Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Best Laid Schemes is the copyright of Jim Shead - A trip across the Mersey and onto the Manchester Ship Canal ends at The Inland Waterways National Festival in the fifth of "Jim's Jottings". Published in Waterways World November 1998
The Best Laid Schemes
According to Robert Burns "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley" and even with all the advantages of the modern world our plans do not always go as we would wish. My trip to the National Waterways Festival at Salford Quays illustrates the truth of this old maxim.
The first part of the route from Wigan to Lydiate, 12 miles from Liverpool, was taken at a very relaxed pace through the flat rural landscape. We sampled some of the many pleasant country pubs that line this part of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and really enjoyed the scenery, improved by one or two days of unaccustomed sunshine. At Lydiate we joined a small armada of boats that would be making a crossing of the Mersey from Liverpool to the Manchester Ship Canal at Eastham. At a briefing meeting here we were told that instead of crossing the Mersey on Saturday, as planned, we would have to go on Sunday as a large tanker was expected at Liverpool at our scheduled departure time. Also, because the lock we were due to use was required for commercial traffic on Sunday, we would have to travel 2 miles through the docks to Gladstone Lock and this would lengthen our trip up the tideway by a similar distance.
At 6 a.m. on Friday morning we all set off for Liverpool, the various swing bridges on the way being worked by a team of BW men. The trip to Eldonian Village, at the end of the canal, took about 4 hours. Here there are good moorings for anyone wanting to visit the city, however we turned onto the arm just before the village, and went down the four locks that lead into Stanley Dock. A large swing bridge bars the entrance to Nelson Dock, where we were due to moor for the night, so we all had to moor on the dock wall to wait for the whole convoy, of 29 boats, to assemble. Unfortunately there was a strong wind, blowing off the Mersey, which caught the boats as they turned the corner into the dock. Many of the leading boats were swept into the dock wall and the following boats into them. You can bump into a lot of nice people when you are out boating, and they can bump into you. Because of the force of the wind it was decided that we would not attempt to go through the swing bridge until Saturday afternoon, which gave us a chance to look round Liverpool.
On Sunday morning we set off from Nelson Dock at 4 a.m. through the docks in the dark to Gladstone Lock. In the huge ship lock the whole convoy breasted up across the dock, looking very small in just the front section of the lock. We were gently lowered about 15 feet and the gates opened in front of us to reveal the Mersey, looking reassuringly calm in the grey dawn light. Looking back, towards the gates behind us, we saw a large ship, already moored in the rear section of the lock, towering impressively above. Once out on the river the crossing was relatively smooth, only one or two places having any noticeable swell, no wind, and only the light rain marring an otherwise perfect trip. We were on schedule to reach Eastham Lock at 8.15 a.m. until a message was passed through the convoy that the lock would not be ready until 8.50. We all slowed down and milled around outside the lock. Luckily it was a calm day.
The lock gates opened at 9am and we made our way into the lock battling with the fierce by-weir that flows from the right of the lock entrance. The sense of security and relaxation once inside the lock proved premature because when the lock started filling it was with a rush of water, from a single point on one side, which caused one boat to lean at a really alarming angle. Once out of Eastham Lock we made good progress down the Manchester Ship Canal, passing a large ship held by tugs fore and aft just before we reached the days moorings at Ellesmere Port, 6 1/2 hours after our pre-dawn start. Here we moored in the small basin below the locks, which had just enough room for all the boats breasted up across nearly the whole width. Here we rested in tranquillity for a short while until the water in the basin rose with a slurp and made a splash against the far wall, the ropes creaked, and the boats bumped and groaned. Then we were swept back to the opposite end of the basin. Ropes snapped, tillers clanged and hulls crashed in an onomatopoeic fury. A vessel had passed at speed on the ship canal. After this a cat's cradle of ropes appeared from boats to shore in all directions.
The next day the Mersey convoy was joined by boats from the Shropshire Union to form an 82 boat flotilla bound for the River Weaver by way of the Manchester Ship Canal. We were due to enter the Weaver through Weston Marsh Lock but, given the title of this piece, you will not be surprised to learn that we could not get through the lock and had to go on to Weston Point Dock, over a mile further down the ship canal. Weston Point Dock is a strange combination of a dock and a lock. It looks like a dock, and easily accommodated all the boats in the convoy, although having gates and paddles at each end it is possible to use it as a lock, lifting us a foot or two up from the ship canal to the Weaver.
We cruised the River Weaver as far as Vale Royal locks, where only the smaller of the two locks was working. Because of this, and the delay in entering the river, I felt it would be wise to turn back here, although many boats did go through the lock to cruise the last 3 miles. British Waterways, who organised a barbecue at Northwich Marina for us all, made everyone very welcome.
The whole convoy reassembled at Weston Point Dock ready for the final 25 miles, and 4 locks, of the Manchester Ship Canal. Just before 10 a.m. the lock gates opened and breasted pairs of narrowboats swarmed out onto the ship canal. At first the pace of the convoy was rather slow but gradually increased until it looked more like an aquatic gold rush. It was 10 miles to the first lock at Latchford where the majority of the boats got into the large lock, which is 65 feet wide and 600 feet long. The remaining boats went into the small lock, a mere 350 feet long. It took quiet a long time to pack all the boats into the lock and to slowly fill the chamber. In the next 13 miles this procedure was repeated at Irlam, Barton and Mode Wheel locks and it was nearly 8 p.m. by the time we got to Salford Quays. Welland Lock at the entrance to the quays is only big enough for 3 full length narrowboats so most of the boats had to spend the night on the ship canal. It had been a long day and a very unusual and interesting one. The weather was good and the sight of over ninety boats racing up the canal proved to be a great draw to the local population. People waved from factories, gardens, bridges and lock sides.
Apart from the first ten miles from Wigan this whole route was new to me and one I would not have attempted if it had not been for the convoys organised by the Inland Waterways Association. All too often when we attend organised events we allow grumbles about the difficulties and delays to overshadow the efforts of others on our behalf. On this occasion I would like to thank the IWA, and all the other organisations and individuals who helped to make the trip a success. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole trip.
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