One Sunday we were
passing the Ashton Packet Boat moorings on a recycling trip when
someone called over, “Do you want to do some filming with John
Sergeant”. “Possibly” I replied. “Ring Brian McGuigan” they
said. Brian and Anne Marie McGuigan are the excellent couple who run
our local fuel boat, delivering coal and diesel to boats around the
Cheshire ring on the big motor Alton. Apparently the TV company had
been in touch with them but they weren't interested.
A couple of days later
I had a call from Oliver the producer and a long chat about what we
could do with “Hazel”. He was a bit nonpluseed when I explained
that the boat had to be towed. Knowledge of waterway traditions
seemed to be a bit sketchy.
The timing was perfect.
They wanted to film at the end of June and it was looking like Hazel
would just about be ready to go by then. We were gathering a crew who
needed some boating training and the project would need some
publicity. A plan was hatched. We were to tow "Hazel" with "Forget me
Not" to Bugsworth Basin where Mr Sergeant and the film crew were to
join us for a 4 day trip back to Ashton.
A couple of weeks
intensive work on Hazel had her just about ready to go and a merry
band of volunteers, most of whom had not worked a lock before,
bowhauled her through the centre of Stalybridge to join Forget me
not, which I'd brought up from Ashton the previous evening, at Staley
Working the pair down
the next 3 locks with a team of green boaters was interesting. I had
to be everywhere at once to make sure that everyone was following my
instructions, and the occassional long distance bellow was required
when someone was about to draw the wrong paddle. As we worked locks 2
and 3 a walker came over to me and said I should watch out for the
following boat as it was in a dreadful hurry and had been ramming
gates in their haste. Sure enough the boat appeared and its skipper
asked to pass us as we were very slow. When I refused he claimed that
it was the law of the cut that we should give way to him. I pointed
out that in 45 years on the cut I had never heard of any such
The Huddersfield Canal
was unusually busy on this particular day. Usually, even in high
summer, you can navigate these locks without meeting a single boat.
At Whitelands Tunnel (opened out over 100 years ago but still very
narrow) we had to hold back as an Eastbound boat emerged. They said
there was another following, so we breasted up to wait. Inevitably
our eager follower caught up and tried to pass, but was persuaded to
tie up behind us and form an orderly queue. The skipper came along to
chat and insist that they were very experienced boaters and the
walker must have seen something that happened on the other side of the
Pennines where they had to force the gates open with the boat because
the leaks were so great that they couldn't get a level. I didn't want them breathing down my neck as I shepherded our trainees through the
rather slow and awkward lock 1W, so, when the uphill boat appeared I
let them go ahead.
When we were finally
clear of this lock, hours later on our trip than anticipated, I sent
someone ahead to get ready to strap us round the turn into the Peak
Forest Canal. We went through the Asda tunnel and the awkward bit by
Cavendish Mill where the retaining wall collapsed in 2002 and they're
still arguing about who should pay for it, then into Portland Basin
where Martin Gately was busy working on Lilith.
As we approached,
someone on the bow threw a line to the person who had gone ahead. He
took a turn on the strapping post that thankfully is still there
(though the area is often occupied by anglers) and on my instructions
tightened it at just the right moment to snatch Forget me Not's bow
round into the narrow entrance to the Peak Forest Canal, releasing it
again when instructed and passing it back onto the boat. It didn't go
quite to plan as Hazel gave the copings a nasty bash, but that was my
fault as i'd given her too long a line.
The 8 lock free miles
from Aston to Marple allowed people to settle into the simple
business of steering the boats. At Well Bridge we encountered a
fallen tree, trimmed back but still almost impossible to miss with a
full length boat. Forget me Not's engine was labouring as there was
something on the blade that would simply not come off. In both
Woodley and Hyde Bank tunnels we were accompanied by a following wind
blowing at just the same speed as the boats. For some reason somebody
always makes up the ranges when approaching tunnels, so we emerged
red eyed in a dramatic cloud of smoke.
Its always tricky
arriving at the bottom of Marple with a pair but not intending to
work up the locks. There's a long low bridgehole with no towpath
followed by a right hand turn into a basin that is usually lined with
moored boats. Until you emerge from the bridgehole you cannot see if
there is a 70 foot gap to slot into. On this occassion there was a
suitable gap and our crew did well in breasting and tying up
It was pleasant to wake
up early in Forget me Not's cabin and revive the fire which I'd kept
in overnight with sawdust. To lie in bed drinking coffee with the
doors open to the early morning sunlight, listening to the dawn
chorus. Soon people were up and about and bacon and eggs were cooking
in Hazel's kitchen. Eventually we were ready to go. Maxine Bailey had
her painting work interrupted by this trip so she had come along. She
went with Andy and a chap from one of the moored boats whose
name I forget to work the motor boat on ahead while I showed the rest
of the crew the techniques of bowhauling up Marple.
All went well except
for a slight problem when the motor boat caught on a bottom gate,
demonstrating that you have to be constantly alert whilst working
through locks. Most lock accidents happen because no-one is watching
At the top of the 16
locks is the junction with the Macclesfield Canal. We were heading
for Bugsworth* so the motor tied against a grassy bank just beyond
the junction, having the first experience of the shallow rocky edges
of the upper Peak Forest canal.
Working the butty up
the locks I had enforced a strict rotation of duties, so everyone had
their fair share of turns at drawing paddles, opening gates, steering
and, of course, performing horse duty. By the time we reached the top
and shafted across to breast up to Forget me Not they were all in
need of rest and refreshment. I haven't yet explained to them that on
future trips there may only be a couple of them to work the boat
through the flight! It gets easier with practice.
The upper Peak Forest
is narrow and shallow with rocky edges as already noted. It's also a
lot busier than any of the canals around Ashton. When we were at last
ready to set off we had to wait for ages for a suitable gap in
passing traffic, then we had a struggle to get Forget me Not free
from the shallow water.
The upper peak tested
everyone's steering skills, especially on the deeper draughted motor
boat. The slightest deviation from the channel would result in the
motor stemming up and inevitably being caught up with by the butty.
There are also numerous drawbridges, so a couple of our crew had some
good exercise walking ahead to prepare these.
The previous night one
of Hazel's two sets of gas bottles had run out, so I had hoped to
replace them at New Mills marina. Unfortunately we could find nowhere
to tie up reasonably near the marina, so we carried on. Eventually we
reached the turn into the Bugsworth arm and plodded carefully up the
narrow shallow waterway to tie, breasted, in the first of the
The next day was a
Saturday and we spent the morning and a good part of the afternoon
cleaning, tidying and waiting while filming took place elsewhere. We
had been sworn to secrecy about the filming. A series of steel boats
were taking water. I wanted to fill Hazel's tank but every time I
prepared to move her, another boat nipped in. I went over to the
water point to arrange a slot with the other boats. “Are you here
to film with John Sergeant “ asked the man. “It's supposed to be
a secret” I replied. “Oh, everybody knows, that's why we're all
With the tank full it
was time to wind. We started to do this at the entrance basin but
were advised that most pairs couldn't get round there and we should
go up to the wide a little further up. There was plenty of room to
wind with Forget me Not powering the boats round nicely, then
chugging back and backing into the lower basin to wait some more. I
dropped Forget me Not astern of Hazel to facilitate our celebrity
guest getting aboard, and carried on waiting.
At last they arrived,
and instantly looked worried. "Who are all these people?" Asked Clive
the director. I explained that they were our volunteers and not only
were they interesting people but we were combining this fiming trip
with crew training and they would be essential for working the boats
down the locks and anyway we needed someone to steer the butty. They
weren't happy but conceded that someone would have to steer Hazel,
everyone else would have to stay inside with the curtains shut.
Personally I think they'd have ended up with a much more interesting
programme by including our volunteers, but what do I know.
We began filming with
me introducing John to the boats and explaining why there were 2 of
them. We got the cameraman and sound man on board then set off with
Andy steering Hazel. Almost immediately we picked up something on the
blade which made the engine smoke, much to my embarrassment. Regular
applications of sterngear failed to throw it off.
John didn't seem too
happy about perching on the gunwale and soon he was wanting to steer.
We exchanged positions and carried on with our conversation,
interspersed with constant reminders from me to stay in the middle.
Inevitably, before long, we experienced the first of many stemmings
Secret crew members
were surrepticiously unloaded every now and then to run ahead to
drawbridges which magically opened ahead of us. We travelled on, with
John acting a character that lay somewhere between the Queen and
Paddington Bear. Behind us Andy was working hard to keep Hazel in a
straight line while the motor boat zig zagged along the cut. “You
know” said John “we've bumped into a few boats along here but I
don't think they mind do they”?
The target for the
evening was the Swizzels Matlow sweet factory at New Mills where they
were planning to film on the next day. We dropped John off for the
camera opposite the marina, then immediately filmed him getting back
on again before continuing past the sweet factory to tie up in an
elfin glade just beyond. We said goodbye to the TV crew and enjoyed
the rest of the day making a meal and chatting.
Next morning Pauline
cooked us all bacon and eggs as we waited for the film crew to
arrive. They were a little late and there was some concern about
keeping to the schedule. We soon resumed our leisurely progress,
impeded by frequent encounters with the rocky bottom of the canal as
John struggled to get used to steering a deep draughted boat. He
seemed to be enjoying being treated like royalty by passers by on
land and water.
At Disley some modern
bungalows back on to the canal. John struck up a conversation with a
man in the back garden of one of these. He turned out to be a chef
who had just got home from his shift in an hotel. “Would you like
some capuchinos?” he asked, so we waited and waved past a series of
pleasure craft as he prepared the coffees. All grist to the mill for
a lighthearted documentary.
The Peak Forest is not
a canal that you can hurry. The director, hiding in Forget me
Not's cabin, glanced at his
watch with increased frequency and anxiety, for they had a busy
schedule for the rest of the day.
spotted some girls on horses and asked to stop. Being unable to get
near the towpath, the only possible stopping point was in the
bridgehole that the horses and their mounts were crossing. I held the
motor in the narrows and hoped that no boats would wish to pass as
the interview with the girls continued. When they were finished with,
there developed a conference between director, producer and star.
Sure enough, the top lock training boat came along and had to wait.
Eventually I persuaded the film people that other people wanted to
use the canal and we'd better get moving.
had been agreed that we would tie up for the night at Brick Bridge,
the last one before Marple top lock. Because the canal is fairly
narrow there my plan was to tie up singly rather than breasting to
make it easier for boats to pass. When we got there I struggled to
find anywhere that I could get Forget me Not
anywhere near the towpath because of all the rocks lying in the
bottom of the canal. Eventually I found a spot, but Hazel,
drawing about 2 feet along her length, would not come near. We had to
pull her alongside the motor and hope that boats could get by.
TV friends went off to film at some nearby locations before John
returned with the cameraman to stay aboard Hazel.
Clive explained to us that for all kinds of complicated reasons the
only people to stay on board were to be John and the cameraman. I had
hoped that One of us could sleep in Hazel's
back cabin, but the director said no. For “all kinds of reasons”,
the only one that he specified was insurance, none of us could stay
on the same boat as our celebrity guest. That left room for 2 in
Forget me Not (none of
us fancied sharing the cross bed or sleeping on the floor) but
there were 3 of us. Luckily Tom and Pauline had brought a tent. The
problem was, where to pitch it.
said they would be back at about 6 pm, so we busied ourselves
cleaning and tidying inside Hazel and
making up beds for our guests. After much discussion we decided to
try pitching the tent on Forget me Not's
temporary deck. This worked very well, so we had our tea and waited,
and waited, and waited. At one point our TV people showed up on the
nearby road in a vintage car, then they went again. It got dark, and
we carried on waiting. Eventually I decided that they weren't coming,
so I went to bed on the motor boat's sidebed. As morpheus began to
creep up on me I was suddenly brought back into the land of
wakefulness by voices and lights outside. They had arrived. I got up
and showed them into Hazel.
John then acted out a rather Paddington Bear like scene of confusion
and difficulty of dragging his suitcase through the boat.
three of us crawled into our sleeping bags and spent the night aboard
Forget me Not . I
discovered that Forget meNot's
gunwale still leaks. Andy discovered that I snore and John
slept like baby in his tent. Aboard Hazel,
celebrity and cameraman found their berths very comfortable..
the morning I was expecting that we would enjoy breakfast with our
guests, but instead they filmed Mr Sergeant making a big show of
finding the cupboards bare (not true) and going off for breakfast in
a greasy spoon. I was beginning to get concerned about the way that
the film might portray Hazel
and our society. Every time I had tried to talk about the boats on
camera John had changed the subject. I pointed out to the director
that we agreed to this trip on the understanding that the film would
give good publicity to our project, reminding him of my lifelong
hatred for Griff Rhys-Jones since he totally failed to mention the
Wooden Canal Boat Society when he filmed a trip on Forget
me Not. He told me not to worry,
we would get a good plug in a voice over.
said that they'd be back to film our descent of Marple locks in the
early afternoon, so I decided to pop back to Ashton check on the
other boats. Before I left a motorised River class boat, belonging to
A &R Rothen, came along heading towards Whaley Bridge. The Rivers
were some of the last working narrow boats built, made of welded
steel they are rather like slimmed down Thames lighters. Only two
motors were built, of a rather unusual and unsuccessful design. This
one is a former butty that has been given a conventional motor stern
and is now used for canal maintenance work. It was steered by our
friend Fred who ran a recycling trip for us a few months ago when I
was unable to be present. I was pleased and surprised to see that it
got past our pair without difficulty. As I'd heard that the fuel boat
Alton was heading our
way I walked round on to the Macclesfield canal to warn them about
the potential difficulty before heading for Marple station.
railway from Marple to Guide Bridge (change at Romiley) is a very
pleasant ride parallel to the canal. It's a surprising survival as
most of the minor railways of the area disappeared in the days of Dr
Beeching. With unstaffed stations and “nodding donkey” trains
(Leyland buses mounted on wagon chassis) the line provides a good
service to Woodley and Hyde and is quite well used.
at Ashton the boats were all floating happily and I had time to pop
into the shop and call at home before getting the train back to
Marple. When I got there our editor had arrived in the hope of having
a trip down Marple locks. Colin Scrivener had arrived to enjoy the trip down the
locks, but it was not to be. We spent a pleasant afternoon chatting
and drinking tea, but by the time that Colin had to leave there was
still no sign of the celebrity and his retinue.
eventual arrival co-incided with a sudden deterioration in the
weather as squally gusts of wind whipped up wavelets on the waterway
and dark clouds threatened more than the few droplets of rain that
actually fell. A plan was decided on and cameras set up accordingly.
Celebrity John was now steering Hazel
with me on the roof trying to direct operations. Andy was steering
the motor boat. A couple of people had gone ahead to prepare the
lock, my plan being for Forget me Not
to go straight into the lock. John's straw hat blew off, much to his
overacted distress (he had a spare in case of such an eventuality).
As we a approached the lock I realised that I hadn't explained my
plan clearly enough. Not only was the top gate not open ready but the
paddles were not yet drawn to fill the lock. I gesticulated wildly to
our lock team to prepare the lock whilst formulating a revised plan.
This involved much use of the long shaft to control the boat in the
vicious gusty wind and bring her reasonably gently alongside the
copings above the lock. Butties have no brakes and so sudden changes
of plan can be difficult.
how all that will appear on TV I'm not sure. Mr Celebrity was mainly
concerned that the cameraman should rush back up the towpath to get a
shot of his still floating hat. The secret crew had emerged from
Hazel and were now
plainly visible as they started working the motor, then the butty,
down the 16 lock flight. Andy got told off for smoking as he steered
Forget me Not as
tobacco use cannot be shown on TV nowadays lest it be seen as a cool
thing to do
a few locks the TV people met up with representatives from the Marple
Locks Heritage Trust. They fitted the motor boat with Go Pro cameras,
little video cameras that can be clipped on wherever you want them
and will record until the battery runs out, and sent us on our way
while they went off to film something else. I re-organised our crew,
electing to work the motor myself whilst everyone else was to work
Hazel down. I stayed
one lock ahead to keep ane eye on things and ran back occassionally
to give advice. All went well.
we had started so late on the locks it was a close thing whether or
not we would be finished before dark. At lock 5 it was getting dusk
when Oliver came to reclaim the Go Pros. By the time we reached lock
1 the last glimmers of light were fading. We roughly breasted up
below the lock and those of us who were staying fell into bed, while
others faced a drive home.
main job for us on the final day of filming was to capture the
crossing of Marple aqueduct. This was to be filmed by a drone. We
crossed the aqueduct slowly with the drone whizzing about above our
heads while John and I discussed the splendour of the scene. We then
had to do it again, so I took a line from one of “Hazel”s stern
end timberheads and dragged the two boats backwards ready to repeat
under Lyne is an interesting town. It was a boomtown of the mid
nineteenth century growing rapidly as the cotton trade expanded, the
burgeoning mills being fired by local coal dug from local pits and in
many cases delivered by boat. At one time it even had its own
religious cult, the Christian Israelites, who believed that it would
be the site of the second coming of Jesus Christ and at the height of
their influence planned to build a city wall to join up their four
gatehouses. It is also the Northern terminus of the Peak Forest
was with some difficulty that I persuaded the TV people that they
should actually bother with the lower Peak Forest canal rather than
terminating their journey at Marple. There seems to still be a view
widely held in the South that “dirty Northern towns” have nothing
of interest. With the aqueduct filming over, the plan was for the TV
entourage to go off to Hyde and film at boxer Ricky Hatton's gym. The
boats were fitted with go pro's again and set off for a pleasant
journey along the winding wooded water route, to tie up, as arranged,
just before Dukinfield lift bridge.
long wait began as, it turned out, a conference took place in a
nearby pub. Eventually the star and retinue returned to the boats,
but continued their conference for some time. At this point I
witnessed the downside of celebrity status as some people tried to
but in to the private conversation that was going on, calling on John
to pose for their cameras. He deliberately turned his back on them in
a way that could be seen as rude, but if this sort of thing happens
frequently it's difficult to see how one could deal with it politely
without disrupting ones working day. He was, after all, at work.
the filming soon to finish we had a group photo taken, all sitting on
Hazel's roof with our feet on Forget me Not. With this done the
drawbridge was lifted, the engine fired up and we carried on the last
quarter mile, stemming up only once. A dogwalker on the towpath asked
john if Forget me Nots decked over hold was for him to practice for
Strictly Come Dancing. “Thank you” said John as he turned his
head away from the towpath joker. Apparently references to his star
performance on that programme don't go down too well.
at portland Basin from the Peak Forest is quite a tricky manouvre
with a pair. You have to give a burst of power as you leave the
narrow Tame aqueduct to give the butty some speed, then immediately
go astern to avoid crashing into the moored boats and allow the butty
to slip alongside. The boats have to be tied abreast quickly and
neatly, again, to avoid collisions, then, if you're quick, the buttys
momentum is used to help the pair to swing round more than 90 degrees
to tie up alongside the wharf. All went beautifully until I pulled
back the gear rod to reverse the stern ends alongside the wharf. It
came right back and the boat carried on in forward gear. The linkage
had come apart and I had to rush through into the engine 'ole to pull
back the gear lever.
the boats alongside the wharf a final piece to camera was fimed,
there were lots of thank yous and handshaking and a promise from the
director to arrange for a donation to be sent to us.
had been an enjoyable few days and I looked forward to seeing the
finished product on the television. It was eventually screened in May
2016, which would have been an excellent time to tell the nation
about “Hazel” and her mission to help people with mental health
issues by taking them into the waterway environment. I had, however,
an uneasy feeling that, a verbal promise from a TV director might not
be worth the paper it was written on.
fears were confirmed when I saw the programme. The only mention of
the Wooden Canal Boat Society was in the credits at the end. There
was nothing to explain that our star was travelling on important
historic wooden boats, in fact, to the uninitiated the boats must
have seemed a bit of a mystery.
be it from me to tell an established TV director how to make a
programme, but actually these boats are very interesting to most
people. Whenever we travel anywhere with them we see people aiming
their cameras and 'phones as we pass and people with only a passing
interest in waterways come over to as about them. When I mention
their project to give time in the waterway environment for people who
are mentally unwell, this often strikes a chord, for even if the
person I am talking to has not themselves suffered mental illness,
they will almost certainly have a friend or relative who has. By
reneging on our agreement the director not only made me very angry
but he actually made a much less interesting programme.
the promised donation did not immediately turn up, however, shortly
after the screening someone from the TV company rang up to ask if it
was OK to pass my number on to someone who was interested in the
history of the boat. I said that was fine, then went on to explain
how disappointed I was at the lack of integrity that had been
displayed. He was very apologetic and said that he would pursue the
matter of a donation.
After a little while a generous donation of £100 appeared in the society's bank account. That's £25 for each day of filming! Shortly afterwards Beth and Arnold Allen, who have been great "Hazel" supporters, visited. Arnold said he would contact the company. He did so, resulting in a further £400 personal donation from the boss.
*The village referred
to was the transhipment point between the Peak Forrest Tramway, which
brought limestone down from quarries around Dove Holes, and the Peak
Forest Canal. For centuries it was called Bugsworth but, during Queen
Victoria's reign, the residents decided that they wished to expunge
any suggestion that they may be troubled by small bitey creatures, so
they changed the name to Buxworth. I prefer to use the original