The Great Descent
A summer cruise, where to – and how?
Ever since news broke of the collapsed culvert and de-watered canal at Macclesfield there’s been pondering about alternative cruising plans. Delay all cruising until the canal is reopened? Head down the Lower Peak Forest Canal and turn right for lock-heavy Huddersfield? Or head down the Lower Peak Forest and turn left for Manchester and the Bridgewater Canal…?
The third option won – so grit the teeth, grab the windlass and prepare for some lock heavy days.
past the Samuel Oldknow warehouse , down towards the spectacular railway viaduct (Buxton to Manchester line) – and across the parallel aqueduct (now with newly installed aqueduct fencing).
Was this canal this bendy last time it was cruised… ?
Under a turnover bridge, through Romiley; through Woodley; signs for the River Tame far below to the left; under a motorway (M67); past a couple of boatyards – and some grandly redesigned back gardens. A good idea it may have been to travel on at 2pm, but by 4pm the biting cold had penetrated the bones. Just before the day’s destination beyond the Stanley lift bridge (anti-vandal key and windlass required) there was this: a plaque commemorating Mary Moffat, an African missionary and mother-in-law of David Livingstone..
On board, the embers in the solid fuel stove were revitalised: it might be May, it might be the start of a summer cruise, but it was cold enough to need a roaring fire…
Day 1 stats: 11.41 miles, 16 locks, 1 lift bridge
Wednesday 5th May. Away from a safe overnight mooring (barring the Canada geese, more on them later) there was a sharp left turn onto the Ashton Canal. Infamous for years as urban bandit country, an early start is advised on this canal. How blue was the sky, how quiet the towpath. There was recall of the last time this way – a 90 minute hold up while seat wadding was painstakingly cut off the prop…There were old boats, old stone wharfs, and modern housing.
The locks start at Fairfield Junction – and what a blow, not one but two boats were already there, the lead one preparing to start the 18 Ashton locks. While the Captain helped each of the boats through the first lock Boatwif attended to domestic duties, making flasks of coffee and ridding the boat’s starboard side of willow leaves and catkins… There was no traffic noise, just an occasional pedestrian and the shrill sound of Canada geese and a swan squabbling furiously over food being thrown towards them.
The locks are slow; many locks had one or more paddles out of action and all paddles had to be unlocked and relocked via a fiddly anti-vandal key. The gates are heavy and often stubborn to move. Time wore on, Cleddau slowly descending the brick-lined locks towards Manchester. In some lock chambers old sets of hand and footholds were visible. Nowadays the metal ladders installed in the chambers are easier to use…
Amid a residential area an old pub remains; at 1130 the shutters were being taken down from the windows of the once infamous‘ Strawberry Duck’. Always ahead was nb Lizzie, deftly operated by a sole boater.
It’s urban, the eastern outskirts of Manchester, yet birds sang furiously and Canada geese were ever-present, here proudly taking their young fluffballs to water – and here three young goslings separated from their frantic parents… Why were there so many planks of wood in the water? There’d be occasional clunks on the hull as strange objects made contact. As for footballs and plastic drinks bottles, there were plenty of those too.
After 14 or so locks downhill signs of the city became apparent; the metro link trams, the National Cycling Centre, the Manchester City Etihad Stadium, gasometers, new builds among old…
Day 2 stats: 6.4 miles, 18 locks, I swing bridge, 2 hoodied youths inviting themselves on board
Thursday 6th May. 34 locks had been descended so far – only 9 remained until easier waters would be reached. A re-reading of the blog post from the previous trip down the 9, the Rochdale Nine (September 2012, ) was a grim reminder of what still lay ahead…
Three attempts to turn left out of Telford Basin were thwarted by the tight angle, so the trip began with a right turn to wind the boat to face the right direction in a mini-arm about 100 yards further along the canal.
The canal down into Manchester slides underneath a Morrisons. It emerges only to be confronted by tall rise buildings, at the base of which the canal disappears behind lock gates. This was Lock 84, the first of the Rochdale Nine.
There was no-one about, no boats to provide lock share partners, no gongoozlers eager to test their muscle against a heavy gate…
Just as the Captain started to fill the top lock he was hailed from the towpath side, by yesterday’s solo boater from nb Lizzie. He’d already worked down the first two locks on his own and then walked back up to look for a partner boat. Oz Lizzie, what a Manchester Angel!
One lock emptied – and Cleddau was clear to proceed ahead. The Captain remained to close up the top lock, nb Lizzie’s owner had disappeared to prepare the next lock, Boatwif was on the tiller.
Into the jaws of a building the boat went, creeping between pillars, Boatwif peering into the gloom to make out the next lock. From behind some hoarding came a shrieking incessant noise of a high-pitched wood saw. What hell was this…?
There it was, one gate of Picadilly Lock opened in the gloom by Oz Lizzie.
As the water drained at the front of the lock water still poured in noisily at the back. Again the Manchester Angel (aka nb Lizzie’s owner) disappeared to prepare the next lock. There ahead was his boat and from then on down both boats shared each lock.
These locks require the greatest concentration; the water flow is strong, the cill at the back is often covered by the frothing downpours, the distance between each lock is not far, the route of an early 19th century canal wending its way between towering 21st century buildings.
Several locks down two upcoming boats were met – so at least the next few locks ahead would already be filled.
Lock 91 – what challenge was this? The towpath gate was open, Cleddau needed to get into the chamber and move across to make space for nb Lizzie. But the narrow space off-side was awash in a couple of inches of water, the small white topped bollard for tensioning and securing a rope barely visible.
Creep, creep, creep – keep the boat in the chamber, do not rise up onto the side… Gingerly Boatwif brought the boat to a halt, stepped a long way down into the watery swirls, hauled the boat across to the side and closed the back offside gate. What is pretty routine stuff at a Grand Union lock is much less so when the lock side is very narrow and entirely under water…
Across the gates came the Captain, there to meet the toughest paddle gear of all. To open the offside gate required a long throw windlass and the combined efforts the Captain and Oz Lizzie.
One more lock, one more lock. What a long time it took for Lock 92, the Duke’s Lock, to drain. Overspill water continues to pound down through the back gates, Cleddau’s stern being swung by the torrents while the Captain and Oz Lizzie wrestled with the levels and paddles at the front.
Read the text here of The Rochdale Nine song ; better still, listen to the words here . How come, in the frightful early May weather this year, did the Cleddau crew manage to do the Rochdale Nine in cool sunshine rather than in rain…?!
What next – the museums of Manchester? The nightclubs of Canal Street? No, boat and crew motored off along the wide, deep, lock-free Bridgewater Canal, out into the Cheshire countryside… and oh, didn’t it rain later!
Day 3 stats: 11.4 miles, 9 locks
Lock total for the Great Descent: 43
Height drop from Marple to Manchester: 354 feet / 108 metres