Go to Allan's Page Part 1. to GloucesterCanals Home Page Part 3: The Rochdale Canal Go to Deb's Page
Part 2: The Huddersfield Narrow Canal View Slideshow

Across the Pennines, four times

Part 4 - Manchester to Wigan, Llangollen and Birmingham

After our final descent of the Rochdale Canal into Manchester's Castlefield Basin we were now ready to travel the length of the lock-free Bridgewater canal.

Reaching Waters Meet junction we decided to turn right and go to Wigan, to add the Leeds and Liverpool canal to our already impressive tally for this year, but after a few miles of rapid progress we were brought to a halt by a gate across the canal. This was because the Barton Swing Aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Manchester Ship Canal, had been swung to allow a ship to pass.

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
The gate is across our path at Barton ....
... because the aqueduct has been swung.
The road bridge stays closed ...
...but opens at the last minute ...
... to allow this ship to pass

It was fascinating to watch as the aqueduct with 800 tons of water swung smoothly on its 200-year old mechanism, and I was lucky to be able to video the event. Here it is, shown at double speed to make it more watchable, and showing how the gates are still worked manually despite the automation of the main mechanism.

 

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
The aqueduct has swung back.
Eventually we can cross
How fast are we going?
Does the Bridgewater canal really need a lighthouse?
Worsley

After our interlude at Barton, we set off rapidly along the wide, deep Bridgewater Canal - but not as rapidly as the roadside speed camera implied when the sun reflected from its face towards us! Revelling in eating up the miles, we carried on northwards in the reddening waters (the colour comes from iron deposits in the mines at Worsley) into more open territory where there were so many reminders of the region's mining past including evidence of massive subsidence as well as lonely abandoned pit-head machinery. A sudden rainstorm was easily accommodated; I simply put the boat into neutral, let go of the tiller, and hid inside the boat until the rain stopped - it was such luxury after the demands of the lock-filled Pennine canals where we were invariably soaked by storms before we could get to our waterproofs or shelter.

We turned around at Wigan, having no particular interest in going to Liverpool and being unable to ascend the Wigan flight, and came back through Plank Lane swing-bridge which despite its name is actually a lift bridge - with a cheerful bridge-keeper who laughed and joked with us while telling us how much he enjoyed his job. That night we stopped in the middle of the countryside, miles from anywhere, and over a magnificent roast dinner we thought about how we had travelled almost as far in one day as we could travel in almost a week on the Pennine waterways.

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
An abandoned pithead reminds us that it was a mining area
A typical Bridgewater canal stop-plank crane at the junction with the Leeds-Liverpool canal
Arriving at Wigan
The junction at Wigan, where we turned round
Plank Lane bridge starts to lift for us

Making our way back southwards, we stopped at Sale to stock up on supplies and then returned to BW waters at Preston Brook. The three tunnels on the Trent & Mersey which have a reputation for being difficult as they are narrow and crooked, seemed wide and straight after Standedge, and we soon reached Anderton where we decided to go down on the lift and spend a few days on the River Weaver.

The Weaver is a lovely river, and we had a leisurely journey from one end to the other. We moored in Northwich  for a couple of days, and on the second day we ran the engine to charge the batteries; about an hour later another boat moored close behind us then knocked on our door to complain that the fumes from our exhaust were making their poor grandson feel ill. Maybe they should have moored a few feet further away from us then? Anyway we stopped the engine and they immediately locked up and went shopping so we started it again. After that we watched while the main road bridge had to be swung to allow a BW maintenance boat to pass (narrow boats can pass under all the Weaver swing bridges without them being swung) then left Northwich and carried on up to Winsford Flash. The flash is outside BW jurisdiction, and there are dire warnings that BW will not help you if you get stuck in its notoriously shallow centre. The deepest channel is to the right-hand side, and we followed it as far as the sailing club half-way along before deciding that we wouldn't risk going any further as the strong winds were threatening to blow us out to the shallows.

Needing fuel, we stopped at Middlewich only to find that our locking fuel cap had stuck. It was certainly a little too secure, even after it had been unlocked, and it took half an hour of struggling before I eventually managed to free it with the aid of a Mole wrench and a hammer - not the usual tools to use on a plastic cap! This was followed by an interesting reversing manoeuvre into the tiny Wardle canal, the shortest canal in England at 154 feet long including the lock, under the ever-watchful eyes of Maureen who lives in the lock cottage there. From here we travelled to Llangollen, revelling in how easy the canal seemed after the struggles of the Pennine waterways and actually enjoying meeting the crowds of other boats.

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
The swing-bridge in Northwich
The early-morning sun casts our shadow on the field below the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The border from Wales into England at Chirk
The Montgomery canal is rather overgrown in places; can you spot the correct course (and the bridge)

Once again we spent a delightful two days in Llangollen marina. It is one of the few places where BW charge for mooring, but also it is well worth the payment (especially as it includes electricity) and the town is always worth visiting. Returning towards England, and pausing once again for a magnificent meal at the Jack Mytton restaurant, we headed down the Montgomery canal hoping to find that a further length of the waterway would be open to navigation, but we found no change from last year - except perhaps that the weed is becoming so prolific that it is sometimes difficult to find the canal!

At this point I achieved a long-held ambition by taking a picture of a kingfisher. We have seen many of these beautiful birds, and some of them on the Llangollen are really quite tame, but I had never had my camera handy at the right time before. This time it was different so although I realise that it is not the best of pictures, I am delighted to have got something recognisable at last .

Click to Enlarge

In Birmingham our alternator went wrong again, and we were lucky that we could stay at a friend's mooring in Hockley Port which had an electricity supply so that we could keep the batteries charged while I sought a replacement alternator. It also gave us a good opportunity to explore more of this great city. On our way again a few days later, we travelled down to Lapworth to meet some friends before returning to Birmingham to revisit the Wyrley and Essington canal. Although it was only a few years ago that we travelled the eastern end of this canal, we had not seen the western half for 20 years and we were keen to see how much it had changed.

Passing beneath 'Spaghetti Junction' and climbing the Perry Barr flight, we found the mooring at the top of the locks to be much cleaner and more welcoming than it had been a few years ago. The next day we stopped at our second  favourite unspoiled pub, the Manor Arms (our first favourite unspoiled pub is the Anchor at High Offley). This pub is almost unique in having no bar; the beer-pumps and bottles are simply on shelves in the lounge, so that the server stands amongst the customers while pouring the drinks. This creates a fantastically friendly atmosphere, more like being at a private party than in a pub, and I wish that more pubs would dispense with the barrier that the bar creates.

The stretch of the Wyrley and Essington to the northeast of Walsall, at Goscote, used to be regarded as dangerous 'bandit country' which could only be crossed safely in the very very early morning. However the troublesome derelict estate of ruined houses, once home to so many lawless characters, has now been cleared and we felt quite safe crossing the area in the early afternoon. We met a number of people who were all friendly, and we were soon past the junction and on to the western half of the canal. This waterway is sadly ignored by most boaters; it is really beautiful, and is mainly in very good condition, but it needs more boat traffic to help keep the weed growth down. Twenty years before, we didn't know where we were on the canal because we didn't have a map that showed it, and when we had asked at a pub we were told "well, you aren't anywhere really", but much to our surprise we managed to find the same pub again. We could now locate it on a map, it's the "United Kingdom" at Lane Head, and the mooring there has been much improved: last time we had had to leave the boat in the middle of the canal and use the gang plank to reach the old wharf before climbing through a gap in the pub's back fence, now the mooring is deep up to the bank and a BW key opens a gate into the pub garden.

Twenty years ago, after a night at Lane Head, we had set off in the morning and been brought to a halt after a couple of minutes with a vacuum cleaner hose on the propeller. This time, after a night at Lane Head, we had set off in the morning and been brought to a halt after a couple of minutes with a vacuum cleaner hose on the propeller. What a coincidence!

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
The most unusual trip-boat I have ever seen.
Parts of the Wyrley & Essington canal are rather weedy
Netherton Tunnel, seen from the old main line

Soon we were back in the middle of Birmingham, where once again we stayed for a couple of days before following the well-known route out via Farmers Bridge and Aston locks, crossing our earlier route at right-angles underneath Spaghetti Junction. We were now heading towards the South Oxford canal, but as well as travelling on the Birmingham & Fazeley canal and the Coventry canal, we diverted up to Hinckley and added the Ashby canal to the list. One wonderful surprise as we headed south, was to meet our old boat 'Thistle' in Nuneaton. We moored alongside her for an hour to have a cup of coffee and a natter with her new owners. She's looking good, although apparently as an old lady she is suffering from a little bit of 'middle-aged spread' that makes some of the narrowest locks rather a tight squeeze.

There is a stretch of the South Oxford canal below Somerton where the towpath is not separated from the fields. Instead the fields reach the water's edge, and the fences between the fields have gates through which the towing horse would originally have passed. Along this stretch there has been some serious bank-erosion in recent years, but repairs were now under way in a highly unusual fashion. In effect, bankside piling had been created with a dry-stone wall, which was then being stabilised by having dredgings tipped over it. I must admit that the end result looked most impressive, although I wonder how long-lasting it will be.

 

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
Wild deer beside the South Oxford canal
There is no defined towpath here, the fields reach right to the water's edge
The fences also reach the water's edge, with gates to allow towpath traffic to pass
Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
Dry stone wall piling
Building up the bank with dredgings over the stones
The end result

Thrupp is a delightful place. We moored there for a few days, passing the time by walking the dogs in the woods (Molly & Telford made lots of doggy friends and Molly loved swimming in the river with them; Telford doesn't like rivers), visiting Blenheim Palace for a day with our friend Bones, meeting several our other friends from the CanalWorld Forum - one of whom was celebrating a birthday, so the Boat pub was well-frequented - and cruising this beautiful area with some of our land-based friends as well before heading back to Milton Keynes. Finally we were home, after a 4-month journey in which we had covered a distance of 1000 miles and passed through 800 locks. Not as many miles as usual, but then we had crossed the Pennines 4 times including making a passage through Standedge Tunnel twice. What is more we had travelled on all the following waterways:

Ashby Canal

Ashton Canal

Avon (River)

BCN: Old Main Line, New Main Line, Oozells Street Loop, Icknield Port Loop, Soho Loop, Tame Valley, Rushall, Daw End, Wyrley & Essington

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal

Bridgewater Canal

Coventry Canal

Gloucester & Sharpness Canal

Grand Union Canal

Huddersfield Narrow Canal

Llangollen Canal

Macclesfield Canal

Montgomery Canal

Oxford Canal

Peak Forest Canal

Rochdale Canal

Severn (River)

Shropshire Union Canal (including Middlewich Branch)

Staffs & Worcester Canal

Stratford Canal

Trent & Mersey Canal

Weaver (River)

Worcester & Birmingham Canal

It was certainly a varied trip this year, during which we visited several waterways that we had not seen before and revisited some that we had not seen for over 20 years. We had managed to travel on every major waterway that we can reach, apart from those which we visited last year and those which we intend to visit next year, and we met many many wonderful people whom we knew from the internet. It was certainly a trip that we will not forget in a hurry!

 

 

Part 1. to Gloucester View Slideshow
Go to Allan's Page Part 2: The Huddersfield Narrow Canal Canals Home Page Part 3: The Rochdale Canal Go to Deb's Page