Monday, 3 August 2015

Rochdale Canal - Manchester or Bust!

The Rochdale Canal, a stretch of 33 miles and 92 locks, crosses the Pennine and connects the Calder & Hebble navigation at Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire to the Ashton and Bridgewater canals in Manchester, Lancashire.

This is a canal that is like Marmite... you either love it or you hate it and at times we did both!

Forming part of the South Pennine Ring, the Rochdale canal was re-opened to full navigation in July 2002 and is one of the latest canals to be restored.
Between the 1980's and the 1990's small scale work began to open stretches of the canal between Todmorden and Sowerby Bridge but it was only after restoration work had been completed on many of the locks and bridges and the last obstacles removed during the simultaneous construction of the M60 and M62 motorways that the full navigation was opened. Almost 200 years after its initial opening.

One inspiring project was the Tuel Lane deep lock and tunnel that was built to replace two locks in an in-filled section of the old canal. Now with a drop of nearly 20ft the Tuel Lane Deep Lock is the deepest on the canal system today. There is a lock keeper (Billy) on duty to assist boaters through this section.

In 1766, just a few weeks after plans for the Leeds & Liverpool canal had been launched, a group of businessmen met to propose a shorter canal route via Rochdale. However, the initial plans lost momentum and when interest was re-ignited, the Duke of Bridgewater stepped in and refused to allow the canal to join with his Bridgewater canal. Plans were once more shelved until a rival company (the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Company) proposed an eastwards connection that would run to the north of Rochdale. The Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal Company were also considering a link to the Leeds & Liverpool canal and the Duke of Bridgewater realised that this would take trade away from the Bridgewater canal. He reversed his decision and agreed to the connection with the Rochdale. A revised Rochdale Canal Bill was passed in 1794.

The canal was completed and opened through to Manchester in 1804 making it the first trans-Pennine Canal route. The Leeds & Liverpool, a much longer Trans-Pennine route wasn't opened until 1816.
We joined the Rochdale Canal at Sowerby Bridge and after spending a few weeks moored in the basin it was time to move on again and see what the new canal had in store for us.

While refuelling, we discovered that 6 boats from Shire Cruises boat hire were about to be going out in our direction so we thought we would go through the Tuel Lane Deep lock and tie up until the flotilla had passed. We spent a pleasant afternoon chatting to Billy, the lock keeper and watching the world - and 6 boats filled with excited holiday makers - go by.

Tuesday morning, 21st July, after a hearty breakfast in the market place, we set off. We had been warned that the canal was shallow just before Hebden Bridge so we knew we had at least three miles and two locks before we came to that pound, However, nothing prepared us for the adventure we were to have!

As we reached lock 5 I noticed one of the hire boats from the day before, moored between locks 5 and 6. I remember thinking that they hadn't got very far the day before. We soon discovered that there was a good reason for that.

The cill on the lock had failed and resulted in the pound above it draining. Five of the six hire boats were grounded in the pound.

It would take another 4 days for the lock to be repaired and we could do nothing more than wait.

Making the most of our unplanned stay, Ian found a bus time table and the next day we took the bus over the Pennines to Haworth, the last home of the Bronte sisters. The bus ride took us through lovely countryside with breath-taking views over the hills. That in itself was worthwhile.

On arriving, we made a bee-line for the information centre where we were almost overwhelmed with information on places to visit, walks to follow, and the steam train that runs in the Worth Valley. We were spoilt for choice!

Haworth is a lovely town with amazing views and it has built its current prosperity on tourism. The beautiful cobbled high street is festooned with coffee shops and tea rooms and there are a number of pubs all vying for the tourist trade. Certainly very different from the time when the Bronte family lived there.

Looking down the length of the high street, the magnificent views can't be missed.

(For more details, see previous blog "...And then there was none - Stranded on the Rochdale canal")

Hebden Bridge

After the 4 day wait, the lock was repaired and we continued into Hebden bridge. Personnel from C&RT had asked us to give the canal a chance to recover its water levels before we continued so we spent the weekend moored in the town basin. This gave me a chance to get the laundry done and also for us to sample a 'Sunday Lunch' at a local pub.

The start of a new week, Monday 27th July we untied the mooring ropes and once again, full of expectation, we set off. This time we were only able to get through two locks and less than 1/2 mile before we ran aground again.

To begin with it was quite a difficult situation as Ian was on the boat and couldn't get off while I was off the boat and couldn't get on. A man living alongside the canal helped us get the bow closer into the bank; close enough to get the boarding plank to bridge the gap.

By this time I was quite frustrated. It had taken us six days to go all of 6 miles work only 11 locks. We still had 27 miles and 81 locks to go.

We had no choice but to call C&RT to help. In 17 years of boating, this would be the second time we had resorted to calling the C&RT help line - the first being on the Huddersfield canal only a few weeks before!
The problem this time was the state of locks 11 and 12. They were both in such bad repair that they were leaking water and overnight most of the water in the pound had drained away. More water had to be sent down the canal, lock by lock, in order to fill that section again. It wasn't till nearly 6:00pm that enough water had been sent down the canal to get us afloat, but by that time, the C&RT crew were going off duty. I was afraid that during the night we would lose that water again and be back to square one. With only a few hours of daylight left, Ian and I were determined to get out of this pickle. We certainly didn't want to be sitting aground in the middle of the pound all night and we didn't want to have to start again the next day! The only solution was to pick up where the C&RT crew had left off. Since they had brought the water so far, we would have it! After calling the emergency line again and being promised more help, I went ahead to open the lock paddles to let the water into the pound. Ian waited for the water to arrive and lift the boat off the bottom of the canal then managed to move the boat along inch by painful inch. To make matters worse, it had started to rain!
Billy ( the lockie from Tuel Lane Deep Lock) was on call-out duty and arrived about an hour later. With his help we managed to get Winedown above the problem area. Totally exhausted and soaked to the skin, we all called it a day and just as the light was failing we moored below lock 14. Our progress for the rest of that day? Another 2 locks and 2 miles.

By the morning more help had been provided and water levels restored, so we pushed on, aiming for the summit. (We later heard that the canal had been closed at the section in order to repair locks 11 and 12)

As we climbed higher and higher, leaving first Hebden Bridge and then Todmorden behind, the views became more spectacular. However, once again, exhaustion got the better of us and forced us to stop at lock 29. Frustratingly we were only 2 miles and 9 locks from the summit but we were physically drained and couldn't summon another ounce of strength to continue.


By morning, after a goodnight's sleep we were ready to continue our odyssey and under a brooding sky, slipped the mooring ropes and set off....

... and later that day, Wednesday 29th July, we reached the summit. The views were well worth all the heartache.

Over the top and down the other side ...

... between lock operations we could certainly appreciate the scenery.

Richard and Ian in New Islington - Manchester
But the Rochdale Canal is not an easy navigation. It is physically exhausting and relentless, and we were very grateful for Richard's help as he assisted us down the last 18 locks into New Islington, Manchester. Only 9 more locks and two miles to complete the Rochdale Navigation!

(Richard works for C&RT and is on hand to help boaters if required. Thank you very much for your help)

But our story didn't end there! No sooner had we moored for the day and said goodbye to Richard, when we heard that the Bridgewater canal (at the point where the Rochdale joins the Bridgewater) would be closed for a minimum of 4 weeks! This was due to a collapsed derelict building on the canal side. The building would have to be demolished before the canal would be opened again.

So near yet so far!

We had three options...
1) wait for 4 weeks;
2) go back the way we had come;
3) divert onto the Ashton navigation and back to the Peak Forest and Macclesfield.

The last option (and really our only option) would give us a round trip of 92 miles and 85 locks that would take us approximately 2 weeks!

Through Manchester's Gay Sector

First, we would stay put in Manchester and take the time to visit museums and art galleries while we recharged our batteries (and do some obligatory maintenance)!