Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The end of the line

End of the line – Ripon's attractive canal basin
Well, here we are. As far northwards as you can reach on the connected inland waterways of Britain*. We have reached Ripon, just a handful of miles beyond Boroughbridge but through four of the heaviest, hard-core locks I've come across and finishing on the less than two miles long Ripon Canal that connects the river to the canal basin in the centre of the city.
After all this journeying it was a little disappointing to discover that boat mooring is relegated to the edge of the basin which is left empty save for a small trip boat. It could easily hold 2-3 more boats without interfering with the houses around its edge.
Anyway, we squeezed into half a space on the end of the moorings, with our bows tied to a tree and later when other boats shuffled along we managed to make that 3/4 of a space and went exploring.
The solid, chunky looking cathedral sits above the river
What an appealling little city Ripon is. It has the classy feel of all cathedral towns, with cobbled streets housing arty shops and smart coffee bars, elegant houses and a very large market square dominated by a huge obelisk – the tallest in the country when it was built in 1704.
But what makes the place truly delightful is the river that runs through it. The Skel is crossed by no less than a dozen bridges, road and pedestrian and even a ford. When we were there it was running wide and shallow, burbling prettily over weirs and rocks but it can come up high enough to flood nearby roads and houses.
Fabulous arts & crafts altar is one of its star features
The picturesque River Skel runs through the city
It certainly is a compact place. We picked up a tourist guide and followed its circular walk through places of interest in a couple of hours. But there's plenty to see in that time, from the house lived in by Wilfred Owen the WWI poet, to the old workhouse (now a museum) to the various connections with Lewis Carroll.
Market square with obelisk and cabmen's rest cabin
Cobbled street of stylish shops links cathedral to the market square
Ripon Cathedral lacks some of the grandeur of its more famous counterparts but is a handsome building all the same with some striking stained glass, fabulous wood carving and a striking arts & crafts style pulpit.
But you can't go to Ripon without visiting the market square at 9 p.m. There you will find the Wakeman (or more precisely his successor, the Hornblower) carrying on the tradition of 'setting the watch' that has has been carried out every evening without fail for a staggering 1128 years. The Wakeman would blow his horn to all four corners of the city to let people know that the watch was set and they could retire for the night knowing the Wakeman would be patrolling the streets to keep them safe.
The Hornblower blows his nightly signal
And then captivates his audience with an entertaining chat
Since the 1600s the role has been ceremonial and now is probably Ripon's best known tourist attraction. That's in no small part due to the entertaining George Pickles who has been Hornblower for the past eleven years and has turned his evening's task into a hugely enjoyable show as he tells the story of The Wakeman and treats his audience to plenty of witty repartee.
That was last night and today, with our 48 hours up, we have turned round and begun retracing our route southwards. Tonight it's Boroughbridge and tomorrow York.
*Actually the Lancaster Canal goes further north but involves a short estuary trip so it's not quite 'connected' to the inland system.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A walk through 5000 years of history

A picturesque corner of Boroughbridge
"Make sure you stop at Boroughbridge on your way to Ripon" a local boater told us. So we did. We got there at about seven o'clock in the evening after a long, 20 mile haul up-river from York. There's not a lot to be seen on the way; the high banks are lined with willows and the ever-present Himalayan Balsam. The only break comes at Linton Lock, whose massively heavy gates were a portent of what was to come. But the few moorings were full so we pressed on and finally – and somewhat relieved – found plenty of space for us at Boroughbridge.
One of the Devil's Arrows monoliths
It's a tiny town by modern standards; the centre only has a handful of streets but they're all attractive, characterful and speak of its hey-day as an important stopping point on the Great North Road – as the A1 was called when it was filled with carts and carriages not trucks and cars. The Crown Hotel alone had stabling for 100 horses. Today the modern A1M thankfully by-passes the town which has become a smart little spot to live and visit.
As we were to discover over the next couple of days Boroughbridge also encapsulates virtually the whole story of English history. Starting way back in 2500BC when a cluster of giant stone monoliths (taller than anything at Stonehenge) were erected there. Three survive close to the A1M, nicknamed The Devil's Arrows, but no-one knows why or who put them there.
Magnificent Roman mosaic on display at Aldborough museum
Roll forward to the Roman rule of Britain and at what is now Aldborough, just outside the town, the Romans built a fortress, which became a town from which they and the largest tribe of native British, the Brigantes who had accepted Roman rule, ran the whole area. Isurium Brigantum was built on a hill overlooking the river and served by Roman ships. There was an important ford crossing the river near here too.
After the Romans, Boroughbridge was further developed by the Normans. Later in 1322 it was the scene of a significant battle in English history when the unpopular King Edward II's army defeated rebel barons who wanted to bring him down.

Battle of Boroughbridge monument, now in Aldborough
Aldborough is a handsome village these days, with largely Georgian houses clustering round the village green – on which is another English icon, a Maypole. And massively tall it is too. The remains of Isurium lie largely in the grounds of Aldborough Manor but the English Heritage site is open to the public at weekends. We walked around the remains of Roman walls and gazed in admiration at the areas of mosaic flooring that have been uncovered. (Apparently though, latest archaeological techniques require no excavation - the site is being scanned by magnetometer and tiny changes in the earth's magnetic field accurately map out features like walls, buildings, roads and ditches as they lie buried. Amazing.)
Picturesque village green with its huge Maypole
Aldborough Manor is the family home of the Lawson-Tancreds and the 10th Baronet, Sir Henry, turns out to have been a pioneer of wind energy. A Cambridge educated engineer, he saw the possibility of a world oil crisis after the Arab-Israel war of 1973 and designed and built three 17m diameter wind turbines on his estates. He would doubtless have been impressed by the Archemedian screw type hydro-electric plant we saw on the weir at Linton Lock.
Hydro-electric generator at Linton Lock weir
Which pretty much brings us up to the present day. Except that Boroughbridge isn't quite in the present day – it's the first town I've been to where I can stand in the middle of the High Street (or any street) and get no mobile phone signal.

Thursday, 21 August 2014


The wonderful Mallard and its fellows in the Museum's Great Hall
It was a toss up between Mallard or the Minster and I'm afraid Mallard won. We spent a great afternoon at the National Railway Museum. And I mean 'we' not 'I' – I knew I would enjoy it; after all I was a train spotter in my pre-teen days but Mrs B...well girls didn't do train spotting did they.
But you don't have to be a grown-up trainspotter to be enthralled by the vast steam era giants that fill the halls. Or awestruck by the sheer beauty of the streamlined blue Mallard, still – 75 years on – the fastest steam locomotive ever.
This place will bring on an attack of nostalgia in any adult of a certain age. Nostalgia for these wonderful dinosaurs with their elegant paint liveries and polished brightwork, for the black and white stills and film clips showing around the halls, the classic railway poster artworks, the days when rail travel meant a handsomely upholstered seat in a panelled compartment. For smoke, steam and smuts.
A glimpse of the Royal way to travel
How steam works - with the aid of a full scale cutaway
An Aladdin's cave of memorabilia
There's so much to see in the huge halls of the museum - the sumptuous interiors of royal trains, the drivers' cabs, all polished copper and brass and full of unfathomable levers and wheeels, the vast Chinese steam engine designed by a Brit, steam, diesel and electric locos of every age and size and the astonishing gallery that is filled floor to ceiling with railway memorabilia that hasn't found a home elsewhere – everything from clocks to models, memorial plaques to cutaway cylinders, statues to signals. And then there is the workshop where exhibits are restored and repaired with, half hidden at the back the boiler of the legendary Flying Scotsman which is under a nut and bolt restoration to bring it back to the tracks next year.
All polished copper, brass and mysterious levers and turnwheels
We also had an excellent talk from one of the volunteers explaining how a steam locomotive works and why, sadly, as a power unit they only manage eight per cent efficiency which meant their inevitable demise. (The limiting factor to the performance of the big streamliner engines was the fireman's ability to keep the thing fuelled - he needed to shovel one ton of coal an hour!)
Altogether an excellent afternoon - and free too, though you'd have a hard heart not to part with a few quid for a couple of enthralling hours.

Clever cafe is rail themed - note period luggage overhead

The restoration workshop and back there is the Flying Scotsman

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Footloose in York

Tour guide Richard outside the Treasurer's House
Much too long ago we took our then young children to York's recently opened Jorvik Centre, a state of the art 'experience' based around the finds from an archaelogical dig on the site which recreated Viking life, including a rail-car ride through a Viking village.
It was great and we planned to go back today – until I discovered that pre-booked tickets were all sold out and that the Centre has slipped to No 40 in Tripadvisor's reviews of York's attractions, mainly because of the crowds. So we gave it a miss. Best to keep those happy memories of our first trip.
Instead we opted for a guided walk round the city, which despite being entirely free was certainly not crowded – there were just 11 of us in our group.
Substantial flood gates protect riverside homes
But first, as we knew we'd be up on the dog-free city walls again, we took Brian for an unguided walk along the river front. We'd heard from the Naburn lockie about York's propensity to flood but it was still eye-opening to see the precautions on the riverside houses we passed. All had substantial flood gates set into solid brick walls barely six feet from their front doors. And that being above a pavement level which then sloped down six or seven feet to a lower walkway, which dropped down even more to a riverside walkway which dropped even more to the river itself. In short they were ready to face a river that could rise 20ft or more from its present level. Astonishing.
The ruins of the massive Benedictine Abbey destroyed by Henry VIII's minions
We met our walk guide, the amiable and knowledgeable Richard, near our mooring at the Museum Gardens and spent the first part of the walk there as he took us through the layers of York history that can be seen. It's a city rich in history, founded by the Romans as a massive fort to guard the north, invaded by the Vikings,  then by the Normans for whom again it was a northern citadel and significant once more in Henry VIII's time. Evidence of most of these eras can be found in and near the Gardens: the Roman walls and towers, enlarged in medieval times, the ruins of the vast Benedictine Abbey built by the Normans and flattened by Henry VIII when he created the Church of England and dissolved the monasteries, the magnificent Kings Manor that he 'acquired' when he hoofed the Abbot out. And all around are littered remnants of ancient stone from Roman coffins to decorative stone mouldings from the ruined abbey now used as garden edgings.
The tale of the city, its remarkable buildings and its history continued for a very entertaining two hours, at the end of which Richard, one of 105 voluntary city guides, was loathe even to take a tip. What a great service to the visitor.
We rounded the day off with another unguided tour along the river's west bank into the city centre where the restaurants and bars were heaving. It's York's Ebor Festival horse race meeting so there were a sprinkling of silly hats and stilleto heels beside slightly wobbly looking well dressed gents heading for the posh restaurants. We headed home to plan tomorrow's entertainment - less walking maybe?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

From the lonely river to the big city

Stop me and buy one – ice-cream boat on the river
Wow, what a culture shock! We stepped out of the boat at York's Museum Gardens an into crowds the like of which I've only seen on my way into a Wembley England match or the January sales in the West End. The place is rammed. York is by far the biggest place we've been in since, well since we were in London last winter. Big and busy with foreign tourists and families on school holiday days out.
Crowds throng The Shambles as everywhere
We had an enjoyable two hour saunter up the Ouse from Naburn Locks, passing big houses, big plastic boats and the usual ramshackle collections of liveaboards, but mostly scaled up from canal size to big river sized. Now this is what I call a river; plenty to see on and around the water – including a wonderful wire sculpture of an angler on Naburn Bridge and an ice-cream boat that came past us.
Naburn Bridge with its big wire sculpture

Entertaining variety of liveaboard boats

Including this one,  apparently made largely of stair spindles
Nice gaff, Bish. Bishopthorpe Palace home of the Archbishop of York

It's a long quiet and rural run in towards the city then suddenly you're in it, passing the entrance to the River Foss off to the right and then in quick succession York's three big road bridges. Between the first, Skeldergate Bridge and Ouse Bridge the river runs between rows of old warehouses transformed into apartments and offices and a line of pontoons for the big tourist boats that ply the waterway.
Converted riverside warehouses on the route into the city
 Beyond the final bridge, Lendal Bridge, are the visiting boaters' favourite moorings alongside Museum Gardens and we fortunately slotted into a Harry sized space there. York – like too many cities – does little to serve the boater. There are limited mooring spaces, despite many hundred yards of empty riverside, and no floating pontoons which would be more than useful on a river whose level changes fast after rainfall. No rubbish disposal, no water point, no elsan emptying either. But with all those visitors what do a few boaters matter? Quite a lot, actually, given the number of visitors who enjoy walking the riverbank to look at them.
Arriving at lunchtime, we did the tourist thing and looked at the other boats then wandered around the streets getting our bearings, watching the numerous buskers and street performers and marvelling at the numbers of people doing exactly the same.
This evening we went for a walk around the medieval city walls. There are two miles of walls linking the various old city gates, with just a few gaps that have to be bridged by pavement. When we were halfway round we saw a 'dogs not permitted on the city walls' sign and Brian had to be given a rucksack ride for the rest of the way. Not that he complained.
The walls give some fine views of the Minster and amusing peaks into numerous back gardens. It also gave us some surprising wildlife spots too: a hedgehog on a lawn and a sparrowhawk which had brought down a pigeon, much to the entertainment of pub-goers across the street.
Tomorrow we will re-visit some tourist attractions we last went to all too many years ago when we were one of the families with young children visiting York in the summer holidays.

Walking the city walls

Brian gets a ride after discovering dogs are banned

Monday, 18 August 2014

Fast but so dull

Trees hide the world from the river traveller on the Ouse
Oh, give me a few locks, a bridge hole, even some shallow edges to get stuck on. These eastern rivers are becoming so dull. I long for a canal.
Today it was the tidal Ouse, a river which makes the Trent look positively exciting. In 15 miles and two and a half hours there was little but trees to see. Scarcely a house, let alone a village popped its head up to look at us. The only exception being the little village of Cawood with its elderly but still operational swingbridge nine miles in.
Dodging the driftwood - some of it substantial
The only entertainment was in dodging the driftwood – and there was plenty of that, some of it the size of small trees. Even that started to peter out as we got upstream so I resorted to taking selfies while steering. That and getting on with it so we'd reach Naburn before the forecast rain.
Old jetties are evidence of Selby's river-based past
Perhaps it should have been no surprise then (though it actually was) when we caught the two boats who'd gone through Selby lock before us. They were going very slowly indeed for some reason and while I hung back politely the boat from the locking after us caught me up. So finally I overtook, he overtook and a seaboat come up from Whitby overtook. "You'll only have to wait at the end", the slow crew smiled. But we didn't. By Naburn they were so far back we were in and almost out of the huge lock before they arrived.
Cawood swingbridge, the only river crossing on the way
Naburn is where the tidal Ouse ends, though it loses most of its potency well before then. It is a handsome old waterways hub with two huge locks, only one of which is now used, an assortment of traditional looking waterways buildings, a waterside crane and a handsome building that started out as the headquarters of the river board back in Victorian times but is now a private house. It's all very atmospheric of the great age of the waterways.
The two big locks at Naburn, a reminder of its busy past 
It also floods – dramatically – as the lock keeper told us, pointing to a picture of the 2000 floods which showed his house, and the river board house up to their ears in floodwater that entirely surrounded the area as far as the eye could see.The locks were somewhere under all the water. Apparently it was even worse in 2007! He worked by boat or up to his chest in water checking and keeping things safe and then when the floodwaters went down, cleaned inches of mud and worse out of the buildings and off the lock areas. All the while drying out his own flooded out lock house. Quite a character, the lockie. If you've got the stomach for it, ask him about the bodies he has found and retrieved over the years.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Selby - gateway to the river

The striking frontage of Selby Abbey
After our long day on Friday, Saturday started with a pleasant walk from our mooring at Gateforth Landing on the canal a mile inland to the village of the same name. Walking along the wide, stone trackway it was easy to imagine villagers of 150 years ago making the trek to pick up a boat for Selby at the Landing to take their produce to market and enjoy a day out in the town.
How different the little village is today: around the pretty village green have sprung up clusters of large 'executive style' homes which now outnumber the old workers cottages. They're handsomely built homes but the village is now a dormitory for Leeds and York and I doubt gardens grow anything but half inch long grass these days.
After lunch we pottered the four miles up the canal toward Selby ourselves and moored in the canal basin looking at the tidal lock which guards the Ouse.
Selby is a town which has had to come to terms with dramatic changes in recent years. Its two key industries, mining and shipbuilding, have gone and things are still struggling to fill their place. And yes, I did say shipbuilding. Though Selby looks well inland, the tidal connection to the Humber estuary made it a shipping centre for many years and the cranes of Cochranes Shipbuilders were a landmark of the town. Ships – including the famous Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior – were launched sideways into the Ouse from the bankside yard but the last one hit the water in 1998.
Mining was even more important to the town. The vast 110 square miles of the Selby coalfields were the biggest in Britain at their peak and employed 3000 miners when they shut in 2004, less than 30 years after mining was begun. Deteriorating geological conditions and the falling price of coal were given as the reasons.
Selby today is understandably a mixed bag, ranging from the glorious Abbey to derelict industrial sites, smart new shops to scrappy back streets. It does appear to be on the up though with new house building and a new edge of town shopping centre. A shame, though, that the riverside has been allowed to become so overgrown that anyone using the riverside benches can see only willow branches and that invasive Himalayan Balsam.
Selby railway swingbridge gets a £14m facelift
There's also an impressive £14m restoration underway on the Selby railway swingbridge across the river; the first serious work since the bridge was built in 1889. Selby is famous – or should that be notorious – for its swingbridges. Until the by-pass was built in 2001 the main A19 road to York ran through the town – and across a toll swingbridge. It was, as you can imagine, a massive bottleneck for traffic. The road bridge and neighbouring rail bridge don't need to swing much these days with the decline in commercial river craft. Still, situated as they are right after a tight bend on the fierce running tidal river they are still a test for the us. That's on the way back, though. Tomorrow we're off up-river toward York.

River bridge barely visible through the overgrown bankside

Friday, 15 August 2014

Just a little bit longer

Onto the Selby Canal – but where will we moor
The search for the perfect mooring usually starts in mid afternoon. Today the skies were darkening and rain was threatening as we arrived at Whitley Lock on the Aire & Calder. A line of mooring bollards signalled an obvious stop but – no – not with the roaring traffic of the M62 just ahead. Let's move on. So we did - and got soaked in the lock.
The rain soon stopped and we headed to Knottingley where we turn off onto the River Aire. More moorings and it's now 5pm...but the air is thick with chemical fumes from the mysterious works that surround the canal.
Timeworn Bank Dole Lock with abandoned lock house
Press on again, then, onto the Aire via the neglected looking Bank Dole Lock. It's a river so moorings are infrequent but there's some at the next lock two miles away. Except that they're full! No choice then but to hustle along the remaining four miles to reach the Selby Canal – meeting a water skier on the way. Not sure who was more surprised, him or us. We finally reach the canal entrance lock at 7pm and listen to The Archers while setting the lock.
There are moorings just the other side says the guidebook. But they are full too. No choice, then. Keep going. It's a canal; you can moor anywhere. Except you can't because the canal is entirely rough edged with shrubs, reeds and trees. It's lovely (we saw two kingfishers in the first mile) but that doesn't help when you're tired and hungry. That mooring we turned down at Knottingley looked like a big mistake.
But, hold on, there in the distance is a short length of stone wall. It's a mooring, just one boat long, with rings, bollards and even picnic benches. It's delightfully isolated. And it's empty! So at 8pm we finally tie up for the night. The perfect spot: it waited for us.
Water skier on the River Aire - just a little bit quicker than us
It has been a long day. We started from last night's mooring 20 miles back on the New Junction Canal, one of the last canals built in this country, built as a shortcut between the Aire & Calder and South Yorkshire waterways. It's just five and a half miles long and dead straight but you still have to deal with six lift or swingbridges and a locks! We'd been through just two on a short run from Thorne when the heavens opened and we hunkered down for the night on the bridge landing stage. Seems the weather has taken a turn for the worse since our return to the boat from a week's grandparent duties and all those weeks of sunshine are a memory.
This is the massive Pollington Lock on the Aire & Calder
Still, it's good to be back boating - though these massive Yorkshire waterways are a far, far cry from the narrow canals. The huge locks on the Aire & Calder were built for commercial traffic can handle 200ft craft, though they have intermediate gates for shorter stuff like ours.
Sadly there's virtually no commercial traffic on these waterways now - the trucks on the M62 that runs parallel with the canal carries the loads these days. The waterways have also suffered from the demise of the Yorkshire coalfields – one of the last, the vast Kellingley pit that fronts the canal is due to close at the end of next year. Evidence of the pain south Yorkshire has suffered from the loss of its staple industry is easy to see as one travels through the local towns.

Kellingley Colliery and its derelict loading wharf

Monday, 4 August 2014

Not so much a pea green boat... a pea green sea. Well, canal anyway. This is the Stainforth & Keadby Canal today, looking like The Great Escape of the inmates of a Birds Eye pea factory. The floating green stuff is duck weed and it filled the canal for miles though not causing anything like the problems that the blanket weed of the Chesterfield had done.
We are here, back on the canals, after a two hour, 12 mile sprint down the Trent from West Stockwith. It's a funny old beast, the tidal Trent; mile upon mile of country banksides broken by the occasional village, some of them (especially the ones with pubs) quite tempting but all, of course, impossible to stop at. Even the occasional mooring jetties are there just for large freight barges to stop over during tide changes. Not that there are many freight barges these days.
Rural banksides with occasional inaccessible villages on the Trent
Once under the M180 road bridge, the rural Trent quickly takes a back seat to the industrial one, with moored freighters, power stations and industry. Even the lock entrance at Keadby is hidden by a large berthed freighter. But at least, for a change, I turned and got into the lock without mishap.
Keadby liftbridge and the industrial Trent lies ahead
We'd come down river with two other boats and after we moored on the canal I discovered that one was owned by a pair of early retired schoolteachers. They'd packed it in in favour of spending winters on their yacht in the Caribbean and summers living on a little narrowboat over here. Renting out the family home and a couple of small flats kept them afloat – financially that is. Tempting, eh?
It must be another swingbridge - how will this one be worked
Tonight – after a succession of swing bridges (each of them with its own unique operating mechanism) we are moored in the small South Yorkshire town of Thorne where the captain will be going ashore for a few days and the crew and ship's dog will be attending to some long overdue maintenance work on the engine.

And just to be different, here's a liftbridge at Thorne