The ultimate odyssey — journey to the centre of town

The ultimate odyssey — journey to the centre of town

A slow boat to Chinatown — James Ruddy takes a gentle canal boat voyage from sleepy Cheshire into the heart of Manchester

Pacific Wren tied up at Lymm Bridge

IMAGINE THE SCENE: you’ve just moored up your red and green narrowboat on a leafy embankment ready for your evening meal on board, as a nearby grey heron dives gracefully into the water and emerges with his own supper, a silvery fish clamped in his beak.

A few days later, you are tying up again, this time in Manchester’s skyscraper-ringed Castlefield Quay where you head for Chinatown for a dim sum brunch, followed by a wander through the buzzing streets, shops, museums and, of course, a pub or two.

The contrast could not have been greater: from the tree-lined tranquillity of Cheshire’s bumpy green carpeted countryside to the full-on urban frenzy of one of Britain’s liveliest city centres.

Yet it is remarkably easy to enjoy the experience – even for complete beginners – on a hired narrowboat, spending a week or just a few days making the utterly untaxing journey from the marina at Anderton to Castlefield and back.

Along the way, there are three interesting tunnels to negotiate and just one simple wooden lock, where the initial Trent and Mersey Canal joins the Bridgewater, as you pass through valleys dotted with bluebells and reeds inhabited by nesting swans.

James studies his Pearson Canal Guide

My partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy and I are canal fans who enjoy both the solitude and the camaraderie of narrowboats (‘It’s a ‘crime’ not to wave and greet passing boaters and dog walkers,’ we have been told), which are a stress-free wind-down at just 3-miles-an-hour.

It’s no surprise that, according to Canal and River Trust research, health specialists recommend time on the waterways to help your mental health, reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as your overall wellbeing.

Not only that, but there is major confidence building to be derived from mastering a narrowboat (in our case, Pacific Wren, after a straightforward briefing session at ABC Boat Hire at Anderton) which is relatively simple after you have travelled a few miles.

But the most enduring benefit has to be your closeness with nature and a gentler sense of a bygone world, from the young families who waved enthusiastically to us from bridges to the mallards, often with half a dozen fluffy new-born chicks in tow, who turned up at the stern some mornings seeking titbits.

Even trips ashore brought a uniqueness of human contact seldom found at railway stations or motorway cafes. In lovely Georgian and cobbled Lymm, we were warmly welcomed by locals as ‘boaties’ during two overnight stays, which included a beer and quiz event at the family-run Brewery Tap pub and a bacon buttie breakfast at the volunteer-run ‘warm space’ session at the canalside community centre.

Even in the heart of frenetic Manchester, as we sipped a coffee on our rear deck, passing joggers and pram-borne children waved and dog walkers stopped to chat – all seeming to regard us as unthreatening adventurers travelling in a craft that belonged to a calmer, long-past age.

Sue and James take a breather

And then there were the noticeable rhythms of our boat days. Mornings could be misty and punctuated by singing warblers and noisy ducks. Days included walks to wayside pubs and to corner shops in pretty hamlets like Moore and Dunham. And evenings became drinks on the stern followed by meals in the spacious kitchen before soporific nights of utter tranquillity.

Yet, amid such peace, never far from our minds was the thought of the 19th century navvies, many from Ireland, who shed blood, sweat and tears digging these onetime pioneering transport links which, in the case of the Bridgewater - completed in 1761 - halved the price of coal taken to Manchester.

Life in the nearby shanty towns was hell for these labourers and tunnellers who, with strong arms and often just a pick and a shovel, were paid a relatively attractive ‘piece rate’ for digging a trench 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 36 feet long in a single day.

Many paid the ultimate price. On the nearby Manchester Ship Canal, created a century later, 5000 workers came from Ireland, as well as 12000 others from across Britain and spent six years slaving away along the 36 miles from Salford to the Irish Sea.

As many as 1200 0f them died from accidents, diseases, and even drunken fights as they grafted to feed their families back home. Astonishingly, the chances of death or injury were greater, proportionately, than that for soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo. These heroes are now being commemorated in a ‘Navvies’ memorial project, a tiny forest, in the city’s MediaCity.

So, on our final night on board, we raised a glass to their memory and wondered how they would marvel at the affluence and comfort enjoyed by today’s leisure travellers, who steer their hired narrowboats along these hard-won waterways - not for toil, but simply for fun and utter peace.

The mind boggles at their reaction!


ABC Boat Hire: prices for a four-berth Wren Class boat start at £1099 (plus £90 fuel deposit) for 7 nights. Boats vary from 2 to 12 berths and you can select a waterway journey from any one of 15 marinas across the UK, including Anderton. Go to Tel 0808 303 8713.