlefield Food Festival. The trip along the Ashton summit and down the 27 Ashton and Rochdale locks to Castlefields, Manchester, was wonderful. We had 6 guests on board, the weather was wonderful and there were no problems.
I usually take the butty through locks as this is more complicated than the motor. This time I took the motor and left Tony Hewitson in charge of the butty. All went smoothly.
In some ways the festival was a disappointment as we were fenced off from the main festival site and so didn't get to meet as many people as we would have liked, though we made some good contacts. We also found that having guests stay on "Hazel" in central Manchester is a good way of making money. Could be useful.
Lovely dog on the next boat.
I like the constant passing of trains over the viaducts at Castlefields.
The return trip was a lot more difficult. It rained all day, we only had 3 people and we had multiple problems with rubbish and low water as we tried to get through Openshaw. I bowhauled "Hazel" singlehanded through the most of the 18 Ashton locks. I didn't take any photos! Having set out at 09.30 we finally reached Ashton sometime after midnight.
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.
Yesterday I was working at Knowl St along with Dave, Kim and Stewart. I was mostly tidying up after the gales. Dave was welding various items for "Hazel" and "Forget me Not". Kim was renovating "Southam"s big ex army range and Stewart was making replacement sections for "Forget me Not"s temporary deck. There was a bitter cold East wind but we enjoyed our work in spite of this.
Sounds painful, but that's been the main task today. I'm not sure
what they're really called. They are the pieces of wood that go under
the metal guard irons at the bow and stern of the boat. What pleasure
boaters would call rubbing strakes.
There were four eyebrows to steam all together, so we did them in
two batches of two, bow and stern. They all bent nicely, though
there's always a bit of stress when it comes to steaming wood. The
steaming equipment only just completed the job. When the second batch
were nearly ready the pipe from the boiler to the steambox started to
disintegrate. It's done 28 planks altogether, but for some reason
todays steaming was the last straw for it. It was a bit much to
expect a plastic pipe to take all that heat, but it did it, only
failing at the very end.
"Hazel" sponsors are wonderful people. They sponsor
"Hazel" for a day a year, at a rate of £28 a day. Some
have raised considerably more additionally. Every year we arrange a
day for them to gather. This usually involves a boat trip. Some have
stuck with "Hazel" through the difficult years when it
seemed like the boat would never get restored. Between them they
raised most of the £31,000 now in the "Hazel" fund, which
we'll soon be digging into as the grant funding is nearly spent.
This Sunday they're all invited to have a look at the boat, there
will be food in the nearby pub, then a trip up the Huddersfield
Narrow Canal to Mossley and back. It's only a fairly short trip, but
trips on this canal tend to be rather adventurous. "Southam"
has never been up there, so I hope she doesn't get stuck.
Tomorrow I have to arrange getting the boats up to Stalybridge and
ready for the trip. We're probably taking 3 boats, "Southam"
"Forget me Not" and "Lilith". Getting them up the
7 locks to Stalybridge is going to be a challenge. Those locks are
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.
It was my birthday on Friday. Emuna and I have a tradition that we
have a day off on our birthdays but I decided to postpone mine to
Saturday so that I could have a steam train ride. Though Emuna is a
lot better than she was, her M E restricted the choice to local
lines, which really means the East Lancashire Railway. I checked the
timetable on Friday evening, only to find that it was a special
diesel weekend! Never mind, I thought, it will still be a day out.
It's only a short walk from our house to Ashton station where we
caught the 11.26 train into Manchester Victoria. Under the shattered
remnants of a once grand glass roof we caught the tram to Bury and
rattled through the North Manchester suburbs, through wooded cuttings
and across the bleak country alongside the Bolton & Bury canal
beyond Radcliffe to arrive at the buffer stops at Bury interchange.
Emuna was dismayed to find that the escalators weren't working.
We walked through the busy centre of Bury to the old Bolton St
station where we bought tickets from a very clerkish little man with
round spectacles. The next train to Rawtenstall wasn't for a while so
Emuna went to purchase coffee while I mooched around society stalls
(The class 15 society etc) on one of the platforms. Rejoining Emuna,
I realised that the bubble car (a nickname for the single railcars
built in the early 1960s to replace steam trains on branch lines)
standing nearby was about to depart for Ramsbottom. As we intended to
stop for lunch in Ramsbottom we carried our coffees aboard and
enjoyed them as we shaked rattled and rolled up the single track.
It was on this train (can a single vehicle be a train?) that I
realised what an extraordinary band of passengers we had joined.
Usually on a preserved railway one shares the train with a wide cross
section of people enjoying a day out in a historic and slightly
romantic environment. Diesel weekends, however, are strictly for
hardcore anoraks! No-one was actually wearing one of these fabled
garments, I don't know if you can still buy them, but they were all
wearing clothing of uniform mundanity. Emuna suggested that they were
all lads who couldn't get girl friends, but the presence of older
members of the tribe with children, and sometimes spouses, suggests
that reproductive success is not entirely unknown.
Along the lineside stood more diesel devotees armed with cameras
to record for posterity the progress of our humble railcar.
Ramsbottom station is pretty much in the town centre. Years ago we
enjoyed a pleasant meal in a cafe in sight of the station and had
decided to pay it a repeat visit. It turned out to have been
transformed into an upmarket coffee bar, so we walked up the main
street, lined with charity shops, looking for another cafe. Nothing
appealed so we decided to investigate the imposing "Grant Arms".
This proved to provide very enjoyable meals. Outside it is a bizarre
sculpture of a vase lying on its side.
Revived by a rest, a meal and a small amount of alcohol we walked
back towards the station. Emuna insisted that I take a picture of a
sandwich shop called "Big Butts" content which I suppose is
some sort of joke on the towns name.
The next Rawtenstall bound train was headed by a rather boring
locomotive, nicknamed a Hoover, but I insisted that we walk to the
back of the train as there was a diesel of distinction, a Deltic,
bringing up the rear. It turned out to be switched off, so I could
not enjoy the highbrow tones of its engines as we traversed the
stoneclad valley of the Irwell. Emuna took to gurning at lineside
We left the train at the Rawtenstall terminus and went to explore
the town. Sadly, a lot of the shops are now closed, including an
entire 1960s shopping arcade.
We came upon an establishment that claimed to be Britain's last
temperance bar. Curious, we entered, and found ourselves in a dark
wooden bar with a single plain table and spindly wooden chairs. The
proprietor stood behind the bar and asked for our orders. I explained
that we didn't know the options, so a pale young man with an oddly
peaked grey woolen hat stepped forward with a menu. Emuna chose
dandelion and burdock while I went for lemon and ginger. This was
much nicer than the oversweetened pop bought from a supermarket, with
a pleasant tingle from the ginger. All around were shelves of healthy
teas and old fashioned advertisments for various concoctions.
A young woman floated in who would easily win the prize for best
dressed person of the day. She wore a vivid electric blue dress with
a huge silver cross that hung in the space where many women nowadays
seem to prefer to display eye popping amounts of cleavage. From each
ear hung another cross, smaller, but still a greater weight than I
would like to dangle from my lobes. She eyed me with suspicion and
conversed inaudibly with the lad in the peaked wooly hat.
More regulars arrived, including the girl's mother, who was
surprisingly elderly. They all ordered drinks and Emuna and I gave up
our chairs for our elders and betters. Two little ladies, whose
husbands probably worked in a mine, in a mine, where a thousand
diamonds shine, sat down and stared at us. We began to feel like we
had strayed into some strange private cult. Perhaps the girl in the
blue dress is the new Joanna Southcott
Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born at Taleford, and raised in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England.
who is destined to give birth as a virgin to the new Messiah and
Rawtenstall will be the new Jerusalem. Perhaps, deep in the vaults of
the adjacent Methodist church is a box containing arcane truths
revealed unto her.
We finished our drinks and walked towards the station, surprised
not to have been asked if we were local in the Royston Vaseyish
atmosphere of the pub with no beer. Reading some of the
advertisements for the diesel weekend in the booking office I
realised that the trains were actually going to run all night, and
for a mere £27.50 one could have unlimited overnight travel between
Rawtenstall and Heywood!
The train arrived, topped and tailed by class 37 diesels. We went
to the leading carriage in order to be close to the engine. It was an
open coach of the kind with sets of 4 seats facing inward to a table.
Opposite sat two middle aged men and a boy of about 8, presumably the
son of one of the men, who were encouraging him in the irritating
displacement activity of repeatedly spinning a coin on the formica
In the next bay were a group of gricers
who, judging by their estuarine vowels, hailed from the South Eastern
corner of the land. Though almost certainly into their third decades
of life, their humour was consistently teenage. It became clear that
all of our fellow travellers at this end of the carriage were
planning to avail themselves of the opportunity to travel all night.
The engine had been steadily beating like a giant heart, but, in
response to the guard's whistle, it started to haul the train out of
the station, demonstrating why this class are dubbed "growlers".
Though they spent most of their 40+ years in service on relatively
humble trains some of the class had a brief fling in the spotlight
when Gerard Fiennes, then General Manager of the Western Region, had
them re-geared to run in pairs up to 100 MPH for pulling the top
expresses from Paddington to the West. Later Mr Fiennes published a
book called "I tried to Run a Railway" which upset the
transport minister and he was promptly sacked.
OK, so I'm a bit of a secret gricer myself!
Between Ramsbottom and Summerseat there are two tunnels close
together. The driver braked through the first of these, then gunned
the engine through the second, longer bore, to the delight of all as
the prolonged growl of the engine was magnified by the tunnel lining.
Back at Bury, time was pressing and we hurried through the town
centre to catch a tram. A stray gricer stood on the platform to
photograph the tram.
Back at Victoria we had a short wait for the Ashton train. As the
train sped across the remnants of Ashton Moss my 'phone rang. It was
Fian, our shop training co-ordinator. She was going to boatsit for
the first time but had been unable to contact the boatsitting
organiser to obtain a key. I arranged to meet her, walked home with
Emuna and met Dave the driver who had just finished his days
voluntary work. He handed the van over to me and I drove to the basin
to meet Fian and show her the basics of staying in a back cabin. I
drove home just in time to eat a lovely meal prepared by Emuna.
Hunger abated, we set out in the van to collect our friend Sandie
from Stalybridge, then hurried to Rusholme for the Saturday night
The latihan left me with a stiff neck,lately I seem to be leaving the
latihan with various pains that wear off in an hour or two. It's very
odd, but that applies to everything about the latihan. (Who am I to
talk about strange cults. Subud members are always pointing out that
it's not a cult, Sometimes methinks they protest too much). After tea
and biscuits and a long chat with a lady who is using Facebook for
the first time, we returned to the van, now a little heavier with
some donations for the charity shop from a Subud lady who is on a
mission to declutter her home. Sandie and Emuna nattered about
spiritual things, particularly the incompatibility between Subud and
Gurdjieff work http://www.gurdjieff.org/.
We dropped Sandie off and went to visit a friend who has lung
cancer. He's just had radiotherapy which burned his oesophagus and
made it difficult to eat. Hearing that my birthday cake was chocolate
he developed a craving for chocolate cake (made by Emuna to my
mother's secret recipe), so we took him some. He enjoyed it in spite
of swallowing still being painful. The conversation was of things on
which I had no strong views and so, though I enjoyed the company, did
not join in, drinking lemongrass tea and watching something
forgettable on the TV instead. Tiredness was creeping over me, so
soon we headed for home to draw the curtains on a grand day.
A good day today. It was a working party at Knowl St. Ike and Stan
were re-organising boat ironwork etc, Gordon, returned after a long
sojourn in Bacup, was building the wood store. Bex was busy denailing
timber for Gordon to use. A new volunteer, Anthony, was working with
me on digging out clay. About half a mile away there's a project to
build straw houses which have to be sealed with clay. We have lots of
clay that we don't want, so we're digging it out and taking it to
Sadly the straw houses were destroyed by vandals but here's some more projects by the same architect, Deramore Hutchcroft.