The Leigh Arm


We weren’t sure what to expect from the Leigh Arm of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. It’s only 7.5 miles long and was built to connect the end of the Bridgewater canal at Leigh with the Leeds and Liverpool canal at Wigan. Moving coal and cotton, it was crucial for trading links to Manchester. It’s celebrating its 200th birthday this year as It was completed in 1820 at the cost of £61,419. There’s still the occasional working boat to be seen although this beauty is not a local boat and not trading.

A traditional boat

We had a few jobs needed doing on the boat so we spent a week mooring in various spots along its route.

Firecrest at Plank Lane

Waking up in the morning to perfect peace.

Early morning mist

This area was rich with coal deposits and consequently was mined heavily. There were several huge collieries within the Wigan coal field each capable of producing a million tonnes per year. Over the years as the seams were exhausted and economics changed, the land suffered from subsidence, and what with the abandoned slag heaps, the countryside was really a no go area until a serious attempt at land reclamation in the 70s and 80s. Apart from the info boards along the Towpath there’s no mining in sight now.

Info boards along the towpath


The rivers and canal overflow filled the depressions and created several lakes known as the flashes and along with new houses for the people, wildlife habitat was also created.

Family outing

The whole area is now a diverse and thriving environment, with nature reserves, outdoor activities and water sports . Much of the area is designated an SSSI with rare flora and fauna to be found in the reedbeds, I think July is the season of pink flowers.

We moored along side the Scotsman’s flash. Fortunately it wasn’t too windy, and whilst I can safely say we weren’t treated to the most spectacular canal scenery, we did see a lot of yellow ragwort, also known as stinking willy…..

Stinking Willy

some of the local youngsters took advantage of the sunshine and water and held their equivalent to a beach party. And away from their gettoblasters, it is a peaceful place to be.

The Scotsman’s flash party

The canal here is long and straight. The banks are wide and the towpaths are very well maintained,

From crankwood bridge

but we chose to walk a little way off the beaten track.

Woods by Westwood Flash

All in all I’d be happy to cruise this way again.

Person’s flash

Reaching for pastures new

With only another 5 miles to Wigan, we were almost upon pastures new for us. We had last cruised this way 10 months ago in September 2019, travelling westward intending to enjoy just one week in Liverpool. Little did we know what was to come. The day promised some sunshine, but we’ve heard that before. So we set off in a spirit of adventure. Passing the Baby Elephant, an Indian Restaurant which closed down some time ago.

The Baby Elephant

It’s sad to see so many canalside venues closed down especially when we see so many people walking the Towpath.

It’s thirsty work seeing a boat through a lock


But this area is coal mining country, so although there’s lots of new development there’s also a lot of run down property. One thing that has made us grimmace chuckle is CRT’s love of signs, including portage notices advising canoes to be taken out of the water at swing bridges and carried through. There might be logic if the bridges were closed but so many swing bridges are permenantly open and completely inoperable. It just strikes us as a complete and utter waste of money and lack of any intelligence.

Canoers should walk past here

However not to spend too long being grumpy, we passed the impressive Wigan pier

Wigan Pier

We wondered what George Orwell would have made of the fancy redevelopment opposite around the wharfs, warehouses and mills.

Recycling at its most profitable

After a stop to fill up with water we rounded the corner and there it was, the Leigh Branch. It’s still technically part of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, but for us, we’re breaking new ground and it feels good.

Turning right, , onto the Leigh Branch

During this section of our journey, we passed by two historic boats, Ambush and Viktoria. Most canals have a specific style to maximise the efficiency and profit of their specific routes. Above Wigan the Liverpool Shortboats, dominated. Ambush and Viktoria were built for the H &R Ainscough Mill in Burscough, they are Liverpool Longboats to carry grain and flour. They are 60’long and 14’wide. nowadays Ambush is still a working boat delivering fuel to boaters between Burscough and Leigh. Canal Junction writes and intersting article about these boats

Ambush and Viktoria

Fairies as far as the eye can see


We haven’t seen hills for months, so now that we have one on our doorstep I thought it time to stretch some dormant muscles. There are two significant local beauty spots with in walking distance of Appley Deep Lock, both involve a climb, Parbold Hill rewards with views for miles and we’d chosen a good day.

On a clear day, you can see forever

To the southeast we could see way beyond Wigan towards Manchester and the peak district beyond. My photo doesn’t do it justice, we could see the M6 crossing the river Douglas and the Heinz factory

To Wigan and beyond

To the southwest we could see the tall cranes along the Mersey docks

That’s where we have come from, Liverpool in the distance

And to the northwest Blackpool tower and a hint of the Lakeland fells behind

If you squint you can see Blackpool tower

Parbold hill has special memories for me as a child. Mum and Dad would lift me and my brother from our beds, wrap us in blankets and put us into to boot of the VWCombi at 6 am on a Saturday morning and we’d drive from our home in Crosby up to the Lake District in time to make Bacon butties in Ambleside for breakfast. Ok I know that would never be allowed to happen now, but just in case you were worried, it was more of a parcel rack than a closed in boot, and I don’t think seatbelts had been invented back in the early 70s. The combi must have chugged and splutterd to get to the top of Parbold Hill, cause we always greeted it with a fanfare.
Those carefree days must have really nurtured my inner hippy and my love of outdoor living. Half a mile down the hill is a trail that leads to the Fairy Glen. A woodland walk that follows the path of Sprodley Brook almost back down to the canal. I did search high and low for the fairies but I think they were practicing social distancing.

I’m sure there’s a fairy in the glen

The path became steeper and more of a scramble, perfect for little waterfalls

Fairy showers


I wanted to skip back to the boat filled with the joy of the day, but oh boy did we ache. 8 months in Liverpool didn’t do our fitness levels any good. Time for tea and cake back on Firecrest

Fairweather cruising


One distinct advantage of being continual cruisers is that we don’t have to cruise continually, (with the proviso that we move on every 14 days in accordance with the rules) So when it rains we stay put, but when the sun shines we make the most of it and enjoy hearing the frequently used phrase “nice day for it”. And we agree, “it’s a hard life but someone’s got to do it”
So onward we meander. Past the bridge that traverses the junction of the Rufford branch of the L&L. Our plans back in April were to have cruised this way so we could cross over the Ribble link onto the Lancaster, however with all the uncertainties we’ve decided to do it another year.

Rufford branch junction

And through Parbold with its lovely old mill, now transformed into James Bartholomew’s art gallery,

The Mill House gallery


I even saw my very first black blackberry of the season, but as it was below knee level, it stayed put.

First blackberry of the season


We settled for a few nights with a view of the hills near Appley deep lock.

Hills


And moored up with view of cow parsley

This is what we see through the round window today

Living by the canal


Once the navvies had built the canals, lots of hands were needed to maintain and work them. So rows of canal cottages were built along side the Cut for the workers and their families. This part of Lancashire, around Burscough has some very des-res cottages. I’m never sure if it’s the cottages or the gardens that appeal to me the most.

A garden to share

Beautiful they may be, I don’t think I could ever imagine raising a family living in a traditional boatsmans cabin on an old working boat

A traditional working boat

Of course not everyone needs a house….

Setttle down children, time for bed

And where you have canals and wharfs you also need watering holes. This Burscough Pub is the “old Packet House” and it has an interesting information board outside, (no, not the one about social distancing etc). Originally called the Bridge Inn, built in 1775 it became a staging post for passengers travelling to and from Liverpool and Wigan, who wanted to use the stage coach, (known as the Union Machine) to get between Ormskirk and Preston. Passengers travelled by Packetboats, (Union Packets) which carried small parcels as opposed to the Flyboats that carried merchandise. It cost 2/- to travel first class from Liverpool and 1/3d second class. They were allowed up to 14lbs luggage. These packet boats were over 60′ long and 9’wide and were drawn by 2 horses, one of which was ridden. They used a bugle to warn waiting passengers of their approach. Sadly we were a day too early to be allowed in.

The Old Packet House, Burscough

Sadly not all canal side pubs thrive even in a good year, as we found when we moored up outside the Ring o Bells.

The closed down Ring o Bells

However the pub car park is still accessible and it made a perfect for mum to drive down from the Lakes for our first post lockdown “hug”

A get together worth waiting for
Perfect cruising day

The Halsall Navvy

A little bit of history.
What were you doing on 5th November 1770, Col Charles Mordaunt was cutting the first turf of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. This was in Halsall, West Lancs. Somewhere, by the bridge, there’s a plaque marking the spot, but I couldn’t find it. However there is a fine stone sculpture known as the Halsall Navvie here. I doubt old Charlie did much more of the hard work, but the information board set me thinking about the Navvies who toiled along the cut.

The information board at Halsall

It’s hard to imagine that these canals were all build by hard manual labour. Originally the workers were known as Cutters. But they soon became known as Navvies abbreviated from Navigator. The canal is still often referred to as the Cut.Contrary to general belief only 30% of the navies were Irish. Over 500 men were involved in building the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Local farm labourers often supplemented their income by joining the workforce until they were needed at harvest time.

The Halsall Navvy by Thomas Dagnall 2004

In 1770 it cost £5048 to build a mile of canal equivalent to around £275 000 today. Locks cost extra. And the total financial cost of the Leeds and Liverpool was £1 250 000, around £50 000 000 today.
I’ve read that an experienced navvy could shift 12 cubic yards of earth a day: that’s the same as digging a trench 3ft wide, 3ft deep and 36ft long every day. Canal boat and Tillergraph magazine have a fascinating piece giving a better insight

We’ve got a lot to be grateful for, cause I doubt Halsall looked as lovely as this 250 years ago

Moored at Halsall

Lancashire living

Lancashire comes into its own along this stretch of the canal. We’re surrounded by rich open farmland full of crops, no uninspiring supermarket, but farm shops in barns selling potatoes that still smell of earth and taste so good you don’t need anything else on your plate, except perhaps a bit of butter.

You dont get this in a supermarket

Of course good crops don’t grow with out that essential element and whilst we are still grinning from ear to ear about being back in the countryside, I was reminded of another reason I’d enjoyed a long winter in Liverpool.

Muddy towpaths


But being surrounded by wild flowers makes up for it.


We’re sometimes asked if not having a permenant base makes canal life lonely, but not at all. It’s amazing what a small world it is, during our few days at Downholland we discovered our neighbour and I had attended the same secondary school, albeit just a few years before me, but never the less we traded names of friends and acquaintances we had in common, and it turned out he had also owned a Braidbar boat for some year.

Mooring at Downholland

So it was a lovely surprise to find our next mooring spot would also become a social occasion-OK, we did know John and Martina on Burnt Oak was cruising in this area so not a total surprise.

Halsall

It didnt take long for Martina and I to grab our fold up chairs, find our fibre and start spinning together

Towpath Twizzlers

Martina is setting up a small business and has a roving traders licence to sell hand dyed yarn and fibre. The first week of a pandemic isn’t the ideal time to launch a new venture, but Jubilee Fibres will be making an appearance at events along the Towpath in the future, but I was lucky to restock my own stash with some lovely kingfisher blue. Martina explained to me why she chose the name and logo Jubilee Fibres. The word Jubilee comes from the Hebrew, to celebrate. And Hebrew celebrations often included the blowing of a rams horn, which looks very similar to a canal bridge. Some great combination of symbolism.

Browsing around Burscough

We’re always excited by how much there is to see in an area, and saddened by how blinkered we were when we were land based. Usually  we don’t feel the need to go beyond walking distance of Firecrest, but Burscough has a train station so I took the opportunity to visit Southport, where my Aunty and cousins lived during my teenage years. Then I’d been interested in cheap fashion and exploring my “new romantic” image, it’s where I saw the first Star wars film and had a crush on Mark Hamill. Now I saw the beautiful Victorian buildings and the covered walkway and arcades along Lord Street. Sadly Southport looked tired and run down, which is such a shame, it’s a high street worth celebrating even though I am no longer a fashionista, (was I ever) Red Rum still stands proudly in Wayfayrers Arcade.

Southport

Burscough also is home to Emma Maye, The Wool Boat, yes a whole narrowboat dedicated to selling wool,

Home of the wool boat

Although they were cruising in Cheshire they had returned by road to attend the knit and Natter at the Slipway Pub, and I was able to catch up with them and a super group of knitters, who made me very welcome when I joined them.

The Slipway at Burscough

There are some gorgeous cottages along the cut

Cottages on New Lane

And some “Interesting” homes between here and Liverpool

Merseyside madness

A Family Affair

Now that Firecrest has passed through Wigan, we have reached the area I grew up in. For despite my numerous addresses, I’m a Lancashire girl-or was until they redrew the county lines and it became Merseyside. I have fond memories of place names, places we drove through before the motorways made escaping north to the Lake District a more sanitised journey. I still have aunties, uncles and cousins in this area, all wanting to see Firecrest and our alternative lifestyle. So when we got to Parbold, Aunty Avril, Mum and Mike joined us as we cruised from Parbold to Burscough

Any excuse for a party

It was a good day to have company, showing off all the lovely aspects of narrowboating, pretty bridges

 And colourful countryside

pumpkin patch at Burscough
Pumpkins at Burscough

And me hopping on and off, showing just how capable I am at hauling the boat in and working locks and swing bridges.

Looks like I’m enjoying myself

We cruised past the Rufford Arm, that’ll be next years route, and moored up in Burscough just in time to enjoy a perfect sunset

Sunset at Burscough

Cousin Lynne and her children Reubin and Freya joined us a few days later,

They were keen to join in and help with the swing bridges, and they made a good crew.

That’s lorra lorra locks

Not far now

There are a lot of locks on the 127 miles of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, 91 to be precise, and the next 12 miles of our journey was to include 30 of them.
We started our week at Johnson’s Locks visitor mooring where the Top Lock pub serves pizza and charges you the time on clock face. So at ten past three we were ready for a very late lunch/early tea and had an acceptable pizza for £3.10

Johnson’s locks visitor’s moorings

We were well fuelled and geared up for what lay ahead but when Heather and Anthony said they’d like to visit us, we made sure we “just happened” to be at the top of the Wigan flight when they arrived. Knowing I’d have a crew and hopefully some volunteers to feed I made cake and cookies.

Wonder if that’s enough

But it was the bacon butties that tempted Tim to hop on a train and join us for the day.

What a view

The Wigan flight descends 200feet through 21 locks. Sadly these locks are old and leaky and prone to vandalism so they are kept locked and passage is restricted to certain times of the day. We made it to the top lock just in time, before they were fastened shut for the day.

Arriving at the top lock

It’s the first time Anthony has been narrowboating but he took to locking like a pro.

We’re on our way

It’s always a debate about who has drawn the short straw, the helmsman or the lock labourers, but I knew the Wigan locks are short and leaky and it would be Eric that had to dodge the deluge. I’ll take the dry land any day.

Arriving at the bottom Lock

We made it through the bottom lock in 3 hours 2 minutes. And we were all still smiling. We even had enough energy left to walk further along to find the famous Wigan Pier.
It’s thought that Wigan pier became an icon when a train excursion to Southport was delayed and to keep the passengers amused this little coal loading jetty was given an elevated status. That particular “pier” was demolished in the early 1900s, so various protrusions in the location claim the historic title now, this one being the most like the original.

Tim and Anthony on the pier

Tim could only stay for the day but Heather and Anthony enjoyed another night on board, if only so they could have a proper boaters breakfast.

That’s a good breakfast

And as a final reward for all their efforts, Ant got to prove that he doesn’t just like fast cars but slow boats also have a certain appeal.

Anthony at the helm

 We’d better watch out he’s a natural. But we had to say goodbye to our helpers as they had to be at work the day.

What a team

Only 30 miles to go now.