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A Visit to the Northern Canals
Three Months, 1150 miles and 664 locks)
This was by far the longest time we have ever spent on Corinna and took us to parts of the Canal System we had never been able to reach before. The trip can be split into three main sections. The middle part, covered in detail, comprised a large ring with a number of diversions to take in many of the waterways of the North East. It involved a number of tidal stretches and many thanks are due to Ken Cook (Gandalf) for planning this, the David Piper Owners Club cruise. The map on the right shows the scale of The Northern Ring - well over 500 miles - click for larger scale maps to read the place and canal names. Nine club boats took part plus the pilot. This was quite a change for us as we normally travel by ourselves and head for isolated rural moorings - it however turned out to be very enjoyable. Even Tigger seemed to enjoy himself for the three months, particularly when we took him for long walks on his lead.
We left home at the beginning of May with a leisurely trip up the Thames and South Oxford canal and across the Grand Union before dropping down to Stratford where we saw a modern production of Hamlet. The Stratford canal is much improved over the earlier days when it was in the National Trusts hands and they have lots of new landing stages and other improvements. We joined the Avon at Stratford having paid a large additional fee and had to wait for the river to fall after heavy rains before we could proceed to Evesham and on Tewkesbury. From there it was new ground on the Severn down to Gloucester where we moored outside the Waterways Museum.
We then joined the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, the first of the commercial waterways which were to be a feature of the holiday - so wide you could wind a 70 footer anywhere. Activity is fairly low but you can still meet large barges and all the swing bridges are manned. Sharpness has little but the views of the Severn proper - a serious piece of water with some of the highest tides in the world. The bank at Sharpness is lined with dozens, maybe hundreds of rotting barges, an indication of how busy it must have once been.
We returned the next day to Gloucester and spent a pleasant couple of hours watching the local model boat club. They had both sailing and power models. The tugs had lights, all the sound effects and even artifical smoke. They fascinated Tigger who sat entranced watching them go by, whilst we set up the Brass table on the quay and sat with appetisers and a bottle of wine to the amusement of the natives. Some of the tugs were so powerful that they could tow their owner in an inflatable round the basin, have a look!
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Heavy rain started as we set off up the Severn so we decided it would be prudent to continue as far as possible before the floods returned. We went up to Worcester, where we went onto the canal overnight so if it flooded we could continue up Tardibigge (one of the longest flights of locks in the country) into Birmingham. In the event the stream was not too bad so we rejoined the river and went up to Stourport to join the Staffs and Worcester canal - another section of canal missing from our previous travels.
The Staffs and Worcs took us up The Bratch, one of the most picturesque little staircases in the country. Have a look at how the the 3 locks lead straight from one into the next in a Staircase and note the Octagonal Toll Office at the top with Corinna in the foreground. You will also need to periodically go to the Southern Map to follow the trip as only canal enthusiasts will have heard of the canals, landmarks and junctions. We moored just short of the junction with the Trent and Mersey at Great Haywood in Tixall Wide - good moorings and views and walked to Shugborough, a National Trust property. To give an idea of times we are now at day 24 of the holiday and have reached the edge of The Northern Ring. We still have three weeks before we have to meet up with the others for the tidal sections.
We are also now onto the other map and will be until the final dash home. Now is the time to locate us at the bottom left on the Northern Map. We will eventually go round anticlockwise but first we head Northwest for Etruria (Stoke-on-Trent) for the Steam Festival. We detour along the Leek and Caldon canals for quiet and beautiful scenery, and then head for David Piper's yard at Red Bull, just on the Macclesfield, to catch up with gossip and stock up with bits for the boat. Only then do we start slowly anticlockwise, occasionally seeing other boats who will be joining the trip moored in various boat yards as they "weekend" to the meeting point to join up with the pilot for the start of the adventures.
We had a few spare days so we turned off the River Trent onto the River Soar. We went as far as Loughborough before turning back to meet up with some of the others at Nottingham. This was not a surprising place to find them as Nottingham has good secure moorings right outside a large Sainsbury, ideal for provisioning and buying plants for the roof. We also went round the (free) canal museum there which was well worth a visit. It was pouring with rain as we left at 5 and I suggested going to see if the adjacent hostelry called the Fellows, Morton and Clayton was open to shelter from the rain - it was not only open but three deep at the bar. They said they stopped serving food at 6 as it got even more busy! We tried the Fellows and the Morton home brewed beers which were good but as we started to leave I noticed they also had Timothy Taylors, which we had last tasted over fifteen years before at a beer festival in Farnham - it had been memorable then and still was.
This is perhaps the time to introduce the cast led by Ken with first Sue, then Vera on Gandalf - the Lord of the Rings - with major parts played by Brammle (Sue and Eric), Elmley (Dougal and Leslie) Brian and Dot (with Brian's boat still in primer so without name), Comfrey, Apple, Tichitoro and of course us on Corinna with Frank Major our pilot on his own boat. Frank had spent his working life on the waterways and was a fund of information and - he deserves a page of his own. Idly Dan (John and Dee) also joined in just for the tidal stretch to Torksey where they turned off for Lincoln.
The last boats and the pilot joined us at North Muskham where we filled the pub moorings and had an excellent meal and examined our anchors, mud weights etc. The Trent (or any other tidal river) is not something to be undertaken without considerable preparation and thought, and careful reading of all the local charts/guides such as those prepared by the Trent Boat Club and the Ripon Motor Boat Club. The course to follow is not obvious and even with a lead boat we had one boat briefly aground. A cruiser which tried to pass the convoy a few metres to the side ran aground so hard that all that remained were the ripples spreading forwards. They came sheepishly into Torksey many hours later when they floated off on the rising tide. Radios are desirable for at least some boats in a group as mobile telephones do not always work, and you cannot monitor the commercial traffic or call for bridges to be swung etc so easily.
The original plan had been one long day from Cromwell to Keadby leaving at 0600 to catch a Neap (small) tide with arrival at circa 1400. This was modified to have a stop at Torksey to allow a break for dog owners and those where only one could steer. This was fortunate as at 0600 you could only just see the other side of the River Trent Past the Boats in the Mist. The journey to Torksey (other than the groundings above) was uneventful but it became clear that the ducklings were not keeping a tight formation behind the pilot so the tail could not follow the same course. And we were far too slow to have made the whole trip in one day.
For others who may try the trip, check engine cooling as few narrowboats with skin cooling tanks (or worse still air cooling) can sustain long runs at river powers without overheating. We did a trial up the Severn at "small bow-wave" speeds for 8 hours to check our cooling - even though we are Thames based and regularly cruise at 5 MPH.
After Idly Dan left us at Torksey we continued down to Keadby in a much Tighter Formation and without major problems although the entry to Keadby close to low tide will be remembered by several of us for a long time. Look at the wash as Brian Powers in over the Silt.
There was then a pleasant few days along waterways of a considerable size and with few narrowboats or other pleasure craft and only an occasional large commercial craft. Many of the locks on the North East waterways could hold our 8 boats with room to spare and the Lift Bridges are enormous!
We then got to Selby which is where the excitement started. The exit from the lock onto the River Ouse is straight out at right angles into a flood tide which can reach 7-8 mph at Spring tides (which we were close to). It even has the equivalent of the Severn bore called an Aegir - we watched it come through and the Turbulence as the Aegir passes the Lock was considerable. You have to go out slowly to avoid rolling the boat when the flow hits you, then work across and line up on the further arches on two swing bridges (for the railway and road) about 250 metres away with the flood tide pushing you on.
The first two boats out were Brammle with Sue and Eric followed by Comfrey and just as they left the Bridge Keeper radioed to say a tree was jammed across the navigation arch. A tannoy from the first (railway) bridge was too late to divert Sue and Eric (who did not have radio) and Brammle hit the tree and became jammed against the bridge piling. Neil just managed to get Comfrey past through the non-navigation arch averting an even worse disaster. The emergency services took Sue and Bramble (the Yorkie) off and lowered firemen who managed to cut enough of the tree clear before the boat hung up and sunk (the flood tide only lasts 2 hours and brings the level up circa 8 feet in that time). Remaining on board, Eric and the firemen were shot up to Naburn without further incident and were reunited there with Sue and the dog who had travelled by police car. The incident made the front page in the local papers. The two boats in the next lock (Brian and Dougal) made it through the bridge safely using the non-navigation arch.
The rest of us were held until the next day when just as we were about to exit the lock with Gandalf the same tree came past and we had to wait in case it jammed once more. It takes a month for rubbish to finally get out to sea.
The Ouse has two "turns" which are also quite exciting on a spring flood - with boiling water to the inside and trees and training walls to the outside. I never realised how far Corinna could roll and still come back again! Ken tried A Line Closer to the Trees!
Some of us stayed at York while the rest had a pleasant run up to Ripon, where they have just finished a magnificent restoration of the Ripon Canal and construction of boating facilities (circa 1 Mecu of EC backed funding). Linton Lock, which is a disgrace, has also received funding and will be rebuilt and taken over by BW for next season so no longer will visitors have to pay the extra £18 licence. Ripon is the furthest point North on the connected canal system. With five Piper boats and others there had never been so many boats before at Ripon, so the Press were out with their cameras and Our Boats at Ripon were on the front page of a newspaper again.
Then came the rains. Gandalf and Corinna were now a day behind the rest leaving Ripon, and the weir looked fearsome when we came to leave Boroughbridge. We rang BW at Naburn who said there were no problems there, and the boats at York said it did not seem too bad downstream. We had a quick run down to York to find the river had already risen nearly 3 feet since we had called, and was due to rise another 4 feet. The Museum Gardens moorings were quickly abandoned for the Kings Straith by some and the side of one of the commercial barges opposite on Queens Straith by others. Those on Kings Straith were forced shortly onto the trip boat floating pontoons. Even the commercial side was not without incident with one of the dredging barges hanging up and sinking, leaving people marooned on the boats breasted up outside so there had to be a Rescue by Gandalf.
Eventually the stream abated enough for us to get to Naburn Marina and pontoon moorings for one night and then continue down to Selby. We persuaded BW to let four boats out of Naburn to arrive at high water at Selby which is possible at some tide and fresh water flow rates. That made it much easier - there was little tidal effect up at Naburn and you leave just before low water with the "fresh" giving the depth required for the first part but not too much so they have to swing Cawood or the other Bridges.
After Cawood the flow fell as the tide started to cancel the flow and we started to buck the incoming tide at the end. As second pair we adjusted our timing to arrive as the lock was ready with frequent radio checks on the air draft under the Selby Railway Bridge. They do not like to swing it for pleasure craft. We made it under with several feet to spare and we just drifted in slack water until the lock was ready. Entering Selby Lock at High Water was easy compared to the normal situation when you arrive on an ebb tide close to low water - you then have to turn into the flow well upstream of the lock and drift back to buck a stream which can reach over 5 MPH until you can enter the lock. Not many narrowboats can do that safely, or at all, at other than Neap tides.
Would we do it again - a conditional yes provided we had the time to wait in case of floods, and to avoid Spring tides. York and on up to Ripon is beautiful and few make it to the extremities - use it or lose it as they say. We were forced into the purchase of a mobile phone and another time we would get a radio. I think we would have been at risk on the Trent the first time without a pilot as the angles and accuracy with which you must cross to the outside of bends etc was unexpected.
The Ouse was more of an adventure than we expected, but summer floods are not that common. The briefings on the river "turns" and other matters from the Commodore of the Ripon Motor Boat Club and their excellent guide at least prepared us a little for the journey, and the briefing on procedures from the lock keepers is essential. The amazing thing is that there are some hire boats let out from Selby (very powerful with experienced crews, but without radio).
We did not moor at Selby but continued a few miles to Burn Bridge, where there was a pub with good moorings to celebrate the end of the tidal stretches. The next day we joined the River Aire at the flood lock which was almost level by now and back upstream to join the Aire and Calder navigation at Bank Dole. The locks were big enough to get our three boats in, but it was a A Tight Fit. It was then back now to mingling with big Gravel Barges and push-tow chains of Coal Barges for Ferrybridge power station - they lift them out of the water and tip the coal straight into hoppers. The locks are enormous and power operated and keepers are present when barges are expected.
We stopped at Castleford junction to buy the unique Calder Hebble Handspikes needed to operate some of the locks on the next stretch. They are 3 feet long hardwood with a 3x2inch end to insert into perforated wheels to give the leverage needed to operate the paddle gear - even so they can be hard work to raise and tricky to lower. Time had run out for Apple to make any diversions so they went straight on towards the Leeds and Liverpool. We also met up with Comfrey who had gone a little way up the Calder and Hebble but they found it very hard work. Comfrey is 60 foot long and had to fit at an angle into every lock, and then take great care to avoid flooding the boat when rasing the paddles.
This left only Gandalf and Corinna continuing with the original plan as time had run out at Selby for Brian and Dougal and they ended up weekending home.
The River Calder is still a significant waterway at the lower end with 120x17 foot locks, but there is little commercial traffic. We stopped at a pub at Stanley Ferry for the night. There are Two Parallel Aqueducts at Stanley Ferry - the older is a fine structure with a cast iron trough suspended from cast iron arches. One thousand tons of cast iron alone was used in its construction. It is still in water and we went over it one way and took pictures from the new (1981) larger concrete one the other way. Once past Wakefield the lock size reduces to 57.5x14 foot which a 60 foot boat can just fit at an angle, or so they say.
It then took us two days to reach our first turning point at Sowerby Bridge Basin following a stop at Brighouse which had sensible priced diesel at the Sagar works. We spent a couple of days at Sowerby Bridge mooring in the Shire Cruiser's marina with a convenient power hook up so we could leave the boat for an evening to go to a 21st party and meet up with many of our college friends. The Moorings pub was memorable both for the food and the Timmy Taylor's Landlord beer last found in Nottingham. It was one of our favourites and Ken's. Ken has vast knowledge and practical experience of the Northern beers that we were very happy to draw on, and he led us to moorings at suitable places most nights.
The navigation changes here to the Rochdale which is now open over the top of the Pennines and down almost as far as Rochdale. It involves a separate license and 44 wide locks each way so we are leaving it for the three years or so until it is completely open to Manchester. We later found Tichitoro was following behind us at a more leisurely pace conserving their energy to continue over the top and down towards Rochdale.
We then started back to join The Norther Ring with a quick diversion down the Salterhebble branch which was full of fishermen. At the end there is only a small basin shaped so even a 47ft boat was difficult to turn. The longer diversion the following day down the Huddersfield Wide into Huddersfield was much more productive with good moorings outside a Sainsbury at the end. We took time to have a look at the start of the Huddersfield Narrow which is also being restored, so there may once more be three routes over the Pennines in the new millennium.
The next diversion was down the Dewsbury Arm. The basin at the end was solid with boats and we had difficulty in finding space to wind or moor. However it was well worth the effort to visit the small but very interesting museum/collection of memorabilia in one of the old stables - it was also free. We moored that night, surprise surprise, at a pub called the Navigation at Broad Lock where we were joined for dinner by friends who lived close by at Brighouse. We had moored there a few days back without realising that we were on their doorstep until we had met them at the 21st party!
The next day started well with all the locks in our favour and we made Castleford before noon. Here the liquid problems started with the Epic Pumpout. For the information of those that are not boaters most narrowboats have large holding tanks attached to the toilet which can be pumped out at sanitary stations. BW have installed a number of self service machines where you get a set number - in this case nine - minutes of suck for £6. This is sufficient to empty several boats if you are well prepared and Corinna was quickly emptied and rinsed and the hose connected to Gandalf. An hour and a half later and many payment cards later the situation or something was retrieved but only then because Pauline, who was in charge of the on/off buttons left it pumping with the valve closed for several minutes before realising. The vacuum was by then so great that when the valve was opened Gandalf lurched and 20 gallons disappeared in the remaining 11 seconds left on the card. Ken, after throwing away his clothes, said he was looking for a pub that evening.
That however was only the start of liquid problems. We were heading for Leeds and had been told there were good safe moorings at the new Armories Museum. Just short of where we expected to moor the heavens opened - we could hardly see the front of the boat. Corinna was in the lead and we ducked into another sanitary station on some pontoons, much to Ken's disgust as he was already wet to the skin and did not wish to see any more pump out devices. I waded on to see where the moorings were and found we were only a few hundred metres and one lock away. Th rain abated by the time I got back.
We ended up on excellent pontoons in Clarence Dock right Outside the Armories and watched the level rise secure in the knowledge that there were flood gates on the entry. However there were more liquid problems to come. Ken set off as usual to see what suitable hostelries were available nearby but he was gone so long we opened a bottle of wine with Vera. Eventually Ken returned to admit failure - Leeds does not have pubs, or not within easy reach of the Armories. The situation was saved when Jenny and Kev turned up bearing a case of Black Sheep Ale - a Beer Ken had spent weeks looking for to introduce to us as the champion of the North - it also seemed to be one of the best bottled beers we have had - or was it just the circumstances? The Armories look very interesting and we have it marked down to visit next time, either by boat or when we stay with Jenny and Kev.
We were now on the Leeds and Liverpool which is a delightful canal to visit although it would be hard work with a single boat as they are wide locks and there are lots of swing bridges. We ended up with Corinna and Gandalf breasted up a lot of the time which saved a lot of effort, especially when we lost Pauline on a mail run home. The highlight of the Leeds and Liverpool is the Bingley 5 Rise, a staircase of five locks lifting the canal 60 feet. Pictures can not convey the majesty of this structure or the view from the top looking down to our boats dwarfed at the bottom. It is run by Barrie the resident lock keeper who is not only one of the great characters of the canal system but also extremely efficient and hard working. He had us through in little over half an hour which allowed Pauline to come with the boats and then catch her train back home for the mail run and onwards to Southampton for OU teaching.
Another place of interest is Skipton, a lovely market town, where we met up again with Comfrey. They had already decided to stay for 6 weeks in the area and had made arrangement for their mail to be diverted. There are plenty of good quiet secure moorings and interesting things to see and do. I recommend the (free) Craven Museum, which is small but with many local artifacts giving insight into the area. We spent a couple of days until Pauline returned. Meanwhile Ken discovered a number of good pubs and excellent beers including Coopers Holiday, whilst Vera spent much time in the markets. There are lots of shops and a Morrison's supermarket within a couple of minutes of the canal. Do not miss it.
One now continues the climb up into the Yorkshire Dales and the scenery becomes even more outstanding with spectacular long views as one reaches the summit and works ones way across the Pennines past, or should I say round Pendle and the other peaks. We envy Comfrey their extended stay in the area. Even when one gets back into reality and has to stop to stock up at the Sainsbury in Burnley there are points of interest following quickly such as the Weavers Triangle - another site I regret we did not have time to stop and investigate fully as they have an information centre and a trail. Burnley also has a restored weaving mill which had hundreds of looms which will shortly come back to life with it's 500hp steam engine Peace and old employees working the looms.
The canal now gets progressively more industialised although there is still some lovely countryside in between and of course Foulridge tunnel with its traffic lights at either end. We soon found ourselves at Wigan with its flight of 23 locks. These have a bad reputation so we arrived the previous night for an early start down. We arrived at 1600 and, after Ken had pronounced the pub worthy of a visit, we had a jar or two. There are some very good moorings at the top lock in a short arm adjacent to a little park. The park was full of trees just the right diameter for Tigger to leap up until restrained by his lead, and they provided shelter from a few drops of rain as we set up the meal.
The following morning we were escorted down the locks which saved time as they are all fitted with anti-vandal locks. It is still a daunting view down when one starts. We again breasted up allowing one person to work ahead and we were through the 23 in a few minutes over three hours. There was no shortage of water and the overflow weirs were fierce as extra water was let down from the top.
We stopped at the junction and walked down to Wigan Pier and went into "The Way We Were" which was well worth the visit and "Trencherfield Mill" which has the largest working mill engine in Europe - a magnificent sight. It was unfortunately undergoing maintenance so we did not see it in steam. The whole area has been turned into a Heritage Centre and restored. Wigan Pier itself was originally a simple coal straithe made famous in songs by George Formby and George Orwell in his book, "The Road to Wigan Pier". We bought a jar of the famous "Uncle Joe's Mint Balls" which are so strong that a single one is sufficient to make sure everything you drink tastes of mint for several days! The evening was spent with Dougal and Leslie who collected us from our overnight mooring at Dover Lock where we moored at the pub to await their arrival to take us to an Italian Restaurant then back to their house. Dover Lock actually is no more as the subsidence from mining has been so great that the locks are now many miles away and only the Pub keeps the name alive.
We had left the main Leeds and Liverpool at Wigan and are now on the Leigh Branch heading for Manchester. It is worth looking at the Northern Map once more which shows we are now starting the final section towards Red Bull via the Bridgewater canal with a diversion into Manchester and then down the Trent and Mersey. The Bridgewater is strictly part of the Manchester Ship Canal but you are allowed to use it for up to seven days with a BW licence. One of the noteworthy features is the stop planks, each group with their own crane. The Bridgewater is also where the canal revolution started and we stopped to look at the old entry into the Duke of Bridgewater's mines at Worseley where the water runs as red as at the Harecastle tunnel. There was still one of the mine boats known as "starvationers" - double ended very narrow tub boats. At one time there were over 40 miles of underground canals at various levels. The other feature which we stopped to admire is the "Barton Swing Aquduct" which weighs over 1400 tons including 800 tons of water and carries the canal over the Mersey Ship Canal. Boats crossing are dwarfed by the structure.
We took a short diversion off the Bridgewater to moor overnight at Castlefield junction, right in the centre of Manchester. There is a large basin with lots of moorings on arms right in the centre of a leisure area with the Museum of Science and Industry at one end. The whole area is being tastefully restored and the moorings seem as secure as anywhere and quiet overnight. We spent several hours roaming the area but unfortunately we did have long enough time to go into the Museum which has 14 separate galleries in a number of different old buildings - another trip we would spend two days to allow one day at the Museum to do it proper justice. Next time we will allow twice the time we took over the Leeds and Liverpool and down to Manchester - hopefully the Huddersfield or the Rochdale will be open to complete a ring with an extension down to Sheffield to visit another part of the system. Northern Map.
We rejoined the Trent and Mersey and were back onto familiar ground after the Preston Brook Tunnel which is one way with timed entry. The following two shorter tunnels are also too narrow to pass and are so bent that it is almost impossible to see if they are clear - a few good blasts on the horn on entry is essential. The next point of interest was the Anderton Lift. This has unfortunately only changed for the worse since we saw it last as the finale of the 1994 trip. I understand the society have received funds towards the restoration but there was nothing to show other than a glass box of years out of date notices and a temporary visitors centre in a Portacabin which was closed in the middle of summer. It all gives a very bad impression and contrasts with the restoration and renovation on the other areas. We carried on to Broken Cross only to find that there was a boat rally taking up most of the moorings. Fortunately Gandalf had gone on ahead as they knew how sad the Anderton Lift was, so there was a nice space reserved with their can for us.
The next day was a very early departure to try to get through Middlewich before all the hire boats came out - we did not succeed in missing all the rush and our boats and crews got separated so I ended up single handed on Corinna gradually drawing ahead and then waiting for quite a while at the top. We stayed at Rode Heath just leaving a morning trip back to Hardings Wood junction and on to Red Bull after a very enjoyable cruise with good company on waterways we would not have otherwise explored. Despite a few adventures, which resulted largely from the poor weather, the trip went very smoothly. This was to a large extent due to Ken's meticulous research, planning and preparation. We can thoroughly recommend such cruises to club members and those with Piper Boats who are not members should join now. The number was about right for the waterways we visited and the splitting up towards the end was very appropriate for the narrow canals. If the numbers are any larger it would probably be better to divide into two groups a couple of days apart for busy sections.
We stopped at Red Bull for most of the week so we could get the engine serviced - we were just coming up to 4000 hours. It was fortunate that we got it done professionally as Don Simpson picked up that there was wear on the gearbox/engine-drive-plate splines and changed the drive and rebuilt the gearbox for us. That was the first major work on the engine although we have checked and changed seals, prop shaft couplings and props when she has been out of the water. Better to do these things before they fail on a river.
The rest of the trip home was an anticlimax. We were a little short of time to get back for Pauline's next lot of OU marking and the Summer School in Bath so we could not make our usual diversions up the Ashby or down to Coventry. It was just a straight run down the Trent and Mersey, Coventry, North and South Oxford and on to the Thames through Dukes cut - see the Southern Map for the route. We did however find time to play bar skittles at Newbold-on-Avon - a game local to a small area. The only other easily accessable place en route is the pub part way up the locks leaving Braunston. Even the South Oxford was no problem and had more water than we have seen for years - a complete contrast to what we feared when we left in May. We got home easily in 8 days making the whole trip almost exactly 3 months having completed 1150 miles and 664 locks with nothing more than precautionary maintenance and a few more bits of paint to touch up. We fitted out Corinna for extended cruising for the two of us (click for details) and that length of time proved no problem - even Tigger seemed to enjoy it.