A steam train blew past; we worked our way through nine tortuous early morning locks to reach the highest point on the canal network. Took our place behind two other boats booked for the Standedge Tunnel.
Not long before the measuring sticks and gauges were slapped under, over and up the side of the boat in front – looking much slimmer than ours we figured if that didn’t get in we may as well turn back there and then. Lots of head scratching, chin rubbing and second opinions later the boat in question had failed the crucial stats test, it’s chance of passage came down to how many barrels of water could be crammed on the bow. Despite numerous pre-booking measures we began to doubt ourselves, relieved to get a unanimous thumbs up.
Boat number one disappeared, followed by a forty five minute fume clearing wait. Cratch cover removed, planks and poles inside and nav lights unscrewed, the boat was stripped and ready to go. Hard hats, fluorescent jackets, buoyancy aids, fire extinguishers, radio, oxygen monitor, carbon monoxide alarm and the all important chaperone on-board we made our way through the very understated tunnel mouth.
Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the tunnel comes in waves: ornate brick work with intricate patterns; rough mill stone cuttings; reinforced red brick arches; narrow channels of moon smooth rock, pebble dash spray folds and an enormous cave room. Layers of ever changing colour, pyrite glistens and glints in the head lamp as though Damien Hirst has been busy with For The God Of Love injections. After an unbelievably narrow, low, crooked pure rock section requiring throttle on/off and tillering to achieve movement with little speed we arrived at a safety check platform where our chaperone sent a ‘transit update’ above ground. Time for a driver swap, Nick got to relax on the bow for the remainder of the journey after a great damage free navigation and I got a go. Trains rushing through the hill, cause pressure to drops, producing condensation and enveloping the boat in mist.
Two hours of darkness makes the murkiest of days seem blinding. Emerging to a café crowd we were presented with our Standedge Tunnel Certificates, oh yay! Walked across the hills then back for some post rocky ride boat re-assembling.
Standedge Stats: 198m above sea level, 5208m long and 196m below ground, making it the highest, longest and deepest in Britain. 17 years of blasting and digging. Officially opened 4th April 1811. More than 50 men recorded to have died during construction. Most common cargo: lime. Most unusual: horse manure. Originally method of transit: legging, ouch.
Out of the shower this morning to find the drama queen had turfed containers, rucksack, water bottles, foil over the kitchen work top. The plan was a walk up to Pots and Pans, the very top of Saddleworth moor – ‘Shove anything in there, it’s just sustenance, essentials…sugar, bread, water, jam, we’re going to need it.’
The three of us set off, up through busy Uppermill high street and past the church before the climb really kicked in. Soon up and away from the bustle we took Oldham Way crossing fields of sheep and heather, rocks and bilberries. The further we walked the more rugged and craggy the path, the heather faded, sheep didn’t venture to such barren land. Spectacular views spread for miles. Made it to Pots and Pans, rumoured, among many things to be a Druids alter, to have held wine during grouse shoots and to hold healing water. Further on through wind-swept grass we stood on the edge, looking down at Dove Stone Reservoir.
Pushed off leaving enchanting Uppermill behind. With plans to move on as far as permitted in readiness for Standedge tunnel tomorrow morning, we arrived at the first of two locks. It didn’t look promising, locks gates open, a motionless boat and a bloke on the phone to Canal and River Trust. He’d experienced a traumatic lock drop, jamming mid way before dropping some more and ending up well and truly stuck at the bottom. We tried a cocktail of solutions, paddles up, towing boat out, bashing boat in, all aboard and rocking the boat, not much luck. Two hours later the boat finally re-rose in the lock reversed out, disappearing backwards with orders to turn and try the other way tomorrow morning. Fearing an emergency stoppage meaning no longest, deepest, highest tunnel experience we were very pleased to get through.
A dog retching alarm call before he puked all over the carpet. Although the rhythmic beat of the looms has long left Ashton under Lyne, there are still plenty of early start factories just the other side of the canal, mainly specialising in reversing noises – according to Nick.
Turned right at Portland Basin and began our journey along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Very industrial to start, rising from the first lock, met with smashed windows and razor wire curling along the fence. Locks come thick and fast and although almost everyone requires an anti-vandal key, they’re not especially hard work (again, according to Nick). Got quite excited about our Tesco stop in Stalybridge – self proclaimed ‘Staly-Vegas’ , we didn’t get the vibe.
As with most towns the canal seemed to shake off Stalybridge in next to no time, soon climbing higher onto Saddleworth moor. The towpath is beautifully maintained, with quaint arched bridges and copious amounts of Himalayan balsam tumbling over stone walls and wafting through the air – a pest, but a pretty one. The water is crazy low in some pounds and we did come across a couple of locks that needed a bit more pushing and pulling and shoving than usual in order to their thing. Through Scout tunnel, our first cave type tunnel experience, with huge boulders seemingly just hanging there.
Higher and higher, until Saddleworth moor was all around. Tied up in Uppermill just as dusk arrived. At some point today we drifted out of Lancashire and slipped into Yorkshire.
Dipping in and out of urban/rural this morning we couldn’t shake off a burning smell, always a bit unnerving when you’re stood on the engine. A van looped round an estate playing ‘Any Old Iron’, alongside clusters of people hanging over bridges…’Do you live on your boat?’, ‘What’s it like inside?’ ‘Can I come on?’ and the one we’re finding most challenging of all – a frown followed by, ‘You from Staffordshire?’ With no idea whether coming from Staffordshire would be a good thing or not in Greater Manchester, we plumped for ‘Brighton’, so far so good. Just relieved the signwriting doesn’t shout out anywhere remotely premiership football related.
On through some pretty countryside, despite our 200ft lock drop yesterday the canal still sits very high. Arrived at Ashton under Lyne, found a couple of rings and tied up. Walked along to the Portland Basin Museum. What was once a warehouse has been transformed into a capsule bursting with Tameside history. With steam-powered cotton mills spread across the towns, by 1831 a third of Ashton under Lyne’s population were employed in textiles, a hard life in an industry vulnerable to trade depressions, Portland Basin was nicknamed ‘weaver’s rest’ as so many weavers were said to have downed themselves in the waters during hard times.
Walked up into the town. Back at the boat we were surprised to have neighbours, this stretch of canal is quiet. Tow path barbecue this evening, bring it on:) Still a few hundred yards to go until the end of the Peak Forest canal but we’ve made it to Lancashire.
Thinking single locks would be a breeze, the flight was deceptive with paddles so stiff even bouncing up and down on the windlass didn’t budge them for me. Chock full of Dad’s hanging toddlers over the water and attempting to explain lock basics to older children, we struck gold when a micro strong man competition took off. Target in sight, I dangled the spare windlass, ‘Would you like to help Daddy with a lock?’, inevitably, the children grabbed it and Dads obediently followed. With enormous crowds the men frantically wound with all their might, some heaving as though they’d hit a brick wall producing jeers and gasps from unforgiving spectators…. easy prey:) That was the extent of my lock work, the rest was down to Nick.
Two lesson reminders. The moss coated walls stream water – close the portholes, the bed got a soaking. Secondly don’t overlook the prop drip pot for too long, after 16 locks and bunnied out, Nick had the joyous task of mopping out the engine bay.
Another good day for Murk’s growing list of worldly possessions, tying up just after the spectacular Marple aqueduct, he appeared with yet another ball, that makes six found freebies in the last week – five tennis, one lacrosse.
Warm and sunny this morning, Murk enjoyed a final basin wander. Got talking to our neighbour, who, planning to buy a boat and liveaboard had hired a very nice Braidbar for the weekend. Malcolm got ‘the’ tour and always interested to see inside other boats we Braidbar toured in return.
Moved to the lower basin for bins and water. Re-opened in 2005, plenty remains of what was an open air factory on a mammoth scale: kilns, wharfs, limestone crusher, warehouses, limesheds, tramways, wagons, tipplers, canal house, gauging lock… Once lit the kilns burnt continuously for years, smothering their surroundings in sulphurous smoke.
Bugsworth has it all, even boasting a grisly murder, on 26th October 1898, during a jelous rage, John Cotton killed his wife in their cabin, arrested the same day and hanged on 21st of December – not much deliberating in those days.
Quite a few boats arriving by the time we left, made our way along through the swing bridges before mooring opposite a field of horses and next to a stone wall underlining views that roll for miles.
By the time it was light, the hammering rain had cleared. Walked Murk round the basin before setting off in search of a bus. Sat white knuckled on the 190, we hung on and rattled our way up through Postman Pat scenery before plummeting down into Buxton – our bodies hadn’t moved that quickly since early June.
It was 1780 when the 5th Duke of Devonshire ploughed copper mining profits into developing the town as spa set to rival Bath. Took our place in the queue of locals filling containers with spring waters from St Ann’s well, it tasted way better than the eggy gloop in Leamington Spa. Magnificent buildings accessorized with everything Art Deco. Lots of renovation work going on with some places looking as though they’ve stood lifeless for years. The Opera House was bustling with oldies eager to take their places for the matinée performance of ‘Hello Dolly’, we thought about it… just for a second. Gazing up at the lights it dawned that we’re on a very long, low level, low temperature, low budget cruise.
Two hours later, having loved the Buxton vibe, we rattled back over the hills and into the peace of Bugsworth Basin.