Operation Ashton

Dukinfield Lift Bridge to Piccadilly Village: 6.4 miles, 18 locks

            You know what it’s like when you have to get up early, you wake periodically through the night. “It’s quarter past four,” muttered the Captain “two hours ‘til the alarm goes off!” And so it was that at 30 seconds past 0700 (as planned) Cleddau pulled away from the mooring, turned sharp left at Dukinfield Junction and headed west towards Manchester. There at 0732 on the tow path by Bridge 24A was the extra crew member, Techno’s Dad (as planned). He passed his rucksack across to Boatwif to store on the boat – and for the next two hours stood under that same bridge holding the boat’s centre rope (not planned). What had happened?

            As the Captain brought the boat round the corner to pick up the additional crew all steerage was lost. It’s not a new call this “Something’s round the prop”; over the years bits of carpet, a duvet, a tyre, lengthy strands of plastic, a fence post have all brought Cleddau to an unplanned halt. This, however, felt pretty serious. An early start – because it’s hostile “bandit country”. An early start – because there are 18 locks. Yet the expedition was already stranded under a modern road bridge with nowhere and nothing onto which to tie the boat ropes. An hour and a half ground by, the Captain horizontal on the back deck, arms stretched out cutting and slicing at tight fibres lashed around the propeller shaft. A pile of soggy wadding was slowly growing… could the curved knife cut through it all? Would an emergency rescue call need to be made? Ninety minutes on and the prop could be moved again; another half hour and it was free!

            So, at 0932 Operation Down the Ashton properly started.

Initially the canal seemed to have a rural feel although bridges (road, railway, motorway) soon were on the horizon. Low cost housing, a pair of old wooden boats,  a thirties bungalow, some shabby apartments… then started the locks. Although the paddle gear is easy to operate the need to un-secure and then re-secure four anti-vandal locks at almost every lock slows down any boat’s progress. Metal fences topped with barbed wire, buildings sadly neglected, rubbish and litter, floating islands of plastic drinks bottles, sites being cleared for redevelopment: it’s not exactly holiday brochure material. “Laurel and Hardy” supervised the approach to one lock. It is mid-September and on lock side bushes summer’s greening was showing signs of fading. Lock after lock, the canal was dropping height all the time and then what looked like a few cranes in the distance came into closer view. These are the distinctive supports of what was the Commonwealth Games Stadium and now is home to Manchester City Football Club. Close by is the Velodrome (and haven’t the British cyclists done well). Onward, crew swapping roles from time to time, picnic grab-a-sandwich lunch at about Lock 10, and then more modern buildings hove into view. The wind, whipping up the water and belting round the buildings, added additional challenge to the cruise. Apartment blocks at Milliners Wharf and unoccupied office blocks at Islington Wharf. Down the last two locks – signposts to Castlefield, passers by, city traffic on the road bridge, police sirens, then finally the modern, pleasant-looking neighbourhood of Piccadilly Village. “It’s a respectable area,” one boater had explained. The housing is private, there are fancy iron railings and balconies, shrubs in flower and no public access from the tow path.

            In summary then, Operation Ashton achieved. There have been so many horror stories but the Cleddau crew (plus one) witnessed no gangland raids or drug-crazed loners. Got the Rubbish round the Prop badge though!

            As for tomorrow: only nine more locks down to Castlefield in the city centre – only nine, though their reputation is of a completely different order…

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