Is it like climbing a mountain?
Why do we do this? I asked myself this question as I wrestled with the fifth lock on the Wigan flight, looked at my watch, saw we’d been going for an hour and realised that there could be another four hours of this to go.
Worse, I had just felt the first spits of rain on my head.
By lock 20 of the 21, it was getting dark and the rain was now pouring down. Five hours had passed since we started up the flight and the vision of pie and chips and a pint at the Kirkless Hall, that had been keeping me going as I got ever wetter, was suddenly dashed when I discovered that the pub had stopped serving food at seven. It was now eight!
Thoroughly soaked, Mrs B and me finished the last two locks in something similar to the state of depression England fans must have felt after watching Iceland beat them at the Euros. We rounded the corner at the top of the locks, moored instantly, dropped wet clothes in the bath and opened two tins of curry. (There are times when even CanalBoat’s cookery columnist feels beyond preparing anything more than a saucepan of rice!)
So why on earth do we do this? Clearly not many other people were doing it – we hadn’t passed a single soul going either way on the entire flight. I suppose, for us, it’s partly the old mountain climber’s answer: “because it’s there.” A tough lock flight is a challenge – and we’ve done ’em all.
But it’s not just that: in fact we’d done the Leeds & Liverpool Canal twice already though this was the first time we’d done the LiverpoolLeeds version. Or, to be more exact, the Wigan-Leeds version. And, in case you’re wondering, going up the Wigan flight is a whole lot harder than it ever was coming down. A bit like climbing the North face of the Eiger instead of the south one.
The real story is that, quite simply, we like it ‘oop north’. All that effort on the locks is worthwhile when you get out of the town and gaze at that spectacular Pennine country. The views are breathtaking – and as I write this, we haven’t even reached the best of them, where the canal weaves its way sinuously around the contours of the dramatic landscape near Gargrave. And after that we have Skipton, then the Bingley Five Rise locks, the remarkable Saltaire and finally Leeds itself. What’s not to like?
The canals up here are much less busy than those down south, too. This year even more so: in the 40 miles since Wigan I doubt we have seen more than a dozen boats on the move. I’ve been wondering why; I suppose some of the reason is the flooding problems that have closed the Rochdale and (until recently) the Calder & Hebble, narrowing down people’s boating options.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason. I think people are easily frightened off and, sadly, some of these areas have reputations that go before them.
Yes, the Wigan locks are hard work – harder than they should be, to be honest, if they had better maintenance – but bandit country? We’ve never met anything but friendliness and offers of help from passers-by on the towpath. The dreaded Blackburn is much cleaner and tidier now; Burnley likewise. I’d rather be going through these places than some of the backwaters we’ve travelled in Birmingham.
Two years ago we did the Rochdale Canal, another of those that provokes much sucking in of breath and shaking of heads. So much so, in fact, that many boaters go up the pretty Yorkshire side, turn and come back down for fear of what they might come across heading down to Manchester. Again, it’s hard work in places, rough in others, but always fascinating and nothing that a bit of commonsense won’t get you through.
I would definitely say, give the Northern waterways a try. If for no other reason than: the next time we are here we might find a boat or two to share the wide locks with.
‘Going up the Wigan flight is a lot harder than coming down, a bit like climbing the north face of the Eiger instead of the south’
It’s worth it for this scenery