Canal Trip: 1 – Rainy City Delights

The rain is pattering down outside, and judging by the look of the skies it seems there is more water above us than below, even though we’re already afloat. One of the joys of holidaying in the UK is the unpredictability of the weather, which brings another unknown dimension to the experience we’re having.

If we’re going to tackle the inclement weather head-on there’s probably no better way to do it than from the helm of our narrowboat. We’re not far from Lymm on the approach to Manchester, in a surprisingly rural spot in our green and lovely countryside. The city beckons ahead.

As always on our canal system, surprises are a regular occurrence. If you have any interest in our industrial heritage, or even if you don’t, you can’t fail to be impressed by the engineering skills that helped to create the system in the first place. From our 21st century perspective the canals are a quaint anachronism of a bygone age, green corridors through a verdant land. At their inception, though, they were a bold and highly innovative solution to moving goods and produce around the country in bulk and at speed. When Josiah Wedgewood first starting shipping his valuable pottery, the only way was by pack horse. If you think canals are slow, try taking one of those from Stoke to London laden with china.

Rainy City Delights

This innovation resulted in wonders such as the mile and three-quarter long Harecastle Tunnel which we tackled on Sunday, and the amazing Anderton Lift yesterday (Tuesday). Although strictly we didn’t ‘tackle’ Anderton so much as visit it, a special licence being required to navigate the River Weaver to which the Lift transports boats and their cargo from the Trent & Mersey canal above.

Like so many features of the waterways, when it was first built in 1875 people came from miles around to see the Anderton Lift in operation. After falling into neglect it was brought back to its former glory as a result of a preservation campaign in the 1980’s, and now the site hosts a lively and instructive visitor centre which offers an excellent fried breakfast along with boat trips between the two levels on their resident narrow boats. If you’re in this part of the world an excursion here is highly recommended. Make time to do the trip and you’ll have a very enjoyable and informative day out. You can find out all about it on the Canal & River Trust Website here.

Sunday evening offered one of those magical Summer evenings that are special to England, with no wind, a balmy temperature and the sun casting deep pink and golden hues across the sky. Chugging along gently on not much more than tickover, watching the world go by and feeling connected with it all, was about as good an experience as there is.

So if we have to put up with a few drops of rain today, so be it. At least Manchester is living up to its ‘Rainy City’ moniker. Who knows what further delights are in store?

Who Needs A Suntan Anyway?

The rain patters down on the tonneau cover as we sit watching hardy narrowboaters gliding past through the deluge.

It’s the second time in two weeks that we’ve been afloat on the canals. Last week we hired a 67 footer to navigate the delightful Kennet & Avon waterway from Bath to Devizes and back, and this weekend we’re visiting Dave and Ju on their own boat near Leighton Buzzard on the Grand Union.

The weather pattern has been similar on both trips, with warm and sunny August days transposed with days of torrential rain which makes lock working somewhat less attractive. But hey, this is England and who needs a suntan anyway?

Especially when you’re enjoying the pleasures of the English waterways.

Kennet & Avon Canal

Kennet & Avon Canal

I’ve had a fascination with our canal system ever since Sue introduced me to it in the mid 1970’s. A journey by narrow boat offers a unique and highly intimate perspective on our countryside, towns and cities, as well as a window into our recent industrial past.

The rise, fall and regeneration of this man-made network of communication is the story of the industrial revolution and the subsequent technological advances that rendered canals redundant. The engineering prowess of the early canal pioneers is there for all to see in structures such as the Dundas Aqueduct a few miles out from Bath, with it’s elegant solution to spanning the River Avon below. But it is also testament to the sheer physical efforts of the thousands of navigators – ‘navvies’ as they became known – who formed the pathways for the canals to run on  with their bare hands. Embankments, cuttings, bridges and tunnels were created without the benefit of the huge earthmoving machines that seem to construct modern motorways with hardly a human to be seen.

The accumulation of knowledge was rapid as canal-building technology improved. The early ‘contour’ canals followed the lie of the land, resulting in stretches such as the South Oxford taking it’s leisurely, meandering path from Coventry down towards the Thames. In one place, at Wormleighton, a mile long sweeping bend brings the cut within  a few yards of itself as it seeks to avoid the need to bridge the rolling hills and hollows of the land.

As the canals became more profitable and those profits rose with rapid journey times, later engineers such as Thomas Telford found ways to forge straight through the countryside, compensating for the contours with huge earthworks and dramatic structures, of which the  most striking example has to be the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

Of course, like any arterial route, the joy is in the travelling of it, and the canals bring such joy in spades. The locks, an  early engineering solution to hills, have matured into quaint and picturesque places of beauty, activity and camaraderie. Boaters and bystanders alike gather at the side of locks, still inspired by the cleverness of it all, and sharing a friendly acknowledgement and often an interesting anecdote.

If you enjoy this country, are happy to be outside, and relish the opportunity to explore, try taking a trip on a narrow boat.

There’s just one thing. Make sure you take your raincoat.