Up the Flight

4 June 2018

‘You going up today?’ Light Mancunian accent.

It was early – dog walking sort of time – and with Peter driving, I was doing the couple of bottom locks in Wigan. We were about to meet Harry and Eth at the large pound (the area of water between locks) at the bottom of the Wigan Flight. They were joining us for the day, to help with the 21 locks other locks that have the reputation for being the hardest in England.


It’s always better to pair up – the locks are large and deep. So Steve was as keen as I was to find each other. He and Linda come from Ashton under Lyme and keep their boat at Scarisbrook. They had just set off to cruise until October. Semi-retired, Steve told me he’d just turned down the first job since 2002. ‘Painting a bloke’s bathroom ceiling. Just the sort of job I like. Brings in the beer money.’

Harry and Eth joined us. They’d met the Canals and Rivers Trust volunteer as they walked down from where they’d parked the car at Rose Bridge, half way up. He’d told them there wasn’t enough water in the pounds – particularly between lock 80 and 81. So we’d have to wait until it filled up when we got there.

The first four locks – 85-82 – went without a hitch. Slowly and carefully, as Harry and Eth were learning from Peter and Linda. Steve and I got to know each other, as we chatted about life. He’d had bowel cancer. Life meant more to him now. He didn’t know quite what to make of Peter’s and my life changes. So we talked of his boat, and of the Marple flight on the Macclesfield canal – one of his favourites; and where they planned to go. Leeds. York. Oxford. Wherever.

When we got to the pound below the empty one, we moored up to have a look. The mud, rocks and weed, and other things that shouldn’t be in a canal, were there for all to see.

Water? Not enough.

The CRT volunteer told us not to go if the level was more than a foot below the overflow. He arrived, and said he reckoned there might be enough. Our risk, of course. When we did go, to stick to the middle where there’s most depth. And if we stuck, to wait until there was enough to float off. Obvious, really.

Steve eventually went first. All well until about half way, then he ran aground. Following behind, I slowed the TLA right down, and so lost steerage, ending up diagonal, with stern and bow in mud. And a nasty sound under the propeller that made me think of shopping trolleys.

Steve pushed on a little further, slewing off to the right. And stuck on something – a rock? this time. There wasn’t much more water at all, but enough for me to come alongside and pass him, into the lock, picking up his bow line as we went, which pulled him off whatever it was and into the lock. We relaxed as the lock began to fill. ‘That’s enough drama for the day’, we agreed. This was number 80.

A number of people told us there were three boats coming down. A singleton, and a pair. Good news, as they bring water with them. The singleton came out as we went into lock 78. Then that sound below that you quickly learn to dread – and don’t expect to hear in a lock, where there’s usually enough water. I put the engine into gear, forward. It stalled. I started it, and into reverse. It stalled. Steve said he could see something white below the rudder. ‘Best not to try and clear it with the engine. You’ll need to go into the weed box.’ I said I hadn’t done that before.

The pair were waiting in the pound – the rest pound between 78 and 77 – so Steve towed me into the next lock. The silence was wonderful, without an engine. I began to imagine the world of horses; the slipping through the water. A horse can pull a ton over the road; it can pull 100 tons through water. The noise of shoe on cobble.

It wouldn’t have been silent here though. Just different sound. The noise of the collieries all around.

The Nicholson guide book tells of this flight as an industrial hub with collieries and ironworks lining the canal.


The Rose Bridge Colliery – just where my engine stalled – and Ince Hall Coal and Cannel Company would have been pumping out noise and sulphur all around us. (Cannel was a dull coal that burned with a smoky, luminous flame – so the guidebook says).

The Wigan Coal and Iron Company were the biggest – employing ten thousand people at their works all alongside the top nine locks (73-65) of the flight. It owned pits all around this area.

It was one of the largest iron works in the country, mining a million tons of coal to produce 125,000 tons of iron a year. The skyline here was dominated by ten blast furnaces, 675 coking ovens and a 339ft high chimney, says Nicholson. There wouldn’t have been much silence, day or night.

Chances are that a hundred years ago, it would have all been just starting up again, after the Whit Weeks. The collieries and works took it in turns to close – in Bolton, Farnworth, Leigh, Wigan – to give the workers two weeks off to cycle, or walk, to Blackpool for the annual holiday. When I was curate in Westhoughton – only a few miles away – it was still fresh memory for the older folk.

The Whit Walks still happened then – though with the closing of the last collieries in the 80s, the dressing up of rose queens, and her bridemaids carrying baskets dressed all in white, the ceremonies were not going to last much longer.

We paused in Lock 77. With Harry, Peter and Steve looking on, I undid the nuts (with my old cycle dog bone spanner) that held the weed box cover in place. The propeller was shrouded in white and black – some fabric or other. I made sure the key was out of the ignition, and gingerly felt down. Tight wound it was – and there was electrical wire there too. Now armed with scissors, I started to cut wherever I could, and gradually it came free. A sturdy black and white striped shower curtain, still with rings. The whole lot came up. Two lengths of cable, and a long gauze bandage, which must have been there for a while.

‘You need a better spanner than that’, said Harry as I tightened the box lid down. ‘I’ll bring one when we meet in Skipton.’ Steve suggested putting the engine on and into gear, to make sure there was no water leakage. All good, and good to go.

I wish I’d taken a picture of that shower curtain from Wigan.

I did of other stuff, later, though, that had been fished out of the canal.

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Once the other boats had passed us downward, and with no more coming down, and with more water in the system gushing down the byflows (the CRT had opened some sluice or other upstream), Eth and Linda were in their stride, opening lock gates way ahead of us. Leaving Harry and Peter to close up behind us, Steve and I took each lock in turn, relaxing into banter as we went.

He said he’d sell up the house tomorrow, but Linda liked her bricks and mortar. Though he was surprised at how well she’d taken to it. 40 years married, they hadn’t any children, but had always had a dog. He was worried that Dolly – 8 months old, and a cavalipoo – was showing signs of attachment anxiety. She’d had a previous owner, who’d paid a mint for her, and who’d kept her in the kitchen cupboard, under the sink. Dogs aren’t accessories, we agreed. (Though Dolly looked like one – pretty, and silly. Linda caught her up into her arms when Diesel came along. Diesel, explained his owner, was an American Staffy. ‘Most owners around here don’t treat them well. Make them aggressive. He’s as soft as anything’, he said. ‘There’s dogs like him that would have that dog before breakfast. But he won’t. He’s as soft as anything’, he repeated. Again and again, reassuring us Diesel wasn’t a pit bull. He was, though.)

Once we were in our rhythm, Steve wanted to know why Peter was on the phone. I said we were live aboard now, as it was taking time to sort out our move to Workington before he was ordained. We talked of life changes. That Peter’d been a children’s doctor all around here, based in Bolton, for years. That I was a priest; that I knew Manchester well. That we were both looking forward to Workington. Steve looked doubtful. He nodded, still unconvinced, when I tried to explain how Peter and I felt we wanted to be where we could make a difference. He nodded, again with not much comprehension, as I mentioned coastal town poverty. ‘You’re not far from the Fells, though’, he ressured himself.

By the lock just below the top lock


(which has been recently renovated and looks beautiful, compared with the delapidated state of some we’d been through. If only there were money for the rest. ‘It used to take three days to replace a lock gate’, said Harry, who used to work for the Environment Agency. ‘When there were lots of lock makers and British Waterways were in charge. Now it takes six weeks if you’re lucky.’ Steve grumbled it was now the CRT, ‘but they’d spent too much money on rebranding’). Just before Top Lock was the Kirkless Hall Inn.


‘I’m back there for a pint’ said Steve.

They issue certificates. So of course we had one.


I made haddock fish pie, strawberries and cream for lunch, once we’d moored up. I felt the decades fall away again, as I went to prise Peter, Harry and Eth out of the pub, once it was ready. A fish wife, me.

We walked back with them to the car at Rose Bridge. Marvelling that we hadn’t seen each other for years, but the friendship was as fresh as ever. Walking down that flight, now full of water, took no time at all, compared with the five hours it had taken up the 300 or so feet. Once Peter and I were back, we headed onwards for a mile or two, to Haigh Hall. Somewhere we used to take the kids for a day out in the early 1990s.

It’s a stunning location, with views extending across the Cheshire plain to Runcorn, and beyond to the hills of Wales. Below is Wigan, now surrounded by green woods and fields.


The word comes from an old English word meaning ‘enclosure’. There would have been a timber-framed manor house here, in the late 12C, where the Norreys family lived, originally from Normandy, who held the manors of Haigh and Blackrod. Hugh le Norreys had a daughter, Mabel, who became heiress to the fortune. We moored near Lady Mabel’s Wood. Sir William Bradshaigh married her in 1295. The Bradshaighs held the estate until 1770, when it passed to a niece, 10 year old Elizabeth Dalrymple Bradshaigh, in trust until she married her cousin Alexander Lindsay, 23rd Earl of Crawford, 6th Earl of Balcarres. Alexander sold the Balcarres estate to his younger brother to fund repairs to the hall, which had not been lived in for many years and was damaged by mining subsidence.

The house was rebuilt by his son, creating the building of today, and extensive park lands and gardens. Sandstone was bought from Parbold on the Leeds/Liverpool, and dressed on site.

During the 1860s 40 miles of pathways were built by local Wigan men, many of whom would have been destitute otherwise, plummeted into poverty by volatile cotton markets. I thought of them, as I jogged those same pathways this morning.

The Lancashire Cotton Famine of the early 1860s followed the boom years of 1859 and 1860 and left families in extreme poverty. Overproduction flooded the market with finished goods, while raw cotton was in abundance. The demand fell and prices collapsed, and the market was further complicated by the interruption of baled cotton imports, during the American Civil War.

To their credit, many Lancashire cotton workers, despite the real hardship they suffered, resolved to support the Union in its fight against slavery. In the name of the Working People of Manchester, they wrote to President Abraham Lincoln of their hope that ‘the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery’ would be seen during his presidency. He responded within a few days in January 1863:

I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.

There’s a monument in Brazenose Street, Lincoln Square, Manchester, to commemorate.

All around here, throughout Lancashire, workers became unemployed, and went from being the most prosperous workers in Britain to the most impoverished. Many emigrated. My grandmother Lorna’s maternal family came out to Australia from Manchester in the 1860s.

Haigh Hall once housed a magnificent library, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, which was gifted to the Rylands Library in Manchester. The house was opened as an auxiliary hospital for convalescing soldiers in November 1914. It was sold to Wigan Corporation in 1947 when the Lindsay family returned to their family seat in Fife, Scotland. Now it’s used for weddings, and functions. ‘It’s a sad place’, said Peter, as we wandered around.


The house perhaps; but the woodland around is one of the largest and most ecologically important in Greater Manchester. We saw a toad – the first either of us had seen for years, as we walked down to Sennicar Bridge, canal bridge 61, and home for the night.


Tuesday is St Boniface‘s day. He died this day in 754. He was born Winfrid in the kingdom of Wessex in Anglo-Saxon England, was a leading figure in the Anglo-Saxon mission to the Germanic parts of the Frankish Empire during the 8th century.

There’s an unfortunate story from his life about an oak tree – which, it must be remembered – were ubiquitous then. According to the story of his life, Boniface felled the Donar Oak,  or “Jupiter’s oak,” near the present-day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. According to his early biographer Willibald, Boniface started to chop the oak down, when suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When the god did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. He built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from its wood at the site—the chapel was the beginning of the monastery in Fritzlar.

St Boniface will, we trust, accompany us to Chorley, where we’ll be for a couple of nights. He is, we’re sure, past caring about pagan Germans or oak trees. Today’s paganism takes different forms and expressions. Boniface – more likely to plant an oak than chop it down these days.

I’ve work to do on the Theological Reflections book. As with any theology written today, it’s a key question: how does this engage with people?

In Chorley, or wherever?


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