Fifteen years later...

Published: Sunday, 05 January 2020

IT WAS 15 years ago that my wife and I gave up out narrowboat to move to Nelson in New Zealand, writes Lawrence Pearson.

But we returned to these shores last August and very soon were once again on the canals in a Hoseasons hire boat as a prelude to once again purchasing our own narrowboat, come the brighter days of summer.

Retraced our steps

So we retraced our steps of old, moored as we once were on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, with an arrangement with the hire company to leave it later on the Thames.  A cruise we had undertaken in the past.

I have to admit I had been totally out of touch with the boating trend over these years, and found my return somewhat of a shock, that started at Foulridge Tunnel where we were held up by a batch of canoes wanting to paddle through.  When I contested this I was soon put on the right path being told that canoes now had priority and I would have to wait until the tunnel was clear, at which time the red light was against me. Who on earth allowed this dangerous manoeuvre?  I soon realised it had been allowed as there were nice new landing places for the canoes.

Swing bridges

Alas though, those nice new landing places for the canoes did not go so far as the landing places at the swing bridges for boats, with some downright dangerous.  And as to the swing bridges, I know memory can play tricks, but I am certain they were better taken care of in the past, with one broken, and another wait, though the boats in front had reported it.

Another thing noticed was the proliferation of cycle tracks that had materialised, with dashing Lycra clad youths peddling furiously along that I remember as towpaths with the occasional walker. 

Plethora of signs

And the plethora of signs along the entire route?  Where did they come from?  Who paid for them all?  There were signs welcoming us to here there and everywhere, signs for dogs, sign for ducks (who taught them to read?) and endless signs telling of it being better by water.  Alas again, it may be better by water but it certainly was not better on water, with the whole cruise a revelation of deterioration, with being stopped by breakdowns, struggling with difficult locks and constantly swiped by overgrowing tree branches and struggling with our 60ft boat through what could only have been the diminishing of dredging over the years.

Being in the construction business I was involved with the restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, then one of the first to cruise it, so this was a must, especially when learning if was now possible to steer your own boat rather that in be dragged through Standedge Tunnel. 

Stuck five times

It was soon obvious that little had been undertaken to maintain this most adventurous of canals, for soon we were stopped by a leakage and stuck five times by the pile-up of silt at the locks, managing to eventually struggle through to play a waiting game at Marsden learning then that we had lost our slot for the tunnel.

I find it a crime that £32 millions was spent on restoring the Huddersfield Narrow yet it is now restricted to just a few boats a week, what a waste.  It was the early  2000's that British Waterways launched its 'Unlocked and Unlimited' of waterways for the future, reopening such as the Huddersfield Narrow, the Rochdale, the link to the Lancaster and such as the Anderton Boat Lift.  Yet all now are subject to closures as they are no longer properly maintained.

Canals no longer advisable to cruise

We eventually completed the Huddersfield Narrow with the intention of taking to the Peak Forest and Macclesfield canals and on to the Trent & Mersey Canal, but came the news that it was no longer advisable as both had been subjected to closures and the Macclesfield was currently closed and looked like being for a while, so it was through Manchester and on to the Bridgewater Canal.  With the exception of some very difficult broad locks through the city it was a pleasure to get on the easy Bridgewater Canal and the 'long-way' round to the Trent & Mersey Canal.

My problem of course is that having the log from our former boat, together with our memories we are comparing a trip 17 years ago with the one now, and the comparison shows a deterioration of the infrastructure, with problems with paddles, gates and leakages so bad it was difficult to get the waters level enough to open the gates, once having to tie a rope from the boat to the lock gate to get it to open.  We eventually made it to Fradley and the Coventry Canal, with our only problem at Hillmorton with the strange instruction from what I now understand are volunteer lock keepers. 

A conflict

The Oxford Canal I can only described as being a conflict with unbalanced and difficult gates and missing paddles, but the overhanging vegetation was something we had never encounted before.  It was horrendous and gave the reason why the hire boats on that canal were so scratched, it approaching the end of the season. 

The fact that only too often there was no line of sight on bends was worrying, and not only were there near misses, but one not a miss at all.  It was made worse with it often being impossible to get into a clear side owing to the build up of silt.

Joy of boating a thing of the past

Eventually reaching our destination, three days late, our looked forward to delight at owning our own narrowboat once again was shattered, it was all too much, with the sheer joy of boating a thing of the past.

We of course met boaters who were quite satisfied with the conditions as they are now, but it was clear that the neglect had been insidious year upon year, and it was only our clear knowledge of the well maintained canals of the early 2000's that had caused such a shock and shown the neglect.