Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Goodbye to Star

Sadly after five years of glorious cruising to almost every point in the canal network Star has been sold and we have moved onto Narrowboat Harry – a sort of bigger, more powerful brother to our little tug.

After nearly three years re-fitting Harry we are off cruising again but to follow our progress you'll have to go to the new Blog - here.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012


Three days of cruising down the Trent & Mersey in glorious sunshine. What a change in the weather.
Now we have a new use for the emergency umbrella bought during a rainstorm in Manchester – sheltering the crew from the scorching sun!
This route south is a familiar one to us but there's always the opportunity to spot something new. Like the fact that restoration work has finally started on the Lion Salt Works at Marston with the aid of £8m in Heritage Lottery funding.
The knowledgeable landlord of the Salt Barge pub there filled us in on the history of salt mining in the area. Originally solid salt was extracted with the caverns propped up on pillars of salt left in place then in later years the workings flooded and as the water became salinated the brine was extracted and dried in pans at the likes of Lion to reveal the salt. Only snag was that as the brine was removed, fresh water entered the caverns, absorbed the salt from the pillars and, eventually, the whole lot caved in. Hence the number of water filled 'flashes' and collapsed buildings in the area.
One of the large flashes beside the canal
It's still a big centre for salt extraction but brine is no longer pumped from the caverns so no more collapses. We hope!
Brian enjoying the weather!
Another of the Stardaughters and her boyfriend joined us for the run from Lymm through the salt extracting '-wiches' to Middlewich. With three tunnels, some locks and a look at the Anderton boat lift, they sampled a pretty decent cross section of canalling.
After Middlewich the industrial landscape gradually gives way to agriculture and the whole scene looked splendidly English in the sunshine. Tonight we are moored on the edge of Stoke with just a couple of locks and the Harecastle Tunnel until we reach the city.
An evening stroll brought us into the nearby hamlet of Church Lawton where, much to our surprise we found a huge stately home – Lawton Hall – and its outbuildings all converted into very lavish looking homes in a gated estate. Walking round the edge we also came upon the beautiful Lawton Hall Pool, a sizeable artificial lake created for one of the past generation of Lawtons by damming a small river. Before its conversion the place had, like many old stately homes, slid into disrepair: being a wartime billet, a school, a failed hotel and then damaged by fire.

In the village churchyard we also chanced upon an early 19th century memorial to a Cornishman who died in the area while working for the Trent & Mersey Canal Company and erected in his mmeory by them.
These chance discoveries are what continue to make the canals so enjoyable to travel along.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Class conscious cruise

We left Manchester yesterday and headed back past the scrap yards and the Man U ground, now fully decked out in its 2012 banners, on a run further down the Bridgewater.
It was a route that started in rather grim looking Manchester extremities like Stretford, worked its way up through the smarter suburbs of Sale and finally, after a glimpse of green countryside saw us tie up in the pretty and decidedly posh little town of Lymm.
Along the way we passed lines of moored boats, many in moorings belonging to various cruising clubs and, like the quality of the surrounding houses, gradually turning from semi-sunken plastics to smartly turned out narrowboats.
Lymm is an understandably popular destination for visitors; it nestles in a small, rock-edged valley and abounds in pubs, restaurants and tempting shops. Every other local seems to drive a smart Mercedes or Audi and the houses are priced accordingly. But even here, the recession has pinched a bit - at least two shops are up for sale and others could be following according to local talk.

Boaters must be doing their bit for business: the moorings are plentiful and perpetually full. They also have a steady turnover of traffic thanks to some no-nonsense mooring rules - 48 hours with no return within three days - which are apparently firmly enforced. A lesson here for the C&RT perhaps?

PS Isn't boating a small world? In Manchester we met two boats we'd been in Liverpool with three years ago and now here in Lymm we've met friends who left  Streethay some months ago.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Two days in Manchester

And it's only rained on one of them! We've spent a relaxing couple of days in Castlefield Basin, right in the heart of the city. You couldn't pay to get a better location for a visit – and of course as boaters we don't have to. So I won't grumble too much about the slightly dishevelled look of the place compared to last time we were here. Some weeding and cleaning is badly needed.
Yesterday it was summer again and we spent the morning looking around the magnificent Museum of Science and Industry. Five halls converted in part from the world's oldest surviving railway station cover everything from the city's sewers to nuclear power to railways, aircraft and a whole hall of steam and beam engines, several of which were in glorious action. It all gives powerful evidence of what a might impact Manchester has had on our industrial history.
Only one thing was missing: the canal system (which of course originated on the edge of the city) was scarcely given a mention. Shame!
In the afternoon we strolled around the huge shopping centre, rebuilt after it was destroyed by an IRA bomb, admired some of the old Victorian buildings around its glass and stainless steel and walked down the River Irwell where we discovered a decaying lock to the long disused Manchester and Salford Junction Canal lost among yet more fancy new developments.
Today we walked to Salford Quays, Manchester's equivalent of London's dockland redevelopment, where the former basins of the Ship Canal are now surrounded by apartment blocks, offices, the huge Media City where the BBC has relocated much of its broadcasting, and the Lowry Centre where there's a gallery of the artist's unique work – as well as a "Lowry Outlet Mall" next door. Maybe the old boy would have seen the funny side of such a sacrilege and painted a picture of the matchstick legged  shoppers rushing in and out.

Across the canal by footbridge is the spectacular steel building by Daniel Libeskind that houses the Imperial War Museum North. Only time for a brief look around, sadly, before we headed back along the towpath to escape increasingly heavy (yes you've guessed it) rain.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

More second thoughts

I'm having a lot of these at the moment. First time around the Bridgewater was dismissed as 'boring' and merited only a couple of paragraphs of blog. Photos, too, were thin on the ground.
True, one can tire of the terrain; those endless miles of concrete lined canal passing between the scrubland that was once coalfields but is now being reclaimed by nature. Yet there are things to see.
For starters, the busy Plank Lane lift bridge is now worked by key and not keeper, who has gone the way of so many. And right by the bridge is a smart new basin which, though the signposting says it's a 40 boat marina is devoid of any pontoons or boats and is not expected to have any before next year. Maybe that's because 650 new houses are due to be built around it. It's all the site of the former Bickershaw Colliery.
Across on the towpath side, Pennington Flash, one of the many huge lagoons along this canal - again the results of mining subsidences - has had major nature reserve treatment with hides, walks, interpretation boards and a beautiful timber memorial/bench on the canalside. It also had what looked like a lock gate graveyard of decaying oak but turned out to be the building blocks for what will be a piece of public art called 'Unlocked'.
But you don't need to travel much further to glimpse the deprivation that the loss of collieries and other industry has caused. Leigh might have an Aldi and a Lidl for Starwoman but it's a sorry, shell of a town with empty shops, broken shop windows and that sign of unemployment - more men than women on the streets during the day, pushing pushchairs or just sitting around looking pale and glum.

Today we passed through Worsley where Britain's unique canal system began as a means to transport coal from the Duke of Bridgewater's mines. Last time, like most boaters, we took the obligatory picture of the handsome black and white house, where passengers stayed to wait for packet boats, on the junction with the Delph that once ran into the mines. This time we decided to stop and look around.
Walkways and interpretation boards guide you through what can be seen. And it's all being tidied up, not by the council "no money" but by volunteers from the local Civic Trust. Apparently the impetus is to smarten the place up because Olympic football teams are staying nearby.
Apparently there's also a £3.5m project to dredge and improve visitor access to the old canals and other parts of the local Bridgewater. All it needs is Heritage Lottery money!
After yet another thorough drenching we are now in Castlefield Basin, Manchester and the evening sun is shining.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Flight of fancy

4.30 p.m. and we reach the top of the infamous 21 lock Wigan Flight. What would sensible people do? Moor up, of course, and start down the next morning.
Not us. This barking mad pair on Star set off down the flight on their own with enthusiasm, a couple of bottles of water and some bananas for sustenance. Four hours later we had reached the bottom. The water and bananas had run out; the enthusiasm was stretching thin. We'd met two set of paddles that hadn't been properly lowered, several gates that were all but impossible to open or shut, a ground paddle that wouldn't close which we had to report to the BW (sorry C&RT) emergency number and help, encouragement and banter from passing locals. Fortunately no unpleasant encounters with scrotes, though.
But that wasn't the end of a day which started with the seven lock descent of the Johnson's Hillock flight in the company of our locking buddies on Nb Hallriff from days back just after Skipton. No, after Wigan we had to find somewhere to moor for the night in the gathering gloom so we pressed on through two more locks - stopping for some quick scrambled eggs on toast before one of them - before finally resting up for the night just outside the town.
Now we have a 40 mile stretch to Preston Brook with no locks at all - what will we do with ourselves?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Blackburn still a black spot

One of our daughters has a boyfriend who comes from Blackburn so I've tried to cast a kindlier look at the town than I did last time through when it really was as black as its name. As I said then:
"In a couple of miles we came upon:
A sofa
A bed
Some fence panelling
A baby buggy
Various car parts
Numerous shopping trolleys
Street furniture
A car axle
And any amount of general cr*p! Every now and then Star would bump and sway as we passed over some half buried mystery piece of rubbish in the silt below.

The locks when we came to them were a horror story too - old fires, smashed bottles, cans, pill packets lined the top couple. Only in the middle (where the lock-keeper lived!) were they clean and tidy."

Well things have improved. The canal has definitely been cleared of rubbish (though most of the plastic bottles have been piled up at the locks, presumably awaiting removal - or chucking back in.) This time around we only spotted two mattresses, a bed frame, a bath, two shopping trolleys and a vacuum cleaner. The locks, particularly the top lock, were still a sorry mess and the lock-keeper – as everywhere – seemed to have vanished. Even the locks themselves were tired and seriously leaky.
The trouble is that the canal takes three long miles to wind past a succession of grubby out of town sheds, scruffy factory sites and wasteland so there's time to grow increasingly depressed by the surroundings. There's none of the canalside history or green parks of neighbouring Burnley. What might be appealing about the town is always just a tantalising glimpse away in the distance. Including the smart football stadium.
We had no trouble at the locks, though, but a family of swans nearly did. The parents and two cygnets managed to get themselves trapped in the lock with us and another boat. Ma and pa hopped out but the littl'uns couldn't so Starwoman came to the rescue. She grabbed them by the necks and lifted them out onto the bank while the parents didn't know whether to be grateful or  grumpy. Fortunately they chose the former.
We moored the night before Blackburn in a remote piece of country and were enchanted by a solitary curlew circling around the hillside, his eerie call echoing across the sky all evening and again in the morning. We watched the sun go down in a technicolour blaze of reds and pinks and went to bed cheerfully remembering that old adage: 'Red sky at night, shepherd's delight'.
Ha! Wrong again. Today dawned drizzly, briefly improved then rained solidly all afternoon, driving us to an early mooring at Riley Green.