Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Rochdale Revisited is the copyright of Jim Shead - Another visit to the dramatic scenery of the Rochdale Canal. First published in Waterways World November 2000.
Clogs, the Co-op and Gracie Fields. Are these the images that the name Rochdale prompts in your mind? Certainly we can find clogs beside the Rochdale Canal but at present we are unable to cruise to Rochdale, the birthplace of both the Co-operative movement and Gracie Fields, although we live in hopes of doing so in the next few years. In the meantime we have 13 miles and 35 locks that take us through some of the most dramatic scenery to be seen anywhere on our waterways.
After turning on to Rochdale Canal at Sowerby Bridge we almost immediately come to the first lock. Travelling to here on the Calder & Hebble Navigation we found we had very little room to spare in the 57 feet 6 inches long locks. Now we appreciated the luxury of 74 feet locks. When opened, in 1804, the Rochdale provided a route for the long barges from the Bridgewater Canal to travel to Sowerby Bridge, where goods could be transhipped into the shorter Calder & Hebble barges. At one time the Rochdale locks all had an extra pair of gates, positioned about 57 feet below the top gates, so that when the shorter barges used the navigation they would use less water. The empty recesses made for these vanished gates can still be seen in most of the locks.
Before setting off through the first two Rochdale locks I had walked up to Tuel Lane Lock to let the lock keeper, Howard Mann, know that we were on the way. All the other locks on the canal are boater operated except Tuel Lane, which has set opening hours and is worked by the keeper. This lock is claimed to be the deepest canal lock in the country and has a bending tunnel below its bottom gates. It was opened in 1996 and bypassed the obstruction in the canal, which had previously severed this part of the waterway from the system, at the same time replacing two original locks with one.
Once we were through the second lock, Howard gave three loud blasts on his whistle through the tunnel, to let us know it was safe to enter. Having risen to the top of the lock I bought a seven-day licence (£33 for our 57-foot boat) and was given information on the canal, including Tuel Lane Lock opening times. Above the lock there are handy moorings for shopping in the town or for waiting for the lock to open on the return trip.
Leaving the town the canal runs along the side of a steep valley giving views of the town and the surrounding countryside. It is over two miles before the next lock, make the most of the run, it is the longest pound on the canal. The pound is ended by Edward Kilner Lock, shortly followed by Brearley Upper Lock. The next mile takes us to the village of Mytholroyd where there are moorings outside the White Lion. Continuing on through Broadbottom Lock we soon come to Walkley Clog Mill, where you can see clogs being made or visit the many craft shops in the mill. After the moorings for the clog mill we enter a new tunnel under a road, again this has a bend, then ascend Mayroyd Mill Lock to enter Hebden Bridge.
This ancient town still boasts a packhorse bridge across the River Hebden and today retains the old world charm that attracts many tourists to its shops, pubs and restaurants. The canal itself is one of Hebden Bridge's magnets for visitors, who walk the towpath, gather at the lock or board one of the trip boats. Watching the horse arrive, be harnessed and attached to the trip boat is one of the town's great free shows. Another, at the time of this visit, was the musicians performing on the streets as part of the Music Festival.
Quite a high proportion of the traffic on the canal consists of hire boats, mainly Shire Cruisers narrowboats from Sowerby Bridge also a number of Shepley Bridge Marina boats from Mirfield on the Calder & Hebble. We met some experienced hirers as we came through the two Stubbing locks above Hebden Bridge, they were adding the Rochdale to their list of canal holidays. The next lock up is Rawden Mill and beside it the Callis Mill works of the Rochdale Canal Trust. The huge balks of timber, used for making the lock gates on the canal, are stacked on the bank. I was pleased to note that some of the gates on the canal were replaced as recently as last year.
By this stage in the voyage many boaters will have noticed three features unique to the Rochdale Canal. The first is the strange device that is used instead of a ratchet on the gate paddles. This consists of a wheel with a smooth groove in the edge, into which a metal retainer with a large metal handle fits, this is designed to hold the paddle up by friction. You might think that the weight of the paddle would cause this smooth wheel to slip, and in many cases you would be right. Don't blithely remove your windlass as soon as you have wound it up, otherwise you are likely to see it crash sharply down. Instead hold the mechanism handle hard down into the groove then gently remove the windlass and tiptoe across the gates to lift the other paddle. Even if you have lifted both paddles, without them slipping too much, you are not home and dry. When the lock is almost, but not quite, ready to open, one of the paddles may drop down and the other could follow it in sympathy. The amazing thing about this type of paddle device is that some of them actually seem to defy all notions of gravity and common sense and hold the paddles up. Does anyone know who invented them? However impractical these devices, they are no doubt part of our waterways heritage, so I am probably committing a terrible faux pas in criticising them at all. The second unique feature is the stone troughs into which feeder streams and drains, which feed water into the canal, are channelled. These act as settlement tanks that collect the silt from the streams before it enters the canal. This seems like a very good idea although some of them have been rendered useless by allowing them to fill with silt. Lastly the canal has a series of overflow weirs which take the water off when the canal is particularly full but which are normally dry and used as part of the towpath. At the back of these, by the towpath wall or fence, a single plank walkway is provided for use when the weir is running.
Our next town, Todmorden, lacks the charm of Hebden Bridge but is a convenient shopping stop. There is a Co-op supermarket behind the door in the blank wall, a couple of hundred yards below Shop Lock. We have now done about ten miles and half the locks, the next three miles have 17 locks. Some people make Todmorden their turning place but for me this is to miss some of the best and most impressive scenery. The steepness of the valley means that hillsides tower above with sheep and cows looking down and vehicles climbing up the narrow roads assume the angle of an aircraft at take-off. There is no repetitiveness in these views, each lock seeming to open a new vista.
After passing through Warland Upper Lock we pass into Lancashire, the border with Yorkshire marked by a stone, then ahead is Longlees Lock, the summit lock on the eastern side of the canal. Unfortunately the Littleborough Locks are closed at present so this is effectively the end of the navigable waterway. The official turning point is above Longlees Lock but it is possible to turn below. The thirteen mile trip takes about the same number of hours. This was our third cruise up the Rochdale and we have come up to here on each occasion. Another "must" for us was to visit the Bird I'th Hand pub, close to last lock, for a meal.
My first trip on the Rochdale was in 1996 shortly after it was reconnected to the main waterways system (see Rochdale Reconnection WW November 1996), now I have revisited it again. Lets hope that we will soon be reading of the Rochdale Restored.
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