New waters – Preston to Glasson Top
Preston to Glasson Branch Junction 24¼ miles;
Glasson Branch Junction to Glasson Basin and back: 4½ miles, 12 locks
As the canal wends its way north gradually the blossom covering thinned. There is other flotsam in the water though, tree branches and reed islands bob about and the edges of the canal are noticeably shallow.
The canal, the building of which began in the late 1790s, follows a 42 miles north-south course. It’s often been referred to as the Black and White Canal, since its original purpose was to transport coal northwards from the Lancashire coalfields and limestone south from Cumbria. The major population areas are in Preston in the south and in Lancaster, some 30 miles further north.
Once away from Preston the canal assumes a wholly rural character. It winds and weaves but all the time the canal is heading north. Soon serious hills appear to the east – these are Pennine foothills.
A boater new to this canal quickly realises that this easy lock-free waterway is popular with cruisers: there is on-line mooring and there are marinas full of ‘plastic’ vessels. How popular these are became very apparent at the village of Bilsborrow. Moorings for the afternoon and evening for Tentatrice and Cleddau were secured here – but on a Sunday this ‘heritage honeypot’ of a place seethes with ice-cream-eating visitors on the towpath and ‘boy boaters’ churning through, doing out and back trips, often with accompanying muzak (or in one case, a large scale TV playing just behind the boat’s steering position).
The Lancaster’s bridges are solid grey stone structures, similar in shape to those on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. John Rennie (1761-1821) was the engineer who designed the canal and many of the aqueducts bear his name. There’s a particularly fine one at Garstang which spans the River Wyre.
May is a wonderful time of year for canal cruising – the blossom this much further north is still abundant, clumps of yellow irises are frequent, swans are either still nesting or are introducing their cygnets to the water, greylag geese are strutting their stuff and lambs are growing fast. Under close parental supervision fluffy ducklings are darting about, herons are posing bank side before taking off for a pitch not much further on and young cattle gaze curiously as boats pass by. One herd of cattle were identified by numbers stamped on their buttocks whereas the cows on a different farm each had collar and tag identifiers.
Garstang made for an interesting stop. It’s a small market town with a history of success in Britain in Bloom Competitions. Colourful bunting is stretched along the main street and a market cross dominates the narrow market square. Blue plaques explain the town’s past as an important staging post. It’s a town of loyal monarchists too, judging by these plaques on the Town Hall.
Just beyond the town bridge over the Wyre is a tall church, in relatively plain undecorated style. Faces by the west door indicate it’s a church of the Roman Catholic faith – then it hit, this is Lancashire, the area where the greatest number of the population retained their Catholic faith in the days of (Bloody) Queen Mary (1553-1558). She purged the Protestants but her successor, Elizabeth 1, allowed a wider range of Christian faith.
Locks – from a lock-free canal?
Here was a canal junction to a 2¼ mile canal arm that stretches down to Glasson Dock and the Lune Estuary. A photograph was made of the unfamiliar paddle gear. Fixed handles at least meant lock operators wouldn’t need to carry windlasses…
Glasson day dawned, bright though breezy. Both boat captains were instructed to wait awhile until the crews (plus Monty the Tentatrice boat dog) had walked ahead and prepared the top lock.
A padlock secures a metal locking arm over the windlass handle. Once the padlock is unlocked and the locking arm released the paddle can be wound up. It takes a long arm stretch but is not particularly strenuous. So far, so good. Both boats sat side by side, the back gates were closed, the paddles were wound down and re-locked, then the operating crew moved to the front gates to drop the water from the chamber.
This is the paddle gear on the front gates – a novelty, and a tortuous one too. The Tentatrice First Mate crossed the footbridge to assist the vertically challenged Boatwif. No amount of Weetabix or spinach or vitamin pills were ever going to make a difference – these paddles were not for Boatwif! Crew duties were reallocated from hereon, the Captain ashore, Boatwif at the helm.
Slowly the boats progressed down the six lock flight. A volunteer lock keeper appeared, intent on doing some ground works at Lock 6. He kindly raised a top gate paddle as he walked down the flight, so less time was spent waiting for each empty lock to fill…
Swans will choose their own nesting sites – signs drew attention to a nest on the towpath. The male swan was dutiful in keeping close to his mate, aggressive when approached by any potential foe. Raise your arms,” the Captain shouted from the back deck to some apprehensive walkers. “Make yourself look as large as you can.” A hissing, feather-fluffed out swan can be pretty intimidating to those on the towpath.
And there ahead was Glasson Basin, a great squared off expanse of water… Despite some previous map study this was a confusing picture: grey sheds and tall masts to the left, cranes ahead, a stone wall to the right where one narrow boat was moored and a RIB circling the expanse – all this while the Cleddau crew were trying to spot the diesel pump… The blustery winds sabotaged Cleddau’s first attempt to moor alongside the grey sheds as she was blown across against the low grey wall. A second attempt was more successful but after a conflab with the marina manager (yes, this was Glasson Basin Marina) a return to the grey wall for overnight moorings was advised with a refuelling planned for the following day.
Just after midday a yacht was waiting to lock out of the basin down into Glasson Dock. A small crowd watched as the road bridge was swung to allow passage and the yacht was dropped to the lower level. Once down it circled for a while marking time, waiting for the tidal gate to be lowered. Down the gate went to the river bed, and the boat chugged through out to the tidal river which wends its way down into Morecambe Bay.
The Basin and its surroundings had to be explored: Glasson Dock was opened in 1787 as part of the Port of Lancaster. It seems now that grain, animal foodstuffs and fertiliser are imported. Huge stacks of “hardscape” (paving slabs?) were on the dockside. The hatches of a large vessel tied up outside the dock were raised as it was being loaded.
Was this Cleddau’s best ever mooring? Stunning views all around, lapping water, the breeze in ship’s rigging, the sense of space and the sea nearby… Lovers of places like Lawrenny and Dale in Pembrokeshire or Findhorn on the Moray Firth would certainly appreciate it. There’s a small shop (cake, milk, souvenirs), an open pub (and a closed one), a bus service, a café – and, for visiting boaters, plenty of mooring space, easy access to a water tap and free electricity.
“When there’s a wind from the west, though,”a man at the marina advised,” the waves go right over that wall and over the boats where you were moored.” Another reminder that tide and wind can be mischievous, damaging even…
Below and above each of the Glasson Branch’s locks is a landing stage, just long enough for one boat. Early on, during the downward trip, Boatwif had notified the Captain that the neat-looking roping bollards were not adequate for the job. As water was pulled from the pound to fill a lock the centre rope (supposedly) securing the boat, had slipped off. Fortunately Boatwif was close by and managed to capture the rope.
It wasn’t quite so straightforward on the way back. At one point (Lock 5) Tentatrice was in the lead position; the locking crews were behind, closing up the locks and catching up on foot. The Tentatrice Captain arrived at a landing stage, looped a centre rope around a bollard and went to lower the water level at the lock ahead via the gate paddles. Boatwif on Cleddau held back. It’s not always easy to make sense of what the eye is seeing – the Tentatrice Captain was up at the lock though his boat seemed to be sedately moving backwards…
Realisation! Tentatrice was well beyond the reach of the landing stage. There was only one way to rescue her. Slowly Cleddau was slid up beside the escapee, nudging her in to the bank. Arm gesticulations urged Cleddau onwards. As Cleddau reached the landing stage the absent Captain scrambled onto the gunwale, worked his way down the side, urging Boatwif to REVERSE. Gently the boat was eased backwards now, until the Tentatrice bow was reached, her Captain then clambering from one boat to the other and thence to the back deck to resume control… No photos, but see the Tentatrice blog for Wednesday 22nd May here:). The episode brought back memories of that far lengthier recovery of an escaped boat, on the Stratford Canal, just a couple of years ago.
More on that next time…
2019 Monkton Moments*- 4
(Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)
(Number 4: “Oh Cleddau – I worked on the Cleddau Bridge and I lived on Golden Hill…”)