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Pennine Extremes
The Rochdale Canal - Sowerby Bridge to Castlefield Junction

The Rochdale Canal (91 Locks in 32 Miles Total)

Sowerby Bridge to Littleborough - Re-opened 1994

Whilst watching the rain fall at Sowerby Bridge where the Rochdale starts it seemed a good time to write a little about the Rochdale Canal. It was the first of the Pennine crossings built and is heavily locked - originally 92 wide full length locks in 32 miles and the summit is the highest of any broad canal in the country. It was a major feat of engineering as it was pushed through some extraordinarily difficult country which has resulted in its reputation as traversing some of the most beautiful countryside of any canal these days as well as needing some of the hardest work. Unfortunately the final flight of locks down into Manchester, the Manchester 19, and the Rochdale 9 (which also link the Bridgewater and Ashton Canals) were in a urban jungle which is being regenerated but it is still desirable to chose ones timing so one passes through early in the day and away from summer weekends. Currently BW assist 4 pre-booked boats per day each way through locks 65 -83 down the to the join with the Ashton Canal near Manchester Piccadilly.

John Rennie undertook the initial surveys in 1791 but it took until 1794 to get the bills through Parliament due to strong objections from the mill owners. The initial plans called for a 1.6 mile summit tunnels which was latter replaced by addition locks and reservoirs to a summit of 600 feet. All the locks are a standard drop of 10 foot to conserve water. It was initially a great success when it opened in 1804 as its broad locks allowed use of existing craft from either end. The success continued to the start of the railway competition but even then it gained traffic initial from the partially completed railways. Dwindling traffic recovered a little when the Manchester ship canal opened and it remained busy until the end of World War I. It remained in private hands until 2000 since which time the Waterways Trust have overseen a £23.8m restoration project for the final stretch and the reopening of the arguably the most dramatic of our waterways. Unfortunately it has only been open for short periods interspersed with long closures due to various disasters and vandalism. The stretch from Sowerby Bridge to Littleborough had been opened in 1994.

Water supply is always the key to canals with high summits such as the Huddersfield and the Rochdale and the initial supplies to the Rochdale were not adequate - an addition 8 high level reservoirs were completed in 1827 collecting from 2000 acres of moorland. These were sold almost 100 years latter in 1923 to the Rochdale and Oldham corporations to provide drinking water with only a limited flow maintained to the summit pound hence the current limit of 4 boats a day each way across the summit.

As an aside I find it difficult to see how an investment of over twenty million stacks up with such a usage limit. The cost of the money at say 5% alone implies a minimum cost per boat in a 6 month season of £1000000/8x26x7 ~ £700 per boat. Back pumping would allow far greater use. In fact up till 1857 a steam engine supplemented the summit supply so there are precedents

15th June 2007: Eventually in the morning the rain slackened enough to explore Sowerby Bridge which we found a disappointment. The shops we found were unexceptional and the Kwiksave supermarket had closed and had been replaced by a bargain price shop - we did see an out of town Tesco as we left which has presumably caused the demise of the central supermarket and local shops. Only the Op Shop provided some interest with CDs and books at three for a pound!

One exception to the mediocrity was the Shire Cruisers Marina and Hire Base where we received excellent help and advice. We got confirmation that their boat we had seen approaching the Standedge tunnel had completed the ring in 7 days which did not seem to please them, they prefer people to allow at least 11 days. We did not need diesel but checked the price which was 53p/litre, however they noted that prices were falling and it was likely to fall shortly into line with the prices of 50p we had seen elsewhere - they say they make sure they are always competitive. Their hire boats looked neat and tidy and they spend some time with every crew including seeing them through a lock unlike many hire boat bases. All their hire rates also seem to inclusive of most costs such as diesel, unlike many, and they could be a good choice if you want to hire and do the ring. The chandlery was small but we saw the first sensible long armed windlasses we found to be required for the heavy Pennine paddle gear - worth an investment of £19 if you only have the usual short throw windlasses.

We left at 1230 to get up the first few locks as the river was rising and the canal was overflowing the tops of the upper and lower gates by several inches and we could foresee being trapped. The locks were easier than we had come to expect although there was a very long wait for the manned deep lock 3/4 which was created along with a tunnel to get past obstruction and infilling in the town. This lock is now the deepest on the system at 19.5 feet drop. It is so deep it needs a keeper to satisfy the Heath and Safety regulations. The first 3 locks took us two hours to clear after which we were out onto a very pleasant waterway with views of the Pennines above and glimpses down to the river Calder which was in flood.

We moored just after lock 6 on the outskirts of Brealey looking down onto a large recreational ground which had largely reverted to flood plain! It was a plank job but the views were worth it and the rain largely held off. The news reports spoke of widespread flooding with rivers bursting their banks and York was under water yet again. It looks like we got off the Calder and Hebble with less than a day to spare.

16th June 2007: The next day we had perhaps our shortest journey as we only did the two locks to Hebden Bridge, where our schedule had us stopping. Our impressions of Hebden Bridge were much more favourable, it is a very pretty town where it is easy to take picture postcard photographs. The river runs through the centre and is crossed by several attractive bridges in the what is now a pedestrian area. The stone packhorse bridge dates back to 1503 and the nearby cast iron bridge is Victorian. Houses and old mill buildings climb the hillside from the market square. Stopping for a walk round is a must and shopping looked very good for food as well as other items. Several of our party had found their footwear not up the torrential rain and several pairs of walking boots and wellington boots were acquired at favourable prices! Our stock of books was considerable increased from a shop where many of the hardbacks were down to 50p. Provisions were available at a big Coop and a small Spar. The library were very helpful and gave an hour of Internet access to Pauline.

Moorings were not extensive in view of the facilities available and there were only a limited number of rings - we could not find space to moor our two boats together and there was not the width to breast up as there were moorings both sides and a broad beam trip boat operating. The situation was not helped by a number of externally extremely untidy looking live-aboards although I think appearances were deliberately deceptive to avoid undesirable attention as in several cases I noticed neat interiors, expensive new laptops in use and educated accents.

Pete spent time installing the two new batteries for the 24v system which powers our 240 volt inverter for the fridge, electric kettle and other cooking aids such as the slow pot and Remorska - a quick but painful job as he pulled a muscle in his side and ended up consigned to the tiller for several days. Leisure batteries seem to have quite a short life and the manufacturers now have to quote life which seems to be 100 discharge/charge cycles at 50% depth of discharge only before they halve their capacity. Pete is going to investigate the cost effectiveness of higher quality batteries or higher overall capacity to reduce the depth of discharge but at least we are now back to a sensible time between charges - they are still at 24.4 volts 20 hours after their last charge as I write this. We went out in the evening to find him a liquid analgesic and went into the White Swan which had Black Sheep Bitter and Bombardier. We saw the food people were eating and decided to eat as well and had two enormous and comprehensive mixed grills for £6.50 each and struggled back to the boat.

17th June 2007: We stayed the following day as well in Hebden Bridge as we were in no hurry and it was Malcolm's turn to have a visitor. Pauline went round town and discovered that there was a Sunday Flea market and on the 1st and 3rd Sunday there is a farmers market. We found we had left Sowerby Bridge at the right time when Pete checked our email as as the stoppage notices sent to us every day reported a two day closure as the winds and rain had brought down a tree just above the double lock.

18th June 2007: The next day was another short day as the journey from Hebden Bridge to Todmorden was only 10 locks and 4 miles. Leaving Hebden Bridge we past some more reasonable moorings above lock 9 outside a pub and the Alternate Energy Centre. There was then steady progress through countryside with locks spaced just within or just to far to walk. The locks were still reasonably easy to operate although some of the gates were stiff and rubbish often stopped both opening fully making entry more difficult especially as there were strong currents from the heavy rain through the bywash weirs - often the lead boat was at 30-40% across the cut when making a slow entry through the current. There were a lot off live aboard boats many moored very close or on the end of the lock laybys making dropping crew difficult. The live-aboard also had a fascinating area with a smallholding growing all sorts of vegetables with shacks etc which was very reminiscent of the 60s. The heavy rain had brought down a tree which we rocked and rolled over but Priory edged round after we had radioed back to warn them.

We moored in a nice looking area in Todmorden which doubled as town mooring and BW services. Todmorden seems to compete in the Britain in Bloom competitions and council staff came to plant moor plants in huge containers on the wharf and there was a backdrop of a large metal artwork on the wall. The water tap was very high pressure so we decided it was time to get rid of the residual taste of new bitumen and emptied, rinsed and refilled the tank which also involved cleaning the filter on the water pump - there is always something needing to be done!

The town itself was very different to Hebden bridge and although there was evidence of some impressive buildings it had a somewhat run down appearance and none of the tourist town feel of Hebden Bridge. There was a Lidl supermarket and a Morrison's so we stocked up and also got a few more books from a charity shop. Pete took some pictures round town including the famous 'Great Wall of Todmorden' which supports the railway embankment above the canal - it is estimated that more than 4 million bricks were used.

In the evening we had a barbecue and were sitting in the boat with coffee when Pete spotted a youth releasing the ropes on Priory - we got out quick enough to catch Priory before she drifted away and Pete and Pauline got a photo and followed and briefly managed to apprehend him but the police were slow to come and when friends joined the lad we were forced to release him or risk violence. We returned and tied multiple knots and Malcolm chained Priory to the bollards and we put everything inside in case they returned. The Police arrived after about half an hour and went off to search having looked at the pictures but we never heard if they found them. The rest of the night was quiet. Unfortunately it is the sort of thing one expects in big towns but not so much in smaller places like Todmorden.

By coincidence I received an email the following morning asking what I meant by 'bandit country' near Manchester and the above is a small example and I defined it in the reply as areas full of vandals, vagrants, scrotes and thieves and am awaiting a further request on what the Wigan term scrotes means - I believe its root is scrotum and refers to gangs of testosterone charged youths and is pronounced to rhyme with stoat. You used to have a police escort on some of the approaches to the Manchester area but we understand the passage we have booked for the Manchester 19 is now organised by BW staff.

19th June 2007: The exit from Todmorden is now through a guillotine lock - the road bridge has been extended and is now too close for the gates to be operated. The old horse tunnel still passes under the extended bridge. Immediately above the lock we passed the Great Wall of Todmorden which looks even more impressive close to from on the canal. The journey then continues with a steady climb towards the summit and the views steadily improve, one begins to realise why people rave about the Rochdale regardless of the hard work. In fact the east side has been open since 1994 and has obviously benefited from steady traffic including hire boats that turned at Littleborough. The rain had filled the canal and there was a lot of water coming down and over the lock gates. Much of the Rochdale was designed without bywash weirs so excess water was not wasted but filled the locks.

There are many photographic opportunities - we passed one of the most attractive and photogenic little flight of locks was at Gauxholme where the railway crosses the canal on a Gothic style cast iron bridge with crenellated towers at the ends.

We had originally intended to moor in Walsden between locks 29 and 30 - it appeared quite reasonable with plentiful moorings in what looked as if it was a huge winding hole although we were told it was actually very shallow over much of the area and not to cut the corner. It was however still early in the day and we went on. It was potentially a mistake as we could not find any sensible deep moorings and ended up, somewhat reluctantly at the summit lock in a very low pound. We crossed the old boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire which is just after the last lock before the summit. The boundary seemed to follow a tiny stream which flowed through a culvert under the canal - a miniature aqueduct between the lock and the swing bridge.

We rang BW in Wigan after we had moored as we did not want to stay in such a low pound for a whole day. They checked with lock keeper and quickly rang back to confirm that we could change our booking to the following day and that they would see what could be done about the pound which was by then about two foot down. Nothing happened which did not surprise us as it was nearly 1600 when we rang in. It also quickly became apparent that the pound was slowly falling and we slackened off the ropes and pushed out as far as the plank would allow - by 1100 we were scraping on the bottom as we moved to gusts of wind.

20th June 2007: There was heavy rain overnight so we were not inclined to try to move further and the tilt gradually increased and by the morning the pound was down about three or so feet and we were well and truly stranded on the visitors moorings. We eventually carried the plank to the back which was closest to the bank so we could at least get off and take some pictures. The countryside is stark and austere and the early morning light and low fast moving clouds showed it to its best and arguably at its most typical, about to rain. One could see the railway tunnel ventilation shafts high above and they gave off occasional puffs of smoke as trains thundered through below, what must they have looked like in the days of steam belching forth black smoke and steam.

Ray, the lock-keeper rang at about 0830 to say he was filling pounds the other end and would be with us shortly. The problem with the falling level in the pound is apparently a leak in the aqueduct over the boundary stream beside the swing bridge. He followed us across to the summit lock at the other end which he had set but he asked us to hold until he arrived before passing through.

The summit pound is wide and deep (7') as it has to act as a reservoir - the current agreement with the water boards who bought the reservoirs in 1923 is only for two lockfulls of water each way per day with not storing of unused allocations. In its peak in 1880 50 commercial boats crossed the summit every day and even in 1921 12 boats crossed. Back-pumping Ray told us is possible but unaffordable and there are no funds to repair the existing leaks. We were told by locals that if there are any more major problems BW just plan to close the canal - it is expensive to maintain and they are already having to divert funds from the budgets of other canals.

Once one leaves the pound below summit lock 37 one is committed to go on as far as Littleborough as the intermediate flight of locks has a number of short pounds which are likely to dry out. We were tempted to stop before the flight as there were two nice stretches of 24 hour visitor moorings in the pound below the summit lock and what looked a good pub, but decided to continue. They looked much better than the other end and apparently the pound does not leak and dry out at this end.

Ray worked us down through the locks taking great care in running in exactly the required amount of extra water to deal with the leaking pounds. Two of the locks in the flight were not wide enough for two boats and another one which was just after the services was the same. He finally left us at lock 44 after which there seemed to plenty of water flowing through the bywash weirs, in fact enough to make it difficult at times leaving the locks. On the way down we were joined by the gentleman taking pictures who had taken a trip through the tunnel at the same time as us. As we were getting close to Littleborough we noticed an old loading wharf which looks as if it was still deep enough to moor but decided to continue.

We had been advised by Ray to moor in Littleborough as close as possible to the Station as there was deep water and rings. It was next to an area where building work look imminent but there were no broken bottles or other debris. Some of the rings were damaged and we had to add a couple of shackles to attach our ropes. Two hire boats had spent the night there and reported no problems and we also talked to the owner of the only other boat who seemed to have been there for a while without problems. There was a very fine new hardwood seat beside the mooring which would have been quickly destroyed in many places but was pristine. The moorings are just on the edge of the town and the railway station was only a couple of minutes away through a tunnel under the lines and the Coop supermarket was beside the station. The town was pleasant spoilt a little by the main road running straight through it. One of the features is a round pub. We unfortunately have no pictures as it was raining hard most of the available time

The following morning we did some general tidying up before going home for a couple of days leaving Dugald and Lesley to look after the boats. Whilst clearing up and moving the old dead batteries out of the engine room to the front lockers we struck up a conversation with several of the locals who were passing by. One was a particular font of information on the area and returned to lend us a video and a DVD of the restoration of the canal and latter to give us a couple of book. We have never had that happen before and have given him a print out of our write up so far and will send him a full one and a set of pictures at the end of our cruise.

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Content revised: 24th July, 2020