Wigan Evening Post - June 06

The key to locks

Richard Bean discovers ... the joy of manning the helm of a canal

"Cheer up, you're making history." Five and a half minutes ago, this landlubber had taken control of his first-ever narrowboat.

Now, with our beaming mentor Cohn roaring encouragement from the towpath high above, we were edging the good ship Leicester through the gloom of a curving tunnel into Britain's deepest inland waterways lock.

In less enlightened times, city engineers drove the main road straight through the then derelict Rochdale Canal, demonstrating the foresight for which they are famous.

When the massive project to re-open the canal was mooted - only finally completed four years ago - there was much head scratching about how to join the two pieces of canal back up again. And that's how we have Tuel Tunnel Lock.

Sail in on the way "up" and gaze skywards at huge, mossy, dripping walls towering all around. There's so much head of water rushing in to raise you, the level in the two miles of canal above drops by a full inch!

That's why it has its own official BWB Lock keeper. Only, for what.ever reason, he was unavailable.

Hence Colin, from Shire Cruisers, cranking the lock paddles high up above and narrowboat legend, he assured us, in the gurgling, swirling, slightly stinky, making. Maybe we should have accepted Shire director Susan Stevens' offer of lifejackets?

Our journey began at Sowerby Bridge Wharf in West Yorkshire. Shire - who also have narrow boat builders in one of the impressive former salt warehouses there - sent directions.

What they should have said was turn left by the bronze bargee... .a striking sculpture heaving on a lock gate landlocked somewhat incongruously in the main street. There's plenty for canal types to see before you even cast off.

The historic wharf laps around a basin at the head of the Calder and Hebble Navigation (a straightened and deepened river channel made usable for craft) bounded on the south by our world for the four days, the Rochdale Canal itself.

Smart restaurants now rattle pans where sacks and bales were once back-breakingly hauled up and stowed. But at least the whole lot hasn't been converted into bijou flats for Porsche owners, as seems to be the plan with so much of our canalside architecture.

After a 45-minute briefing from Colin about the workings of the 53-foot, four to six berth narrow.boat we were off.

Locking is easy enough (our crew comprised three but it's feasible for two) if you keep things logical, shutting the paddles in the correct order. Nor is it particularly hard. work, as long as you remember that if the gates won't open to let you out again, invariably there's a still a duck bill's breadth between the water levels. Take your time, let them equalise, and they part with the minimum fuss. Sages in the office enthused about what a relaxing time it would be.

The things are so, well, "slow," aren't they?

Don't you believe it. Not on the Rochdale anyhow. The climb up and over the Pen- nines means, on average, one lock every 10 minutes.

And the good ship Leicester, being typical shallow draft, needed constant checking on the tiller to maintain something like straightish progress.

Just a few seconds nature study by yours truly and we were soon in trouble, needing some enthusiastic work with the characterful three cylinder Lister diesel engine - "dinker-dum, dinker-dum" to extract her from the reeds.

Crewmates Pat and partner Carita pushing off from the side. But talk about fun? It rained for four days solidily, West Yorkshire's finest moggies and puppy dogs. But we hardly noticed, as the ochre stone skeletons of the cotton industry rolled past, gradually climbing away and up to the stirring Brontesque wild Pennines scenery I love.

The radiators - our boat had full Calor central heating making nights amazingly cosy as we bobbed away at night watching Match of Day - also excellent for drying!

First night was spent moored at Hebden Bridge, a charming town boasting permanent new-age "water gypsies" moored on its approach. And the largest number of independent retailers in Yorkshire. By late afternoon of the second day we had reached our outward target, Todmorden, right on the Lancs /Yorks border and with a definite frontier town feel. Then, too soon, it was time to retrace our watery steps in a 26-mile round trip.

On the way back we were pursued by a flotilla of hopeful mallard ducks with a single, diddy, exotically-painted mandarin, paddling away furiously to keep up. He was rewarded with a special sandwich for his endeavours.

Later that day a huge pike, at least four feet long, disturbed in its reedy lair by the Leicester, shot away with a noisy gloop, the only fish, funnily enough, we saw clearly on the whole trip. Tying up at base in Sowerby Bridge after some nifty maneou.veriñg in the basin, we all agreed we were genuinely sad to climb back on to dry land.