I can’t remember exactly how we four lads from Sheffield decided that a cruise down the Chesterfield Canal might be a good idea, but for me at least it became one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken. The boat was called the Brindley after the man who kicked off the building of this waterway in the late 18th Century and was a four-berth boat based in West Stockwith.
Brian and I had arrived first, stowed our gear and selected our berths. We had chosen the two at the back of the boat which seemed to be slightly less cosy than the two at the front. When Pete and Max arrived, we showed them to their bunks. They both looked at the double bunk and then at each other, and I thought we might have our first mutiny until Max flung an arm over Pete’s shoulders and, hugging him close, said “Aww come on Pete, you know you want to.” And planted a kiss on Pete’s cheek. We all burst out laughing and the tone was set for the rest of the cruise.
As I had booked the boat, I was nominated captain, Brian was First Mate, and Max and Pete nominated themselves cooks and deck hands. The roles thus allocated, I started the engine and took the tiller, Brian went up to the bows to fend us off, and Max and Pete untied us. Max untied the bows and jumped aboard, and Brian pushed us off. Pete untied the stern and I put the throttle in forward without waiting for him to jump aboard. Pete was left standing on the bank, tin of beer in hand, watching us swing out into the marina. There was no way I was going to try reversing to pick him up, so I yelled for him to walk along the bank until I could pick him up.
As it turned out, Pete got the best of the deal, watching my dreadful attempts to get out of the marina without hitting anything as Brian and Max rushed around the boat fending off when we got too near to other boats. We finally made it out of the marina and I somehow got the boat pulled up alongside the bank so that Pete could climb aboard.
Once out of the marina, beer was distributed, and we settled into a steady chug along the canal. Brian and I in the cockpit and Max and Pete in the bows.
I understood that one of the advantages of the Chesterfield Canal was that there weren’t too many locks in the lower section, but there were a few, and it didn’t take us long before we arrived at the first one.
Pete who has an engineering type of mind indicated that he knew the principle of how they worked, so he was nominated to get us through.
We got to a mooring just before the lock and I made a pretty good attempt at pulling alongside, unfortunately forgetting to put the boat in neutral and dragging Brian and Pete along the towpath a few yards.
Pete took up the lock keys and made an excellent job of emptying the lock and directing the boys on opening the gates. Once the gates were open, I somehow manoeuvred the boat into the lock, the boys closed the gates behind me and opened the sluices at the other end.
It is a strange experience feeling the boat rise gently as the water comes into the lock, but soon we were at the level of the water on the other side of the gates, the boys opened the gates and I steered through, remembering to pick them up at the other side.
We managed another lock soon after and were feeling almost proficient at the boating business. Brian took over the steering while I joined the lads in the bow. The weather was warm and mellow, as were we, and the countryside was lovely to watch go by. From time to time we passed walkers enjoying the towpath, but otherwise we seemed to have the canal to ourselves. We planned to make it to Gringley on the Hill, moor up there for the night and see if we could get a meal at the pub in the village.
We arrived at the first lock in Gringley at about 5.30 and, having successfully negotiated that, sailed a bit further to moor just before the next bridge. The beer was helping the chilled mood, but even though we had been drinking steadily all afternoon, apart from feeling a little sleepy, we had few ill effects from it.
We had a great night at the Blue Bell in Gringley and came back to the boat merrier than we left it. After a full day and night, we fell asleep almost as soon as we hit the bunks.
At some time in the night the beer started to do its worst. Rather than disturb my snoring companions, I decided that it would be easier all round if I went outside.
It was very late and very dark so I felt certain there wouldn’t be anyone about, but when I emerged into the cockpit, I noticed another boat tied up behind us. I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a leisure boat like ours, but a cargo boat of some kind with a small cabin at the back end. The rest of the boat was open and filled with blocks of stone. I had done some research in to the history of the canal and knew that one of its claims to fame was that it was used to transport stones from North Anston Quarry for use in building the Houses of Parliament. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see that it was still being used to haul stones. There didn’t seem to be any signs of life, but just to be on the safe side I got off the boat and stood against the hedge at the side of the towpath. Thus relieved, I climbed back on board our boat, fell back on my bunk and was instantly asleep.
We woke in the morning feeling no better than we deserved, and somewhat bleary eyed managed to perform our ablutions and prepare some breakfast for ourselves. I put the kettle on and poured myself a bowl of cornflakes and took it onto the cockpit. The boat from the night before was no longer there, so I assumed it must have left before we emerged and thought no more about it.
Once we were breakfasted and had recovered some of our wits, we chugged up to the next lock. The heavy night before took its toll and we made a hard job of it. When we had got through, we relaxed into the journey, which was mostly uneventful except for the tunnel at Drakeholes. Fortunately, we didn’t meet any other boats on the way, and we left each other to recover from our hangovers in silence.
We had intended to moor up at Clayworth and try for lunch, but by the time we found anywhere to moor, we were well out of the town, so Pete and Max rustled up some sandwiches and we ate as we travelled. It was quite late when we moored for the night at the Hop Pole just outside Retford.
That night I found I couldn’t get to sleep, so I slipped on some clothes and went for a walk along the towpath.
When we had left the pub, there had been streetlights on the road and in the houses opposite and there was the usual rumble of traffic along the road. Now I found that it was very dark and quiet indeed. We had left the pub around 11.30, and now it must have been after midnight, but even so it seemed strange that all the lights would be out. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and I walked along the towpath I noticed that another boat had moored up behind us. It was similar in design to the one I had seen the previous night in that it had a small cabin at the back and a cargo space in front. It was difficult to see what it was carrying, but it could have been coal, though with all the pits in the area now closed it seemed unlikely. I walked along a bit further and very nearly bumped into a huge horse that had been left on the towpath. It gave a little whinny and shuffled its hooves around. A figure appeared in the cockpit of the adjacent boat, carrying a candle.
“Whatsup Florry” he said and peered out into the dim light shed by his candle.
“I’m sorry” I said feeling a little foolish, “I bumped into your horse”. His only response was to get off the boat, walk over to the horse and pat its huge neck then, still ignoring me, climb back on board his boat and, taking the candle with him, disappear below. I returned to the Brindley and my bunk and fell fast asleep.
In the morning we travelled through Retford and on towards Worksop. Retford was relatively easy navigation, and apart from a stop to do some shopping at a convenient supermarket close by a few convenient pubs for lunch, we were happy to chug easily along the canal. The locks were no longer a challenge and there were so few boats on the canal that we felt completely at ease with the pace at which we were travelling. The warm weather and the journey through beautiful countryside had an extraordinarily relaxing effect.
It was all so civilized. We had even reduced our beer intake. I suspect that we realised that we couldn’t continue at the pace we had started. Perhaps we are getting too old to keep up, but personally I think it was that the pace of life had slowed so dramatically, that we could enjoy ourselves without the prop of beer to keep us going.
That night we moored in Ranby and had dinner at the Chequers by the canal.
We were at the end of day three in a week’s cruise and had to be back at the marina by 10 am on 13th June. We realised that if we were going to carry on at the gentle pace we had become used to, we needed to turn back the next day as soon as we could find a place to do it.
The canal at Ranby runs alongside the A1 which in principle makes it a less attractive place to moor, but for us city dwellers we were accustomed to the roar of traffic. Perhaps it was the traffic noise, or all that fresh air that we had been breathing up to now, but when we all came back from the pub relatively early, we went straight to our bunks fell instantly asleep and didn’t wake till early morning when the familiar road sounds roused us.
We left our mooring early, aiming to make it to a winding hole in Worksop and turn around before returning to Ranby and eating at the Chequers again. A couple of hours cruising got us through a very pretty part of the canal, leaving the A1 behind and passing through the Osberton estate. After the prettiness of the estate, the gritty industrial feel of Worksop, though reflecting the heritage of the canal, did not gel with the chilled state that we had reached. We were somewhat relieved to soon clear through the worst of the town centre and find ourselves back in an open country area where we reached our destination.
A winding hole is a wider part of the canal where an experienced boatman can easily turn a narrow boat. It took me and the boys about ten goes and much hilarity trying desperately to point the 50 foot long boat in the opposite direction. Eventually we turned her around and resumed our sedate pace back the way we came.
The journey back was as uneventful as the journey up, and by late afternoon we arrived back at our mooring again and spent a pleasant night at the Chequers before returning to our boat for a relatively early night.
The next day we travelled the short distance to Retford where we moored for the night in the marina. As we had arrived early, we used the time to stock up on provisions for our last night on the canal when we planned to eat on the boat. In the evening we found a nice pub for dinner and reminisced about the trip. I think we had all assumed that it would be an endless round of drinking at canalside pubs with a bit of cruising in between. As it turned out, there were fewer pubs than we had thought, but in any case, after a while, cruising through the beautiful Nottinghamshire countryside at walking pace was so relaxing that none of us particularly wanted to drink heavily, and were also smart enough to realise that sobriety when operating the locks was essential. Another early night.
Once again, I slept deeply through the night, and woke to birdsong and the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the boat. We had a leisurely breakfast and decided we would try to make it up to somewhere between Gringley on the Hill and Misterton before mooring.
It was late morning by the time we set off, but the journey did not involve any locks after the curiously named Whitsundaypie lock, so we made good but steady time.
We approached the Gringley top lock after a few hours of cruising and, once we had cleared that, moored just before the next lock and started to prepare our meal.
Despite our recent relative temperance, this was going to be our last night. None of us wanted to take any provisions back with us, and that included the booze! The food may have been a little overcooked in parts and undercooked in other parts, but none of us really cared. The night was a good one.
At some point in the proceedings I think I may have fallen asleep. I certainly woke up feeling a little the worse for wear and noticed that Max was also fast asleep. There was no sign of the others.
Feeling the effect of all the booze, I went outside to clear my head. I walked back towards the bridge we had moored near on our first night and noticed a strange glow in the building opposite where we had moored. A cargo boat very similar to the one I had seen earlier in the week was moored some distance from our boat, but nearer to the bridge.
Curious to see what it might be carrying, I went to look at the boat, and as I did so a man and a woman came running towards me. I could hear the woman crying and saying she was sorry.
“You’re a bloody fool Mary.” the man said
“I didn’t mean to hurt her John,” The woman said “I just wanted to make her stop seeing you. We scuffled and she slipped and caught her head on the corner of the stove.”
I didn’t hear a response from the man, but then the woman said
“Shall I fetch the constable?”
“What, and get yourself banged up, you stupid cow? No, leave it to me, I’ll deal with it. Get back to the bar before you’re missed and make sure her husband doesn’t wake up”
They both came out of the boat right in front of me, but it was as if I was invisible. They hurried away towards the bridge. I stayed by the boat, unsure what to do next. In a few minutes the man came along the towpath wheeling an old-fashioned wheelbarrow. He left the barrow on the bank and climbed aboard the boat. A moment later he emerged dragging a woman by her shoulders. He stepped off the boat and dumped the lifeless form in the barrow. He stepped back and stared at the body for some time.
I stood by spellbound. The whole thing was so dreamlike and yet more real than any dream I had ever had.
When the man started to speak, I assumed he was speaking to me, and I moved towards him to hear better.
“Bloody silly cow that wife of mine. There was no need to do this to you Norah. It wasn’t as if we was at it every day, I was just keeping you safe from the fists of that husband of yours. What a waste. Why’d she have to do this?”
He picked up the handles of the barrow and started to wheel it along the towpath in the direction of our boat. I realised he was addressing the body in the barrow but continued to follow him.
Just before he reached our boat, he turned off the towpath and headed towards the nearby building. As we approached it, I noticed that it was lit from inside by what appeared to be a huge fire. Outside the building were piles of bricks and heaps of earth. When we had moored opposite it, we had assumed it was a disused brickworks. Now it appeared anything but disused. As we got nearer to what I assumed was the kiln, I could feel the heat pouring off the building.
The man pushed the barrow close to the kiln, picked up the body of the woman and started to drag it towards the entrance to the kiln. Finally, I found my voice and shouted at him.
“Oy, what are you doing?”
He looked round but did not see me even though I was only about 3 feet behind him. I watched as he entered the building with the body. Returning to his barrow, the man wheeled it back to the towpath and headed back the way he had come.
All of this I remembered when I woke the next day in my bunk. It must, of course, have been a dream, but it was so clear and distinct that at first I could not shake the belief that it had somehow been real.
The lads made light of it, blaming the local ale for my vivid dreams, but unlike any other dream I have ever had, this one still troubles me.
The Case of the Disappearing Boatman’s Wife
This is the report of the investigation of Nottinghamshire Police Officer John Thoresby of Gringley on the Hill into the disappearance of Mrs Norah Ward from the canal boat Little John.
I was in my office at 9am and had been on duty for 2 hours when I was disturbed by a vigorous banging on the door. Upon opening it I was faced with an agitated man, very out of breath. From his clothing I took him to be a boatman.
When he had regained his breath, he introduced himself as Henry Ward, and reported that his wife was missing.
I asked Mr Ward to give me an account of the matter.
The Account of Henry Ward, Captain of Canal Boat “Little John”
We had loaded up with stone on Friday at Dog Kennel Wharf near t’ quarry at Anston. By the time we were loaded it were too late to set off, so we spent t’ night there. First thing int morning, the missus got the hoss ready and we set off. The boat was heavy and lying low in the water so the hoss had some trouble getting her started, but Ben’s a big lad and used to hauling stone, so we got going int end with a bit of help from wife pulling his bridle. Once we were moving, it were easier on him until we reached Thorpe Treble Locks, then like all locks it was stop go ‘til we reached bottom of the flight. There’s a lot of locks in that stretch so we took a while to get to Osberton where we stopped the night. The missus took harness off the hoss and put him on a stake for t’ night to let him graze and sleep, then in t’ morning she got him ready again and we were off. There aren’t so many locks on this stretch, and most were with us, so we had a good run through Retford and once we were clear of Whitsunday Pie lock Ben got the measure of the pace and we could take it easy until we came to tunnel at Drakeholes. The missus took the hoss over the top and I legged the boat through the tunnel. She were waiting on t’other side. She harnessed Ben up and when we made it to Gringley Top Lock it were about tea time. Once through that lock we moored up with a few other boats by t’ Canal Bridge. I left the missus to sort out the hoss and make my tea and I went for a beer.
I were in t’ pub for a while and it were late when I got back. I found my tea on table in the cabin but didn’t see the missus. I yelled for her, but she never came back. I was tired after a long day, so I ate my tea and went to bed. I knew the hoss was stabled and foddered in Canal Bridge stables, so I wasn’t worried. It weren’t until next morning I realised that the missus weren’t there. Because the hoss wasn’t ready I were going to be late at Stockwith and must wait to get unloaded, so I thought I might as well come up to the village to talk to the bobby
Continuing the report of Police Officer John Thoresby
Mr Ward was concerned that in the absence of his wife, he would have to hire help in, and that he couldn’t afford it. I agreed to accompany Mr Ward to his boat and make further enquiries to see if I could ascertain what had happened to his wife. At this point I did not suspect foul play, rather that his wife had left him.
I asked him if it was common for his wife not to be in the boat when he returned from the pub. He replied that it happened sometimes, but that it never bothered him so long as the horse and boat were ready to go in the morning.
We proceeded down the hill towards Middle Bridge. We crossed the bridge and found the “Little John” moored against the tow path on the north side of the canal, close to the Canal Bridge Public House. I asked Mr Ward if I may go aboard to take a look around the boat. He agreed and I entered the cabin. As is the way with these working boats, the accommodation is cramped, but tidy. There is barely room enough for one person, let alone two or in some cases five or six if there are children. Looking around, I noticed a damp patch on the floor of the cabin. I called to Mr Ward and asked him if he was aware of what it was. He denied all knowledge of it. I bent down to take a closer look and ran a finger through the substance. It was sticky to the touch and somewhat viscous. I came out of the cabin to look at what was on my finger in the daylight and observed that it looked very like blood.
I asked Mr Ward again if he knew what the substance was and how it got there, and he denied all knowledge of it. I was now suspicious of foul play and decided to detain Mr Ward while I continued my investigations. I accompanied Mr Ward along the canal until we reached West Stockwith where I placed him in the custody of the constable who put him in the lock up. I returned to Gringley later in the afternoon and went to the Canal Bridge pub to interview the landlord, Mr John Dixon.
I found Mr Dixon in the stables replenishing the fodder in the mangers. I told him that Mrs Ward had been reported missing and that I was making investigations as to her whereabouts. I also told him that I had detained Mr Ward until I could establish his innocence. Mr Dixon expressed anger that he still had Mr Ward’s horse in the stables and that Mr Ward had not paid him for the stabling. He asked how he was to be reimbursed for the cost of stabling him for another night.
I asked Mr Dixon to give me an account of all that he could recall that happened from about tea time on the previous night.
The Account of John Dixon, Landlord of The Canal Bridge.
I know Henry Ward. He usually stops off at my pub on his way through to Stockwith and if he’s late getting away, on the way back too. He likes a drink does Henry. Well they all do, but Henry more than most. Anyway, last night he turned up along with a few other lads from the boats and joined my regulars from the canalside. Joe Barrowcliff, a local boatman, was in with his brother Bill. Bill runs the brickworks along by Shaw Lock. It was early for a lot of my regulars, so it was not very busy. I left my wife Mary to look after the bar while I tended to the horses.
I was in the stables when Norah brought the horse in. She seemed much the same as usual. Henry doesn’t treat her well. Knocks her about a bit, and a lot when he’s drunk. He treats his horse better than he does Norah. She usually stays out of the way when he’s here. She’ll bring the horse in to the stable, then go back to make his tea while he’s in the pub, then she’ll sometimes come back here to sleep in the hay loft. She didn’t come back that night.
By the time I got back into the bar it was full dark outside and Willy Antcliff the lockkeeper was in. Henry must have sunk a good few pints. He was having a row with Willy over some issue about the time Willy had taken to open the lock for him. I could see trouble brewing and stepped in before Willy took a swing at him. It wouldn’t have been the first time that Henry had started a fight, but he wasn’t usually in a good condition to finish it. Willy Antcliff could be handy with his fists if he wanted to be and I could see Henry taking a pasting and regretting it in the morning, so I stepped in and calmed things down. Willy’s a reasonable man and must deal with the boatmen that come through his lock on a regular basis, so he was easy to appease with a free pint. Henry stayed for a few more drinks, then passed out.
Once I’d shooed the rest of the customers off to their beds, I left Henry in the bar asleep while I went out to check on the stables. When I got back, Henry was still sleeping so I woke him and sent him off to his boat. I tidied up the bar and went to bed myself. I got up at dawn to go down to the stables and check on the horses. Norah wasn’t there, but the horse was. That was unusual, but I didn’t bother too much until about 10 in the morning when I needed to muck out the stables.
Continuing the Report of Police Officer John Thoresby
I determined to interview Joe and Bill Barrowcliff for their accounts of the events of the previous night, and so made my way down the canal towards Shaw Lock where Bill Barrowcliff had his brickworks.
Having been appointed Police Officer to Gringley on the Hill only recently, I do not know the villagers along the canal as well as those at the top of the hill. The villagers that live and work along and below the canal tend to be industrial types, or farm the poor marsh land, whereas those at the top of the village are Gentlemen or follow the cleaner trades such as shoemaking.
I understand the Barrowcliff family to be an industrious family who, while not Gentlemen, have been relatively successful in the businesses of brickmaking and farming. They have some education and can read and write.
I found Mr William Barrowcliff at his brickworks and asked him to give an account of his and his brother’s time in the Canal Bridge on the previous night.
The Account of William Barrowcliff
My brother Joe and me go into the pub on the canalside most days early doors before our tea. Sometimes Joe is on his way to somewhere in the boat and then I go in on my own. I know most of the folk around here, and there is usually a bit of banter at that time. I know Henry Ward from the pub because his run with the stones usually gets him here at least once a week. I don’t like him much. He likes to use his fists when he’s drunk and mostly on that pretty wife of his. I don’t know why she stays with him. She keeps out of his way when the Little John is moored up here because she knows she will get a beating when he gets back from the pub. He used to go looking for her but now doesn’t bother. She is always back by morning with the horse all harnessed up ready to go.
If she wasn’t there this morning, then she has probably run off. I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know where she would go though. She wouldn’t stay at the Canal Bridge; John’s wife wouldn’t allow that. Last night when we came in John and Mary Dixon were behind the bar. Soon after we got there, Henry Ward turned up and John went to the stables. You should ask him about Norah. He would have seen her in the stables. Joe and I were talking, and after Ward had got his drink, he started to come over to us. Like I said, I don’t like him, so I try to avoid him. We Just picked up our drinks and moved to a table in the corner. He didn’t follow us. He just sat in another corner and necked one drink after another like he usually does. A bit later Willy Antcliff came in and Ward started off at him about some delay at the lock earlier. Willy is pretty handy and a big lad, so that scrap wasn’t going to end well for Ward, but just as it was getting interesting John Dixon came in and stopped the fight before it started.
John took over the bar then. We stayed for another couple and then went back to our wives and our tea. I don’t know what time Ward left. He was still there when we left. We never saw Norah again that night, though we passed the Little John. She’s a nice lass. Too nice to be with that man, so maybe she’s left him for someone else. I reckon John would know more about that. She was always very pally with him when I’ve seen them together. He used to let her sleep in the hayloft.
Continuing the Report of John Thoresby
Willy Antcliff has been lockkeeper in Gringley for as long as I have been here, and for a long time before. I know him well. He is an accomplished bricklayer and is in demand when his lock keeping duties allow. I have always found him honest and he is generally well respected by villagers and boatmen alike. When I arrived at the lock, he was busy seeing a boat upstream, but once he had gotten the boat on its way, he invited me into his cottage, bade me sit down and offered me a cup of tea.
He is a man of few words and those he speaks are usually to the point. I asked him to tell me what he remembered of the previous night in the Canal Bridge.
The Account of William Antcliff, lockkeeper
I never had much time for Henry Ward. He is too fond of his beer. He was well into his cups by the time I arrived. I usually avoid him when he is like that, because he likes to fight. So it was last night. He decided to pick a fight with me saying I was too slow letting him through the lock. I told him he wasn’t going to get special treatment, but he wasn’t having any of it. He grabbed my arm and started pushing me about. I admit I was about to put him right when John Dixon came into the bar and got between us.
John’s a decent man and gave me a pint on the house and led Ward to a corner seat away from everyone else, where he sat and drank. John then took over the running of the bar from his wife Mary. I didn’t see Norah Ward all evening, although she had seemed alright when she had led the horse through the lock earlier.
I’m not one to trade in rumours, and normally I wouldn’t say anything but if it might help find out what has happened to her, I can tell you that John did say once in confidence that he had visited her in the hayloft on more than one occasion.
Continuing the Report of Police Officer John Thoresby
I thanked Willy for his hospitality and walked back down the canal towards the Canal Bridge.
As I approached the pub, I saw John Dixon coming out of his butchery. I hailed him and asked him if I could speak to him. I told him that I had heard that he had been intimate with Norah Ward on several occasions and asked him if this was true. He admitted that he and Norah Ward had been “quite friendly” and had spent a bit of time together when the Little John moored up by the pub.
I asked him if he had seen her on the night she went missing. He admitted that he had seen her in the stables when she brought her horse in, but that she had not come back from the boat after making Ward’s tea. I also asked him if he thought that Henry Ward might know that he was intimate with his wife. He said he didn’t think so as Mr Ward was usually too drunk to notice anything, but if he did, he wouldn’t like to think what he might do to Norah.
I had sent along the canal and into the nearby villages for information relating to any sightings of Mrs Ward, but no one had seen any sign of her. I felt that it was improbable that she could have run away and disappeared without trace, so I concluded that with the blood in the cabin of the boat, and the evidence provided by the witnesses, she had been the victim of foul play at the hands of her husband. I therefore determined to walk to West Stockwith and charge Mr Ward with her murder.
Mr Ward was brought to trial at Nottingham Assizes and found guilty by a jury of his peers. He was sentenced to death by hanging. The body of Mrs Ward has never been found.