Well Dear Reader, as you probably guessed from the title of this post, we did get down all the Wigan locks before the closure, but as you’ll discover it was very close and very nearly didn’t happen.
In response to Dave’s email, a very nice man called Jonathan, from CRT North West, called us back and told us when their volunteers would be working the Blackburn and Johnson’s Hillock flights, so if we could get ourselves in the right place at the right time they’d give us a hand. The Wigan flight, however, was still an unknown quantity.
Luckily our first two moves were lock and swing bridge free, so Ann-Marie could rest her ankle. We stopped at Weaver’s Triangle in Burnley for one night...
...then on to Hapton Bridge, where we drove to Accrington Victoria Community Hospital and had Ann-Marie’s ankle x-rayed. Thankfully it wasn’t broken, but it was still very painful and quite swollen. They told her to carry on with rest and gentle exercise and to keep it elevated as often as possible.
We found out that Chloe was coming over to Liverpool in a couple of days for a radiography conference. We also found out that Martin and Yvonne on Nb Evolution were going to be in Salthouse Dock in Liverpool at the same time. How perfect! However, before that happened we had to get through Blackburn.
We managed to get ourselves through the swing bridges on the next bit, past the halfway point at Church...
...before mooring on the 48s at Rishton Bridge.
A bit of history here. People often wonder why swing and lift bridges were always built so that the operator has to cross the bridge to open them, meaning that single handers can’t then get back to their boat to get it through the bridge.
It seems totally illogical, Captain. The reason is that when the canals were built, the boats had right-of-way. The wonderful new transport system couldn’t be held up, and the swing and lift bridges would have been left in the open position and operated, not by the boat crew, but by the farmer, or whoever else needed to cross, using a chain and a pole. And the reason they opened to the offside? So that they weren’t in the way of the towing rope.
In recent years a lot of movable bridges have either, in the case of electrified ones, been converted to towpath side operation or, like the ones we came across on that stretch, had moorings built on the off side. They were tricky to get the boat onto, but at least single handed boaters could operate them without having to tie the boat to the bridge and clamber off the front, or cajole a passing cyclist into lending a hand. Ann-Marie was starting to bear weight on her ankle, so she managed to get us through without too much trouble.
Early the next morning we pulled pins and set off for Blackburn...
...arriving at the top lock about half an hour before the volunteers. They were fabulous and had us down the flight in no time.
At the bottom we tied up for a cuppa, then while Dave went back up to the top and picked the car up, Ann-Marie steered Legend on towards Riley Green. The pub that we remembered being at Riley Green was now a demolition site, but the car park was still there, so Dave parked up and walked back along the towpath to meet Ann-Marie and hop aboard at a convenient bridge.
After lunch we drove to Magull and caught the train into Liverpool, then walked down to Salthouse Dock and had a lovely reunion with Martin and Yvonne on board Evolution.
Chloe turned up when her conference was over, she was very impressed with how spacious Evolution was compared to Legend, but as Yvonne pointed out, all their clutter lives in their house. A little while later we said goodbye to our lovely friends and went up into the city with Chloe for a pie dinner in the utterly amazing Philharmonic Dining Rooms. Afterwards we had a bit of a wander round and a coffee before we had to get our train back. A really lovely unexpected day and so brilliant to see everyone.
The next day was another early start although not a boat moving day. We had to be in National Tyres in Bolton for 9:00 for an MOT on the C3. The weather forecast was a bit dismal, so we thought we’d spend the day with bottomless coffee and free wifi. However, after dropping the keys off we found that Bolton ‘Spoons was closed while it was being refurbished. Disaster! We ended up in the M&S café for a second breakfast, which was nice but didn’t take anywhere near long enough. By 11:00 National Tyres hadn’t rung us and weren’t answering their phone, so a little scurry round the internet revealed the Bolton Museum and Aquarium, so off we went. The aquarium was astonishing and well worth a visit if you find yourselves in the area. It specialises in rare fresh water tropical fish and we spent a good hour in there. There was still no word from National Tyres so we walked back to find that our poor little car had failed. We went off for a cuppa while we formed a plan of action, then went to Todmorden to see Nikki and Rob for a catch up and a meal in the pub.
Dave was out with the toolbox the next morning, using the nice flat demolished pub’s car park to good effect. The front wheels were catching on the inner wings on full lock, which was easily rectified by straightening the brackets and re-locating the inner wings. The handbrake wasn’t working on one wheel, which meant stripping the brake and freeing off a seized operating lever. All fairly easy, however it had also failed the emissions test, which wasn’t so easy. We got a new air filter and a bottle of engine cleaner and hoped for the best. In the afternoon Dave stashed all his tools back in the engine room and we moved Legend to the top of the Johnson Hillock flight ready to go down the following day.
In the morning it was all looking good. A group of volunteers turned up and we thought we’d have an easy trip down the flight. However, no sooner had they arrived than they all left, presumably the message that we needed assistance had got lost in translation, and they all had other roles to play elsewhere. Dave began single handing down the first lock, but just as we were leaving it a crew of three turned up on a little wooden motorboat and asked us to wait. That made things a lot better; Ann-Marie could do a bit and between us we got down the rest of the flight fairly easily. Dave’s main concern was keeping our 20 tonne steel tank away from a very vulnerable looking, but utterly gorgeous, ex-hire motor-launch from Lake Windermere.
We had one night at the bottom of the flight, then a couple at Adlington where we went for a walk round a bit of Rivington Reservoir...
...and had a famous Fredrick’s ice cream on the way home. The water level was becoming noticeably lower; it was getting difficult to get to the edge in some places and we felt ourselves bumping on the bottom quite a few times. The pound we were in, between Johnson’s Hillock and Wigan is 10 miles long, and a drop of 6-8” is a lot of water. No wonder there were plans for closure.
From Addlington we took the car for a retest which turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. We expected it to be a ten minute job, but this is National Tyres and things don’t work like that. 3 hours after our booking time it finally got into the test bay. We were completely underwhelmed by their customer service but in the end it passed, so it’s all water under the bridge. We got back to Legend much later than we’d planned, but it was a lovely evening so we decided to boat down to Red Rock, leaving us only a mile or so to get to Wigan Top lock in the morning.
We’d not heard anything from CRT about volunteer assistance for the Wigan flight, but Ann-Marie was getting more mobile every day, and we knew from the Wigan Flight Crew facebook page that there would be other boats going down in the morning as well. Dave took the car to the top lock and cycled back, stopping to chat with the other people who were already queued up. There were three boats there, Legend made four, and they knew of at least two more that were planning to go as well.
So, the main event. Wigan 21. The last time we tackled this flight was 9 years ago in December. The entire flight was frozen, we had to ice-break all the way up and it took us two days to get to the top. David and Kate came to help us and we really have no idea why we went ahead with it. We should have all just gone to the pub for the day instead and waited until it thawed, But we were new and naïve and we’d been moored up for 14 days and thought we’d get in trouble if we didn’t go.
Ok, pay attention because this is where it gets complicated. At the bottom of the Wigan flight there is a T junction. Turning right takes you down the rest of the L&L to Liverpool. Turning left takes you down the Leigh branch towards Manchester. Both directions involve going down locks, so although boats coming down the flight bring some water with them, any boat movement across the junction takes water out of it. The first two locks on the Leigh branch are notoriously leaky and the short pound between them is empty most of the time. With the increasingly lower water levels, and more boat movements than usual because of people trying to get back to their marinas before the closures, the junction pound was becoming un-navigable, and the Wigan lock keeper had closed it the day before to allow it to recover.
CRT were closing the flight to navigation on the 18th of July, we were going away on the 15th. Today was Tuesday the 12th, so we had a few days in hand, or so we thought. On that morning, Martin and Yvonne on Nb Evolution were going across the junction from right to left on their way out of Liverpool. The Mikes, on board Nb Shanti were going the opposite way across the junction on their way to their marina mooring on the Rufford Branch. M&Y phoned us and said that they’d moor up as soon as they were through and walk up the flight to give us a hand coming down. We talked about postponing our trip till the next day so that they could help us right from the top, but luckily (as you’ll see) we stuck to plan A. So while Shanti and Evolution were crossing bows and struggling with low water levels in the junction basin, we began our descent. We, along with Paul and Jamie on Nb Katie were the second pair going down.
The most important thing to get right when you’re going down a flight is to preserve the water you’re using. It’s important to not empty the lock the boat is in until the top paddles on the lock below are open. That way the water goes from one lock to the next and not down the bywash.
Getting that wrong can leave you with a low pound in front of you and a flooded towpath further down. With Ann-Marie setting ahead and Jamie closing up behind, we made good progress. M&Y managed to get to us about two thirds the way down just about the time when Ann-Marie was starting to flag. She got sent indoors with strict instructions to rest (which she promptly ignored and made tea for everyone instead) and with their help we got down to the last lock with no problem.
And that’s where it all came to a halt. We were in the last lock looking down over the bottom gates and watching the two boats in front of us go into the junction basin. The water was quite clearly very low, the mud banks at both sides were exposed and we could see two other boats that had been hoping to come up the flight, but instead had been aground at the side all day. The first of the moving boats disappeared round the corner, but the second one got slower and slower and finally ran aground right in the middle of the channel. So that was that, the basin was un-navigable.
We had an impromptu picnic on the lock beam while decisions were made...
...then the lock keeper declared the flight closed for a couple of days and put padlocks on the gates in front of us. He told us that the pumps from the river Douglas and the by-wash coming down the flight would refill the junction basin overnight and then us and the other trapped boats would be allowed across it, but no-one else would be coming down the flight.
The two boats behind us had caught up and were moored on the lock landings, so Legend and Katie had a night in a lock. We’d already been in it for an hour or more and the water hadn’t dropped, so we knew the bottom gates weren’t leaking, but to be on the safe side we tied the top gates open and put very slack lines on to stop us drifting backwards.
We had a message from the Mikes saying they were moored up near Crooke so we arranged to go and moor with them the next day when we got moving again. We’d invited M&Y over for chilli, but they’d left Evolution in a hurry and wanted to get back and sort her out, so instead we wrapped the pan of chilli in a towel, then packed it, and a bag of Doritos, into Ann-Marie’s bike basket and cycled down the towpath, past the empty pound between the locks...
...to where Evolution was moored, for another fabulous fun evening with our wonderful friends.
As promised, the water levels recovered overnight, all the grounded boats were refloated and at 9:00 the padlocks were removed. Legend and Katie dropped down into the junction basin where we gingerly chugged round the corner, before dropping down Henhurst lock and out of the danger zone.
Our second attempt at the Wigan 21 had taken two days as well and we kept reminding ourselves that if everything hadn’t gone to plan over the previous couple of week and we’d lost just one of our ”days in hand” we’d be stuck at the top of the locks waiting for it to rain. At that point a two day descent would have seemed very desirable. Wigan is our new Nemesis.
We worked through the next couple of locks with Paul and Jamie, then saw the familiar figure of Mike R winding the paddles on Ell Meadow. We let Katie go on and breasted up alongside Nb Shanti.
The last time we saw the Mikes’ boat she was on the River Great Ouse and a sort of faded blue. She was now a lovely bottle green with a new sign writing and covers, and a very impressive solar array on the roof. The boys had been busy and were loving their new life as continuous cruisers. They were heading to a marina up the Rufford branch where they were going to leave Shanti while they returned to the states for a month, and we were off to Liverpool, but before we parted company we had a couple of weeks to do a bit of joint cruising and make the most of each other’s company. We really do love this serendipitous life.