Monday, 1 April 2013

The April Fools on Chat Moss! And some Barton memories

Time to take the little motorbikes for a run again today. We fancied the Astley Green Colliery Museum, and to see if we could get there and back using the dirt roads across Chat Moss. Malc lead on his Honda 50cc 2-stroke City Express step-through as he had a GPS. I followed on my Honda C90 as I had more power (well, a bit more anyway). The air temperature was only a few degrees Celsius with a bitter east wind, and I missed the heated hand grips my Suzuki Freewind motorcycle is fitted with; no such pampering on the little C90! We routed through Ashley, Dunham, and crossed the Manchester Ship Canal over Warburton high level bridge.

Warburton High Level Bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal
There is a toll of 12p to pay here; not to cross the impressive high level bridge, but to cross a tiny stone bridge over what used to be the River Mersey until that river was diverted to fill the Manchester Ship Canal. However, today the toll keeper simply waved us through.
The intention had been to cross Chat Moss from here to the museum, but Malc's Garmin GPS resolutely stuck to tarmac roads, and took us through Culcheth to the A580 East Lancashire Road, and thence to Astley Green. 

The pit head gear at Astley Green Colliery Museum
The Colliery Museum was closed but we stopped anyway for a hot drink from our flasks, and to thaw out. Directly south from the museum is a road that heads towards Astley Moss, part of the infamous Chat Moss that George Stephenson had such a problem with in laying the world's first inter city railway across it (the Liverpool to Manchester Railway) in 1830. After crossing over the Bridgewater canal we soon came to that railway, at Astley Moss level crossing where to the east, the overhead line masts for the in-progress electrification of the line could be seen in place.

Astley Moss level crossing. The gates are opened and closed by road users, but when a train is coming they are locked shut by the signalman in the adjacent 'box.

Astley Crossing signal box
The gates here are operated by road users, but only when the signal man in the 'box unlocks them electrically, which he will only do if no trains are coming along this busy line. We had to wait for an Arriva Wales unit to pass on its way to Manchester, feeling the peat bog of the moss bounce up and down as the train rushed past. 

Beyond the crossing, the road deteriorated to a dirt track, with pot holes and ridges. Eventually we turned off this onto an even more rutted track called 'Twelve Yards Road'. Movement of the peat bog had caused the pitted surface to collapse in places, yet it still had some quite harsh speed bumps!

One of the smoother sections of Twelve Yard Road across Chat Moss

It was slow progress along these dirt tracks across Chat Moss, but eventually we emerged onto the main road not far from Barton Aerodrome (now named 'Manchester City Airport'), so we headed there. Barton was my playground from the late 1970s to the end of the 1990s, when the airfield (which had been leased for many decades by Lancashire Aero Club) was sold by Manchester City Council to Peel Holdings. I'd learnt to fly at Barton in 1978, and our dH Chipmunk group was formed there the following year, of which I was a founder member. The group is still going strong, but now based at Liverpool John Lennon airport.

Back when it was our playground, Barton would have been buzzing with activity on a bank Holiday Monday. Aeroplanes queueing to take off, several in the circuit to land, queues of aeroplanes at the fuel pumps,owners busy pre-flight checking aircraft, or working on them in the hangars or on the apron, the apron itself a cacophony of aircraft engine noise as aeroplanes came and went.

Today it was dead. We saw a handful of movements in the hour or so we were there, with just a couple of aeroplanes parked on the apron. How times have changed! Where are all those keen young aviators of decades past? Where are the 2013 equivalents? Are they all at home playing flight simulator on computers and games boxes? Do they know what they missing!

 Barton Airfield in busier times

 A typical Barton event during the golden years. Our Chipmunk, in its red livery, can be seen just in front of the Antonov AN2 (the large white aeroplane).

Our Chipmunk in its blue colours at Barton in 1979, the year the group was formed. It is standing on the site where the Brian Harbett Hangar was later built.
Me in our Chipmunk 30 or more years later, At Liverpool John Lennon. The aeroplane is in its third (black) livery since the group purchased it.

What used to be the Lancs Aero Club clubhouse with its casual furnishings of scattered tables and chairs is now a smart cafe and bar. Gone are the multitude of flyers telling tall stories or taking the mickey out of each other, the nervous student pilots studying charts and checklists, some with instructors briefing them on their next lesson, or de-briefing afterwards. One couple, Saturday after Saturday, spent ages planning in detail some relatively short local flight. "How's it going", we'd ask. "What's the Target For Tonight!". All that flying fun and banter is gone. There's no aviation activity discernible here today; instead elderly and middle aged couples are ordering Roast Sunday Lunch in a hushed atmosphere from their high-backed leather upholstered chairs.

We went out to the Control Tower, where the first floor balcony forms a viewing terrace for the public. But it was cold in the biting east wind, so I nipped down to reception and phoned the guys working in the Tower. I managed to wangle us an invitation, and we climbed the external staircases to the welcome snug warmth of the big glass control room atop the tower.

The control tower at Barton Airfield - the oldest still-working control tower in the world, and now a listed building

Retired BA pilot (Vanguards, 1-11s, 737s, 747s, 767s) Malc chats to the duty AFISO (Aerodrome Flight Information Service Officer) in the Visual Control Room atop the Tower at Barton. AFISOs are a sort of half-way house between Air Traffic Controllers and Air / Ground radio operators.

A view across the almost deserted airfield from the Tower. How different it used to be!
After thanking the AFISOs for their hospitality and allowing us to eat our sandwiches in warmth of their control room, we fired up the bikes and headed home. Back over Warburton Bridge (and having to pay the toll this time), we retraced our route of this morning except at Ashley we headed down the lanes to Mobberley, where we called in at the 'Railway Inn' for a pint of their superb 'Big Tree' bitter from the local Dunham Brewery.

So we still haven't visited the Astley Green Colliery Museum. That'll be something to look forward to on another day. Hopefully, when the weather's a bit warmer.


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