Pick-a-Pock or two ….

Rarely do I come across a vision that is both new and enthralling.  It happens, certainly if I am in a new place I can often stumble upon a view, a building, an animal or just a ‘thing’ that catches my attention and brings forth the much vaunted ‘Wow’ expression.  Last week I had the opportunity to see something which few folks ever get to see – a set of four canal lock gates being hoisted from their sodden sockets for the first time in ‘quite a long time’ !

Lock gates lifted skyward

Lock gate hoisted from its resting place at Thornton lock on the Pocklington canal in North Yorkshire.

For six weeks I have been alongside veteran soldiers and airmen on the second Help for Heroes/Canal & River Trust project restoring a lovely stretch of canal near the Yorkshire town of Pocklington.  The canal is quite a short waterway which was built at the end of the great Canal Mania period of the early nineteenth century,  in a short three year period starting in the year of the great Battle of Waterloo.  Over its nine and a half miles the canal required nine locks and four rather special road bridges as well as seven swing bridges.  I was surprised to find that the height gain was so much in a landscape as flat as any I have ever encountered.  Mile upon mile of huge arable fields and long straight roads with only the occasional winding lane.  The idea of the canal was to join the small market town with the river Derwent and hence the rest of the waterway network.

Pocklington Canal east of York.

The Pocklington Canal is a stunning nine-mile corridor of unspoiled nature – and it’s a flat walk !

Like all canals it was built to carry heavy goods and in this case it was coal, lime and stone on the inward journey toward the town and farm produce on the outward trip.  The canal was beset with problems not least of which was the failure to actually reach the town – barred by the York to Hull toll road.  The amount of water to fill a lock is astonishing and the fact that there were so many to fill on the inward journey was a major issue; there was not enough flowing down from the Wolds which rise to the north.  No doubt the porosity of the local geology was a major factor.  However, the demise of the canal came in the end from the arrival of the railway.

Pocklington canal head

Canal Head – the beginning (or end) of the Pocklington canal. The old warehouse is now a private house and the deep still water is an angler’s dream.

The last working boat stopped in 1932 and since then nature has been in charge.  The waterway became clogged with weed and reed and the engineering crumbled.  Lock gates rotted  and sluices seized up.  Not only was the waterway a target for nature but the bank-sides and adjoining fields gradually evolved too such that the majority of the whole environment is today a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The end of the 1960s saw a nationwide movement to try to restore canals as amenity waterways and in 1969 the local people formed the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society (PCAS).  In addition to the quality of the natural resource the ‘built environment’ of the canal, its locks and bridges, have been recognised with the attribution of Listed status to protect them.

Church Bridge on the Pocklington canal.

Church Bridge is Grade 2 listed and you can see why – it is a classic example of “if we are going to build a bridge lets make it beautiful”.

Fast forward to September 2016 and I find myself involved with some super Heroes engaged in the restoration work.  The two year project is attempting to bring new challenges and thereby progress the recovery of our sick and injured service men and women.  Early this year I found myself on the Stroudwater Navigation with some other guys and next year two more groups of ex-service folk will get the chance to enjoy similar work on two other canals.  This time we got stuck into creating a nature trail and build a ‘dipping platform’ on a small pond next to the canal basin at Melbourne and get down and dirty in the Thornton lock.  For various reasons I am restricted to what I can write about the involvement of my wonder team, but believe me when I say it has been a huge honour and such a life enhancing opportunity to be alongside them.  The funding for the project comes from the People’s Post Code Lottery (PPL) and I want to thank all of you who buy those tickets – it is probably the best use of your money, believe me !

That area of North Yorkshire is not a place I would ever have thought of visiting, it is very much overshadowed by the Dales and the Moors (as you will see in earlier posts) but the flat-lands east of York, not least the Pocklington canal and the wonderful Wolds a few miles to the north, is as worthy of lauding as those better known geographies. We were accommodated at the nearby Yorkway Motel where Mike and Julia and their wonderful staff went beyond the call of duty to make the veterans feel important, respected and admired.  Every one of us came away somewhat heavier !

On my final weekend I finally got to see a building that has been another in bold on my bucket list.  From afar, not least from the Wolds, a huge edifice rises on the horizon.  The tower of York Minster needs to be seen from a distance to appreciate just how much it dominates the horizon, but then, go see it !

York Minister

York Minster defies my ability to describe it. Lets just agree it is big and unfathomable. “How did they do it?” was my most uttered remark.

All great medieval buildings leave me scratching my head, the stone work is totally magnificent and the design of each section, each carved stone, each archway is quite the most beautiful thing.  I cannot begin to imagine the mind-set of the original builders who knew full well they would never get to see it completed.  The height alone of the the nave and transept beggars belief, in an age of wooden scaffolding and blocks and tackle.  I found myself wondering how many men must have fallen to their end from the rickety structures. Goodness me it is a sight to behold.  The basement or crypt is open to view and there are the massive foundation pillars – some had to be shored up with that most modern of material, concrete, to stop the whole massive tower collapsing !  Apparently the Roman foundations on which it was built were not up to scratch …

Several folk had told me I should definitely go up the tower if I visited.  I wasn’t at all sure my level of fitness was up to the challenge but, along with my much younger soldier colleague, decided it had to be done.  It is, after all,only 275 steps !  Organised ascents have superceded the days of free upward and downward movement.  How on earth that ever worked is beyond me, there is no room on the tight spiral stairs to pass, I was jammed in like a sausage in a tin, brushing both shoulders on the side walls as I slowly went skyward.  These days tickets are bought and a limited number of folk are allowed on each ascent.  A slow panting line of multi-national tourists rhythmically tramped their way to the top.  It took about five minutes or so and I managed it with only a couple of breath-gathering halts.  I did wonder how the hell they’d have gotten me out if my old ticker had decided it had come to the end of its beating life !  Maybe they would just wall me into the sides and let me decompose slowly  …

York Minister tower view

View from the top – the great tower of York Minster is a demanding ascent but well worth the effort. The view of the front bell towers and the city below.

Once at the top – a caged in square walk-around viewing platform – the reward is astonishing.  Views out to the Wolds, the Dales and southwards to the great cooling towers of the power stations along the Humber hold the now recovered breath.  The’Shambles’ is clearly seen for what it is far below and a little hut in which sits a lady who monitors and counts the folk on each ascent and sells you a badge which proudly states “I got to the Top of York Minster – my young ‘carer’ bought me one, I think he was as chuffed (and astonished !) as I was that I had made it.

The Shambles of york

The ‘Shambles’ of York seen from the top of the Minster tower – it is what it says it is !

The descent, whilst easier,was nonetheless another exercise in determined effort.  Squeezed into the narrow spiral staircase is somewhat claustrophobic and the narrow steps invite a slip, especially when one stands in size 12 boots !  I found the easiest way was to go down slightly sideways so that the whole of one boot was on a step and by jamming my shoulders against the outer walls I almost slid down.  Two Yorkshire lasses of mature years had got to the top with delighted glee but had to sit for quite a while.  They asked my young colleague where the way down was; they were absolutely disbelieving when he told them it was down the same way ! They really thought he was joking and went looking for the lift ….

The whole visit was capped by the wondrous sound of the great organ and choir singing at Evensong.  What a way to enjoy York Minster.  I was saddened to hear that they have sacked the team of bell ringers, the sound of the bells out over the city is a great part of the heritage, what are they doing !?

These two marvellous photographs were taken my young ‘assistant’, one J. Robson Esq., and they are so good I had to include them (with his permission). I reckon he should stay on that platform all day and take photos of the folks as they ascend and sell to them, don’t you agree ?

Of course York is also a modern city and as such a Saturday afternoon sees it alive with young men and women out for a good time.  The mix of loud, scantily clad lasses, loud scantily clad lads, both on pre-nuptial outings and the well wrapped tourist from hot Asian countries – and several hundreds from cold U.S.A. – was, shall we say,interesting ! As the day wore on and early evening descended, walking a straight line became pretty much impossible; my old side-stepping skills came to the fore as I aimed myself in the direction of the next way-marker.  We eventually jumped aboard the double-decker bus which was to return us to the little town.  My colleague, being young and fit and exceedingly personable and it being a Saturday night, decided he would stay and enjoy the pleasures of the pubs and bars of that country town.  I got a taxi back to the motel and was slightly concerned how he would get back later on as taxis were few and far between.  The next morning at breakfast he regaled us with his stories of daring do amongst the young ladies of the area.  “How did you get back?” I enquired.  It transpired that at about half past midnight he came out of a pub and feeling somewhat peckish and very unlike taking a two mile walk back, he went into the local oriental fast food house. “Do you do home deliveries?” he enquired, when the owner said yes he promptly ordered a rather large meal and asked for it to be delivered to the Yorkway motel “And can you take me too?” ….. initiative personified I say !

A very enjoyable if somewhat energy sapping six weeks in that beautiful part of England, where the sun shone on us every day, and folk were right good to us !  Now it’s back to good old wet Wales where the remnants of that hurricane Malcolm is sure to arrive.  Never mind, I’ve not a great deal to get done, well except for sorting a museum and unpacking ten hundred boxes !  There are a few sojourns not yet reported to you which I undertook halfway through the six weeks and a short time prior.  Plenty to keep Welshwaller in your thoughts no doubt !

Scott Pierce's stone at Melbourne basin on the Pocklington canal.

A stone carved by a fine craftsman apprentice working with Historic Scotland. A man of high calibre in uniform and in overalls. A man who, every weekend, undertook a 1000 mile round trip to return home and back to us again. A Heritage Hero if ever there was one. Scott Pierce is going to do my tombstone, he’s that good !






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