Bliss Canoe Trail 1993 unsupported duo – trip report
First of all, we would like to show our support and encouragement to the three lads that undertook the “Bliss Trail” in 2017. It is a very worthwhile project and I hope it inspires people to take to our beautiful waterways.
Bliss never got around to completing the trail and it was never attempted until 1993 (which was the bicentenary year of the canal system in this country), when Dave Halsall and Steve Murgatroyd of Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Club were the first to circumnavigate the route to commemorate Bliss’ great vision.
We were entirely unsupported and self-reliant and completed the course over 25 days carrying all necessary equipment in our canoe.
Back in 1993, social media was not as it is now the event was followed in the local newspapers on TV and radio and Canoeist also carried this article below. We even went out live every other day on radio Leicester and on the Johnny Walker show on Radio 4.
Once again, we enjoyed the success of the 2017 circumnavigation.
Dave Halsall and Steve Murgatroyd
The Bliss Challenge is an 860 mile canoe journey linking the three great rivers of Great Britain the Trent, Severn and Thames by the British Waterways canal system (Canal & River Trust). The route was first proposed by a keen canoeist.
William Bliss, in the 1930s as an academic argument. He postulated that the route was the longest possible circular journey that could be undertaken using the inland waterways. Owing to its length, ardour and sections of tidal water, it has never yet been completed by anyone 60 years since its inception by Bliss. With British Waterways celebrating its canal bicentenary in 1993, there seemed no better time to try to attempt completion of the route by canoe in one unbroken journey.
Six months planning and the donation of equipment by sponsors saw Steve Murgatroyd and me waiting to leave Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham at 8pm on a warm Friday evening at the start of July. There was a lot of media interest and after re-enacting the departure for the BBC and local news papers, we kissed our families good-bye, waved to a large crowd of our friends and paddled off down the River Trent on an adventure.
Friday evening we paddled through the dark until 2am to arrive at Cromwell Lock where we set up camp. We had two fantastic head torches from Petzl which allowed us to have efficient illumination as we set up camp. The down side was that when we sat down to eat flies and moths flew into our open mouths. Cromwell Lock is the start of the tidal section of the Trent.
It was a great feeling to at last begin the journey that had taken so long to organize but this was tinged by the thought of the enormity of the job we had taken on. On the tidal section the next day we passed a grounded gravel barge, stranded by the falling tide the driver came out of his cabin to give us a cheery wave. Eventually we had to stop to have something to eat and had to wade through thigh deep mud to find some solid ground.
The next couple of days were very hot as we moved off the Trent onto the canals to Leeds and the start of the crossing of the Pennines. Each morning we would sit in the tent at 6am and slather on sun cream before getting out, having breakfast and carrying on paddling. These early days were physically the hardest as our bodies had not got used to 12 to 14 hours of canoeing everyday.
However there was always something interesting to spot around every corner; the tidal Trent was the feeding ground for a large number of herons, some of which would wait patiently until we passed, while others would take off majestically and with their languid flight go and find another area to feed in. The canals around Leeds had a distinct lack of wildlife; all scared off by the large numbers of coarse anglers lining the banks.
This section of canal were used by industrial barges and we needed to be through the area in the weekend as barge traffic would increase in the week making canoe navigation difficult. Passing a coal loading chute the operator, who was loading some barges, grinned and asked if we wanted a load. At one lock we were asked to wait before putting on the water by the lock keeper as ‘There’s a shit barge coming up behind you and he will stop for nothing!’ We had a chat with the lock keeper while we waited and he even let us work the electronic control panel in his cabin to lock the boat through. The barge was an effluent carrier and filled the canal; he entered the lock at speed with centimetres to spare on each side, banged it into reverse and stopped with precision in the lock. We were glad of the advice.
Leeds unlike many other towns and cities had taken the canal to its heart and used the area as an amenity. There were new office and housing developments that, from the canal looked superb and we were sorry that we could not stop but we had to keep up with our schedule. We stopped at Bingley, famous for its broad staircase of locks and the home of Damart. It gave us time to have a look around the imposing ‘Five Rise’ which raises the canal 60 feet; a renowned feat of engineering.
The most difficult climatic condition to canoe in is wind, especially a head wind; up to now the head wind had been a blessing, cooling us down, but at Bingley the weather turned from hot sun to showers and rain. It was difficult crossing the high moors of the Pennines, some points pulling on our paddles we were just crawling forward by centimetres. We were spurred on by the glorious views across the wild moors and our certain knowledge that the wind would be at our back soon. Little did we know that we would have to travel another 400 miles before we got rid of the headwind! Near Gargrave we encountered a narrow boat stuck in some reeds at the side of the canal. The owner shouted across through the howling wind that they could not move forward as the wind was too great and could we inform the boat ‘Blue Bird’ up ahead as they were their friends. We continued on and found Blue Bird moored about 500 metres away. We told them of their friends plight and the gent said he would walk back to offer assistance. The lady of the boat then offered us sandwiches and tea. These were quickly devoured and just as the last crumb was being picked off the plate she came out with two bowlfuls of sponge pudding and custard. Result! Our bodies were craving food all the time; so much so that when we split a packet of biscuits we counted them out equally and if there was an odd one that had to be split in half.
From the high Pennines we dropped through the mill towns of Lancashire to Wigan where we had arranged to pick up another sticker for the boat. Both Steve and I are members of Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Club based on the outskirts of the city. The canoe had two 3 meter long stickers on the back of the boat proclaiming ‘Leicester Britain’s First Enviroment City’; with the ‘n’ missing and in the rush we had not spotted the mistake. A telephone call later and a new set of stickers were duly dispatched to Wigan ‘Leicester Britain’s First Environment City’.
We had a mobile phone, the size of a house brick, that we contacted radio Leicester on to go live every other day and other local radio stations as we progressed around the country. We were helped by British Waterways who had sent a press release around the country to raise awareness of the trip.
From Wigan we canoed down through torrential rain to Manchester and the Bridgewater Canal. This was the forerunner of all modern canals as it was the first canal to be built independently of any other natural watercourses. Twenty three miles long it is linked to 46 miles of underground canals at Worsley where the water is coloured a rich ochre from the mine workings excavated around the 1760s. We spent three quarters of an hour waiting for the Barton Swing Aqueduct to close, having let a ship through on the Manchester Ship Canal. We were treated to a steaming mug of tea and a top-up of our petrol stove by a boat owner who was also waiting. This was one of many welcome kindnesses we were to encounter along the route. Another wonder of the waterways, the Barton Swing Aqueduct carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal and was built in the early 1890’s. Gates seal off the 234 ft long, 800 tonne bridge section that swings through 90 degrees over a central island to allow ocean-going ships to pass.
Out in to Cheshire, the rain finally relented enough to allow us time to fix the new stickers and to contact Radio Leicester for our regular meeting. We kept thinking that the rain would be filling the Severn which would speed our passage down to Bristol.
Contact with other boat traffic was usually quite brief but late in the afternoon we stopped at Preston Brook for a while and got chatting with a family who were just starting out on a narrow boat holiday. They were very interested in our tour, asking all sorts of questions, and were kind enough to give us a bottle of wine to help us on our way. We were drinking it in the evening when they chugged passed and we raised our mugs to them. We had just had a wash in the canal, our first for seven days, and with this, the wine and full stomachs we were soon asleep feeling all was well with the world.
In the morning we woke to the heavy beat of rain on the tent; this always meant a slower start as we could not just throw everything out for packing and we would be wet through quite quickly. In the morning, we visited another wonder of the waterways; the Anderton Lift. This amazing piece of machinery was built in 1875 to lift boats vertically 50 feet from the River Weaver to the Trent and Mersey Canal. As built, it works on two tanks of water weighing 252 tonnes, counterbalancing each other and moved by two hydraulic rams. It was closed in 1983 for safety reasons but as yet, has not been restored to its past glory. In the rain, when we passed, this ancient monument with its disembowelled innards strewn around its feet, looked a forlorn shell of its former glory.
Cheshire and England were left behind as we progressed up the Llangollen Canal to the now disused Montgomery Canal. It is said that its great scenic beauty makes the Llangollen Canal the most popular cruising canal in the country and in the summer months it can be very busy. It was the busiest canal we travelled on but as to its outstanding beauty it was much the same as any other we traversed; very beautiful and full of interest.
The Montgomery Canal fell into disuse after a breach in 1936 but parts have been restored and the guide book says that it makes an excellent cross-country walk. We had allotted a day for the 35 mile section to Newton and the start of the River Severn, but in the event we were on the Montgomery for 3 days. For most of that time we carried the canoe and all equipment along what was originally a towpath. This varied from mown grass to impenetrable scrub of trees, brambles, roses and nettles that had grown up since the canal fell into disrepair. It was a hard slog of attrition where we were lacerated, bruised and battered - us against the canal; and like dying men in the desert, we were glad when we saw open water to put the boat in.
This canal, or lack of it, gave us our lowest daily mileage of 22 miles but as well as being exasperating at times it contained more wildlife than any other canal and never failed to entertain and amaze us. As we moved along the crystal clear water we could see Ramshorn snails and water boatmen; the surface was alive with whirligig beetles and pond skaters, and the boat was regularly rocked by large carp darting away at our approach, leaving a wake like small depth charges. It will be a sad day when the Montgomery Canal is fully opened up to through boat traffic as this will all be lost and we can count ourselves privileged to have passed though this wildlife sanctuary.
At last, tired and injured all over we reached the Severn at Newtown and we were glad of a little help from the current which pushed us downstream. Along the upper sections of the Severn the Montgomery Canal and the river run parallel for some distance and it was quite ironic that some 24 hours after leaving a camping spot on the canal we passed on the river.
The Severn also meanders a lot on its upper section, as if it does not really know where it’s going, and it was galling to first paddle towards a set of radio masts, around them, past them, away from them and then towards them again. We worked out that we must have been travelling about 6 miles an hour but for 3 hours we could not get rid of the bloody masts!! Finally we left them behind but it was getting dark and the rain that had been falling over the past few hours had soaked us through. We did not know where we were; heads down we just paddled on to look for a spot to camp. Round a bend in the river we saw a large number of canoes pulled up on the bank and a campsite; that could only mean one thing Drummond Outdoor and friendly faces. As we pulled up, 15 hours after we started in the morning, wet and weary, we were greeted with a loud ‘Hello Steve and Dave!’ ‘We’ve been looking for you since we saw the write-up in the Shropshire Star’. The family Drummonds run an outdoor adventure company out of Shrewsbury and they have a camp during the summer months on the Severn. The whole team treated us like gods; plying us with mugs of tea, barbequed food and encouragement. They gave us breakfast and a packed lunch to take with us the following morning before giving us a right royal send off.
We were now only half a day off schedule but decided not to get this back in one day and risk getting exhausted but take two. The two days travel saw us paddle under the first Iron Bridge built in the world and shoot Ironbridge rapid without taking on a drop. We stopped for a much needed shower at Worcester Rowing Club and washed all our clothes; the last wash in the canal had left everything smelling of cabbage. The synthetic clothing just required a quick spin in the air to lose most of their moisture before putting them on and paddling on. By the time we were on camp, under the M50 we were back on time, washed and with clean clothes. We were living like kings! After seven days of rain it seemed to me a good idea to camp under the M50 have a dry night and dry the gear off but it did not suit Steve who is a light sleeper at the best of times. I was awoken in the night with him rummaging about in the first aid kit to find some cotton wool to stuff in his ears. He said the thump, thump, thump of the traffic above going over the expansion joint made it feel like he was sleeping on the hard shoulder!
The next day we were in Gloucester at the regional offices of British Waterways, negotiating to paddle on the Gloucester – Sharpness Ship Canal. They said that they had not had notice that we were on the way and for safety reasons would not allow us to paddle the canal. There was a local ruling that there was not to be less than three canoes in a group. It was Friday at 1pm, the local manager was off for an early weekend and our contacts at HQ were out at lunch. Eventually after some negotiation we were allowed on the canal through to Sharpness. At Sharpness the docks were large and with the wind and waves bouncing around the place we did suffer clapotis and some hairy moments.
Authorization to build the canal was given in 1793 and its construction allowed boats to bypass some of the dangerous tidal waters of the Severn estuary. This estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world and at certain times the currents can run at over 20 knots. Not wanting to confront this kind of water at Sharpness we attached a portage trolley and hauled the canoe and equipment the 25 miles to Avonmouth. It took a full day and by the time we arrived at the Avon, Steve’s feet were covered in blisters and he was walking like an old man carrying a 150lb load. We had lunch watching the second Severn bridge being built and then continued the 25 mile portage through the industrial area of Avonmouth.
We were glad to be back on the water and for the first time on the trip we had the wind at our backs! We had a hard paddle up to Bristol on an outgoing tide and after some negotiation we were allowed onto the campsite next to SS. Great Britain. The Caravan Club campsite warden came up trumps and after hearing of our journey allowed us to stay on the site for free and use all of the facilities. We were also taken pity on by the caravan owners next door who, seeing Steve hobbling around came out to ply us with food and drink. While in Bristol Steve raided the first aid kit for the second time to attend to his poor blistered feet, we had a shower and we pushed all our clothes through the washing machines and driers!
Over the next few days we travelled over the glorious Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading. There were a lot of portages and we carried the boat and equipment around the locks along the way and we had to protect Steve’s heavily bandaged feet from getting wet in the dirty canal water. We were fortunate to have a couple of strong waterproof boxes for our cameras and valuables and he used one of these Pelican boxes to great effect as a mobile stepping stone. After an interview with Radio Wiltshire we met a group of school children who had heard us on the radio and came out specially to see us walk up the Caen Hill flight of locks.
Another wonder of the waterways, the Caen Hill flight raises the canal 130 feet in a majestic sweep of 22 broad locks up to Devizes. Portaging past the many locks over the previous two weeks had made us fit and we had to keep stopping at Caen for the school group to keep up but we did not mind as it gave us a chance to chat and make new friends.
Devizes is the start of the 125 mile internationally renowned Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race which takes place every Easter. Steve and I had paddled the race four times previously so we were on familiar ground for the next few days. Just for old times sake we ran the Crofton portage but this time carrying our packs and the canoe! Normally the race is completed by doubles crews in one stage but it took us two and a half days to get down to Teddington Lock in London where the Thames becomes tidal. A day on the Thames saw us produce our best day’s mileage for the trip of 58 miles from Shiplake to Teddington.
We had been told of a campsite on Shiplake Island and with night time approaching we were glad to reach our goal for the day at the island. For the entire journey up to Shiplake we had been shown nothing but kindness and enthusiasm from everyone but at Shiplake on a near empty campsite our luck ran out and we were told in no uncertain terms to go away. To top it all Steve managed to accidentally kick his SLR camera and cassette recorder into the murky river Thames. It was one of the low spots of the whole trip.
We arrived at Teddington the following day at 11 o’clock in the evening and had an interesting chat with the lock keeper before erecting the tent and going to bed at 12.30 am. We had to be up at 5.30am to catch the tide, which was lapping at the tent door, to paddle down to Brentford to gain access to the Grand Union Canal and the homeward leg north. Moving down the Thames with the early morning mists being slowly broken by the warming sun was enchanting and quickly dispelled any hangover from a lack of sleep the night before.
Getting into Brentford Lock is tide dependent and is only open for a short period each day we were keen to get through before stopping to have breakfast and then carrying on northwards. The Grand Union Canal from London is remarkable in its natural beauty as it brings a thin ribbon of the countryside right into the heart of the capital city. We watched swans, moorhens and coots dabbling around in the water and feeding their young; and saw many plants such as purple loosestrife and tufted vetch gracing the towpath.
We were now on the homeward leg, it was sunny, we were a day ahead of schedule and people kept telling us that they had seen us in the local papers. Thanks to the British Waterway PR team, there were more people about and we were often stopped to chat for some time, especially when it was time to look for a place to stop for the night. At Boxmoor we camped, not for the first time, on concrete next to a lock. Our North Face VE25 tent was superb; it had been chosen with just this type of site in mind being a geodesic dome would free stand without pegs having to be hammered into the ground.
There was quite a lot of human traffic, both on the towpath opposite and in the express trains thundering down the mainline but the tent was pitched over the lock’s overflow drains and the white noise produced gave us a peaceful night’s sleep.
Stoke Bruerne is one of the best examples of a canal village in the country; it is the home to a waterways museum and all its attendant paraphernalia. We arrived there just as the sun broke through the clouds after a morning of heavy rain and spent a couple of hours being tourists. The whole world and its’ dad were out in the warm sunny afternoon and we presented a direct contrast, being wet, smelly and dirty. To the west of the village is Blisworth Tunnel, at 3057 yds. Is the longest navigable canal tunnel in the country. A glimpse into its’ portal is a look into a dragon’s cave; dark and menacing evil. Like the horses before us we walked over the top of the hill, the 2.5 miles to Blisworth Village where we put on the water again. When the canal was first opened in 1800 there was no tunnel and our portage followed the route of the old tramway used to move the cargoes. In 1805 there was a tunnel and the boats were legged through by special teams of men.
A right turn at Norton Junction and we were finally on the Leicester arm of the Grand Union and going home. Once we reached Foxton Locks we were on familiar paddling waters but again the weather played its usual tricks with us and soaked us through just before we reached this popular tourist site. Foxton draws the crowds; it has two linked staircases of five locks and the remnants of an inclined plane. The locks were built in 1812 and in 1900 the inclined plane was constructed to bypass the locks and save time. Like the Anderton Lift it works on a counterbalance system but the tanks carrying the barges moved sideways on a slope and not vertically up and down. The journey time was cut from 70 minutes transit time to 12 but mechanical problems, high running costs and the planned widening of the Watford flight never taking place forced its closure in 1911. We spent a few hours looking round then paddled to our night stop at Bumble Bee Lock.
The next day we paddled through Leicester to our club’s base at the Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre where we had a much need wash, met the press and then carried on to our last camp just outside Loughborough. We had just 25 more miles to go to complete the circle we had started so many paddle strokes ago.
Although we were glad to be finishing the journey there was a touch of melancholy about the last stop as we were both sad that we would be ending our adventure on the following day. This melancholy must have affected Steve as, for the first time, he burned our food to the bottom of the pan. It was all we had and as usual we were both ravenous; we ate it all, it tasted awful.
The last day started with rain, what else, but it had brightened up by mid morning by the time we paddled from the River Soar onto the Trent. All along the route we were greeted by people who had seen us on the television the previous day; they offered words of encouragement and wished us well. Buoyed up by the good wishes we sped along and would have arrived back at Holme Pierrepont too early to meet the BBC at 5pm. We stopped at Current Trends for a drink of hot chocolate and a chat for a couple of hours before putting back on the water and paddling round the corner dead on the stroke of 5pm. A few minutes of handshakes and the obligatory champagne it was time to get home and reacquaint ourselves with our families and the luxury of washing regularly.
A month later over a glass of beer, we reflected on the journey and its adventures and discussed whether we had achieved what we had set out to achieve. Yes we had completed the mammoth journey in the allotted time, yes we had raised a lot of publicity about canoeing in the UK and yes we had seen remarkable treasures, both natural and man-made, that the waterways contain. But by far the best memory and enjoyment of the whole trip was our meeting with the many interesting people along the way. We only wished we had two months to spare to complete the route, giving us more time to chat with passers-by and also spend more time appreciating the glories of our waterways.
The Bliss Challenge route is a superb long distance canoe journey that is well worth the paddle. If you can not afford the time to canoe it in one journey why not complete the route in stages in weekends and holidays like you would do when collecting the Munros?
1993 was the bi-centennial celebration of our canal system and we were the smallest, two man, and largest event that look place that year. We raised almost £5000 for Intermediate Technology and were truly indebted to our families, friends and sponsors.
During the trip we had the lowest night time temperatures recorded for 20 years and one of the wettest Julys on record. Our log noted that out of the 25 days paddling we only had 5 dry days. On two occasions we went for 7 days without a wash and on one morning discovered we had run out of toilet paper. Steve and I split the inner cardboard tube and used that to complete our ablutions. We had two arguments that lasted a minute each and laughs and chuckles that went on for days.
2017 Steve and Dave still paddle together and have canoed in Sweden and Canada. Steve is a dentist in Cornwall and Dave runs a canoeing company in South Devon. www.singingpaddles.co.uk