CHAPTER NINETEEN - "The Longest Day!"
It was time to leave York. I’d booked a passage back down the tidal River Ouse for Wednesday 3rd August. The tide would be right at about 7.30 am so I needed to slip down to Naburn to be ready to leave early in the morning. With a fond backward look to York I pointed FRILFORD south. She picked up her heels and, having passed the Archbishop’s Palace at Bishopthorpe for the fourth time, we were safety moored just up from Naburn Lock in no time. During the day a couple of other boats arrived; one smallish narrowboat, “Tiller Girl” and a sporty looking ‘yoghurt pot’! They were going down the river the next day also.
The next day, the Wednesday, broke fine but windy. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to have a day which would make 26.6 miles back from Ripon seem as nothing!
We were slightly later than I expected getting going but were in Naburn Lock by 8.00 o’clock and out into the tidal river by 0818 hrs. “Tiller Girl” led the way. Her owner had said that he thought he might hold up us other two as his boat was smaller and he did no like to thrash the engine. However, he led out of the lock and showed no sign of wanting to be overtaken. He wasn’t slow at all, it transpired. The tide has little influence up near Naburn but as we made progress the effects of an incoming tide slowed our groundspeed somewhat. The Lockkeeper at Naburn sends boats out whilst the tide is still coming in, so that one can get some advantage from slack water at the top of the tide and the benefit of the ebbing tide. However, one does not want to arrive at Selby when the tide is ebbing at its fastest because one has to make a turn into Selby Lock, involving dropping down below it and coming back up against the tide. Tricky enough without the river going hell for leather!
Once the tide turned our ground speed increased. Had I been on my own I would have put more power on and got to Selby more quickly. However, the chap on “Tiller Girl” seemed happy to let the tide do the work, and since he was an old River Ouse hand it seemed sensible to stick with him. Early on, in slack water where the river is still fairly modest, we passed what looked like a body in the water. The body of a cow. “Ah!” I thought “the dead cow I missed last time…” not that I was keen to see it, but it seemed to be something of a local landmark. But no, this cow, actually I think it was a bullock, was very much alive. I passed it quite closely and it was swimming about in the river with, apparently, hardly a care in the world. Soon it struck out for the other side and, as my view of it receded, it climbed up the opposite bank and started grazing on the greenery to be found on that side. One ballsy bovine, I suggest!
All the way down the river we were dodging debris in the water. I don’t suppose it will ever be clear of branches, tree trunks and other detritus. Hand signals were used: “Tiller Girl” would signal to me as they took avoiding action and I’d do the same for the sporty yoghurt pot behind me. There was a youngish couple on that boat who did not have a great deal of experience and were, they told “Tiller Girl” and me afterwards as we all sat safely in Selby Lock, happy to be in company with us.
Safely in Selby Lock? Can I not imbue this story with tales of daring do and knife edge stuff a little like the voyage up the river? No! It was straightforward, really. We all kept our wits about us, marvelled at the bright day and the lively conditions, and marvelled too, or I did anyway, at the fact that FRILFORD was at one stage making 6.8 mph at 1600 rpm, giving, I suppose, about 2 mph of tide under her. It was good that it was not more – I bet things really would be a bit daunting with the tide in full ebb.
When it came to making the turn into the Selby Lock “Tiller Girl” went first and made a good job of it. Then it was my turn. By now FRILFORD had been taken about a hundred yards beyond the lock, but I turned her round, gunned the engine, slipped over to the ‘off’ side of the river, the side where the lock is, found a back-eddy, dropped the power back, lined up the bows with the entrance to the lock (already occupied by “Tiller Girl” who could have moved a little further forward in the lock!) and with a final flourish on the throttle got into the lock beside “Tiller Girl”. I slipped FRILFORD into neutral, jumped up onto her roof, and passed my centre line round a vertical bar on the lock wall to steady us as we were locked up. I tried to look as though I did this all the time and that this was no big deal. Maybe it wasn’t, but I thought it was a deal of larger-than-usual proportions. Without, I was calm; within I was grinning foolishly and feeling more than a little relieved!
I stopped in the basin at Selby for an hour or so waiting for “Tiller Girl” to meet with another narrowboat as they were going to go down the Selby Canal and beyond with them, and I thought we could travel together. In the meantime I got all high-tech, checking emails and burning the pictures I’d just taken of our trip down the tidal River Ouse onto a CD to give to the owner of “Tiller Girl”. He gently chided me for having what he saw as too many high-tech toys on FRILFORD. He was pleased to get the pictures, however, and actually came on board to have a look at my setup. Yes, maybe it is a bit “boy’s toys” but I did not set out on FRILFORD to become a hermit (or maybe I did – see Chapter 17!) and I shall, perhaps, pass this way but once. I want to record some of it. That, too, is why I write a logbook: it avoids the Christopher Columbus syndrome, which is that when he set off he was not sure where he was going, when he got somewhere he didn’t know where he was and when he got back he didn’t know where he’d been!
The people on the other narrowboat appeared and “Tiller Girl” made ready to go. They offered to swing for me the bridge which bounds the Selby basin so I set off ahead of them. It was just before 12.15 in the afternoon. I stopped to buy fuel at Selby Boat Services when the others passed me, then I caught up with them again at the bottom of the Selby Canal. The Selby Canal is delightful. On the way to Selby some of its delights had been hidden from me by foul weather, but the five mile trip down the canal to West Haddlesey Flood Lock and the River Aire was, on this day, like sliding along polished glass all the while bounded by curtains of greenery to the side and bright white cumulous clouds suspended in a cobalt blue sky above. Marvellous!
The weather deteriorated a bit by the time we got through West Haddlesey Flood Lock, which was open, unlike the last time I was there, and onto the River Aire but we were having a good day and it didn’t matter. I let FRILFORD have her head and soon overtook first “Tiller Girl” then ‘The Friends of Tiller Girl’ then another narrowboat further up the river who, it turned out was the third element of the “Tiller Girl” convoy. I discovered this at Beal Lock when the first boat took up a position on the layby berth which rendered it useless to anyone else. I started doing circuits in the river just below the weir, like a 747 stacked over Staines. When boat number one opened the lock I was down the bottom end of my circuit. The others had already arrived so they went into the lock, leaving me out in the river. “Tiller Girl” had managed, with much coaxing from the others, to squeeze with them into what would normally be considered a two boat lock. They were a little contrite and “Tiller Girl”’s owner insisted on staying behind to lock me though, which, I protested, he did not need to do: I’d catch them up on the next section down to Bank Dole Lock, which I did.
At Bank Dole Lock I made them feel a little more awkward. Having arrived at the lock just behind the other two, I went on to the layby berth and locked them through, then locked “Tiller Girl” through when she arrived a few moments later. I had a chat with the people on the first two boats whilst I did this and they soon became less reserved and seemed genuinely impressed by my efforts to date. “Of course,” they warned, “you simply won’t be able to do the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on your own. The locks are big and heavy; and deep, damned deep. But it’s the swing bridges that will get you. There are masses of them and some of them are on main roads which means you have to stop the traffic and motorists don’t like that!” This sounded a little like the ‘beware’ advice I’d been given about the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which I subsequently managed perfectly alright on my own, although I’d been looking Nicholson’s Guide for the Leeds and Liverpool and what they were telling me rather went along with what I suspected. Not feared, I was not fearful of what lay ahead, but I, too, suspected I was in for quite a time on my next bit. Anyway, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, as the name suggests, is modest in proportions, with single locks which are pretty straightforward for a singlehander. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is a broad canal; different animal all together.
The owner of “Tiller Girl” was an affable chap and I wish I could remember his name. Let’s call him Jack! Jack would not leave me and moored “Tiller Girl” just above Bank Dole Lock to come back and help me through. He suggested I come and find them all on day at their boat club which, I believe, is somewhere near Goole on the Aire and Calder Navigation. Maybe I will, one day. I sensed I had been involved in some sort of rite of passage that day and Jack’s slightly bemused expression brought on by my having a digital SLR, a widescreen laptop, a CD burner and wireless Internet access, email and so forth on board FRILFORD had given way to one of genuine friendship.
Just above Bank Dole Lock is a major junction where the River Aire becomes the Aire and Calder Navigation. To the east, where Jack and his one-legged wife (really – the name “Tiller Girl” is a lovely ironic name which they both enjoy) were going, the Aire and Calder Navigation makes about seventeen miles to Goole where it forms a junction with the River Trent. To the west, where I was going, the Aire and Calder Navigation runs a couple of miles through Knottingley before joining the River Aire once again at Ferrybridge Flood Lock, the scene of my encounter with the large oil barge when ‘outbound’, as it were, going the other way.
I waited for Jack to get back on to “Tiller Girl and as we went our separate ways at the junction, him left and east, me right and west, we waved like mad. It had already been a great day, and it was not over yet.
FRILFORD was moving well and although the day was now somewhat overcast the water was fairly smooth and I made good progress. The lights at Ferrybridge Flood Lock were at amber, which means, in essence, ‘help yourself’ and there was no sign of any other water traffic or the Lockkeeper. Above me thundered heavy traffic on the A1 flyover, dwarfed, however, by the massive cooling towers of the Ferrybridge Power Stations. I’d been impressed by this on the way out. Now I was impressed all over again, and let go a little prayer to the Man Upstairs, asking that FRILFORD might continue to move steadily forward and deliver me safely to Castleford.
I was alone out there now. On the way out, weeks earlier, there had been one or two craft moving on the River Aire above Ferrybridge, and there had been the oil barge and the Ferrybridge Lockkeeper, but this evening, having said goodbye to the “Tiller Girl” convoy, I was alone on the water. Had I got into trouble I would have broken out my anchor, and got on the telephone to someone. I had no VHF at this stage. I had considered buying a handheld one but thought I’d have little opportunity to use it, although passage-making on the River Aire past Ferrybridge Power Station would have been a good time to have one, perhaps. Later, in Liverpool, I bought one on the Internet and had it delivered directly to FRILFORD in Eldonian Village. Having got it I fired it up on Channel 16 and listened to radio traffic from the vessels out in the River Mersey, which brought back distant memories of my time as one of the two radio operators on “Heath Insured” during the British Steel Challenge Round the World Yacht Race of 1992-93. Since that one trial I have not used it at all and it hangs on a hook in the after end of FRILFORD, waiting for a day when I monitor traffic whilst passage-making on a navigation somewhere (as opposed to crying “Mayday, Mayday” into it – that is not a day I want).
I passed through the Ferrybridge Flood Lock at 1635 hrs. It was 4.5 miles up the River Aire, against the current, to Bulholme Lock, which is the gateway, as it were, to the moorings at Castleford. I pressed on. The paraphernalia of the heavy industry associated with power production was all around, although strangely inanimate. It was just before 5.00 pm. Surely they hadn’t all knocked off for the day. I mean you can’t ‘knock off’, can you, when you are generating power. So where was everyone? Why no noise? Why no steam? No industry? I don’t know. The only thing moving was FRILFORD and me, and we were still moving nicely.
Back past the Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve, now on our starboard side, and past the old mining community of New Fryston, where unbeknownst to me, there had just been some major celebrations! It seems that residents of the former mining community have just benefited from a stunning new village green. This innovative project at New Fryston, Castleford was created by top international designer Martha Schwartz working with BDP and funded by national regeneration agency English Partnerships as part of the Castleford Project.
At an official launch on Friday 22 July 2005, so very recent to my passing by the place, Yvette Cooper MP for Pontefract and Castleford, lead the opening ceremony to mark the completion and hand-over of the green to the community. The event was attended, apparently, by representatives from the local community, English Partnerships and the project partners.
The village green has been designed to offer something for all generations of the community at New Fryston. The community, who were consulted throughout the design process, agreed to the final design in January 2004. A layered network of stone walls and pathways includes seating and green areas with oak trees, shrubs and grass; a bridleway for local horse riders; a safe surface bike slope and children's play area. Other striking features are the reuse of the former local colliery winding wheel which has historical significance for the community; the six metre high stone finger or 'cairn'* and wrought iron bollards** by Anthony Gormley creator of the 'Angel of the North'.
Led by English Partnerships, the scheme has transformed a featureless grassland area into a stylish community space. It forms part of wider plans for the regeneration of this former mining community as part of the National Coalfields Programme as well as contributing to The Castleford Project.
I much admire what is being done in the region to rehabilitate the land and the people who live there. Being a soft-handed, namby-pamby southerner, apparently, I know nothing of the hardships of life in a tough mining community, although my studying the Industrial Revolution for History O level a few (!) years ago helped, but I know even less about the privations heaped on such communities once the mining industry collapsed. All the land in this area carries the scars of years of mining and it is to the great credit of all those involved that, gradually, the place is taking on a new identity and rising from the slag heaps of history. I hope the new village green is a success and not a magnet for the local lads wanting to impress their girls with a bit of studied vandalism.
I got to Bulholme Lock just after 5.30 in the afternoon. I put FRILFORD on the layby berth and marvelled once again at the size of the lock. It is one of the electro-hydraulic ones I got used to coming to Castleford from the other direction. It took a bit of time to lock through because the lock is so big, but to operate it was only a matter of pressing a few buttons, which, considering I had been standing on her stern driving FRILFORD since before 8.00 o’clock that morning, not to mention some other, more conventional, locking, was welcome. I was through by 6.00 o’clock, found a mooring just before Castleford Basin, and was safely tied up and the engine off at 1821 hrs.
Having poured a large restorative whisky-soda I went for a wander along the bank. Not yards away was “Dire Straits”, the narrowboat behind which I had moored above Bell Fellow Lock, opposite Ripon Racecourse marina in the middle of July. Then they’d had been charging problems and the engine was run quite a bit to keep electrical things going. That evening the owner and his wife were surrounded by batteries and cable. “Charging problems still?” I asked gently. “Bloody hope not!” they laughed, slightly desperately, “those are the old batteries on the bank – she’s got new ones now. We’ve just wired them up and are trying to charge them. We have to be off in the morning so we’re hoping for a result here…!”
We exchanged a few ‘war stories’ with me getting considerable kudos for having just arrived direct from Naburn! Then I left them to it and returned to FRILFORD. According to my logbook we had covered 33.2 miles in 9 hours and 24 minutes with an engine-on time of 9 hours and 33 minutes. When locking members of the “Tiller Girl” convoy through Bank Dole Lock on the River Aire one of them had commented to me how well FRILFORD had been moving as I came past them all. She had moved beautifully all day. She is not a swift vessel of course, and spends much of her life stooging about at 2.5 or 3.0 miles an hour, but given a chance she can get a bit of a move on, and it is good to get a bit of a move on when one has the chance. She’s not fast, of course, but I think she’s quite powerful: just like the 67 ft Challenge yacht “Heath Insured” on which I sailed round the world. She was not fast but she could keep up 8.0 to 9.0 knots hard to windward in the most severe Southern Ocean weather one would ever want to see.
I think I like things a little challenging. The next day would bring with it the start of a new challenge – the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.