CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – "The Little Car, Wibbly Wobblies and Wigan"
Mid August 2005
“You’ve been out in the little car? He doesn’t take me out in the little car. Now I shall be able to nag him with you as a precedent, Adrian. Actually, I want to drive it!” Janie was smilingly chiding.
Bob and I had just got back from a few hours in the Yorkshire Dales in his Austin Healy Sprite. What a drive. The ‘little car’ is Bob’s indulgence. It does not come out often but the day had been bright and clear and crying out for top down, wind in the hair, motoring. The Yorkshire Dales had been at their magnificent best. Wide vistas, air like wine, nothing on the wind but the sound of sheep on the side of the hill. Hardly a well-kept secret but not known by me, we had taken the very small roads, going out through Conistone and Litton and coming back via Malham Cove, crossing the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on bridge 172, Ray Bridge, at Gargrave, its most northerly point. Coverdale, Littondale, Malhamdale – I’ve heard talk of the Yorkshire Dales over the years but I’d not been there, and to spend a few hours in the ‘little car’, with Bob giving me ‘the tour’, was a great pleasure. On a narrowboat one is in danger of ones horizons becoming a little narrow also. I often get asked about the marvellous countryside through which I’ve passed. It is of course true that I’ve passed (through or by?) the most marvellous scenery, although I’ve also passed by a lot of rather tawdry aspects, but one does not get to see what is over that hill, in the next valley, or round the other side of that wood. I’ve often wanted to take off from FRILFORD’s stern and fly like a bird over field and far, and for a few hours, in effect, in Bob’s ‘little car’, I did just that.
Bob joined me on FRILFORD for the short trip to Skipton. This was still swing bridge country; swing bridges are the Leeds and Liverpool Canal’s signature, and one or two of them on the trip to Skipton are the stopping traffic type. It was good to have Bob with me. Skipton was pretty full of boats but there was a space at the top of Springs Branch. In front of a milling tourist crowd and close, very close, past the man painting his boat, I backed FRILFORD down the narrow few boat lengths to Coach Street Bridge and moored opposite Pennine Cruisers. Bob was all eyes on the foredeck, ready to fend off, but I managed without touching anything. My best manoeuvre to date!
For a couple of days I walked round Skipton, taking in the excellent market and getting lost in the very fine Skipton Woods. Skipton is dominated by the castle. Over 900 years old, Skipton Castle is one of the most complete and well preserved medieval castles in England. The castle is fully roofed and has a beautiful early Tudor courtyard inside. Conduit Court in the heart of the castle holds a yew tree planted in 1659. I didn’t go in the castle. The day I intended to visit I was beaten to the door by a party of school children. They were loud, fast and enthusiastic. A couple of harassed adults were doing not a bad job of keeping them contained but it was a bit too much for me. I know a castle is a big place and I could have got away from them but I did that by walking away and taking the little tour boat up the Spring Branch to photograph the castle from below. I do not make a good tourist.
Bob and Janie said they planned a few days on their boat, to go up to the ‘Wibbly Wobbles’ and back, a trip they make often. “Come with us and we’ll get you through some of the swing bridges and locks,” they had said. We had a great day: four swing bridges and thirteen locks through wonderful Pennine countryside. At about 1.20 pm we passed under bridge 172, Ray Bridge, still the most northern point of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal!, the bridge over which, a few days earlier, Bob and I had driven in the ‘little car’. After a brief stop at Gargrave so Janie could pop to the shops and Bob and I could fill our water tanks, we ‘breasted up’ their boat, TwoCanTwo, and FRILFORD, and went forward as one. Breasting up involves dropping fenders between the boats then tying them together at the fore and aft so they can be driven as one boat. Obviously one cannot do this so easily on a narrow canal because one would have to separate them to get through the narrow, one boat’s width, locks, but the Leeds and Liverpool Canal is a broad canal with double width locks. TwoCanTwo is a 58-footer, so bigger than FRILFORD. We used her as the motor for both boats, with Janie at the helm, which left Bob and me free to walk forward and work the locks.
Shortly we passed over a tiny stone aqueduct carrying the canal over a bubbling stream, which meandered through the countryside towards us. “That’s the River Aire,” said Bob. “No!” I exclaimed. “Yes,” confirmed Bob. And so it was. The river which spawned the Aire and Calder Navigation, on which I had recently had such invigorating times, was a sparkling juvenile beneath me. I greeted it as one would a much respected acquaintance.
We worked well together on the locks, Bob and me. The locks which form the Bank Newton Six Locks would have taken some time had I been alone. As it was we through them in just over an hour, much to the enjoyment of the young Spanish woman who was being shown the canal by an English friend and for whom this was her first sight of canal locks. We were not in a hurry but the charms of the ‘Wibbly Wobblies’ lay less than a mile away so there was no reason to delay.
The ‘Wibbly Wobblies’, so called by Bob and Janie, are the bends between Newton Bridge (164) and Langber Bridge (163). We got there just before five o’clock in the afternoon. The dark clouds and leaden skies under which we’d sailed all day, receded and gave way to blue, and the rolling Pennines to our either side were bathed in an early evening glow. Janie has a particular spot where she likes to ties up, but a boat had got there before us. As we passed a couple were standing on deck having a drink so Janie joked with them that she’d come to move them on. They laughed in turn, said they were going nowhere, and wished us a pleasant evening! The boat was one of the floating Christian Ministry boats I’d seen in Skipton a few days earlier. “How Christian was that?” we joked to each other whilst finding somewhere else to moor.
We found a lovely mooring round the corner. I was safely tied up with the engine off just before six o’clock. Janie was offering supper on TwoCanTwo so I set up a table on the towpath beside FRILFORD and we enjoyed pre-prandial sundowners nestled in the bosom of the Pennines.
My sister Felicity was due to join us the next day so we moved down to bridge 160, Old Hall Bridge at East Marton, just a mile further on, to wait for her. It was a foul day, with light drizzly rain falling for most of it. Felicity arrived in the early evening, bringing with her the sun which was moving up from the south. Thanks to Bob and Janie’s generous hospitality my attempts at taking everyone out to the local pub for dinner were thwarted by an on-board TwoCanTwo curry. After supper the evening sky had cleared so we jumped on FRILFORD, turned her round in a wider bit of canal the other side of the bridge (useful to have a slightly shorter boat at times) and went for a twilight cruise to show Felicity the ‘Wibbly Wobblies’. Bob and Janie drove FRILFORD and I enjoyed the rare treat of being on her without having to steer. It was a great evening. Later, back at East Marton, Felicity and I turned in on FRILFORD with the prospect of three monster days, taking us to beyond Wigan, ahead of us.
“You’ll never do the Wigan Flight on your own!” That had been the advice from all and sundry. Bob’s view was that I would be able to but that it would be very hard going and would take a long time. “You might be able to talk to BW to get help from the lock-keeper, but usually they set you off then leave you to it,” he counselled. Wigan Flight? Locks 65 to 87, making 23 of them, over a two and a bit mile stretch of canal that drop the canal 214 feet, 7 inches down through Wigan. All double locks, of course, all heavy, some downright awkward! There was much to do over the next couple of day before we got there, however.
Felicity had offered to crew on FRILFORD so I said that this would be a good time to come. We set off by ten o’clock on the morning of Sunday 14th August having waved a fond farewell to Bob and Janie, who were staying a day or two longer at the ‘Wibbly Wobblies’ before setting off back to Kildwick.
We made good progress and were soon at a place I’d been looking forward to passing through since leaving Abingdon on 21st March. The stupid thing is that I didn’t realise I’d been there until later that night, when we’d stopped. Nicholson, they of the Guides, produce an Inland Waterways Map of Great Britain, a copy of which I have on board FRILFORD. The picture on the front cover shows a boat moored close to a stone canal bridge beside a couple of locks, with delightful rolling countryside in the background. When planning my trip I used to look at that picture and look forward very much to being there. “I’ll have made some progress by then…” I’d say to myself. The picture is described as “Pennine Section at Greenberfield, Leeds and Liverpool Canal”. The picture was taken by Derek Pratt whose pictures seem to be all over canal publications. I have a few pictures now – maybe I should give him a run for his money.
Felicity and I passed through the three Greenberfield Locks either side of eleven o’clock in the morning, in company with a charming young family on a hire boat. The countryside was indeed wonderful, but by then I’d been through the ‘Wibbly Wobblies’ and enjoyed other Pennine charms, so the effect was more diluted than distilled. I hadn’t twigged where were were. Later that night, in a place a long way from there, when whisky had ‘sharpened’ my intellect somewhat, I suddenly grabbed the map and showed Felicity. “Damn,” I cried, “I missed it – sort of! Let’s go back and do them again!” We’d had a great day that day, over twenty miles in 8 hours and 28 minutes. We’d taken in the Greenberfield Locks, the Foulridge Tunnel, had passed over the summit of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Barrowford, had gone DOWN the seven Barrowford Locks, the first time FRILFORD and I had been down in a lock since the lock at Naburn, at the top of the tidal River Ouse eleven days earlier, and had past over the drab, grim and altogether unedifying Burnley Embankment. Part of a drab, grim and altogether unedifying canal experience which is the passing through of Burnley. Sorry Burnley. I am sure there are some attractive bits of Burney, but they are not near the canal. Apparently the Burnley Embankment, which carried the Leeds and Liverpool Canal 60 feet above the rooftops of Burney and is known locally as the ‘Straight Mile’, although it is slightly shorter than that, is considered to be one of the Wonders of the Waterways. As a piece of engineering, maybe, otherwise I wonder at that! The Gannow Tunnel followed the Burnley Embankment and we had to go a few miles further on still before finally stopping near bridge 188, Altham Bridge. A stop in Burnley, or anywhere near it, seemed out of the question. Ahead of Felicity and me lay a full day, with locks at Blackburn and beyond, and the day after that the Wigan Flight. We weren’t going back to Greenberfield, or anywhere else; we were pressing on!.
I had kept hearing talk of water shortages on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At one stage there was talk of closing the canal to navigation. Surely not? although water management and conservation is a big thing on the canals. When the canal system was built a system of reservoirs was built too, to service the canal system. When the canals fell into disregard after the Second World War many reservoirs were filled in and built upon. The resurgence of interest in the canals, be it for pleasure boating or for freight carriage is very good, but there is not enough water in the canal system: the reservoirs no longer exist. There are a couple of reservoirs at Barrowford and they made the point perfectly that day; they were only half full. Torpid water lying therein was greyly reflecting billowing clouds above; clouds which promised much but which could never deliver the million upon millions of tons of water needed to restore England’s green and pleasant land and the waterways therein. Ten days later, whilst I was in Liverpool, British Waterways closed to navigation the top of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The stoppage was in operation for about a week. They had no option. We cannot take water for granted, but we do…
The next day, 15th August, Felicity’s birthday, and that of Princess Anne, by the way, we were away by ten o’clock. I had champagne and orange juice on board and was ready to lubricate our passage down the canal with bracing Buck’s Fizzes for breakfast, but Felicity had decided to put her birthday on hold, so the bottle stayed in the fridge. Various swing bridges, a new experience for Felicity, the day before being curiously free of the damned things, occupied us until eleven o’clock, and we made tortuous, twisting, progress thereafter as the canal meandered through Clayton-Le-Moors, past Accrington and through Church and Rishton. We eventually got to Blackburn just after 1.15 in the afternoon. There are six locks to get through. A boat ahead of me (“we’ve been waiting for you but you didn’t come so we gave up waiting…” was the skipper’s rather grumpy greeting to me. Did I know they were waiting for me? No. Would it have made any difference? No; I was coming along, as one does, and could not have gone any faster if I’d known they were waiting…) joined another in the Blackburn Top Lock, so I pulled onto the layby berth and went to lock them down, and the boat that was waiting to come up - up.
It was there I met Jayne. An attractive, smiling blond woman on a delightfully bright blue boat. Clearly not of northern stock, she stayed topsides and helped work the lock whilst her companion stayed on the boat. I asked her how she was getting on and she muttered to me under her breath that she reckoned this whole part of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was pretty grim and that she was looking forward to being somewhere else. I asked her where she was going. She told me she’d like to go to Liverpool but that she’d been warned off going because of vandalism and the difficulty of navigating that part of the canal. “I am going to Liverpool; we could go together,” I ventured, “and do the Wigan Flight together tomorrow if that is your plan.” She agreed that this might be something to consider but by now her boat was out of the lock and into the lower pound waiting for the next lock, and she was off to see what was happening.
I turned to Felicity who’d been part of these brief exchanges. “Nice girl,” I said, “I don’t know if we’ve made a plan but it would seem to make sense.” Felicity agreed that there didn’t seem to be a plan but that it would have been good had there been one! By the time we’d locked the upcoming boat through and locked ourselves down, Jayne and her boat were nowhere to be seen. Later on the Blackburn flight we came across grumpy “we-were-waiting-for-you” man, taking on drinking water, and did the last couple of locks with him. He and his wife had an immaculate 58 foot traditional boat, all brass and painted roses and castles, with a traditional engine. He was on his way to Preston Brook for the show. A few minutes talking to him awoke me to why he was grumpy: he knew everything, had done everything, had the best boat on the cut and was obviously frustrated by lack of accomplishment in others. We parted reasonably amicably but I was glad not to impose my imperfections on him any longer than I had to!
Just after five o’clock we, FRILFORD Felicity and me, passed a too early to be familiar, but none the less echoing the recent past, bright blue boat tied up on the towpath. Jayne was on the foredeck tidying ropes. “Are you going on or stopping?” she called. “We’ll get through the next locks and then stop,” I called back. She waved and went below. Did we have a plan for tomorrow and for Liverpool? I still didn’t know.
Felicity and I pushed on through the seven Johnson’s Hillock Locks and looked for somewhere to moor. There was talk of a canalside eating pub on the chart but neither of us could see it. I had in mind to take Felicity out to dinner to celebrate her birthday and to thank her for all her had work to date and for what she’d do tomorrow in Wigan. In the event we moored in what can only be described as a bit of a commune. ‘Liveaboards’, who Felicity had down as classic ‘banjo players’ immediately, although they weren’t, in fact, were tied up along a short stretch of canal under some trees, next to the railway line. Goats and chickens ran loose in several rather haphazard enclosures and a wooden shack with a veranda formed a centrepiece. I had a called out conversation with one of them from across the other side of the canal and he mentioned that one or two of them would be getting together for a drink on the veranda later, if I’d like to join them. A kind invitation but Felicity and I had a few drinks and watched TV. I checked a couple oif times but there was nothing going on on the veranda. The champagne had actually become a few large Buck’s Fizzes earlier in the day so we had made a small mark of Felicity’s birthday.
The next day we stopped to buy fuel then were at the top of the Wigan Flight by 11.30 am. The first few locks were there but the rest of the flight disappeared from view down the valley. Felicity and I walked down past the first few locks by way of a recce, and swapped a few ‘Not Far Now’ words of encouragement with a couple of boats coming up. “Seen the lock-keeper?” they asked expectantly. “No,” I replied, “have you?” “He was around much earlier but disappeared,” they said. Rather atypically for BW staff, in my experience, he did not reappear whilst we were on his patch.
“Pity we didn’t make a proper plan with Jayne,” I said to Felicity, as we got back to the top lock. “It would have been to go down through this lot with her – would have done us both a favour. She’d have had to start bloody early from where she was last night to get here any time now.” With that an increasingly-familiar bright blue boat closed the towpath and I took Jayne’s centre line! “Blimey,” I exclaimed, what time did you start this morning? I was only just saying to…..” “Oh, not that early – about half past seven!”
We had a great trip down the Wigan Flight! At first we were separate but by about the third lock I suggested breasting up. Jayne had not done this before and was interested to see what we could do. I breasted FRILFORD and Sunrise, Jayne’s boat, and we stayed like that for the rest of the flight – the next twenty locks or so. Sometimes I drove, sometimes Jayne did. Felicity worked the locks with whosoever was not driving the boats. I ran between locks when I was doing them. No-one came the other way. Jayne is not one to sit back, and at one stage insisted I get back on board and drive. Not to relieve me of doing the locking but to relive her of driving, so she could do the locks. “I like the locks!” I agree with her. I have met people who hate locks and see them as a price paid to be on the cut. For me, and clearly for Jayne, they are very much part of being on the cut. As are the swing bridges, and the lift bridges, and the tunnels.
My logbook says ‘Wigan Flight – 23 locks in 3 hours 38 minutes!’ I don’t know if that is good going or not, but it suited me just fine. Liking locks is one thing, but once one starts on a flight one cannot stop in the middle, even if it is 23 locks long and, anyway, even if one does like them, locks are just a means to an end.
We had no specific end in mind that day. I had telephoned a couple of pubs in the area to see if we could dine there. Apparently not: neither did food that day, one having given it up all together, despite Nicholson’s effusive description of home cooking and vegetarian options! “Let’s just keep going and clear Wigan” seemed to be the consensus in our little convoy. Jayne is very much the single hander and seemed very comfortable in her own company. She is a highly accomplished boater and handled Sunrise in an easy and efficient way. I concentrated and tried to look as good.
We passed the slightly famous Wigan Pier at ten to five in the afternoon. Wigan Pier is the name given today to the area around the canal at the bottom of the Wigan flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
The original "pier" at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, probably a wooden jetty, where wagons from a nearby colliery were unloaded into barges at the terminus of the Old Douglas navigation and the canal, but the idea that land-locked Wigan could have a pier was, for a long time, something of a local joke. The name was brought to popular attention by George Formby Senior in the Music Halls of the early twentieth century. It was given more serous acclaim with the publication in 1937 of George Orwell's book "The Road to Wigan Pier".
The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929, with the iron from the tippler being sold as scrap. Because of the more recent pride in the area's heritage, a replica tippler has been erected at the original location.
In the 1980s, the canal warehouses were restored and put into use as a museum, exhibition hall and pub. The nearby Trencherfield Mill, which houses the largest working mill steam engine in Europe, was incorporated into the "Wigan Pier Experience", with a waterbus linking it to the main site.
The area is set to undergo a further transformation with the development of a cultural "Wigan Pier Quarter" which will include a performance centre and retail outlets. Inevitably…
Sunrise and FRILFORD pushed past The Orwell pub and Trencherfield Mill and on to the west of Wigan. I suppose we did not give the place a chance, but it did not look inviting to me. We passed through another couple of locks (about numbers 31 and 32 for Jayne that day!) and took some advice from a local who, rather curiously, given that the locks were a bit apart, turned up at each without having walked beside us along the towpath! His advice was to press on to Appley Bridge that night, because there wasn’t much in between here and there, and there, at Appley Bridge, there were pubs and things. This was good advice, it turned out, although his idea of a pub and mine are different. His other advice was interested and worthy of consideration but not in line with what indeed had become a plan during the day. Jayne and I were going to go to Liverpool in company.
“Liverpool? Oh, you don’t want to do that. No! Go to Burscough, but no further.” That was his advice. A curious turn of phrase – ‘You Don’t Want To Do That’. I find myself thinking ‘Yes, actually, I do want to do that. It might not be a good idea and I might end up not doing it, but your stating that I don’t want to do that is, at this particular moment, wrong in all respects!’ No, it seemed that vandals make life difficult as one approaches Liverpool and the canal is in poor condition. We wouldn’t make it, apparently. Had he ever been there? No, he hadn’t and had no plans to go. Not even by car, to walk the towpath? Too dangerous, so no. Something of an expert, then…. By way of being helpful he handed out postcards extolling the delights of the new Fettler’s Wharf Marina on the Rufford Arm, which comes off the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Burscough! He has a boat there, apparently, and is something to do with the ‘residents’ association’ or whatever, at the marina. Right… It looks very pleasant and as the Rufford Arm is the route to the Ribble Link and the Lancaster Canal, all of which I have plans to visit before too long, maybe I’ll stay there one day, but not when I’m trying to get to Liverpool!
After another lock, Dean Lock, nestled under a huge flyover taking the M6 motorway south, and several swing bridges over the next four miles, we made it to Appley Bridge. We found moorings a few boats apart from each other and I turned off my engine at 1853 hrs, according to my logbook. It had been a long day, the third such for Felicity and me. Yesterday we’d done 23.6 miles in 9 hours and 9 minutes. Today we’d only done 15.8 miles in 9 hours and forty minutes, but had done 26 locks and several swing bridges as well! For Jayne it had been a huge day – 33 locks and about 23 miles in almost 12 hours! She seemed completely unfazed.
I had a quick look round what I could see of the town, but, aside from the rather over-patronised ‘family’ pub on the banks of the canal, there was nothing of promise. Jayne came on board FRILFORD for sundowners, then went back to Sunrise to sleep. She’s not a great drinker and might have found Felicity and my ‘engine off, party on’ style a bit alarming!
The next day Felicity and I caught a train into Wigan and then took a taxi back to East Marton to find her car in the church car park where, with permission, we’d left it. It took over two hours and a 75 quid cab fare to get there. The cabbie was delighted! We drove back to Appley Bridge and she drove back home to Gloucestershire. 60.5 miles we’d done in the three days. Real progress and a real pleasure. I was very pleased and very grateful and told Felicity so, of course.
Later I found Jayne. She had spent the day exploring and talking to British Waterways about our going to Liverpool. She’d clearly charmed them and they were very pleased to help us with the later stages of the trip. We were to get to the mooring above Swing Bridge 16 at Maghull by the following evening and they’d take us into Liverpool the day after that.
Exciting times! We’ll pass through Burscough and the bottom of the Rufford Arm on our way through…