Author's narrowboat adventure back to family roots in Todmorden

All Boats are Sinking is author Hannah Pierce’s memoir of love, life and chaos on a narrowboat. In this extract, she arrives to see family in Todmorden.

There was nothing quaint about the Rochdale Canal. The doublelocks were heavy and deep and the water shallow, with signs warning of unseen obstructions. Passing through Rochdale itself, I had to stop twice to clear rubbish from my propeller.

Though the canal was wide, there was a section where the only passage was in the centre of the channel. It required immense concentration to ensure I stayed on track. More than once I became grounded, mostly to find that I was stuck on top of a shopping trolley that had been thrown into the canal.

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The cityscape seemed never-ending as I rose up and out of Manchester, and the climb weaved through housing estates and along stretches overshadowed by factories and warehouses. By contrast to the brutal climb and the heavy industrial locks, the locals who stood and watched or helped me through were more friendly and inquisitive than on any other network I’d travelled through.

Hannah at the top of Stoodley Pike.Hannah at the top of Stoodley Pike.
Hannah at the top of Stoodley Pike.

They seemed to have no desire to rush and would interact with the warmth and intrigue that lived up to their reputation.

The urban environment continued all the way to Littleborough, where, some 30 miles and 66 locks after leaving Manchester, the landscape took a dramatic turn. After three days of cruising, I had reached the Pennines, with hills that sat directly on the edge of the canal, reflecting their heavy curves across the water, slithers of waterfalls bouncing me along as I cruised through. I passed sheep, young, but no longer lambs, grazing in the nearby hills. I stayed a few nights in Littleborough, where I moored at the base of a hill populated by alpacas, and for a few nights in Summit, named so on account of being the height of the Rochdale climb, before the canal fell again and I embarked on my final descent. My time in these locations allowed me to reacquaint myself with the countryside, breathing new life into my urban bones as I edged closer to my winter mooring.

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I found my mooring just above the last lock before the town of Todmorden. It didn’t feel very safe and I wasn’t keen on spending my winter there. I carried on cruising and tied up at the next lock landing.

Hannah Pierce on her boat.Hannah Pierce on her boat.
Hannah Pierce on her boat.

The guillotine lock in Todmorden is an unusual canal structure. Unlike any lock I had seen before, it contained a big sheet of bottle green steel that lifted up and down like a… well, a guillotine.

Before I entered the lock, I ran down to see if I could speak to someone on a boat there. I got the attention of a man with a white beard who was painting a canvas in the window of his wide beam. He came outside.

“Hi, I’m Hannah.”

“Steve,” he said with a nod.

Hannah Pierce on her boat.Hannah Pierce on her boat.
Hannah Pierce on her boat.

“I’ve got a winter mooring above the lock, but I’d rather be down here, to be honest.”

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“I don’t blame you,” he said. Steve had a Yorkshire accent that could have come straight from a bread advert.

“I don’t suppose I could ask you to move up slightly so I can squeeze in?”

“How long are you?” he asked.

“Forty-five feet.”

“Ah, a wee one. Yes, that’s no problem.”

“Great. I’ll be down shortly,” I said.

I ran back up to the boat, entered the lock and operated it alone. And finally, some six months after leaving London, under a rainbow that stretched across buildings sitting along the edge of the canal, I breathed the Yorkshire air into my lungs and descended my 357th lock at the entrance of Todmorden; the wonderful little town where my granny had been born some 104 years before, and which my brother and his family now called home.

I’d visited Todmorden a handful of times and was familiar with its quirky facade. One town along from Hebden Bridge – the Crouch End of the North (or Crouch End, the Hebden Bridge of the South), Todmorden is the modest “up-and-coming” equivalent of my old London home, where cheese and craft beer shops had popped up in recent years. Word of world-famous DJs that had played above the Golden Lion in Todmorden had reached me in London, long before I’d ever visited. The town’s brightly coloured shops and cafés with bunting that lay limp across their closed-up entrances due to the arrival of the second lockdown welcomed me with a warm glow. I didn’t know what the winter had in store for me, but I knew I was in safe hands in this town.

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As I stood on the towpath and opened the lock, I heard three pairs of feet running towards me. One small pair and two big, followed by, “Auntie Hannah!”

John ran to the canal’s edge as Ellie and Matthias called after him, Matthias pushing John’s younger sister Edith (Named, of course, after the OG badass woman… my grandmother.) in a buggy.

“Stay away from the edge!” said my brother. Little John stopped in his tracks and held out a folded-up piece of paper towards me.

“This is for you,” he said, grinning.

I opened up the handmade card that contained a cut out picture of Stoodley Pike, the local landmark that sits on top of a hill above Todmorden.

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“It’s the wizard’s finger,” he said, referring to the statue on the card.

“We’re happy you came to see us,” said the message inside the card, followed by four signatures and a picture of a boat.

“Welcome to Todmorden,” said Ellie.

“Thank you.” I was moved by the card. “I can’t believe I made it.”

“When can you start with childcare?” said Matthias, playfully.

Perfectly on cue, Edith burst into tears.

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“Don’t take it personally,” said Ellie. “The kids need feeding, so we should probably head

back. We just wanted to say hello as you arrived. John was very excited. We’re going for a walk in the

park tomorrow. Do you want to join?”

“I’d love to,” I said.

And with that, they were gone, and as the sun began to set, I squeezed into my new home for the next four months. I’d done it.

Extracted from All Boats are Sinking by Hannah Pierce, published by Summersdale. Price: £10.99.

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