Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Over Hill, Over Dale is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Leeds and Liverpool Canal. First published in Canal & Riverboat November 2002.
Over Hill, Over Dale
With the opening of the Rochdale and the Huddersfield Narrow canals the waterways of North England are more accessible and the choices of routes have been expanded. This means that many more boaters will have the chance to visit the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the longest navigation in the region. The Leeds & Liverpool was the first of the three cross Pennine canals to be authorised (by an Act of Parliament of 1770) but in 1816 it was the last to be fully opened. The Rochdale Canal was authorised in 1794 and fully open in 1804 and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was authorised in 1794 and fully open in 1811.
We start our journey in the centre of Leeds, where the Aire & Calder Navigation meets the Leeds & Liverpool Canal below River Lock, No 1. In the short pound between River and Office Locks is Leeds Basin, next to the main railway station and the Granary Wharf shopping centre in the arches below. Although this is a busy place during the day it is a surprisingly quiet overnight mooring. An alternative Leeds city mooring is in the basin by the Royal Armouries Museum on the Aire & Calder Navigation.
As the canal climbs out of the city the first three locks are wide single locks but numbers 4 and 5 are the first of the many staircase locks that are found at this end of the canal. Passing the Leeds Industrial Museum and Kirkstall Abbey we arrive at Kirkstall Forge staircase locks, numbers 8 to 10, and half a mile on Newlay Locks. This is another three lock staircase, or riser as they are known in this part of the world. We are now in more open country and encounter a couple of manually operated swing bridges before arriving at the village of Rodley, a convenient overnight stopping about 4½ hours cruising from Leeds.
From here there is a lot of open countryside as the canal makes its way along the side of the Aire valley, and more manual swing bridges. At Apperley Bridge we pass through an electrically operated swing bridge that carries a main road, before the Dobson two rise locks. Field three rise and more swing bridges follow before we come into Shipley, where the Bradford Canal once joined the navigation. There are some good moorings here and the town is handy for shopping but its smaller neighbour, Saltaire, usually gets more attention due to the huge mills and model Victorian village that Sir Titus Salt built here for the benefit of his mill workers. Don't miss visiting this charming little place, which had every amenity that a nineteenth century worker could hope for, except a pub.
The locks build to a crescendo in the next couple of miles, starting with the single Hirst Lock, then Dowley Gap two rise and Bingley three rise, to be crowned by one of the wonders of the waterways, Bingley five rise. There is always a lock keeper at the Bingley five, and often at the three rise, to see you through. Barry Whitlock has been working here for over twenty years and must surely be the best known lock keeper on the entire waterway system.
Having worked 29 locks in less than 16 miles we now have a 17 mile journey before the next lock. The canal is now on the right hand side of the Aire valley, having crossed the river just before Dowley Gap, so the views are now on the left and the steep wooded hillside on the right. When the rhododendrons are in full bloom this is a real treat. Next the little town of Silsden, which is the home of Silsden Boats hire base and boatyard services. Although there are no locks the swing bridges continue, the larger ones being electrically operated. The conjoined villages of Farnhill and Kildwick cling to the hillside as the canal threads its way through. This is the Leeds and Liverpool at its best, sheep and cattle, green hillsides criss-crossed by dry stone walls. We see a deer in Farnhill Wood and a kingfisher flashes past the boat and disappears behind the trees.
Skipton, the archetypal Yorkshire dales town, sits like jewel in the surrounding green landscape and is certainly not the sort of place you want to hurry through. There is a market in the town centre on four days a week and a good selection of shops and pubs. At the end of the High Street is the church and Skipton Castle, an interesting place to visit. The canal goes right into the centre of the town and trip boats regularly pass the moorings here. To the right the short Springs Branch passes close under the walls of the castle. You need a short boat to turn at the end of this branch but a walk down the towpath is recommended. Don't say you haven't the time because you can walk down the towpath and back through the High Street, seeing the highlights of Skipton in a circular tour.
About a hundred yards past Skipton Junction is Brewery Lane Swing Bridge, where the lane leads down to a large Morrison's supermarket that is close to the canal. Four more swing bridges follow in the next four miles, which end the long pound at Holme Bridge Lock, also known as Gargrave Bottom Lock. There are five of these locks spread over more than a mile, each also having an individual name. In the middle of the flight is the charming village of Gargrave between the canal and the River Aire and close to the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The other side of Gargrave there is the more compact flight of six Bank Newton Locks, and, looking back you see splendid views of the canal and hills beyond. Once at the top we twist and turn over the next five miles as the canal makes its way through the hills. We see the top of a boat over a dry stone wall on the opposite side of the valley as the navigation loops round the hillsides, keeping a level course in undulating terrain. At Greenberfield three locks take us up to the summit level and we skirt the edge of Barnoldswick then the little village of Salterforth with the Anchor canalside pub.
We are now in Lancashire and soon arrive at the village of Foulridge and the entrance to Foulridge Tunnel. In 1912 a cow that had fallen into the canal swam all the way through this tunnel, almost a mile long, and has passed into waterway folklore. A one-way system operates in the tunnel, which is controlled by traffic lights. The lights turn green on the hour at the Foulridge end and on the half-hour at the west end. A mile after emerging from the subterranean gloom we arrive at the seven Barrowford Locks descending from the summit level.
I think that most people who know the Leeds & Liverpool would agree that we have now seen the cream of the canal, but while much of the western side of the navigation is more industrial it is not without its rural stretches and has much of interest. The six miles to Burnley starts with the town of Nelson then the journey is a patchwork of industry, housing and open land in rapid succession.
Burnley has another of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways - the embankment that carries the canal on a ¾ mile straight course 60 feet above the town. The Weaver's Triangle soon follows. This is an outstanding example of the preservation of 19th century industrial heritage and includes engine houses, spinning mills, houses and weaving sheds. A more modern feature of interest is the aqueduct over the M65 motorway, before we reach the 559 yard Gannow Tunnel. At Rose Grove, on the edge of Burnley, is a BW depot with all the usual facilities.
From here to Blackburn we have 13 miles of mostly open countryside between the built-up areas such as Hapton, Clayton-Le-Moors, Church and Rushton. The M25 is never far away and we go under it three times and over it on another impressive aqueduct. There are no locks as we are still in the 22 mile pound that started at Barrowford, but there are three swing bridges.
Eanam Wharf at Blackburn is a comparatively safe mooring for visiting the town. If you are mooring elsewhere caution is advised as the town has a poor reputation with boaters. The six Blackburn Locks end the long pound and take us out of the town. We leave Blackburn through suburbs, which are more attractive on this side of the town and include a lot of new houses. Five rural miles follow, including some good moorings at Riley Green and the little village of Withnell Fold, before we get to the seven Johnson's Hill Locks. From here we have ten more miles of pleasant cruising, past the Botany Bay Villages shopping centre, in a converted mill, and round the edge of Chorley. Further on we pass the large White Bear Marina, at Adlington, prior to the last four miles of rural cruising ending at Wigan Top Lock.
Twenty-one locks take us from the edge of the town, down to Wigan Junction and the nearby town centre. Anti-vandal locks secure all the paddles on these locks; however, you can get assisted passage through the flight. The arrangements for this change from time to time so it is best to check with the BW Wigan office on 01942 242239. At the junction the Leeds & Liverpool Leigh Branch is on the left, and is the way through to the Bridgewater Canal and routes south. For many boaters this is the end of their trip on the Leeds & Liverpool even though there are 35 more miles to Liverpool. Our journey continues down the last two locks of the 23 in the Wigan flight and on to Wigan Pier.
Wigan Pier has been rebuilt in its original form and demonstrates the tiny scale of this staithe, used for tipping coal into boats, although its fame is enormous thanks humorists through the ages. Opposite the pier is the large Wigan Pier Complex, with "The Way We Were" museum and boats trips to the nearby Trencherfield Mill, containing a massive mill steam engine and other exhibits. This place was also the terminus of the canal from 1777 until 1816, when it only ran from here to Liverpool. Two miles, and two locks, bring us to Crooke were there are moorings either in the garden of the Crooke Hall Inn or on the towpath opposite.
The scenery on this part of the canal is good, although Dean Lock's pleasant setting is rather spoilt by the M6 thundering high above. More woods and fields follow as we make our way to Appley Bridge and on to Appley Locks. To the left is one deep lock but the channel on the right leads down through two shallower locks to join back into the main line. These are the last locks before Liverpool, still 29 miles away. Two miles on is the village of Parbold, after which the character of the canal changes as we get into a flatter landscape.
Before reaching the village of Burscough the Rufford Branch junction appears on the right, descending 7 miles and 8 locks to Tarleton, where it joins the River Douglas. This was always something of a dead-end for the inland boater as the only place to go was either up the tidal Ribble to Preston Dock or out to sea. With the opening of the Ribble Link this branch is now the main route to the Lancaster Canal.
As usual on this canal, when there are no locks there are swing bridges. There are some nice country pubs as we cruise through the open rural countryside towards Lydiate, which marks the start of the 14-mile trip through to Liverpool. If you are planning to go right to the end it is advisable to contact British Waterways (Wigan office) who will provide an escort and assistance with swing bridges. There are moorings at Eldonian Village at the end of the canal.
Even if you don't go down to Liverpool you should not miss seeing the rest of this great waterway, with its history, engineering, places of interest, wildlife and the beauty of its hills and dales.
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