The Ribble Link and the Lancaster Canal

  Just as we left Burscough New Lane, on Tuesday 15th June, after Jim and Livv had left after their visit,  I walked up to the swing bridge to open it for Tony and a lady had just arrived to operate it for a boat coming the other way. When I said that Tony was coming, she apologised but said she’d have to shut it because she couldn’t hold up the Production Crew – the new version of Tim and Pru –  Sheila Hancock and Gyles Brandreth were on the boat filming. After some discussion, I managed to persuade her that it would take about 5 extra seconds for Tony to go through the open bridge as he was right there waiting, so she did keep it open for him. You never know, we might be on an episode of Great Canal Journeys! 🤣

 We spent four nights in Burscough, not really by choice, but one of the locks on the Rufford Branch had a problem. We needed to get through this lock in order to get to the Ribble Link and onto the Lancaster Canal, so we just had to wait to see if the CRT were able to repair it. The wait was made very much nicer by the arrival of Alan and Sallyann – the repair to the heater on their boat had been carried out, so they joined us in Burscough and we had a lovely time with them sitting outside the boat and chatting, comparing stories of our respective narrowboat adventures. It was 11 o’clock on one evening and still fairly light before we realised the time! It was lovely to catch up with them again but on Friday, we’d had notification that the lock had been repaired, so time for us to wend our way.

 So, on Saturday 19th, we said goodbye to Alan and Sallyann and moved off towards the Rufford Branch. We turned into the branch, worked four locks and then moored in a lovely spot between two locks (gas cannons firing again but Sal is a bit more used to them now). The branch is not quite 7 miles long and we only needed to be at the end on Tuesday evening so no rush – we decided to stay there for that night, too. It’s rural with gorgeous views but there was a resident swan family who swam up to the boat expectantly, but then hiss viciously at you! I’m not a fan of swans – lovely to look at but very impolite – they can do one!

We moved from our moorings on Monday 21st June and cruised for a short distance, working 3 locks and one swing bridge on the way. We pulled into a marina and topped up with diesel ready for the crossing on the Ribble Link. We moored on a great mooring near Rufford Old Hall for the night.

On Tuesday, we set off early and Tony walked Sal; because there were two swing bridges to open, we thought Tony might as well kill two birds with one stone. We stopped at the services to top up with water (it’s recommended that you go on the Link with a full water tank) and then made our way to Tarleton, where you moor before the last lock to take you out onto the River Douglas, Tony and Sal electing to walk all the way, about 4 miles in total. I had my first encounter with horse flies on this stretch – I’d only mentioned the day before that I hadn’t been bothered this year, yet – doh! I also spotted a terrapin sunning itself along this stretch.  Once at Tarleton, I walked up into the town to get a few bits to tide us over the first couple of days on the Lancaster Canal. We met with the other boaters going on the trip with us and decided amongst ourselves who was going to go first etc. We walked up to the lock to have a look at the river – it was very low and tame at that time! The guys from CRT came and confirmed our crossing time – we needed to be at the lock for 9.20 the following morning. We treated ourselves to fish and chips (our last meal??) and went to bed, not exactly nervous, but excited for the next day’s adventure!

On Wednesday morning, 23rd June, we set off as required at 9.10 to reach the Tarleton Lock for 9.20. The gates were open ready for us and we entered the lock, the doors were shut behind us and we were ready! The lock keepers gave us some last minute advice whilst the lock emptied, the doors opened again and we left the lock, engine revving high in order to leave the lock and move out onto the tidal River Douglas. It is quite narrow at this point, so you do need to give it a bit of welly against the flow, but we were soon moving and on our way. Having won the toss (or lost, whichever way you look at it!) we went out first with the second boat in the lock fast behind us. We settled into a good pace – we were moving sufficiently forward but without putting too much pressure on the engine – we didn’t want it overheating! We successfully navigated the River Douglas, turning right onto the River Ribble towards Preston, turning into Savick Brook taking us to the Millennium Ribble Link after a couple of hours. It had started to rain, but we were thankful that it wasn’t windy! The engine was getting a little hot at times, but I just kept popping into the boat and running off some hot water (the reason you need a full tank) to cool it a little. The other boats were in close formation behind us, but one took a little longer – we couldn’t see it from the front of the flotilla so wasn’t sure if it had made the trip after all, but it turned up in the end. Once in Savick Brook, we had to wait for the tide to go out a bit further so that we could get under the bridges, so everyone took the opportunity of making a cuppa and a sandwich whilst we waited. It was here that the last boat turned up just in time to move on again. We weren’t in front for this part of the trip as we’d all moored and breasted up whilst waiting for the levels to drop, so the boats on the outside went first – we were in the second set of two boats. Most of the locks were manned but we had to work a couple ourselves. By this time it was raining continually so it wasn’t the most pleasant of trips, plus the Brook is very narrow and winding making steering interesting! We had a couple of unscheduled visits to the bank on a couple of particularly sharp bends, but we got to the bottom of the staircase locks in good time. These locks are odd in that you have to reverse into them, but once inside and operated by CRT guys, we were soon at the top. We decided to moor in the basin overnight – we needed a cup of tea and Sal needed to stretch her legs – she’d been an absolute star for the entire trip – not fazed by the sound of the engine or the wide expanse of water. We thanked our lucky stars for the hundredth time that she is such a good girl! It had taken us almost exactly 5 hours and we were ready for a rest!

On Thursday 24th June, we left the basin at the top of the staircase locks and turned right onto the Lancaster Canal, towards Ashton Basin. This was a new, for 2021, Silver Propeller Challenge location, so a must visit for us! We stopped at the services on the way to fill with water, not being sure how much we’d run off on the trip across, and so that we started with a clean page. We cruised to the Ashton Basin, only about ½ mile further on, but oh, what fun! It was very weedy, very shallow and more of a nightmare than a Challenge! We had trouble winding in the Basin, having to use the bargepole to turn the boat, and by the time we got back to where we started, having travelled for only 3 miles, we had had 5 trips down the weedhatch and had taken 4 ½ hours!! We cruised for another 5 ½ miles, also slow going due to the amount of weed in the canal, with me walking with Sal for a while, and stopped as soon as we saw a decent mooring, after another long and tiring day!

It was raining all day on Friday, 25th June, so we stayed put on our very nice mooring. We saw and heard the weed clearing boat – a welcome sight!

We left our mooring near Swillbrook on Saturday, 26th June, still on our quest to get to the top of the canal within a few days. Before we moved off, Tony spotted a mink running on the towpath right outside our window! Not quick enough to get a photo as it was gone in an instant, but lovely to see, even though they are a menace and destroy much of the wildlife. We cruised for about 10 miles and moored in Garstang. Tony did Sal’s second walk of the day whilst I went to the supermarket – the nearby Aldi was closed for refurbishment so I had to go to Sainsbury’s a little distance away. 

On Sunday, 27th, we cruised for 11 miles, passing the end of the Glasson Branch and also passing through Galgate. We saw a plane dropping parachutists, and it was continually taking off, despatching its load of thrill seekers, and diving, a la WW2 fighter, back to the airfield to take the next nervous batch of passengers for their adventure. We marvelled at how quickly he could get down and back up again! There was one tricky corner where, on a narrow, sharp bend and with GRP cruisers moored on the offside, and with weeds and reeds on the towpath side, I met a cruiser coming the other way, right on the apex of the bend! You don’t want to crash into a cruiser, they don’t tend to fare too well having a 20 tonne steel narrowboat hitting them, so it took some jiggery pokery with the steering to avoid said cruisers, weed and reeds, and to get a 60′ narrowboat round a tight bend! The cruiser waited until I’d got into a good position, then came forward and passed me. There are LOTS of cruisers on this canal, they far outnumber narrowboats, and I sometimes wonder if they appreciate that narrowboats can’t turn on a sixpence like their cruisers can!  As we neared where we wanted to moor, Tony  got off to walk so as to  assess the depth for mooring but we passed through a cutting – high banks on each side and tree lined – and the horse flies were a real pain in the bum!! I had already been bitten on my foot a few days previously and it had swollen and blistered; the blister had popped so it was a sore, raw, exposed area – I didn’t want any more bites! I powered through there, in Tony’s words, like “an Exocet missile”! We rounded the corner after the cutting and managed to get into a nice mooring spot, albeit needing the gangplank, just short of Lancaster. I did get bitten again – three times – one on my forearm, one on my bum, (through my trousers!), one under my top and down my bra, in between my boobs – how on earth a horse fly got down there, I’ll never know!!!! It died for its efforts, in any case, so I hope it enjoyed its last meal!!

On Monday, 28th June, we cruised to Hest Bank, stopping briefly in Lancaster to get a bit more shopping. We passed over the Lune Aqueduct on the way, affording lovely views along the Lune Valley below. The views on reaching Hest Bank were pretty amazing – the canal is quite high up so you can see right across Morecambe Bay! Although we were planning on stopping on the way back again, we decided to have an extra evening walk down to the seafront. The tide was way out but the view was glorious.

On Tuesday, 29th, we cruised the last section of 7 miles and arrived in Tewitfield, the current end of the navigation. We met a school party canoeing on a very narrow, winding part of the canal but they were well organised and got out of the way in plenty of time.  The scenery on this last stretch is just gorgeous, right over to the Lake district and the Yorkshire Dales in the distance. Unfortunately, although Tewitfield is in this fantastic location, the basin itself is right next to the M6, and I mean right next to! Consequently, it is very noisy! We walked up to the currently disconnected, but watered, Northern Reaches – a 14 mile section of canal between Tewitfield and Kendal, which supplies the water to the current canal. It’s not navigable at the Tewitfield end; there is a trip boat that operates on the Kendal end, though. The plans are to restore this section at some stage in the future. The original 8 locks of the Tewitfield flight are still there, the water just acts as little waterfalls over the cills of the locks. We walked to just beyond the eight locks and saw a road sign on the motorway – we had walked to Cumbria, so were the furthest north we had yet been on our travels.

Having completed the entire length of the Lancaster Canal, we realised that we didn’t have as much time as we’d thought we would. It is quite slow going, being shallow and weedy in places, so it had actually taken us 6 days to reach the top. We worked out that we would be able to make some additional stops on the way back, but didn’t really have time to hang around! 

On Wednesday, 30th, then, after I walked back up to the start of the Northern Reaches with the drone, and after we topped up with water and a brief visit to the nearby farm shop, we set off for the first of our shorter days. We cruised for only 1 ½ miles and reversed into the moorings on the Capernwray Arm. This is probably one of the best, if not THE best mooring we’ve ever had! It was off towpath side, but with a footpath allowing access out, with a shady, wooded area with picnic benches. It was glorious! It was a very hot day so it was lovely to sit in the shade under the trees. It was so quiet in comparison to the roar of the M6 the day before; only the birds and a distant tractor could be heard. Sal and I went for our afternoon walk and the first part was glorious – the views were beautiful. Unfortunately it all went downhill from there. We came across a normal wooden stile, but the top step was broken and the bottom step was rickety. I had to gingerly climb into the bottom step and cock my leg over the rung, balance rather precariously on the bar whilst cocking the other leg over. Sal went round the edge. The next stile we came to, and every subsequent one, was of the thin V shaped stone stile variety, these literally had about a 6″ gap at the top, sloping down to the V at the bottom – a very skinny gap!! Now, these aren’t designed for one of, erm, ample proportions, definitely not one of ample proportions with dodgy knees! With a dog. Sal managed to squeeze through three of them, climb around one but had to be lifted over one. This meant lifting a 21kg dog over a meter up into the air, over the stile and down the other side, which isn’t easy! Bless her, I lifted her as high as I could but she was pretty much wedged in at one stage – I just lifted her back end and heaved and she went through! She’s such a trooper! Then I had to push myself up with my arms, pass one leg through, perch on the top of one of the stones, twist and pass the other leg through. The final straw was, on squeezing through the last stile, that we found ourselves in a sheep field – oh joys! Putting Sal on a really short lead, I followed the edge of the field round but couldn’t find the exit from the field! The stupid bloody sheep were gathered in a curious flock, following us all round the perimeter with me trying to keep control of a dog that would like nothing better than to “play” with them! I looked at the footpath map (should’ve done that sooner but dealing with Sal and the curious sheep was enough to be going on with!) and I was way off where I should be! And my phone was running out of battery. I knew I was close to the boat so I gave up and phoned Tony to come and find me!! It turned out that, because I’d followed the edge of the field, I’d gone one field too far – I should have crossed the first field diagonally and I would’ve seen the stile but I hadn’t wanted to walk across the field full of sheep. If I’d known they were just going to follow me like the bloody Pied Piper, it wouldn’t have made a difference and I would’ve crossed the field in the first place! So I retraced my steps and left the second field, and thankfully, I could see Tony who was talking to me on the phone trying to find out where I was!  (“Can you see the flock of sheep?” – “Yes, they’re bloody following me!”) Back at the boat, hot, tired, but relieved, a stiff gin in hand and sitting outside and all was well again. Tony repeated the walk the next morning – without the deviations – and was awed at how I’d managed the stiles the day before!

On Thursday, 1st July, we set off and cruised back to Hest Bank, mooring in a slightly different spot to the first time. We stopped at Carnforth on the way and Tony filled the Jerry can from a nearby garage, just to keep us above the halfway mark in the fuel tank – he doesn’t like us to get too low. It was during this cruise that we noticed the engine hours were 1102 – we had clocked up a thousand hours since buying the boat! We decided to have a late afternoon walk from Hest Bank as the tide was due in at 5.30 so we set off at about 4, and walked to the beach,  which is only a couple of hundred metres from the canal – the closest that a canal gets to the sea anywhere on the system. We walked along the beach on the sand which went out as far as the eye could see, but by 4.30, we could just see the sea starting to come in. We had been recommended to try a microbrewery right on the beach, so we sat outside and had a couple of excellent beers while we waited. I had “jam doughnut”  beer, having asked for something light and fruity! Delicious! We walked back to the beach to see the bay now water-filled. It still didn’t come right in, but there was definitely a lot more water! We walked back to the boat and met a couple of cyclists, Gaye from Canada and David, her friend – they were traveling, mostly on the towpaths, from Kendal to Whitstable in Kent, wild camping along the way. We charged up their battery bank and lent them our deckchairs so that they could have a comfy seat for the evening.

The next morning, Gaye asked if it would be possible to wash her face in hot water! We ran her a nice sink full and she was talking to us about owning her own boat one day. We gave them our spare BW key so that they would be able to top up their water bottles and use the showers along the way at the CRT facilities. It was lovely to meet such an interesting (and brave – or crazy?? – couple)! We set off and cruised a short distance, stopping at the Lune Aqueduct as Tony wanted to walk down to the valley below. We continued on and stopped again so that I could pop to Lidl and B&M (Turkish Delight gin and Rhubarb and Ginger gin 😂 – you gotta get ’em when you can!) then continued on to moor in Lancaster. Sal and I walked up to the Williamson Gardens in the afternoon, in which The Ashton Memorial stands, which was beautiful. The Ashton Memorial dominates the skyline to the south of the canal and it was well worth a visit to the Gardens.

Saturday, 3rd July, was forecast to be raining heavily, and indeed it did in the morning. In the afternoon, though, it cleared and all three of us walked up to Lancaster Castle, which, until only recently, was a prison! Unfortunately dogs weren’t allowed in – the very apologetic man at the entrance stating that he didn’t know why because in his experience, dogs were much less bother than most people! We did both just separately walk into the impressive courtyard entrance but had to content ourselves with walking around the perimeter. We walked down to the River Lune and Tony and Sal walked across the Millennium Footbridge. We made our way back to the canal and returned to the boat along the towpath. I then walked along to another boat to ask to borrow their fishing net – Sal had taken her expensive Yak chew bar onto the back deck and had promptly dropped it in the canal! 🙄With the aid of the inspection camera and the borrowed net, we managed to find it and fish it out! 

We left Lancaster on Sunday, 4th July, in mixed weather and cruised for about 4 ½ miles. We got moored up in Galgate and put the back cover up just in time before the rain came. We booked a table at a nearby pub for that evening, and Sal and I went for our afternoon walk to the Glasson Branch junction and a short way along the arm. We enjoyed a very good Roast in the pub in the evening, although the rain was bucketing down for the short walk there and back, and certainly an improvement on our previous roast at Worsley! Ian and Clare, from NB Aquaduck, who’d crossed with us on the 23rd June, were also in the pub and we arranged to share the locks with them down into the Glasson Branch the next day.

On Monday, 5th July, then, we all set off, Ian and Tony working the locks and Clare and I steering. It wasn’t easy going – the first couple of pounds were very shallow and weedy and it was also quite breezy! It took us just over 3 hours to work 6 locks and travel 2 ½ miles. We arrived and had a little trip around the basin and then moored up in our chosen spot. It was pretty windy and the sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat was quite loud and it soon became a bit annoying – it must’ve been to do with the direction of the wind, and therefore, water. We all had a walk round the basin, taking the footpath around the edge but unfortunately, it became impassable with overgrown vegetation and also mud! We turned back and walked up the road towards the River Lune and came to a wonderful viewpoint with virtually 360° views. We returned to the boat and the wind had dropped, so no more lapping water! 

On Tuesday, 6th, we stayed in the basin and enjoyed some more lovely walks along the river. We had heard good reports of the Lockkeepers Rest Café, but they closed at 5pm, so we had a change and ordered Fish and Chips for lunch. I visited the smokehouse and bought some lovely bacon, meats and cheeses. The evening was beautiful and still and I was lucky to capture some amazing photos of the night sky.

On Wednesday, 7th, there was very little breeze, and good for drone flying so I put the drone up and started to fly over the basin but a couple of oystercatchers took a dislike to it and kept dive bombing it! I returned it to fly over land fairly quickly so didn’t manage to get as good shots as I would’ve liked, but better that than lose it in the water! We made our way back up the 6 locks, by ourselves this time, and had planned to turn at the junction and reverse back to the water point a few meters back, but another boat had just pulled into it, so we decided to carry on. We stopped soon after in a great spot to hang out the washing but then continued on again after a couple of hours as there was a rather noisy rooster in residence nearby! We stopped at another waterpoint and finally moored up, late in the day for us, at about 6pm, at a pretty mooring we’d spotted on the way up. 

On Thursday, 8th July, we cruised for only 2 miles and stopped for lunch at a gorgeous mooring just outside Garstang – and it was so nice that we decided to stay there. We walked up to the Marinas in Garstang to find out whether they sold diesel and to see if we could replace our Waterways key, unfortunately, they sold neither. It was a lovely, still evening so I put the drone up again to get some shots of our great mooring.

On Friday, 9th, we cruised the short distance to Garstang, stopping to stock up from the supermarket, then we continued on and moored in a pleasant but, unfortunately, shallow spot. More grinding on the bottom and more of Sal being uneasy!

On Saturday, 10th, we cruised for about 5 ½ miles in total, but stopping for lunch and to buy diesel along the way, and moored just in time before the rain came. The Marina from which we bought the diesel was a quaint, old fashioned little place, run by a tiny little lady who must’ve been well into her 70’s or even 80’s – she spoke of her teenage great-grandchildren. They didn’t take debit or credit cards, but we had just about enough cash on board, fortunately, to top up the tank!

On Sunday, 11th July, we cruised and stopped at another lovely mooring we’d spotted on the way up, stopping on the way to top up with water ready for the crossing. It was forecast to be very wet on Monday, which indeed it was, so we stayed put and ventured out only for Sal’s walks.

On Tuesday, 13th July, we decided to head back to the basin at the top of the staircase locks early in the day; we had planned to arrive ready for our booked crossing on Wednesday, anyway, but we had heard that there were only two boats booked on the Ribble Link passage that day, so thought that if we got there early, they might allow us to go over a day earlier. This did turn out to be the case, so we quickly got ready for the crossing – getting the anchor set up, getting out the lifejackets etc. Within about half an hour, we were on our way. We reversed into the staircase lock with another boat, descended and made our way down Savick Brook, following the other boat. It was an easier passage than going up – there was a little more water and that made all the difference! There was one dodgy point when we had to squeeze past a fallen tree – only just! Then, as we were looking back to take a photo for the CRT guys, I nearly lost steering at a sharp corner with a lively bywash running off it, sucking us towards it. An unscheduled visit to the bushes on the side and a bit of revving and we were back on course – but without the photo. The CRT man left us to work the locks whilst he investigated the tree. We met him again at the last lock, along with the five unfortunate boaters who’d had their own adventure a couple of days previously as they were crossing – they’d missed the tide and had to go to Preston Docks. Unfortunately, they’d also missed the lock opening times so had spent the night, 5 boats lashed together, moored to the dock wall, in the rising and ebbing tide! We didn’t envy them that! They had managed to get into Savick Brook the next morning but had to moor overnight there because of the boats coming down. They were continuing up the Brook after we’d gone through. I’m sure they would have been relieved to eventually reach the Lancaster Canal! 

Once past the last lock, we had to moor up and wait for the tide, but set off at 1.30 pm, turned onto the River Ribble (giving it some welly!) and then turning at Astland Lamp onto the River Douglas. I have seen different spellings – Astland/Asland and had wondered about it but both spellings are on the signs on the lamp itself! So, I still don’t know which is correct! We didn’t rush this part of the journey, we were moving nicely against the tide and the engine was happy and not overheating, so we just took our time. Everyone seems to race on this journey, and obviously, you have to keep an eye on, and be mindful of the tides, but we decided to take it a bit easier. We arrived at the lock at Tarleton quite a way behind the other two boats, but we arrived with a much happier boat! We moored up and had a well earnt cuppa. I could easily have relaxed for the rest of the day but, of course, Sal still needed her walk, so we went off for a quick walk along the river and back along the towpath. Both were rather overgrown, the vegetation having noticeably sprouted over the last three weeks since we’d last been here! We finished the day with dinner from the chippy!

So, the Lancaster Canal has been ticked off the list. It was a very enjoyable canal to navigate, albeit a bit weedy and shallow, and with no locks other than down the Glasson Branch. The scenery was gorgeous, particularly in the northern sections and walking to the beach from Hest Bank was very memorable! I don’t know if we’ll ever return, but I’m very glad we ventured on the Ribble Link to get there!