Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article By Mills and Dales is the copyright of Jim Shead - A trip on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. First published in Waterways World September 2000.
By Mills and Dales
"The canal is closed until further notice," said the Bridge Keeper at Plank Lane, "There's been a landslide near Chorley". We had just left the Bridgewater Canal and now, on the Leeds & Liverpool Leigh Branch, were back on British Waterways' waters, however our planned trip to Leeds seemed to be in some doubt. The Bridge Keeper could give us no indication of when the canal might be reopened nor, when we arrived at Wigan, could the BW Office there. Returning from the BW Office to our boat, moored at the bottom of the Wigan Flight, I was encouraged to find a boat coming out of the bottom lock that had actually passed the obstruction, situated about eight miles beyond the top lock.
We started up the 21 locks in the hope that we too could pass through the section of canal still officially closed. Working the Wigan flight is slower now than in previous years as the gate paddles on the top gates have all been padlocked to prevent them being used by boaters. BW is taking this action across the country following a fatal accident on the canal in 1998. It is proposed that baffles be fitted to the paddles before they are returned to use. We were fortunate to have the help of two Lock Keepers. They have keys to the padlocked gate paddles and could use them to speed our progress, enabling us to reach the top in just under four hours. The climb up from Wigan centre takes us out of the town, the top lock being at the very edge of open countryside and providing good overnight moorings.
The next six or seven miles to Chorley take us through pleasant countryside. On the way we pass the White Bear Marina, providing comprehensive services to the boater, followed shortly by L&L Cruisers, the most westerly hire base on the canal. Chorley is largely hidden from our view behind the garden hedges on our left. Shortly after this we faced the moment of truth as we arrived at the "CANAL CLOSED" notice and rang the BW Burnley Office on the telephone number given. They said that narrowboats should be able to get through the channel on the left of the canal and that if we had any trouble we should ring them again. As we slowly proceeded a BW man appeared from the workboat moored by the obstruction to see us safely through.
Less than half a mile from the blockage we arrived at the seven Johnson's Hill Locks. If fact the remaining locks on the Lancashire side of the canal are all at sixes and sevens, the next ones being a flight of six at Blackburn and seven at Barrowford. From the top of the Johnson's Hill Locks we have five miles of open country before we reach the two miles of suburbs that take us into Blackburn. It was as I approached these suburbs that I spotted a stoat running along the towpath, frantically trying to find a gap in the concrete slab fence so that it could escape from view.
We ascended the Blackburn Locks in the rain and were reminded by the Lock Keeper that the wet Lancashire weather was the reason for the town's existence. The damp climate was ideal for cotton spinning. The Pennines, which divides the climate of the wet west from the drier east, also divided the industries Lancashire cotton from Yorkshire wool. We may have lost our textile industry but the towns and the weather live on.
The sixteen miles between Blackburn and Burnley typify the mix of rural, industrial and residential use, co-existing side by side, that is such a distinctive feature of many parts of the north. The entrance to Burnley is heralded by the new BW facilities at Rose Grove, which for the last two years have replaced those at the old BW yard two miles further on. Once through the 559 yard Gannow Tunnel and having crossed the aqueduct that takes us over the M65 we soon pass the Weavers' Triangle where much from the industrial past of the town is preserved. Seven miles on we come to Barrowford Locks, which form the gateway to around thirty miles of magnificent scenery.
Fouridge Tunnel, 1640 yards long, is controlled by traffic lights, which allow boats from each direction to enter for ten minutes in each hour, starting on the half-hour for boats from the west and on the hour from the east. It was very wet when we went through, water pouring from every ventilator shaft. The bucolic scenery continues once out of the dark dank hillside and just before Barnoldswick we pass Lower Park Marina, providing the usual services and narrowboat hire.
Barnoldswick, like so many places, is an expanding town. We pass some new housing that not only overlooks the canal but also spectacular views across the hills, an amenity that would put a thousand pounds on the value of any property. Once past these desirable residences we come to Greenberfield Locks, the smallest flight so far, with just three locks. We wind our way on to East Marton, where you may want to stop for water or to visit the Cross Keys. The next two miles contains some really unique vistas as the canal makes extravagant loops round the hillsides on the way to Bank Newton Locks. This flight of six locks must surely be a strong contender for the title of most picturesque in the country, with more breathtaking views from the bottom three locks.
Once at the bottom it is less than half a mile to Stegneck Lock, which the BW sign suggest is the top of the Gargrave Locks, however these six locks cover a distance of almost two miles and all have individual names. Gargrave is an attractive village and a great centre for walkers exploring the surrounding countryside and the towpaths for miles around. There are three pubs to choose from. On this trip we had an excellent lunch at the Old Swan, just a short walk from the canal. Visitor moorings and facilities are half way down the locks.
From the bottom of Gargrave Locks it is just four miles and five swing bridges to the charms of Skipton, a place that has everything one could expect of a Yorkshire Dales market town. There is an old church, a well preserved castle, lots of shops, restaurants and pubs, not forgetting the market that lines both sides of the main street on four days a week. In the centre of the town the short Springs Branch, which starts beneath the towering rock, which forms the foundations of Skipton Castle, joins the Leeds & Liverpool main line. The signpost at the junction indicates that navigation of the branch is restricted to craft of 35 feet or less but a walk down the towpath is well worthwhile.
Skipton marks the two-thirds stage of our trip, the cruising time from Wigan Junction being around 32 hours and to Leeds about 16, however there are still plenty of highlights to come. The thirteen miles to our next locks have nineteen swing bridges of various sizes, operating methods and road traffic usage. Those on the busiest roads are fully automatic but others may require an awful lot of pushing. On the other hand many of the bridges carry only farm tracks and footpaths and normally swing fairly freely and two of them are normally kept open. As I was pushing open Grange Swing Bridge a stoat came out of the dry stone wall, took a brief look then disappeared. I don't usually see more than one stoat a year yet this was the second one in a week on this trip.
As we left Skipton we passed a Viking Afloat narrowboat hired from Gailey on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. These were not the only long distance hirers we saw on the waterway, as at Bingley we saw a Calcutt Boat from the Grand Union. A mile or so outside Skipton we come to Snaygill Boats, offering boatyard facilities and hire boats. The canal narrows as if to squeeze between the quaint villages of Farnhill and Kildwick, clinging to the hillside beside the canal, then we come to the little town of Silsden, the home of Silsden Boats, the eastern most hire fleet on the L&L.
At Bingley we come to the famous five-rise locks (pictured on the cover of the July 2000 WW, together with the regular lock keeper, Barry Whitlock, who sees boaters safely through this remarkable flight). Following the Bingley five are the Bingley three, these being just the first two of eight staircase flights that are a characteristic of the eastern end of the canal. Just before we get to Shipley we pass between two impressive mills built by Titus Salt. Don't miss seeing the attractive village of Saltaire which he built for his mill workers.
Although we are now in a much more populated area the journey to Leeds provides many hours of pleasant cruising and on this particular journey Leeds proved to many more hours away than we had expected. We arrived at Newlay Locks expecting to go down to the city that morning as we had arranged to meet some of the Family the next day for a few days boating up to York. However the lock keeper told us that he was advising people not to proceed as the canal was unusually full due to the previous nights heavy rain. There were also reports of the rivers Aire and Calder flooding, so even if we got to Leeds the next day we should not be sure when we could proceed further. This being so we decided to turn back and take our guests for a trip to Skipton and Gargrave.
We did eventually moor in Leeds Basin some nine days later, having cruised from Gargrave for a second time and enjoyed some of the best weather on the voyage. Having to make such a detour is, of course, a delay but to revisit such splendid countryside could not possibly be called a hardship.
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