Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Lingering on the Lancaster is the copyright of Jim Shead - A journey to the Ribble Link and the Lancaster Canal. First published in Waterways World November 2003.
Lingering on the Lancaster
Almost a year after the opening of the Ribble Link we were heading from Wigan towards the Lancaster Canal. Being the kind of person that detests being late for anything I found that I still had 7 days before we were due at Tarleton Lock to start our crossing to the Ribble Link. This gave us the opportunity to revisit the Leeds & Liverpool Canal west of Wigan, a trip through pleasant countryside all the way down to Lydiate on the outskirts of Liverpool. What I had overlooked was the distinct poverty of facilities on this section of the canal. There is only one place to dump rubbish - just before the Rufford Branch - and when I rang British Waterways about pump out facilities the alternatives were to go back up the Wigan Flight to the White Bear Marina or down to the Mersey Motor Boat Club at Lydiate. Shopping at this end of the canal is also restricted, there being no supermarkets close to the canal between Wigan and Liverpool although there are Spar and similar shops in some of the villages.
Having spent a few days exploring the western end of the Leeds & Liverpool we turned down the Rufford Branch and descended the six wide locks spread over the first mile and a half of the branch. It's over a mile further to the seventh lock at Rufford. There are mooring places before the lock should you wish to stop and perhaps visit Rufford Old Hall, a 16th century National Trust Property on the banks of the canal. Beside Rufford Lock we saw a large new marina being excavated and further on, near Spark Bridge, a much needed new BW facilities station being built. The whole of the branch is in open countryside all the way to Tarleton. After Town End Swing Bridge are the last moorings before Tarleton Lock. These moorings are close to the village centre for shopping although they are even closer to industrial units whose main purpose seems to be the transport of heavy trailers along the road by the towpath. Harry Mayor is the lock keeper here and he came along to the moorings to brief us on the next day's journey down the River Douglas, up the River Ribble and into the entrance to the Ribble Link at Savick Brook. It was a very clear description of the journey that was greatly enhanced by a set of his photographs showing various features of the route. We also had the BW leaflet with a useful map of the route so felt fully prepared for the next day's crossing.
The next morning we set off down to the lock to await our turn out onto the tidal River Douglas. Both sides of the canal above the lock were crowded with boats of every type and there was no designated lock mooring so everyone drifted around waiting to go in. Luckily it was a calm day because with a stiff breeze some of the owners of the moored cruisers there would turn white at the sight of half a dozen steel narrowboats approaching. Once out of the lock we met a strong incoming tide pushing up the river, which is fairly narrow at this point. After a mile or so we reached Douglas Marine where the river widens out. It is about four miles from Tarleton Lock to Asland Lamp, which marks the turning point onto the River Ribble and by the time we get to this point the tide has turned and we must now push against it again up the Ribble to Savick Brook. The Ribble is wider, straighter and less interesting than the River Douglas so it was with great relief that we and two other boats turned into Savick Brook and made our way through the sea lock at the entrance to the Ribble Link. The following three boats were not so lucky as the tide was falling fast and they had to be diverted to Preston Dock.
British Waterways' men greeted us at the sea lock and told us to wait on pontoons above while the lock was closed. They then escorted us up the eight locks in the link. At this point you realize why there is a passage only in one direction each day. The channel is very narrow and shallow and if the pounds are down a foot or so negotiating bends can be tricky. We started off up the locks sharing with the narrowboat Q. E. Sue. In the third lock (number 6) I found that a cog wheel had come through the side of the gearbox casing and from that point on we were towed up the link by Jack and Sue on Q. E. Sue. The link ends with a staircase of three locks with a turning basin below to allow boats to turn the hairpin bend below the lock. Q. E. Sue tried to turn in this basin but the water level was down a little and they found it impossible. More water was let into the basin from the locks above and this had the effect of floating us backwards into the lock with Q. E. Sue following, thus we both ascended the staircase in reverse. The turning basin below the staircase is so shallow that boats frequently get stuck at this point and going up or down the locks backwards is a recognised technique for avoiding the problem.
At the top of the staircase locks is another basin and through the bridge the Lancaster Canal. The owners of Q. E. Sue kindly towed us another three miles to Salwick Wharf where we were to meet an engineer the next day to install a new gearbox. Thanks to a mobile phone and a credit card I had been able to locate an engineer who could do the job the next day, find a gearbox supplier and buy a new gearbox all without pausing in our journey. This whole journey to Salwick Wharf had taken just under eight hours whereas our return trip took five hours from the top of the Ribble Link to Tarleton. On our way to the Lancaster Canal we had spoken to several returning boaters and had been told "You need a month there really" and now that we had lost half a day because of our gearbox problem I realised my folly in only scheduling seven days for the trip. Luckily there was a spare place on the bookings for a return journey on the 17th of July so our seven day trip was extended to twenty days. If you plan to use the Ribble Link it is important to remember that access to it is limited. In the summer there are only 16 to 18 days each month when tides allow passages to take place and on each passage only six boats can travel in one direction.
Leaving the Ribble link the natural inclination is to turn left away from Preston. There are good countryside moorings just over a mile from the link but if you are looking for the hospitality of a local inn it is 3½ miles to the first one, the Hand & Dagger at Salwick Bridge. As luck would have it this is an excellent pub serving a good range of food. Nearly the whole of the Lancaster Canal is rural with very little industry in sight. In some places the route seems to have more than its fair share of electricity pylons especially on the southern end of the navigation. The moorings on the Lancaster Canal are often very shallow even in recognised mooring places where bollards or mooring rings are provided. We did not have to use our gang plank to get ashore but frequently moored with the bow in to the bank and the stern well out. This is a canal that until recent years was used almost exclusively by cruisers, and is still dominated by them, a factor that seems to have supported a policy of only dredging moorings to a depth of around two-foot or less at the edge.
Going north we pass a marina and boatyard at Swillbrook and another marina at Moons Bridge but it is not until we get to Bilsborrow, 10 miles from the Ribble Link, that we come to the first canalside village. This is a very lively place that is a blend of old village, caravan park and a development called "Guy's Thatched Village" where fake thatched buildings are being built next to the genuine articles. Another four miles that include four aqueducts, woods, open fields and views of distant hills bring us to Garstang, a pleasant little town with a good selection of pubs and restaurants, shops and services including a supermarket. Heading out of the town we pass three marinas which are full of cruisers. Narrowboats are usually confined to linear moorings as most marinas on the Lancaster Canal do not admit them.
Eight miles from Garstang is the junction with the Glasson Branch which in less than three miles descends through six locks to the little port of Glasson on the River Lune estuary. This is a trip well worth making as the branch is very attractive and Glasson is one of those fascinating places were the inland waterways meet the world of seagoing craft. This is still a working port and coasters often use the tidal dock. Beside the dock there is a smokehouse that sells smoked fish and cheeses. Above the lock into the tidal basin is a vast basin used by many seagoing pleasure craft. I had been told that the locks on this branch must be left empty, and the 2003 Nicholson's Guide confirms this advice, but this is outdated information as is made clear by the comprehensive operating instructions displayed at the top and bottom of the locks.
Close to the Glasson Branch junction is the British Waterways Office at Galgate. There are boatyard facilities here as well as a new BW facilities block, one of many provided on the canal. The next five miles to Lancaster include a long section of wooded cutting pervaded in June by the scent of wood garlic. In the city centre there are visitor moorings and another facilities block for which you will need a magnetic "key fob". These devices seem to have been introduced especially to counter the activities of unauthorised facilities users in Lancaster. The city has plenty to attract the visitor with a cathedral, castle and several museums and other attractions. It is also only three miles from Morecambe. Two miles further on the canal crosses the river on Rennie's impressive Lune Aqueduct, the largest of the many aqueducts on the canal.
As we approach Hest Bank we catch glimpses of Morecambe Bay and the moorings in the village are only a few hundred yards from the high water mark. From the canal we can look across the water of the bay, or across the sand if it's low tide. Viewed from the canal the village of Hest Bank seems to run into the next village, Bolton-le-Sands. There is then a short area of separation before arriving at the town of Carnforth. There is another supermarket here, very close to the canal, while in the small town centre there are a variety of shops. Perhaps Carnforth's main claim to fame is that its railway station provided the setting for the film Brief Encounter. The restored station now has two plaques commemorating this connection.
From Carnforth it is under four miles to the present terminus of the canal. After crossing under the M6 we come to some of the best of the scenery on this richly scenic waterway. Views of hill country open up as the canal winds round the contours, giving an impression of remoteness until the rush of the M6 comes suddenly into view signalling the end of the navigation. At the end is a winding hole and another BW facilities block. A walk on the path under the A-road will bring you to the disused Tewitfield Locks awaiting restoration and the continuation of the line to its original terminus at Kendal.
To complete our exploration of the canal we travelled the last 1½ miles from the Ribble Link into Preston. We found that this was mostly through the well kept back gardens of Preston's suburbs and that here too was a new facilities station. By the last turning point is Ashton Basin where Arlen Hire Boats operate and provide the usual boatyard services, including overnight mooring should you want to visit Preston or stay over before going down the Ribble Link. Although we spent almost three weeks on the Lancaster Canal our departure date still seemed to come too soon. It's a trip we will certainly try to repeat.
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