Monday, July 04, 2011

Canal Cycle: Crooke to Leigh 20 miles

For a few years now the Leigh Branch page on www.towpathtreks.co.uk has been empty. This was because I had not been along it to take any photographs to put on there. It had always been my plan to cycle the 7 miles of this branch, and this weekend I did just that. The Leigh Branch links the mainline of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Wigan directly to the rest of the national canal network at Leigh where it meets the Bridgewater Canal head-on.  

I drove to the canal with the bike on the back of the car. I am worrying less and less about it falling off and causing a horrific car crash and maybe worse scratching my paintwork. I parked on the road by the Crooke Hall Inn pub. There were preparations being made for some sort of village fair. The Leeds & Liverpool Canal Short Boat Kennet was in town for the day too. An added bonus. 

Trencherfield Mill, Wigan

With my bike off the car and loaded with water and wine gums I set off to Wigan. I had a look for the 33 mile post but the undergrowth was too thick to see it. At Pagefield Lock the towpath improves dramatically and is nicely paved. I soon arrived at Wigan Pier, some care has to be taken on the cobbles there. Going towards Leeds at Pottery Changeline Bridge it is possible to stay on your bike, coming the other way most cyclists will have to dismount to negotiate the tight turn and slope. Already there were a few boats about, out enjoying the glorious weather. Henhurst Bridge #52 has been replaced since I was last in Wigan, it looks good as they have tried to give it some of the style you see on other canal bridges while still being a modern concrete bridge. I took a quick photo of milepost 35 and set off to the junction.

The bridge which takes the towpath from the mainline over to the Leigh Branch is a modern footbridge. On the mainline side there is a ramp up to the bridge. On the Leigh side it is a series of long steps. Something I didn't notice, too busy looking at the sign post there. Luckily I had hold of the handle bars albeit by the bar-ends and after a bit of a panicky wobble I found the brakes and slowed down to go down the rest of the steps at a more suitable speed. 
anti-vehicle gate

Due to the subsidence in the area caused by coal mining most of the bridges on the Leigh Branch are relatively new or have been altered. No nice old stone bridges here. Along the Leigh Branch there are some anti-vehicle gates, which while only being a pain for cyclists must effectively ban wheelchair users from the towpath. The towpath is excellent here. I was doing my usual road speed along the towpath, passing boats going through the locks. 

Scotman's Flash
Scotman's Flash is an impressive sight. These flashes or lakes are caused by the land sinking after mining. Scotman's Flash is the largest and was being used by canoeists and yachts as I passed. The towpath and canal are up above the flashes on what now looks like an embankment. It is a popular area for bird watchers, cyclists, dog walkers and fishermen. 

anti-vehicle gate
At Moss Bridge the towpath switches sides. Something that may catch out some as there is a path on both sides for a while. Luckily I had done my homework and was expecting this change over. There is another anti-vehicle gate before Moss Bridge. A little further on the towpath switches sides again at Bamfurlong Bridge which is not a bike friendly bridge. At the Dover Lock Inn there are the remains of two locks. These were replaced by locks in Wigan when subsidence changed the levels . The pub looks quite nice so I will have to return one day to review it. The towpath here looks like it is in the middle of being upgraded. It could be a very good cycle path one day. 
Cabin Cruiser and Converted Lifeboat
Towards Leigh I saw a converted lifeboat that I have seen in Salthouse Dock in Liverpool and more recently at Burscough for their Canal heritage Week. I passed by the famous Plank Lane lift bridge. The area has seen a lot of work in recent times. The Britannia pub has now been demolished and the lift bridge looks either new or refurbished. There is a wide area of water next to the lift bridge which is going to be a marina. At the moment there are no pontoons though, and no obvious way of getting to the water from the bank.  Good to see some development on a stretch of canal that has in the past had a bit of a reputation. 

In the Leigh the sun was still shining brightly. The Waterside Inn was busy with people sat outside drinking. There were a few boats moored there too. While I had a breather and did some tweeting a day hire boat pulled up and a group of studenty types got off. They had got lucky with the weather and I forgave them calling a heron a stork. 

Leigh used to have a couple more canal pubs, the Ellesmere and the Bridge Inn. The Ellesmere is now a shop or clubhouse of Leigh Centurian's rugby club. The town is a rugby town, Leigh RMI RIP. The Bridge Inn gets a good review in my canal guide but is now closed and doesnt look much like reopening ever. 
the Ellesmere

the Bridge Inn
After a quick refuelling of Lucozade and a Marathon (Snickers) I headed back to Wigan. The ride back went well. I didn't feel as tired as I have on some of my usual morning rides in Liverpool. I was however suffering from not having any sun screen on. This left me with white hands and red arms. There was a slight wobble on the towpath that reminded me how close to the water I was, and politeness almost saw me and a fellow cyclist have an embarrassing crash. He was coming the other way and we both left the narrow path to allow the other to pass. In both giving way we both ended up heading towards each other, luckily we sorted ourselves out before we got too close. 

Back in Wigan I saw a headless mill worker, not a ghost but a vandalised statue. Its a shame that some locals have done their best to spoil the recent improvements to the area.
I like the lock keepers house in Wigan, by the bottom lock of the Wigan Flight. It is dwarfed by the huge Trencherfield Mill behind it but looks nice and unaltered. I can remember mooring outside it in 1983.

There are some new flats near Wigan Pier. The area is improving still. It is a world away from what it once was. I hope it can keep the progress up and doesn't slip back. It certainly seemed a popular place for people of Wigan to hand out.

I left Wigan and went back to Crooke. As I approached Crooke Hall Inn I could hear the sound of live electric guitar. Arriving back at the car I found the village fair in full swing. There was a band on and stalls and rides etc. It was all a bit warm for me to enjoy it though. Had I not had the car or bike with me I might have had a quick pint in the Crooke Hall Inn. But as it was I just strapped the bike back up on the car and had a quick wander down to the Kennet with the last of my water and another Snickers (Marathon). On Kennet I said hello to Mike "Mr Leeds & Liverpool Canal" Clarke. He has written every book worth reading on the subject. One day I will find something he doesn't know. 

All in all I would recommend the Leigh Branch to cyclists. If they continue to improve the towpath it will be an excellent ride. I would consider doing a ride from Wigan to Manchester sometime.
Kennet and other boats at Crooke

Ambush and Viktoria

As soon as I can I will get the photographs from my ride on the Leigh Branch Page of towpathtreks. It can take a while to get all the info on there. But they will be here asap: http://www.towpathtreks.co.uk/LLC/leigh_branch.html

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