It’s hard to believe, but more than three years have flown by since the fateful day I first met up with Eric Owen on the banks of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal.
What an eventful and ultimately fruitful period it has turned out to be. The only sad note is that Jimmy Ridley a lifelong friend of Eric Owen and who worked collaboratively with Little Britain, sadly passed away last year.
For those of you who don't know the canal, here's a brief history. It was constructed between 1791 and 1808, primarily to carry coal although there was a healthy passenger service from Bolton through to Manchester. That journey took roughly three hours back then, not dissimilar to a car journey today on a bad traffic Friday. Decline started in the 1920s with the closure of some local collieries. Catastrophe struck in 1936 with a breach near Prestolee. This breach was never repaired. The last coal boat finally abandoned trade on what remained of the navigation back in 1968.
Many of us have our favourite inspiring movies. Eric's happens to be the 'Shawshank Redemption'. For those of you who don't know the story, the central character is a young banker, Andy Dufresne. It turns out Andy was wrongly imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit. After decades of tunnelling away with a rock hammer, he manages to escape; in the process exacting sweet revenge on the prison warden who denied him the opportunity of rightful release some years earlier. When in need of inspiration, it is said Eric watches that movie at least once a month or perhaps more frequently, who knows? The film serves not only as an accurate analogy to the challenges of restoring the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal but perhaps for the occasional unfairness of life itself.
Clearing the duckweed
When Little Britain started out on the canal, it was essentially unfishable except perhaps briefly in the winter months. Duckweed has been a major issue. With typical northern ingenuity, the Little Britain team went out and developed a solution which is keeping the worst of the floating nightmare at bay. When I last visited with ace photographer and recent club recruit Frank Shenton, the Royal Oak section was comfortably fishable for the first summer in perhaps 30 years.
Increasing the water flow
Despite my meet up with Frank coinciding with heavy Lancastrian precipitation, this summer has seen some worryingly low water levels on the canal. The fish population at the Ladyshore end of the canal was at risk as the canal started to slowly dry up. The team set to work improving the flow directly to the canal and reducing the amount of water gushing directly from the Elton Reservoir feeder into the River Irwell. It's not just keen anglers who have been getting involved. Several non-fisherfolk made up part of a volunteer force of approaching 20 at one recent working party.
Health and wellbeing. Getting more folk fishing the canal
Led by our national angling development manager, Peter Henery, we've held several Let's Fish! events with Little Britain. The early spring event was the stuff of nightmares, not a fish caught. But in true Shawshank spirit, the lads upped their game and with a little help form nature, (the fish having migrated back into the fishable section) there were much better results on subsequent Let's Fish events held at the Royal Oak and on the Rochdale Canal at the Hopwood Arms.
It's encouraging to report that local political dignitaries have been suitably impressed with the impact the club has already had reaching out within the community. There are more events coming up this Autumn so it's not too late to book on.
The club has applied for and been awarded several level one coaching bursaries, some of these awarded in partnership with the Trust, others off their own back. This Autumn sees 10 enthusiastic volunteers enrol on their inaugural training. With a strong level two candidate in the pipeline and canal coaching development training programme pencilled in for the spring of 2019, the club will be fully self-sufficient and be able to independently run its own extensive participation programme next year as part of the Trust's Let's Fish campaign.
Voluntary Bailiffing Service (VBS)
Undoubtedly one of the success stories of the Angling Trust and masterminded locally by the hard-working proactive Dave Lees, the Little Britain team have found the time to become active participants in this excellent initiative. Numerous pollution and other environmental crimes have been brought to the attention of both the Trust and the Environment Agency.
Junior championship participation
One major success of the Trust's 2018 Let's Fish initiative has been the numbers of youngsters signed up to compete in the junior and youth canal championships, nearly 80 at the last account. As expected of any proactive club, Little Britain will be represented with at least two junior club members already booked in. Who would bet against them travelling back to the north west with a decent overall placing?
Restoration opportunities ahead
It will take a super human effort by all those who desire to see the canal fully or even partially restored to move things forward. Co-operative working and close collaboration with partners such as the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal Society are the name of the game with the sorts of projects.
The delivery of community involvement through the likes of the Let's Fish has a huge role to play in demonstrating the restoration need. If I were a betting man, I might be tempted wager a fiver on the canal being partially restored by 2030. I can picture Eric Owen cutting that ribbon now.
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