THE stoppage saga continues, but this time we were not so lucky. Having waited at Wigan for them to finish the repair to Poolstock Top Lock we received an email to the effect that the Bridgewater was now shut for three weeks at Old Trafford while they demolished a building.
It was not clear why this should shut the canal completely, but it gave us little option but a crossing of the Leeds & Liverpool to reach our next destination, Sheffield.
The story of Poolstock
I had an interesting conversation with a blueshirt working on the Poolstock stoppage, which had closed the canal for a week, about why it had taken so long. One of the ground paddles had been out of use for months, nothing having been done to fix it as the lock is due some new gates over the winter and they were going to do it then.
Then someone wrecked the only other paddle by trying to force it down against a blockage, bending the rod and damaging the paddle itself. Result—lock out of action. First move was to make some stop planks; these are no longer kept on hand, since they all vary in length and are normally needed only when the gates need changing every 25 years or so. After a couple of days the planks arrived, were fitted and failed to work because they could not be made to seal against the canal bed.
Apparently when the lock was rebuilt about 25 years ago the contractors failed to fit a cill for the stop planks, so the water simply washed underneath. Next move fit a fabric dam in the old bridge narrows about 50 yards away—just as well it was there! But the fabric dam has to be fitted by outside contractors and left in situ for 24 hours, to make sure it is safe, before anyone can actually go and repair the paddle, so that was another couple of days. Once this was possible the problem was fixed quickly and boats were at last on their way.
Over the Leeds & Liverpool
I haven't been this way for some years and some things have changed, for both better and worse. We went up Wigan Flight with another boat in well under four hours, as we roped the boats together with a single steerer, thus allowing three people to work the locks. Generally the flight was in good repair and there was very little graffiti, which has been a bane of this area in the past. The same was true of the rest of the locks up to and over the summit, but after that things began to deteriorate, especially once we reached Bingley. The Five Rise is one of the iconic sites of the system and always attracts lots of onlookers. Indeed, there were a couple of CaRT chuggers at the top trying to sign up 'friends'.
The first surprise was when I enquired after Barry Whitelock, the long serving Bingley lock keeper, who received an MBE for his services. I was told by one of the attendant blueshirts that Barry has been transferred to Bank Newton Flight, as 'CaRT did not think he had the right attitude for such a high profile customer facing role'. The new lock keeper, who knows his job well, now only gets a single volunteer assistant, who is only allowed to work under his direct sight and thus cannot be sent up or down the flight to set chambers ready. The result is that passage through the flight takes a lot longer than it used to. Another triumph for management.
The state of repair and decoration of the Five Rise, and the locks below it, is a disgrace—indeed one of the CaRT people I met called it 'a shitheap'. Virtually every chamber had at least one paddle out of use, several of the box paddle boxes were rotting and what little paint was in evidence was peeling, especially on the cross bridges which make up an important part of the scene. Worst of all, when new gates have been fitted (and to be fair a lot have—it was a lot less leaky than in the past) the balance beams have been left in plain wood, without even so much as a white end, which completely spoils the overall look of the site. For an organisation whose whole corporate image is based on the black and white design this seems to be a very odd decision and it is a decision, because I was told that non-painting is official policy.
Oddly, the policy does seem to have extended further down the canal: Forge and Newlay locks were in exemplary condition, except for defective paddles. The management is certainly not popular with staff, whether volunteer or employed—I lost count of the critics I talked to, despite the fact that apparently their contracts now contain a gagging clause, which is supposed to prevent them from commenting on anything to do with CaRT policy.
On to Sheffield
Once we left the Leeds & Liverpool things improved—all the locks and bridges on the Aire & Calder functioned correctly and the ascent of Tinsley Locks into Sheffield was a delight; the gear was well maintained, properly painted and no graffiti—a credit to the team of lock keepers who supervise passage. Mooring in Sheffield, which we have only done once before, was excellent. Free, peaceful and easy access to the city centre.