25th October – New Islington to Chadderton
Rochdale Canal – the ‘Manchester 18’ locks
For me, this was the most gruelling day of the trip. We did more locks on other days, but these particular 18 locks, running from Manchester city centre to Failsworth on the outskirts, truly are challenging. Big heavy gates, often-faulty mechanisms, andti-vandal locks which are different every time, sludged-up or junked-up sections of the canal where it’s only safe to steer between narrow markers… our ‘average lock speed’ definitely slowed down on this stretch of canal. But it was a sunny day and there were lots of people out – wherever we went people stopped to watch, ask us questions, loads of people gave us encouragement and shared their wishes to buy a narrowboat to live on. It was actually a really great day.
By the way,there’s another, far better blog about the Rochdale Canal over at Richard Fairhurst’s blog, here.
For some reason you have to phone the Canal River Trust and book to go through these 18 locks, either from Ancoats Lower Lock (83) where we started, or at the other end at Failsworth Top Lock (65). You have to be there for 8.30am, and you have to get through the locks by 5pm. A nice chap called Dave came and opened up for us – he gave me his number too in case we had any problems – something we were grateful for later. It was school time – loads of parents and pushchairs and kids were passing by. A friendly sign told us that ‘The Rochdale Canal is a beautiful canal but it can be challenging.” It started to rain. We got the coffee and flapjacks happening and began.
I think the trick to getting through these locks it to take them as they come, expect it to be difficult, and enjoy every minute. And when you get to Anthony’s Lock, just practice some form of meditation to get you through. My dear mother has asked me to keep this blog clean for the sake of Narney (my grandma) who may be reading, but I am giving myself permission to say that this is an absolute bastard of a lock. Things which happened included: The dog fell in while the paddles were open (total panic.) The gates were too heavy to open (managed eventually.) The area around the lock was really restricted so every time you wanted to go to the other side of the lock you had to climb over wet slimy wood. The paddle on an entrance gate wouldn’t close so the lock would never fill. It helped that there was a business hilariously named Permanoid right next to the lock, so there was much laughing at this which passed the time until poor Dave could come and fix the paddle problem, basically by blasting out the junk that had got stuck in it and was stopping it from closing.
Then there are just loads more locks. It’s incredible. Lots of people warn you about this stretch of the canal because it runs through some of the rougher areas of Manchester, but unless you’re scared by melted bins or cheeky kids asking for a ride then I wouldn’t say this was a problem. It was definitely more interesting than the sleepy, much-too-pretty Cheshire ring. One of us was walking for the entire day – between us Emma and I must have walked to Manchester and back three times with all the running on ahead to set the next locks, running back and so on. Most of them were set against us. They are difficult locks and you can’t ever assume that things will go smoothly, but thanks to the great weather and friendly people, the whole trip was a lot of fun.
Entering Failsworth, with just one lock to go, we reached the final challenge. A British Waterways dredging boat literally horizontal across the canal, making it completely impassable. But we couldn’t get to the towpath either because of a ledge all the way around. I ended up leaping onto the BW boat with a pole and a rope and sort of punting her out of the way whilst a helpful passer-by pulled her in to shore. Apparently it happens all the time – naughty kids just untie her. Hmph. Anyway, we got past eventually.
We arrived in Failsworth, got through the final lock and… a tremendous thunderstorm. Great stuff! We said goodbye to Dave, who was there waiting to lock up behind us, and pressed on to pull up under a bridge so we could check the weed hatch and clean out the raw water filter – it wouldn’t be clever to keep pushing Swallow on after all the rubbish we’d passed in the canal today.
Sure enough, there was plenty of junk including plastic bags, cord and something sparkly wrapped tightly around the propellor which took ages to get off, as well as some nasty looking sludge in the water intake filter. On we went, passing under the M60 motorway (the ring road, meaning we were leaving Manchester proper) and, just as we were looking for a bed for the night, in rain and dark, we came to something exciting – a vertical lifting bridge! Somehow managed to get something of a second wind.
It feels incredibly strange to be able to insert a special key into a control panel, press a button and watch as sirens blare, lights flash and barriers come down on a road full of traffic. Even more strange to then watch a whole section of the road lift up so your boat can pass underneath. By the time I had put the road back in place and joined Emma on the other side, we were both beat, and decided to make Chadderton our home for the night.
Another disaster happened at this point but I think maybe I’ll write about that another time – it’s still a little too painful to recall.