Leigh to Sowerby Bridge and Back

Report by Ben Grundy | Video here

Day 1

Date 5.4.2010
Began at (place) Home
Time of setting-off 1200
Ended at (place) Leigh
Time of stopping 1730
Distance 228 miles (by car!)
Number of locks 0

Travelled up to the boat via Loughborough to drop off Richard. No significant delays on the roads. Nothing of any real note happened.

Arrived at the boat and unpacked everything from the car. The sheet we put over the bows for winter was removed and we then moved the shafts from inside the cabin back onto the roof of the boat.

I emptied the bilge – about two washing-up bowls full. Dad ran the engine and it started first time which was good. Peter lit the stove and I am currently almost too warm sat inside.

Back to top

Day 2

Date 6.4.2010
Began at (place) Leigh
Time of setting-off
Ended at (place) Leigh
Time of stopping
Distance 0
Number of locks 0

I got up at about 0900 because I heard an engine start. Of course, by the time I was dressed, it had stopped – I could see, however that it was Tyseley that had been running her engine because the doors were open and people were gathered around.

I am sleeping in the boatman’s cabin – the bed hasn’t got any longer. At the moment, the mattress is too thick to take advantage of the space under the gunnel at the feet end so the bed is less than 6′ long.

I went to the other end to have some breakfast – Weetabix was order of the day. I spent most of the day doing work which I had put off whilst at home. I didn’t finish so hopefully I will be able to work in the evenings. We will have too many locks during the day and, anyway, boating is too exciting to spend all my time working.

Had some nice lunch at about 1330 after helping Peter unload the Lidl shopping from the car. I settled down to work again in the afternoon.

We had company for dinner as Paul and Granny stayed – it was a nice curry. Played scrabble after our guests had left and I won beating Dad by less than 10 points! Will be off to bed soon.

Back to top

Day 3

Date 7.4.2010
Began at (place) Leigh
Time of setting-off 1100
Ended at (place) Manchester – above Lock 84
Time of stopping 1900
Distance 14 miles
Number of locks 9

We started the day getting the boat ready to move – cleaning the roof, gunnels and cabin-sides of the winter muck. The day started off dry and actually stayed that way; it even got quite sunny in Manchester. We managed to set off about 1100 and passed a few fishermen. We later passed Severn, the Leeds and Liverpool shortboat coming back from Ellesmere Port.

I have already said that I’ve brought some work to do and I got down to some before we got to Castlefield. Although the Bridgewater is nice, it is not the most exciting of canals so this was a good opportunity. We were at Waters Meeting at about 1400 and started the Rochdale Nine at 1445.

A hire boat joined us for the locks and we were able to ascend together. They were also planning to go up the Rochdale but hadn’t booked the 18 locks through Manchester. Luckily, they were able to book for tomorrow and will be going up with us. We worked through the locks steadily until we reached Piccadilly Lock (85). Here, the collar holding the towpath-side bottom gate had broken and the gate could not be closed. We waited from about 1610 below the offending lock for some BW workmen to arrive, which they did at 1730. With some serious muscle, the gate was moved to a closed position and the broken collar removed.

The gate was sitting on the bottom of the lock and, in order to put the new collar on, the gate needed to be tilted into its normal upright position. The BW blokes tried filling the lock but that really didn’t work and using a crowbar on the mitre post was ineffective as well. The next stage was for Dad to get his hand-winch and chain which we just happen to have on board. This equipment was used to pull the gate towards the wall and into its correct position (yay!). We were able to work through the lock at about 1825. Total amount of Beatty equipment used: 1 rope, 1 winch, extra chain, a windlass and our sledge hammer.

We moored alongside the car park above lock 84 at 1900.

Back to top

Day 4

Date 8.4.2010
Began at (place) Manchester (above lock 84)
Time of setting-off 0750
Ended at (place) Above lock 54
Time of stopping 1730
Distance 9 miles
Number of locks 30

We moved off at 0750 to be ready for our assisted passage up the Manchester 18 and reached the lock for the 0800 start time. The literature all seems to say 0830 but the BW man who was in charge had also been dealing with the broken gate yesterday and had mentioned to me that he would be around at 0800. Unfortunately, the boat ascending with us weren’t quite ready so we sat in the lock for 20 minutes but never mind.

Our experience at the second lock was a taster of what was to come – there was some rubbish on the sill preventing the gates fully closing. We raked the sill with the keb in order to get the gates closed properly. Throughout the ascent of these first 18 locks, Beatty was hitting lumps in the canal especially in bridgeholes – mainly this seemed to be stuff that had been thrown in although a couple of pounds were very shallow to start with. There was also, of course, plenty of stuff behind the gates in the locks (both visible and hidden under the water) which meant there was often at least 1 gate that wouldn’t open properly. Getting out of these problems mainly involved just reversing off and trying a different position in the canal but the shafts saw a lot of use and, on one occasion, we were glad of a tow from Molly’s Drum, the boat accompanying us, to pull us off of a particularly nasty lump.

The weather throughout the day remained very pleasant which partly made up for our difficult progress. The scenery was interesting through Manchester with a variety of urban environments both residential and industrial. As we ended the 18 at about 1340, we moved into more rural surroundings. We left Molly’s Drum, who had moored for a break, behind and continued on our own.

An interesting lift bridge (Grimshaw Lane) added some interest later on. This is an electrically operated lift bridge where the bridge lifts vertically on 4 hydraulic pistons.

We moored above lock 54. Molly’s Drum came past later and is currently moored about 50 yards ahead of us. All in all, an interesting day but a very difficult one.

Back to top

Day 5

Date 9.4.2010
Began at (place) Above lock 54
Time of setting-off 0925
Ended at (place) Just below lock 37
Time of stopping 1725
Distance 8 miles
Number of locks 16

We set off alone on another nice morning weather-wise. Lock 53 is new. This can clearly be seen as it is built entirely of concrete. There was a road built on the original line of the canal which could be seen on the left just as we got to the lock. After this lock, we went through the interesting culvert under the M62. I say interesting because there is a floating towpath in place which needs to be moved for boats over 7 feet wide.

There were a couple of longer breaks today; the first was before the two locks in Rochdale. In this gap, we encountered our first swing bridges of the canal and I managed to leave my windlass at the first so had to run back to retrieve it. Through the town we were again rolling over lumps in the cut until we reached bridge 57 at 1200.

Here, we stopped dead in the bridgehole having ridden on to something quite big. We reversed and had another try but to no avail and we also managed to jam the prop with a pushchair. The propeller was luckily freed using a block of wood and sledge hammer and our attention then returned to getting the boat through the bridge. Raking the bottom with the keb revealed the pushchair but also a shopping trolley, and then finally a motorbike! This last item was a devil to remove but we eventually managed with three ropes and a bit of help from the locals. We actually managed to draw quite a crowd (by our standards) and one man took a lot of photographs which he will hopefully email to us. The delay had cost us 45 minutes.

We continued on towards Litteborough which is where the canal starts to get really pretty. We stopped below the locks and Mum and Dad went shopping. Whilst we were stopped, our friends on Molly’s Drum went past but we were able to join them two locks up. I was steering and struggling to keep the boat to one side in the lock whilst the other boat arrived – I will have to work on this for the future. Hindsight suggests that going on the right is not sensible as ‘prop walk’ tends to move the stern left and then pushing the stern back into position means the bows swing out.

We had a steady run from then up to our stopping point for the night just below lock 37 arriving about 1725. The scenery up here really is quite beautiful. Not being able to do the Leeds and Liverpool and not having tried the Huddersfield Narrow canal, this is the only cross-pennine route I have done. In my opinion, the few urban bits are definitely worth doing to get to the rural parts.

Back to top

Day 6

Date 10.4.2010
Began at (place) Just below lock 37
Time of setting-off 0855
Ended at (place) Below lock 7 – Just through Mytholmroyd
Time of stopping 1900
Distance 10 miles
Number of locks 31

We were up relatively early in order to get over the summit. We left at 0855 leaving Molly’s Drum behind.

The summit offers very pleasant scenery – you are surrounded by hills and it feels quite surreal to be boating between them. When we reached the other end of the short summit pound, we started to descend in the locks for the first time on this canal!

Whilst summit passages are restricted due to water problems, it seems that at this time of year, there is plenty of water around. Descending the locks around Gauxholme caused a bit of local flooding and the paddles were restricted to try to prevent this.

The lock in Todmorden town centre was interesting because the bottom gate is a guillotine with a paddle. We arrived in Todmorden at 1255 and Richard joined us bringing our crew total to 5. This side of the summit certainly has more boats although we only met about 2 boats that were actually moving.

One thing I continued to notice today is that the lock walls tend to seep water through in lots of places, more noticeably, I think, than on other canals. There are also a lot of places where streams from the Pennines are allowed to enter the canal. We came through Hebden Bridge without stopping and continued on to our mooring spot for the night. We passed through a short but bent tunnel which didn’t require a headlight. We finally stopped next to some playing fields where we have just been entertained by a man with his radio-controlled helicopter.

Back to top

Day 7

Date 11.4.2010
Began at (place) Below lock 7 – Mytholmroyd
Time of setting-off 1020
Ended at (place) Above lock 6 – Mytholmroyd
Time of stopping 1730
Distance 8 miles
Number of locks 10

After our marathon day yesterday, we had a lie in today. After a breakfast of boiled egg, we set off at 1020.

At the first lock, we met a boat with some girl guides on board. They were quite inexperienced and took a while even to get in to the lock. We were quite pleased that the next lock was a singling out affair owing to subsidence bringing the lock walls in. We made our way to Tuel Lane lock and the lock keeper had to open the middle gates so that we could fit in the lock. This is a water-saving measure which gives, I assume, a (roughly) 58′ lock to be used by shorter boats.

We stopped in the basin in Sowerby Bridge at about 1205. After lunch, we turned in the basin and headed down the Calder & Hebble.

We first went down the Halifax arm which is very short but had to be done (because it’s there!). We then returned to Salterhebble locks and put as much of Beatty in the top lock as would fit – yes, I can confirm that a 70′ boat won’t fit. The boat has now been to both ends of the Calder & Hebble having got as far as Broadcut Lower Lock in 1992 after attending the Wakefield National Rally.

As I am writing this, we are back where we started the day – well, give or take a few hundred yards – having come back up Tuel Lane and the locks we did this morning. The lock keeper at Tuel Lane seemed much stricter about ascending presumably because of the powerful paddles. As well as needing ropes, we also had to turn the engine off. We arrived back at Mytholmroyd at 1730. Weather was perfect yet again; I don’t think it can last much longer.

Back to top

Day 8

Date 12.4.2010
Began at (place) Above lock 6 – just before Mytholmroyd
Time of setting-off 0900
Ended at (place) Just below lock 31
Time of stopping 1735
Distance 8 miles
Number of locks 24

We left our overnight mooring at 0900 with Richard and Peter still in bed. As we did this all very recently, the canal looks familiar and I was able to recognise locks very easily.

We arrived in Hebden Bridge at about 1010. I had to do work but Mum and Dad went into Hebden Bridge and had a look around. We left at about 1200. We stopped for lunch at 1300 and had jacket potatoes which had been cooked in the back cabin stove. The next interesting point was the guillotine lock in Todmorden which we did at 1520.

We tied up in the middle of some glorious scenery just below lock 31 at 1735. 24 locks – they are hard work and some of the paddles are very stiff. The gates are also quite heavy. I wouldn’t recommend the canal to a singlehander.

Back to top

Day 9

Date 13.4.2010
Began at (place) Just below lock 31
Time of setting-off 1010
Ended at (place) Just after Little Clegg swing bridge – after Littleborough, before Rochdale
Time of stopping 1725
Distance 5 miles
Number of locks 18

We are slightly relaxed now as we know how quickly we can do the canal and we have booked the Manchester 18 for Thursday – we have time in hand. This meant that we set off quite late at 1010 in more beautiful weather.

The first lock was memorable as, when dad put the boat in reverse gear, the engine stalled! Despite a furious attempt to reach the bow rope and strap the boat to a halt, she hit the sill – hard. Luckily, the only real loss was the extension to the boatman’s cabin chimney but everything movable in the boat jumped forward including the bunks in the sleeping cabins! We spent a short while searching for the extension but failed to find it.

At the next lock, one of the top paddles (towpath-side) was so stiff that it was practically immovable and we bent a steel windlass trying to raise it. Fortunately, a boat coming down (that’s a moving boat!) sent enough water over our top lock gates to fill the lock. The other ground paddle was not working.

We crossed the summit again with no problems and water to spare. When we got to locks 40 – 43, the main problem was too much water. This was a section which was visibly short of water on the way up but now we were causing localised flooding by raising paddles. This was despite only 1 paddle being available at the bottom of each lock owing to ‘flood prevention measures’. Lock 40 has short balance beams and with the amount of water coming over the top gates, it was impossible to open the gates conventionally. We eventually got one open by tying a rope to the heel-post of one gate, tying the other end to a bollard and pulling on the rope in between these points.

We stopped for lunch just above lock 42 at 1300 and had lovely warm rolls warmed in the back cabin stove. We continued down the locks to Littleborough where we stopped to go shopping for some milk and other supplies. We continued on briefly until just after Little Clegg swing bridge. When we arrived at the swingbridge, there was a boat the other side apparently ready to pass through. It turned out that the locking mechanism had been bent and some brute force was required to release it. However, we managed to get through and moored literally just afterwards at 1725.

Back to top

Day 10

Date 14.4.2010
Began at (place) Just after Little Clegg swing bridge
Time of setting-off 0935
Ended at (place) After lock 63 – Rose of Lancaster Pub
Time of stopping 1600
Distance 7 miles
Number of locks 15

We set off at 0935. The weather was again kind to us – it remained dry though there was quite a chilly wind. We passed through Bridge 57 without incident but noticed that the pushchair and shopping trolley were nowhere to be seen and that the bike was back in the water though now at the edge of the cut thanks to our efforts at moving it.

The next bit of excitement was coming round a corner to find the canal blocked by a couple of pontoons under a railway bridge. Apparently the canal was due to be closed from 1100 to 1600 that day – we were there at 1010 – lucky us. One of the pontoons was moved and we could continue on our way. We stopped for lunch near one of our overnight stops above lock 53 – I know, the second ‘stop-for-lunch’ day in a row!

We descended the Slattocks flight with water aplenty – a seemingly continuing theme on this canal. We decided to stop for tea and cake in a lock confident in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be disturbed by a boat – something that couldn’t be contemplated on a busier canal. We continued down the canal to our overnight stop at Chadderton and had a lovely meal in the Rose of Lancaster pub – would recommend.

Back to top

Day 11

Date 15.4.2010
Began at (place) Rose of Lancaster Pub
Time of setting-off 0635
Ended at (place) Leigh
Time of stopping 1845
Distance 22 miles
Number of locks 28

We set off early to be at lock 65 for 0800. At our first lock – 64 – there was a lot of rubbish behind the gates including a broken up pallet and (literally) a tree which we pulled out to open the gates. Following this lock, there is Grimshaw Lane vertical lift bridge. We managed to hold up quite a queue of traffic! We arrived at lock 65 by 0800 but the time of setting-off at the top is in fact 0830 – we set off at 0820.

Going down the 18 was reasonably uneventful. There were again lumps in the canal which we rolled over but there was no need for ropes or flushing out of locks. This was probably due to the amount of water in the canal – it was pouring over the top gates again and the bywashes were fearsome. When we arrived at Ducie Street Junction, there was a barge which apparently had tried to go up the Rochdale but had been thwarted by lack of depth in the canal.

We stopped for lunch in the middle of the nine on the offside. There was still a lot of water (I suppose this isn’t a surprise) which made opening bottom gates quite difficult but we managed. We continued through Castlefield on the Bridgewater, the weather remaining dry and even being sunny. Unfortunately, there were a few youths who threw stones at one point but, apart from that, the journey was uneventful. We arrived back at Leigh at about 1845.

I’ve really enjoyed this trip. Although it was a lot of locks, with enough crew the canal isn’t too difficult. It is hard work but definitely worth it for the incredible scenery around the summit of the canal. I know I have heard that the Rochdale suffers from a shortage of water but we found that most bywashes were running freely and water was also pouring over the gates in many places. I guess one of the most noticeable aspects of the canal is the complete lack of moving boats. We saw so few boats, it was amazing, and allowed us to eat lunch in a lock without feeling there was any risk of another boat appearing. I would highly recommend the experience. I’m not sure I had a favourite direction but if you go from Manchester, you’ll find that the most urban areas are done first and the rural scenery comes afterwards. I think it also helped me to enjoy the canal that we didn’t have a single drop of rain. Doing lots of locks in rain is never any real fun so the weather was a brilliant help.

Back to top