Always on the move - Narrowboat Epiphany


Text and images by Fiona and John Slee 

That's a quiet engine you have there." A disembodied voice made me look up as we went under the high Brant Beck Bridge at the end of Deep Cutting on the Lancaster Canal. I chuckled to myself, as we were on tickover, putting Epiphany in neutral as we coasted under. We often do this going through bridge holes in urban and suburban areas because you never know what is lurking below the waterline, ready to foul the propeller.

We were taking a leisurely cruise south from Lancaster towards Galgate through the wooded, peaceful, sunshine-dappled, mile-long cutting. It was full of birdsong and I was trying to spot the last of the larch trees planted when the canal was built. Now they are few and far between as ash, sycamore and beech have taken over.

Last summer, in the depths of the affluent, leafy south-east on the River Wey, we began to think about where we wanted to cruise in 2012. We love the north, so decided to go back to the north-west. Early in 2012 we booked our Ribble Link crossing and a trip down into Liverpool. We now had a schedule to keep - not our favourite modus operandi.

The north-west is not everyone's choice for a summer of cruising. It can be pretty quiet in comparison with the more popular midland and southern canals, but we like exploring the towns and villages with their different characters and buying local produce. I suspend my dislike of cities for Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster.

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We enjoy the history, old industry and rural stretches of canal. The ‘Lanky' abuts the hills of the Pennines and the seaside of Morecambe Bay. The Lake District is not far away and the River Lune and estuary make for a contrast with the canal.

We left Manchester in May, after over-wintering on the Oxford Canal and in the Midlands. Lingering on the Caldon and then the Macclesfield, we made our way north onto the Leeds & Liverpool, arriving at the appointed time for our trip into Liverpool.

The Liverpool Link is spectacular, passing through old docks, by warehouses, abandoned dry docks, new tunnels and locks. Pier Head and the Three Graces, the Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building provided a real ‘wow' factor and the weather was good.

The pontoon moorings in Salthouse Dock have power and water, a boat collects rubbish and a fuel and pump-out boat can be ‘ordered'. Near to Liverpool One, we found it ideal for exploring Liverpool and Birkenhead. We booked a boat trip on the Manchester Ship Canal, a birthday treat for me - back to Manchester's Salford Docks. We liked Liverpool in 2009 and were not disappointed this time. Summer was off to a good start. The Ribble Link to the Lancaster Canal was kind to us and we crossed in good June weather with no problems. The wide blue River Douglas was calm, with plenty of waterfowl and, on the even wider River Ribble, we ended up at the head of the convoy of eight boats. It was a new experience to take the helm to navigate the very narrow, shallow and, in places, bendy Savick Brook. Friends acted as crew and, once British Waterways (now C&RT) left us to our own devices, they and ‘The Skipper' lock-wheeled. The Skipper took over the helm to reverse through the last three staircase locks.

Arriving onto the ‘Lanky' we breathed a sigh - it felt as if we had come ‘home'. But there was no time to waste and a speedy, three-day trip was necessary up the lock-free canal into Lancaster because we had a trip booked on the Union Canal in Scotland.

We were taking a family holiday for the first time in years and really looking forward to traversing one of the Wonders of the Waterways. As the Forth & Clyde and Union Canal isn't, of course, linked to the main system, we were hiring a boat. The Falkirk Wheel did not disappoint us, but this summer's dismal weather did. Despite the rain, there were a couple of sunny days which meant we could explore. We tasted whisky in a very wet Edinburgh and watched the parade on a hot Marches Day in Linlithgow, Mary Queen of Scots' birthplace. With a dry day to go down the Falkirk Wheel again, we could appreciate the engineering and views. Like the Lancaster, the Union Canal makes for relaxed cruising which suited us fine.


Back on the Lancaster, we resolved to make no plans, knowing we had plenty of time to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity around us. Fortunately, unlike some canals and rivers, the ‘Lanky' was not affected by the adverse summer weather.

We discovered it is possible to spend nearly three months on a canal that is now only around 41 miles in length, stopping at new and favourite places for a couple of days or more. With our draft, our planks came in useful because the sides of the Lancaster are quite shallow, even at some of the official visitor moorings. I enjoy ‘rough mooring': we can then enjoy the countryside in all its peacefulness, most of the time.

The canal is dubbed the ‘Black and White Canal' due to the limestone and coal it carried. The history of the packet boats, wharves, structures, towns and villages kept me busy researching for my blog. To be fair to the Lancaster, strange experiences are rare, and suddenly there was an unusual orange ball in the sky surrounded by blue and white - a perfect day for a cruise.

Historic Lancaster City has its attractions, the castle, museums and Lune riverside to explore, plus there are good eateries, reasonable shopping and the Lake District and Lancashire fells on its doorstep.

For us there was another appointment, too. Sunday service at St Tees church just down the road from the canal basin. It's a lively church and was packed with families. The vicar even managed to keep my attention through a longish sermon. It wasn't the type of service we are used to, but we enjoyed it and came away with some things to think about.

Despite leaving with higher things on our minds, as liveaboards there are always practicalities to bring you back down to earth; for one thing we needed to wash Epiphany because she was still covered in sycamore, so a trip across the canal basin to the sani-station was called for. We topped up with water and did the other necessaries too. Then we were off.

The River Lune Aqueduct has recently been refurbished and entering (or leaving) Lancaster over the 200-year-old structure is to appreciate Rennie's ability as an engineer. It is yet another ‘wonder of the waterways'.

Cruising on through Bolton-le-Sands and Carnforth, the canal becomes blighted by the M6 and terminates at Tewitfield due to the motorway, cutting off the ‘Northern Reaches' to Kendal. The Lancaster Canal Trust and partners are working towards restoration, but funding and crossing the M6 are big hurdles.

The two-mile Glasson Branch, down to the basin, dock and sea lock at Glasson has the only locks - seven altogether. It is rural and the sea air and breeze from Morecambe Bay can be invigorating at times. It is an interesting diversion but the unusual lock gear is quite heavy and hard to work.

As we cruised gently along, swallows, swans and mallards accompanied us while the unusual (in canal boating at least) screams of oyster catchers sounded above. A short walk from the basin moorings provided great views over the estuary and Morecambe Bay - a very unusual place to moor for those used to inland waterways.

Despite the weather, this northern sojourn provided lazy, relaxing summer - more of a holiday than normal, taking days away from the canal and even a weekend using a hire-car in the Lakes.

Now back on the main system - the question is where next? Find out in November's issue of Canal Boat.