The weather has become even worse since we arrived home yesterday. Persistent heavy rain for 24 hours and now increasingly strong winds making boating challenging if not dangerous.
When we came through the Bank Newton & Gargrave locks yesterday we only saw 2 other boats on the move, both dejected hire boaters determined to make the most of their holiday. We saw far more moored up in and around Skipton looking bereft and going nowhere. A guy from a local hire boat company was delivering a replacement TV to a boat holed up in the rain at Gargrave locks. I imagine the family were going stir crazy without a working goggle box!
I doubt much has changed today, if anything it’s worse. There have been no boats past Wyvern’s moorings since we got home yesterday. We are certainly glad to be home safe and off the water. We really pushed ourselves to get home but I doubt we could have completed a 12 hour stint in these conditions.
It’s hard to remember what we have seen and done over the last 6 weeks on the cut – the blog is already proving to be a vital source of information to jog our memories.
We have cruised the full length of several waterways, the Leeds & Liverpool, Oxford, Macclesfield, Bridgewater, Huddersfield Narrow & Huddersfield Broad canals and significant lengths of the Coventry, Peak Forrest, Trent & Mersey, Aire & Calder and Calder & Hebble canals ultimately reaching and coasting along the River Thames. We have gone through over 500 locks and a dozen tunnels. We have boated through hail, gales, thunderstorms, high water and clear blue skies and sunshine with idyllic conditions. A typical English summer of course!
Every day was different bringing unique challenges and experiences for us. Throughout we have been an effective and happy team. (Hope you’ve picked up the reference from the movie “Oblivion”, one of Steve’s favourites). Confident in each other’s skills and abilities to get the job done regardless of the prevailing conditions and enjoying the challenges and pushing ourselves to always go that bit further (we are Pilgrims – another reference but no clues ). It’s been fun.
The rewards have been enormous. Firstly the pleasures (and difficulties) of seeing England from a unique perspective. Predominantly rural but much industrial, both vibrant and decayed. In this regard the Leeds & Liverpool canal was the worst and arguably the best. In terms of the run down, neglected and in some areas (Blackburn & Wigan) downright dangerous stretches we experienced the worst of the system. Both ends of this canal at Wigan/Blackburn and Leeds are simply dreadful but if a boater wants to get south then there is no alternative to going through them. Conversely, the stretch from Bank Newton to Saltaire is arguably the most beautiful we have been through, with the best facilities. We must confess to a little bias as Wyvern’s home moorings are along this stretch and we have not seen finer anywhere.
The Oxford canal with its section 21 disgraceful moorings runs a close second but at least this is a small stretch on the outskirts of Oxford and since the locks were smaller the lack of maintenance was not such a problem (if you had a 19 mm spanner).
And what of the people we have met? The vast majority were kind, friendly and welcoming. In particular the “live aboards” we met along the way. We passed pleasant, hilarious and informative times with strangers and both received and gave help and advice. And unexpectedly Manchester was the most cheery and jolly stretch.
Sadly, our experiences of the majority of hire boaters we encountered is less enthusiastic. Many are naive, ill prepared, rude and in some cases dangerous to other boaters. We actually don’t blame them so much as some of the hire boat operators who let them out on the water so Ill prepared. We encountered several boats overloaded with drunk stag parties, – some hire places specifically advertise for this trade. We were rammed by one such boat as were other moored boats but there is no recourse for damage. But more worrying are the people who spend a fortune on their Holiday and are panicking and stressed when they realise they can’t cope at the first lock (not a way for children to remember family holidays). Our only advice would be just to have one of the crew take a full one day course before shelling out! The waterways may be beautiful and should be open to all to enjoy but they can also be dangerous places for the inexperienced and inebriated (and those unfortunate enough to encounter them).
Then there are the “boat polishers”, private boat owners who spend more time polishing and looking at their boats in soulless marinas than using them on the cut. Scared witless of getting a scuff or a scratch they dawdle about getting in serious boaters way and holding others up. If you don’t want to get it scrapped then don’t buy a boat is our advice!
Yes, we are opinionated but we believe we have earned the right. Already, Wyvern is known for “doing the Wigan Flight” solo amongst other feats of dering do and with that comes respect from fellow boaters who can walk the walk rather than talk the talk.
Almost without exception the Canal & River Trust personnel we met (mainly substantive and volunteer lock keepers) were highly professional, courteous and helpful. They certainly made our passage through numerous lock flights easier.
However, the Wigan Flight was a notable exception. Without doubt the worst experience of the entire journey. This very nearly broke us. The locks are poorly maintained with very heavy gates and infernal “anti-vandal” locks on every paddle (which clearly don’t stop the vandals), water levels are low due to a mixture of poor maintenance & management and vandalism. Of these locks not one was fully functional and leakage was appalling. The locks at Blackburn, though very well maintained, have an unenviable reputation as being virtual “no go areas” with high levels of intimidation and violence from local ne’er do wells. The wise boater locks through early in the morning to avoid them.
In some areas dependent upon tourism there are also oddities. The most perfect of Telfords’ designs, the Bosley Locks, which we had been looking forward to were a total nightmare of bad maintenance (deemed the ‘evil locks ‘ appropriately by a passing boater). No excuse on this really.
The facilities such as water points, refuse disposal and sanitation stations on C&RT waterways were generally well located and of a good standard. The same cannot be said for those on the Bridgewater canal (owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company) which were uniformly dire.
Other unexpected areas of beauty were on the Trent and Mersey and Coventry. Remarkable areas of woodland and pasture interspersed with the history of the canals. This seems a pattern throughout the system, always hidden wildlife and unexpected history.
The Thames (though we only went as far as Abingdon due to high water) was so well managed and civilised. The safety information, moorings and lock advice was impeccable. It was noteworthy that many of the locks had defibrillators to hand. A really important safety item that can and does save lives. I was very concerned that nowhere on the other waterways were these available. In particular I made a point of alerting C&RT to the lack of a defibrillator at the Standedge tunnel. I received a curt “they are not mandatory” reply (presumably for insurance/liability purposes. Well.if the boaters on the Thames have access to them I fail to see why those on C&RT waters don’t. I suspect it’s down to money (or lack of it).
All the lockies were a delight. (and thanks Richard but we still don’t want to take a Canada goose each as a souvenir ).
We have commented on our experiences of the way some (probably the minority) of farmers “care” for their beasts – and in all to many cases we were saddened by what we saw. Numerous sheep & lambs drowned, or injured (we heard 2 sheep bleating pitifully in distress having fallen down a bank but were powerless to help) but abandoned, several cattle fallen in the cut and poorly drained and fenced pasture. We have brought back a commitment not to eat meat, so one life change as a result of the trip!
Our advice? Start really early, before six, this is the best of a waterway day, moor early and explore wherever it is you are staying for the evening. Out in the wilds, in the centre of cities, or in industrial wasteland.
Plan ahead. Use CanalPlanner and the excellent PDF cruising maps from Waterways Routes (combine them with the GPS facility of Memory-Map on a smartphone and you’ll always know where you are). The Nicholson canal books are also a must. Invest in a pair of good quality Walkie-Talkies and keep them with you. They proved indispensable on many occasions when we were not in line of sight of each other for communications around locks and especially the Armitage tunnel on the Trent & Mersey.
Be aware that despite your maps and plans every day is unpredictable. You might have all the locks in your favour if a boat just happens to be coming up but if you arrive 5 minutes early or late you’ll have missed him and they won’t be. Just accept it. Be kind and considerate and help your fellow boaters. The cut is a great leveller and what goes around comes around.
Above all enjoy. It’s England.
And us? The plan was to sell Wyvern on our return since we had achieved the long term plan. But we are planning a further long trip next summer. Can anyone suggest an escape plan from Yorkshire that doesn’t involve the Wigan Flight, Huddersfield Narrow or Trent Tidal?