Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Here, There And Everywhere

Salthouse Dock, our mooring for the last few days
We have visited Liverpool a few times over the last ten years so knew what to expect as we dropped down the short flight of locks that connects the canal to the superbly renovated and bustling central dockland area of this famous city.
It was a long crawl, to get there though, through several suburbs, offering plenty of opportunities to foul your propeller. You can often see abandoned shopping trollies, but there are probably bikes, prams, and discarded furniture submerged down there and as the canal is probably only four-five feet deep in the middle you need to choose your line.  Several times I felt TCW scaping over metal and on arrival a check down the weed hatch, revealed the usual mix of plastic and string wrapped around the propeller. The irony being that the water is crystal clear around here.
One of the hazards of cruising through a large city
Two of my old work pals, Sue and Brenda, joined us for the passage into the city and we joined up with several other boats several miles from our final destination, all making the same  journey in last Friday at 9am. Four local Canal & River Trust employees (CRT) were there to operate the two swing bridges we had to negotiate and to help us down the locks.
The flotilla assembles to commence our passage into the city
Emerging through a short tunnel you are thrust into Stanley Dock and the huge tobacco warehouse that dominates it. It’s still the biggest brick-built building ever built anywhere in the world, but now, sadly,  derelict. A left turn and the Liver building with its famous birds comes into view. The docks, all empty up this end of the city, interconnect, and you are soon through them, and passing through two new tunnels under the Pier Head and the Three Graces, emerging at Albert Dock. Arriving narrowboats are moored immediately behind in Salthouse Dock and it’s a marvellous location, and surprisingly quiet at night, considering just a few feet above is a major road. We are five minutes from the Pier Head and the ferries, and the same distance from the main shopping area and the “Cavern” quarter.
The old tobacco warehouse in Stanley Dock
Liver Building and city centre straight ahead
Emerging from one of the new tunnels under the Pier Head

Brenda & Sue, our guests for the weekend
On arrival it was straight off the boat and on The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” bus. We’ve done this trip twice before, but think it is an absolute must if you are in Liverpool and like the Beatles. It takes you all over the city and includes dozens of Beatle-related sites, including a drive down Penny Lane to see the barbers shop, bank and roundabout, and the gates of Strawberry Fields.
Roll Up, Roll Up, for the Magical Mystery Tour. Step this way.
Strawberry Fields Forever
On leaving the bus we popped into The Cavern and then walked back up through the city centre to The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, another of our favourites. It is one of the most beautiful pubs in the country and the only one to have a Grade II listing for its gentlemen’s loos!
There was just time, the following morning, to do the Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey to Birkenhead and back, before we said goodbye to the girls at Lime Street Station.
Real Ale in The Cavern. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
The ladies prepare themselves for the ferry 'cross the Mersey
Yesterday morning we hopped on a train and went up to Crosby beach to see the Gormley “Iron Men”. I don’t know how many of these statues are located in the surf, but they stretch, at random, for as far as the eye can see. A spectacular site.
From there we caught a train under the Mersey to visit Port Sunlight village and the Lady Lever Art Gallery on The Wirral. Coming from a Garden City, I am always interested in the genesis of town planning in the UK and this is a real gem. Planned as a workers’ village for the Lever soap factory, it is a real eye-opener, beautifully kept, with wide boulevards and formal gardens, separating the rows of mainly terrace-housing.  
One of the many "Iron Men" on Crosby Beach
Port Sunlight Village with the Lady Lever Art Gallery in the distance
On our arrival, at Salthouse Dock, the bilge pump in the engine bay, was making a strange noise. It pumps OK, but will not switch off, and sits gurgling. Now, anybody that knows me will vouch for the fact that I am barely confident or competent, when it comes to anything mechanical. Having a long rod in my back holding my spine in place, does not help either when it comes to workimg in the confined space around a boat engine. After a lot of huffing and puffing, I dismantled and cleaned out the filter but it’s still making the same noise. Hopefully it will right itself, but I am not looking forward to having to replace it, which may be sooner, rather than later.
We leave first thing tomorrow. Rain is threatened. Just hope there are no mattresses out there lying in wait for us.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Swinging into Liverpool

It’s only 30-odd miles from Manchester to Liverpool on the motorway. On the water it’s considerably more but I guess you could do it in two-three days if you were determined, especially with the long days we enjoy this time of year, but most people, who require a more leisurely passage take a week or so. It certainly takes a while to leave behind Greater Manchester, and while most Wiganers we spoke to, think of themselves as Lancastrians, when you pass Wigan FC’s stadium you are still in Greater Manchester, even though you have left the city way behind.
Wigan FC's DW Stadium. Still in Greater Manchester though.
There is also a slow shift in accents and at the weekend, when we were halfway between the two we were as likely to hear the Liverpool “twang” as much as the Manchester “burr”. I think that is quite incredibly in this day and age, to have two cities so close, that have such different and defining accents. As for us, well we are used to having to ask for everything twice, while they get a handle on the way we speak.

In my last blog, I was moaning that Wigan seemed pie-less; well the main shopping area did, but it seems you have to know where to look. While in the area I had arranged to visit the Wigan Ukulele Club who met in a cracking pub in Crooke, tucked away on the canal, on the outskirts of Wigan.  We were able to moor opposite. The licensee told me that it was one of the venues for the national pie-eating championship and when on the event attracts huge crowds. Who’d have thought!

The uke club in Wigan is so popular that they have to split proceedings over two nights. It’s packed to the rafters, and membership has now been suspended. However, I had special dispensation and for my “oohhs” and “aahhs”, especially on the Beach Boys songs we played, I was awarded one of their coveted lapel badges, showing a ukulele enclosed in... a pie, of course. We have to come back through Crooke in a few weeks, so I am hopeful of a return visit. They played lots of tunes I have never played in an ensemble. A great night.
Wigan Ukulele Club badge, complete with pie!
We spent last weekend in the last largish town we will encounter before Liverpool. It’s called Burscough Bridge. We were able to get a good TV reception (for the football) and they have a good train service into Southport one way, and Manchester city centre the other. We chose to go into Manchester, and had a good nose around the city centre on Sunday. Pat bought some clothes and there were three Wetherspoons to choose from. While I was waiting for Pat outside British Home Stores, a fight broke out with a human statue, and a young lad who was tormenting him. Good old Manchester. We took a walk down to the Rochdale Canal at Canal Street, in Manchester’s Gay Village. We will not be going on this stretch, and I am quite glad of it. I can’t imagine how many chairs and cushions end up in the cut on a Saturday night from the endless bars and restaurants that line the canal there.
Never mind the local transmitter. Which way is Brazil?
Pat gets the lowdown from a local in Burscough Bridge
It's Central Manchester and the  chap with the flyaway tie is a living statue, who got into a fight when somebody prodded him.
Since leaving Burscough the scenery has changed dramatically, punctuated by pubs at nearly every bridge and a surprising number of swing bridges. Stopping Lancashire’s roaring traffic requires nerves of steel and a degree of good luck. Gates get stuck, the instructions have often been vandalised and you have no idea, whether it will be a manual operation or key-operated. Or so I am told, for Pat does these and I drop her off with a pair of reading glasses, a windlass, a watermate key and a handcuff key, just in case – a veritable tool box. 
Another pub on the left and another swing bridge
Pat goes into manual for this one
And we have a load more to negotiate on our approach to Liverpool, once we join our small convoy on Friday morning. It looks more like Cambridgeshire or Lincolnshire round here. Quite flat, and a bitmarshy with just a few sparcely-populated hamlets, but, surprisingly, loads of pubs. 
Our guests turn up tomorrow afternoon (Thursday) and we cruise into the city on Friday morning. The forecast looks pretty good, so it should be an interesting day.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Who ate all the Pies In Wigan

We both to try to eat healthily on the boat, with lots of fruit and salads, but what with so many pubs, fish n’ chip shops and pizza places on or close to the cut, we occasionally stray from the straight and narrow. Now my particular weakness is pork pies. Before anybody starts I know they are full of rubbish but it was one of the few things I really missed when we were in New Zealand, for nobody seems to make them down under. I find this rather surprising as the Kiwis really love their pies, and my pal Vic and my good self try to outdo each other by finding the cheapest and sloppiest pie we can on our travels around NZ, and I can tell you, there’s lot to choose from.

We have been approaching “Pie Central”, aka Wigan, for a few days now, and I have been getting into the spirit, whenever we have passed local butchers offering home-made steak and pork pies. But when we reached Wigan today I was somewhat disappointed. This is the home of the “World Pie-Eating Championship” after all , but on a recky into the city centre this afternoon, only Greggs had any pies in the window. And I still have to see the narrowboat, allegedly moored near Wigan Pier, which has a hand-written sign in the window declaring “No Pies Are Left On This Boat Overnight.”

Wigan Pier hasn’t existed since the late 1920’s, some ten years before George Orwell wrote his famous book, name-checking the place. The pier was only a few yards long in its hey day, used for loading coal. I had read up the pier so wasn’t disappointed. Now, there’s just a pub called, rather obviously “The Orwell”, and opposite is a sculpture of a canal worker looking over the wall towards it. More fun, and far more entertaining was this dog, wearing sunglasses, that we met at one of the locks, below Wigan Pier.
Wigan Pier and statue

Well, he obviously thinks its sunny in Wigan!
Putting pies to one side for now, I don’t know how many people out there on the canal network are continuous cruisers like us and live on their boat for long periods of time. A couple of thousand, I reckon. But it’s amazing how often you pass boats that you know, and remember from a chance encounter at a lock, a shared overnight mooring, or from a night out in the local pub.

To this growing list we can now add “Lady Esther”, and their able crew Dave and Angela from Leicester. We moored opposite them in the delightful town of Lymm, last Thursday and Friday, and when we left, they were a couple of hundred metres in front of us. I don’t know if you were out and about last Saturday morning, but it fell down in buckets across the country and we were not immune up here in the North-West. After a couple of hours cruising, we decided to pull over, and Dave and Angela joined us for lunch in the village pub in Little Bollington for a couple of pints and a snack. But not before presenting us with these (see picture). I’m not sure what to call them. “Mooring Pin Toppers” perhaps. They look like giant condoms and are designed to make your mooring pins distinctive and visible in the dark, so un-suspecting walkers and cyclists do not stumble into them. Angela crochets them from strips of orange “Sainsbury” carrier bags (I kid you not). We currently wrap a Sainsbury’s bag around the top of each of our pins, but these are far more professional.  “Lady Esther” is arriving in Liverpool as we leave, so we hope to see them both again then. We still have a musical soiree to convene.
The busy town of Lymm. We are moored just around the corner, on the right

Our new Mooring Pin Toppers. Thanks to Sainsbury's...  and Angela on "Lady Ester"

When we left Dave & Angela on Sunday morning the swallows were soon swooping around us, catching their breakfast I guess. You can make good progress on the Bridgewater Canal. There are no locks to slow you down and a lot of the navigation is very straight. That was especially true as we approached Sale, a town I had assumed that would be very “urban”, but turned out to be very leafy, and clearly aspirational, from the house prices in the estate agents windows. After our regulation Sunday lunch in the local Wetherspoons it was on into Manchester, and a left turn, out through Trafford Park, which seems to go for ever, passing an entrance to “The Trafford Centre”, just yards from the canal towpath. Then it was time to cross over the Manchester Ship Canal, on the Barton swinging aqueduct, that occasionally opens when tall ships travel these parts. Another great piece of Victorian engineering.

The very straight Bridgewater Canal, near Sale

Who would have thought the outskirts of Manchester would look like this
Barton Swing Aquaduct over the Manchester Ship Canal. (Stock shot)
Our journey across the Swing Aquaduct

We moored up in the village of Worsley, on the western outskirts of the city. It’s a conservation area, full of period properties, and homes around here are as expensive as those in the south-east. It’s famous, and interesting to us, as the place where the Duke of Bridgewater had the entrance to his coal mine. With the help of James Brindley, they built the first of this country’s modern canals, to move the coal into Manchester and Liverpool, and started the canal revolution. We moored just yards from the mine entrance, now a small lagoon, with lily pads and resident heron, right opposite a pub/restaurant called “Georges”. The terrace on the front of the restaurant was full of diners and as we strolled past, I looked across and there was Ryan Giggs and his family, having lunch. Well, it looked just like him, but I thought it probably wasn’t, but I have since discovered he lives in the village and owns “Georges”, so it clearly was. I might have considered popping over the road and asking for a “selfie” if he had been a Fulham player.

Our mooring at Worsley. Mr Giggs and co are seated to the left of the picture
Monday we cruised into Leigh, and got very wet, again. It seems we get one nice day and then one of consistent rain. London and the South-East are getting temperatures of 23 and 24. It’s about 18 here in Wigan, and the rain is threatening again this afternoon. Ay, it’s grim up nooorth!

Tomorrow we cruise just a couple of miles to the outskirts of Wigan, to a highly-rated pub in Crooke, where the Wigan Ukulele Club meets. I found the club on-line, but going through a lock earlier today, we met the club Secretary on a boat. Haven’t played in an ensemble since Wellington in New Zealand, so looking forward to it.
And finally, no self-respecting feline can resist the allure of TCW, as this cheeky fellow shows, at Preston Brook

Toodaloo chums

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Ups And Downs Of Canal Life

This  last week has been dominated by “Our Passage to Northwich”, which was about as far removed from “A Passage to India”, as possible, but was a passage nonetheless.
Our destination was the very attractive town of Northwich, which sits on the River Weaver. It’s one the “wich” towns of Cheshire, that include Nantwich and Middlewich. These are “salt towns”, and the chances are that the next time you follow a council gritter truck next winter, its contents will have come from this bit of Cheshire.
Taking salt out of the ground has been an industry around these parts for hundreds of years, and subsidence is a constant threat. The centre of Northwich features some very grand, mock Tudor buildings, which, in fact, are all Victorian, and have a special wooden frame that can be jacked up if they start sinking. The biggest of these is the Wetherspoon’s pub “The Penny Black”, which not surprisingly, used to be the main post office. Dead clever those Victorians, and a mile or so north is another amazing Victorian invention, but this one moves.
The Penny Black. The biggest moveable building in England, or so the legend claims

To get from The Trent & Mersey Canal to The River Weaver is a drop of 50 feet, and the Victorians solved this by building a boat lift to link the two back in the 1880s. Called the Anderton Boat Lift it fell derelict in the 1970s but was saved and re-commissioned in 2002, along with much of its original machinery.
You enter into a “caisson”, a bit like a big bath. One or two boats go in at the top and the same thing happens at the bottom. As they pass each other, the weight of one helps the other. It’s very slow, but great fun, and a huge tourist draw. It’s the only one of its type in England, though, of course, there is the newish Falkirk Wheel in Scotland that does a similar thing, albeit in a different way.
There is no charge; you just pitch up at the office, request a passage up or down, and they give you a time slot. There’s some nice mooring at the top of the lift and a half-decent pub opposite (expensive though).  It takes about 12 minutes to make the journey. We had a nice, bright day, when we went down last Saturday morning, but on our return trip on Monday I got very wet.

The Anderton Boat Lift, linking The Trent & Mersey to the River Weaver

Entering into the outer chamber, where the water is equalised

Almost in now and about to drop to the river below

The gates drop behind us 

Out on to the River Weaver and a left turn to Northwich, a mile away

I read in Wikipedia (so it must be true!) that Northwich regularly features as one of the UK’s best top ten towns to live in. There is certainly a very nice “feel” about the place. Our mooring, below the town bridge, was right opposite a new Waitrose and marina that opened just before Christmas There is a lot of building going on all around and it should be a very interesting place to return to in a year or so.  
Our mooring in Northwich, opposite this new Marina, that features a new Waitrose and retirement flats
Two boats down from us was “Bullfinch”. We had not seen Peter and Linda, who, like us, cruise through the summer months, since we were on the Kennet & Avon, two years ago and we cruised the Thames with them. We watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony in a pub in Reading together, if my memory serves me well. Good to see them again and catch up. And their boat is on the latest cover of the “Nicholson’s Boating Guide 5 to the North West”, which is a sort of boater’s bible, to those of you, who do not have webbed feet. It shows them cruising into Liverpool Docks, so they were able to give us some tips, prior to our arrival there in a couple of weeks.
Preston Brook tunnel, that sees the end of the Trent & Mersey and the start of the Bridgewater Canal, our route to Manchester and on to Liverpool

We are now on the Bridgewater Canal at Stockton Heath, on the outskirts of Warrington, very close to Manchester. I have been surprised at how rural our journey has been since we left Anderton and this bit of the Bridgewater has been a real eye-opener. That’ll all change in a couple of days, when we turn left and head towards Wigan, and from there on to the Leeds and Liverpool canal, to commence our approach to the ‘pool.

Toodaloo chums