Wednesday, 14 September 2016

There and back again

We're killing time on a canal where time killing is no hardship at all. In a couple of days we will hop in a car and go family visiting but, meanwhile we've been to visit the spot where the first great canal builder, James Brindley, served his apprenticeship then turned around and returned to an earlier stopover at Bollington. And, in between, experienced the mother and father of all thunderstorms.
Born in 1716, Brindley was apprenticed to a millwright in Sutton near Macclesfield, to begin a working career that started as a millwright and ended as the master canal engineer. A plaque on the wall of the property that is now a house records the fact but why no official blue plaque I wonder? Forty years after his death, the Gurnet Aqueduct was built to carry the Macclesfield Canal above the river valley there and it's a few steps down from there to the house.
Just as well, as the skies turned black while we were out, thunder rolled and we dived into the local pub for a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor's while the heavens opened before braving the dash back to the boat.
You won't embarrass this nude sunbather in a canalside garden
Today the rain's gone and the sun has shone brightly as we headed back northwards to Bollington. It's simply impossible to believe the change in this pretty little town of gritstone terraces where wine bars and restaurants stand where once were ironmongers and butchers, and executive cars with their personal plates squeeze into parking slots on the cobbled streets that once echoed to the sound of miners and millworkers.
A quiet side street, once the main road through Bollington

Wine bars and restaurants are now the local shops

Bollington's fine cricket ground with grass viewing terraces
Less than a hundred years ago, it was all smoking industry chimneys, now it's 'happy valley' - a bijou commuter spot for Mancunians.
The huge canalside Clarence Mill, one of just two left here
The immensely knowledgeable Tim Boddington at the Discovery Centre in the huge Clarence Mill talked us through some of the town's history: how the ash from its three immense steam engines was ferried by tramway across the canal and piled high on the other side, the wharves along the aqueduct where coal was off-loaded down staithes and carted away in horse drawn wagons, the rebuilding of the aqueduct in stone to stop the sides slipping, the mining that went on all around the area. He was, excuse the pun, a mine of information.
The canal aqueduct: uniquely the sides are built in stone

Monday, 12 September 2016

Walking over water

I'm afraid we haven't done too much boating since we arrived on the Macclesfield. It's that sort of a canal: so picturesque and so relaxing you simply don't want to rush through it. Instead of boating we've been walking – hence the title.
We moored over the weekend at Higher Poynton, once a mining area but now a spot that's slipped into tranquil rurality. It's a 20 minute walk to the nearest shops and old miners would I'm sure be shocked to discover that Poynton is now a desirable little outlying suburb of Manchester – there's even a Waitrose!
Up at the canal things do get busy at the weekend; it's a popular spot for visitors – there's a mining museum, the Anson diesel engine museum, a little cafe on the towpath and, of course, plenty of boats. There's always more than a few Braidbars around as the boats are built here. And our old chum Iain Bryceland, who used to own the firm, runs the moorings opposite so it was great to see him, as cheery and laidback as ever.
Manchester below us in the Cheshire plain
We went for a stroll over the canal bridge by Braidbar and kept on strolling and strolling steeply uphill until we found ourselves in the 1400 acre grounds of Lyme Park. The views from up here are stunning, especially down across the Cheshire plains where Manchester is laid out in the distance - you can even watch planes coming in to land at the airport.
The house itself is a monumental piece of work – the largest house in Cheshire (even bigger than Wayne Rooney's, then).
Up in the distance at Lyme Park is 'The Cage'
But the walker's target is 'The Cage', a hunting lodge high in the hills where noblemen's wives watched their husbands deer hunting below. It bears a close visual resemblance to the White Tower of the Tower of London where Lyme's then owner Peter Legh XII was twice imprisoned for treason, eventually being freed. Legend is that the design and the name 'The Cage' were a spot of irony on his part.
After a couple of walks around Lyme we decided to go boating again and headed down to the pretty little town of Bollington. Walking would have been easier – the canal was very shallow in place and a couple of bridge holes brought us to a standstill.
Bollington was a major centre for cotton spinning in the 19th century and we are moored by Clarence Mill, one of many that existed in and around the town. Most of the other mills have vanished and Bollington today is a sought after spot, its attractive stone terraced streets gently folded into the contours of a steep sided valley and nicknamed 'happy valley' by its residents.
Brian cools his feet in mid-walk
Walking mission today was 'White Nancy', a curious upside down eggcup of a building built on top of a steep hill to the edge of the town to celebrate victory in the Battle of Waterloo. It's said that it was used as a summer house but god help the poor servants who had to lug chairs and picnic hampers up the steep slopes below it.
The curious folly White Nancy and its far reaching views
It's a short but lung bursting effort but the spectacular views make it all worthwhile. You can see as far as the mountains of north Wales and the Pennine hills to the north and east.
From here a steeply sloping ridge, the 'saddle of Kerridge' (top picture) ran south for a mile, with Macclesfield stretching out below us in the west, before the footpath dropped steeply down to a country lane which headed back towards Bollington.
The overgrown remains of old quarries stretch along the road: trees have grown thickly up among the piles of scattered broken rocks and abandoned diggings to hide the sky and create a dark and forbidding atmosphere like The Wild Wood of Toad of Toad Hall.
Tom Clayton's mysterious chimney
Just short of Bollington a tall and ornate chimney lurked mysteriously in the thick trees and nearby a footpath crossed under the road and down precipitous stone steps. It had to be explored but, sadly, told us nothing more about the chimney – just add half a mile to our route home.
The chimney, Google revealed later, is known as Tom Clayton's Chimney and officially was a ventilation shaft for a coalmine. Except there's no coal mine shaft under there! It's all a bit of a mystery.
So will tomorrow be boating or walking? Who knows.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A pint, a pie and a walk

Stunning views all around from Eccles Pike.
Bugsworth Basin has an excellent pub – The Navigation, one of our favourites – and if you want to walk off the calories added by a few pints of Timothy Taylor and a massive steak and kidney pie then it also offers a useful guide to three walks up into the surrounding hills.
We decided to jump in at the deep end with the toughest: the four and a half miles of Cracken Edge, described as 'moderate'. Well if this was moderate then I'm not sure we'd survive 'tough'. It was very hard going, with a steep, steep climb out of the valley to the high hill behind it.
Cracken Edge; everywhere the remains of old quarries
But things improved dramatically as we followed a track, well trodden (by sheep as well as people) along the sheer edge of a hill that whose moss covered hummocks and endless piles of loose rocks and jagged outcrops were the evidence of years of quarrying to extract stone for paving slabs and roofing tiles. This went on until the 1930s, sending rock from this remote hillside down to the valley via tramways, the winding house of one still surviving on the top as a lonely relic.
This winding house, a lonely vestige of the quarrying industry
It was a long, lumpy walk back down the broken remains of an old drove road – boy, was life hard on those days – before an easier finish back to the pub for another beer.
The laminated rocks quarry naturally into stone for walls
Gluttons for punishment, we opted for another 'moderate' the next day in the scenic three and a half miler to Eccles Pike. This is on the opposite side of the valley so we could look across at yesterday's climb. The Pike's a renowned viewpoint but to get up there was another lung bursting, thigh burning clamber out of the valley. Worth it, though, as the views were spectacular in a 360 degree panorama as far away as Manchester, Yorkshire and across the Peaks. Fabulous.
Seadog Brian surveys the scene
Less fabulous was the route back. A lot of footpaths in the hills aren't fingerposted; you need to do some native style tracking to find them in the sheep fields and even the usually good instruction leaflet struggled to cope. After a couple of false trails, though, we found our way out – and back to the pub.
Buoyed with confidence we decided to tackle that at 7.00 pm after dinner. Two and a half miles: back before dark then! Hah!
I'm sure the instructions were correct once but introduce a herd of cows to a field, let them trample it into huge, muddy divots for a few months and then see if they make sense. "Strike out, through a gap in a barbed wire fence...across the slope...once over the brow of the hill you will see a stone step stile in the far wall."
Er. Oh, no we don't. Having struck out through the gap, negotiating a slurried drive, crossed a slope, we stood in the gathering gloom, up to our ankles in mud in the middle of a huge field of mud and goo with no stile in sight anywhere.
Fortunately, at that moment the farmer appeared on his quad bike, not shouting threats but happy to help these foolish southerners.
No, not with a lift (that's what I was hoping) but with the route to the mysterious stile. "Head for that big thistle in the field, keep going past it and you'll see the wall. Count twenty trees along [honest, this is what he said] and you'll see the stile."
From there it was easy, except for the moment when we opened a gate and from somewhere nearby the Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple of his mates started barking ferociously.
Finally, we were back to the boat in the pitch dark, boots and trousers thick with mud. And that walk had been labelled 'easy'!
How to close a canal; brute force and heavy timbers
Today we left Bugsworth – and Mrs B decided she hadn't had enough of walking and did the seven miles back to Marple Junction on foot along the towpath to operate the various bridges.
Just before the junction we passed a C&RT team getting ready for a winter stoppage to cure a leak on the canal by testing the stop planks to close off the water. And if you've ever wondered how stop planks are installed, the answer is with a man in the water in a wet-suit, a gang on the canalside and a lot of heaving and sweating to locate them in their slots in the bridgehole. It's a system that probably hasn't changed in a hundred or more years.
Tonight we are on the Macclesfield Canal and pointing south.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Surrounded by history

This is just part of the huge complex withHarry in the distance
Around us tonight are the remains of a lost world, ruins of stone buildings and wharves so out of time with the modern world that they could be part of the ancient Roman empire.
We are at the remarkable Bugsworth Basin complex, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and all that remains of a once massive limestone processing and transport hub.
The model gives an idea of the extent of the site
Lime was a substance in huge demand in the early 19th century, used in everything from agricultural fertiliser to building mortar to textile manufacture. And a prime source of lime was the limestone hills of the Peak District.
So Bugsworth came into existence as a basin where limestone could be brought down from the surrounding hills by tramway, crushed or burned in huge kilns to produce quicklime and then transported away by the newly built Peak Forest Canal.
Another arm leads to even more parts of the site
Over the next half century it expanded to become one of the largest inland ports in England, handling over 600 tons of limestone a day. And then along came the railways. Bugsworth's importance declined rapidly and it closed in 1927. Amazingly, this vast place with its kilns, warehouses, railway tracks, offices decayed into an unrecognisable jungle as stonework was taken for other uses, undergrowth claimed the rest and the canal ceased working.
And beyond the bridge is yet another element
In 1968 volunteers began the monumental job of reclaiming it all from the undergrowth and getting the waterways fit for boats again: it took 30 years and even then had to be closed again for more work, only opening finally in 2005. (The work partly funded by the EU we'll soon be leving, incidentally). You can read more here.
It's a great place to be – like living in the centre of an archaeological site. All the same, it's worth remembering that in its working life this site was noisy, smelly, full of smoking chimneys and men worked physically hard in dangerous conditions for long hours at poor wages. It's all too easy to romanticise the past.
The remains of some of the lime burning kilns here
I must admit I feared the worst about getting here – we'd been through a lot of shallow, sludged up stretches. Yet this final seven miles, excavated with uncanny skill 200 years ago along the side of a sheer hill, proved a doddle. Yes, there were odd shallows and slow, silty moments but nothing to raise the pulse – indeed it's probably improved since we were last here in our previous boat. The sweet smell of Love Hearts and Parma Violets from the Swizzels factory at New Mills is unchanged though!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

There's no such thing as bad weather...

Marvellous Marple Aqueduct with the rail viaduct beyond
Only inappropriate clothing, as the saying goes. And we certainly had the chance to test the appropriateness of our wet weather gear to the limit – and sometimes beyond – today.
It pretty much chucked with rain the whole day so, instead of following the way of every other boater and hunkering down, we decided to tackle the 16 locks of the Marple flight. Daft? Well, we have a pretty low threshold of boredom and besides the 3G signal was minimal where we had moored. We stopped to refuel the larder at a canalside Aldi and pressed on in full wet weather kit – apart from Seadog Brian who sensibly huddled inside.
An elaborate floral tribute to a brutally killed dog
On our way we passed an elaborate floral tribute by the towpath; the sort found where someone has tragically died. Except this one was to a dog called 'Troya' which was stolen and then brutally killed and dumped in the canal. The story made headline news in the national press. For the full story read the link but I warn you - it's not nice.
Back to boating: building a canal round the precipitous side of a steep hill was an impressive achievement back in 1800. Today's stretch included two tunnels and a famous aqueduct before climaxing in the lock flight that takes it up a final 214 feet in just a mile.
The canal weaves a pretty, tree lined route around the hills
The tunnels are short but the first was still an evil affair; narrow, tight and slow with its curved sides threatening to scrape slices off our smart paintwork every few yards. We survived unmarked, did the wider second with no problem and reached the stunning Marple aqueduct that carries the canal 100ft high above the steep River Goyt valley. It's a beautiful piece of work and even the taller railway viaduct beside it cannot shade it for sheer elegance.
And so to the locks which curve up a steep passage through thick woods. It's a beautiful setting (or would be if the rain wasn't thrashing down). But the spacing of the locks is demanding: most are a good 100 metres apart so walking backwards and forwards on the towpath to set the locks ahead soon gets tiring.
By halfway up I could feel I was reaching the limits of appropriateness of my waterproof trousers as a clammy dampness started to grip my legs (and no, I hadn't had an 'accident').
Fortunately the rain started to ease and we finally reached the summit three and a half hours after starting. Time to get rid of the wet kit - or in my case, all my kit since what wasn't damp with rain was damp with sweat as waterproofs don't let the hardworking lockwheeler's body breathe.
A beautiful little ship and its builder
We often spot boats we've met before but rarely one as pretty and unusual as the one at the summit today. It's a pretty-as-a-picture home built two-berth wooden motor-sailing cabin cruiser. We met boat and owner a couple of years back just after his first trip: since then he's been all over, trailing it from the Broads to the Mon&Brec. Just goes to show that you don't need a £150,000 narrowboat with granite worktops to enjoy the canals.
Marple is where the Macclesfield Canal leaves to head south-west; we will be on it soon but we have unfinished business on the Peak Forest with another seven miles to the famous terminus at Bugsworth Basin.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Some people do this for a holiday

Something old, something new on the Ashton
Over the past couple of days we've done about a quarter of the Cheshire Ring, probably the most famous of the canal rings. And right now I'm struggling to believe that some people do this for their holiday! It's been a tough two days.
We left the centre of Manchester yesterday on the famous – or more accurately the infamous - Rochdale Nine. These are the nine wide locks that take the canal up through the centre of the city to its junction with the Ashton Canal, where we would be going.
The Rochdale Nine start badly and get worse
The Nine run through the Gay Village, though there's nothing gay about these locks. They start badly, with water pouring over the gates making it hard even to get into the first one, and get steadily worse.
The locks themselves weren't too bad: bad but not too bad. Few of the double gates opened fully but I'm getting used to that on the big locks. The real issue was the mess - dirt, litter and broken glass everywhere. And it got steadily worse. After a couple came one where a bunch of derelicts had clearly been camped in makeshift tents. Halfway along another where a gang of noisy (but cheery) drunks had been joined at the lockside by construction workers on their lunch break - the litter just piled up around them.
But for sheer nastiness, Lock 85 can't be beaten. It runs underground and in its catacombs all manner of 'lewd and obscene' acts regularly take place despite a police notice declaring them illegal. Worse, though, were the dozens of discarded syringes and needles that you literally tramp through to operate the locks. Bet that wasn't mentioned in the holiday brochure.
It seems so easy to prevent – lock the towpath and only allow boaters access.
Will Alsop's wacky New Islington block by the canal
After all that, we relaxed for the night in the sanctuary of Thomas Telford basin in Piccadilly Village, an urban 'village' created in the 1990s were once had been redundant factories. It's a neat, well trimmed place and safe behind keypad entry systems. Boaters are allowed into the old basin for 24 hours and can even escape to the shops if a nice resident gives them the secret key code.
Today we tackled the 18 locks of the Ashton Canal - and at long last we were back on a narrow canal. Three cheers. It's another whose reputation for being in 'bandit country' where feral scrotes hide ready to disembowel captured crews is well known.
We saw none of that, just an urban canal that starts in the architectural bling and fun of redeveloped New Islington but soon gets back into the wastelands of disused mills and dog and goose poo strewn towpaths.
Ashton industry with the Etihad beyond
It's fascinating all the same: the old industries, the great views back to Manchester over the steeply climbing locks, the Etihad Stadium of Man City to admire and the Manchester Velodrome too – though we were too taken up with crunching over shopping trolleys from the nearby Asda to be much impressed by that.
Now this is a tough way to go canal boating
We were very much impressed by 'Jen and Lou in a Canoe', two girls canoeing to London from the Anderton Lift for a children's cancer charity on a route that just couldn't be any harder. Dragging a fully loaded canoe in and out of the canal round the locks is no fun – I know; I helped at one.
Nearing the top into one of the Ashton's old twin locks
So no vandals, no pirates and hardly a scrote in sight on the Ashton - about out biggest irritation was the desire of most of its lock gates to swing back open again just when you had turned your back on them. It was like a pantomime routine - but even less funny.
Dukinfield Junction and WCBS wooden boats
Eventually we reached Dukinfield Junction, a watery T-junction where we peeled right on the Peak Forest while the Huddersfield Narrow was straight across. On the junction is the magnificent Portland Basin warehouse, base for the Wooden Canal Boat Society and its collection of, er, wooden canal boats.
The pretty, tree lined Peak Forest quickly deludes you into forgetting that you are boating on the fringe of Manchester, offering only occasional glimpses of roads or industry. It is, sadly, a sludgy soup of silt and leaf mulch that brought our progress to a crawl at every bridge (some of them very low too).
Mind your head, Brian! Low bridge on the Peak Forest
After struggling to find a mooring on its shallow edges we lucked into some steel piling near Hyde where a passing dog walker gave the starving crew directions to the Village Chippy. I don't think I've ever walked so fast.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Meandering round Manchester

The intricate Rylands Library faced by today's glass and steel
What an absorbing place this Manchester is. The ostentatiously wealthy parade in Deansgate, razzing their Maseratis, Lambos and BMWs noisily up the road, past stylish shoppers and glossy shops. A few streets away the massive Arndale teems with crowds while a confusion of trams runs every which way, hooting noisily to clear the errant jaywalker from their path.
And still the re-building goes on
And everywhere, ultra modern glass and steel buildings stand cheek-by-jowl – sometimes very awkwardly – with stone 19th century grandeur and crumbling brick.
Manchester seems to change constantly. I recall the centre was being pulled apart for the Metrolink tramway when we first visited – it's being pulled around again for another new tram line now.
New high rise offices are appearing all the time: the massive IRA bomb of 1996 that destroyed a vast area around the Arndale centre is often claimed as the catalyst for the present wave of development. It may have started there but by now, like Himalayan Balsam, it's everywhere.
The ever changing face of Manchester
Indeed, glamorous glass buildings easily blind one to the rest of the city's architecture but look a little longer and it really is remarkable. Glorious, largely Victorian era, public buildings like the huge Royal Exchange, the Gothic extravagance of the Town Hall or the splendid John Rylands Library stand among banks, hotels, churches all in varied styles and fascinating layers of detail.
Exquisite interior of St Mary's catholic church

Lavish detail on even the most humble frontage
What is clear is that the architects and builders of old were building forever: the abundance of detail and sheer, painstaking craftsmanship is evident on even the most humble office front. Today's buildings seem to be all about 'now' - full of flash and instant eye-appeal. I wonder if the majority will even still be around in a hundred years, let alone admired.
This trip we wandered further afield to the Northern Quarter, a place of small streets and more intimate but no less interesting buildings that is now home to independent bars, clubs and creative businesses.
The facade of the old fishmarket surrounds new development
The sad side of this vibrant and bustling city is all too obvious as well – the numbers of beggars and rough sleepers to be seen around the centre is truly depressing. The gap between the haves and have-nots is very, very obvious.