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The Rochdale Canal - Littleborough to Castlefield
25th June 2007: This was probably the most challenging part of our trip on the Rochdale mainly because the conditions were atrocious - the Met Office had issued several severe weather warnings and we got it all. There was heavy rain overnight and torrential rain and strong winds in the morning so there was a brief discussion in about whether we should leave at 0800 as planned or wait to see if it improved. The decision was to start as the canal levels were coming up and there was no indication the weather would improve.
We therefore left as planned at 0800 and took great care as it would be very difficult to extricate oneself if blown onto the bank and there was plenty of weed and junk to foul a prop. The gusts were enough to heel Corinna over. The first obstacle to overcome was a swing bridge, Pauline managed to drop Pete off but he found the locking mechanism was broken and it was secured with a mass of chain to unlock and un-entangle - he got it open before Pauline was blown into the side. It proved even more difficult to shut as the wind was strong enough to keep opening whilst he was trying to secure and lock it with the chain. By then Priory who had swept through was way ahead. We did not get a chance to look at Clegg Hall which seems to be more hidden than we had expected from the canal. The next bridge was even more of a problem as it was double locked and the first padlock did not want to release even after the key was turned and having finally cleared that the pin would not spring out when the anti-vandal key was turned and needed a smart clout with the lock-key.
The whole area is an SSSI as there is a rare pond weed and much of the offside is protected by an extra line of 'plastic net piling'. It was then time for the two Moss locks which were a bit slow and one of which had very short arms with little winches to operate them. We were getting a bit worried about timing when we found we had achieved two locks, two bridges and four miles in two hours and had a total of 15 locks to our overnight stop. It was then a couple of clear miles to the section which has been closed for so much of the time.
The canal had been severed by a main road and the motor way and major work was needed in the area to reopen the canal. We first passed thorough a short tunnel where a road crossing and roundabout had been almost been completely rebuilt. The tunnel is too narrow for a towpath so they have built a floating towpath which can be moved into position when boats are not passing. It had not been possible make a new passage under the motorway for the canal and the solution was to divert the canal and use an existing access tunnel to a farm as a culvert.
The existing lock was taken out of use and the canal remained at the higher level through the culvert and then drops in a new lock. The new lock is exceptionally wide which is, we understand, due to an error in converting from feet to metres which the contractors never noticed. The balance beams at this lock were sawn off recently by a chain saw and have been repaired with two huge steel U brackets. This section has been repeatedly been vandalised mostly it is alleged by the farmer who had his land compulsorily purchased for the new canal routing and his farm access had been removed as te access tunnel formed the new culvert for the canal. We understand he has already received a three month suspended jail sentence but local opinion is that will be no deterrent and he will not cease until the canal is closed or he is permanently incarcerated.
Below the lock one can see the old course of the canal and where the has been some piling - if the length is only the 10 foot or so that is visible it seems inexcusable for the problems with gaining consent for the trivial repairs to the canal. An investment of what is ultimately our money of 23.8 million pounds has been thwarted just in case it might do unspecified harm to some weed or perhaps cause a vole to have to get out of the water a few feet away. The greenies may have good intentions but end up doing more harm than the worst of vandals in some cases.
Anyway we were very pleased to have cleared the area and get to Slattocks where it looked as if there were good moorings - there was a broad beam boat moored, one of the first boats we had seen which looked as if it was based on the canal. The lock cottage is very attractive with a huge number of flower planters round the house and the lock. The cottage is now privately owned by a boat owner who has made a hose available for boaters to top up with water free of charge. There are six Slattocks or Laneside Locks in a flight then an isolated lock before the three close spaced lock before our mooring at the Rose of Lancaster which is the recommended mooring before proceeding to the final flight down into Manchester which used to be known as the Manchester 19. One needs to book 24 hours in advance for the flight to be unlocked at 0830 in the morning and they say to allow an hour to reach the check-in at lock 65 as there is a lock and a lift bridge for one contend with. We walked down in the evening to look at the lift bridge as we were warned it could be difficult. We walked past the Malta Mill which still looks very impressive and merited a picture as there was a break in the rain.
The news that evening reported that the rain had been the heaviest recorded in Britain for 50 years and there was severe flooding in many areas. The waterways stoppages we get emailed reported that the Leeds and Liverpool canal, The Aire and Calder and the Calder and Hebble Navigations were all closed.
26th June 2007: The morning was a complete contrast and was calm and sunny when we got up ready for an early start at 0600. We took some pictures of the pub and boats and set off at 0630 for the rendezvous with the BWB staff. We had a four mile run with only one lock to do and the Grimshaw Lane Vertical Lift Bridge shortly after the lock. The boats sat in the lock until Pete had walked down and operated the bridge which needs a Watermate key and radioed back when he had started the bridge opening sequence. It seemed to take an unusually long time after the audible warnings started for the barriers to go down and the bridge to open. Almost before the bridge was open Corinna and Priory arrived to pass through and the closing sequence was started which was fine except that it just sat there after the bridge appeared to be fully down but the motors continued running and the barriers did not lift for about ten minutes. By this time the traffic queue was huge and the rush hour drivers were upset. We started to phone BW and Pete went over to explain to the lorry driver at the front of the queue and returned and pressed the button once more and the barriers went straight up. We told the BW staff and heard latter that day that they had already sent engineers to fix a problem so clearly others had had the same problem or some of the irate drivers had reported the problem.
We moored just above lock 65 just before 0800 on pins, there is a general lack of mooring facilities even at rendezvous points, and we set the lock filling. We had taken longer than the one hour BW suggest allowing from the Rose of Lancaster to the rendezvous point and even without the bridge problem an hour is too short. We had expected to have time for a cup of coffee and some cereal but the BW staff arrived early at 0815 and told us they would work ahead trying to sort out the potential flooding and setting the locks for us. There was a tremendous amount of water which the bywash weirs could scarcely cope with and it was often over the gates making opening and closing difficult - we were glad of their assistance. They told us that the passage is no longer described as escorted but as assisted.
After the first lock most of the locks were close enough together to walk between them so one person stayed behind to close up and one walked ahead. Many of the new bridges and buildings beside locks reduced the space for balance beams and many had winch to open and close them, make sure the chains have not crossed if they jam. One had a hydraulically operated rack and pinion - the hydraulic drive (like those on locks) had a small unmarked position for an anti-vandal key which it took us a long time to rumble. There was a lot of rubbish in the canal and we saw commercial size rubbish bins, bicycles, shopping trolleys and even a small trailer. It did not pay to get close to the bank and some sections had a wide shallow ledge, probably left over from when some of the canal had been reduced to only about six inches depth as a safety measure when it was derelict.
One section needed extra care as there had been a row of poles in the middle stating there were underwater obstructions without saying which side many of which were submerged creating another hazard. The canal seemed to have been dredged between the poles and the bank so keep to the bank side. Pauline got aground having hit one of the sunk poles. There were also a few rusty poles in line with the approach to a bridge hole showing underwater obstructions - it looks as if they had held netting to keep plants or something in place and would be very nasty to hit.
The canal passed through a number of interesting areas with an abundance of old mills, mostly for cotton, and other industrial heritage. A bystander turned out to be a local historian an gave us a lot of background on the area including one old mill which used to be part of the Tootals group and was taken over by Courtaulds - it produced most of the uniform fabric for the forces in the last war. It is now a heritage centre which was recently opened by Prince Charles.
Despite the odd delays and much time taking pictures and video rather than getting on with the job we were down to Ducie Street Junction by 1245 so we had a brief break. Ducie Street Junction is the join with the Ashton Canal and we could have turned onto the Ashton and climb the 18 locks in 7 miles to Portland basin to complete the South Pennine Ring. Priory had completed it at Ducie Street. The alternative was to continue and complete the Rochdale canal by proceeding down the Rochdale 9 to Castlefield Basin and the junction with the Bridgewater Canal. Both Priory and Corinna continued down to Castlefield, we wanted to follow the Bridgewater to the Trent and Mersey and South to the Thames whilst Priory would continue on the Bridgewater past Wigan to home at the Crook Cruising Club.
The Rochdale Nine was the only part of the Rochdale Canal that remained open as it formed an essential link in the canal system and is now part of the busy Four Counties Ring. It seemed strange to see other narrowboats after the isolation of the Trans-Pennine canals. We were warned they would be a problem on the 9 with the amount of water coming down after the heavy rain. The locks have no bywash weirs and the excess water goes over the gates. This was a design feature on much of the Rochdale Canal to save water - any excess goes over the top gate and fills the lock rather than being lost. At each lock there is a 50% chance which way the next boat will be and when coming down th lock will automatically be filled by the lock emptying above and if someone is working ahead a lock further down will receive it. We found that the gates were easier than we expected even with several inch deep waterfalls to push perhaps because the Huddersfield and Rochdale had already given us big muscles!
The Rochdale 9 section of the canal passes under some of the new buildings which are on piles and through a fascinating slice through time. Beware, the towpath is not continuous between locks 1 and 3 so ride on the boat. There are stages to pick up going down but very small landing points to put a bow onto.
Areas around the Rochdale 9 has been extensively redeveloped and have a multitude eating places, pubs and wine bars and we understand it is safe to pass through even late in the day although it would not be practical to moor overnight. The lock cottage at the bottom is now in private hands and beautifully done up.
We cleared the Rochdale 9 after a couple of hours and were moored in the arm at Castlefield Junction by 1530. We moored in the arm shown on the map to the left when leaving the bottom of the 9. The arms to the right with staging which we used on our last visit in 1997 were temporarily full of long term boats moved there whilst building work was continuing. In the background was the modernistic and rather hideous new Hilton
The area is full of history and has a heritage trail and is also on the edge of the excellent free museum of Science and Industry. Castlefield offers relatively safe moorings - although we did have a couple of slightly noisy lads with a car in the adjacent private car park in the early hours of the morning they caused no problems. We noted a number of police patrols during the afternoon and evening.
7th June 2007: This was the parting of the ways between Corinna and Priory - Dugald and Lesley left early to return Priory to Malcolm at the Crooke Cruising Club, just beyond Wigan, whilst we stayed for the morning before setting off on the journey towards the Thames and home. We spent most of the morning round the Museum of Science and Industry. The Aircraft section was in an old cast iron market hall and had a fascinating collection based round aircraft with a local connection. There was the English Electric P1, the prototype of the Lightning, a De Haviland Rapide and an Eon Olympia 463 glider, the last 2 of which Pete has flown in. Dwarfing the other displays was an early warning Shackelton. The Power house had several steam engines running and a small but complementary collection of early internal combustion engines to those we had seen at the Anson Engine Museum. The textiles area had a lot of mill machinery with excellent explanations and it was obvious from the oily floor that it was run on occasion. It was also the site of the world's first passenger railway station, and the join from the railway station to the museum building next door was a reconstructed Victorian sewer. The museum covers a wide field and area and we had only made a start in three hours.
We left Castlefield at about 1330 and traveled down to the junction with the main line of the Bridgewater Canal at Waters Meeting and turned South for Home
We do not intend to cover the remainder of the trip in the same detail as the Pennine Canals and the 'Ring' but will at least maintain the story until we 'tie the knot' and join or outward route at Red Bull Basin.
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