Boating to Stalybridge

Posted On 01/08/1996

Dave Dawson heads off at a tangent from the Cheshire Ring

Family and friends lowered themselves gingerly down the embankment and onto the towpath.  Nobody managed a graceful descent and I managed rather to plummet, as the bank was precipitous, having formerly been a tunnel.  I was only told this later.

The year was 1987, and the canal was the Huddersfield Narrow just above its junction with the Ashton.  In parts the word ‘canal' was perhaps inappropriate as there appeared to be far more water on the towpath than in the cut, the weed growth giving the appearance of a linear jungle.  We came to an iron trough aqueduct over the river Tame and murmured wisely that it looked shot to bits and that the possibility of ever taking a boat over this particular aqueduct was commensurate with converging parallels.  We trooped thoughtfully back to the Ashton.

We spent Easter 1996 proving that it was possible to do the Trent & Mersey, Bridgewater, Leeds & Liverpool, Calder, river Trent ring in two weeks without a breaking wash or antidepressants.  At the boat club, however, ‘Squiffy' Parkinson mildly suggested that his ascent of the West Face of The Huddersfield Narrow to the recent restored Staly Wharf had been just as interesting (Adventure seems to follow Parkinson about, and nobody at the boat club was much surprised when recently a helicopter crash landed in the Macclesfield canal just behind his boat).

Perhaps having once been a school ink monitor had given me an inflated sense of duty, but I decide to go on up to Stalybridge the following weekend.  ‘Squiffy' gleefully said that he'd come and give us a hand.

The trip started at the top of Marple Locks, my son Paul and ‘Squiffy' drawing the paddles with gusto, whilst son number two, Michael, set ahead in his rather more tranquil style.  Once on the lower Peak Forest we were joined by three teenage girls.  They were on bikes.  They were friends of Paul and Michael, and as it was such a nice day they thought they'd join us for the cruise.  Their bikes were heaved onto the roof, rendering necessary a minute assessment of the clearance available at every lowish bridge.  Once we had turned right at Dukinfield Junction we were faced by the new concrete tunnel under the Asda superstore.  The noise in the tunnel was deafening, not that we have a vintage Lister bashing away or anything of that sort; it emanated from the kids holding private conversations marked triple forte.

At last we joined the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and eased into Lock 1W, the crew complaining bitterly not only about the hydraulic paddles, but also about the hydraulically operated bottom gates.  ‘Squiffy' cheered them up by observing that lock two had a similar set up.  Anti-hydraulic mantras rehearsed in the eighties were chanted once more.  We were soon up however and into the narrowness of the former tunnel, the boat responding to more and more revs with less and less forward motion, thanks to the speed of the water flowing through the narrow cross section.

Lock 2W presented a few problems.  Some tidy soul had dumped a barrowload of stone behind the bottom gates, which not surprisingly refused to open.  Poking about with the pole proved ineffectual and I started working out how the laws of physics could be applied to remove the obstructions.  By this time I had reached the conclusion that this could be a tough one.  ‘Squiffy' had stripped, put on an old pair of trainers, climbed in and was taking direction action.  It should be pointed out that this sort of thing used to be part of his job, and that his injections were up to date.  At length the stones were cleared, Paul twirled his windlass on the spindle of the pump, the gates began to close, the pump died, and the gates could be closed no further; nor opened fully to let us out come to that, being held firmly in position by their stainless steel rams.

Fortunately, during the Titford clean up last year we had fished a scaffolding plank out of a bridge ‘ole (together with a bike, a looted coil box from a public telephone, sixty foot or so of compressor hose and other detritus).  The plank, once liberated and painted blue, had proved very useful, but never more so than now.  Slung across the lock chamber one could shufflebottom along it and get a ratchet strip over the mitre posts, and slowly, oh so slowly, winch the gates shut.  So, that was a great point gained; after just over an hour we had got the boat into the lock and closed the bottom gates.   A few minutes later we were up and out.  Lock 3W with its old fashioned balance beams was laughably easy, and it was on then to the aqueduct.

Far from being shot to bits, the iron trough, erected aeons ago as a temporary measure, had been declared in excellent order by the engineers, although a local gentleman had remarked that it might be OK for carrying water, but would it take the extra weight of a boat.  Placing my trust in Archimedes, I resolved to try.  The temporary erection, so to speak, survived our sixteen tons and we were soon greeted by the wide expanses of the new Staley Wharf.  I believe the local council have been responsible for much of the work here, and their efforts are an example of what can be done with will power and imagination.  In fact this whole restored section makes plaudits such as ‘highly creditable' seemed rather feeble.  That it could be done at all is surprising; that it has been done so quickly and so well is pretty damned astounding.

Dick, the landlord of the adjacent pub, put on a special pile of egg and chips for us, and one of the girls asked if we thought the trip had been worth it.  We laughed, and a motion that we all join the Huddersfield Canal Society was passed unanimously.