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

 

CHAPTER TWENTY – "Swings, Staircases and God's Mysterious Ways"

First days of August 2005


Leaving Castleford I felt that my journey was taking on a slightly different aspect. Thoughts of ‘going home’, which had burdened me somewhat when leaving Ripon were now replaced with a venturing spirit. Not pioneering: I was not going anywhere that many people had not been before, but I had heard enough about the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and its difficulties for a singlehander to realise that what I was now taking on might be a bit more than a gentle meander across the Pennines to Liverpool. Added to which one had to take on board the fact that Leeds to Liverpool along the canal is a 127 miles, making the Leeds and Liverpool Canal the longest canal in Britain. I was to navigate all of it over a couple of weeks or so in early August.

Having filled my tank with drinking water I was away from Castleford by about 1.30 pm on 4th August. The Aire and Calder Navigation is broad and smooth at this point and, again, FRILFORD moved along easily. This part of the navigation is open to commercial craft and whilst I did not see any that day, facilities for craft an awful lot bigger than a regular canal narrowboat were apparent – none more so than the new Lemonroyd Lock. The new lock replaces two older locks and it is huge. As with the other locks I was to go through on my trip up to Leeds it is built to accommodate large commercial vessels: small ships in effect. There was no one around save for a couple of kids fishing when I got there and the sheer size of the lock meant I was there some time; nearly three-quarters of an hour according to my logbook. Operation is by push button, with the electro-hydraulics doing the work, which is good for a singlehander because it leaves one free to tend boat lines. FRILFORD was such a long way down when I got into the lock that I was pleased to be able to stand by her. I didn’t need to, actually. The lock is huge and masses of water comes in (I wonder how many gallons of water it took to fill it? 650,000 maybe: something like that.) but the process is computer controlled and happens quite slowly. FRILFORD was very well behaved, thank goodness!

It is only about nine and a half miles from Castleford to Leeds and having passed though Woodlesford Lock and Fishpond Lock, both very large, and passed under the M1 motorway, heavy with traffic in a way that the Aire and Calder Navigation was free of it, except for me, I started to plan my assault on Leeds. Before I did, however, a few pieces of graffiti struck me as odd. On the pillars of the M1 flyover, and again, further on, on a heavily graffitied bridge, someone had sprayed the words “Save Hunts” and on another bridge “Save Hunting Blair”. How curious that here, in the midst of industrial Britain, surrounded by the wastelands and blight brought on by years of mining, someone was calling out, through the medium of untagged urban art in this case, for fox hunting in Britain to be saved.

The time was approaching 5.00 o’clock in the afternoon and I did not want to find myself in Leeds city centre in the early evening. This is a pity. One ought to be able to arrive on a canal in a city centre, tie up and go and enjoy the city. Perhaps one can; perhaps I am too cautious, but I reckon one would be open to abuse from the lads showing off to their lassies once the beer had got to them. So I stopped on the layby berth for Knostrop Lock a mile or so before the start of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. There was no one around but I wanted a bit of security and so, as in York, I chained FRILFORD to the mooring.

The next day broke bright and clear and I was through both Knostrop Lock and Leeds Lock, and at the gates of River Lock, the first lock on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, going west, by 1240 hrs. The wind was blowing a bit and a couple made rather a meal of coming the other way through the lock so my arrival in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was marked with a bit of banging about. River Lock is a bit odd in that it has a rather curious winding system for opening the bottom paddles and wooden levers for opening the gate paddles. Added to which they were padlocked, although I had the right key on board to unlock them. On the other side of River Lock, Leeds Basin has been renovated and forms an attractive canal side area with trees, grass lawns and places to sit. Office workers were sitting around in easy groups, chatting, smoking, eating alfresco and reading newspapers. No one offered to help me, which is fair enough of course. There is a gulf between life on the cut and life on the canal side which is not bridged by being immediately adjacent to each other. I was a little concerned, however, because getting out of River Lock and then going back to close it, as one is required to do, was going to be difficult. There was nowhere immediately the other side to tie up, and I had to tie up somewhere because the wind would otherwise take me and FRILFORD through the wall and onto the lap of the attractive woman sitting at a desk in an office in the newly refurbished canal side warehouse to my left. Fun, perhaps, but at the expense of my kudos and self-belief!

However, I was being looked after that day. Whether God, a god, or someone or something does these things I am not sure, but as I was starting a slightly precarious bit of mooring just beyond the top side of River Lock, in full view of the attractive woman at the desk, not that she was looking or had even noticed me, I looked back to see a large hairy bloke striding towards the still-open top gates of the lock. He, together with quite a tribe of amiable semi-banjo players, were moving a Dutch Barge shell a few miles along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and were even now about to come up River Lock. He waved; I waved back, and left him to it. I moved FRILFORD onto the layby berth for the next lock, Office Lock at the far end of Leeds Basin, and was about to chunter away to myself about the boat ahead of me, which was on the layby berth but silent and showing no sign of going anywhere, and thus somewhat in my way, when a very amiable chap appeared saying that she was his boat and that he and his wife were waiting for the lock-keeper to give the go ahead to proceed. It seems water levels on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal were critical and the next pound (the length of canal between locks – they can be anything from a few yards to many miles long) was very low. They’d been waiting a couple of hours or so and were expecting to be allowed to go in the next hour after some water had been let down from further up the canal. I asked the whereabouts of the lock-keeper. “He’s on board our boat having a cup of tea!” I was told.

The same God who gave me the hairy bloke, who even now was emerging into Leeds Basin and was looking for somewhere to tie up, gave me this chap and his wife: Chris and Daphne. They were the sort of people on a boat I had hoped to find who would travel with me through the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the early part of it at least. I didn’t know it then but I was to be with them for a couple of days.

When we got there we had a right old time in the pound above Office Lock. The lock-keeper locked us through and I was very pleased to hear that his team would be locking us right through to Rodley Bridge because the towpath in Leeds is deemed to be unsafe at night and he and his British Waterways team wanted to see us safely through before day’s end. Rodley Bridge is only about six and a half miles from the centre of Leeds but, more importantly, it is eleven old heavy wooden locks, some of them in three lock staircases, away. British Waterways’ staff: they take their work very seriously and are a pleasure to deal with. I followed Chris along the pound at tickover speed only to have him soon stop dead with a propeller completely fouled with rubbish. ‘Poor bloke’ I thought to myself as I went to pass him. Nothing. Like his, my propeller was completely fouled, and opening the throttle produced nothing but vibration and some uselessly-confused prop wash.

I cut the engine and allowed FRILFORD to drift to a halt across the pound. I didn’t try to tie her to anything; no-one was going anywhere. I had tried to get into my weedhatch a long time previously, without success. On the River Ouse I had done my Errol Flynn bit over the side with a serrated knife. Only a fool would get into the so-called water in which FRILFORD presently lay. I had to get into the weedhatch. I put the stuff which sits in the cockpit on the engine hatch out onto the deck and got into the after end of FRILFORD. I got hold of a lump hammer and, straddling the hot engine, took a look at the weed hatch. Standing up again I stripped off my shirt as the hot sun and warm engine was beading me with oily sweat. Crawling under and aft again I got the bracket off the weed hatch and pulled at the hatch itself. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. A little tap with the lump hammer produced nothing. A slightly bigger tap made me lose my balance and I laid my bare arm along the asbestos insulation on the exhaust pipe. Damn – it was hot and I barked my elbow as I flinched in that tiny, jammed in space. Only later would I notice my arm itching and red with asbestos hairs. I pulled out and caught a look at Chris a few boat lengths back. He seemed to be faring no better on his boat. Behind us the hairy man and his entourage were appearing from under the last bridge. I needed a result here and allowed myself a moment to offer up a prayer. I wanted to give the weed hatch one hell of a bash but there was no room for a backswing and, anyway, was I to damage it my journey would end there. Another little tap caused the corner of the hatch to pop up. It was almost as though the damned thing was saying “You want me? You should have called. Now, what you want?!”

I lifted out the hatch, found a place to put it where I could lean on it, forced myself still further under FRILFORD’s afterdeck and peered cautiously down. “Hang on a minute,” I hear you thinking, “he’s got a hole in the bottom of the boat now. Why isn’t water rushing in? Why doesn’t this story end right here, right now?” The weedhatch is actually a double hatch, with conjoined plates which seal either end of a box section placed vertically above the propeller. Take the weedhatch out and the water stays in the box section, down the bottom of it, in fact. Of course if the box section were not there water would rush in, but people much cleverer than me worked that out a long, long time ago!

I peered down through the mucky water. Where the prop should have been was a large tight ball of weed, plastic bags, string and goodness knows what else, all held together with a wire coat hanger. The tips of the propeller were just about visible. I got out my serrated knife, almost, but only almost, dropping it into the canal through the weedhatch, and started hacking. From somewhere away in another world I heard the sound of an engine starting. Chris had had a result too, it seems.

I don’t know if Guinness have a world record for clearing propellers but I would like to submit my performance that day. It was the first time I’d done it through the weedhatch and I was learning a lot. Like ‘take a bucket down to the hatch with you – you need something to put the rubbish into… don’t shove it back into the canal!’. Never mind how I did it, but I cleared the prop in short order, put everything back together quickly, fired up the engine and, as I moved slowly forward once again, looked back at Chris. Apparently he was back in his weedhatch. Just before the next lock, St. Ann’s Ing Lock, all of three hundred yards away, I was back in mine.

Thereafter our trip to Rodley Bridge was a pleasure. The towpath at Leeds might have a reputation for being unsafe at night, but in places it looks delightful. By Kirkstall thick green trees line the canal in many places and only the graffitied pipe bridges over the canal and glimpses of steel, concrete, asphalt and traffic through the trees remind one that one is in a mighty conurbation. The British Waterways people locked us through, working until well after what must have been their finishing time, particularly given this day was a Friday (“Never mind: plenty of time to go out later. It’s not like we’re going to leave you here, are we…?” was their affable explanation). Learning from Chris and Daphne, who keep a supply just for the purpose, I broke out a couple of cans of beer to assist them on their Friday night binge. They seemed genuinely grateful.

At Rodley Bridge Chris and Daphne kindly invited me on board for supper, so I had them on board FRILFORD for sundowners beforehand. We had a delightful evening. God, if it is he, moves in mysterious ways his wonder to perform, as we know. It turned out that Daphne and Chris are born-again Christians. Chris hadn’t been before meeting her, which he had done fairly recently, but Daphne had got him to a place where he could see the light. Some gentle evangelism took place that night, with Daphne reading significant bits from her bible. I played my “I-have-a-quiet-unassuming-relationship-with-God-which-I-keep-pretty-much-to-myself” card, which is the truth of it, but I was assured that I had to be saved and be born again. I do struggle with the conviction the born-agains have that they are absolutely right and that anyone not born-again is not on the right path, but there we are. Maybe that confidence (it is not arrogance, surely, even if it can look a bit like it in a certain light…) comes with being born again. I am sure that is it. I have seen it before, and certainly since! Not in me, but in others.

My relationship with God allowed me to have a little joke with Him as I walked back to my boat at about midnight. “Okay, God,” I said to Him and myself, “a little marketing on Your part is a very small price to pay, if it is a price at all, for the hairy man at River Lock, for Chris and Daphne, for the weedhatch opening and for the ever-helpful BW crew. Indeed those things are priceless and I thank You for them…”

It had been a good day.

Chris, Daphne and I had agreed to travel together again the next day and by just after nine in the morning we were off. We’d had to deal with the odd swing bridge on the previous day and we had to deal with one immediately round the corner from where we were moored. Some of these are hand-operated things out in the country, and carry agricultural tracks or footpaths across the cut. They can be quite large and heavy but there is no rush to operate them. Only occasionally does one come across a farmer on a tractor keen to get on when one has the bridge open; walkers are usually happy to pause and consult a map whilst one struggles. Some offer to help but since swing bridges have to be locked afterwards, with a key I have on board FRILFORD, it is often too much of a palaver to warrant getting help. Better just to operate them oneself. Other swing bridges are serious things, in or near towns, carrying roads and traffic over the cut. These vary in sophistication but involve barriers and alarms. Usually they are electro-hydraulically operated, again, using ‘the key’. Operating these stops traffic and the average car driver likes it not at all when their journey is delayed by a boater, particularly one on his own who takes a long time to complete the operation.

The thing about all swing bridges, however, is that they are not designed for singlehanded use. It would seem a simple thing, would it not, swing bridge operation? Drive a boat up to it. Tie up on the towpath, go to the swing bridge, operate it, go back to the boat, drive the boat through the bridge, moor it on the other side of the bridge, walk back to the bridge, close it, walk back to the boat and continue. Easy! Where’s the problem?

The problem is that the operating mechanism for the bridges is on the ‘off side’ – i.e. the side opposite the towpath. No doubt in the old days this was so the bridge could be swung out of the way of the towing horse which could continue unimpeded along the towpath and today is quite useful for security. Anybody wanting to muck about with the bridge will find they are on the wrong side of the canal, with no immediate way back, probably, once they have hauled it open for a bit of fun. Especially out in the country, there is no path or way through on the off side. One has to be on the towpath side to make progress along a canal.

If one has a crew on board a boat there is no problem. Crew gets off boat on towpath side, walks over bridge, opens bridge, boat goes through, crew closes bridge, walks back over it to the towpath and gets back on boat. A singlehander doing that finds that an open bridge lies between them and their boat quite early in the process! The answer for the singlehander, of course, is to take the boat to the off side and operate the bridge from there. This is not easy, however. Usually there is nowhere on the off side to pull in next to the bridge and, having pulled in there is nowhere to tie up to, and no way of getting off the boat onto the bridge. So the way to do it is to drive the boat up to the swing bridge, walk through the boat to the bows, tie the boat to the swing bridge, climb off the boat onto the swing bridge, operate the swing bridge making sure not to foul the boat with the bridge, haul the boat through the bridge by hand (one could get back on board and motor through but this would make the whole procedure yet more convoluted), whilst doing so release the bow line from the bridge and use the stern line to tie the boat to the bridge once its through, close the bridge, haul the boat back to the bridge, climb on board, release, coil and stow the stern line (so as to avoid it getting caught round the propeller were it to fall in the water), put the boat in gear and proceed. That’s all there is to it!

The way we were going Chris and Daphne were doing the swing bridges. I offered to, but they seemed happy to do them. At Dobson Two Rise Locks there were a couple of other boats going through and one coming down so we all helped each other and played to the small crowd gathered to see us work. After what seemed like a protracted stop at the BW water point above the lock we pushed on through Field Three Rise Locks.

All the warnings I had had about the Leeds and Liverpool Canal being too difficult for a singlehander were about right. I could have managed on my own but it would have been slow, heavy, going. Slow would not have mattered. My only schedule was that I would get to somewhere when I got there and not before! But heavy… yes, alone all these locks would have been heavy work. But too heavy?

We stopped in Saltaire. Saltaire is a purpose-built "model" Victorian industrial village, next to Shipley and just to the north of the centre of Bradford in West Yorkshire's Bronte Country. The village itself was built in the nineteenth century by the Victorian philanthropist Sir Titus Salt, to provide self-contained living space for the workers at his woollen mills, and a welcome alternative to the then dark satanic mills of the cities of nearby Bradford and Leeds. Today Salts Mill has been converted by the late Jonathan Silver into the "1853 Gallery" which houses a collection of the works of the famous artist, David Hockney, who was born in nearby Bradford. Other buildings in the village have now been similarly transformed into shops, licensed restaurants and pubs. In fact Sir Titus was a staunch advocate of abstinence from alcohol and, until surprisingly recently, there were no pubs in Saltaire! In December 2001 Saltaire was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, thanks to the hard work of a dedicated group of locals who mounted a successful bid to get the village recognised for its historical significance at the international level. This is all impressive stuff and I fear we did not do Saltaire justice as we stayed for only about an hour; just long enough to eat the meat pies we had bought in the local bakery by way of lunch.

We set off again, aiming to get to Bingley Three Rise Locks before 5.00 o’clock when we understood the lock-keeper there would be finishing work. Bingley is the site of the famous Bingley Five Rise Locks which lift the Leeds and Liverpool Canal some 60 feet, but before them, going west, are the Bingley Three Rise Locks which lift the canal some 30 feet. However, before any of that we had to get through Hirst Lock and Dawley Two Rise Locks. We were quite a team by now, but notwithstanding we didn’t get to Bingley Three Rise Locks until almost 5.30 pm. We looked rather hopefully at the locks for any sign of the lock-keeper, but actually prepared ourselves for a noisy night on the layby berth; traffic hammers along a dual carriageway in the valley below the mooring. However, in the style of the service to which I have become gratefully accustomed, the BW lock-keeper appeared and offered to lock us up as the last thing he’d do before going home. Half an hour later we were moored up under lush trees on the layby berth of the mighty Bingley Five Rise Locks, with the duel carriageway but a distance hum well below us. The BW lock-keeper went home with various cans of gratefully-proffered beer protruding from his pockets!

Again Chris and Daphne extended an invitation to me to have supper with them and again I accepted with pleasure. This time we talked of all sorts of things and, inevitably, some tall canal stories peppered the evening. It is impossible for a group of boaters to get together, particularly if the odd drink is being taken, without tall tales being aired. Like fishermen’s tales the stories lose nothing in the telling and, as usual, in my case anyway, the one the speaker is telling is always slightly better than the one they’ve just heard – or so the speaker thinks! Mistakenly.

The next day we were up and through the Bingley Five Rise before nine-thirty in the morning. It took just under half an hour to rise through them and a magnificent experience it was. The BW lock-keeper there is a bit of character, identified by his wearing of an old flat cap which no one can recall ever not being on his head. He has a healthy disregard for singlehanders, apparently, although I think this is more to keep up his stern reputation than actually his attitude. Certainly I was told to stay on board and leave things to him. At least I think that is what he said. It came across to me as a grunt and a scowl, but I was aware I was deep in West Yorkshire and that such things pass for long conversations in these parts, so no offence, I am sure, was meant; or taken.

Chris jumped off his boat to work with the lock-keeper, as he usually does, so Daphne and I were left, again, standing on the back of our respective boats chatting away. At some stage during these exchanges, of which there had been a number in the last few days, she usually disappeared into her boat and came back with mugs of tea for us both, and she did so on this day. She is clearly the sort of woman who keeps a kettle somewhere, close to boiling point at all times. Cups of something hot could be produced at a moment’s notice, usually without bidding.

After that the day was all swing bridge, swing bridge, swing bridge…. I was bound for Kildwick to meet with Bob, a lovely chap I’d met back on the Macclesfield Canal whom I’ve mentioned briefly before; before I changed his name that is! He lives close to the canal, within 50 yards or so, together with his wife Janie, about whom I had heard much but had yet to meet. “Seek us out when you get this way,” Bob had said months before. I am not good at taking up such invitations; bit shy I suppose, but I am better at taking them up than I would have been passing straight through Kildwick without stopping. In the event I had called him and thus had a delightful couple of days together with him, Janie and their friend Lorrie.

Before that Chris, Daphne and I had to deal with the swing bridges. From the chart it appeared that the ones forward of us were the smaller, agricultural type, so I suggested that I could go ahead, open them, and leave them open for them, Chris and Daphne, to shut. I didn’t mean I’d get well ahead of them, because one must not leave the bridges open and unattended, but I’d open them, check that Chris and Daphne were just coming along, give a wave, then go on to the next one. This is what we did. Another boat, manned by a rather serious-looking couple got between us at one stage but since Chris and Daphne were right behind them I left a bridge open without explanation and made off for the next one. Apparently the serious couple were most unimpressed with my leaving the bridge open and told Chris and Daphne how irresponsible I was being. Even when Chris and Daphne told them that we were working as a bit of a team and that I was opening and they were closing the bridges, the serious couple were not amused. Later on I waved them through a bridge when Chris and Daphne had been delayed by something and, although they thanked me, they were a bit monosyllabic and busied themselves about the boat rather deliberately as they passed by!

The little system we had running worked rather well and my logbook shows that between 9.30 am and 12.45 pm we went through 12 of the damned things, although two of them were a bit derelict and were left permanently open. These I just passed straight through without checking that Chris and Daphne were behind me. I should have checked, however. When I pulled over a couple of miles before Kildwick, to tell them I was stopping and to wish them well on their trip to Preston Brook (they were going there for The Inland Waterways Association National Festival and Boat Show 2005 on 27th to 29th August) they were a long time coming. When they did appear, Daphne in particular looked a bit out of sorts. “You might have waited to let us know, Adrian,” she exclaimed, “we’ve just spent ages trying to close that last one.” “The grass was growing through it,” I replied in defence. “Well yes, it was,” she said before changing the subject, mindful, as tactful people are, that we’d had a very pleasant couple of days together and we should not spoil them with sharp words over an unfortunate incident with a moribund swing bridge! In truth Chris was silent, but smiling, and had large twinkles in his eyes. I think he thought he’d been a bit foolish and didn’t mind admitting it. We all ended up laughing.

I bade them farewell and watched them sail away. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again. I hope so. They looked a little surprised, apparently, when they approached the bridge at Kildwick and a man on the towpath called across to them to ask if there was a boat called FRILFORD behind them, with a chap called Adrian driving her. “Er, yes,” they called back, looking a tad bemused, “we’ve just left him. He’ll be here in a minute.”

And so I was, with Bob standing on the towpath ready to take my lines. What it is about boating I don’t know (I do actually; it’s a paying-attention-at-all-times thing) but, despite my being reasonably careful and being reasonably proficient at handling FRILFORD, I dropped my guard and, whilst greeting Bob, gave the concrete stones lining the canal along the towpath one hell of a bang as I moored.

“Hello Bob, I think I arrived…” I said. It was 1322 hrs and had already been a good day. Later that day I moved FRILFORD across to a little private mooring Bob and his friends have at Kildwick on the ‘off side’ and had supper with Bob, Janie, and Lorrie at the house just round the corner. They were like old friends.

A good day had become a great day.