On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)


CHAPTER ELEVEN - "Low Pounds, Toddler-Man and the Oldies: Huddersfield Bound"

Chapter Ten left me just to the east of Marsden with the trip down to Huddersfield ahead of me. In truth I thought I’d covered the trip to Huddersfield in Chapter Ten but I’ve had a look at what I wrote therein. Clearly I decided I’d done enough for Chapter Ten by the time I’d written about getting to the east of Marsden – much like my getting to the east of Marsden in the actualite!

The trip to Huddersfield down the eastern part of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal (see http://www.waterwaysguides.co.uk/hnc/index.htm for a description of the canal) is not easy, but it is picturesque in many places. Water is in short supply. When the canal system was built there were a host of reservoirs built at the same time to feed water into the system. In the 1950s and ‘60s the canal system fell into deep decline so the reservoirs were filled in and redeveloped. Since the early 1980s there has been an enthusiastic and successful move to revive the canals for recreational purposes (although as I write this in Ellesmere on the Llangollen Canal petrol at over £1.00 per litre has caused as much as a rumpus as petrol at £1.00 a gallon did a surprisingly few years ago so the prospect of using the canals for non-time-essential goods, sawn timber, prefabricated window units [prefabricated anything?], coal and engineering parts for instance, cannot be far away, can they?) but there is no scope for reviving the reservoirs. They are gone. Water is indeed in short supply in a lot of the canals of England, and none more so than in the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Exiting one lock rather optimistically I ran aground within a couple of boat lengths. No surprise there for I had had a look at the four hundred or so yards of the pound to the next lock and seen the ‘stream’ in the bottom of it staring back at me. Quite why I thought I’d be able to get through it I’m not sure. Anyway, having gone aground I reversed back into the lock, it being the last place I was safely afloat!

“Right,” I thought, “there are very few instances on the canal (I was not yet sufficiently relaxed and ‘au fait’ with canal life to talk of canals as ‘The Cut’ which is what established boaters call them! I call them the cut now, but now is mid September and I am writing about late June!) – there are very few instances…,” I repeated, interrupting my several-months-ahead self (does this really work? – Ed.), “in which raw power gets one through, but I fancy this might be one of those times…!”

So I drifted to the back of the lock then whipped open the throttle with a view to coming out of the lock like a torpedo/horizontal Polaris Missile/Karen Pickering on pure adrenalin. FRILFORD is not a high-powered ‘cigarette’, although she did her best to accede to my naïve request of her. I got three or four lengths out of the lock, which made it a damned sight harder to reverse back into the lock, which is what I had to do, of course, to work out my next plan.

Time is a great healer and by the time I’d sat there for half an hour just enough water had leaked its way through the top gates of the lock in which I lay to raise the level in the pound below just a tad.

This time I came out of the lock like Marcel Marceau doing a slow-motion impression of a snail making a covert exit from a hotel room after a night of passion with the snail wife of a best snail friend who has just returned unexpectedly and announced that he’s ordered a champagne breakfast from room service!

FRILFORD, bless her, wandered about in the stupidly shallow water and banged off the bottom of the canal, but kept going. I’d learned enough to avoid trying to steer her much or to do anything much more than constantly slip the gearbox between forward in tick over and neutral. Two elderly women on the towpath, both walking with sticks, sped past at one stage and someone painting a watercolour of the scene wrestled with the idea of including FRILFORD in his picture – no, okay: this bit might be a little fanciful! – but gradually the scene changed and the next lock hove into view, albeit frame by frame. The sill of said lock proved too much for FRILFORD, however. She got part way over it, but then stuck fast, half in and half out of the lock.

Okay; she wasn’t going anywhere, clearly, so I stopped the engine, closed her up and abandoned her. For the best possible reasons. I was about to become a bit of rebel. I walked back to the previous lock and did what I know the old hands do from time to time but what, at that time, was a first for me. I let some water down. British Waterways prefer to have a hand in this. The process is simply enough. Open the bottom gates of a lock and then open the paddles of the top gates. Water pours in but instead of filling the lock it flows out the other end and into the next pound (which is the bit between the locks, as I think I have explained elsewhere). British Waterways are not keen on this because it does muck up their carefully-planned water management schemes. On the Huddersfield Narrow Canal they work hard at water management schemes and I am damned sure that my machinations do not appear as a line item on their water management spreadsheet (Day Three – Adrian Rayson, whom we do not know and have no knowledge of his doing this, lets 10,000 gallons down from Lock ?? to Lock ??!). I think, in fact, one is supposed to fill the previous lock and then let down a percentage of the lock. Opening things up as I did does rather leave open the possibility of a catastrophe; I mean the top gates of the lock could fail and with the bottom gates open there would be nothing to stop the entire contents of the higher pound flooding the lower pound. This idea was rather enhanced by the question asked by the couple who were standing by my boat when I got back to her, to discover her now safely in the next lock.

“We pulled her into the lock for you…,” they said, slightly alarmed. “We did knock but no-one came up and she seemed to be abandoned. We’re in a boat a few pounds down but we have been told to stop for a day or so whilst the water is sorted out, so we’re just doing a recce. How much water did you let down – about six inches?”

What did they mean? A six-inch level raise in the pound would have been a hell of a lot of water, but six inches from a full lock would have been very little indeed. I hadn’t a clue! “No,” I said, trying to sound competent and knowledgeable, “less: probably no more than four. Don’t want to waste it…”

“Quite,” he said, “you’ve done well…”

Had I? Frankly I have no idea what we were talking about, but our interaction was one of those light social things that one engages in in this life. Oils the wheels and all that…

I got though a couple more locks and pounds and then came to the one in which these others were tied up. Their boat was well off the side; they had long lines to the bank and a plank across with which to board their boat. I drifted past them, the bottom of FRILFORD scraping along the bottom of the pound, and found a place to tie up a little past them.

“We should be alright here,” said the man once I had established my mooring, “this pound is fed by that brook over there so I think we should stay afloat.”

It seemed right, but in the morning I was tilted well over. The brook had helped, no doubt, but the pound had dropped still more overnight. I’d had enough. I told the others I was going to attempt to leave. They thought this a good idea so I went to the next lock and filled it. This drained the pound yet more and when I got back to my boat it was at a rather jaunty non-narrowboat sort of heel. I dropped my lines and started pushing at the bank with my boat hooks. The man came and helped with his, longer and stouter ash pole. Inch by inch we got FRILFORD out into the middle of the pound where she almost floated. I started the engine and engaged forward gear. What happened next was more ploughing than navigating but, bless her, FRILFORD inched towards the next lock.

Then it was all over. I was in the lock and the other couple were kindly locking me though. “We had no problems getting to here,” they said, “so you’ll probably be okay hereon.”

I was – at least in terms of keeping FRILFORD afloat, but the Huddersfield Narrow canal was far from finishing with me. Within an hour of getting started I came to Lock 24E and it had me foxed. I’d done close to 400 locks by now, most of them on my own, so I was allowing myself to think I knew something about them. I’d read about this one. Instead of a lower gate it had a damned great lifting panel with a paddle in it for letting water out. I filled the lock, put FRILFORD in it and went and had a look at what the lower end was all about. Apparently I needed a British Waterways ‘handcuff’ key to operate the gate, although could open the paddle to let the water out without one. I opened the paddle, the lock started emptying and I went and got my handcuff key. I went back to the lower gate. The winding gear was in a robust metal box, which was shut. There was a hole for the handcuff key, but clearly the one I had was no good for when I put it in the hole and turned nothing engaged and, thus, nothing happened. I paused, had a look around the box, scratched my head and wondered what to do next. I went back to FRILFORD to get my ‘phone. There was a BW number to call if anyone encountered difficulties. Well, okay: BW are very good like this and such numbers are posted in many places, not only locks, and, apparently, if called a BW person will come out to help. But hang on a minute… am I going to call one of these numbers? Me? Over 500 miles and nearly 400 locks alone and I have to call BW for assistance? Not bloody likely!

I went back to the gate and looked again at the box. I could see no way of unlocking it and, in a moment of genuine frustration I gave the box a small, but determined, thump with my windlass (winding handle). The box sprung open like a well-engineered trap! No lock, it was long gone apparently, but a rather stiff hinge and a little catch where the lock once kept it held in place and resisting gentle treatment. I was fine after that, and after a little expletive deleted stuff, wound the lift gate up without difficulty. I could not help musing, though, on the number of other, less experienced, boaters, people in hire boats for instance, although there are hardly any hire boats on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, too hard a going for them, m’thinks…, who must have been caught out by that.

“Hello, thank you for calling British Waterways. Yes, really; Huddersfield Narrow Canal? Lock 24E? Can’t open the box? Hit it with your windlass, madam. Yes – hit it. Oh – well get your husband to hit it… No, no – really. I’ll stay on the line whilst you do it………… Okay now? Yes it is a bit, isn’t it. Yes, yes – yes – we’ll tell them. Yes, indeed we’ll look into it – enjoy the rest of your trip madam. Goodbye. George that’s another quid Engineering owes the Christmas Drinks kitty. Third today… Don’t fix it… we get thirsty at Christmas!”

Whilst winding the lift gate up a charming lady with two toddlers walked along and was taking an interest. I got talking to her and explained about the unusual gate system and the ‘magic’ box and said I was now going to get on FRILFORD, drive her out of the lock, tie up the other side and come back and close the lock gate. She said she’d take the children the other side and watch me. I’m glad she did. I got the other side to discover, as I often do on this trip, that there are no facilities for singlehanders at all. Clearly people are supposed to travels the canals in groups. On the lower side of the lock there was a rather fine old wall holding back an old cobbled jetty with old buildings ripe for redevelopment beyond. All history laden and rather nice, but having stopped FRILFORD I struggled to get ashore only to find there was nothing, but nothing, to tie my centre line to so I could go back and close the lock. Usually there is something if only an old bit of balustrade, or the leg of a bench. Ideally one wants rings or bollards, but here there was nothing. I was about to do the last resort trick of lying one’s centre line along the bank, tied to nothing at all, and trust that by the time one has got back from doing whatever, the boat has not drifted further than the length of the centre line away so one can haul it back to shore to re-board. The charming lady saved the day and offered to hold my boat. She and her son, who must have been all of nearly two years old, took my centre line whilst I popped back to do the necessary at the lock. When I got back charming lady and son were in deep discussion about my boat and son was very much giving off the air of a man the world was fortunate to have around in such moments of crisis. I felt awkward about asking for charge of my boat back!

The next lock was only a few hundred yards away so by the time I was there and tied up ready to operate it, they were there too. I was able to give a show and tell lesson on how the lock works and this time toddler-man son took charge of opening the gates. He was good enough to allow me to be involved too (clearly he could see I was about to suffer a self-esteem crisis!), and involved his mother, so all in all it was a nice moment. Turns out the charming lady and her husband had been in the diplomatic service (no – I think they had been in some sort of missionary service – the urge to write ‘position’ there was almost too much but I resisted, didn’t I?!) overseas but were now back in the UK. Her husband’s work was now in the boarders of Scotland but their UK life and their friends and family were in the south, around London, so, with the freshness of approach which expats have when returning to the UK (I know: I was one of those after four years in Singapore in the early 1980s) they’d looked at a map of England and tried to find somewhere attractive in the middle. They picked on Slaithwaite, in the south of Yorkshire, just north of Saddleworth Moor, which is where we were standing, next to Lock 23E in Slaithwaite (pronounced “Slawick”, or something, “by all but southerners and newsreaders” according to the BW man at the Standedge Tunnel when I called it “Staythwayte” in conversation with him!) watching toddler-man be in charge.

Leading away from the lower side of Lock 23E is something quite remarkable and a testament to British Waterways’, and others’, commitment to the restoration of the canal system in England. The creation of the Slaithwaite Restored Section involved the reconstruction of 656 yards (600 m) of new canal along the old line that was infilled in 1956. Read about the project by following this link:

In essence Lock 22E had to be excavated as this section of the original canal had been built over. Three bridges within the area were rebuilt Lock 21E was moved to the west of Platt Lane to allow a new bridge to be built without a hump. The result of the project is that Slaithwaite has a unique waterfront and is the only village in Britain with a canal along its main street!

For me it was remarkable for several reasons – not least because as I got there the sun came out and the weather became extremely hot! Otherwise I was amazed by the narrowness of the new section – very much one way; the canal is only just wider than a 6’10” standard beam narrowboat – and by the height of the new bridges, which have virtually no height at all. I’ve got used to low bridges. There are bridges on the Erewash Canal which gave the pots and my bicycle on the roof of FRILFORD, not to mention my small smoke stack coming from the solid fuel stove in the saloon, a damned good slapping as I went under them. At Slaithwaite I had to stop and remove everything from my roof, including the cover (the cratch cover) that would, if I used it, cover my foredeck. For a moment I thought I was going to have to take down the frame of my cratch cover but in the event it just went under the bridges. For me, standing on the stern of FRILFORD and trying to make a reasonable job of helming, there was no alternative but to crouch right down so that my eyes were at roof level. I must have looked for all the world like a nervous fugitive or a man applying for a job as a pair of cat’s eyes on a motorway.

I tied up at the nicely restored basin to the east of Slaithwaite and went into town to do a bit of essential shopping. I was low on whisky and that always makes me nervous. The local Spar shop obliged. Otherwise the country was held in the heart of Wimbledon fortnight, as was I. I am not a Henman fan and consider that the ubiquitous cry of “Come On Tim…!” would be more apt and certainly more realistic if there were a great deal more emphasis on the second word! He had a ‘Big Match’ that afternoon and I decided that if I was to spend the rest of the day thinking what a prick he is the least I could do is to watch him play! I can’t really remember what went on but I do seem to remember that Henman turned in a perfect Henman performance. Gritty, determined, seemingly successful; then nervous, choking and, ultimately, a resignedly inevitable and somewhat pathetic failure. My logbook simply says “1300-1715 hrs: Watched Wimbledon – Henman looses!”

Later that afternoon, having missed the main heat of the day (an old colonial writes – Singapore and various African countries old boy… Mad Dogs and Englishment might go out in the midday sun but this Englishman is more than happy to seek shade and observe it from a cool spot. Somewhat against expectation for a boat built in steel with small portholes and no opening windows, FRILFORD keeps remarkably cool when the sun is blazing down upon her, but then she is lined with insulation that really does seem to make her cool in summer and warm in winter. Hey – she’ll be for sale at some stage: how can you resist?!) I turned on the engine and set off, Huddersfield bound. I wasn’t to get there that evening, Huddersfield was still a full day away but I wanted to make a bit more ‘distance towards…’ as I’ve heard progress on a voyage called somewhere.

Having failed to find a suitable mooring for some time (water shortage makes it difficult to get close to the bank and mooring half out in the middle is not such a good idea…) I did a few more locks than I intended and eventually tied up next to a derelict mill, of which there are many in Yorkshire and which will be magnificent when they are redeveloped as housing. I was in sight of a marvellous great mill which is being redeveloped. “Titanic Mill”, named after that famous and fateful White Star Liner of legend, rises like a colossus just across the meadows from the canal. It is nearing completion as a very fine apartment block with, apparently, hotel facilities on the ground floor. It does look magnificent. I am not in the business of promoting stuff as I write this journal, but, hey, if you are interested have a look at http://www.lowryrenaissance.com/titanic.html
The Estate Agent in me says it’ll be quite a place!

Anyway, I tied up near it for the night and set off the next day for Huddersfield. This time I was going to make Huddersfield. Shortly before I left, a hire boat came past with a group of affable older boaters on board. I said I’d let them get ahead and might see them later. Then a BW van appeared and a couple of chaps came out to tell me they were the water monitors and could I please let the boat ahead stay two locks ahead so as to preserve water. They also asked that I only use one lower paddle, which would also help to preserve water. Fair enough I said and set about going through the lock which was just in front of me and before which I had spend the night. I came around the corner thereafter to discover the oldies just finishing a cup of tea and about to enter the next lock. “Don’t worry,” I said, I’ll wait for you to get away.” So I did. Sat on the side of the canal looking at Titanic Mill for about forty minutes, to allow them to get two locks ahead. Set off again and before long discovered them just getting going again having had a picnic lunch! Now there is nothing wrong with this, of course there isn’t, but I was in “the journey’s the thing…” mode and wanted to get to Huddersfield. Not speed to Huddersfield, behaving recklessly, not easy to do on the canals (“the cut”!) but just keep going, working the locks as efficiently as I could, until I got to Huddersfield, which was still some hours away.

Some time later (and I could check in my logbook but, hey, “some time later…” has a comfortable feel to it) I came across a little aqueduct (and when I say little I do mean little. Maybe they were short of bricks at the time. They wanted to get the canal to the other side of a steep valley in the bottom of which was a rushing stream. In this case the canal takes a sharp turn – right for me, given that I was en route Huddersfield – crosses the stream on an aqueduct which was about fifty feet high and only about eighty feet long then makes another sharp turn the other way to take the canal down the valley. All very efficient but rather uncanal like!), went a bit further, and there they were again: the oldies! Tied up at the top of a lock, Lock 12E as it happens, going nowhere. I stopped next to them to discover they were somewhat put out by the fact that a lower paddle was stuck open meaning it was not possible to fill the lock. Didn’t stop them trying though, and a steady stream was coming down from the top gates and out through the open paddle in the lower gates. Just what British Waterways didn’t want! “We’ve tried but we can only get the lock half full,” was their summation of the situation. We closed the top paddles, stopped the useless flow and considered what to do next.

The BW people had said something to me about Lock 12E when I’d spoken to them before I set off that morning. I thought they’d told me that the top gates were difficult; I didn’t remember anything about the lower paddles. “Call if you have a problem,” was their parting comment. I called. Got asked to call a different office, the Yorkshire Office (fair enough) who were very helpful and said there’d be someone there within the hour. There was: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum from that morning! They were both a bit “come-on-we-told-you-about-this-can’t-you-sort-it-out?” when they first arrived but quickly realised they’d told us about something else which was not, as it turned out, ever a problem.

The paddle mechanism on a lot of locks in this area is hydraulic. I don’t know when BW put them in but I know they have always been inefficient, unreliable and unpopular, and they still are! Even BW don’t like them and they are gradually being replayed by the much simpler and more efficient gear and ratchet system of old. Anyway T/Dee and T/Dum marched up to the hydraulic paddle mechanism purposefully swinging their windlasses and started winding like mad.

“We’ve done that,” the oldies and I chorused in their general direction.

“Yes, yes,” they replied, slipping easily into ‘Old Soldier’ mode, “but when they stick like this you have to wind fast to build up the pressure….”

“There is no pressure at all,” we said, “feel how the windlass is turning and see how it is having no effect – we think the hydraulic fluid has leaked away.”

“Nah – won’t be that. Can we borrow a boat hook? We’ll hit the paddle whilst winding it; that’ll shift it…” They did and it didn’t!

“Right,” they said, “gotta make a call. Seems the hydraulic fluid has drained away – there’s no pressure.”

“Oh, okay,” we replied, fighting hard to look interested rather than smug!

“We need to get someone else here,” they threw back.

Having made their call one of them, the more senior one I suppose (does that make him T/Dee or T/Dum?!) came over to me and said “Er – I did ask you to keep two locks apart on your way down the cut. I saw that you were together at the next lock and, as I drove past, I noticed you were together again at blah, blah blah (I can’t remember what, but he mentioned something) and you’re together again here.”

“Yes,” I retorted, “these people are on holiday. I waited to let them get ahead initially but came round the corner to find them having a cup of coffee. I waited again only to come round the corner to find them having a sandwich. I waited again but we are together again here because we are both stuck here. I heard what you said and try to do the right thing. I’m pleased to try and save water, but what to do? These are decent people and enjoy a cup of coffee etc., but I don’t know they’ve stopped until I come round the corner and see them, do I…?!”

“No mate; sorry mate. Look, I tell you what, I’ve just had a call from the depot. The other bloke’s on a job so I’m going myself to get some hydraulic oil and will bring an engineer back with me. We’re water management people you see, not engineers.” And that’s what he did and eventually the situation was resolved.

Not, however, before a little warm light fell upon the situation in the form of a narrowboat operated by the Libra School of North Devon, driven by a bloke called Steve and crewed by a charming young woman called Nikki. They arrived at the bottom end of the lock. We told them it was not working but also said there was no reason not to come into the lock, wait for the BW people to fix the lock, then rise up with the water which we’ll need to go down with later. And that is what they did.

Quoting from its April 2005 Ofsted Report I can tell you that “The Libra School is an independent day special school founded in 1999 which moved to its current premises in 2001. It provides education for up to 10 boys and girls aged between 8 and 18 years who have emotional, social and behavioural needs.” Nikki told me she is full time staff at the school and gets to crew on their narrowboat from time to time. Without saying too much about it, the narrowboat is used to take pupils into a different environment where they are encouraged to get involved in all aspects of the operation of the boat as well as do various projects. I am reluctant to talk too much about it because Nikki and I were chatting away affably rather than having a serious conversation and I am sure I did not get much of what they actually do. I am minded to find out more about it in due course, however. I must get back to work before too long; I can’t keep this swanning around going forever (can’t afford it as much as anything else…). Maybe I can be the one to drive the boat one day, and try and add something to the work of the school. Read more about the school and said report at
http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/reports/manreports/2624.htm#P267_20034 if you have a mind to.

Right – let’s get to Huddersfield. All I can tell you is that from Lock 12E down to Aspley Basin in Huddersfield is an endless grind of stiff, uneasy locks. The weather turned progressively poor and by the time I eventually arrived in Huddersfield, having negotiated other new bits of canal including short but somehow dark and powerful tunnels, it was nine o’clock in the evening and I was moving under leaden skies in full wet gear.

Aspley Basin is a joy, however, and I found a good mooring immediately. My arrival was much improved by the gaggle of smiling faces waving enthusiastically from the picture window of the basin-side pub-restaurant. The oldies had arrived a sufficient distance ahead of me to have established themselves at a table and their lively thumbs-up welcome was a pleasure and a delight. They had done very well in the last few hours; I was feeling somewhat wearisome (I wrote ‘knackered’ just then, but changed it… in truth I was knackered!). I didn’t try to join them. I made myself something to eat and enjoyed the company of Mr. Bell for the evening – the one who’d joined me at the Spar shop in Slaithwaite!

Next day the oldies passed where I was moored, bound for the marina whence they’d hired their boat. They were waving speculatively so I was glad I saw them, albeit quite by chance. I waved back from the small porthole next to my bunk, for I was still checking whether I should get up or not (results of my checking suggested I should not but I did anyway, of course!) and, again, their enthusiasm and friendliness filled FRILFORD and me with good feelings.

But of next day and days thereafter, let me write another time. Now I shall find some pictures to go with this.

Postscript: in truth the above is not what I had planned to write for Chapter Eleven. I had planned to write a piece that swept through the north, taking in Huddersfield, Castleford, Selby, Naburn, York, Ripon, back to Castleford, then Leeds, Skipton, Liverpool, Manchester, Runcorn and all the while talk of dead sheep, rowers, Evensong, the Wardropers, the Yorks, the Wibbly-Wobblies, Jayne (not her real name!) MerseyFest, the Gibauds, dancing to others’ tunes, and getting here – near Llangollen in Wales – but, hey, that’ll keep for another day.