Thursday, 29 October 2009

Journey Stats

Well, the return trip was 200 miles and over a month shorter thsn our rambling journey up to Liverpool.
For the record it was 301 miles, through 159 locks, under 21 moveable bridges and along five tunnels. All in two days under a month.
Which made a total for the whole trip of:
809 miles
586 locks
98 moveable bridges
22 tunnels

All in exactly 17 weeks

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


4.30 pm and jut as dusk was falling we entered Bill Fen Marina at Ramsey to complete our four month cruise. Like all trips, you feel changed by having enjoyed them, yet quickly absorbed back into a world that should have changed too but has virtually not changed at all.
It was a short, easy and enjoyable final day. Having spent the night marooned by weed we woke to a glorious sunny day and soon poled our way out of trouble, fired up the engine and arrived at Floods Ferry where Star Daughter and Star Grand-daughter joined us for the final leg.
Floods Ferry is a friendly little marina and caravan park right in the middle of absolutely nowhere at the end of a tiny, bumpy arrow straight lane between miles of flat fields. It's run by a cheerful Dutch chap who's probably completely at home in such flatness.
The 'big sky country' is certainly at its best on a day like today - as we neared Ramsey we watched a golden sun slide lower in the sky. Half hidden behind clouds, its rays shone earthwards like something out of a medieval oil painting.
Tomorrow is the big tidy up, then a trip home to a mountain of bills no doubt and with a long list of winter jobs to do on the boat.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


We're stuck, marooned against a bankside on the Middle Level. A mass of clinging, thick, impenetrable submerged weed has stopped us dead in our tracks.
It's the second patch we've hit since leaving Whittlesey. The first halted us too. After half a dozen descents into the weedhatch to clear the prop, each one of which saw it foul up immediately again, we poled to the bank and I 'man hauled' for several hundred yards until we were clear of the patch.
By now it was getting dark so we switched on the headlight and carried on, aiming for Floods Ferry and an overnight stop – but we didn't make it!
There's a strong sense of deja vu about all this – on our way out of the Levels we were swamped in clinging blanket weed. Now we're trapped in what looks suspiciously like a rotted down version of the same stuff.
Hopefully tomorrow we'll finally be able to battle through it and reach the marina.

The early worm catches the bird

Another early start and another great bird spot. Cruising down the Nene at 8 a.m. (that's early for us) we saw what looked like a large white plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree. But as we got closer it was a white bird – a beautiful, snowy white egret. What an elegant bird it is, very reminiscent of a heron with its long pointed black beak and tall, slender legs – complete with comedy yellow feet. But it is that pure white plumage that makes it so handsome.
(Egret pic by 'Squeezyboy/Flickr)

Monday, 26 October 2009

Top wildlife moments

Today we saw what was one of our top wildlife moments of the trip - a red kite on the ground with a kill that rose into the air as we passed giving us full view of its glorious markings and huge wingspan. It's been a good day all round for bird spotting - we've probably seen 8-10 kingfishers flash along the Nene banks.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

We've been clubbing

No not Ibiza style - River Nene fashion. We'd leftt Irthlingborough in company with Nb Lexa who was heading for Titchmarsh lock - seven locks away - and was happy to share locking chores (though with a faster boat and two fit blokes crewing they ended up doing most of the work). He's a member of the Mid Nene Cruising Club based there and told us all about the benefits of Clubbing with the MNCC as we travelled. Cheap moorings, free slippage, social events, a bar etc etc - though you have to join in and 'do your bit' to keep the place, well, shipshape. Not bad a trade really.
We left them behind and headed on to Wadenhoe where we thought we'd celebrate nearing the end of the trip with Sunday lunch at the King's Head there. (More of that later.)
Then our mental clocks still in Summer Time rather than the newly in force British Winter Time we set off again - only to find dusk closing in as we neared Oundle. Time for a bit more clubbing: we pulled up on the empty moorings of the Oundle Cruising Club, grabbed a couple of beers in the clubhouse before it shut and put a couple of quid in the donations kitty. Perfect.

Nice pub - shame about the grub

The King's Head at Wadenhoe is a delightful pub in a delightful village. A handsome old stone building with a decent range of beers and a friendly welcome - you can even moor at the end of the garden. It's the sort of place you'd expect to be snobby but it is genuine and down to earth.
It's also, given its setting among the upmarket villages of the Nene valley, the sort of place you'd expect to have pretty decent food. Especially when you see the prices: a roast lamb Sunday lunch at £11.95 ain't cheap for a pub. And that's just the main course - puddings are a fiver.
Pleasantly served and nicely presented, it all looked good but the meat was chewy, the potatoes weren't crispy and the whole dish lacked any sort of sparkle. The home-made apple crumble that followed was stodgy and dry. What a disappointment. We weren't surprised to see another meal returned to the kitchen virtually un-eaten.
If we hadn't been typical uncomplaining Brits we 'd have said something. Instead we went back to the boat and I reflected on just how exceptional Starwoman's Sunday roasts were by comparison!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Nobby in Northampton

Of all the locks on all the canals you turn up at this one! We'd just got back to the boat after buying our visitor licence for the River Nene when I heard a voice calling my name. Couldn't be for me; who do I know in Northampton?
But we looked out the hatch and there was our old pal Nobby (well Ian actually from narrowboat Nobby). Moored at Blisworth he'd spotted that we were headed for the Nene and taken his dogs for a walk down the Northampton Arm on the off-chance that he might spot us.
And he did! Not only that he helped us through 13 of the 17 lock flight.
Great to see you Nobby and thanks for speeding us on our way - we made such good time we found ourselves without too much effort reaching Cogenhoe six locks down the Nene by the day's end.

Locking, Stardog style

It's a tough game this lock-wheeling....

Listed lock

Posted on this lock beam on the Northampton Arm of the GU was this application for listed building consent. Not to rebuild the lock or the adjacent bridge but rather to paint the word 'cill' on the lock sides.
This is to warn boaters to keep away from the cill when descending a lock in case the stern catches on it while the rest of the boat drops with potentially disastrous results. And it's now been painted on virtually every lock in the country.
Every year a handful of boats do get caught on the cill but it's questionable how valuable this reminder notice will be - most accidents happen when the crew is busy chatting with each other (or boozing!).
What isn't questionable is how much it must have cost BW - applying for listed building consent is time consuming and not cheap. Multiply that by literally hundreds of locks....

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Demotion beckons

When we started canal boating Starwoman refused to drive at all, saying she was too nervous. After a while she was persuaded to take the boat into narrow locks, then into wide ones, to moor it and now she has taken the helm through her first tunnel - the 2000 yards of Braunston.
I see redundancy beckoning!
As I slog through the heavyweight Buckby locks I watch her practising her reversing skills. Before long doubtless I'll spot her reading the Petter engine workshop manual!
She'll hand me the Brasso and the dustpan & brush and ceremonially don my captain's hat!

Squaring the circle

Norton Junction - earlier this year we headed down the Leicester Line to the left, today we're arriving back there from Braunston and turning right for home

This morning we reached Norton Junction on the Grand Union Main Line from Braunston, three and a half months after we turned off the Main Line and headed down the Leicester arm of the canal. And so the circle - well series of loops and squiggles really - is complete. Now it's back down the GU to Northampton, then the Nene once again and we're home.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Ridge & furrow

The picture doesn't really do it justice but this was just one of numerous fields near Braunston where evidence of ancient medieval ridge and furrow farming can be seen in fields which positively ripple like gentle waves.
Extraordinary - and quite moving - that such clear evidence of the way our countrymen lived and worked nearly a thousand years ago should have survived so clearly.

Bridge work

Not the dental sort, the canal sort. And even more expensive. This precarious looking bridge was one of the worst but we passed a number of only slightly less dodgy looking bridges on the Oxford Canal. Over the course of the summer we've passed many others.
They give just a small insight into the massive financial headache that the waterways are. Each of these bridges is almost certainly a listed structure which means time consuming bureaucracy and expensive repairwork. The bridge, by the way, goes nowhere!

Ice cold in Braunston

After working our way up through the six wide locks at Braunston we decided to reward ourselves with a pint or two in the Admiral Nelson by Lock 3. Last time we were here we had an enjoyable couple of hours doing just that, entertained by a cheery 'mine host' and his esoteric music choices.
Sadly all has changed. The pub briefly closed and has now re-opened under new management. Inside it was dead and lacking all atmosphere - just a handful of locals clustered round the bar. Stardog Brian was not allowed inside "sorry, health and hygiene you know; we serve food throughout the pub". A somewhat feeeble excuse given that no-one was eating anything, anywhere.
So we had some Hook Norton bitter outside - and it was bloody freezing cold. Why, why, why do so many pubs now serve their bitter ice cold? Draught British beer is supposed to be served WARM!
After we drank it I took the glasses back and told the barmaid "this beer should be served at room temperature - it tastes like it comes from the Arctic Circle." She looked at me like I was from another planet and said "are you sure it wasn't because you were sitting outside?"
Give me strength! Give me warm beer.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Leaves on the line

For the past couple of days Star has been suffering a mystery ailment which has driven me to distraction trying to track it down – and Starwoman to distraction dealing with my bad temper!
It starts, runs beautifully then gradually loses power with all the symptoms of a plastic bag wrapped round the propellor. Yet look in the weed hatch, as I did several times, and there's nothing.
After being reduced to a virtual standstill while trying to pass a line of moored boats the mystery was finally resolved when a fierce bout of alternately reversing and going forwards saw a cloud of leaves appear from the rear.
A passing boater who watched confirmed "it's leaves; they wrap all round the prop". And of course, when you stop to check the weedhatch, they just drop off again!
Mystery solved. Frosty in-boat atmosphere now back to normal warmth!

Retracing our route

Three years ago we brought our newly acquired tug Star home to the Middle Level from Streethay down the Coventry and North Oxford canals. Now we are retracing that journey - though in rather different weather. Last time we happened to hit the coldest week of the year with falling snow and frozen cansls; this time we've just had rain and cold winds.
Not surpringly the canals haven't changed a lot – a few new houses here and there, a couple of new marinas, more moored boats and a lot more undergrowth on the non towpath side.
They certainly have changed a huge amount in living memory though. Both canals were built to serve the coalmines around Coventry and, indeed, coal was being moved from mines in the area until the eqrly 1970s. You'd never know it - the mines have not just closed but virtually vanished. Nature, with the help of man's landscaping, has reclaimed all and now these canals appeaar almost entirely rural in nature.
Tom Rolt in 'Narrow Boat' spoke of seeing miners returning home along the towpath at the Glascote Locks. Even recently you could see the Reliant Robin factory. Now there are smart new houses. Rolt also moored near Pooley Hall where one of the country's oldest brick built houses stood jeek by jowl with mines and coal wharves. No longer – the Hall is now a smart looking manor and the only coal is in the fire hearths.
One thing that hasn't changed since Rolt's day (and since our first trip) has been the miserable mess that is canalside Nuneaton. First, rubbish spills into the water from a canalside landfill site; later on is a large, messy and crudely fenced off quarry. Add graffiti-ed bridges and a mile of largely overgrown allotments and you have a town that seems determined to present its backside to the waterway. A great shame: a tempting canal frontage can bring business to any town. Which is why we're now moored up in Rugby, getting ready for a trip to Tesco.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Pedallo to the pub?

Freddie Flintoff's post-pub transport, a way for boaters to beat the drink-drive rules or the latest in eco-boating. This pedal powered craft was spotted on the Ashby Canal near the Lime Kilns pub.

Pretty but shallow

No, not a description of the latest girl band but rather of the Ashby Canal. It meanders 20 miles through largely rural Leicestershire countryside (as well as past the big Triumph factory) but is shallow in many places and a bit of a struggle.
So I have to confess that for the first time on the trip we decided to give up and turn around rather than face another ten miles of mud-plugging to the end and then a long slow trip back in failing weather.
We've been on shallower, narrower dead-end canals but somehow the scenery of the Caldon or the ultimate destination of the Peak Forest proved more of an incentive than the affable rather than awesome Ashby. Sorry.

My kingdom for a horse

We've deviated off the homeward run down the Coventry Canal to look at the Ashby Canal, famous for pasing Bosworth Field where Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor. Henry became Henry VII and the red rose of Lancashire finally defeated the white rose of Yorkshire in the wars of the roses.
It's a five minute walk to the battlefield 'Heritage Centre' where flags and banners depict the site of the battle and the various places where the armies were drawn up.
Except they werent! Lottery funding has enabled further research on the site of the actual battle and this has discovered that the battle was most probably fought a mile or so away on the other side of the canal. Hmmm...
Even so, the site is impresive, well organised and very interesting. There's a 'Bosworth Experience' which costs six quid but you can find out all you need from free leaflets and maps in the helpful shop.
The battle was the last of the great medieval displays of chivalry with knights in armour led by their king charging into battle. Indeed Richard was the last English king to die in battle.
A contemporary historian had this to say about English troops of the time:
"They were huge feeders and great carousers...they were often noisy and unruly and their quarter of the camp was a scene of loud revel and sudden brawl."
Sounds familiar? Football hooligans, Brits on holiday abroad? Nothing changes, eh?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Brian and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

Here modeling the Mark II version of his winter warmer is Stardog Brian. It draws admiring glances from all the old ladies on the towpath but unfortunately other dogs don't seem terribly scared of his barking any more and wander off suppressing a canine smirk.

Alien plant life?

These massive (and I mean massive) polytunnels looked like a field of eerie alien structures as they rose out of the the early morning mist near Hopwas on the Coventry Canal.
Line after line of these tunnels, each at least a hundred metres long, stood in symmetrical rows along the fields. What were they growing we wondered. Alien pods? Sadly no, just fruit & veg.

Propellors make my head spin too

I've been trying to get my head around the black arts of propellor sizes. It's tough. Our old one was 19 x 16 which means 19in diameter and 16 somethings (I don't know what) in pitch - that's the twist in the blade that creates the screw action.
Now that, according to prop experts Crowther, was too big - it should be 19 x 12. And now it is after a Streethay prop-swap.
Apparently the bigger pitch was too much for our engine to push when asked to work hard so it wouldn't reach its higher revs needed when, say, pushing against the flow of a river. The reduced pitch means it can - but on the other hand it also has to rev faster when cruising at lower revs on a canal.
Got it? I'm not sure I did until I compared it to bicycle gears. You need a high top gear for good maximum speed but if it's too high your legs won't be strong enough to turn the pedals round and reach that top speed. So make the gears a bit lower - your legs spin faster, true, but you can make them work better. It's all to do with power and torque if I recall my school physics.
Anyway, after feeling our way for the first day we are now pretty happy with our new prop.

Friday, 16 October 2009

No time to hang around now!

We've just heard that Billing Lock on the River Nene is to be closed for a month for repairs from 2nd November – so we have a deadline. Hopefully not too tough a deadline as we have two weeks and it's only an easy week away.

It's about time they repaired it. We've been through it four times on various trips and got stuck in it twice because of failures in the mechanism.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

F1 pit-stop - canal style

The Streethay pit crew: Nick, Ray and Dean

Every since get hit by a violent side wind and bashed against a wall when entering a lock in Wigan we've been suffering rudder judder and poor steering. It's a problem that's now new -we've wrestled with similar issues off and on since buying the boat and we have had three previous attempts at sorting the rudder.
Yesterday we came into Streethay Wharf (our winter home after we bought the boat when we refitted the front end after they had cut doors in the bulkead). The intention was to stop for diesel and scrounge some free advice. Instead we've ended up with a re-built rudder - which is fantastic and a new prop - which is not.
They offered to pull the boat out this morning - by 9am we were on dry land and could examine the rudder which was twisted in every possible way. But much winching, heating and banging got it back to 99% straight and then we checked the prop size with propellor experts Crowther who said ours was too big. So we changed that too.
By 2.00pm we were back in the water and on our way. The rudder is light, sweet to use and is totally vibration free. Unfortunately the recommended prop seems definitely too small! Anyway Streethay said they would do a 'swap back' if we weren't happy so we'll turn round and go back to our old one.
It should be almost as quick as a Formula One pit-stop.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Canalside lifestyle

How many times must we have passed one of these billboards advertising yet another canalside development? They're all pretty much the same - an invented name like something or other wharf, one of those artist's impressions of the finished development with shiny new narrowboats gliding across a Mediterranean blue canal and the promise of a unique 'lifestyle'.
I wonder how the owners will feel reality compares with the lifestyle when they stare out at a muddy brown canal and at a handful of scruffy looking 'hippy boats' moored opposite?
Me, I would be happy to live alongside a canal but then I'm enjoying the life not the lifestyle.

Dog in a Doublet

Fenland boaters (like us) will know this strangely named River Nene lock and pub, apparently, named after a dog that lost its fur and whose owner made it a 'doublet' to keep it warm.

Well we now have our own dog-in-a-doublet. Stardog Brian has been feeling the effects of the cold mornings these past few days - he's a skiiny little thing with not much of a coat after all. So Starwoman pulled out her bag of wool and crocheted him a very fetching doublet.

And no sooner had he begun wearing it than we arrived at Sandon Lock on the T&M where a sign advertised 'The Dog in a Doublet' inn. A shame it was only 10.00 am or we could have taken our D-I-A-D to the local D-I-A-D for a pint.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

More than just a boatyard

This Stoke boatyard caters for everyone - not just boats and engines but fishing tacle (sic), air guns, archery and - just disappearing from the picture - country and western line dancing. I'm not sure whether that's the dancing or the hats and skirts.
Anyway, if that's not enough there's a 10-metre rifle range too!

Homeward bound

I guess we've been heading home since leaving Liverpool but today it hit home . This morning we passed the junction with the Macclesfield Canal and so completed are various loops of the northern canals. From now on, we are re-tracing our footsteps down the Trent & Mersey.
Yet it hasn't been a downbeat day. The sun's been shining; we've done a sizeable tunnel (Harecastle) half a dozen locks, finished the washing, 'dealt with' the toilet and spotted a few things that we didn't see first time around (like the wonderful looking lakeside wildlife building in Stoke. Now we're moored up in countryside, watching the sun sink.
In short, we've had one of those all-rounder days that makes you realise what a unique business canal boating is and why we enjoy it so much.

Over the hill

Woke this morning feeling surprisingly un- stiff or sore after Heartbreak Hill. With hindsight it really wasn't that bad. Narrow locks are a lot easier both on the lock wheeler and the 'driver'. They're less heavy than the wide locks and the boat sits neatly in place rather than being banged around if it's in a wide lock on its own.
All the same you do get pushed firmly forwards onto the sill and top gate by the force of the in-filling water - and our front fender finally bit the dust after being scraped and ground up yet another corrugated sill and gate.
Some of the locks are twinned which speeds the flow of traffic - at one pair we were going up while another grey and black tug was going down in the parallel lock. And, of course, the traffic moving through the locks means that a good few are running in your favour which helps too.
Not that I'm saying it wasn't hard work of course!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Heartbreak Hill

Twenty six locks, seven miles, six hours. Knackered, want beer now. Nothing else to say!

Friday, 9 October 2009

A different view

Remember when 'fish-eye' lenses were all the fasion? Well here's a fish eye view of Star created by shooting at the back of our large - and shiny - Francis tunnel light.

Star of the show

Oddly, while one tends to spend plenty of time looking at other boats, the only boat you rarely get a chance t0 stand back and admire is your own. You are either in it, at the helm or close by it, moored up or working a lock. So, to get that elusive view, Starwoman took her camera on a towpath stroll and we reckon the result is cracking - though we are biased.

The disappearing countryside

No, not another tale of green space being turned into houses and supermarkets. This countryside literally is disappearing.
Since leaving the Bridgewater Canal two days ago (hurrah!) we’ve entered the eerie landscape of the salt mines. And though we’re in Cheshire not Siberia, the strange, barren countryside with ruined houses and factories covered in pipes emitting clouds of steam seems just as forbidding.
Salt has been mined in Cheshire for well over a hundred years. Some ‘panned’ for in open mines but most in huge underground mines big enough for vehicles to drive around with ease.
The result of all this mining has been widespread subsidence causing large lagoons to appear and houses – and even villages to collapse. The village of Marston (home of the Red Lion Salt Works, now just a ruin awaiting restoration) resembles a collapsed cake. Around the edges are some solid looking modern houses while in the centre are the skeletons of older, collapsed houses.
And all the way along the canal through to Middlewich are just, faceless factories producing salt in vast quantities for your salt cellar and dishwasher.

Anderton Boat Lift

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. This summer we've been through the Standedge Tunnel and down the Liverpool Link but we decided to give this third 'wonder of the waterways' a miss. After all, you've got to have something to look forward to!
We decided instead just to moor up and visit the Visitors' Centre. Unfortunately, by the time we'd watched a boat go down the lift, the Centre was closing up - it was the unearthly hour of 4pm after all - and we were shoo-ed out by one of the staff.
The Lift itself is a monumental piece of work - the first of its kind in the world. It has two large tanks (caissons, they're called - a suspiciously French sounding word for an English invention). One's at the top; the other at the bottom. A boat enters, the tank is sealed and a hydraulic ram pushes the tank up while the counter-balancing ram lowers the other one down.
It's fiendishly clever and raises or lowers craft with smooth ease between the Trent & Mersey Canal above and the River Weaver 50ft below. Next time we'll definitely try it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

It's a (sea)dog's life

Brian munches away on a sizeable bone courtesy of Lymm's excellent butcher.

This made up for a second immersion in the cut when he fell in at Manchester - again due to rather over-optimistic judging of the distance between boat and bank.
He's rather taken to life on board - except for the cold mornings - and enjoys something of the status of minor celebrity on the bankside, putting on an endearingly lovable face for all passers' by. Even policemen (in Liverpool and Manchester) have stopped to give him a pat.

Charity shopping in Wags world

Star moored in Lymm - in the background is the house of Matthew Corbett who took over 'handling' the Sooty & Sweep tv glove puppets from his father Harry. He's a canal enthusiast - well he'd have to be, living there.

Lymm and Stockton Heath are typical of the boutique 'villages' of Cheshire - footballers' wives territory with their fashion shops, tanning parlours, flower shops, fancy restaurants....and very exclusive charity shops.
Now if you're a bloke you'll know that there's rarely anything to be found in a charity shop. we chaps keep our clothes until they're falling to bits -- and then we use them to garden or do diy in. Only dead men's shoes and shirts end up in Oxfam.
Not in Lymm; the first charity shop where I've found a Timberland shirt, any number of M&S jumpers and a whole heap of brand name shirts.
But it's the books that gave the game away. You can find decent books in the most surprising of places. The Cats Protection League shop in Maghull near Liverpool had stacks of 'em - literary classics, thrillers, modern fiction and more. In Lymm there were rows of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Helen Fielding, Zoe Heller and lots more on celebrity chef cooking. Light, frothy fiction and gourmet guidelines. Welcome to Wags' World!

Newspaper nostalgia

I started my journalistic career on a local newspaper just as Linotype machines were being phased out in favour of web offset. Now I'm near the end of it and not needing any sort of print medium to publish my words and pictures.
Not surprisingly, then, the sight of the impressive but forlorn looking old 'Linotype Works 1897' that we passed on the Bridgewater near Sale filled me with nostalgia. They weren't the good old days - just different. Bashing out stories, fag in mouth on a manual typewriter in a smokey newsroom, then handing the clipped together sheets to a sub-editor to write his marks on – gawd how different that is to today!

If it's Manchester, it must be raining

And it was. Yesterday it poured down and even a trip to the mega Arndale Shopping Centre was delayed until it had eased slightly.
Then in the early afternoon it stopped, the skies brightened and we decided to set off. But it was just Manchester's little joke. Hardly were we out of sight of our moorings than it p*ssed down again!
So we had a long, wet, cold and tedious run on the generally dead-straight canal through Manchester suburbs. The aim was to get to Lymm but we ended up a few miles short, mooring in country sport during a short break in the rain with views across the attractive Cheshire plains.

Monday, 5 October 2009

YHA - we like you (and so do the Tories)

We're not Youths and we're not Hostellers but we've just been using the facilities of Manchester's YHA and it's great. A far cry from the dormitories and sheet sleeping bags of my youth.
We were using the launderette (cheap and efficient) but we could have used the free wi-fi, ate in the reasonably priced restaurant and even stayed there for as little as £9.99 a night!
Now that is a bargain - such a good one that even some Conservative delegates were staying there. Those presumably who weren't able to claim MP's expenses for the trip!

Blue or red?

In Manchester you're either a Blue or a Red - a City fan or a United supporter. But the city has been taken over by a different team of Blues this week - the Conservatives are in town for their party conference and the place is swarming with them.
We've been playing 'spot the Tory' while walking round. It's easy - young conservatives (chubby, glasses, brisk walkers, smug smile), old conservatives (grey crinkly hair, exceptionally well turned out, club tie), fat conservatives (large, slightly glowing with the effort of walking, a bit red-veined around the nose). Every stereotype is here.
I'd almost been tempted by some Conservative talk after watching the Labour government wilt and wither. Until I saw Tory-dom en masse. There they all were, the ranks of middle and upper classes, of public schools and private medicine, the Daily Mail readers. How could I ever have dreamed of voting for them.
I'll go down with the Labour ship!

Liverpool or Manchester - compare and contrast

Now that's an essay title. I'm not sure I dare. Both have vibrant nightlife (we're told!), elegant buildings, museums and galleries, great football teams and stacks of shopping opportunities. Yet to a stranger they feel quite different.
Manchester is a traditional city - the shops, museums and shopping centres are right there among busy traffic-filled streets. Liverpool, with its huge new all-pedestrian Liverpool One shopping centre, and its dockside museums and restaurants seems to have been better able to separate traffic and shoppers or tourists. It's easier to navigate and more relaxing as a result.
But the real difference seems to be in the people. Manchester is typical of most cities I've visited; people walk in their own personal worlds, staring fixedly ahead, unsmiling, bent about their tasks. Liverpool folk smile more (it's true!), nod, pass the time of day, offer advice if they see you looking puzzled at a map. And, dirty old men take note, the girls dress to impress at all times of the day or evening.
So personally, I'll go for the friendly face of Liverpool and face the consquences from Mancunians.

Castlefield - canal history in the heart of Manchester

Above, Grocer's Warehouse basin with Star in the distance. Below left the huge 45 storey Hilton Hotel through the basin lift bridge and right the 'restored remains' of Brindley's original warehouse. Bottom, the basin from the other side

But they nearly destroyed it. We've a lot to thank the 1960s town planners and local councillors for - tower blocks, ring roads, concrete, wind-blown shopping precincts. And for destroying much of our architectural and industrial heritage in the process.
Castlefield, the unique complex of canal wharves and basins that marked the Manchester terminus of Brindley's Bridgewater Canal only escaped the bulldozer because of determined opposition. Instead it slid into decay until more recent, more aware authorities started its regeneration. Now it's an example of how history and commerce can work together - a set of basins and wharf buildings that can tell the canal's historical story yet have been improved and reconctructed to play a modern role as bars, restaurants, flats and offices.
We are moored here in Grocer's Wharf, a remarkable haven of tranquility only five minutes walk from the bustling heart of Manchester. You couldn't ask for better.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Is it a bird; is it a plane?

No it's a Caraboat! As the name (and the shape) implies, this is a bizarre combination of caravan and boat. Not quite 007's amphibious Lotus Esprit, perhaps, it features permanent wheels and a drop-town tow-hitch for road use and an outboard engine for water work.
Apparently less than a hundred were built in the early 1970s and they are now, not surprisingly, somewhat rare. This particular one, spotted on the Bridgewater Canal, had clearly been lovingly restored – even if the colourful canopy and yellow and white paint job made it look more like a floating ice cream van than a boat.
Find out more from the Caraboat Club.

Boring Bridgewater

The Bridgewater Canal has two claims to fame. It was the first 'modern' canal (a fact disputed by Liverpudlians and others who favour the Sankey Canal) and it entirely free of locks. Unfortunately it is, for most of its length, terminally dull!
It runs, like a Fenland road, embanked above surrounding land that has sunk away from it, in this case because of mining subsidence. So there it runs, wide, straight-ish and protected from bursting out onto the low ground by concrete sides and embankments beyond. The distant hills are pretty enough and the local 'flashes' or lakes caused by subsidence have their moments but, after a while you yearn for a lock, a swingbridge, anything!
There are points of interest, like the cranes ready to swing stop planks across the canal in case of emergency. And Worsley where James Brindley began his canal to take coal from the Duke of Bridgewater's mines is still pretty, with a handsome black&white house on the junction with The Delph that led via remarkable underground canals into the mines. But the only star turn is the amazing Barton Swingbridge aqueduct that takes the canal high above the Manchester Ship Canal. It really is a spectacular piece of Victorian engineering.
The only star turn until you get to Manchester, that is where we are moored tonight.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Liverpool graffiti

Well it's to the point! Don't know what 'Docker the Grass' or 'Terry Stephens police informer' thought about it though. Maybe they didn't hang around long enough to express an opinion!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Wet, wet, wet

We've turned and so has the weather. After nearly three weeks of dry weather - culminating in yesterday's day-long warm sunshine, we woke up this morning to steady rain. And it hasn't really stopped all day.
It seems symbolic somehow that the rain should arrive as we turn for home. It's hard for any return journey not to be something of an anti-climax and the more so this one - heading straight for the Fens after three months of meandering travel toward Liverpool.
But the weather is supposed to pick up on Sunday and hopefully so will our moods!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The leaving of Liverpool

Sadly, like The Dubliners and The Pogues, we're leaving Liverpool in an hour's time and we'll be truly sorry to go. Fortunately there are enough places to visit and things to do here to make sure that it won't be long before we're back.
Now we start the long trip home - 4 hours by car; 4 weeks by boat!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Pierhead at night

The new Pierhead area looks at night with well orchestrated lighting on its blend of old and new architecture. (And the statue of Bill Fury.)

Just to prove we were here!

Star in Salthouse Dock with Albert Dock behind us.

View from the top

A visit to the stunning Anglican cathedral today - a building whose huge bulk still can't prepare you for the sheer volume of space inside. Apparently it's the fifth biggest cathedral in the world!
The trip to the tower, via two lifts and naerly 200 steps revealed impressive views of the city and its surroundings, despite the hazy weather. And there was more fun and games too when the top lift broke leaving us stranded up the tower. We had to be escorted down the stairs instead, passing normally unseen spots like the bell ringers chamber and the mounted bells themselves (the largest peal in the world - the biggest bell takes two men to rung).
More culture p.m. with a visit to the Walker Art Gallery, founded by the man who made his fortune from Walkers beer (not Walkers crisps!). A wonderful collection of paintings and sculpture including Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, a big selection of pre-Raphaelites and many more.
Tonight a farewell pint in the beautiful interior of the famous Philharmonic pub.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Liverpool - it's grand

We like it so much we've delayed our departure to see more of it. This is a fascinating city - and a friendly one too. The friendliness is everywhere - we were puzzling over an informati0n board and someone came up and asked if they could help. Not only that, they also suggested a park we could take the dog for a walk.
Even the bus drivers are friendly - now that is unusual! We got on one to go to Sefton Park (beautiful spot with a stunning Palm House) and he pointed us to a quicker one instead. That driver let us off some of the fare because we didn't have the change. Later on the run he stopped early before one stop, hopped out of his cab, opened the door, lifted a little Indian girl's suitcase onto the pavement for her "save you walking back up the hill, luv".
It's a compact city - we took an excellent walking tour with a great guide who showed us all the sights in a two trip. It's a city brimming with superb buildings, many of them sponsored by the wealthy businessmen of the 19th century who made their fortunes when Liverpool's thriving docks saw 70 per cent of Britain's wealth pass through them. Architectural 'firsts' are among them - the first multi-storey reinforced concrete building (the Liver Building); the first built on a steel frame (the Tower Building) in particular. These two were designed by architect Walter Aubrey Thomas who went on to work on skyscrapers in the USA. A pioneering figure in multi-storey building, he's a largely forgotten figure as he seemingly eschewed personal publicity.
Still on the 'must see' list is the cathedral - designed by Giles Gilbert Scott of red telephone box and Battersea Power Station fame.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Journey Stats

From Ramsey to Liverpool, including all our various diversions we have...

Travelled 508 miles
Through 427 locks
Under 77 moveable bridges
Through 17 tunnels
And it's taken us 2 months and 1 week

Thanks to Canalplan AC for enabling this and many other bits of route calculation

Friday, 25 September 2009

Liverpool at last

The start: the top of the four locks leading down to Stanley Dock - each prepared and worked for us by the BW team. From here the 'old' route was out through the dock and into the River Mersey.
Too big to capture in a single shot, the huge Tobacco Dock warehouse - Grade One listed and waiting for someone brave enough to tackle its redevelopment. When built in 1900 it was said to be the largest brick building in the world with 27 million bricks! A major issue for any redevelopment is that the internal ceilings are unusably low so every other ceiling would have to be removed.
The dockside Victoria Clock Tower positioned between the two river entrance gates at Collingwood Dock and built to give ships an accurate timing of their movements in and out of the tidal Mersey.
Old and new - so much of the dockside has been redeveloped but so much remains to be tackled. Here the Link runs in a temporary channel so it can be re-routed if necessary to accommodate future development in the area.
An iconic image of modern Liverpool - the elegant new footbridge across Princes Dock, new office blocks and the famous Liver Building. The footbridge was designed by Arup and floated down the Mersey to its destination.
Into Princes Dock with the Liver Building ahead.
The last of three short tunnels takes the new Link route under the starkly modern Liverpool Museum which opens next year. This remarkable structure has cost £72m and is the largest national museum built in Britain in the last 100 years. Danish architect 3XN designed the concept Manchester-based architect AEW did the detailed design.The exterior is clad in natural Jura stone on a complex 2000 tonne steel frame.
Mann Island lock takes us through into Canning Dock.
And from here we head left into the Albert Dock, the best known of the complex of Grade One listed docks and now home to the Maritime Museum, Tate Gallery and a bevy of coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
Built in 1846, the Albert Dock buildings were the first structures in Britain to be built without structural timber - using cast iron, brick and stone instead. That also made them the first non-combustible warehouses in the world. Another new feature was that goods went directly from to and from ships and warehouses.
Finally closed in 1972, they lay derelict for ten years until renovation began. Today they form the largest collection of Grade One listed buildings in Britain and are an integral part of Liverpool's designation as a World Heritage Mercantile Marine City.
Lastly, a turn into Salthouse Dock and we have to do a quick bit of maneouvring as the 'Yellow Duck-marine' amphibious tour bus comes out through the dock entrance.