The Canal to Wigan Pier

27-28 May 2018

Saturday Morning.

With Peter and Jenny on board, we left Astley Bridge and three quarters of an hour later were in Leigh.

Our very old friends Harry and Eth joined us, looking younger than ever.


They come from Hart Common, which is a small village near Westhoughton, and have been friends since I served my curacy there in the late ‘80s.

Tilda, Jonty and Theo were always welcome – Jonty used to walk up Harry and somersault over, aged four. This was before Hugh was born. Was there life before Hugh?

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That’s him now. Here’s how they looked then, give or take a year or so.


We approached Wigan past old mine workings now filled with water – called locally ‘flashes’. Pennington Flash, Scotsman’s Flash – ‘Who was the Scotsman?’ I asked Eth.

Catherine (who was 12 when last I saw her) and her husband Andy, with their two children Megan and Lauren, came to view the boat, and generally we caught up on the news.  Stephen, Catherine’s brother, is now a priest in Exeter Diocese. He’d come home to his mum after my confirmation classes, with more questions than answers, and she’d put him right.

At Leigh Bridge the Bridgewater becomes the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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We stop the traffic by lifting the road to mark the place.

The LL heads west at Wigan to Liverpool, or east towards Leeds and offers the Wigan flight – twenty one big and heavy locks. Jenny breathes a sigh of relief that these won’t be down to her.

We’re going to leave the boat for a week in Wigan, so we pulled up. Harry and Eth headed off, thrilled to have seen familiar territory from a different perspective. Peter went too, back to Mirfield. I’ll join him on Tuesday.

I bought a handcuff key (anti-vandal key) from the Canals and Rivers Trust man who happened to be passing, and Jen and I settled for the night, surrounded by apartments, with Wigan Pier just around the corner, and Trenterfield Mill looming above us.

Built in 1907 it’s formidable. Like so many other cotton mills around here. Dominating the landscape; dominating people’s lives.


Sunday morning, and I jogged half way up the 21 locks and then we joined the congregation at Wigan Parish Church. They were only just in vacancy, and a past vicar was there to preside. The congregation was elderly, and so friendly – with each other, and with us. The chat was irrepressible – even through the anthem (sung excellently, though the choir was only four).

There’s something irrepressible about Wigan – you see it in the way people dress. It’s confident, up for the world – whether it’s the old-timers that were christened, married and seen out friends and spouses at church, or the younger generations on the streets, as the night life starts to gather momentum.


Eth told me how she’d drop off Catherine as a teenager for a night out on King Street, with fear and trembling. She needn’t have worried. Catherine met her Andy in a pub. He came from a neighbouring village, and Eth said that his parents were as relieved as she was when Catherine and Andy found each other. He works in Manchester as a bio-chemist. She’s at a large secondary school, in charge of safeguarding and pastoral care.

Sunday, after church, and we each took ourselves off for a walk to explore. Jen, off along the canal in the Liverpool direction; me to find a place to eat for that evening.

One of the liveliest pubs, full of people of all ages – which is always a good sign – was The Moon Under Water.


‘You were brave, eating there,’ said Eth, later.

Named this by Wetherspoon’s chairman, Tim Martin, after he heard that George Orwell wrote a London Evening Standard article about his favourite fictional pub – The Moon Under Water.

Orwell visited Wigan in the 1930s, commissioned to write about poverty in northern towns. His 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier received mixed reviews at the time, but has become a classic of social history. This 2011 article from the Guardian, 75 years on, is worth reading.

The great Trenterfield Mill above us; Wigan Pier is just down a lock and under a bridge. It used to be a heritage centre, but is now closed.


That Guardian article:

In fact the “pier” never existed, except in song and laughter. The story goes that day-trippers on the train to Southport, peering out across the blighted landscape in a thick fog, spotted a railway gantry leading to a jetty from which coal was tipped into barges on the canal. “Are we there yet?” asked a passenger, mistaking the ghostly outline for one of Britain’s newly fashionable seaside attractions. “Nay, lad, that’s Wigan Pier tha’ cun see,” replied the railway signalman. True or not, the pier became a music-hall staple of George Formby.


The council are trying to make Trenterfield Mill a heritage centre now. But why would people want to be reminded of the past?


Especially when there’s beer and humour to be had.


There are sad places. The Roman Catholic Church. The door had been broken open, the padlock hanging useless.

Inside made me want to weep.


There was a massive seminary too, which closed in 1992.  I mean, massive. See the photographs.

St Joseph remains, looking over the place. What must he have seen, over the years.


A chasm between the folk in church on Sunday morning, and the folk on the streets as Wigan Parish Church rang out the bell for evensong.


It’s more than being ‘relevant’, or ‘accessible’ – this massive culture chasm.  Does the Parish Church face the same future? The Church of England too?


Bank Holiday Monday, and it’s three weeks on from the party at Prickwillow.

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Jen’s day to head off to London and Morocco. First we walked up the Wigan flight as far as Lock 73 (they’re numbered from Leeds). It’s her last chance to say good bye to the lock gates she has strenuously pushed, pulled and cajoled in so many ways over the last couple of weeks. She does look good on it, though.


Thank you, Jen.

We notice that there are different flowers out now. The elder is in bloom. Dog roses.



There’s a report on the news that there will be more plastic bottles in the sea than fish by 2050. More bags in the trees than flowers, too?


Then, back on TLA, and  the Jam Butty pulls out of the lock, on the way to Liverpool.


Helen emails me later, after I run after her, to get a shot of her business.


We passed you today around Wigan – at least I think it was Wigan, geography is not my strong point!  We were in Wand’ring Bark and The Jam Butty and you took some photos of us after we came out of the lock.

I wish we had had time to stop, moor up and chat but we have to be in Liverpool for Wednesday so we’re on a bit of a time table.  I’ve found your blog, have read a few posts, and will return to read the rest.  Just read about your new hair cut and funnily enough, I noticed how fab your hair is while we were passing!

We are Christians too, C of E to boot.  Our home church is Aldridge Parish which is a short walk from our home in Aldridge.  We live in our house for the winter months and then summer on the boats, making & selling jam to earn a bit of income.  When travelling I spend a lot of time worshipping God in the scenery.  We use the Boaters’ Christian Fellowship website  for the comprehensive list of canal side churches and try to get to services when we can.  We’ve been to a wide variety and it’s lovely to find God in such diversity.

Our jam business has been going for 6 years now following a major detour in my career path.  We love it.  Our website is .

As well as jam, we both write too.  Andy (my husband) earns more than I ever do as he writes for Waterways World, usually publishing about 6 articles a year.  He also blogs at and is way too fond of alliteration for my liking!  I write for myself, mainly.  I blog at which is primarily a breast cancer blog.  I write poetry, mostly bad poetry, but I do love to dabble.

We will be leaving Liverpool docks on Sunday 3rd June and heading along the LL until Leeds so maybe our paths will cross again.  If not, I wish you every success and much happiness in your new post and hope you have a smooth move.

I hope we catch up with them again.

You know true friendship when this returns within a day, washed and dry.


Eth and Harry picked me up for a meal after Jen had gone.

We went down memory lane – my curacy, remember.

Here’s where Jonty and Theo were born. Home deliveries. Both on Sunday mornings. Any excuse to get out of church.

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Here’s where Tilda first went to school.


Here’s the church rebuilt after the Victorian barn of a place burned down in 1990. St Bartholomew’s, Westhoughton.


That was a sight in the middle of the night. I reckon I saved the tower by insisting the fire officers concentrate their water on the base to stop the fire funnelling up.

Simon Tatton-Brown, the Rector at the time, did a great job of rebuilding. It’s lovely inside.

Back to Hart Common for a brew. This house was always welcoming when I needed it.


Then I’m dropped back to The Lark Ascending for my first night alone.

It’s a beautiful full moon over Wigan lock 87.


Tuesday sees me heading back by train for Mirfield. There’s work to be done on the preaching book I’m editing with Richard Sudworth, and on the Theological Reflections: Methods book that Elaine Graham, Heather Walton and I produced in 2005, which needs to be revised.

It’ll be great to see everyone at The College of the Resurrection, as the final week is underway. Folk getting ready to be off to sort out housing; to prepare for ordination services. Peter has nearly finished his essay – the one on Sacramental Theology – that he’s been writing for five weeks now. We need to move stuff out of our rooms and over to Workington, before we return to take The Lark Ascending onwards to Skipton.


Bridgewater to Manchester

24 – 26 May 2018


Three tunnels – Barnton, Saltersford and Preston Brook – mark the end of the Trent and Mersey and a stop lock the beginning of the Bridgewater.

The beauty of tree, may in blossom and wild flowers continues, including a bed of orchids just before the stop lock. There’s ragged robin, columbine, campion, buttercup galore, archangel, forget me not, Queen Anne’s lace, and speedwell, reflecting the sky.

So easy to be distracted.


I went to help Jenny with one of the gates at the stop lock, and as I reached to step back on board, slipped and ended in the brink. Hey ho. A baptism in the Bridgewater.

Except my phone, there in my back pocket, after taking a picture of the last Trent and Mersey milestone, with Preston Brook one mile to show. This is a poor version, with the countdown:




These milestones have been with us all the way along the Trent and Mersey. Shardlow one way, Preston Brook the other. Sometimes they have added up to the same amount of miles. It should be 93.5 miles. We travelled 67.25 of the length of the Trent and Mersey – and every so often the distances seemed to suggest some magical additions, or simple Midlands inconsistency.

But never mind that. My phone. Straight into rice, but it still wasn’t looking by bedtime. Or the next morning.

We enter the Bridgewater, and No more Locks ’til Wigan!

We will circle inland to Manchester, running alongside the great Ship Canal, and then outwards again, through old stamping ground. I served my curacy in Westhoughton.

All the boys were born there. Very happy four years. I learned a lot. As much from our dear friends Harry and Eth as anyone. You’ll see them in the next blog.

So as we chugged along towards Manchester, I persuaded Peter to leave his essay on Sacramental Theology (no easy task – the persuasion) to join us on Friday, so he is with Jenny and me as we do our last day together. Jenny leaves for London and Morocco on Monday and I return to Mirfield for the inside of the week, until the end of term.

The plan is to leave the boat at Wigan for the week or so it will take, then Peter can have a well-earned holiday as we do the final leg together, up the 21 one locks out of Wigan on onwards towards the Pennines.

Then the move to Workington.

The move has been rather complicated by the fact that the removals firm, which has all our stuff in storage in Thetford, has gone into liquidation. Peter has had to find another firm, and provide the paperwork to show what’s been paid already – by us, and by Carlisle Diocese. The move day is set for 13 June.

As we have come north, slowly and surely, it’s felt good. Lancashire then Cumbria beckons.

We’re still in Cheshire as we pass Warrington, and draw near to Lymm where we moor up to stay the night. It’s a pretty town, with a village centre. The pub is just above our mooring, and we hear laughter and good humour as we eat a pie (bought in Moore), broccoli cheese and lentils with tomatoes.

My old friend Harry used to say ‘What’s a balanced diet in Wigan?’

A pie in each hand.

Early on Friday morning we set off, travelling through wonderful country past Dunham Massey Hall (obscured by trees), after which we reach the outskirts of Greater Manchester, and into Sale.

Peter is arriving at Victoria Station at 2pm, so we moor up on the towpath at Sale Metrolink, and head into the city. The first destination, an EE shop, so I can replace my waterlogged handset, which hasn’t recovered, despite that night in rice.

Charlotte served us. She had a degree in Philosophy from Manchester University, and was returning there to do a PGCE this Autumn. She came from Wigan – and from a family of teachers. Now living in Didsbury, she was down on her birth town. I wanted Eth there to defend it.

The shop didn’t have WiFi – it was down – so she advised us to go to the Apple Store in the Arndale to update the settings.

There we talked with Lars (well, let’s call him that).

He was half Swedish, half American, and had done 10 years in the US army. He listed off all the places – ones you’d predict – he’d seen service. He told us he thought the UK was full of rage, and he was only staying six months, before heading back to Sweden.

He was proud to be a Hells Angel, he told us.

I guessed they’d been going since the 60s, but more than that, ‘we’re 62 years old,’ he said. He described the brotherhood, his Harley Davidson and showed us his tattoos. I wondered what initiation rites there were; what they did together. ‘Let’s just say, things’, he replied. I pushed in my usual fashion – ‘do you break the law?’

He commented that the law was much stricter here in the UK than in the US. He told us that a lot of ex-military become mercenaries. ‘What, like vigilante?’ ‘Yeah, that’s right. We take out paedophiles, that sort of thing.’

He was disarming, looking you straight in the eye. My phone finished uploading my touch, and I headed off to see if I could sell the old handset, leaving Jenny with her downloads and updates. She found out that he was adopted. She thought he was trustworthy. I wasn’t so sure. I wish I’d asked.

I wish I’d also asked the last time he sang out aloud; the last time he cried.

We wandered to St Ann’s Church – as beautiful as ever – and then to the Cathedral, which is so improved since I was ordained Deacon there on Advent Sunday in 1989. Now with a new marble floor, with a lightness and colour that lifts the building from the heavy and dark interior that used to pull the space in, and leave you with little air to breathe.

A stunning new organ fills the nave with glory. Shekinah.


There was an interfaith day happening:



and I took time to visit Mark Cazalet‘s triptych


that was so controversial when installed, and to enjoy my favourite window, installed after the bomb damage of the 2WW.


While we were there, the first anniversary of the Arena bomb had just been held.

The Cathedral had stepped up as the city remembered – coverage in the Church Times that Peter brought with him. IMG_0056

There were trees all around the Cathedral, with prayer requests and remembrances. The Arena is only a stone’s throw away.

Our daughter Matilda was a chorister at Manchester – a member of the mixed treble line that was introduced by Chris Stokes, who is still the organist there.

I remembered the other bomb in 1996. I was with the children at a swimming lesson in Bury – 10 or so miles to the north – and we felt the impact there. Pupils from Chetham’s Music School (where Tilda went as a chorister) remembered that day on a Radio 4 programme I caught by chance on Sunday.

We headed for Victoria Station. And Peter.


Manchester is a city he knows well. When we moved to Bradford in 2006, he continued to commute back to his senior role in Manchester Paediatrics. He was glad to be back. But glad also to head for the boat. (That’s the Church Times under his arm).

Straight onto the Altringham metro, and back to Sale, and off we went, to Waters Meeting, where the Bridgewater Canal took us North West to Trafford Park and over the Ship Canal – which was magnificent.


Here we are, entering The Barton Swing Aqueduct.

And this is what we saw – water upon water.



At Parrin Lane Bridge there was a lighthouse.


And shortly after, a reminder of the horses that worked these routes.


After Worsley, with St Mark’s Church spire just there, parkland extended on both sides of the canal. Through Boothstown, and we moored up just past Astley Bridge. It’s a little used, little moored stretch of canal. The fewer boats, the less secure it seems.

It rained, off and on, all day. The first day of rain that Jenny has seen. Though once we had the woodburner hot, and the sausage stew eaten, the sky began to clear as it became darker. The birds sang loud and late.


22/23 May 2018

Stoke on Trent to Sandbach to Northwich.

But Northwich is arrival. Before that, many locks – many, many locks – down what’s called heartbreak hill onto the Cheshire plain, and before that, the incredible Harecastle Tunnel.

We were given our safety talk. Warned that some of the sections go as low as 5’ 9” so to mind our heads. A torch at hand is useful. That it gets cold and wet, so to have waterproofs. To travel forwards always and not to reverse, with a safe distance to the boat in front. We were told that if we didn’t come out of the tunnel in an hour and a quarter, they would monitor our progress and decide whether or not to call the emergency services.

We had to show our head light was working, and sound our horn. Just moments before I fiddled again with it, it blared out. There must be a loose connection somewhere. I didn’t think they would be impressed by Keith and Faith’s alternative. Remember?


We were told if in trouble, to blast for one long blast every 30 seconds and repeat until there are three short blasts back. I think it would have done the trick, if needed.

It’s over a mile long, takes 45 minutes of chugging in the dark and all the way you can see the light at the other end. Looking back, only intense, black darkness. Imagine – well, I did – legging it through as men used to do, to the sound of silence made louder by the dripping water, the periodic gushing water feeds. Did they shout to each other? Keep up a banter all the way through? Or was it just long, silent slog?

Incredible – to build so straight over such a distance. Brindley dropped fifteen shafts, which then were worked in both directions from each, and also from each end. How it all met up is beyond me. And the light was a pinprick – forty minutes in front.

Faith, Keith and Jenny spent most of the time in the forecabin, watching the ongoing darkness, drips and brickwork, leaving me in peace to helm. It took concentration to ensure the boat stayed in the middle – once or twice we hit the sides, and lost a little wood from on top. The trick is to keep the arc of light from the spotlight as equal around the boat as possible, and to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Never has a metaphor had so much literal meaning.


It was absolutely wonderful to have Keith and Faith with us. Here they are, arriving at Westport Lake, Stoke.

After the tunnel, we descended over 20 locks to the Cheshire plain. We talked and walked;


struggled with ratchets and heavy gates; enjoyed omelettes and flapjack made by Faith


and talked of many things. And slept on the towpath.

Friendship is very special. We haven’t really seen each other for thirty years, drifting apart through the busyness of life. But it’s as if nothing has changed. Except we’re all a bit older, with tummies to show.


They left us at Sandbach, walking to the station to catch a train to Crewe, and then back to Stoke. Can’t resist including this.


Jenny happy that she didn’t have to do all the locks by herself!


We moored up for the night, and next morning I set off for some milk.

This silver-haired man stood behind me, looking quizzical. He asked my name, and repeated it. ‘Frankie. Frankie.’ Like he liked it a lot.

‘That accent’s not from here’. ‘Guess,’ I said. ‘Further south,’ he hazarded, and so I explained how I was travelling with an Australian, and some of it has rubbed off.

I asked him if he’d always lived here, at Elworth, where I’d called in on spec to have my hair cut. His mother came from Cork, and married his father, who was a butcher from Wilmslow. His father recently died, a real character. He had loved his mother – there she was, a photo in the corner.

He told me he liked the colour of my hair. ‘It’s the same as yours’, I replied. ‘But yours feels better.’

He looked quizzical again, flirty, saying nothing, but obviously wanting me to tell him what I wanted. ‘As I walked along, I thought I’d like a number 12. Short.’ I said. He started cutting. ‘So?’ was in the air. I didn’t give much away, enjoying this man and the games he played. ‘You’ve got a lot of stories in you,’ he said.

‘Travelling.’ He had picked that up and presented it, a statement rather than a question. ‘I’m taking a narrowboat from March to Skipton. I’m on the canal.’

‘Oh, no. No. No. I wouldn’t like that.’

I asked, and he told me he’d owned the business for 20 years. He was settled. ‘I don’t have the same drive I did. You leave it behind when you’re our age. Other things become important,’ he said. I was impressed. Some hairdressers have it. The ability to probe with real insight into their customer’s lives. I intrigued him. I could see that. His ear for the pitch of others was acute.

‘So why?’

I explained we were relocating from Suffolk to Workington, in Cumbria. That the boat would be kept in Skipton. I knew he wanted to know why. He said it again. ‘You’ve got stories in you’.

I said, ‘you’re good to listening.’ He described how sometimes he just wanted someone to shut up. They would go on and on.

Silence for a while. Our eyes caught – both of us flirtatious. I gave in. ‘I’m a vicar. I’ve been running a busy Cathedral. My husband’s training to be a vicar. I’ve just finished a book. I want to write more,’ I said. He enjoyed his own sense of surprise.

‘So you believe there’s something when we’ve gone?’

‘Of course. I think love is the most important thing, and when we die, we are taken into God’s love. I’ve always loved the idea of God’s everlasting arms. Don’t know what it means beyond that; don’t think we can know.’ He told me of a funeral he’d gone to in Ireland of a friend of his aged 50, with two small children. The priest had begun the service by saying ‘God is good’. He said he couldn’t believe it. ‘But that’s Irish priests for you’.

He changed the subject by talking to his colleague about a customer, and then whether hair trimmers were made size 12. She said, yes, and went to look.

‘Were you christened, Frankie?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘No. Were you christened Frankie?’ ‘Frances’, I said. ‘I became Frankie when Frankie Goes To Hollywood was in the charts.’

‘Thought you were that, my sort of age.’

‘1959,’ I answered his question. He told me he was 62.

‘60 is the new 40s’, I said – it’s a great decade. I plan to enjoy every minute.’ He looked like he was going to. ‘It’s taken five years off you,’ he said. I grinned. ‘I don’t like to look mumsy,’ I said. ‘You look like a writer now’, he said.

‘Do you have any bad habits?’ ‘None I’m telling you,’ I said. I was enjoying the me who was enjoying the flirting. I looked at myself in the mirror. Impish, cheeky, my eyes on fire.

I got up to pay. £20, cash. He was onto the next customer. As engrossed with her as he had been with me. A priest in his own way.

Back on the boat, with eight locks ahead to bring us down onto the Cheshire plain, we left Sandbach in the glorious sunshine we now expect.

A lovely day, along a stretch of canal between Middlewich and Northwich that the Nicholson says is as beautiful as any in the country. ‘Often overhung by trees, the navigation winds along the side of a hill as it follows the delightful valley of the River Dane. It’s well written, this guide: ‘the canal circles around to the east, passing under a railway bridge before heading for the industrial outskirts of Northwich and shedding its beauty and solitude once again’.

Any town that has ‘wich’ in it – Droitwich, Middlewich, Northwich, Nantwich – will be a place where salt has been made – probably since Saxon times (as ‘wich’ is a Saxon word). We passed great chemical factories like Tata chemicals Europe,



And mountains of salt.


Yes, that’s salt.

The canal has subsided again and again through this section, because of the salt mining.

We pulled up outside the Lion Salt Works at Marston; too late to see around the works, but not too late to buy a guide, and have a pint in the Salt Barge pub, where all over the walls are pictures of massive salt mines.

I had no idea, when living only a little way north of here that this was such a salt producing area. See this.

According to the guide book, the geology of Cheshire is a large shallow basin formed between the sandstone ridge of the Delamere Forest to the west and the Cheshire hills to the east. In the Triassic Period, 220 million years ago, this was a large tropical lagoon that trapped sea water. Evaporated, it became halite, better known as rock salt.

There are two bands of salt under this ground, each about 25m deep, separated by 10m of brown marlstone. When ground water flows over the salt layers it dissolves the salt and creates underground streams of salty water or brine. The underwater brine streams were known as ‘Roaring Meg’, when the pressure forced the streams through cracks to emerge as streams.

From before the Romans there is evidence of salt production, using the brine. fragments of clay pots survive, in which the brine would be heated so the water evaporates, leaving the hard salt deposit. Outside the Lion Salt Works is a large pan that did the same: with fires underneath, the workers would rake up the salt, skim it, and lump it in tubs, turning it out in rows.

This method requires fuel – and, according to Mark Kurlansky, in his 2002 book Salt,


back in 1670, John Jackson prospected for coal on the estate of William Marbury near Northwich. At a depth of only 105 feet, he found a bed of solid rock salt and no coal at all. Marbury was disappointed. He wanted coal. He went bankrupt in 1690. Only a few years later, Sir Thomas Warburton opened four salt mines in Cheshire.

I studied Anthony and Cleopatra for A level.

Pompey’s description of the Egyptian queen has always stuck with me. ‘With all the charms of love, Salt Cleopatra, soften thy wanned lip!’

Salt has always been associated with fertility, so brides would have salt in their pockets, or have their feet sprinkled with salt. We get the connection when we call someone salacious.

I’ve not noticed folk from Cheshire being extra salacious ever before. But perhaps I’m wrong.

I’ve never had such a salty haircut.

Brindley Country

22 May 2018

Sunday 21st May saw us moored up at Great Haywood, with the prospect of some retail therapy first thing – a garden centre and farm shop. Two different lavenders now join the French one atop the boat, and some really great provisions from the farm shop stock our little larder, including rosemary and raisin bread.


I set off for St Stephen’s Church – which was nice and full for Pentecost Sunday. The sermon began with the disclaimer that she wasn’t going to wave all her arms about and go on for 40 minutes. She – and everyone else – had seen the sermon of the Rt Revd Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of ECUSA. 14 minutes long, it had wowed the congregation at the Royal Wedding with its powerful words on love and fire.

Jenny sent through the Australian coverage.

Well, I wish we’d had more of it. As Annabel Crabbe of ABC news says, Archbishop Curry’s sermon was different to the ‘standard Church of England sermon, which tradition dictates should be delivered in the tone of a very shy person asking the way to the train station’. Our preacher at St Stephen’s wasn’t shy, but she didn’t set the place on fire – which somehow I always hope for Pentecost.

Richard Sudworth and I are editing the next Littlemore Group book. This group has been going since 2005, following Rowan Williams injunction that the CofE needs to ‘reignite the imagination of the nation’. The group has published Praying for England, Fear and Friendship, and For God’s Sake. Now it’s time to tackle preaching. Let’s hope we can bring something to the art and practice – alongside the other excellent books that are coming out just now – like Preaching, Radical and Orthodox.

A visit to the shop at Shugborough – though no time for the house or gardens – and there was the Nicholson’s guide book 5 that I’m needing for the North West and the Pennines.

And off we went to Stone, through Hoo Mill Lock (near where Simon’s Scholar Gypsy was part built), Weston, Sandon, Aston locks and into Stone, through Star and Yard locks, to moor outside Peggy and Martin’s wonderful apartment home.


They gave us gin and water (much to be recommended) and a fantastic meal. We talked of their boat Blossom, which they had sold six years before (little thinking we’d see it moored the following day at Stoke).


We talked of Leicester, of Bishop Tim, and of their imminent move to Glasgow to be closer to Julia, their GP doctor. We also talked of my PhD, to begin in the Autumn, on Edmund Burke, who was present in the picture behind Peggy and Martin.


Monday morning dawned hot and sunny, and Peggy dropped by two books for us – one of James Brindley and the crazy story of someone called Darlington who took his narrowboat from Stone to the Carcassonne.


This is Brindley country. His workshop was opposite Peggy and Martin’s home – derelict, though listed – much to their disgust.

By all accounts, Brindley was a brilliant civil engineer. Born in 1716, he worked his apprenticeship and made a name for himself designing and building systems to drain mines, restoring water pumps, earning him the name of the man who made water flow up hill.

So when the Duke of Bridgewater wanted a canal from Worsley to Manchester, Brindley was his man. With John Gilbert, Brindley turned attention to extending westwards across Cheshire to the river Mersey and Liverpool. Bridgewater had already purchased land for docks in Liverpool, so after the requisite act of Parliament, Brindley started work on the Bridgewater Canal.

This we will join at Preston Brook – the distance of 38 miles is posted on the towpath on milestone. But I anticipate.

Brindley was also crucial to the construction of the Trent and Mersey which joins the Mersey to the Thames and eastwards to Hull, giving the Bridgewater Canal access to the Potteries, and eventually London and Bristol.


The Duke of Bridgewater threw his enthusiasm behind the plan, as did Josiah Wedgwood.

Wedgwood had worked up from humble beginnings, suffering polio which meant his right leg was amputated, to transform the pottery industry. The only mode of transport was pack horse and wagon, which was slow and heavy in breakage. To create white pots required flint from south-east England, and china clay from Cornwall, so it was greatly in Wedgwood’s advantage to see canals built that would access his English customers, but also open up markets in America (though Liverpool and Bristol) and Europe.

The Trent and Mersey Canal Company held its first meeting on 30 December 1765. Josiah Wedgwood reported that ‘Brindley was called upon to state his plans, brought them forward with such extraordinary lucidity of detail as to make them clear to the dullest intellect present.’ Given the projects he oversaw, his communication skills must have been impressive.

With a bill through Parliament, the Grand Trunk Canal (as Brindley suggested it was called) was begun.

Brindley predicted that the whole canal would be finished by 1772, but this was not to be, largely because of delays with the tunnel through Harecastle Hill, west of Stoke-on-Trent.

As I write, Harecastle Tunnel lies before us, to be travelled on Monday.

We will be joined by Keith and Faith – two very old friends from the 1980s, when Peter and I met in the East End of London, and were part of a group that centred around the Franciscan community at Halcrow Street, and the ministry of Norry McCurry at St Dunstan’s, Stepney.

Keith was a Franciscan friar at that stage. A sojourn in the Solomon Islands didn’t cure love, though, and he and Faith were married in 1990, both then to train for the priesthood. They now live in Stoke, so we were shown around the town.

A meal together on Monday evening, and we planned to travel together on Tuesday, through the tunnel and onwards to Sandbach.

A bloke on the tow path said to be there for 10 am, where the staff would check the head light works, and also the horn. We would need something warm for the 40 minute transition, and needed to make sure we had a torch to see the roof for obstructions. A number of people had told us of the death a few years back of a man who’d knocked himself out, and into the canal. The tunnel had been closed for days while police divers found his body.

There’s a female ghost, apparently. And a skeleton painted on the right hand wall.

So I checked the horn – which didn’t work. I phoned Alan from Fox Narrowboats, and did everything he suggested. Still no joy. So Faith and Keith provided a horn that works.


Harecastle Tunnel cuts through a variety of difficult rock and quicksand. The first one was 2,880 yards long, 9 feet wide and 12 feet high. It was the first ever tunnel built solely for transport and needed to be dead level and straight. Brindley will have decided that he had to go through rather than around, because around would have required a number of locks and a water supply that wasn’t to be had. There are now three tunnels through Harecastle – one built in 1827 by Thomas Telford, and on by British Rail in 1848. All suffered difficulty in construction.

Brindley’s was begun in July 1766. A line was surveyed over the hill, with fifteen intermediate shafts dug down to the proposed level, and work was started at each end – so 32 faces were worked at once. The stone was so hard it was almost impossible to penetrate – and the presence of water was a great drawback.

Brindley didn’t see it out. He died in 1772; the tunnel completed by his brother-in-law Hugh Henshall, in 1777. The tunnel had no tow path, so the boats were propelled by the boatmen legging it. Their reward for almost one and three quarter miles, was 1s 6d.

Tuesday morning: th (1)

Monday saw us driving through Stoke by boat. A sad experience.

It’s really a federation of six towns, with Hanley the primary commercial centre. The other four towns are Burslem, Tunstall, Longton, and Fenton. It’s well known at the centre of the Potteries.


So much history; so little money to restore. We chugged through wastelands, where terraces had been demolished for new housing that was never built; old derelict warehouses and kilns.

We passed Etruria, where the Caldon Canal branches off, and the Etruria Industrial Museum is situated.


Middleport: the world’s oldest working Victorian pottery, where Keith and Faith tell us HRH Prince Charles has given support.

Through deep, deep locks that carved through the centre of the city.

IMG_3449 (1)I’m 12 foot down below, with massive gates closed behind me, and water about to pour and gush in front, lifting me – the lark ascending – to ground level again.

The city’s ceramics collection is housed in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley – and most of the major pottery companies have visitor centres, including The £10 million Wedgwood Museum visitor centre opened in the firm’s factory in Barlaston in October 2008.


There are also smaller factory shops, such as Royal Stafford in Burslem, Moorcroft in Cobridge and Emma Bridgewater in Hanley. My mugs came from here.


Keith says folk from here don’t have much and don’t expect much. There’s a sense of betrayal – of hopes raised of regeneration that never happened.

Working in the potteries would have been grim. Lead poisoning a reality, causing early death and disability.

Since the late 1980s and 1990s Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the general decline in the British manufacturing sector. Numerous factories, steelworks, collieries, and potteries were closed, and the sharp rise in unemployment was further compounded in 2008.

It’s a city crying out for a new start – like so many places in the North of England. It’s thought to be one of the most cost-effective place to set up a new UK business, with affordable business property, surrounded by the Peak District National Park, Stone, south Cheshire, and having excellent road links via the A500 and nearby M6 and rail links.

Will it happen?



Royal Wedding Saturday

19 May 2018

Long Walk – Carol Anny Duffy’s poem for the day, published for the Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan. Tender and kind, with its strong image of Harry walking behind the funeral entourage of Diana; and now finding love.

No TV for us, today. Jenny’s really not sure what all the fuss is about anyway. Perhaps we’ll stream it later.

Friday saw us through 13 locks, and travelling for nine hours, broken only by a stop for breakfast at Polesworth, where we had eggs and bacon at a little café, before exploring the Abbey Church of St Editha.


I picked up the Annual Report 2017, and there was mention of Ben, who ‘has now left St Albans, and is at Mirfield’. Ben is there, training with Peter, now good friends. I had no idea that this was Ben’s sending parish – but the vicar Fr Philip confirmed that, yes, Ben was born and brought up here.


It was lovely, Polesworth Abbey, with its 14C abbey gateway and gardens. The tower houses eight bells dating from 1664 to 2004 with this verse on the ringing chamber wall:

Who will divert themselves with ringing here
Must nicely mind to ring with Hand and Ear.
And if he gives his bell an overthrow
Pay sixpence, a forfeit for doing so.
He who in ringing wears Spurs, Gloves or Hat
Pay sixpence as a forfeit for that.
All persons that disturbance here create
Forfeit one shilling towards the Ringers treat
Those that to our easy laws consent
May join and ring with us, we are content.
Now in love and unity join a pleasant peal to ring
Heaven bless the church
And George our gracious King. Amen.

Polesworth has, also, an antiquarian bookshop. I came away with two volumes of Richard Hooker, a book on canal boat painting, and a series of Nicholson guides from the 1970s – which will serve us better than the canal companions we’re using currently. We need to buy a proper guide for the Trent and Mersey – which we enter on Saturday, heading for Stone and Stoke on Trent.

In Stone, I’ve arranged to meet up with the parents of a dear friend Penny. They were keen narrow boaters, but no longer have a boat. Peggy and Martin know Bishop Tim well from the time they lived in Leicester and he was Bishop there, so no doubt we’ll have a good catch-up. And lift a glass to Viv Faull, who was Dean of Leicester before she went to York Minster, and has now been appointed to be Bishop of Bristol. Wonderful news. See link to Bristol Diocese.

Also we’ll meet Keith and Faith in Stoke on Trent on Monday or Tuesday next week – old friends from the East End days in the 1980s.

So Saturday began at Fradley Junction, with the hope of a current Nicholson guide. We need books 4 and 5. But no luck. People obviously don’t tend to go north from here.

We caught sight of Nick Wolfe’s boat, turned towards Burton on Trent, moored up, ready to go.


Fradley Junction was a village created because of the canals – as the Trent and Mersey was joined to the Coventry in the 1790s.

The canal companies built workshops, wharves and warehouses for the boats that carried coal, clay and finished products from the Potteries, and beer from Burton-on-Trent. The three key figures were the Duke of Bridgewater, who was a major shareholder in the Trent and Mersey, Josiah Wedgwood who needed to get clay to his factory at Etruria in Stoke on Trent and James Brindley who was the imaginative engineer who built the infrastructure required.

The Trent and Mersey was completed in 1777 and the Coventry Canal joined it in 1789.

There’s a reservoir at Fradley too – an ingenious method to prevent water escaping into the Coventry Canal by taking the flow from above Middle Lock, around the Junction, under the Swan pub to Fradley pool where it was stored until needed on the Trent and Mersey.

There are five locks, raising boats 10 metres along a half mile stretch of the Trent and Mersey. It’s possible to do the lot in 75 minutes, but can take over 3 hours if there’s lots of traffic. We turned left out of the Coventry, and were immediately into the top two, which went smoothly, without too much queuing.

Fradley today is for the tourists; I wasn’t sorry to leave. Particularly as they didn’t have the guide book we needed. So we continued, using the 1975 Nicholson number 2, for the North West which cost 75p.


Onwards towards Great Haywood, our destination for the night, through the most beautiful scenery, in glorious sunshine. Wood End Lock, and then Handsacre and Armitage, and into Rugeley.

There’s a real contrast between Rugeley of the 1970s and today.

Another lock at Little Haywood where there was a queue of four boats already, taking almost an hour to get through, and then on into Great Haywood where we moored for the night.

Great Haywood is at the junction of the Trent and Mersey and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire.


We wandered to the pub, The Clifford Arms, had a pint and a meal, and then Jenny and I explored towards Shugborough over a pack horse bridge, the Essex bridge, which is an Ancient Monument.


Shugborough is an incredible pile we’d been able to see for miles from the canal. The present house dates from 1693, with the house and park was improved by Thomas and George Anson in the 1720-40s, then by ‘Athenian’ James Stuart in 1762 who built stone monuments called the Tower of the Winds, the Lanthorn of Demothenes. The park farm was designed by Samuel Wyatt around the turn of the 18th Century, when the old village of Shugborough was bought up and demolished by the Anson family to give them more privacy and space. The Ansons, the Earl of Lichfield’s family, faced crippling death duties in the 1960s and the National Trust bought it, leasing it to Staffordshire County Council who then managed the whole estate. Today it’s back in NT hands. Worth a visit, we thought, for Sunday morning.

For the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the Ingersley – a boat driven by Mike and Bev.

They were there, moored in front of as we waited for the tree to be cleared; but further back than that, we first met them in Northampton, as Jenny and I set out.

They overtook us at Fradley; we over took them  as they stopped to watch the Royal Wedding, and Saturday evening they moored behind us at Great Haywood.


This boat is borrowed from a friend; Mike is fitting out his own boat. I ask where, and he says ‘Mirfield’. Small world. He’s a Huddersfield man, and knows the Leeds Liverpool like the back of his hand. We meet his dog Skipper – a poodle/Jack Russell cross – and chat away.

Mike advises continuing up the Trent and Mersey (rather than taking the Macclesfield) and coming into Manchester from the West to pick up the Leigh branch of the Leeds Liverpool. Two reasons – there’s a lock down at Marple, and also the Rochdale nine are really tricky in the middle of Manchester. They have no holding pools, so the water flow is difficult to manage, and they are often underneath office blocks so can be claustrophobic. Unlike others who have expressed opinion about Manchester, he’s not prejudiced against Canal Street, or concerned about security. Instead he commends the Bridgewater canal as stunning, and with less locks. So that’s what we’ll do.   Pink instead of yellow.

Sunday morning plan: the farmer’s shop and garden centre (for more lavenders for my roof garden) and church at St Stephen’s. I phoned the number from the AChurchNearYou website and the vicar said of course there’s a service. At 10 am.

Then Jenny and I will visit Shugborough, and onwards to Stone where we will moor (hopefully) outside Peggy and Martin’s home, near the Star lock, opposite the boat builders.


The Heart of England

Here we are, in the very middle of England.

After the busy canal junction that is Braunston we encountered the three locks at Hillmorton (outside Rugby, on the map). These were different: two singles alongside each other to speed up transits. We’ve noticed differences in the locks as we’ve changed canals – these deliberately designed at 7 foot wide to restrict wider beamed boats from other canal systems taking advantage of the trading arrangements of this region. Boats were built at a certain size for certain waterways to control the business.

The stop lock at Hawkesbury Junction – very small drop of water – prevents too much water flowing from the Oxford into the Coventry. Even water was property.

It’s only with the leisure industry that boats have been designed to travel the whole system – and The Lark Ascending is the optimal length and breadth at 57 foot, 6’ 10” wide. (Though I’ve been told that the locks on the Leeds Liverpool will take a 58’ only on a diagonal, so 57 will only just fit).

It was windy this day, which always makes the boat difficult to handle. You’d be surprised at how hard it can be to moor. Martin and Christine – from the day before, who we’d accompanied through the tunnel – joined us, which helped. It was cold too. When we reached Newbold, having passed Rugby with no where to moor, we decided to walk back – not realising how far it is on foot!

Rugby has no Waterstones, and the centre was rather tired, but the Church was beautiful.

A great welcome pack for visitors too. St Andrew’s obviously has a good town centre ministry, with a café in the church and lots of groups going on. The church has two peals of bells – one of 8 cast in 1895 at Whitechapel in the North East Tower, and another of 5 cast in 1711 in the West Tower, so St Andrew’s is the only church in the world with two peals that are regularly rung in the English full circle tradition. There’s a good little explanation about change ringing too.


Walking into Rugby and back from Newbold took some time out of the day, and I was anxious about the loss of time. I need not have worried, though. We would have been delayed any way.

On we went, to find, after the next bend or two in the river, boats lining the towpath and very quickly the message met us that there was a large oak tree across the way.


So we too moored up – near Brinklow – and went to investigate. Beautiful spot, in the middle of a wood, and the news that the team were on their way, but were stuck on the M1. When they arrived, they set to with chain saw, finishing at 9 pm, with half the job done. This Eastern European team did a great job, and in the morning, another team was there.


The falling and felling of the tree attracted a lot of attention. Over 50 boats eventually queued up each way, all with opinions. There was Nick Wolfe, Carrier, with his working boat, who got busy with his wheel barrow, taking the sawn up trunk to his cavernous boat – until he got a puncture, and couldn’t find the green slime, so had to mend it with a bicycle repair kit. He told me he owned the boat, and made just enough to cover the reduced working boat license of £1000 a year. He was off to Fradley for a job he was meant to do on Friday, and didn’t think he’d make it. He wasn’t too bothered. These things happen.

There were opinions about  why the oak had fallen, with general consensus that it was rotten at base. A beautiful tree, though – a shame to see it down. I counted at least 70 rings. The oaks are at the best – that bright, clean green that will soon fade to summer and into the tiredness of August. But now – glorious, alongside the may blossom.

There’s some sign of ash die back – the telltale orange on the trunk and leaves missing from the outer branches and twigs – but on the whole I’m impressed by the quality of the canals as corridors of wildlife, in what seem to be rather sterile arable land around. But even this is poor, compared with my childhood in the 1970s. No voles, or stoats, or cornbuntings, yellowhammers, flycatchers. Very few swallows; no more swifts since those sightings at Northampton.  A few fields full of buttercups and other flowers, but largely the flowers are alongside us – meadow vetch, forget me not, comfrey, bugle, speedwell. Meadows should be full of them. Insects too (which have suffered a 70% depletion – we can’t do without insects).




Jenny and I walked into Brinklow and bought some pansies, which are now planted out in a tub I bought from another boat,


and when we got back the first boats were moving. The tree was cleared by 11 and we were through by 11.15 with tight congestion continuing for a good while.

Good bye Brinklow.


The Oxford Canal took us on, then, to the outskirts of Coventry where we joined the Coventry Canal, through Nuneaton, and on to Atherstone, where we moored up. There were 11 locks to do the next morning, Friday.

We walked for a drink at a pub – not the best, we discovered as we walked back – but never mind. We stopped to talk to a professional fisherman about how many ducklings are taken by pike – he reckoned each fish would take one a day. The largest brood we’ve seen was of 15 ducklings.

I’ve finished Mark Cocker’s book Our Place. (Penguin, Random House, 2018).

His main argument is that the lack of coordination amongst environment groups has to be addressed, if concerted action is to be taken to reverse the intensity of the reduction of wildlife in the UK today. There are so many vested interests that are stacked against the flourishing of biodiversity, not least farmers and land owners and the subsidies they receive to farm intensively, that a much better political engagement needs to be made.

One of the problems is the myth that everything’s ok – that we’re still a green and pleasant land. TV programmes, such as Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival is an obvious example. Such myths keep false hopes alive.

Cocker is good on what he describes as a deep melancholia that many feel – and how the natural world around us has for centuries replenished our collective spirit, by ‘immersion in nature’s unfathomable and obliterating otherness, so that it can purge the travails and toxins of our own making’ (2018: 285). He writes

Nature’s great and irreversible continuities – the passage of the clouds, the turning of the seasons – measure all our smallnesses. They put things in perspective. They render us humble. … Hope is written into all our connections with the rest of nature, and it is a two-way process. … It begins the moment you open the door to go outside. You have only to have the sun on your back, the wind in your face and birdsong in your heart to know their rivet-bursting powers of liberation. … It explains why we cling so tenaciously to the myth that this country continues inviolate. We don’t want to hear that our final redoubt, the place where we go when our human condition is overwhelming, is itself in need. Alas, it is. In the twentieth century, the British drained their landscape of wildlife, otherness, meaning, cultural riches and hope.

He continues that we are in denial.

What we have done to our country becomes the truth that dare not speak its name. However, hope lies, surely, not in perpetrating any myth, not in doctoring the facts, but in owning them squarely and with the whole of ourselves (2018: 286/7).  

I like his insistence that to save Britain’s Wildlife before it is too late requires a political and strategic approach, and I, for one, would fall behind.

For me this is to bring to the table my own passion that is deeply rooted in my Christianity – that goes almost all the way with the quotation from George Trevelyan who wrote, ‘By the side of religion, by the side of science, by the side of poetry and art stands natural beauty, not as a rival to these, but as the common inspirer and nourisher of them all.’

For me that beauty is one of the ultimate gifts of a creator God, and with our diminishing belief in that God, goes our increasing disrespect and contempt for the natural world we are given. The rot is at the roots.

As this pilgrimage unfolds, with the intense re-engagement with the natural world that canals offer, I’m finding a personal restoration is happening. A redefining of what my life is about, what my deepest passions and concerns are.

The profound joy I experience with the delight of birdsong, and the vibrancy and colour around, stirs in me the desire to write well to inspire a sense of the otherness of the world around, and how we are shaped in our encounter with the natural world, and through the beauty, to seek the ultimate otherness that is God.


Hawthorn Hedgerows Galore

On the Oxford Canal, North of Braunston, 16 May 2018

Sally picked up Viv, Molly and Sid from the marina at Gayton Junction on Monday afternoon. We’d spent the morning working the 17 locks of the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal, built to connect the rivers of East Anglia with the central canal system, and most significantly, London and Birmingham. The Grand Union was completed by 1805, with the Northampton Arm added in 1815. The locks neatly fitted around the boat – room for just one – with vee doors at our stern, and one gate that swung open to let us out into the next holding pool.


We’d been warned not to head off too early, as these pools can drain over night – so we had a leisurely breakfast and made sure Jenny was settled in before we set off.

A late lunch at Gayton with Sally of salmon, new potatoes and asparagus, and much hilarity as we told her just how impossible the last few weeks had been, what with my bossiness, and Viv’s control freakery, and the dogs ruling everything. Even after they’d gone, we couldn’t get rid of them, as Viv forgot the dog food and had to come back.

It was a lovely lunch and a fitting send off to the team that had been so brilliant over the last few weeks.

Then it was just Jenny and me.


We set off to take TLA down the remainder of the Northampton Arm to join the Grand Union proper, turning right to head north towards Braunston. We moored up after an hour or so on a beautiful towpath outside Nether Heyford.

Viv hates Scrabble. So this evening gave Jenny the opportunity to thrash me.



Tuesday was a long day, with 13 locks, and the Braunston Tunnel to negotiate. The locks were serious – by which I mean, deep and large – and for the first couple saw Jenny and I turning the paddles up and down with ferocious amounts of water descending on us from high above. The trick is to find another boat to pair with, and thankfully the pair behind us decided it would be quicker if one of them came with us. So Martin and Christine joined us through the remaining five locks …IMG_3368

… and then gave us good advice for the tunnel ahead.


You need waterproofs for Braunston Tunnel, and your headlight and all the lights on in the boat. It’s dark, and dripping, and hard to see anything – except the bright head light of a boat approaching from the other direction. There’s only just room for boats to pass, with much scraping against the sides of the tunnel. I have a small brick souvenir.

The tunnel is 2,042 yards (1,867 m) in length, built by Jessop and Barnes, and opened in 1796. It really is incredible to think of the construction – I’m full of admiration for the engineers who conceived that such a thing is possible. How would you begin to plan such an enterprise? Its construction was delayed by soil movement, and probably that caused the tunnel having a slight ‘S’ bend. There is just room for two 7 ft beam boats to pass – we’re 6’ 10”. There are three air shafts along its length.

It took about 20 minutes. You wouldn’t want to fall overboard, nor have engine failure.

We left Martin and Christine as they moored up and we headed off for the next set of six locks, this time pairing with a boat with two couples on board, so lots of help for Jenny with the descending locks ahead which took us into Braunston.

Braunston Junction is where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union at a three way junction with beautiful Horseley Iron Work bridges.


Braunston the village is on the hill above, where Jenny I had a cider at the Old Plough, but the life really happens along the canal with chandlers, and marinas and boats galore.

We passed a plaque to the Bray family, and intrigued, I googled them. Arthur Bray’s obituary in the Guardian came up. It gives a brilliant picture of a life now gone – but what these canals once were, before the leisure industry revived them.

Bray died in 1998 at 93, having been one of the last of the old working canal boatmen, the head of one of three families from Braunston, who together worked the last fleet of six paired narrow boats, carrying cargoes under regular contract.

Jenny and I turned up the Oxford Canal, and moored on the towpath amidst cow parsley and fields that reveal the ridges and furrows of the peasant farming that endured from the middle ages until the enclosures.


Each ridge and furrow would be an allotment for a family. When the hawthorn hedges were put in by farmers to enclose the common land into fields, whole settlements were displaced, often forced towards the factories of the burgeoning industries of the cities.

Many landowners became rich through the enclosure of the commons, while many ordinary folk had a centuries-old right taken away. An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

So great was the need for hedges during the Enclosures, that a whole new industry sprang up supplying hawthorn plants to be used in planting new hedges.

Those same hawthorn hedges are now absolutely stunning – covered in heavy white blossom – clouds of beauty.


To match the forget me not, the bugle, speedwell, comfrey and other delights of the towpath.


Onwards, now, to Rugby and Coventry along the Oxford Canal, and then onto the Coventry Canal.


Northampton, 12-13 May 2018

Viv leaves on Monday after Jenny arrives on Sunday. Together the three of us will do the 17 locks from Northampton to Gayton Junction, leaving the River Nene, or Nen as it’s pronounced around here, and entering the canal system.

It’s weird to think that there’s so much waterway activity going on that the road map has no way of showing, as people speed past on the M1. Your reality is how it’s framed, so often.

My uncle Bill died in Australia last year, very suddenly. He’d been a real character, who, with Jenny, had developed a property at Stonehaven, outside Geelong. Here’s Jenny, last year, and the house they built together.



– and Bill loved boats. So when I was there for his funeral, and already planning this trip, Jenny agreed to join me for a couple of weeks. We don’t know each other very well, but we’re not so far apart in age terms. My mother Elizabeth, or Pix as she was called, (RIP, 2005) was born in 1938, just before the war, and her siblings came after it, when my grandfather returned to Australia – Judy, Bill and Anne, all born within five years. Pix married Hubert, my father, young and had me when she was 21, so I was only 12 years younger than Bill.

Jenny knows a lot about water – it’s been her profession – so it’ll be interesting hearing her reflections on the waterways of England. She’s never been on a narrowboat before, so I’m glad Viv is with us for Monday to share the locks with us both. We’ve worked out a division of responsibility – I’ve minded what the boat is doing – bringing it into the lock, ensuring it’s moored carefully and able to rise and fall with the water, leaving and mooring while Viv has been the lock person. Vee door locks are much easier than the guillotine locks of the River Nene, where the guillotine needs to be left in the up position to control the river, which might flood. Vee doors – like this Beckets Park Lock here in Northampton – can be left as you leave.


I always thought Northampton was further north than this (but I guess in relation to Southampton it’s where it should be …). We’ve been travelling south west since Peterborough, so Gayton Junction will see Jenny and I begin the climb northwards, up the country. Canals, rather than rivers, too. A new experience for me.

So, back to Saturday, and after I booked into the Marina, Viv and I took ourselves off into town. I was looking for a church to worship at on Sunday. St Giles looked a little enthusiastic for me; All Saints much more my cup of tea. For the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after Ascension Day, the music of the Mass is Kenneth Leighton in D and the anthem, Notre Pére by Duruflé. The Rector, Oliver Coss, is preaching and presiding. As I look at the notice boards, there’s the Bishop of Richborough, the Rt Revd Norman Shanks, smiling at the world, in a more prominent position than the Diocesan, Bishop Donald Allister. OK – so this parish accepts the episcopal oversight of one of the ‘flying bishops’; it’s not in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopacy. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any comment about the installation of the Rt Reverend and Rt Honorable Dame Sarah Mullally as the 133rd Bishop of London on the Saturday.

Viv and I ate at Pamukkale, the no 1 restaurant in town –  delicious Turkish food and atmosphere. The name means ‘cotton castle’, and refers to a natural site in Denizli Province in the Aegean region in the River Menderes valley, in SW Turkey where the deposits of carbonate minerals have left white terraces. The ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city of Hierapolis was built on the top of the white ‘castle’ which is about 9,000 feet, long, 2,000 feet wide and 500 feet high. People have bathed in its pools for thousands of years. Pamukkale is now a World Heritage Site, so the hotels, motorcycle tracks and roads have been removed. As we eat, we wondered why the interior of the restaurant was covered in white hardened foam. It wasn’t immediately obvious.

Then a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest by the Original Theatre Company at the Royal and Derngate – which was well performed. Oscar’s wit never fails.


Sunday morning, and I leave Viv to head off to All Saint’s. A good choir, liturgy and sermon. At the end I asked around if anyone remembered Dan who now trains at Mirfield. Someone called Geoff did, who sang for over 70 years in the choir.

Viv and I had a rest day, cleaning and washing, pumping out, and filling up with water. Reading the paper.

Mark Cocker had replied to my email letting him know I was reading Our Place as we chug along. Viv has a property not far from him in Norfolk where she’s doing a similar job of clearing the marsh of trees, and he’s encouraged her to get in touch. We noted that we both have a mutual friend in Ronnie Blyth, who I last saw for lunch in September before I left Bury.

And Mark explained about some peewit behaviour I’d seen – a nesting male chasing off an interloper. See here for more info on the peewit or lapwing.  His latest chapter that I’m reading is about peewits, or lapwings – how devastating has been the loss – 65% since the 1970s. The bird was a particular interest of his when he was a boy: he’d note the breeding pairs he could see from his bedroom window. He writes ‘What we know incontrovertibly now is that cold stains of absence have spread across the once solidly red map of lapwing distribution. Big holes have appeared across roughly two-fifths of central Norfolk. The worst losses, however, are in the western highlands of Scotland, much of Wales and in the English south-west, where almost the entire peninsula from Land’s End almost to Bristol has been vacated.’ (2018: 199) He says Lincolnshire, which uses the lapwing as the emblem for its wildlife trust, may well have to find another symbol. Like many other ground nesting birds – snipe, gray partridge, turtle dove, skylark, yellow wagtail, corn bunting, yellowhammer – increased use of pesticides, predation by foxes, intensification of farming are to blame. Unless there’s serious remedial action, the losses will continue.

I love the way Cocker combines expert knowledge with beautiful writing. He speaks of loss, and how hard it is.

‘For statistics and columns of figures do not begin to express the effects of the changes at a personal and interior level. For some people, agricultural intensification has triggered an emotionally charged, even visceral response, at the root of which is a baffling confrontation with local extinction and loss of meaning. The effect is powerful enough to alter an individual’s personality and their entire view of life. It amounts to a persistent low-level heartache, a background melancholia, for which there is little remedy short of emigration.’ (2018: 195)

I know what he means.

Australia’s not the place to go, though. That land has been so devastated by European human impact – as described by Germaine Greer in her 2014 book White Beech – that it’s almost as tragic as what’s happening in the UK. Jenny and Bill tried to do something about it. Their property of 73 acres on the road out of Geelong towards the Western District, along the Barwon River, was a real attempt to enhance birdlife and biodiversity.


They planted trees which have attracted bird and wild life.

Bill loved his water lilies.


But this last summer and winter have been so dry that Jenny hasn’t pumped water out of the river to keep them going – it just doesn’t seem right.

She described watching her sheep go off for meat, and whether she had the time and energy to look after them. Instead she’s going to let the land to a neighbouring farmer for merinos – that classic sheep of Spanish origin that produces such beautiful wool. Now marketed properly, merino wool is the best to buy.

Viv, Jenny and I sit out in the sun, alongside the boat, and talk away about how the last two weeks have been.


Viv teases me unmercifully, warning Jenny of all my worst faults.

I deny vociferously, of course.


Jenny and I wander to look at Beckets Park Lock, so I can explain just how the paddles work, and where I’ll position the boat, and what the routine is that we’ve developed. But we’ve got 17 to do on Monday, and Viv is such an expert now, that it’ll be fine. Sally is joining us at Gayton, mid afternoon, to take Viv and the dogs home. I’ll miss them.



Ascensiontide: Thursday 10 May 2018

One of the very few downsides of chugging along is the noise. It’s hard to hear the songbirds. I’ve yet to hear a lark. I’m hoping they were singing all along the stretches of the Nene from Wadenhoe to Wellingborough that we travelled on Ascension day.

We heard a distressing story as we went through the lock at Whiston (on Friday). An old bloke, obviously a keen birdwatcher by his garb, remarked on our boat’s name, and pointed out a field below us that was yellow and recently sown with some grain or other. He said the farmer had just sprayed the field with pesticide, and killed off a number of nesting skylarks. Just like that. Gone.

The more I read of Mark Cocker, the more I gather just how devastating the farming practices have been over the last 50 years or so on wildlife. He’s arguing for a proper valuing and strategic approach.

Meadows – some ancient – have been destroyed, since Edward Thomas wrote Haymaking in 1915. Within 30 years two-fifths of them were gone. By 1960 another 1.75 million acres had gone. in 1984 just 3 per cent remained. Today it’s 1 per cent. (Cocker, 2018: 114)

We were stalled, for a couple of hours, at Titchmarsh. Not as long as we feared, thank heavens. Once through, we made good time from then on by pairing up with a couple whose work it is to transfer narrowboats from one part of the country to another. Dan and Patch, their names – and we went in tandem with their boat-for-sale as they took Indulgence to Milton Marina. They didn’t hang about.

The benefit is mutual: both boats fit into the lock, so the work of raising and lowering the paddles is halved; each boat takes it in turns to go ahead and prepare the next lock, waiting for the other to finish off reversing the lock (leaving the downstream guillotine gate up for the next), and catch up. So we went through ten locks – in order: Titchmarsh, Islip, Denford, Woodford, Lower Ringstead, Upper Ringstead, Irthlingborough, Higham, Ditchford and Lower Wellingborough. It begins to sound like a list poem!

Ascension day. I love the image of Jesus disappearing into the clouds …

So this day, it’s appropriate to honour The Lark Ascending – which, as it happens, is the work that Mark Cocker chooses to illustrate how Britons interact with wildlife.

The post-war destruction of meadows, both for land for urban sprawl, but also to intensification in farming, happened largely because of fear of vulnerability to starvation, a memory of the 2WW, that it never happens again. But these have been decades of upset of the ancient collaboration and partnership between land and people, that since the time of Shakespeare had been explicit in poetry, literature and music.

This is what he says:
This harmony had perhaps been best encapsulated by Ralph Vaughan William’s piece The Lark Ascending. The dark, soaring strains of its solo violin may have presaged the melancholy of war – it was written in early 1914 – but also it seems to carry aloft the spiritual connections to place of an entire people. It is a sublime piece of musical nostalgia and patriotism and even now remains the most popular choice on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, as well as the nation’s favourite classical melody.

It is worth recalling that its inspiration is a bird vocalisation from a species that is the most agricultural in Britain. … Skylarks not only dislike woods: they are seldom to be found even close to a tree. The skylark is the quintessential inhabitant of ploughland or pasture, and our agricultural presence in Britain made its own abundance possible. Prior to the echo of a Neolithic axe upon our post-glacial wildwoods, there may have been no such thing as a singing skylark in this country.

George Meredith’s poem of the same name, which had first unlocked Vaughan Williams’s responses, enlarged upon the shared ecology of bird and Britons. Take this single sentence:

The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine,
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labour in the town;
He sings the sap, the quickened veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breath;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.

The imagination of that close relationship of human and nature is fired, religiously, on Ascension Day – the day when Christians stand and watch, their minds and hearts soaring as Christ returns to heaven so that he might be eternally present on earth, and so that the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost.

All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.

The thin line of sound that stretches to breaking, ever upwards, a dark point in the sky, which then parachutes down, to rise again: a wonderful metaphor for the Ascension.

Here the sound here.  Click the Audio button.

There’s a list poem I wrote a few years back, where I tried to capture in twelve short lines the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. I’d been inspired by the collective noun: e.g. that goldfinches together are a charm. What other collective nouns could be used of birds? I wondered. And how might we see the narrative of Christ’s life, from annunciation, to baptism, to teaching and healing, to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Easter and Ascension as natural theology, told through the characteristics of birds?

A Gospel of Birds

An innocence of doves
A plunge of gannets
A parable of blackbirds
A balm of robins
A fickle of sparrows
A betrayal of magpies
A condemnation of crows
A torture of shrikes
A grief of curlews
A hope of swallows
A sight of kingfishers
An ascent of skylarks

Ascension Day, 2018.


Wadenhoe: Wednesday 9 May, 2018

The reception has been dire all along the Nene so far – so blogs will come thick and fast when they come.

We’re at Wadenhoe this night, moored up at the King’s Head alongside Whisper. Last night her owners told us that the next lock – Titchmarsh …


… is broken, so we might be a while on this stretch.

We had our meal at the pub, and then wandered up to the most delightful little Church, dedicated to St Michael and all Angels, on a hill above the river. Here’s our photo, as we chugged away the next morning.


The bell ringers were in that evening, and were very welcoming, encouraging us to have a go. So we did.


The Church appeared to be surrounded by the mounds of a mediaeval village – perhaps decimated by the Black Death? The living village is beautifully cared for, with a Wadenhoe Trust, and various small businesses – but no shop we could find. The pub got busier and busier, as we returned to TLA.

Mooring these floating tanks is a delicate business. I’ve found the best way is to parallel park by a gentle use of forward gear and reverse, with the tiller angled towards the bank. Every time we go through a lock, we need to leave the bottom electronic guillotine in the up position, so as Viv does that, I bring the boat in on the upstream landing. Mostly I manage. At Lower Barnwell Lock I didn’t. The bow swung out, and carried on swinging, caught by the head wind and the current of the river. With stern already secured, I ended up straddling the river across the top of the lock. Viv laughed and laughed. I wondered what on earth to do. And warned her if she took any pictures, she’d be dead. She did, and she isn’t. Thankfully there was no one around to enjoy my terrible plight.


The other six locks we did this day were uneventful, on a river where we saw only two other boats coming down stream. We’re getting the hang of it – a routine which is beginning to look like we know what we’re doing. Except of course, when the boat ends up wedged across the river.

The day had begun in drama too. Viv’s two dogs, Molly and Sid, are great company.



Sid refused to come for a jog with me – little tyke – and as I returned him to the boat, Viv was shouting, as she lay in her nightie, stretched out, trying to reach Molly who had fallen in. Molly has only three legs, having lost one last September when a car hit her. Viv was worried that she couldn’t swim as a result. She can – and with a bit of scruff-of-the-neck lifting, was back on dry land.

We stopped for a break at Fotheringay – disappointed that the Church is cloaked in scaffolding (see above behind Viv and Molly). It should look like this:


That’s where we moored …

So we enjoyed a coffee at The Falcon, writing post cards to Peter – a continuous letter to be – and we climbed the castle mound where Mary Queen of Scots was executed, and Richard III was born. With views to die for, there are worse places to meet your end. Or meet the world.


Artist’s impression:


We’re in Northamptonshire – but only just. Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire are over the border and Bucks not far away. This is so different to the Middle Levels, or the Great Ouse. There there are meadows and woods all around, and church spires everywhere you look. Prickwillow feels like an age in time and place away.

The swifts have arrived! Saw 5 on this Wednesday 9 May.

These are enigmatic birds – they spend all their lives in the air, only landing to nest – hence their generic name, apous, ‘without feet’. They even mate on the wing. They feed on insects, particularly spiders that float up on warm air, and bathe by flying slowly through rain. The daily average distance a swift covers is 500 miles, and the top speed recorded is 69.3 mph, with only a diving peregrine faster. Each bird weighs only 40g. The age of the oldest ringed swift is 21 years; the average UK life span is 5.5 years.

They are not flourishing though – the rate of decline over the last 20 years is 47%. The most significant factor in that decline is the destruction of nesting sites. Swifts are nest-site faithful, so it’s devastating when the sites they return to are destroyed, or the holes blocked up, or … the church is covered in scaffolding. I really hope the scaffolding comes down soon on Fotheringay tower – because I bet that’s a great place for the swifts to nest.

I love them – wheeling and screaming above, scything through the air.

We’ll put boxes up at St Michael’s Workington, in hope for swifts. All churches should.

Oundle deserves a mention – though we didn’t stop. The church tower seemed to be there, wherever we looked, as we swung around bends in the river.