Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Rochdale Restored is the copyright of Jim Shead - At last we make the journey across the entire length of the Rochdale Canal. First published in Waterways World April 2005.
The Rochdale Canal has had more than its fair share of stoppages since the whole canal was reopened in 2002 and our previous plans to cross the Pennines by this route had been thwarted by emergency closures. It was not until July 2004 that we managed to embark on the trip that we hoped would take us east into Yorkshire on the Rochdale Canal to return by way of the Huddersfield Narrow. It was a fine sunny Sunday morning when we moored at Castlefield Junction ready for an afternoon trip up the notorious Rochdale Nine locks.
The Rochdale Nine Locks are the only part of the canal that remained open after the abandonment of the rest of the canal in 1952 and this concession was only obtained after a campaign to preserve the route for the Cheshire Ring. These locks are often the target for well founded criticism but lets not forget that before British Waterways took over the canal from the Rochdale Canal Company a few years ago the flight was in an even worse state and there was a substantial charge for using this short flight.
Two boats were heading up the flight before us, destined for the Ashton canal. They had considerable difficulty in closing one of the tail gates on the bottom lock. These gates don't have balance beams and are opened by an arrangement of chains and winches. A group of bystanders provided lots of extra muscle power before the gate could be shut. We followed them up the flight and were joined in the bottom lock by Peter and Judy also planning to cross the length of the Rochdale Canal on their narrowboat Merlin. We had not met them before but they proved to be knowledgeable and competent boaters as well as excellent companions on this testing voyage.
Although the Rochdale Nine are not easy navigate they were at least familiar to us. We were not surprised by the lack of towpath in some sections, the water rushing through the by-washes, the gay-bars beside the locks or the dark subterranean lock that attracts so many unsavoury characters. At the top of the nine we moored near the junction with the Ashton Canal for the night as the next section of the Rochdale is kept locked and passage through has to be booked with BW. To book passage through these locks and the Summit section telephone BW on 01925 847725.
There is not much mooring space here and we had to breast-up with another boat and a BW work boat full of rubbish that had filled the available space. We were advised not to moor on the towpath side as the previous night a boat had been interfered with there. The next morning we set off shortly before BW arrived to unchain the gates of lock 83 and were soon passing the old mills of Manchester. The locks are numerous and heavy to work but we were soon making good progress with Peter riding ahead on his bike to prepare locks.
From the top of the Rochdale Nine to the Rochdale Summit was all new territory to us and it seemed that boats were still a new phenomena to the locals who watched us at bridges and rushed to the ends of their gardens to see us pass. At the railway bridge just before lock 76 a gang of railway workers were tipping stones from the track through an opening under the bridge into the canal. Any that fell on the towpath were then shovelled into the canal. It seems that this is a practice that dates from the time when the canal was abandoned and that now it has been restored it is up to BW to remove this debris. The stones did not cause us any difficulties but other rubbish in the canal did and both boats had to stop twice before lunch that day to clear the props. On one occasion yards of plastic sheeting wrapped itself around the propellers of both craft and melted into a solid lump encircling the shaft. We were told to keep going until we got to Failsworth Top Lock, No. 65, which is the other end of the BW controlled section. Here we found the top gates locked but BW soon arrived to open them. It had taken us 5 hours 55 minutes to travel just under four miles and 18 locks.
We had stopped for lunch above the lock but Merlin travelled further up the two mile pound, under the M60, to wait for us at the Grimshaw Lane Lift Bridge. They had encountered some stone throwers on this stretch but we had an uneventful trip when we followed to meet them at this unique electrically operated vertical lift bridge. Arriving at the next lock a woman with a dog asked if we had just been through the bridge. Apparently she walked her dog past it everyday and had never seen it working. We stopped overnight at Chadderton Bridge outside the Rose of Lancaster pub, which is the recommended stopping place around these parts. It was certainly a pleasant spot with a view across the fields to the next two locks and a welcoming canalside pub serving good food.
The next day we spent another long "morning" travelling the 9½ miles and 16 locks to Littleborough. This took us 5 hours 35 minutes including some more time spent clearing rubbish from props. This trip included passing through the outskirts of Rochdale where local people out for walks gave us friendly waves as we passed the otherwise uninspiring townscape. The landscape became more rural and we encountered a couple of swing bridges before arriving at Littleborough at 2.30 for a late lunch and some shopping. In the afternoon we only ascended two locks to the water point and sanitary station, the first we had encountered on the canal. We stopped here because from here to the summit is another length where passage must be booked with BW. The Rochdale Canal has a problem with water supply so trips across the summit are limited to booked boats and their passage is controlled by the lock keeper to ensure the best use of the available water.
Our third day of travelling with Merlin started well as we shared the first few locks but we soon came to locks that we could not share. These locks had distorted walls which meant that two narrowboats side by side would not fit. This slowed our progress and more importantly used more of the scarce water supply. The lock keeper arrived to see how far we had progressed and to co-ordinate our passage with the boats coming down from the summit. At one point he tied the Lorna-Ann by her centre rope to a railing below a lock to await the approaching craft. Unfortunately by the time we were ready to go the water had gone down by two feet, the boat was leaning over at an uncomfortable angle and the rope was too tight for anyone to release. In the end I had to cut the rope close to its roof anchor point. The boat made a sudden sideways move and rocked violently from side to side a few times but amazingly only one item inside fell down and nothing was broken.
The pound below the summit was so low that boats were going aground coming down and going up. The lock keeper gave directions for keeping in the least shallow channel and we slowly progressed towards the lock where two boats were struggling to get out over the cill. Once into West Summit Lock, No. 37, the situation looked much brighter with the summit length before us and the particularly attractive lockside buildings in rural surroundings. On the summit level the water seemed to be at a reasonable level although the towpath here is very high above the waterline. I have always assumed that this was one of those especially deep summit pounds built to act as a reservoir but I haven't found any written evidence of this. The scenery here is spectacular, the sun was shining and we were back on waters that were familiar to us. We had first been on this summit level in May 1996, shortly after the opening of Tuel Lane Lock, at Sowerby Bridge, which reconnected the Rochdale Canal with the rest of the canal system.
We moored below Longlees Lock, No. 36, and went to the excellent Bird i'th Hand pub for lunch with Peter and Judy. It was here that we were to part company with Merlin as we had our separate plans and timetables for the remainder of the voyage. We had already made four trips to this eastern side of the canal, two of which are were described in previous articles - Rochdale Reconnection (WW November 1996) and Rochdale Revisited (WW November 2000). This side of the canal has been opened for much longer than the other therefore more of the problems have been sorted out and there are more canalside facilities, although still not as many as you will find on most midland canals. The scenery is good and you are never far from a pub. If you want somewhere to eat I can recommend the Cross Keys above Travis Mill Lock at Walsden, The White Lion in the town at Hebden Bridge and the Shoulder of Mutton near the railway station at Mytholmroyd. For shopping there are the towns of Todmorden, the more tourist centred Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge at the eastern end of the canal.
To complete our journey of 13 miles and 34 locks to the basin at Sowerby Bridge took us 12 hours. This side of the canal is busier than the Manchester end due to the comparative lack of restrictions and the presence of Shire Cruisers at Sowerby Bridge whose boats can be regularly seen on the Rochdale as well as other canals in this area.
Tuel Lane Lock is the one place where hours are restricted. It can only be operated by a lock keeper (contact the BW Warrington Office - telephone 01925 847700 - for details of the lock opening times). We arrived at Sowerby Bridge on the 25th July 2004 having taken 32 hours 35 minutes cruising time to cross the 32 miles and 91 locks of the canal. By the 19th of August the route was closed again due to an embankment collapse at Stanycliffe below lock 59.
This embankment is now repaired and we can once more use the earliest of our Trans-Pennine routes but you may be wondering if you should make the trip. If you are what marketing people call an "early adopter" then you will be going as soon as possible. I usually avoid being an early adopter as they always pay more for something that will be better and cheaper in a years time, however, I do make an exception for newly opened stretches of waterway. On the waterways you may pay more for being amongst the first (as those of us who paid to use the Anderton Lift and Standedge Tunnel will know) but the real cost is in the extra work and delays caused by a navigation with teething problems. If you are prepared to put up with this have a go. It may be some comfort to recall that these kinds of problems were common on our canals in the 1960s and that then everyone thought this route had gone for ever.
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