AT THIS this time of year I write a piece summarising our cruising for the year, which usually includes a statement to the effect that we have been largely unaffected by maintenance problems and stoppages.
Not so this year, although we were lucky enough to escape the worst of them by small margins. We spent a month or so up on the Lancaster Canal, which was excellent. We missed getting caught the wrong side of the Lune Aqueduct stoppage by about 24 hours and on our return completed the Rufford Branch only a few hours before a collapsed culvert closed it for the best part of two months. To be fair to CaRT, I don't think either of these could have been prevented by better maintenance and they seem to have been dealt with as quickly as was possible in the circumstances.
Cavalier attitude to failed paddles
Then our luck ran out. We were delayed at Wigan by the closure of Poolstock Locks, which we knew about, though the closure was at least partly due to CaRT's rather cavalier attitude to failed paddles; just leaving them until the winter stoppage programme is not really acceptable when there are only two paddles—and then the second one fails.
As this cleared we heard via a CaRT stoppage notice that the Bridgewater had closed near Manchester because of a warehouse fire and a consequently unsafe building. Full marks to CaRT for publicising this, as otherwise we would have just cruised on. Contacting the Bridgewater for details was not easy, as its phone service is only available for a few hours a day and the girl on the other end was delightfully vague about the whole business and could give only a statement that 'it could be closed for three weeks—but it might be more'. I never did discover how long it lasted, as we had to scrap our intended cruise over the Huddersfield Narrow and go via the Leeds & Liverpool to Sheffield instead.
Taking over the Bridgewater
We hear a lot about CaRT taking over the EA waterways (now put off again, apparently) but never hear about the possibility of them taking over the Bridgewater. Since this a key part of one of the most popular cruising routes, the Cheshire Ring, I would have thought that this ought to be on the agenda. The Bridgewater is owned by Peel Holdings, who also own the Ship Canal and various docks around the country.
I cannot imagine that the Bridgewater makes it a lot of money and it certainly doesn't seem to be a high priority. It would make far more sense for it to be passed over to CaRT, who as a charity would be able to access funds for improvements (as we are so often told) and for projects like the restoration of the Runcorn flight. Apparently CaRT and other authorities want to increase the use of Manchester by boats; integration of the Bridgewater into the system would be a major step in the right direction.
Another waterway which CaRT want to encourage the use of is the Trent. We came back from Sheffield via Keadby and the Trent this summer and had no problem. We were given careful advice by the lock keepers at Keadby and Torksey, where we broke our journey, and had an uneventful, if slightly boring cruise.
Given the nature of the river, this latter is unavoidable and it is difficult to see what could be done to encourage its use—no-one is going to cruise the tidal Trent for its scenic value, it is simply something that has to be endured if you want to access the Chesterfield, the Fossdyke and Witham or the Yorkshire canals from the East.
Is the Oxford difficult?
I've been cruising the Oxford Canal, on and off, for the last 40 years and I can't honestly say that it has got any harder to do. In some respects, especially on the top pound, it has got a lot easier; no longer are you lucky to do more than 2mph and run aground regularly. The lock paddles have always been fairly hard work, mainly because there is no gearing on them. Some of the deeper locks below Banbury can be a struggle, mainly because they have single bottom gates and Somerton, of course, is notorious.
These faults, however, are intrinsic to the design of the canal and should not be interfered with if we are to preserve the historic environment. Some years ago British Waterways started fitting hydraulic paddle gear to some of the locks, whether because of complaints or because they had an obsession with it at the time, I don't know. Thankfully this has all been removed and the gear restored to the traditional type.
Following our trip a couple of years ago on the Forth & Clyde we decided to try the Caledonian Canal. We hired a boat from Caley Cruisers at Inverness and I was very impressed by the handover. Its man spent the best part of two hours with us, first giving us a full tour of the boat, which was a fibre glass cruiser with sea going capability, then coming with us as far as the first lock, making sure we were all happy with handling the boat.
He waved us goodbye as we headed for Loch Ness, which is the nearest I've been to taking a boat to sea. All the locks and swing bridges on the canal are keeper operated, so there is not much chance of getting things wrong, unless the weather turns nasty.
I was amused to see that although Scottish Canals took over from British Waterways back in 2012 nearly all the signage is still BW, although the lock keepers are appropriately labelled. How different from CaRT's obsessive changing of every single last sign they can reach.
Altogether we had an excellent week and I can thoroughly recommend it, especially for boaters who are beginning to find the English canals harder work. We were blessed with good weather; we all felt that it would have been a bit of trial in a week of wet weather, since there are not many off-canal distractions and you can't just tie up when you feel like it.