For our October holiday we tried something new this year - travelling the canals of North West England by narrowboat.
Ewan had been on several such holidays as a teenager, and was keen to let the rest of us experience this. We had a fantastic week and I enjoyed (almost) every minute, but it wasn't as I'd expected. I'd set off with romantic notions of tootling along the peaceful canals with autumnal trees overhanging the boat whilst I caught up on some reading - for the most part, nothing could be further from the truth!
The route we chose was the Cheshire Ring, starting and ending at Middlewich. We travelled down by train to Crewe which was by far the best way to travel, particularly as we had no use for our car during the week.
We picked up our boat, Larch, were given a guided tour of her and shown how to go through our first lock. Then we were left to our own devives - 92 locks in under 100 miles, and all to be completed in a week.
It was a real adventure. On Day One we did our first five locks and got to grips with the whole thing. Day Two had 27 locks and we had a really great time working our way through them. The girls and I soon developed a system to work together as a team on the locks, whilst Ewan did the driving.
Day Three was when the heavy rain started. We had a 12 lock flight to complete, which was pretty easy. The physical work involved in winding the paddles up and down and opening the heavy gates kept us cosily warm despite the constant rain. We also had a couple of swing bridges to open.
On Day Four we had a particularly challenging flight of 16 locks to complete in half a mile. The scenery at this point looked beautiful, but due to the dreadful weather we hadly saw any of it. It's hard to describe what made these locks so tricky - it was all to do with the height of the beam that you push to open the gates.
Day Five was the hardest by far. Now that we were lock experts we thought that nothing could faze us. Wrong!! This day involved travelling along the Ashton Canal which took us through an industrial area to the east of Manchester. Whilst filling the boat with water we met a man who lives on a houseboat moored near the start of a flight of 16 locks. He warned us of the difficulties of getting through the 'Rochdale Nine' - the locks in central Manchester - and reminded us that you have to be safely moored up before it gets dark, particularly in this area. This was to be quite a challenge.
The Ashton Canal has a sad history of vanadlism-induced closure. When it was reopened in the 1970s all the locks were fitted with a special locking mechanism, for which we'd been given a key. This slowed the process down, as did the fact that some of the paddles just wouldn't open.
British Waterways advise no stopping on this canal, and also that you avoid using it during school holidays. Of course, we knew none of this until we were well on our way and there was no going back!
Unfortunately I have no photos of this stretch - it rained incessantly (which thankfully kept the neds away) and we were keen to get through them as quickly as possible.
I do have this one, taken at the end of the flight, and showing some of the amazing architecture of Manchester.
Then the truly difficult bit started - in the city centre were the nine heaviest lock gates of all. The canal was overflowing and water was cascading over the top of the gates - this made them very difficult to open, and too scary to walk across. As a result we only opened one side of each pair of gates, which thankfully was wide enough to let our boat pass through. This was a very slow, physically demanding process, not helped by the two subterranean locks where some local winos were watching us.
We did eventually managed to get through all nine, and moored for the night at a modern, redeveloped canal basin in the city centre.
We were surrounded by nice eateries, and we had well and truly earned the Chocolate Volcanoes that we had for our pudding that night!
Days Six and Seven were a doddle! There was one tiddly wee lock and three excitingly long tunnels, and we were finally able to relax.
It was at this point that I wished we had a different boat. We'd chosen a traditional narrowboat. This meant that it had no outside seating area other than the roof. There was little room to stand by the tiller so having all four of us there at once was a bit of a squash. So we alternated between driving, chatting to the driver, sitting inside and sitting on the roof.
It's fascinating to see the country from the canal. You really do see a different world (both rural and industrial) and a different way of life for the many people living on houseboats along the route.
Day Eight saw our final few locks and the return of Larch to the boatyard.
Would we do it again? Absolutely, but I wouldn't recommend this route for beginners, and next time we'll have a boat which is a bit more versatile. It's very expensive to hire the boats (which is why we went in October) but we were so busy doing the locks and tootling along through the countryside that we didn't spend any money other than on evening meals in pubs along the route.
Since arriving home we've already been looking at other routes and hire companies. Maybe next October...