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23 minute read

Four candals


❝The return along the railway somehow showed the tree tunnels through which it runs to greater effect, which lifted my spirits a little. There should have been no reason to be down and I can only think that I really need to eat a bigger breakfast before I set off


I still hanker after long-distance riding, even though I’ve adapted my vision pretty successfully to shorter horizons. I’ve spent many absorbing winter hours planning rides of 200 kilometres and more in the hope that I’d occasionally have good enough conditions on the tow-paths and trails to complete them in the daylight. Last year I completed one, using NCN route 66 to ride from Rochdale to Leeds and back. It had been a hot day, the hottest of the year in fact, which meant that the tracks were dry but also that I was, too. I’d managed to get home inside my target time of 14 hours, but the heat and a puncture conspired to make it a close-run thing. 2017 also saw a prolonged dry spell, though mercifully not as hot as last. But my planned course was harder, involving four canals (the Rochdale, Ashton, Bridgewater and Peak Forest) and two sections of railway trails (the Lymm Railway and the Middlewood Way). Last summer I had experimented with three rides of approximately 100 kilometres each, which between them covered the whole of my planned 200, so I knew the course was ridable. It was a question of whether or not I could get round in “Audax time”, which would be 14 hours and 20 minutes for the actual distance of 205 kilometres. I hadn’t bothered with an official do-it-yourself entry, so the time wasn’t really a crucial factor. But I didn’t want to be doing the return up the Rochdale canal in the dark. I have good enough lights but I’ve never been a fighter.

Even at midsummer, 14 hours in the daylight means an early start and I hoped to get away for eight in the morning. To this end, I camped in the garden so that I wouldn’t wake the family getting out of the house. Plans were slightly thwarted by a wake going on at the neighbouring pub. Dearly-departed desolation, disco-style, kept me awake till one o’clock but I was astonished to find the next thing I knew was the alarm waking me at seven. I don’t think I’ve ever had six hours sleep before an Audax ride and I’d done about 150 before my smash changed the focus of my cycling. Things were looking good.

And I was feeling good as I reached the Rochdale canal after about a mile and a

Ashton Packet Boat wharf

half of back roads and cycle paths. I was pleased to have got going so early, hoping to get a lot of the most popular towpaths done before dinner time. The excellent work of organisations such as Sustrans and Manchester councils has made the towpaths a magnet for people who want to get out in the fresh air in their lunchbreak. But I was a bit surprised, within the first half mile, to be hearing so soon a worrying level of boisterousness ahead somewhere. As I reached the lock by the Oldham Road in Rochdale, I had to weave through a group of unfortunates who were already unnervingly drunk at ten past eight in the morning. Luckily, there was already a bike-width gap between them because if I’d had to persuade them to move it might have ended badly.

With this depressing spectacle behind me, I rolled steadily towards Manchester. Even in Rochdale itself, once you are past the defunct Rochdale branch, the route is very rural in feel. Hedges and mature trees line the canal – and the tree roots remind

❝As I reached the lock by the Oldham Road in Rochdale, I had to weave through a group of unfortunates who were already unnervingly drunk at ten past eight in the morning

you who has the greater claim on the path. I was steadily ticking off the mental signposts and reflecting on how well I’ve come to know the towpaths after my first forays a couple of years ago. I’m much more relaxed about the many obstructions to progress. I actually intended to count them on this ride but I gave up after a while. It is well over 40, including antimotorcycle gates, road crossings and pedestrian-only ramps and so on, at all of which you have to walk the bike through or over the obstruction. All this is before you add the locks. When I started riding the canal banks, this really used to get me down but now I just accept that canal bank riding is a different animal. I’m pleased with that. I still like to improve my abilities though and I’m pleased that I can actually negotiate several more of the tricky cobbled sections than I used to attempt. If the weather is wet, though, I still err on the side of caution, as I ride a touring bike with narrow tyres.

After the first few kilometres, there is a level section, or pound, before the locks start again on the approach to Manchester, near Failsworth. Here I was riding through industrial dereliction but the herons and beautiful moorhens and grey wagtails care nought for this. Neither do the flotillas of mallards and Canada geese with their broods. In some cases the crèches were dozens strong and I was reminded of nothing so much as the pictures of reviews of the fleet off Spurn Head or in the Solent.

Now and then, I would also see a pair of geese with only one or two chicks left. First-time parents perhaps, yet to learn how to dodge foxes – and air-rifles? Pride of place goes to the occasional family of mute swans, their whiteness dazzling against the glassy black of inner city canal.

THE ASHTON Half a mile or so of cycle lane brought me to the Ashton canal, which delivered me to the characterful asymmetric cobbled bridge in Jutland Street. It’s much steeper on the return and one side is cobbled partly with very small blocks, while the other is much coarser. The whole street is very uneven but I like having to do a bit of climbing after 15 miles of flats and short ramps. The descents, however, are more invigorating than enjoyable.

The drop down the other side of Jutland Street fires you like a bar of soap on to Stone Street, a short taxi- and pigeoninfested tunnel to Piccadilly station. There is actually a cycle lane depicted on the tarmac but it’s fairly token. I wonder if in the dystopian future, cycle lanes will just be painted on the sides of cars, so that they will take up even less space than is allotted to them now. The road I take jinks across two tram tracks in front of the whitepainted Monroes B&B below the station. I’m only able to write this because on a previous occasion a tram driver was more vigilant than I at this point. About a kilometre further west, along Whitworth Street, the route takes me through a railway arch on the very short and incongruously named Rowandale Street. The maroon and cream ironwork of the railway superstructure is a delight but I’ve come along here on days after the night before when the road has been covered, almost literally, in the noxious little canisters of so-called legal highs. I wonder what Roman ghosts make of this as I weave my way into their ancient citadel at Castlefield.

This is a fascinating area and well worth an afternoon’s exploration. Various generations of the north-west’s railway network cross the waters of the Bridgewater and Rochdale canals. The skills of the early railway engineers are openly displayed in the jumble of bridges, some of which have found new life carrying the Metrolink tram system, while others still shoulder the long-distance traffic from Liverpool and the south. One of the Victorian structures has castellated turrets, apparently as a nod to the ancient ruins that were obliterated when the lines went in. We think fondly (justifiably, I think) of the energy and vision of the great railway entrepreneurs and the legacy they have left. But they were hard-nosed businessmen; if plastic had been available, they would have used it.

The Castlefield Basin is a riot of colourful barges and narrow-boats giving a mercifully false picture of the heyday of canal commerce. A number of nowdisused “stubs” off the main waterway mean that there are four or five significant workouts up and down the bridges which take the main tow-path across them, before you eventually reach the level going on the way to Trafford Park, the world’s first industrial estate. Another bridge at Throstle’s Nest takes the tow-path to the north side of the canal and past the Manchester United supporters’ club, with its contingent of worshipful smokers propping it up from outside. The Theatre of Dreams itself across the water is an astonishing sight, currently soaring above the capabilities of its players and management.

A little further along I arrived at Waters Meeting, which sounds romantic but is simply the divergence of the two branches of the Bridgewater canal, the northern branch coming from Lord Bridgewater’s coal mines at Worsley, the raison d’être of the canal. Whichever direction you travel in, it’s necessary to walk the bike over yet another bridge.

I was going west and now I had several miles of flat riding, past barges, rowing clubs, geese and dogs out into leafier Cheshire (irritatingly for the estate agents it’s still Greater Manchester for much of the way). A poignant sight is the wreckage of the once flourishing Linotype works, near Altrincham. Happily, the developers look as if they are going to incorporate the identifying gable end and the ornate chimney base into their plans for what looks as if it will be a housing estate.

Not long after Linotype, my route left the canal at the now closed pub, the Bay Malton, which was supposedly named after a horse whose prowess had saved its owner from penury. A couple of hundred yards of country lane brought me to the start of the “Lymm Railway”. This is the re-dedicated track bed of the Stockport to Warrington line and gives seven or so miles of traffic-free cycling, though obviously not without anti-vehicle obstructions and a

❝… I wonder if, in the dystopian future, cycle lanes will just be painted on the sides of cars, so that they will take up even less space

ArrivéeWinter/Spring2018ArrivéeWinter/Spring2018 Middlewood Way

number of minor road crossings. This really is lovely riding, with the hedges scented with hawthorn blossom and wild roses and wild flowers at their skirts. Even in dry weather there is the occasional muddy patch and in autumn you need to have your mudguards as far from the tyre as you can manage, but today there was only a very occasional rasp of the brakes on the rims and the ghostly music of money tinkling down the drain.

Just beyond Lymm, my computer indicated that I had reached the western end of my journey, about a quarter of the way “round”. The return along the railway somehow showed the tree tunnels through which it runs to greater effect, which lifted my spirits a little. There should have been no reason to be down and I can only think that I really need to eat a bigger breakfast before I set off on these longer rides. Certainly after a short stop for a sandwich I felt very much better. I sat on a trackside bench to eat it, soaking up the beauty of the sweeping green farmland which the knowledge of the proximity of invisible chemical plants and power stations does nothing to diminish. In what seemed no time at all, I had regained the Bridgewater canal and was soon across Manchester and heading east along the Ashton Canal once more.

A lot of work has been done on the Ashton’s towpath and this includes the addition of cobbled speed bumps. These are every couple of hundred yards. They are a bit “overkill” in that they are unlikely to make any difference to a speeding mountain biker, or an errant scrambler bike scrote. They are an irritation to commuters (whom the improvements are presumably intended to encourage) and anyone riding an inappropriate bike. But moaning about what has been done is missing the point. If you want to ride your flimsy-wheeled racer at high speed to your place of hipster employment, take your chance on the roads, where you might expect traffic to move at an appropriate speed. If not, accept that these are the conditions on the towpath and get a bike that suits. It’s not a velodrome. That said, there is one pretty unnecessary kissing gate at Fairfield Basin – and a few steep and twisty cobbled lock rises to negotiate. But that’s the nature of canals. How sanguine I have become after a couple of years of adapting!

A few miles after rejoining the Ashton canal and after passing the still working boatyard on the left bank, I was at Portland Basin, which is the heritage name for Dukinfield Junction. This spot must have seethed in the heyday of the waterways, being the meeting place of the Ashton,

Kennet at Slattocks

Peak Forest and Huddersfield Narrow canals. The magnificent warehouses have been converted into a fascinating visitor centre and excellent café (though I warn you to take care not to burn your mouth on the soup!). Today, however, I pressed on south along the Peak Forest, collecting my fourth canal of the day.

Initially the surface is good but it soon deteriorates into a frequently muddy and always bumpy ride. By the time you reach the terminus at Bugsworth Basin, you know you have been in a scrap. Twelve miles of unsurfaced towpath requiring a lot of concentration and steady hands. There are some real stinkers of turnover bridges, which would test even Danny MacCaskill. At Woodley tunnel, which is getting on for

200 yards long, I put on my light so I could see the places where the wash from barges had flooded the towpath. But with the best light in the world I would probably still walk this stretch because the roof is so low and I feel I would get hypnotised into the waterside railings.

A little further along I flew, almost literally, across the Marple aqueduct, which hoists the canal into space across the River Goyt. Above on the left is the even higher bridge which carries the railway from Manchester to Buxton. So there is much to interest the rider along this section and not a few hindrances to progress. But there are no locks – until Marple. But that should be “Until” with a capital letter, because at Marple Junction (where the Macclesfield

44 Canal strikes south) there are 16 locks within about a mile and the rising towpath is littered with stones and tree roots and the congealed curses of cyclists. I completed the locks ascent with an unexpected climb up a narrow tunnel under the road, punching the air as I emerged, to the cheers of a happy group of ramblers.

By now, I was feeling a bit listless again, but decided, as I usually do, to keep plodding on to reach a certain spot (in this case the canal terminus at Bugsworth) before taking a break. This is nearly always the wrong thing to do because the feeling of listlessness is always down to hunger and is instantly remediable. The problem with eating on canal rides is that you (I) need to stop because it is almost impossible to negotiate the variable surface safely with only one hand on the bars while the other is getting a banana from a back pocket. Another thing that makes such a manoeuvre difficult is riding in casual shirt and trousers. Yet another is lack of bananas. My state of mind was not helped by the aromas from the sweet factory on the outskirts of New Mills.

Slightly hollow, I pushed on. There was certainly a feast for the eyes, though, as there are a number of marinas along the southern stretch of the Peak Forest. There is a huge one at New Mills, where I was pleased to see the Daisy Anna, which I first saw (and helped to find a mooring) in Littleborough up on the Rochdale a couple of years ago. It sticks in my mind because it includes both the given and pet names of my daughter. A little further on at Furness Vale there are more moorings and the beautifully colourful displays of a canal boat painting and decorating business. And, of course, I was now firmly in the Peak District and able to risk frequent glances to the left in the direction of Kinder Scout and the lush, rolling terrain which is such a contrast to the palpable, if invisible, industrial wasteland I had earlier traversed. Taking the left fork for Bugsworth, I completed the last couple of miles of this stretch, to emerge (after another short section of paintwork-destroying chippings) at the Bugsworth Basin. In its heyday, this harbour was shipping tons of Peak District stone all over the country and beyond. Now it is an idyllic mooring for pleasure craft. It is also a huge credit to the band of enthusiasts who refused to let the basin be filled in and who worked so hard to make it the attraction it is today.

I knew I could get good coffee at The Navigation and was enjoying it, while seriously contemplating cutting my expedition short and missing the last outward leg to Macclesfield. But then I was distracted by the arrival of a group of riders on wonderful old machines. I’m used to people taking an interest in my 30-year-old Harry Hall but these were proper museum pieces. The riders were a group of enthusiasts out on a birthday ride and we had a good chat and wished each the best before I set off north again.

Having just the coffee at Bugsworth, I stopped opposite New Mills marina and ate a couple more sandwiches. In a few miles I would have to make the decision whether or not to leave the canal and head south to Macclesfield or carry on north. But, as I set off again, I was astonished to find out how good I was now feeling and when I reached Romiley, there wasn’t the slightest hesitation in manhandling the bike down the 25 steps to the steep lane to Chadkirk Chapel. This is a lovely, peaceful spot and on a previous occasion I enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the old walled orchard. Today I pedalled on and after a short section of well-signed streets, joined the Middlewood Way.

❝… then I was distracted by the arrival of a group of riders on wonderful old machines. I’m used to people taking an interest in my thirty-year-old Harry Hall but these were proper museum pieces. The riders were a group of enthusiasts out on a birthday ride and we had a good chat and wished each the best before I set off north again

The Middlewood Way is a tremendous achievement. It is a combined cyclepath and bridleway laid on the trackbed of the old and generally unsuccessful Macclesfield, Bollington and Marple line. There’s a broad path and a parallel narrower one and there are few, if any, restrictions on progress. It is not tarmacked but the surface, at least in summer, is very ridable. I made the 10 miles from Rose Hill, Marple to Macclesfield in short order, but not without taking in the sights nature offered along the way. There are some fine swampy reed beds, with yellow flag irises and the usual but never less than lovely hedgerow plants.

The only fly in the ointment on this section is close to the southern end, where there is a lot of bike-carrying up and down steps, to cross a major road. Still, it is quicker (at least for me) to carry than to ride the alternative hairpins. By the time I reached the “turn” I was again ready for a break – and a drink. One of the drawbacks of riding canal banks and railtracks is the difficulty of finding places to get water. But I made good with a visit to a supermarket just above the trail and had another cup of coffee while I was there.

From Macclesfield, I had about 40 miles to ride north to the finish. I was tired now and had calculated that the complete ride would take me about an hour longer than I had anticipated. But I had a full bottle, another litre bottle now in my pannier and sandwiches to spare. I’d be late back but it should still be light on the last stretch up the Rochdale canal to home. If it wasn’t, the road option was familiar. I estimated that I would still be within the Audax “limits”, even if I had a puncture. But of course, the only way to test this was actually to have a

puncture, which I duly did a few miles up the Middlewood Way. It was a rear wheel one which took me about 20 minutes to sort out but I picked a lovely spot to do it, with a seat and a great view across the Cheshire plain. The first miles on the new tube were a little anxious but it passed the rigorous test of the bumpy descent of Marple locks, so I was encouraged.

At Chadkirk Chapel I geared down to climb the very steep bend up to the canal access and stamped hard on the pedals – and immediately stopped dead. I hadn’t tightened the skewer enough and had pulled the wheel out of the dropouts, to jam solid against the chainstay. It was easy enough to put right but there was no chance of re-starting the climb and so I pushed the 60 or so yards up the bank to the foot of the steps. Shouldering the bike up the 25 steps to the canal was hard work. I could have removed the pannier, but didn’t, which meant that the weight was in the wrong place, really. But I made it okay and renewed my acquaintance with the muddier northern reach of the Peak Forest. It was a lovely evening as I ticked off the landmarks, including another walk through Woodley tunnel and then dismounts for the awkward turnover bridges. But these hindrances were balanced by the beautiful soft scented air and the wild flowers and hedges. At Portland Basin, the bucolic nature of the surroundings changed, as did the nature of the company. The inevitable dogwalkers were now joined by sporadic groups of young men as the creatures of the night emerged. Dealers and dealt parted civilly enough to let me through as I completed the passage of the Ashton canal.

Towards the end of this section there is a fine cobbled climb over an old bridge. This takes the towpath over the now defunct and infilled Stockport branch. Just before this I had seen a colourful narrowboat being worked through a lock against a backdrop of the huge chemical installation that used to be Clayton Aniline, of folk song legend.

Finished with the Ashton, I pushed the bike cautiously through the gaps in the traffic on Alan Turing Way. Whenever I am in this spot I think of the great mathematician and saver of countless lives who was driven to suicide by a callous establishment. It’s some sort of justice that he will be remembered for his genius and it reviled for its cruelty.

A short stretch of dedicated cyclepath alongside this dual carriageway brought me back to the final leg of my journey, along the Rochdale canal to home. It looked as if I was going to get home inside the target but I had to keep working because, perverse as it may seem, it was all uphill to the finish. Rochdale is about 500 feet higher than Manchester and the level towpaths along the “pounds” of the canal are connected by short, jabby climbs – and the occasional walk. More denizens of the dusk were about. As I reached the fabulous old brick bridge at Fallowfield, I saw a grey group of hoodies disappearing into its murky interior. This is a place where I was “greeted” on a previous jaunt, so I found a sneaky way over the top to avoid any possibility on this occasion. A little smugness was in order, I felt.

Shortly afterwards, the towpath disappears and the route (NCN 66) is borne by footbridge across the M60 Manchester ring road, still chocker at gone nine at night. I was weary now, but not too spent to appreciate the beauty of the scene that unfolds between Oldham and Castleton. On the horizon, the blue remembered hills were bathed in the golden glow of the low sun and families of geese sailed serenely towards the sunset.

Although I had my lamps on as a precaution by now, it was still light as I reached home and hauled the bike up the last cruel steps to the back garden. I was too tired to be euphoric but I was very pleased with my day’s exertions. I had wanted to see if this route of 205 kilometres could be ridden within the time limits stipulated by Audax UK. I managed that with half an hour to spare, which would have been nearly an hour but for the puncture. But it was very tight, really, as I’d been determined to enjoy it just as a ride, rather than get round as fast as I could. Perhaps eating more regularly would actually improve things but I don’t think there is a lot to come off this time. If taking nearly fourteen hours to ride 125 miles seems a bit weak, then in my defence I offer the 40-odd anti-motorbike installations, 61 locks requiring cobbled ascents, turnovers or straightforward walking – and all to be done twice. A mixture of surfaces, all of which grab at the tyres, with the exception of the short road stretches, which probably amount to no more than four miles out of the total. Even the long flat section of the Bridgewater canal has a few nasty yards of cobbles and slow-you-down ridges and the surface, while nicely firm, is covered in a sort of pea gravel which is very noisy and tugs at the tyres. That said, it is a beautiful waterway in its western, Tory reaches.

Then there are the pigeons – millions of them, usually under the bridges. They never fly out of the way until after you’ve slowed down to avoid them. Against them, I balance the pair of bullfinches I saw on the Middlewood Way. At least, I think they were bullfinches, I only caught a glimpse of startling white rumps. And there were more herons than you could stab a beak at. Oh, and I’m now 71. I’ve reached an age where I think it probably becomes a bit more significant. But I think, with the right weather, I can probably get another couple of years out of this ride, so I am well satisfied with my adventure!

● As an aside – I could have diverted off the Middlewood Way and on to the Macclesfield canal. But that would have made it Five Canals – and spoiled the joke!

Heatley and Warburton Station