Wednesday, 29 June 2016

When coal was king

The pit headgear and engine house
Bestriding the landscape like industrial Eiffel Towers, pit headgear with their winding wheels used to be a familiar sight across central and northern England.
Not any more. King Coal has been deposed for nigh on thirty years now. The pithead which we gradually neared as we headed towards Leigh on the Bridgewater is the last in Lancashire and even it is now merely a static landmark that points the way to the Astley Green Colliery Museum.
The rather forlorn little one-street village of Astley Green used to be home to a sizeable colliery that employed nearly 2000 men - and women. These days it's a fascinating, ramshackle and at times poignant museum run by a dedicated team of volunteers.
Now that's what you call a steam engine
Pride of place goes to the massive – no, that's an understatement – gigantic steam winding engine which wound the cables via the headgear in and out of the mine to bring coal and miners to the surface.
 It's one of the largest in Britain and was manufactured by Yates and Thom of Blackburn in 1910, back in the days when British industry could build that sort of stuff.
It has four cylinders in a twin tandem compound arrangement. It developed an astounding 3300hp at just 58 rpm. I was lucky enough to visit at the same time as an old boy called Ken Eastham who, it transpired, worked on the engine and headgear here and elsewhere as an engineer until the mining industry finally died.
Winding wheel with, on its right rim, the brake shoe
He did his best to explain to this clueless codger how it all worked. Among the random bits I grasped were that the compound engine, he told me, directs used steam from the main cylinders through second, smaller cylinders to retrieve the remaining energy from it.
The winding cable ran on a cone shaped wheel enabling the cable to be low geared at first, then building up to higher gearing as momentum increased The maximum rope speed was 26 metres per second – that's nearly 60mph – when winding coal.
A big engine needs big spanners
It needed to be that powerful for the shaft was sunk nearly 3000 feet into the ground using what was state of the art technology (German this time) back in 1907. A 23ft wide iron tube with a cutting face on the end was forced down through the soft and boggy ground to reach the coal seam far below.
Plenty of history to be found at the museum
The colliery closed in 1970, before Maggie's mining mayhem. Today as you wander around there's fascinating historical information reminding you of the appalling and dangerous conditions early miners – men, women and children as young as five – worked in.
Outside exhibits are fairly random and ramshackle but perhaps the nicer for it. Sadly the collection of mining railway engines was all tucked away from the weather under canvas – that's a British summer for you.
The museum is free to visit but if you're as fascinated as I was you'll have to leave a donation.

Monday, 27 June 2016

You're never far from history on the canal

Looking down from the aqueduct at the road swing bridge
You can't escape history on the canals. We've only come six miles along the Bridgewater and reminders of Britain's industrial history just keep appearing.
Just a few hundred yards from our overnight mooring at Trafford Park was the first; the truly amazing Barton Swing Aqueduct which carries our canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. Dating from 1894, it is considered one of the great Victorian engineering feats.
The swing aqueduct was needed when the Manchester Ship Canal was built and replaced the original (and for its day equally impressive) masonry Barton Aqueduct which carried the Bridgewater across the Irwell river.
The 250ft long trough weighs 1400 tons
When large vessels needed to pass along the ship canal, gates close on the ends of the trough and each end of the canal and the 250ft long by 18ft wide iron trough, holding 800 tonnes of water, is rotated around its central pivot on a man-made island in the Ship Canal.
Looking down from the aqueduct one can see the similar but lower Barton road swing bridge, both operated from the bridge-keepers' tower in mid-canal.
This engineering masterpiece is rarely needed these days and that shows - the paint is flaking and weeds cling to its side. But the views along the Ship Canal are spectacular and it's a fine reminder of our dynamic engineering heritage.
The oldest dry dock on the canals dates from the 1760s
Worsley is next in our history lesson, and after passing the oldest canal dry docks on the system is the famous view of Worsley Delph - the canal arm that led into the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines and the reason why the whole Bridgewater canal was built in the first place.
Off to the right is the canal leading to the Duke's mines
No less than 46 miles of underground canals were built through the mines to carry coal to what was Britain's first 'modern' canal and then to Manchester – and it arrived at a town hungry for the fuel to kick-start its industrial revolution.
Not all our engineering ingenuity is on such a big scale. Shortly before Worsley is a canalside lighthouse. Yes, a lighthouse; 36ft tall, made of stone and with a working light on the top (albeit it a small one which only lights on special occasions). Phil Austin spent four years building this 21st century folly which is now one of the canal's best known landmarks.
And Phil's folly, the 36ft tall lighthouse

The morning after the party

Redevelopment underway at the Linotype factory
It was the morning after the party at Lymm today. Around the streets litter collectors cleared the debris, shops changed their window displays back to normal and boats gradually pulled their pins and slipped away.
We headed on towards Manchester – a few pretty miles of countryside soon giving way to the urban sprawl of greater Manchester.
The notable landmark along a muddle of messy factories and modern apartment blocks is the magnificent Victorian Linotype factory at Altringham. It manufactured the machines which revolutionised printing, particularly for newspapers and magazines. They were typsetting machines using which an operator could create or set lines of type at a time, thus enabling speedy setting up of pages for printing maybe several edition changes of each day's paper.
At its height the Altringham works employed over 10,000 people and built a 'model village' for its employees: 185 houses with gardens and allotments, two football grounds, four tennis courts, a cricket ground and more, all set amid tree-lined roads.
Computerised typesetting spelled the end for the industry and we've passed the forlorn, empty works several times. It came as a surprise this time to find demolition and redevelopment now underway. Apparently the site will be used for housing but the famous – and listed – main buildings will become commercial buildings. Maybe next time we pass through it will all be completed; another sign of the slow and gradual revitalisation of this neighbourhood.
Waters Meeting: right for Manchester, left for us
As we near Manchester, the canal divides at Waters Meeting, swinging right towards central Manchester while we turned left towards Wigan. The huge Kelloggs factory soon loomed into sight – though we'd been smelling Corn Flakes for several miles now. The works was once supplied by huge Duker barges like Parbella we'd seen yesterday at Lymm but water transport, sadly, is long gone.
Tonight we are moored outside the massive Trafford Centre, shopping heaven for Mancunians but not, I think for us.
Huge Kelloggs factory - you can smell cornflakes for miles

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Transported through time

A boat and butty pair of Joshers lined up for the show
Old codgers like me are in their element at a weekend like this past one. Like the rest of them I wandered round Lymm Historic Transport festival, through lines of classic cars muttering 'I used to have one of them...I had one of those too...I bought one of them for fifty quid when I was a student.'
Massive, rumbling, steam whistle blowing marvels
Or if I wasn't doing that I was gazing, glassy eyed at gently rumbling steam engines, watching huge rods slide back and forth and steam hiss quietly. Like most people I know next to nothing about steam engines but I still find them hypnotically fascinating. Just like the blokes who were standing and staring at boat engines like ours.
We arrived at Lymm a couple of days ago in the middle of a line of historic working boats. We even followed one through a tunnel on the way and nearly died of asphyxiation from its smoking Bolinder. It would have been a glorious way to go, listening to the off-beat thumpety-thump of the Bolinder echoing round the tunnel walls.
This curvaceous Cadillac was a star of the show
Lymm is an affluent little town - Bobby Charlton is one of several ex and present day footballers who live here - that's set beside the Bridgewater Canal. For the past four years it's run the historic transport day. And it's great. The boats parade along the canal; the cars, traction engines and bikes parade through the town to the show field.
It's well organised but free and easy. When it comes to wheels, well pretty much anything goes. From penny farthing bicycles to Ferraris, from scooters to Cadillacs. If it's stood the test of time, it's in – even if it's an Austin Princess. How many of those can there be!
Well somebody loves this Austin Princess
There was a terrific collection of cars, mostly from the fifties and sixties when pinks, pale blues, primrose yellow were the colours and chrome trim and bodywork fins abounded.
There were scooters brought by ageing mods, still sporting the remnants of mod hairdoes and some fascinating bicycles - including one which went forwards in high gear when you pedalled backwards and in low gear when you pedalled forwards. Honest.
The Hetchins and Witcomb bikes are worth more than the MGB

And in case you're thinking this is a bit of a bloke-fest, Mrs B and our visiting 'northern daughter' both enjoyed it thoroughly. An Alpine A110 or a pale blue and cream Zodiac convertible might sit nicely on a certain northern driveway.
Rock on: chrome trim, vinyl seats, bright colours
What a delectable little thing: the Alpine A110

Now the Bridgewater is a wide canal and that means you get wide boats as well as narrow ones. And they don't come much wider than Parbella, a historic Duker which used to carry maize from Liverpool docks to the Kellogs cornflakes factory on the canal in Manchester.
You don't argue when Parbella is coming towards you
That led the boat parade – and terrified any luckless passing boat travellers into instant submission. Following Parbella were more big boats - old Leeds-Liverpool Canal short boats (shorter than working narrowboats but twice as wide) and then an impressive collection of narrow boats.
Terry steers us through the organised chaos of the parade
We had a grandstand view from Nb Starling, the Cowburn and Cowpar working boat of our Streethay friends Terry and Tina Bellamy. It's a kind of organised chaos as 50-odd boats shuffle along the canal, turn and try to come back in line astern but it worked and despite the rain a big crowd hung around to watch them come sailing by.
It was great being part of the show - on the stage (albeit as a bit part player) for a change rather than in the audience.
Thanks Terry and Tina and thank you Lymm organisers for a great event.
Now, I wonder where we can find a working boat...

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

In the land of the wiches

Passing one of the flashes; lagoons caused by subsidence
The only sandwich you'll get round here is at Tesco but you can have a Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich instead.
We are in the land of the wiches – salt mining country since Roman times and a area of total contrasts. We spent a day in Nantwich, an elegant, wealthy town where footballers' wives can skip across the street from the Aga showroom to Christian's interiors, via any number of coffee shops and boutiques too en route.

Seadog Brian leads the way
From here we moved on north, tempted briefly by an another attempt at the Llangollen but opting in the end to turn east along the Middlewich Branch of the Shroppie to, you guessed, Middlewich.
We moored overnight outside the town in a secluded and spectacularly sited spot, looking way down at the River Weaver and the distant Winsford flashes.
Spectacular views down into the Weaver Valley
Then into the busy canal town where the Shroppie T-junctions into the north-south bound Trent & Mersey. I'm afraid it's far from my favourite canal spot though. I don't know why; it has decent moorings and some good canalside pubs. It's always cluttered with hire boats, though, with two bases in town and others nearby, and the four locks are slow and heavy.
Heavy, stiff and nasty - welcome to the canals, hireboaters
It's a stark industrial contrast to Nantwich, too, but even so, the canalside still needn't seem so grubby and ill-loved. Especially as it's such a busy thoroughfare for boats. It was all summed up for me by the ironic graffiti on an almost impossibly heavy lock paddle – 'CRT Paddle of the Year'. On what is the first or second lock many hireboaters will reach. Are we trying to put them off?
But there are no more locks now for many miles as we head on north, just more and more evidence of the salt industry, be it acres of subsided and derelict land where old salt mines have collapsed, sudden wide lagoons beside the canal created by the same process or the sprawling and semi-decayed salt plants – the largest of which is now yet another UK arm of the Indian Tata empire along with Jaguar Land Rover and the old British Steel.
Tonight we are moored by the Lion Salt Works, a historic open pan salt works that has now been restored as a museum with Lottery funding and had dinner in the Salt Barge pub surrounded by sepia photos of the area in its salt producing heyday.

And finally...
I think he needs to go to Specsavers!

Monday, 20 June 2016

A meeting with history

A famous name signwritten on our cabin side
A lot of people comment on our boat – usually an all-too familiar joke about our helicopter pad/sun deck/tennis court tug deck.
But the charming old boy on the towpath at Audlem was the first who's ever commented on the back cabin signwriting. "How wonderful to see that name," he enthused. "Of course I never knew George but I did know Herbert."
I was impressed but in case you're bemused, he was talking about George Tooley and his son Herbert whose yard in Banbury is where Harry was built. Sadly, the Tooleys had gone by the time of Harry but it can still claim to be one of the very last boats to be built at a legendary yard before it was bulldozed to create a shopping centre, a few remnants elbowed into a corner of the concrete and steel monster as a perfunctory nod towards its place in canal history.
And that place is as the yard where Tom Rolt's boat Cressy was prepared before the voyage around the canals which resulted in the book Narrow Boat, that effectively kickstarted the canal renaissance.
Roger pictured at a signing for his medieval history book
So, after that smidgeon of history, back to our towpath visitor. Roger Wickson, as he introduced himself, is one of those lucky people who knew the canals when they were still working waterways.
His grandmother was born on a narrowboat and, when he was a young lad in the early fifties, she ran The Three Pigeons pub by Pigeon Lock on the Oxford Canal.
"It was a simple boatman's pub, no running water, with a bar and stables for the horses," he recalled. "I loved it - the boatmen gave me lifts down to the next lock."
How I envy him that: as a lad I never even knew canals existed. To have ridden boats and played around canals in that freewheeling era when kids just disappeared on their bikes for hours and hours and their parents didn't have a worry in the world about it, would have been a dream.
The pub, isolated from any proper road or village, didn't survive the decline in the working waterways and had become a house by the late fifties. It recently sold for nearly £700,000 - how times change.
As for Roger, he moved a long way from his canalside childhood fun; education at Cambridge, followed by a career teaching and 20 years as headmaster of the prestigious Kings School, Chester. But he never lost his love of the canals; a keen boater until recently, author of a waterways history and since retirement a resident of canalside Audlem.
Meeting him more than made up for two more days of rain. Today we were tricked into moving by the appearance of the sun. And then it rained again! But between showers we've moved a little way north to Nantwich.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Never on a Saturday

Memo to self: never tackle a long flight of locks on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And never, ever tackle a long flight of locks in company with a half-cut single-hander who progressively became an almost completely cut single-hander by the bottom of the flight. And managed to very nearly have a fist fight with another boater along the way.
Yes, it was quite an afternoon, descending the Audlem flight. Its fifteen locks usually take us less than two hours – after more than three we gave up and moored before No 12. Four left for tomorrow when our single handing compatriot will be far away. Hopefully.
Don't get me wrong, it's tough being a single hander so I was happy to help as we followed him down the locks. But he wasn't just slow, he was agonising.
...and waiting
After a few locks, one or two boats started appearing up the flight and our man was happy to wait – and wait – as they eased nearer, his elaborate semaphore signals asking them to leave gates open behind them for him to slip through. And while he waited, we waited by now a couple of locks behind him. It wasn't saving water (there was plenty of that pouring down the by-washes), it was saving effort. I was the one putting in the effort, walking up and down the flight trying to work out what was – or generally wasn't – happening.
To fill the slowly passing minutes, he seemed to be having a tipple or two so perhaps it was no surprise that by lock eight or nine he got into an altercation with a boat crew coming up. He thought they were wasting time! As two big blokes threatened to "throw you in the f***ing cut", yours truly played the peacekeeper from a safe distance.
But I did get a piece of chocolate tiffin
Well, it was all entertainment wasn't it, and I thought I was just going to be writing a cosy little blog about the cake stall by the top lock where we first encountered chocolate tiffin a couple of years ago. It's still there and the tiffin is as good as ever.
Tonight we're in Audlem, just across the border in Cheshire and we've seen our first Footballers' Wives motor – a disgustingly vulgar white Bentley off-roader. Yes, you heard it right, a Bentley 4x4. Whatever the point of that is, I really don't know.
And this is a Bentley 4x4. Why?

Friday, 17 June 2016

Cutting across the countryside

A narrow cutting is no place to meet a boat – so we did
It's been said many times before but it still merits saying again: this Shropshire Union Canal is a ruddy engineering masterpiece.
Mind you, as it was built by someone who'd already got the Menai Bridge, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Caledonian Canal in his portfolio, it was very probably a bit easy-peasy.
Thomas Telford didn't so much build his canal across the Shropshire landscape as rip the landscape up to suit his canal as it charged in an almost straight line northwards from the Black Country to Cheshire.
Nigh on two hundred years ago he tore the scenery apart in a series of deep cuttings and massive embankments to create his level line. And you almost get the impression that the curmugeonly Scotsman viewed locks as an irritation, keeping them to an absolute minimum and clustering them together so they could be despatched speedily wherever possible.
We've reached Market Drayton, 27 miles up the canal and only used six locks (aside from the tollkeeper's little one at the start of the waterway).
But we have been through some spectacular works of civil engineering. The mile long Shelmore embankment took over five years to build, the treacherous soil constantly slipping away. Remember we're talking men with shovels and picks, soil moving by horse and cart. JCBs and earthmovers weren't even a dream. Hell, even decent roads were a rarity and railways little more than a dream.
The embankments spreadeagle the countryside, though there are only glimpses through the trees of it far below. The claustrophobic cuttings, sheer sided and gloomy with damp, dark green trees and runners are far more atmospheric.
High Bridge rears out of the greenery
Traversing the narrow mile of the Woodseaves Cutting is like being in The African Queen. The jungle-like foliage crowds right in – for much of its length there isn't room for two boats to pass – and even though the towpath has been expensively and impressively repaired, I wouldn't like to venture along it on a gloomy evening.
In the cuttings trees appear to grow right out of therock
In the middle of it all the damp red sandstone arches of a high bridge (prosaically called High Bridge) that seems to go from nowhere to nowhere rear out of the greenness. In some future age, when canal travel has been forgotten, a traveller hacking though the forest could come upon this and think it a feature of some lost empire. Which I guess, it is.
After the cutting is a brief moment of sunshine at the elegant buildings of Tyrley Wharf before we plunge down five locks, the last two of them carved right out of the sandstone. Then the canal, a murky red slurry of sandstone silt now, runs on to Market Drayton.
The old Cadbury wharf at Knighton is still home to boats
Market Drayton, an ancient but now rather dishevelled town, is the only one along the length of this rural canal. And the only other intrusion into the rural idyll is at Knighton where a well hidden Cadbury's factory produces 'powdered products' –  Angel Delight, Birds Custard Powder, and catering size Smash packs. Once it produced chocolate crumb for the Bournville factory and a fleet of narrowboats ferried milk and chocolate along the canal as recently as 1961. The wharf survives with a cluster of enthusiast owned working boats moored there are as a nostalgic reminder of its past.
I don't think Thomas Telford would have cared much for nostalgia though I hope he'd be impressed that his fine engineering had stood the test of time.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

A game of two halves – and there was football, too

Naturally it was tipping with rain this morning but we (or to be truthful, I) wasn't too bothered as we were hanging around to watch the England v Wales football via BBC live streaming.
There was still time for a quick stroll through the rain down the towpath to town for some shopping first. Brewood is a handsome little town, bursting with the sort of solid houses and splendid architecture that speaks of a prosperous past. And a prosperous present, too, judging by the BMWs and Audis in the driveways and the smart bistro bustling with ladies who do coffee.
I've admired Brewood in past blog entries but I still managed to find something new this time. First a trivia tester – can there be many towns with a Lloyds Bank and a Lloyds pharmacy next to each other?
More interestingly, I spotted a wall plaque commemorated the birth here of the Victorian civil engineer, Thomas A Walker. Originally a railway engineer, he built the Severn Railway Tunnel and later was in charge of building the Manchester Ship Canal which no less than 14,000 men worked to dig out. Sadly he died before it was completed.
And so, back through the continuing rain, to warm up the internet for the footie. At which point, the sun came out and the internet hid behind a cloud and refused to play. Too many fans sneaking a watch on their phones at work, I guess. So it was over to faithful Radio 5 Live instead to listen to what was very definitely a game of two halves.
Footie over, we pulled pins to leave and – yes you guessed – the rains came down and we plodded up to Gnosall in the wet.
From Wigan Pier to Wolverhampton Boat Club
...And finally. I posted a snap of Wolverhampton Boat Club on Facebook for the benefit of my old fellow motoring hack, Howard Walker who boated there with his dad way back when. It brought back some memories.
"Just (by) that little bridge, is the crane from Wigan Pier that my dad (a former W-ton Boat Club commodore) bought for five quid from Wigan council and brought back on his lorry. We were members at the club from the day it opened in 1976. That little thing will lift the arse end of a narrow boat to change a prop." he replied.
BTW Howard now owns a posh motor cruiser that he swans around the Med in. You can take the boy out of Wolverhampton but you can't take Wolverhampton out of the boy, eh.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Is there anybody there?

New paint job and new livery in a rare moment of sunshine
Hello, is there anybody out there? Well if there is, then the blog is back. We've been away rather longer than anticipated but Tug Harry and the crew are finally back on the cut. And back with a smart new paint job courtesy of the skillful Martin Brookes and fine new signwriting by the master, Dave Moore.
And we rejoined it yesterday in weather not too different to that we left behind at the back end of last year. Rain. More rain and then even more rain. But rain didn't quite stop play, it just made it rather less fun.
Not so much for us – after all, we can just hang around and wait for the sun – but certainly for the foreign holidaymakers who'd opted for a week on the English canals in June rather than a sunny bask on the Med.
And we met several of them yesterday – Germans, Danes and Swedes – at Botterham Staircase locks where a bottom gate that leaked more than an MP's press officer was causing chaos all round. We couldn't get through and had to reverse out to let the hireboaters have a try. And they only managed after I'd flushed half the contents of the Staffs&Worcs through with them to keep the lock level up.
After three hours of involuntary voluntary lock-keeping in the pouring rain, I'd got the last through and returned to drip all over Harry's floor.
This morning, after a night of refilling via the weirs and the heavens, the levels were right up and we sailed serenely through; the only boat on the move. Not surprising; it was p***ing down!
From Bottenham it's a quick run to the picturesque Bratch staircase whose complexity demands lockkeepers be on hand, even when it's raining. They were and we sailed up the three locks while the moored boaters were still vainly looking for the sun.
One bedraggled vole rescued by brolly from a lock
To be honest, I'm not a great fan of the Staffs&Worcs. It's like the bloke at work you'll go for an occasional pint with but always make excuses if he suggests a second. It's not unpleasant but no more than 'okay'. The long procession of single locks breaks the flow too.
Anyway, it gave Harrywoman the chance to rescue a waterlogged vole from a lock with her umbrella and to be shown the carving of a ship on one of the ornate bridge piers at Awbridge Lock allegedly done by one of the Napoleonic prisoners of war who helped build it. More here.
Was this carved by a Napoleonic prisoner of war?
We saw dredging in action too – hooray. As we found out the hard way last year it badly needed it. They've come all the way through from Great Haywood apparently.
They been dredging the length of the S&W over winter
 Tonight we're near Brewood – you call it Brood – five miles up the Shropshire Union. And it's still raining!
The Shroppie is quite different to the curling, lock-a-mile early era Brindley designed S&W. It's a Thomas Telford special: straight as you can – cuttings, embankments and the occasional flight of locks. We're liking it. And we'll like it even more if the sun shines.