The Water Gipsies

The Water Gipsies was my mum’s favourite film, or was it the musical – it was possibly both. Based on a 1930 novel by A. P. Herbert it was turned into a film in 1932 and a stage musical in 1955.  I have vague memories of seeing the film repeated on the BBC in the 1950s – brightly lit and over-exposed in summery monochrome, it bore little resemblance to real life on the English waterways.

I was also very familiar with the musical soundtrack as this was one of the LPs that my parents bought when my sister was given her first record player.  Other dubious parental acquisitions included Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Noel Coward at Las Vegas – no wonder the Christmas that With the Beatles arrived was like emerging from a long dark tunnel into the light.

I still remember some of the Water Gipsies tracks, ingrained like scars: Castles and Hearts and Roses, When I’m Washing Up and Clip-Clop:

Clip-clop, clip-clop goes the old grey mare
She ain’t non-stop but she gets us there
I walk with Beauty on the path
In case she slips and takes a bath.

Subterranean Homesick Blues it is not.

(NB ‘Gipsies’ is the spelling for both the book and the film – I think it should be ‘Gypsies’)

In the late sixties, desperate to escape a dictatorial regime at home, I toyed with the idea of living on a narrowboat near Ye Olde No. 3 at Dunham Massey.  Lacking the finance and any awareness of the practicalities it was an odd pipe dream which came back to me as we moored for water at the same location last week.  In practice it was 1976 before I ventured onto the waterways, the same summer and the same canal as Timothy West and Prunella Scales started their life long watery journey. In a similar fashion I have been wedded to the cut ever since, so much so that I have a mental map of the English waterways which is at least as good as my grasp of the English motorway system – oddly, I can’t seem to overlay one on top of the other despite their regular proximity.

All of this is just an excuse to reproduce a series of images from our recent lazy trip along the Trent & Mersey and Bridgewater canals, from Anderton to just south of Altrincham – all very familiar territory with not a clip-clop to be heard:

... Oakmere entering Barnton Tunnel - 572 yards with a number of kinks

… Oakmere entering Barnton Tunnel – 572 yards with a number of kinks

... entering Saltersford Tunnel

… entering Saltersford Tunnel

... approaching Preston Brook Tunnel

… approaching Preston Brook Tunnel

... on the Bridgewater Canal

… on the Bridgewater Canal

... filling up at Ye Olde No. 3 - the Bridgewater, near Dunham Massey

… filling up at Ye Olde No. 3 – the Bridgewater, near Dunham Massey


… Moore Swing Bridge, across the Manchester Ship Canal

... into Preston Brook Tunnel

… into Preston Brook Tunnel

... very clean - pristine again at Anderton Marina after the trip along the Bridgewater

… very clean – pristine again at Anderton Marina after the trip along the Bridgewater

... final day on Oakmere, back at Anderton

… final day on Oakmere, back at Anderton

Chocolate Charlie

From the same trip as the previous post, this is ‘Chocolate Charlie’ on his narrowboat, Mendip, moored near Preston Brook in the Spring of 1977.  Charlie Atkins aquired his nickname from the cargo he carried for much of his working life – chocolate crumb from Ellesmere Port to the Cadbury’s factory at Bourneville, Birmingham.

This is another strong face which has endured a lifetime on the cut – it is deeply lined and reminds me of the poet, W H Auden:

Comrades, who when the sirens roar
From office, shop and factory pour,
‘Neath evening sky;
By cops directed to the fug
Of talkie-houses for a drug,
Or down canals to find a hug
Until you die.

W H Auden – A communist to others – 1932.
(I feel sure Charlie would have come up with something more cheerful).

Chocolate Charlie

In his final years Charlie also became a minor celebrity – the revival of the English canals sparked an interest in the dying breed of men who worked the system. He is also remembered in song:

Heartbreak Hill

I have climbed Heartbreak Hill five times and, following this most recent trip, descended it once.  The Trent & Mersey canal climbs out of the Cheshire Plain by a long series of locks to the summit-level at Hardings Wood Junction where you can continue south through the dark, dank 1.75 mile Harecastle Tunnel or choose the light and the Macclesfield Canal – on this occasion, we chose the latter. The right turn at the junction neatly takes the canal back on itself and over Poole Aqueduct – beneath you is the Trent & Mersey where your younger self travelled some thirty minutes previous.

Many of the locks on Heartbreak Hill are doubled, although not all of the parallel locks are still usable – some are filled in, some abandoned and, most alarmingly, some are accessible but too narrow. Our greatest ‘heartbreak’ was discovering that the Lock 57 Restaurant had gone the way of the adjacent Romping Donkey pub – both at Hassall Green and both closed for business. Consequently we pressed on, mooring at Church Lawton, six locks shy of the summit.  In the days when the UK boasted a mainframe computer manufacturer, I worked nearby at ICL Kidsgrove – this is familiar territory.

I have included the colour image to show the state of the water – it is Tango orange, the result of iron-rich springs seeping into the water from the nearby Harecastle Tunnel. Not a place to go for a swim, intentional or otherwise (might work as an instant tan 😉 )

TangoMilepostLock gear and WinthorpeAbandoned lockWinthorpePoole LockKidsgrove summit

Click on the images to enlarge – in particular the last to pick up on the reference to the “Kidsgrove Gas Light Company”.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Eerie

Just beneath Workhouse Bridge on the Trent & Mersey Canal in the centre of Stone, stands the wooden carving of Christina Collins.  It is easily missed, the carving eerily mixes with the textures of a stone wall and the undergrowth – as in life, Christina blends into the background until one dreadful night in June 1839.

The narrowboats that plied the Trent & Mersey would carry the occasional passenger, fares being cheaper than travelling by coach due to the slow journey times.  Christina boarded a boat heading south from Preston Brook, bound for London to meet her husband. This from the nearby information board:

“After leaving Stoke the three boat men and a boy started to drink heavily and when they reached Stone Mrs Collins told Hugh Cordwell at the Toll Office that she feared the men would “meddle” with her. He told her to report the men at the end of the journey.  The following day Christina’s body was found in the canal near Rugeley.  She had been raped and her body thrown overboard.  Two of the men were hung for murder at Stafford and the third transported.”

Christina Collins

Weekly Photo Challenge: An Unusual POV

This is the view beneath the Anderton Boat Lift, an 1875 construction which provides a link between the Trent & Mersey Canal and the River Weaver, fifty feet below.  These photographs were taken in the early eighties when the lift was out of commission and still accessible from below.  I am fairly certain that since restoration in 2002 and the advent of the visitor centre, this unusual point of view is now out of bounds to the general public:

The Anderton LiftThe Anderton LiftWhilst probably inaccessible on foot the same view can be had from a boat ascending or descending the lift and hopefully the leaks have been fixed – it was a very wet exercise taking these photographs.  This is a view of the complete structure:

The Anderton Lift

(click on the images to enlarge)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Nostalgic

Given the title of this week’s Photo Challenge, it seems legitimate to once more raid the archive.  This picture was taken in the early 1980s at the top end of the Trent & Mersey canal near Preston Brook.  The lady, Leah, was living out her days on the narrowboat she once worked with her husband, Jack Tolley, although the boat had long since stopped trading.  There is a sad nostalgic air to her expression which appears in a photo album from the time alongside these words of J R R Tolkien:

I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
And people who will see a world that I shall never know.Leah Tolley

I spoke to her and she was very friendly, not in the least concerned at being photographed, just mildly bemused.  I have included this second photograph to show more of her narrowboat; look closely and you will see the traces of a smile:Leah Tolley

(click on the images to enlarge)

Travel theme: The Four Elements

I struggled to come up with a set of photographs for this Travel theme; I could find four separate pictures with no connection between them but that didn’t seem very satisfactory. Consequently I have opted to represent all the elements in one photograph; you might have to cut me some slack here but if you look closely they are all present, more or less:

Great HaywoodThe picture was taken below the lock at Great Haywood on the Trent & Mersey canal – click on the image to enlarge.  Here is the same photo with a hint of colour – I could not decide between the two:

Great Haywood