Monday, 13 August 2012

Forging Into Manchester for Ashton/Rochdale Novices.

(Boat Chalice - posted by Alan)

Attractive chimney - but now in isolation.
As already stated, the run into Manchester on the Ashton canal has somewhat of a reputation, and general advice is to do the whole run in a day, and to start as early as possible - the theory being that likely troublemakers will not yet have got up.  Further advice is to have nothing valuable outside, and to keep front doors locked - apparently it is not unknown for a boat to be boarded, and for items to be snatched from inside.

We are always looking out for old working boats.
Actually with 4 adults on board for this trip, I wasn't too concerned, but it clearly makes sense to follow advice about minimising the likelihood of any incidents.

Hydraulic paddle gear, locking bar & key to open.
This trip is very much a day of many locks, but really not many miles.  It is not long before you hit the start of the Ashton flight - 18 downhill narrow locks.  Whilst not immensely hard, they are considerably worse than many narrow locks in flights because.....

Towards end of Ashton flight
1) Most use the hydraulic style of paddle gear, a type first introduced elsewhere in the 1970s.  On many canals it has subsequently all been removed, because it is both unpopular, unreliable, and expensive to maintain, but it is almost universal here.  This gear has to be wound down with nearly as much effort needed as it takes to wind it up.

2) Several of the top paddles were non operational, and where matched with badly leaking bottom gates, it was hard to get enough flow into the locks when filling to "make a level", and get top gates open.  In the worst case it took three of us to exert enough force.

3) Much of the hydraulic gear when wound up, doesn't stay up, and paddles slowly slip down again.

4) Nearly all the paddle gear has a design of anti-vandal lock added, that means you have to unscrew a locking bar with a special key, and then replace it, and screw it back afterwards.  The locking bars are very heavy, and can fall down and crack you on the knee very severely.  In fairness they can occasionally be used to hold open a paddle with the fault described above,

Poorly stacked boxes ?
5) Many of the locks contain debris that either stops gates opening, (in the most severe case this was a full szed crushed wheelie-bin), or jam the boat in, (even fairly innocent looking polystyrene foam packing can get between boat and lock walls, acting as a friction brake to stop it leaving the lock easily).

6) Where the pound below a lock was very low, and a water inflow was pinning the boat in a lock exit, we had to flush it out by reopening top gate paddles.

7) There is no official way to cross the gates at the top end.  Strictly you need to walk the whole way along the lock, cross at the bottom end, then back down the other side.  In practice one could cross the top, without handrails, in most cases, but it was a bit hairy!

Modern housing in stretch between the two flights.
Despite these, and other complications, we still made good progress,  Unusually I was mostly ahead of the boat, on foot, initially, but on the bike later on, once I was happy there would be no "bandits" about, and that it was unlikely to get pinched whilst I was on the other side of a lock.  Also, unusually, Michael steered for much of this flight.  He has done very little in the past, (he doesn't usually come on the boats), but did a good job, often in tricky circumstances.

First lock in Rochdale 9.
The best news is there was absolutely no sign of anyone hostile - in fact there were few people at all, other than crews of the occasional boat coming the other way, and all were friendly.

Eventually, having completed the 18 narrow Ashton locks, you turn right onto the Rochdale canal, and almost immediately start the descent of the "Rochdale 9" lock flight.  These were our first broad locks for many days, but are quite unlike any broad locks we use regularly.

Features of the Rochdale 9 include......

Passing between locks - under a tower block.
1) Virtually all paddles here are also locked with anti-vandal locks - many of them rather eccentric or fiddly.

2) Top paddles are very close to the ground, and don't have conventional pawls or ratchets.  You simply have a bit of metal on a chain to wedge in the mechanism to keep them open.

3) Bottom paddles are of two designs, the more ludicrous type having two reduction gearboxes, one after the other, with somethhing like a 15:1 step down ratio.  They need an inordinate number of turns.

Subterranean lock.
4) Some locks cannot be accessed by foot, and you can only get to them by boat.  If you leave a crew member at a previous lock, they simply can't get back to the boat.

5) The lock gates can only be crossed at the top end, (the reverse of Ashton), but here there is absolutely no way of crossing the bottom, (and never a bridge there).  So lots of walking around, and even the top gates often lack adequate steps to climb up on to them.

6) Quite a few bottom gates can't be opened by pushing on a conventional balance beam.  Instead shorter beams have a chain mechanism you have to wind with a windlass.

Lock beside Canal Street - not accessible by foot.
7) (Probably the biggest issue).  There is a constant rapid flow of water down the flight, which any bypass weirs to the side cannot fully handle, so water is constantly cascading over top gates.  Whilst these can generally be opened, on a full lock, once it is over the top, and level both sides, when trying to leave an empty lock, so much new water is coming in over the top, that opening bottom gates, even with paddles still drawn, is a major issue.  Fortunately David and Michael are collectively pretty strong, but a crew with less physical strength could really struggle.

David operates windlass worked gate mechanism.
But overall, despite all this, we put in a pretty good time, I think, and eventually emerged from the bottom of the "Rochdale 9", into Castlefield basin, and started looking for a mooring.  I don't want to depress myself by retelling the story of the totally ridiculous boat owner that made up his mind he didn't want us to moor in a space just long enough for Chalice, but which placed our boat fenders close to his.  I'll simply say his arguments were probably the most preposterous I have ever heard, and he is undoubtedly the most ridiculous person I have yet encountered after many years back on the canals.  You must lead a very sad life, "sir"!

Probably the hardest thing to contend with here.
As someone was just vacating a rather better mooring, we moved up to it, and left "Mr Grumpy" to get on with it.

Cath and I went for a walk around the area, and visited a few shops.  Pleasant enough, but this area is not really that close to the true city centre - it is not like stepping off a boat on the popular moorings in central Birmingham, for example.

Entering the basin at Castlefield.
The good news was there was a very adequate place to eat and drink nearby.  It would be fine to have Odin by our outside table, and we could even watch another crew struggling with the final lock of the "Rochdale 9", as we ate.  Watching their efforts, I actually felt we had been pretty efficient ourselves!

Dukinfield Junction to Manchester (Castlefield)
Miles: 7.9, Locks: 27
Total Miles: 271.7, Locks: 147 (Worked)


  1. Enjoying following your adventure as we took that route last Spring although we then crossed the L&L whereas I suspect you'll be heading back south again.

  2. In all fairness, there is only one lock that cannot be easily accessed from the ground, lock 86 Chorlton Street lock. The access steps are still there but made a little inaccessible by the glass screens erected to protect revellers. All other locks are accessible.
    Many of the locks do have means of crossing at the bottom end though some not obviously like Princess Street or Dukes lock.

    There is a lot of water isn't there? And a lot of leaks. The other week I watched a crew enter the top lock,ascending, opened top paddles to let in the water and then closed the paddles before opening the gates. They had a few moments chat and found that in those few moments the level had dropped enough to make the top gates unopenable! And that was with water cascading over the gates.

  3. There aren't any bywashes on the Rochdale 9, which is why there's so much water. It does make life very hard work. When we did that flight (going up) a few years ago, that the whole lot were in such a bad state with inoperable paddles and gates that didn't open properly, that I felt it was just one more problem away from being completely impassable.

  4. John,

    Yes, accepted it is only one lock that is cut off for foot access.

    Any means of getting across at the tailgate ends of any locks was not obvious to us, I think. That said, I was steering for most of it, rather than working the locks.

    I note elsewhere you say the former reputation of the Ashton is not really justified any more. This may of course be correct, and based on our experiences all was fine. All I can say in my defense is that sites like Martin Clark's popular "Pennine Waterways" still advise strong caution, as does the latest issue of Nicholson's guide.