Autumn is here, and it’s time for Emma and I to set sail from Todmorden to Manchester along the Rochdale Canal.
We did this journey with Swallow in the opposite direction in October 2013 (you can read about that here).
This time, we’re taking Emma’s boat, Flo. As Flo is 8′ wide, we can’t take both boats at the same time (which you normally do with two regular 6’10” narrowboats as they can fit into locks together).
So it’s goodbye to our neighbours at Baltimore Marina and goodbye Todmorden and Yorkshire! We had a beautiful party at the marina last week, and our old neighbours waved us off as we sailed away including good old Len, who sprayed us with his hose. Lovely chap, Len.
Todmorden and Walsden
Right after Baltimore Marina was is our first lock, no.18 on the Rochdale Canal. There’s a superb off-licence here so Emma nipped off to get some ciders for later on. Then we passed through the awesome guillotine lock (no.19) in the centre of Todmorden, cruised past the Great Wall of Todmorden, and climbed through the beautiful Gauxholme area (the railway bridge here is spectacular).
We continued onwards through Walsden (sadly not stopping for chips at Granny Pollard’s famous chippy), we spent our first night right at the Lancashire border, near Pinnell Lock (no.26).
Engine troubles hit us the following morning – the propellor stopped turning! But it was a simple fix, a nearby mechanic lent us the tool we needed, and we were on our way within an hour.
Walsden, Littleborough, Summit, Smithy Bridge
Once you leave Walsden, the Rochdale Canal becomes really rural, wild and beautiful.
There’s a cute swing bridge:
Approaching the summit (the highest point in the Rochdale Canal’s climb over the Pennines) and coming down the other side, water management gets tricky, especially after a dry spell or if lots of boats have been passing through.
The closer we got, the emptier the pounds – this one was impassable and we had to run back and let more water down from above in order to get through:
We got through eventually though and headed towards Littleborough. A lovely chap named Ian looks after this stretch of canal and he helped out with some of the locks going down.
In Littleborough a CRT volunteer called Bob helped with a few gates, finished our biscuits and told us about his community boat project.
People recommend you stop here for the night and it certainly would have been a nice option – Littleborough is a friendly town and there are apparently some nice pubs. But we still had a fair few locks left in us so we pushed on towards Smithy Bridge and spent the night here instead – we found a pleasant spot near some big posh houses.
Rochdale, Middleton, Chadderton
The next day we went through Rochdale – the Yorkshire stone turning to red Manchester brick as we moved further into Lancashire.
First, another swing bridge – it’s really hard to pull up here as the mooring area is overgrown. Flo literally bumped up to the bridge and I jumped off onto the railings.
There’s a long boring spell after this, then the two Rochdale town locks, 49 and 50.
Then more long, rather boring bits with no locks.
We got a bit of a shock going under this bridge where a floating walkway had been created – it’s clearly designed so that one narrowboat can get through and we only just squeezed it. Anything wider than Flo’s 8 foot and you’d have to call the CRT to move it!
After this, it gets pretty again as you approach Slattocks. But this is where disaster struck. I tied Flo’s centre-line rope a little too losely in one lock, then didn’t notice as she drifted backwards – onto the cill!! Emma hollered and with all my strength I dragged her off just in the nick of time… but as we sailed away afterwards, it was clear there was a problem with the tiller. Resting up on the cill, it had come loose – argh.
I realised it was my job to get in the canal and fix it…or face a bill of god knows how many hundreds of pounds. It was not a simple task. We ended up with both Emma and I in the water guiding it into place whilst a poor passer-by was persuaded to heave the mammoth tiller from above. The poor guy didn’t know where to look.
This might be a good time to mention that Em and I had a civil partnership last week. This boat trip was our honeymoon. If ever a relationship was tested…
But…we fixed it!!
We carried on through pleasant rolling hills and more boring bits and took the unequivocal advice to moor up for the night at the Rose of Lancaster pub shortly after Chadderton.
Failsworth to Manchester – the ‘Manchester 18 locks’
These locks are notorious for being dificult, broken, and running through ‘rough areas’. But you know what? Only a couple of the locks were broken – not impassably, only minor things such as one paddle not working – and this famously awful stretch was absolutely fine. Plus, the people were just so chatty and nice and we had so much help from passers-by who stopped and helped or wanted to talk boats with us.
Failsworth top lock (no.65) is the first – all works fine. We met a lovely family here who were thinking of buying their own liveaboard boat, so chatted to them for ages about the pros and cons of life on a narrowboat, before heading on through.
More locks. And then disaster struck again.
Between locks 68 and 70 – either side of Newton Heath lock – is a really tricky stretch of canal. There’s some nasty ledging on the towpath side, and signs warning of obstructions on the other.
We got through the first bit and passed through Newton Heath lock (no.69), but ran onto a huge piece of concrete (or something) right after – at the brightly painted library. One sign pointed one way around the obstruction…and a second sign pointed the other. We later discovered that the second sign had spun around to point the wrong way…which was of course the way we went.
It took letting a LOT of water through from the lock above and the heaving of many kind men (including some CRT chaps who we called for help) to get Flo free again but eventually she was floating and ready to cruise again.
On we went…until it became clear that something had gone very wrong inside the engine. Emma climbed in to investigate and discovered that in all the kerfuffle when we were stuck, the engine box had flooded, floating some redundant wiring over to the propellor shaft…where it had got tightly wrapped, yanking all of the engine wiring with it.
The engine was disconnected and wouldn’t restart. Two passers-by took a look – no joy.We called and left messages for several mechanics, none responded. An 80-year-old man named Bob (who would shortly become our ultimate narrowboat hero) spent hours fiddling with wires and fixing up bits of the engine. But still no joy.
Then person after person walking past told us we needed to move along or risk waking up to a ‘burnt out shell’ in the morning. I don’t like to think the worst of people but when six different residents tell you the local kids will set fire to your home you do kinda take it seriously.
So with no alternative, we started hauling Flo along to the next lock. And through. And the next lock. And through. And then Bob came back to help us! What a guy. It was about 3.30 at this point – and Bob stuck with us til the very end of the day.
This was hard, hard work – each lock has a bridge at the end and getting the ropes under became an amazing feat Emma and Bob performed over and over again while I ran onwards to set the next lock, back to help, then back again to close the gates of the previous.
The locks themselves were all fine – after the Newton’s Heath estate is a long series of locks – most very pretty – dropping steeply down towards Manchester.
We pulled her through twelve locks in all, passing Butler Lane lock (no.81) and reaching the city at 9.00 in the dark.
And we finally reached New Islington Marina. We had a celebratory cup of tea and put poor Bob (“I don’t know about you, but I’m buggered” he said cheerfully) in a taxi, before hitting the town, downing several large glasses of wine and eventually dropping into bed.
Having never left the Todmorden/Hebden Bridge area in her whole life, Flo had finally reached her new home in the city.
Some useful links:
➥ Map of the Rochdale Canal and general info on the Canal & River Trust website.
➥ Wikipedia article on the Rochdale Canal – particularly useful because it has a map of all the locks.
➥ Contact details for Canal & River Trust Manchester and Pennine office (put it in your phone before setting off!)