CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – "Hursts Ahoy and Llangollen Ho!"
When travelling I reckon I am able to say I have ‘lived’ somewhere if I have found a place to do my washing and have been to a market to buy the sort of mundane, everyday, things one needs about one. In other words one has not been a tourist. It is easy to stay in a fancy hotel, eat in the restaurant there, buy a few ‘souvenirs’ in the hotel gift shop, take a taxi to the airport and claim all the while one has ‘visited’ the place. I once caught my mother, bless her, shooting a line to someone about her and my father ‘visiting’ India. ‘Our time in India’ and other such phrases conjure up images of the British Raj and Empire days. Was I about to learn something of my parents’ past about which I knew nothing? They were too young for colonial service in India. Turns out Mother was referring to the two hour refuelling stop-over they had had at Bombay Airport when flying SIA to visit me in Singapore in 1981! Mother was being only slightly ironic…
In Manchester I walked miles to find a Currys electrical shop to buy a 12 volt iron, something I failed to do despite Currys having one on their website, then I walked miles to find a Halfords to buy some spanners, something I was able to do. My GPS came in handy: the miles I was walking were purposeful miles for my GPS was taking me to the addresses I needed but both places were located in different new shopping schemes, which these days seem to be springing up in the poorer outskirts of major cities and which really require a vehicle to get to.
I am hopeless with public transport, busses in particular. I can never work out where to catch the right bus for my destination nor, indeed, can I work out when to get off the damned things to find the place I want. Even in solid middle age I have an image of myself sitting on a bus for ages and getting more and more concerned as people get off and others do not get on, only to find the driver turning into the bus depot at the end of the trip and failing to notice me still sitting there wondering if we’ve passed my stop!
The area of Manchester around Castle Quay is developing fast and is adding yet more shopping opportunities to add to those of Princess Street, Portland Street, the Arndale Centre and a host of other retail developments. I was not tempted by the opportunities to buy very expensive suits, fabulous watches, very stylish shoes and to have a complete exfoliating makeover attended by a host of highly-glossed lovelies. What I wanted was some groceries and to get a haircut. I was delighted to see a traditional stripy pole over a modest door showing a flight of stairs up to a straight-forward barber shop. There a charming woman gave me a regular, no fuss, no lotions haircut all the while telling me tall tales of a canal holiday she and her husband had enjoyed a few years ago and I was very grateful to her. As for the groceries, if it had not been for the one Spar Metro, or whatever, perched rather incongruously on a corner I don’t think I’d have been able to buy the sort of food one takes off shelves, puts in a bag and prepares in another place. I wanted to buy some fresh bread. Not because I am a bread snob but I wondered if there’d be a baker in amongst all the steel and exotic window displays. Maybe there is, but I couldn‘t find it. Nor a butcher, nor a greengrocer. Had I actually wanted to buy a Rolex Daytona watch my only concern would have been to which of the various shops selling such exotica within a stone’s throw of where I was standing at any given moment I might go. Would I go for the ‘ordinary’ gold one or would I have the one with the diamonds inlaid?
Manchester is a fine, wealthy and thrusting city with a character of its own. However, to me, and I know this is a somewhat supercilious comment, it seemed to be a world of mammon and bling and I was ready to leave. Jayne had decided she’d got time to follow me to the Llangollen Canal before making her way back down south, so we set off on the morning of 6th September, just after ten o’clock in the morning. We were heading for Preston Brook. In truth I was heading for a small bridge just above the Runcorn Branch. I had had my friend Elizabeth on the phone over the last few days and was due to meet her at that bridge. Elizabeth is a citizen of the world, and makes wonderful plans which always seem to involve several continents, various major cities and drop-in visits to friends all over. I am lucky enough to be such a friend. We met in Hong Kong in 1998 when I was over there with a couple of Sir Chay Blyth’s 67 foot yachts, sisters to Heath Insured on which I had sailed the British Steel Challenge in 1992-93, doing promotional work for both Chay’s company, The Challenge Business, and his main sponsor, British Telecom. ‘Try and find Elizabeth Hurst,’ I’d been told by Chay’s office, ‘she’s applied to do the 2000 race.’ I did not need to find Elizabeth; Elizabeth finds people! We met in the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, talked round the world sailing and Hobie Cats, of which she is an expert sailor (and about which I know nothing, but I had something to say about round the world sailing!) and we have been firm friends ever since.
On this occasion Elizabeth, who is a Liverpudlian by birth, was on leave from Australia, where she moved after Hong Kong, was staying for a few days in Paris from where she’d called me, was due to see some people in London, and was then hiring a car and would meet me on the Bridgewater Canal en route to see the family in Liverpool. This was a rather modest schedule by Elizabeth’s standards but I was very pleased to be a part of it none the less.
Of the journey to the bridge, Keckwick Hill Bridge, number 4, there is little to say, really. Jayne followed me as we left Manchester, passing Waters Meeting outbound at 1.15 pm, and passing along straight, unencumbered lengths of canal through Stretford and then Sale. I stopped for water before Lymm where Jayne stopped to do some shopping. Lymm looked like a pleasant little town. The town shows its attractive side to the canal, which often is not the case in urban situations. I did not stop, however. Elizabeth had mentioned something about being with me by about 5.00 o’clock and I reckoned I had to keep going to be at our rendezvous in time.
In the event I tied up at Keckwick Hill Bridge just before 5.00 o‘clock, wondering how I could get FRILFORD squared away before Elizabeth arrived. However, everything was working well because she phoned to say she was a little delayed and would be with me about 6.00 o’clock. When she arrived at about 6.15 pm I had had enough time to tidy up both FRILFORD and myself and be in guest-receiving mode.
Elizabeth was full of the usual enthusiasm and world view. She bore with her a hamper of goodies from a deli in Paris. Exotic terrines, confitures, fromages and saucisses spilled out in FRILFORD’s galley. “I’ve got one for my father, too,” explained Elizabeth, “his is bigger, but yours is ‘interesting’!” It certainly was and washed down with some of the fine wine which also appeared made a wonderful light supper. Jayne arrived on her boat and tied up in front of FRILFORD. She joined us for a glass of wine but then left Elizabeth and I to retell oft-told stories of high-seas adventure and to catch up with mutual international friends.
Ever the organiser, and with Liverpudlian roots showing, Elizabeth was soon on the phone to her sisters to arrange a day out on FRILFORD the following day for her father, Ronnie and whomsoever else of her family would come. The Hurst family machine leapt into action and local mobile phone service providers got yet richer as plans were formed, changed, revised, rejected and reformed. We were to have a day trip to Runcorn and back with Ronnie, Elizabeth and a couple of her sisters, Catherine and Gillian. And me, of course. Two cars would be driven to Runcorn, one dropped off and the other used to bring the party on to FRILFORD. Elizabeth’s rental car would stay parked under the tree next to Keckwick Hill Bridge and we’d do something about a picnic lunch when we got to Runcorn. Catherine and Gillian would get off there and Ronnie would come with Elizabeth and me back to Keckwick Hill Bridge from where, after a cup of tea and a biscuit, Elizabeth would drive Ronnie back home. Elizabeth’s mother would stay at home and be there when Ronnie got back. I said I’d drive FRILFORD!
That is what we did and it was one of the happiest little interludes on my trip to date. Ronnie does not enjoy the best of health and Elizabeth had warned he might tire and get a little withdrawn. Not a bit of it. Ronnie is a charming man who has a considerable sailing background, some of which he recounted with obvious pleasure. He is clearly very comfortable around boats and, far from tiring, came back to join me at the stern and took the helm en route to Runcorn. Smiling Hurst women, well established fifty feet away on the foredeck, would pop their heads up from time to time to check that we were okay before diving back into familial banter and leg pulling.
We tied up in the basin in Runcorn. Once upon a time this was the main line of the Bridgewater Canal and locked down into the Mersey in Runcorn. The locks closed in 1966 but the basin makes a small safe haven in which to sit for the boating day tripper. Catherine and Gillian disappeared to find a deli and came back loaded with sandwiches and cakes. We spent a lovely hour lunching in the sun before Catherine and Gillian, sticking to the plan, left to get in the car to go back to Keckwick Hill Bridge to get the other car so Catherine could get back to Liverpool to collect her kids from school and… well anyway. Next time England decides to invade somewhere, they could do worse than ask Elizabeth Hurst to make the arrangements. They all worked like clockwork that day!
Jayne had moved when we got up in the morning to start this fine day trip, but we saw her boat tied up on the line in Runcorn, and when I spoke to her later she was pushing on to Llangollen and would see me somewhere on the Llangollen Canal in a few days. That, too, was a good plan, because by then my cousin Christopher had been in touch. He’d ‘debriefed’ his son Jonathan on his passage with me out of Liverpool and had decided it was time he had a taste of the canals. We arranged to meet at Preston Brook the day after the Hurst day trip.
Christopher managed to get away and be with me by three in the afternoon. This gave me time to regroup post-Hurst and get fuel and a pump out in Preston Brook. The weather had been wet all morning but was clearing fast by the time Christopher arrived. After a few moments of welcome Christopher and I slipped away and, almost immediately, were on the layby berth for Preston Brook Tunnel. The tunnel is one way only and craft are restricted in the times they can move. In this case northbound craft move on the hour and until ten minutes past the hour and southbound craft move on the half hour until twenty minutes to the next hour. We passed into the tunnel behind another boat which had times its approach better at 1533 hrs and were out of the tunnel by 1551 hrs. So the one way system works beautifully.
Immediately we exited the tunnel we were upon Dutton Stop Lock. Christopher had made quite a thing about locks and was looking forward to working a host of them. In that regard Dutton Stop Lock was rather frustrating. Being a stop lock it can be used as a barrier if a section of canal has to be blocked off, for whatever reason. Also being a stop lock it has almost no rise and fall whatsoever. Dutton Stop Lock rises one inch. Yes – one inch! I couldn’t work out whether we were going up or down and I had to explain to Christopher that this is not how locks are normally, and this is not how I normally am with them either (it was, after all, my 565 lock, according to my logbook!). Anyway, we got through it and I put Christopher on the helm. I found him to be a good and contentious helmsman who was prone to go too slowly rather than adopt the fling-the-throttle-open-what-can-happen-at-four-miles-an-hour-anyway? approach which is an alternative I have seen in others, on hire boats in particular.
We spent the evening having dinner with Chris’ lawyer and two sons in a local pub. We’d been going about an hour when, passing near the River Weaver, on which Chris used to scull, when Chris declared this to be the area where his lawyer lived. Emerging from bridge hole 208 soon afterwards Chris suddenly said “I think that’s his house up there on the hill!” It was and lawyer and sons arrived en route to local eating pub where they kindly entertained us most generously.
The next day, after coffee with the Bruce family, for it was they, we set off for the Anderton Boat Lift and all points beyond. Yet more arrangements were made for I had been in touch with Steve Phillips and his wife Wendy who live at Chirk on the Llangollen Canal. They opted to motor over to the Anderton Boat Lift to see me and FRILFORD and, I think, to have a little trip out on her. The trip was, sadly, not going to be possible because we were not able to enjoy the logistical expertise of Ms. Hurst! Trips on the canals are not that easy to arrange if one does not want to involve public transport of some sort. The thing is there are not that many places to turn a canal boat round on the cut. On a river in, say, a 28 ft cabin cruiser (my father has just such a vessel on the River Thames) it is easy. One has a day out and when one is minded to, one turns round and heads for home. With a lengthy narrowboat, FRILFORD is 49 ft long, on a canal which might only be 20 feet wide, one has to find a winding hole in which to turn round. In some places they are plentiful, in others they are not. Actually one needs two convenient winding holes, of course. One to turn round when on a trip and another to turn round again, so as to resume the bigger passage of which the day trip might have formed a small part. Getting a taxi back to the starting point would be an option as one will only have gone a few miles on a day trip on a canal except that it is quite likely that one will be out in the country somewhere, next a small stone bridge. How is one going to describe to a taxi how to find one?
It is magnificent. Steve, Wendy, their son Lloyd, Christopher and me met there as planned but missed seeing a boat use the lift, or at least missed seeing it properly, because I’d slightly misread how the thing was constructed and thus did not get us to the right vantage point until almost too late. We spent a bit of time walking in the grounds of the lift and admiring the truly wonderful restoration job. I was under a bit of pressure to take FRILFORD up and down the lift. I might do this one day for the lift is completely accessible to boaters and, although a modest fee is sometimes charged, at other times, if one’s passage fits with an operation they are doing anyway, they’ll drop you down from the Trent and Mersey Canal to the River Weaver, or visa versa, for nothing. I would have taken FRILFORD down, but then I’d have wanted to come straight back up again, and I did not want to appear frivolous or to abuse the enthusiasm of the operators. Christopher and I were en route to the Llangollen Canal and I did not want to be distracted by ‘playing’ with the Anderton Boat Lift.
Chris and I had a good day that day. We said goodbye to Steve, Wendy and Lloyd and got underway again by twenty past two in the afternoon. Thereafter my logbook goes blank until some time after five pm! Christopher was on the helm, leaving me free to potter about in the boat and sit on the foredeck to watch the world go by, a rare treat for a singlehander and something I’d not enjoyed since Jonathan, Christopher’s son, had been on board. However, Chris, probably realistically, is free of my anally-retentive need to keep an hourly log. I could have gone back aft and filled in the log myself, or brought it and the GPS forward, of course. In the event I did neither and our progress is not recorded. So there is no record of us passing through first Barnton Tunnel and then Saltersford Tunnel. There is a bit of a kink in the Barnton Tunnel so there is no clear view through it. We passed through the tunnel only to experience, for the first time, a boat trying to come the other way. Were Barnton a double width tunnel this would be normal, but it is a single tunnel! I was well towards my exit end, however, so the other chap had to back up and wait for me. He was a bit huffy and asked if I’d heard him using his horn. I hadn’t, but as I explained to him, as he was entering the tunnel I was three quarters of the way through it, but this did not seem to convince him as a good enough reason for him to have had to give way to me! The wry smile I got from the boater behind the huffy man restored my equilibrium, which was only a little out of sorts anyway. Having no log entries did not impede our progress, of course, and when I next made a log entry it was 1733 hrs and we were at lock 75 on the Trent and Mersey, about eight miles beyond the Anderton Boat Lift.
We locked through Middlewich Big Lock and then the Middlewich 3 Locks and then made a ninety degree turn right into what is actually the Wardle Canal. On the bridge is a plaque saying Wardle Canal 1829. What are, in fact, the first few yards of the Shropshire Union Canal Middlewich Branch used to belong to the Trent and Mersey Canal. At some point it picked up the name Wardle Canal. Being in length only the distance between the turn and the first lock, Wardle Lock, the Wardle Canal is known as the shortest canal in England. A plaque on the bridge declares it to be 154 ft (47m) long!
Chris and I pressed on and eventually stopped near bridge 22 on the Middlewich Branch. We’d had a good day – coffee with the Bruces first thing, met Steve et al and paid homage to the Anderton Boat Lift, made it through to the ‘Shroppie’ and done just over 16 miles, social interludes notwithstanding!
We had a good day the next day too. Chris was keen to get onto the Llangollen Canal, its reputation for pleasant boating and attractive views having gone before it, so we were up and away just before eight in the morning. Chris was to get his fill of locks that day. We were down to the junction at Barbridge by about 11.00 in the morning and at Hurlston Locks, the entrance to the Llangollen Canal off the Shropshire Union Canal by 1140 hrs. We were through the four Hurlston Locks by 1213 hrs and, after receiving a lot of good advice about where to stop and where to eat from Aubrey, the Hurlston Lockkeeper, we were away. Through the two locks at Swanley, one of which Christopher asked to do on his own, and on.
On the Llangollen Canal the bywashes, the channels at the side of the locks which carry excess water past the lock as does a weir stream on a river, can be a bit tricky and can push a boat into the side of the entrance to a lock. “By the way….” I started to tell Chris as I stood at the lock side watch him handle my boat, then stopped. “No, I said – you carry on…!” Chris came into the lock, did not allow for the bywash and shoved FRILFORD’s bow into the side wall at the entrance to the lock. FRILFORD shrugs off such contacts and Chris got her safely into the lock thereafter. “Was that what you were about to mention?” asked Chris a little perplexed. “Yes,” I laughed, “but I thought you should find out yourself! You know now… And he did, not making that perfectly-understandable mistake again).
We were through the three locks at Baddiley by shortly before 3.00 pm and prepared for the lift bridge at Wrenbury. I did not know it until I came to write my log from the notes I take en route, but just after passing through Baddiley No 1 lock FRILFORD and I passed a major milestone – 1000 miles since setting off for Letchlade on the River Thames back in February! The lift bridge at Wrenbury is of the stopping-traffic kind, but it is on a small road next to a pub and a canal basin out of which Alvechurch Boats work, so it very canal-centric. Chris leapt off FRILFORD and operated the bridge with great aplomb, stopping hardly any traffic as he did so!
After Wrenbury we passed through Marbury Lock, Quoisley Lock and Willeymore Lock, where lies the Willeymore Lock Tavern where Chris was hosting our dinner that night. We went to moor on the line just beyond Willeymore Lock, but the canal smelt of sewerage, or something, and the light was a bit poor. “Can we face one more lock?” asked Chris, looking at Povey’s Lock a few hundred yards beyond. “Of course,” I replied, it’s only just turning six o’clock, we can certainly do another lock!” So it was 1827 hrs when we finally tied up, odour free and with a fine sunlit view across fields, just above Povey’s Lock.
Dinner in the Willeymore Lock Tavern was good. The procedure is fairly workman-like. Find a table, order and pay at the bar, get a number and wait for the number to be called. The ubiquitous over-worked yet still smiling and charming young woman of the type who work tables in these places eventually came through the door calling out our number and set down plates filled with food that was not haute cuisine but honest, straightforward steak and vegetables, and plenty of it. Washed down with a couple of pints of rather fine and well-kept ale it was just what we wanted. Chris was seeing a side of canal boating which I seldom see myself. I am not one for marching alone into a pub and ordering dinner, and being singlehanded most of the time, this is something, thus, which I do not do very often. It’s bloody good when I do, however, and Chris and I had a very good evening.
More arrangements! Chris had been in touch with his friend John who was to meet us at 10.00 o’clock the next morning at Whitchurch, a few miles and the locks and small staircase locks of Grindley Brook away. After another early start (Chris is an early riser and the 0730 hrs start we made to be at the bottom of the Grindley Brook staircase by soon after eight was not an early start for him, but it was for me – as had the just-before-eight start the previous day!). There are three locks at Grindley Brook which one has to come up, tricky bywashes and all, before getting to the bottom of the staircase and we were through them and at the staircase by 0841 hrs. The Grindley Brook Staircase is manned by a lockkeeper. One can operate it oneself, but one has to be careful to get the operation right otherwise one can either flood the locks or end up stuck on a cill. We were pleased to let the lockkeeper lock us through.
There is a wonderful little shop on the Grindley Brook Staircase which I recommend all to visit. I bought various jars of pickle and some eggs so fresh they might still have been warm. Not all quaintly old-fashioned, however, the place also sports a fully functioning Internet café where one can quaff exotic coffees whilst surfing. Not that Chris and I did that – we were still on a bit of a mission, albeit nearly at the end of it.
We were tied up in the arm at Whitchurch by 0943 hrs. Chris went off to find John and I tidied up FRILFORD and put the kettle on. A few minutes later a gentleman approached me and asked if I knew the area. I told him I had only just arrived and did not. He told me he was looking for a friend on a boat, the name of which he’d forgotten, but he was due to take the friend back to Liverpool. “You’re John!” I exclaimed. “Yes” he replied, somewhat taken aback. “You’re looking for me; I’m Adrian, and Chris is my cousin!” John came on board, I called Chris back and we enjoyed a pleasant hour together in the bright warm sunshine.
After they left I turned on the TV. Bright sunny day or no bright sunny day, our chaps were at The Oval trying to wrest The Ashes back from the Aussies, and they were not going to do it without my help!
I was there for the rest of the day. A few passing people asked about the score and I was happy to tell them. More with a whimper than a bang the day came to an end. Much better people than me have used acres of forest describing the result and how it was achieved. We won, of course. That wining brought a very good few days with Chris to a tremendous and appropriate end. Everything felt pretty good that evening in the Whitchurch Arm.
Little did I know that I was now on a canal on which I was to stay for the next six months or more – but more of that another time…