Southam’s journey from Runcorn to Ashton
“Southam” was rescued from the depths of the Oxford Canal at Hillmorton in the Autumn of 1992. She is a big ricky butty, built in 1936, which was converted and motorised after finishing carrying work for British Waterways in 1962.
After being raised and cleaned out, “Southam” had to be moved to Runcorn before the winter stoppages. We got the engine running but it soon expired again and she had to be bow-hauled most of the way. “Southam” was the special project of Dawn Goodfellow and Mike Bazley. They set to work renewing the cabin roof, which was rotten and leaky, and re-fitting the interior. As soon as possible the boat was dry docked so that some leaks could be attended to and the hole in the bow plated over.
The engine, a huge B.M.C. 3.4 litre diesel, was obviously in a very bad way. Mike found a similar 3.8 litre engine going cheap in a dismantled state so this was purchased and he started work on making 1 good engine out of the 2 piles of bits. Meanwhile the gearbox was despatched to the engineering department in Sussex where Nigel Fox, Dave Quirk and Ron Bickerton gave it a comprehensive overhaul.
After “Hazel” left in the Spring of 1998 “Southam” was the only one of our boats remaining at the Boat & Butty boatyard in Runcorn. It was clear that it would only be a matter of time before her turn came to move as well. We decided to make the trip in October before the winter stoppages. Having been converted on the Grand Union where the bridges are high, “Southam”s cabin is a bit on the big side. Measurement showed that it would not go under Lumb Lane bridge,on the Ashton canal, so the best thing seemed to be to take her the long way via Kidsgrove. How wrong can you be!
After spending a day loading bits and pieces “Southam” was ready to go on 25th October. The plan was that I would take charge of getting her to Kidsgrove, ahead of the planned stoppages, then Penny was recruiting a crew to take her up the Macclesfield Canal and down the Peak Forest to Portland Basin the following weekend. October 25th was a windy Sunday morning. I woke up the boatyard by firing up “Southam”s huge engine, then Mike and I had the usual entertainment of trying to back out of the sheltered arm into a west wind whipping along the canal. “Southam”s cabin catches the wind like a great square sail. There was a brief halt to clean out the cooling system after Mike spotted that it had blocked up, the we were away through the Runcorn estates with a following wind. I lit the stove then went and took photographs while Mike steered, wrapped, up in orange waterproofs against the weather and deafened by the blattering exhaust.
At Waters Meeting we turned South and passed the Claymoore hire fleet, gathered together at the end of the season. The North Staffordshire Warehouse at Preston Brook still stands empty. It used to be the Old Number One pub and night club until it burned down. As a listed building it has now been rebuilt and is being advertised as offices, but has been empty for several years.
Preston Brook tunnel has a timed entry system to prevent awkward confrontations between boats in the dark. We just timed it right to catch the last of the Southbound slot and avoided waiting around. We met a hire boat at Dutton stop lock, then we were away into one of my favourite stretches of canal, where the Trent & Mersey clings to the edge of the Weaver valley between Dutton and Saltisford.
“Southam” plodded along through woods and fields of baled up straw, meeting occasional pleasure boats and struggling with the wind on the exposed lengths. At Little Leigh I lit the headlight and Mike jumped off to cycle back to Runcorn. Saltisford Tunnel is entered on a bend so I poked “Southam”s nose in cautiously, looking for headlights. It seemed to be clear, so I started moving into the tunnel, then a glow emerged from the kink in the middle. The engine roared in the gloom as I used stern gear to stop the boat and haul her back into the daylight to wait for the traffic to pass. Soon a boat emerged and I re-entered the tunnel. Saltisford is quite a small bore and there was only a few inches clearance between the front corners of the conversion and the tunnel lining. The headlight, a tilley lamp, lit the tunnel sides well but threw very little light forward so it was hard to anticipate the bends where the underground headings of the old navvies failed to meet up properly.
Saltisford Tunnel emerges into a wide where there are various boats tied up, including the wooden tug “The Green Man” and Mac the fender maker’s two boats. The canal then enters Barnton Tunnel, again approached on a bend so you can’t see if the tunnel is clear until the last moment. At Barnton there was no need to back out and there was a little more room. This emerges on to a very tricky double bend leading to a narrow, blind, bridgehole, where I stopped briefly to extinguish the light.
Moving on, the boat passed Anderton with its boat lift and Marina. There was a surprising amount of traffic for so late in the year, probably most of the other boats were heading for their winter moorings too.The scenery reeled by. Marston New Cut, the Lion Saltworks, Lostock Gralam, Broken Cross. At the flashes I opened up the engine and the boat ploughed a straight furrow accross the deep water leaving a trail of wavelets that were soon lost in the wind ruffled water. Through the remote lands of Whatcroft and on over the Croxton Aqueduct. The wind was constant, the rain intermittent and the blustering racket of the engine blotted out all other sound.
Some of the bends were tricky if the bow had to be pushed into the wind. During test runs with the engine, the skeg, which supports the rudder, dropped off. This was not part of the original boat but something that was added when she was motorised. Without the skeg the rudder was hanging loose and useless. Duggie Shaw fitted a metal strap to hold it in place as a temporary measure and this worked quite well, except that when the rudder is put over hard it would catch on the propeller blades. Sometimes a turn could only be made with the tiller juddering wildly!
Middlewich Big Lock was reached as dusk approached. I gently nudged the gates with “Southam”s stem then left her in forward gear while I went to let some water out of the wide lock. Soon the water was level and I opened a gate then stepped on to the boat as she pushed her way into the lock. As the lock filled a downhill boat arrived so I left the lock for them and moved on past lines of moored craft to tie up beyond Town Bridge.
Before starting “Southam”s engine next morning I checked the fuel and discovered it to be perilously low. Most of the 5 gallons I had bought to start the trip had gone already. The boat’s oversized engine drives an undersized propeller, a sure recipe for wasting diesel. I started working up the narrow locks and decided to fill up with fuel at Kings Lock. When we got there however, they were not yet open. Not wishing to waste time, I wanted to get to Kidsgrove before nightfall. I took the unusual step of buying a couple of gallons of white diesel to keep the boat going.
The plan was that I would start up the locks and Colin Scrivener would park at Malkyns Bank and cycle down the towpath to meet me. I jokingly said that he’d probably find me stuck in Rumps Lock, the one with a notoriously tight chamber just above Middlewich. As it happened, there was no problem at that lock. Dawn and Mike must have kept “Southam” on a diet as she hardly touched the sides as she entered the lock. Colin appeared on his folding bike at the next set of locks beside the main road to Sandbach. Shortly afterwards we passed the Samuel Barlows butty “Gertrude” moored on the outside, and had a chat with its owner, who has fitted a lot of new planks, whilst working through Crows Nest Lock.
The weather had hardly improved since the previous day. Looking back over the Cheshire plain we could see spectacular cloudscapes hurtling towards us. Unfortunately they kept emptying themselves on us.. We got soaked drawing the paddles and squelching along the towpath. This part of the Cheshire locks are mostly paired, two narrow locks side by side. this is really handy as there is more often one set for you. At Malkyns Bank “Southam” got stuck in the towpath side lock by the golf club. With a bit of flushing and thrashing about we got her out and worked her through the outside lock in horizontal rain. Apparently other boats have had trouble with this lock recently.
At Hassall Green we went under the roaring M6 motorway and passed a British Waterways Admiral motor boat stopped in the other lock while its crew had their dinner. I filled a can with diesel from the post office while Colin worked the lock.
Onwards and upwards, Colin left at Pierpoint Locks to move his car up to the summit at Red Bull. From Pierpoint to Rode Heath is a pleasant long pound meandering through dairy farming country. About halfway along the pound, near the Chell aqueduct, a wooden motor boat was tied up. It had obviously had a lot of new planks in it but there was no obvious name. A man emerged from the back cabin as I passed, I asked him its name. “Walton” he said, “What’s that one?”.
“Walton” was built at Fellows Morton & Clayton’s dock in Uxbridge for the Mersey Weaver and Ship Canal Carrying Co. I last saw her about 1991 in London and looking very sad. Her owner had bought the boat because he wanted the engine and there was a danger that the boat would be broken up. I activated the wooden boat grapevine and soon someone made an offer for “Walton” which led to her being saved. I had heard that a lot of work had been done but hadn’t seen it. I was pleased to see the boat largely rebuilt and obviously being carefully looked after.
The canal became busy above Rode Heath and I was annoyed at Thurlwood to have a lock drawn against me. I should have been able to go straight into the lock but instead I had to leave “Southam” rumbling with indignation in the tail of the lock while I helped the woman, who claimed not to have seen me coming, to work through. To let her out I had to back out and struggle to control the boat in the wind. When eventually I was able to work “Southam” through the lock the british waterways Admiral had caught up
Near Church Lawton Colin joined us again and shortly afterwards Ade, “Walton”s owner cycled up to offer his services as lock wheeler. We had a good crew for the final assault on the summit up the Red Bull flight.
Things seemed to be going really well, then they took a serious turn for the worse. As we were passing British Waterways offices at Red Bull we were informed that Marple locks had closed early as a set of gates had collapsed. we would not be able to get to Ashton until at least Christmas. Then, whilst digesting this news at the next lock, we had an embarrassing problem with the rudder.
Normally a butty has an elegant wooden ‘ellum but when “Southam” was motorised this was replaced with a steel rudder which has worn to a point at the back. Unlike a motor boat there is no counter and fender to protect it. I was aware that this could cause trouble and took great care at all the locks to make sure that she was tied tightly to the strapping post before drawing the paddles. This worked well as long as care was taken not to let the line go slack until the lock had filled well. On this occasion the boat drifted back a bit earlier than usual and would not come forward again. I went back to check and found that the rudder had pushed its pointed edge into the crack between the bottom gates when the lock was partly filled. As it filled up more the rudder became firmly jammed. This prevented the back of the boat rising with the water and bent the rudder into the propeller blades.
We dropped the top paddles so that the boat would not sink, then let a bit of water out to see if it would drop out again. All this did was to bend the rudder back again and we had to stop when it looked as though it might pull the rudder off. After a lot of frantic pulling and waggling in the gathering dusk I suggested that we would have to take the rudder off the boat, put a rope on it then empty the lock to release it and then re-fit the rudder. Colin suggested a better plan. This was to remove the strap restraining the rudder then slowly empty the lock to allow the rudder post to slide through the top fixing until the lock was empty enough for the gates to release the rudder. It worked, just. There were only a couple of inches of movement left when the rudder came free. We then re-filled the lock, re-fixed the strap and carried on in the gloom to the last lock.
Ade has a friend with a boat below Hall Green Stop Lock at the bottom end of the Macclesfield Canal. It was another mile but it seemed that leaving the boat there for the week would be safer than at Kidsgrove. I lit the lamp and plodded on through the shallow water past Red Bull moorings and over the aqueducts while Ade cycled up the towpath and Colin moved his car. We tied up to a soggy bank in pitch darkness then Colin gave me a lift to collect my car before he drove home to Middlewich. It had been along and difficult days boating.
Now a decision had to be made as to what to do with “Southam” while we waited for Marple locks to be repaired. Ade had offered to look after her along with “Walton” if we took her back down to Chell. This turned out to be the best option so the next weekend saw me, Penny, Ade and David Lloyd. setting out back down the locks. this was quite a simple straightforward enjoyable trip so there is very little to write about.
The other boat at Hall Green was a sister of “Southam”. for many years this has been known as “Willow Wren” but was originally “Taplow”. She now carries a conversion even more huge than the one on “Southam” and quite how she got to “Hall Green” is a mystery to me. The conversion is in a bad state and Ade has been helping Dave, the owner, to rebuild it to a more realistic height.