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

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – "Manchester Bound!"


Early September

It was time to leave Liverpool. As if to suggest it was time to go the weather turned and the morning of 1st September was cold and very wet. I was to leave Liverpool in company with Jayne, who had her mother with her on her boat. On my boat I had Jonathan, my cousin Christopher’s oldest boy. He was down from university in Bradford and was ‘volunteered’ as crew by his father. He, Jonathan, is an affable, easy-going, chap and whilst he did not enthuse in terms at the idea of the trip, he turned up on the morning of our departure, which is acceptance enough these days, I suppose! In truth he made a rather dramatic arrival. Unable to get through the locked gates of the Eldonian Village basin compound he shinned over the high steel fence, only seeing afterwards the notice about the intruder paint, which was now streaked down his sweater and trousers. A few minutes with some detergent and a bucket of warm water confirmed what we already knew – that stuff is not supposed to come off, and it didn’t. We were Manchester-bound.

There was another boat in Eldonian Village: narrowboat Penelope owned by Peter and Penny. They had only been in Liverpool for about 24 hours but were making the return trip with Jayne and me. We sat around on that cold and wet morning and watched the clock tick past 8.00 o’clock. Robbie and his British Waterways crew are highly efficient and I was surprised they were not there to get us started. Indeed earlier in my Liverpool visit they’d turned up, fresh faced and expectant. “Right,” they’d said, “are you ready?” “For what?” I asked smiling. “When you arrived you said something about staying ten days – it’s been ten days so we’re here to help you get out…!” they said. I explained I hadn’t meant my comment to be a definite plan and apologised to them for wasting their time. They didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they’d ‘gained’ a day, or something. I was surprised, therefore, when they were not there at 8.00 o’clock on the 1st September.

At about 8.45 am I called Robbie to check if we were to depart that day. “Haven’t you started yet?” he asked, a little surprised. I said that we hadn’t and that we were waiting for them. “No,” he said, “I told the gentleman on Penelope that you all should start off at 8.00 o’clock and that we’d meet you by the first bridge. Can you get going as soon as possible, please? You’re late and I don’t know if we’ll be able to give you cover right through to Maghull now.” We had reason to thank British Waterways again later that day. We were indeed late but Robbie, John and Bob did us proud, staying with us through to swing bridge 16 at Maghull, thus making them late for their tea. They are a good crew and make what is a difficult passage in and out of Liverpool, much easier than it might be.

The three boats, Sunrise, Penelope and FRILFORD were away from Eldonian Village in smart order and soon struggling with the weed problem again. In truth it was not as bad as on the inward passage. Actually it might have been, but we knew what to expect now and, as with any journey, retracing a route which is now known to a certain extent is always easier than pushing forward along it for the first time.

There is not a lot to say about the outward passage. We stopped at the British Waterways sanitary station to do the necessary then pushed on. My logbook does not make the same mention of struggling with weed. We did, but it was no longer a ‘feature’ of the passage. We passed through the swing bridge at Maghull at 1623 hrs and waved a friendly farewell to Robbie, John and Bill. I hope I see them again sometime and I hope British Waterways get to develop the Liverpool end of the Leeds & Liverpool canal in the way that they want to, with a spur extending from Eldonian Village, through Pier Head and into Albert Dock. This is the scheme which is on the drawing board, to be ready by 2008 when Liverpool is to be the European City of Culture. As I write this there is some concern in Liverpool as to whether or not all the schemes slated for 2008 can be completed. There is a mass of development in the city but it seems to be endless residential developments: one, two and three bedded apartments with waterfront views etc., some available as subsidised housing. If the canal development gets lost in all that it will be a great pity. The passage to Liverpool by canal, already a pleasure, if a slightly blighted one at present, will be magnificent and will, without doubt, bring many boaters to the fine city of Liverpool.

W pushed on a little further and tied up outside the Scarisbrick Arms at Downholland. By now the weather had cleared and we were all treated to a fine evening. We all had dinner together, Jayne, her mother June, Peter, Penny, Jonathan and me in the pub and we enjoyed ourselves. No-one seemed very interested in making a night of it, so it was early to bed to be up early in the morning for the push through Wigan and on towards Manchester.

In Wigan we would be spared the Wigan Flight as we were to take the Leigh Branch. This branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal turns south and east at the bottom of the Wigan Flight and, after the two Poolstock Locks, enters a long lock-free section which extends right along the Bridgewater Canal through to Preston Brook and Runcorn, over 40 miles away.

Next day we were up and away by just after 9.00 am, post bacon sandwich! There was no sign of life on Penelope and we did not see them again. Jonathan operated a couple of swing bridges and another was operated by a chap who was moored nearby. Jayne and her mother were ahead of us on Sunrise at the time. At the risk of sounding sexist Jayne is a lovely woman and anyone experiencing that smile is likely to be available to help. Jayne exchanged pleasantries with the chap as she passed through the bridge and I scuttled through behind her, riding the wave of bonhomie!

Sunrise is a lighter displacement boat than FRILFORD and slid easily along in the shallow waters. Jonathan was doing a fine job on the helm but we did slip a bit behind and at one of locks before Wigan Jayne and her mother made a great play of appearing bored and weary as if having to wait for hours for us to appear. In truth they’d had to wait about ten minutes and they ribbed us about being slowcoaches. FRILFORD is not a long boat at 49 feet LOA but she displaces 12 tonnes or more and if I open her up in shallow canals she kicks up a breaking wake, which is frowned upon as it damages the canal sides and, anyway, is an inefficient way or proceeding. In deep water, however, she goes very nicely…!

We stopped in Wigan to buy fuel at the fuel barge round the corner from Wigan Pier. On our outward passage the chap had been charging 37 pence per litre, a very good price. Neither Jayne nor I needed fuel so we missed that opportunity. This day the chap was charging 44 pence per litre. “Nothing I can do about it,” he explained a tad apologetically, “the price I have to pay for it has just gone up a lot.” Hurricane Katrina had done her worst and, although we did not know it at the time, Rita was not far behind. The price of a barrel of crude oil had climbed quickly through the US$50 mark and there was talk that the oil consuming world would not be able to cope with a US$60 barrel of oil. Rita was to take the price through US$60 and close to US$70. Later, for us boaters, a price of 44 pence per litre would seem cheap, as 54 pence became the norm. Mind you, 54 pence is still cheap. During World War Two Winston Churchill said that red diesel sold on the waterways should be free of purchase tax, and it still is, so let us not complain. I do know of one boater who struggles not to buy ‘expensive’ diesel with the result that his £75,000 narrowboat is sometimes hobbled for the want of £50-worth of diesel!

The Leigh Branch is a fine bit of canal. It passes through land once blighted by mining but restored to a parkland wildlife haven. Much of the canal is on an embankment; the land either side of the canal has subsided and the canal has been built up using mining spoil. We made good progress. Jonathan was very good on the helm, although being a highly intelligent chap whose mind wanders off on flight of intellectual fancy his concentration comes and goes. Mind you he is very predictable! Steering FRILFORD one has to keep one’s helming arm well crooked and, from my now-established lookout on FRILFORD’s foredeck, I could tell when Jonathan’s mind had wandered off. He’d obviously straighten his arm a little because from time to time FRILFORD would slide toward one canal bank or the other, depending on which arm Jonathan was using to helm with at the time!

There is a large lift bridge at Plank Lane, operated by British Waterways. In June, July and August it is open from 8 in the morning to 8 at night. However, we were now in September and it ceases operation at 4.30 in the afternoon. We got there, a bit behind Sunrise, at 10 to 7 in the evening, so moored for the night in preparation for an early passage through in the morning. That evening there was talk of going to the pub for supper, but whilst Nicholson’s Guide talked up the Nevison, some 400 yards from the swing bridge and offering home-cooked food in an old-fashioned pub with a lot of brass and a piano (!), and a choice of real ales, none of our party are pub people, indeed Jonathan does not drink at all – in fact he does not seem to drink anything, not even water! – the Nevison did not get a look in. We were not deprived, however. Jonathan and I said we’d knock something up on board FRILFORD and leave Jayne and June to spend the evening together. Before we’d had a chance to investigate eating possibilities on FRILFORD an invitation came from Sunrise next door. We were invited to join Jayne and June for dinner on board and a very pleasant evening we had too. Later, back on FRILFORD Jonathan and I lay around in a blokey sort of way and watched “Speed” on DVD. The film is a bit daft, and is aging gently, but it has Sandra Bullock in it and that’s good enough for me!

Incidentally, and I know this for I keep a little record in my logbook, by that evening I had gone through some 564 locks since setting off for Lechlade back in February. The vast majority of them I’d done on my own, although since Felicity joined me in mid-August I’d had help.

The next day broke bright and clear. I walked into Leigh to get a paper and by the time I got back Jayne had found the British Waterways bridge operator and arranged for us to go through as soon as I got back. We were through by just after 9.00 am and, at 0936 hrs, as we passed under bridge 66, we left the Leigh Branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (“Goodbye L & L; we’ve been together a long time…!”) and entered the Bridgewater Canal. The Bridgewater Canal is a fine canal. It is wide and lock-free and, as a tribute to its builders perhaps, continued to carry commercial traffic until 1974. Originally built in the second half of the 18th century the Liverpool to Manchester route was opened in 1776. The canal survived the increased prosperity of the railways and after being bought by the newly-formed Bridgewater Navigation Company in 1872 it was eventually sold to the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1875. It is the Manchester Ship Canal Company which still administers the Bridgewater Canal today. Craft holding British Waterways licences, as does FRILFORD, are allowed to navigate on the Bridgewater Canal for seven consecutive days without charge.

Being with Jayne and her mother brought a delightful distraction when we arrived at Worsley. Worsley is an interesting little place which was the entrance to the mines. Jayne pulled over and said she and her mother were going to talk a look round the town, and invited Jonathan and me to join them. Stopping? Raysons don’t stop when on a journey! And in not stopping miss a lot… We enjoyed an hour’s walk around the edges of the town and the canal and bought a paper and a few bits and pieces in a local shop close to where we’d tied up. Well worth doing.

In particular we had a look at the Delph. The Pennines Waterways website describes the Worsley Delph thus: “The Bridgewater Canal was built because of the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines at Worsley. The coal seams ran under the higher ground to the north. The Duke's land agent, John Gilbert, saw that it was possible to connect the canal directly to the mines by way of an underground canal. This in turn could be used to help with draining the mines, providing a source of water for the canal. The underground canal was constructed from Worsley Delph, an old sandstone quarry near Worsley Brook. At one time a million tons of coal a year passed through this tunnel. To relieve congestion a second tunnel was constructed which met with the original about 500 yards in. Around 47 miles of underground canals were constructed, on four different levels, connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts. The main tunnels stretch as far north as Farnsworth, with side tunnels running at right angles along the coal seams. Specially designed boats were used in the tunnels. These were only four and a half feet wide with protruding ribbed sides and so were given the nickname of "starvationers". These were loaded with coal at the coal face, were hauled from level to level on the inclined plane and brought the coal out onto the canal. The remains of one of these boats is seen near the entrance to the tunnels at Worsley Delph.”

Remarkable… Today one could walk past the place and hardly notice it. However, if one does notice it, it is all there, and there is indeed a “starvationer” boat submerged near the entrance.

I’m glad we stopped in Worsley. I would have missed all that, which would have been a pity.

The canal water is an interesting colour through this section. Dissolved iron ore in the water gives it a strong, thick, ochre colour. It is very distinctive. In recent times there has been talk of cleaning the water, but, apparently, many locals have an attachment to the colour, and no such clean up scheme has been put in place yet!

We got back to our two boats and were on the move again by just after noon. Thereafter it was just a case of moving steadily down the Bridgewater Canal towards Manchester. At Barton Upon Irwell a large aqueduct takes the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. For the payment of a fee narrowboaters can navigate the Manchester Ship Canal. However, it is a large commercial waterway and although it was deserted at the moment we crossed it I was glad we were on the Bridgewater Canal and not jostling with commercial traffic on its much bigger sister below. I have mentioned this before, but I am a firm believer in things being fit for purpose. A narrow canal boat is built for the inland waterways of England, and is happiest there. In truth, I am happiest being on the inland waterways on a narrowboat! I have sailed round the world – Cape Horn, the Southern Ocean, Cape Leeuwin, Cape of Good Hope, the south Atlantic - and have sailed across the north Atlantic a couple of times. I was crew on one of the magnificent Challenge Business 67 foot cutter-rigged steel sloops, originally built for the 1992-93 British Steel Challenge, the race which took me round the world. That was a boat fit for purpose and performed superbly. FRILFORD is fit for purpose provided her purpose is to be found on the canal of England!

By half past one we were at Waters Meeting. This is the junction where the Bridgewater Canal branches towards the centre of Manchester. The junction is marked by a fine vortex sculpture, although coming from the Worsley direction and turning towards Manchester it is behind the boat before one really notices. I took a few pictures but they do not do it justice.

The run into Manchester is most impressive. The Manchester Ship Canal is still very close at the point and at one stage we passed a yard piled several stories high with shipping containers. Round the next bend and one is deep in Manchester United FC country. The Old Trafford ground is right there, on the right-hand bank. Imagine turning up for a game by boat; one could tie up right there and go to the game. Not that I could see a way of getting from the towpath to the stadium. Frustrating, maybe, but more to the point, there was no way for the footie types to get from the stadium to the canal, which might be good if a few disappointed Away fans decided to vent their spleens on a few unsuspecting boaters.

I went there once, to Old Trafford, and watched a rather ordinary game between MUFC and Ipswich Town. None of the MUFC stars were on the pitch that day but the ‘jobbing’ MU players put two goals past Ipswich without too much fuss and then disappeared to count their money. However, it was a great day out for us crowd of football ‘newbies’ borrowing someone else’s debenture tickets. Mind you, I can’t talk about it any more. Liverpool is my team now!

Later, on the canal, just passed Throstle Nest Footbridge the Bridgewater Canal passed high above a bend in the Manchester Ship Canal and then passes Pomona Lock, which is the connection between the two canals. By now the impressive skyline of Manchester dominates the skyline and the new Metrolink rail line, towering above the canal, sweeps commuters in and out of the metropolis. Shortly thereafter one passes the derelict and ripe-for-redevelopment basins around the now-derelict Hulme Lock Branch, the old link to the Manchester Ship Canal and then entered the wonderfully restored Castlefield Junction and Castle Quay. This is a fine place for the itinerant boater to tarry awhile. There are pubs and bars all around, and the main shopping areas of Manchester are a short walk away.

It was good to tie up there, although I would not have done had it not been for Jayne stopping me making a complete fool of myself! I am sure I am cartographically challenged. Not in that ordinary I-can’t-make-sense-of-the-map way: I think we are talking mild dyslexia here. Leading away from Castlefield Junction are nine wide locks which form the start of the Rochdale Canal. I had looked at Nicholson’s and got it into my head that where we were supposed to moor at Castlefield Junction was beyond the first of these locks. At Jayne and her mother arrived on Sunrise, Jonathan, on my instruction, was already opening the bottom lock and I was preparing to drive FRILFORD into it. A passing film crew (Castlefield Junction is that sort of place – bands playing, people hanging out drinking everything from coffee and orange juice to the most exotic cocktails – so having a peripatetic film crew on the scene seemed normal enough) was already filming us when Jayne came up to me. “Are you going up the Rochdale now, then? I didn’t think that was part of the plan.” “Don’t we have to go through this lock?” I asked. “No, I think we go round to the right here,” Jayne offered helpfully. She was right, I was wrong. Jonathan closed the lock once again and, despite the film crew imploring us to go through the lock anyway, I backed FRILFORD away and followed Jayne round the corner to a delightful mooring in the bosom of Castle Quay. I can be such an arse!

It was a good job Jayne stopped me. Later I walked up past the locks, and past the famous Gay Village (wouldn’t have wanted to be an arse in there... er…), which is adjacent to Chorlton Street Lock, the seventh of the initial nine locks (there are more thereafter), and they would have been hard going had Jonathan and I started up them. More to the point there would have been nowhere to turn round and, having discovered my mistake, I would have had to lock down backwards – in front of all those cool Mancunians with their exotic coffees and ostentatious lifestyles. No: thank you Jayne!

I was safely moored close to Jayne’s Sunrise by two-thirty in the afternoon. Jonathan went off to explore Manchester, as did Jayne and her mother, and I sat in the sun on FRILFORD’s foredeck reading the paper and watching the beautiful people doing their thing. Later Christopher arrived from Liverpool to take Jonathan away and we took the opportunity to form a plan which had him, Christopher, joining me for a few days from Preston Brook and on towards the Llangollen Canal.

It had been a good few days out of Liverpool. Manchester is a quite different place and, good though it is, I didn’t feel like spending too long there. A coupe of days later I would leave, but not before Jayne and I had had a few drinks in the Gay Village. I reckon both of us could have done okay had we not been together and not looking to swing a little. We had a great evening amongst a group of lively people who know how to be themselves and how to be happy.