Thursday, 12 August 2010

Walking the Wigan Flight

On Sunday, the 1st of August, we wanted to walk along the canal in a place that we’ve never been before, so we packed up the dog and headed towards Wigan and its famous flight of locks.

The Wigan Flight is a series of 21 locks in a two-mile stretch on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. At the bottom of the flight narrow boat captains have a choice at the junction to either turn onto the Bridgewater canal towards Manchester or continue on through two more locks towards Wigan Pier and heading toward Leeds.

We parked just above the top lock, in a residential area by the Wigan Road Bridge and walked along the muddy canal path to the Top Lock. The day was cloudy with just a hint of rain in the air. The smell, the canal and the air was so fresh and the water so still, it seems as if the only thing moving was us. The area and the view of fields on the other side of the canal were stunningly green.

I'm not sure, but I think these are water lilies calmly resting in the water.

We reached the Top Lock and were surprised to see that the canal split here into two directions. One leading to what seemed a derelict section and the other leading down the flight. On our side of the canal was a water point and a building with restrooms and a sanitation station for boaters. Across the way was a bridge covered in the green of trees and a park like area. Beautiful.

This park is on the other side of the canal from us, but we definitely knew we were in the right place.

View from the Top Lock down the canal.

If you'd like to see a better view of the flight. Mr Daniel Oakley's Blog has a much better picture here.

We started walking down the path and were soon surprised to see a narrow boat completely turned sideways right in front of the third lock. The man on board seemed to be trying to straighten it out and guide it into the lock gate. As we got closer I noticed the name of the boat and was shocked at the condition of it.

Years ago, I used to read a blog about this boat, and the pictures then of the boat were nothing like what it looked like today. The man came out and jumped off the boat and onto the canal side, opened the lock gate, then jumped back on and grabbed his barge pole to shove against the side of the canal to straighten the boat before putting it into gear and driving into the lock and positioning it against the front gate. Then he hopped off the boat and shut the gate behind it.

It looked like he was doing this alone! We just had to watch how he did this so we stood by and watched with our mouths agape. He was like a whirling dervish. He hopped on and off the boat, closing gates, twisting paddles to empty the lock, running down to set the next lock, coming to open the gate to the one he was in, driving to the next lock, closing the gate behind, opening the gate in front of him and driving in, etc.

He said his name is Jimmy.

Jimmy driving his narrow boat out of the lock.

We got to talk to him as he rushed past us. He said he was traveling on his own and was trying to get down the flight before this section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal was closed*. I asked him about the narrow boat itself, asking him if he had a blog. After explaining to him what a blog was, he stated he didn’t own a computer but that the former owner had taken it along the Thames and all over the UK canal system and he thought Dan had written about their journeys. Man, I hope this isn’t the same narrow boat, what a shame if it is!

We walked a ways down further, looking at the surroundings, enjoying the sounds of the birds, the hushed tones of couples walking by, the laughter of kids on the other side of the fence, the sounds of two or three football practices.

Then we saw a flurry of activity about three locks down from us, kids and adults racing back and forth working the lock as two narrow boats, one green and the other blue entered. Another flurry as they separated, some running down to the next lock to get it ready, then running back to help with the lock gates to let the boats out. The operation looked like a well-oiled machine.

The two captains also looked like the best of friends, I can only assume they were on family holiday and having the time of their lives. They let me take a picture of their boats as they were going down in the lock with the captain of the blue narrow boat laughingly complaining his boat is better looking and it wont be seen in the picture!

Green Man and Company going down in the lock with the sinking water level.

I wish I had gotten a better picture of this artwork on the side of Green Man. There's a face in the star of leaves. I love it!

We continued on our way and saw the junction where the canal splits off onto the Bridgewater canal and a signpost pointing in the direction of a town or city on that canal. The Mr asked which way we would go if we were on a narrow boat, but I didn’t recognized the places on the pointer and told him I thought we would just go straight. If we had been on a narrow boat I would have done my homework and would’ve known exactly which way to go. But we weren’t, so I didn’t and his point was fairly mute. Turns out, straight would have been the right decision. The Wigan Flight ends here at this junction.

We decided to keep walking because we hadn’t passed the Wigan Pier yet. We could tell we were getting close because the canal was no longer just trees, grass and farmland but it was showing signs of citylife, more bridges, more cars, more houses, more people along the bank and industrial sites. We also passed a British Waterways office and drydock and two more locks. Soon we came across a woman sitting on a bench, she seemed quite stiff and mute. As we walked further we would later discover a man looking over a wall that seemed to be afflicted with the same problem.

This lady is representative the local cotton workers in 1910.

The man represents life on the canal in 1880. As you can see he's got himself stuck between a corner and lightpole.

We had made it to Wigan Pier, a full three miles from where we started. By now we were hungry and the dog was acting tired and looking thirsty. We crossed a bridge over the canal to The Orwell, a restaurant and pub. From the outside it seemed to be a refurbished mill with an outside eating area situated over the edge of the canal itself.

Pictured on the right is a sign hanging just outside the ladies room. It says:
To be Observed by
the Hands Employed
RULE 1 All overlookers shall be on the premises first.
2 Any person coming late, shall be fined as follows
For 5mins. 2d, 10mins. 4d, 15mins 6d, etc.
3 For bobbins on the floor, 1d each bobbin.
4 For waste on the floor, 2d.
5 For oil spilled, 2d. and the price of oil.
6 Any persons leaving their work and found talking with
other workpeople will be fined 2d. each offence.
7 For every Oath 3d. for the first offence and if repeated
they shall be dismissed.
8 If two persons are known to be in one Necessary
together, they shall be fined 3d. each and if
any Man or Boy go into the Ladies Necessary
He shall be dismissed immediately.
9 The Masters recommend that their workpeople
wash themselves everyday, but they must
wash themselves twice a week,
on Monday and Thursday; and any found not
washed will be fined 3d.
10 All persons wishing to leave our employ
shall serve 1 weeks notice. But The Masters
shall and will sack without notice
(Company Name indistinguishable) Mill ca. 1856

And we thought we had it rough!

We walked up to the restaurant/pub and crossed the boardwalk with our dog where we saw a waiter standing outside. I asked if the dog was allowed. He was! The waiter told us of a special price Sunday Roast carvery they were having and we agreed to the meal along with a pint. For £13 we got a pint each and a meal for two. The waiter was extremely nice, even to the point of giving our dog meat scraps. I think dog got more meat than we did! But our meals were extremely filling with a choice of Texas roast beef, roast pork, or roast chicken, choice of roast and/or boiled potatoes, mixed vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, also on offer was a sautéed bell pepper - onion mixture seasoned with Cajun spices. And if you're still hungry, there is a choice of desserts on offer as well, all included in the price of the meal. The pints are extra. The Orwell has a marvelous friendly staff and an atmosphere in keeping with the history of the Mill it once was. If you find your way to Wigan Pier, I suggest you try this new place out. I honestly don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Our dog, happy and full of meat scraps from The Orwell.

We retraced our steps back to the car. Unfortunately, we saw part of the reason why on the next day this part of the canal was going to be closed. Someone had left many of the lock gates open, letting tons of water flow freely between the locks that were left with one or both gates open. Because of someone’s thoughtlessness all this water was pouring through the gates.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal is fed from reservoirs and all this water was probably coming out of the dwindling water reserves stored in our already low reservoirs. If people like this continue to thoughtlessly leave lock gates open and it doesn’t rain enough to refill the reservoirs, this could lead to more canals closing before the end of the season. Let’s hope for more rain! However, it wouldn’t be a bad deal if it rained only at night when most people are sleeping.

People from all over the world come to the UK to rent narrow boats to travel up and down our canals for their holidays. Canal closures can severely cut into British Tourism

What do you think? Is there a way to save our canals, the people whose livlihoods depend on the canal and British Canal Tourism? How do the canals figure into your life? I’d love to hear your comments.

*August 2nd 2010 is the closure date set for this section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal from Wigan to Gargrave will be closed to save water which has dropped to an 80 year low during this year's drought condition. It will remain closed until further notice.

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