Let’s get on the Cut.

My second day in Yorkshire arrived and I was up at some unholy hour although it must be said that my night’s sleep had been completely undisturbed even though I was facing the road but there was precious little traffic about by the time I wandered home. I could probably have slept in the road fairly well undisturbed.

As I mentioned in the last piece here, I had had very good “Indian” meal the evening before and breakfast is a meal I rarely take as my stomach does not really get going until a couple of hours after I rise. The number of very decent hotel breakfasts I have passed up is appalling.

Against all logic which is my totally disorganised state of being with technology (I swear I only learnt to answer my so-called “smartphone” in the last month and I am writing this two years after having bought it) I am amazed that I even managed to save this stuff. I shall attempt to edit it appropriately as it was designed for a “review” site and I do not wish to bore all of my now 19 readers (thanks, Niki) with the same preamble all over the place.

The first order of business was to get myself to Sowerby Bridge and that should not have been a problem. As I found out subsequently cabs (taxis) here are very inexpensive but I had my thick travelling head on and I was damned if I was going to cop out that way so I was back to the station to get a train for the short journey over, a singularly uneventful one of about seven minutes but which deposited me at the train station which, frankly, is nowhere near the centre of town. Not a problem as I am not quite decrepit yet but it reminded me of a lovely story.

The railways, like the canals before them and which they killed off, were built by private enterprise with lots of skullduggery going on. They were effectively doing everything on the cheap and the easiest topographical route was the way to go, literally and metaphorically. No need to build tunnels and viaducts if you can just meander another way (a bit like my writing really). Paying public be damned, they could walk to the station. Strange how history repeats itself and now, almost two centuries later, the now re-privatised rail companies still show the same disregard for those who pay their obscene salaries and shareholder’s dividends. Back to my story.

One of the most scenic railways in the UK, if not the world, is the Settle – Carlisle line running between the former Cumberland County (now part of Cumbria) and Yorkshire where I currently was. The story, probably apocryphal, goes like this. A foreign tourist alights at one of the minor (unstaffed) halts to find only a man resting on the station bench after walking his dog. Having asked directions to the village, which is about a mile away and being told where it was and how far it might be, he asked the old guy, “Why did they build the station so far from the village?” The old guy allegedly replied with typical Yorkshire taciturnity (if that is even a proper word), “Well lad, I reckon they wanted it to be near the railway line”. I love that story, true or not.

Back to my own story which I swear to you is true. Come on, I am even providing photographic evidence (which thankfully I do not feature in any of) so I suppose I could have just lifted them off the net but I didn’t, trust me.

I eventually dragged my weary old bones to the  Commercial Inn, another of the Wetherspoons chain I have spoken about often elsewhere on my various pages. I quickly found Gilly who told me that Aly was running late due to the vagaries of public transport in the area (she did not have too far to travel) but that was OK as it gave me time for a catch up as we hadn’t seen each other for a while. There was no immediate rush as the boatyard was literally five minutes walk away and we could not take possession of the craft until a certain time after it had been cleaned and checked over. Well that was fine and so, as Gilly settled over a coffee and bite to eat, I contented myself with another couple of pints of brunch. I shall get my travel review head on later in this small series as we returned there at the end of our journey.

I had no worries about possibly helming a craft worth probably getting on for a quarter of million pounds with a few drinks on me as a) I knew I could do it and b) I know a rather interesting legal fact. Whilst a couple of drinks and getting behind the wheel of a car can quite rightly get you banned, fined or even imprisoned in extreme cases, and rightly so, it is not actually illegal to be over what would be the legal limit for a motor vehicle and propel 70 feet of heavy steel along a canal. That is as long as a lorry. I should stress here that I detest drink driving as I think it is so bloody dangerous and has such appalling consequences. I suppose the thinking is that there just never was a law in place because canal boats long preceeded motor vehicles and indeed, in many parts of the country, even the police and so it just never happened. Added to this, you are restricted by waterways regulations to 4 mph and hire boats are generally governed to about his limit although I know private craft that can go faster and some of the commercial lads will if they are under pressure but they generally don’t as the impact of “speeding” in a boat this big is huge as I shall explain later in the piece and they appreciate that “the cut” is their livelihood.

Our short walk took us thought the old wharf are which, like so many others of it’s type has been beautifully and sympathetically restored from the previous grimy functionality of what was basically a commercial transport system and we easily found the boatyard. Again, I am going to rely on an original review written at the time and hopefully suitable edited so you do not get inundated with the same information over and over.

I had absolute faith in Gilly as I knew she had organised many VT meets before, including her now legendary Manchester Christmas Market meets, so that was not a problem. I knew she would have done her homework, she always does. She had chosen (after much deliberation I am sure) a company called Shire Cruisers working out of Sowerby Bridge and it is that company to which this portion of the blog refers.

As mentioned above, our hire was a long weekend which is basically Friday afternoon to early Monday morning and we started off with three “shipmates” although we were to be joined by “Davesut” (his VT username, real name Dave obviously), a lovely bloke who I had met before but whose job meant we could only hook up with him on the Friday evening. Hence it was then that Gilly and I headed down to the old wharf by the Calder and Hebble navigation (canal). We were soon joined by Aly, another VT member I had had the pleasure of meeting before.

Gilly headed into the office of our hire company which is situated in a gorgeous old wharf and we were directed to the good ship “Westmoreland”. For those not aware, a word of explanation may be in order here. The term “shire” in the UK refers to an old county but has now fallen somewhat into disuse. All the craft in this yard are named after present or previous “shires”. In the case of our particular craft, Westmoreland has not existed for many years having been subsumed into the supposedly more financially robust or politically expedient area of “Cumbria” as mentioned in my railway story above, but enough of this.

I learn of an interesting ancient custom.

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Sowerby Bridge rushbearing cart.

We were invited to stow our kit inside and assisted by one of what appeared to be a small army of workers there. With the kit suitably stowed we went for a wander round the yard where they just happened to be housing the “rush-bearing cart” which was lovely to see. Rush-bearing is a very ancient tradition in these parts and whilst we were not going to be there to see it, the cart was still lovely to see.

I’ll give you quick rundown on rush-bearing here as the vehicle looks odd and you may not have heard of it. Neither had I until I heard about these old VT meets.

Rush-bearing is a tradition that goes back to medieval times when the floors of most Churches were merely compacted earth and which used to get fairly insanitary in the wet and blowy winters. It is entirely a Northern English tradition. Once a year, before the onset of winter, a large cart of rushes was collected and distributed to local churches to be used as a renewable and easily obtained floor-covering. They were “going green” about a millennium before it became trendy!

When the Christian church had increased it’s wealth, as it does, the floors of the churches were flagged out and the rush-bearing festival more or less fell into disuse but it continues in a few places and Sowerby Bridge is undoubtedly the main one. Nowadays, it is a huge festival, attracting thousands to the town and helping to boost the tourist economy which is increasingly important to places like this where the traditional industries have all gone.

You can see the cart in the image and what they do first is perch a young lady on top of it, a pageant Queen, if you like. Presumably she is picked not only for her looks but also for having a head for heights as there is no way I’d get up there, especially when I tell you the means of propulsion. Forget horses, donkeys, oxen or anything else. This contraption is powered by a gang of burly young men. There are a group at the front hauling ropes to provide forward momentum and then, even more importantly, another group at the back on more ropes to provide the braking system. I have seen some of the hills they go up and down and they must be big, fit lads. This thing, full laden, must weight literally a ton and has no brakes so the thought of it going out of control with thousands of onlookers really does not bear thinking about. I dread to think what the insurance premium must be and the Health and Safety risk assessment must read like War and Peace.

Over the course of the weekend they drag this juggernaut (I use the term properly, look up where the word comes from, that is your homework for today!) round and about the town and surrounding villages. Obviously it an excuse for much drinking, dancing and general revelry. If you are vaguely interested I have included a link here.

We were then asked to attend a safety briefing in the office. There were several crews including a fairly sizeable one from the boat moored alongside who appeared to be young guys out for a weekend f carousing and who we did bump into (not literally, thankfully) several times on our cruise. The fairly small office which also houses the very decently stocked gift shop was fairly full with all the weekend sailors there.

Actually, the fun started there as the young lady giving the briefing quite disarmingly told us that she had never done one before and but for the fact that the owners were off for the weekend then she would not be doing it at all. In the way of workplace pranks a couple of the (obviously experienced) “hands” from the yard came in to stand at the back. The poor girl was terrified but came through brilliantly, mixing her obviously book driven briefing with a few very humorous anecdotes. I really wish I could remember the young lady’s name to acknowledge her personally but sadly I cannot. Petrified as she obviously was, she gave the briefing excellently and I could not fault it. The look of relief on her face at the end was an absolute picture.

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The good ship Westmoreland.

Time for the off then and one of the young lads from the yard lent us a hand. He told us that he would meet us at the Salterhebble guillotine lock, a little way up the cut. What? I had never heard of a guillotine lock before as they don’t exist where I normally crew. About a mile up the cut, we were just settling into the 4 mph life of the canal when we saw him flying past us on his bicycle on the towpath. Needless to say, he was at the lock long before we were and gave us the necessary knowledge as to how to use these electronic beasts. Just as well really as we had to come back through it on the way home.

To re-iterate briefly then, I know there are many excellent hire boat companies operating in the UK but if your fancy takes you towards West Yorkshire then you could do very much worse than to use Shire Cruisers. Right, end of review and back to the story.

IMG_9060
This is what I came for.

We got underway with me at the helm. On the old Forces principle of “volunteer for nothing” I was quite happy to let the ladies crack on but they insisted. I had had a chat with the very friendly guy from the boatyard about my previous crewing and he was obviously happy to let me take her out of the mooring although he did offer to take us up to the first lock. I said I reckoned I could handle it and he was standing watching. It was like the time I teed off at Royal Portstewart Golf Club with the club steward on the tee watching me. I am no golfer and, if you really scuffed your first shot, you would be thrown off the course and no refund! Obviously, I took her out OK and he acknowledged me with a wave as I took her into the cut and he went back about his business. Whew, got through that one then although I am sure he had seen a lot worse.

IMG_9064
The first one I had ever seen.

Once we had been cast off on our own, I immediately offered the ladies the chance to take the helm as it was a straight run with no obvious hazards and I had determined myself I was not going to hog the tiller. Nothing until this guillotine lock as mentioned but they were still a little reticent. OK, I can do this, I love doing this, it is one of the greatest joys in my life. Up to the lock, successfully negotiated with the young biking boatyard guy and we were off and running.

OK, clear water now and nothing in the way so time to get the ladies to work. OK, I am no expert but I gave them both a crash course (thankfully there were no crashes just yet) into how to propel half a ton or whatever of heavy steel along a bit of water.

The problem with narrowboats is that steering them is effectively counter-intuitive. With a car, if you want to go right you turn the steering wheel to the right and so on but on a narrowboat it is the opposite way round so if you want to go right, you effectively “steer” to the left. Of course, the problem is compounded when you have the engine in reverse when everything is back to front twice! Trust me, don’t panic if you are considering this as you can get it easily enough.  Please do not be put off, it really is great fun.

There we were then on the beautiful Calder and Hebble Canal although it is properly a canal and river system combined, which sometimes happens on the cut. I won’t go into a whole dissertation about it here, look it up if you are interested as there is plenty online. Whether river, canal or some amalgam thereof, I can tell you that it is a beautiful place as hopefully some of the rather amateur images will show.

I got Gilly on the tiller first. Gilly is a dear friend, a very intelligent woman who commands a very responsible job but, with the greatest respect, she struggled with the concept of the “opposite tiller” and there were a few close calls until I grabbed it but we were never going to come to grief as there was nothing solid and the worst that could have happened was that we could have gone aground and had to pole off (poles are provided for just such circumstances!).

Aly seemed to get the idea better but her problem was that, and again I am not being unkind here, she will never play basketball for her country as she is not exactly the tallest lady in the world. Standing in the well of a narrowboat you have to look out over up to 70′ of roof / canvas and anticipate where the front is going to be. I stand 6’5″ and so have a good view but it took me some time to master it. To use the car analogy again, it is like looking over a 60 or 70 foot bonnet (hood) because you drive from the back, probably unlike any other form of locomotion. Poor Aly could barely see over the roof! Still, she made a good fist of it and everything was going well.

I say it was going well, how bad could it possibly be? I was doing one of the things I love most in the world in the company of two dear friends and heading to meet another that evening. I was on a cut I had never even walked before never mind worked. How bad could it be? Not at all is the answer to that. Without any hyperbole, canal life is the ultimate stress reliever.
Yes, we had a TV on the boat, as they do these days, but we never turned it on. We only used our mobile ‘phones to keep in contact when ashore (well, the others did, I still struggle to work mine), a computer was not seen and you are forced to move at a walking pace through beautiful countryside.
Even when you get into the built up areas, there is so much to see that you would never see from landside. It really is like entering another world and I love it. As soon as I step on a narrowboat and throw my kit onboard it it like the weight of the world lifts off my shoulders. There is only you, your mates, the need to keep the damn boat off the cills in the locks, the physical exertion of locking, the canalside pubs, the cooking in a galley and eating the results beside a wood-burning stove. It is beyond belief and I really do recommend you try it if only for a short break. Trust me, you will not regret it.

Have I gone on enough yet about the joys of narrowboats? Probably, so I’ll get back to the narrative.

Because we didn’t really want to go too far on such a short hire (we had to get back again) the ladies had decided we would spend the first night in the village / town of Elland which was where Dave was meeting us. We arrived without major incident (OK one or two close calls but nothing serious) and the ladies had by then been introduced to the joys of locking. I’ll go into the intricacies of that later, it is an art form, believe me.

We were looking for a mooring and, as it was not high season, we should have been OK and so it proved. Oh dear, what a stroke of luck, we managed to moor right outside the back door of the Barge and Barrel pub. How awful.

Time for  quick one.

The ladies had reckoned we needed supplies and that sounded about right so they found the local supermarket on their phones. It was over a charming bridge, then turn left and up a hill (there are so many hills in Yorkshire) to the Asda / Sainsburys / Tesco or whatever. I really cannot remember as they all look the bloody same to me. On the way up the hill, I had taken the precaution of noting a pub called the Malt Shovel and so, on the return journey and laden like the pack ponies that probably plied this street a century ago, I tentatively suggested a pint. I have no idea what all we bought but it seemed like we were feeding a regiment for a month rather than four people for three days! I am willing to concede that a large portion of the load was my cider ration. I know that drinking spirits is lot easier logistically but I don’t want to go back to that nonsense.

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Another great little Yorkshire pub.

The ladies agreed and so we hit the Malt Shovel and again I am going to regress to my original writing on the place, suitably edited.

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A proper locals place.

“It is pleasant enough inside with a few prints of the surrounding countryside and other nick-nacks around the walls and whilst it is apparently a locals pub there were not too many of them in when we visited on a Friday evening. The couple that were there were friendly enough, mind you, and I soon struck up a conversation with one of them, a fascinating chap who was seriously into music and it transpired we had a couple of mutual friends in the music game.

One of the things he did tell me was that the Malt Shovel keeps pretty strange hours which I subsequently discovered are as follows – 3-9 Mon; Closed Tue; 3-9 Wed-Sat; 12-6 Sun. I must confess I had never heard of such a limited regime in a pub before.

My only problem with the Malt Shovel is that is is a Sam Smith’s (brewery) pub. This is fine if you like their beer and the prices are extremely competitive but I am a cider drinker and I just cannot get on with the Sam Smith’s draught cider which tastes like battery acid to me. This particular brewery are almost obsessive about only serving their own products to the point that none of them even serve Coke or Pepsi and offer Sam Smith’s cola instead, at least that used to be the case.  I don’t know about nowadays as I don’t drink the stuff.  Aly did rave about her Tadcaster (Taddy) lager though and I believe Sam Smith’s bitter is very good if that is your thing.

There is no food available and it’s position on quite a steep hill with a fairly narrow pavement and a step up to the front door may render it difficult for the mobility impaired. Certainly it is a welcoming pub and full of character but, for reasons as outlined above, I don’t think I’ll be back there. Still, it was a welcome stop off and we humped our purchases back to the boat stowed them and headed to our next destination, the pub we had moored beside!

What a very strange menu.

Again, we are back to my old writing but at least it has the advantage of being contemporary.

“Making the long trek of at least 50 yards from the mooring to the front door and through the pleasant beer garden I was confronted with a sandstone (I believe) building so typical of the area which looked well tended and certainly very welcoming. I noticed a sign stating something along the lines of “full menu” or something similar which looked good as I did not want to wander too far to eat that evening. More of the “full menu” later! We all made selections (Dave had joined us by then) from the extensive and apparently regularly changing beer menu and sat down for a pleasant evening of catching up.

The bar was quite large and obviously very much a locals place although not in an exclusive way and we were made to feel most welcome. After a pint or three we decided it was time to eat and it is here that the “full menu” mentioned above comes into play. I don’t know if it was a temporary kitchen thing or the sign was merely a remnant from a previous owner but the menu consisted entirely of hot pork pie and mushy peas. Perhaps the fullness of the menu referred to the choice of five different types of pork pie you could have. I must confess that I had never had a hot pork pie before and had always associated it with picnics and ploughman’s lunches but when in Rome and all that and so I opted for the black pudding variety as I am rather partial to that particular delicacy. It was explained to me by my “shipmates” that this particular combination is a dish that is peculiar to West Yorkshire and I did find it rather pleasant especially when doused with industrial quantities of mint sauce from a huge catering bottle. This was not a problem as it is one of my favourite condiments although it did sound a bit strange at first. It is amazing what you eat on a VT meet!
After a very pleasant evening we retired to the boat although we did return here on the Sunday to drop Dave off and had another pleasant hour before and after saying our fond farewells. This is a great pub and I do recommend it. It has a pool table, dartboard and pinball as well as regular live music at weekends and a weekly quiz night on Thursday. It is wheelchair accessible and dog and family friendly with free wifi access.

There you go, another one in the eye of the abysmal TripAdvisor. A real review written by a real person who has actually been there and not some worker bee in Minnesota who has never travelled out of their country and probably doesn’t even have a passport. That is what they do. Again, sue me if you think I lie, kaufer (CEO of that reviled site). I know I go on about this but I cannot believe their wanton destruction of any constructive travel writing in favour of their crass commercialism. In the very proper sense of the word they are terrorists, commercial rather than political, using any means to ensure global internet supremacy in much the same way jihadis wish for a Caliphate and I do not think that is too much of a stretch of the inagination.

Wow, how did I get from being so happy on my boat to being so angry in just a single paragraph? Sorry, folks, you get it as it is here. I have taken the gloves off and this site is going to be real.

IMG_9077
Captain’s cabin and very comfy too!

Anyway, few pints of good stuff later and it was a short stumble of at least 50 yards through the beer garden to my berth for the night which I think you will agree from the attached image, looks pretty comfy and indeed it was.

Much more of the cut to come so stay tuned and spread the word.

Author: Fergy.

Hello there and welcome to my blog which is the last attempt of a retiree and child of the 50's to overcome advanced technophobia and create a memoir of my rambles having had three commercial travel blog sites pulled from under me in just over a year. A learning curve like Everest! I am rapidly approaching a senior citizen bus pass and realistically I have more days independent travelling behind me than before so I intend to "do it while I still can" and am trying to cram in as much as I can now. Apart from travelling, I love playing music (guitar, vocals and a bit of percussion) as the profile pic suggests and sport, although my active participation is now restricted to the very occasional game of pool. I read voraciously, probably a legacy from my dear late Mother who was a librarian and encouraged me towards books from an early age. I'll read just about anything although I do have a particular interest in military history of all periods. I live alone in fairly central London where I have been for over 30 years since leaving Northern Ireland which was the place of my birth, youth and early manhood. Partially by necessity although more by love of the art I adore cooking and I can and do read recipe books and watch food programmes on TV / online all day. Nothing fancy and none of your nouvelle cuisine nonsense, just hopefully tasty, proper food. To my knowledge, I have not poisoned anyone yet! No doubt other little personal facts about me will emerge during the course of my writings here so stay tuned if you are at all interested.

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