Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Yorkshire Journey is the copyright of Jim Shead - Covering the Aire & Calder, Calder & Hebble, Huddersfield Broad Canal and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. First published in Canal & Riverboat June 1996
I was expecting something different from my first boating experience in Yorkshire and something different is what I got. The waterways we travelled were certainly a change from the narrow canals of the Midlands but they were also diverse, from the enormous locks of the Aire and Calder to the Huddersfield Broad Canal where the locks are only six inches longer than our 57 foot boat, from the ruler straight line of the New Junction Canal to the meandering of the Leeds & Liverpool through the dales.
Our route into Yorkshire was from Keadby at the start of the Stainforth & Keadby Canal. The first five miles are actually in Humberside but near Medge Hall it crosses into South Yorkshire. The Stainforth & Keadby is a wide canal with few locks but with more swing bridges, most of them large and electrically operated by boat crews. We met with some unusual craft coming in the opposite direction, first a sailing boat then a pair of new traditional-style narrowboats, Unspoilt by Progress I and II, on a tour of the waterways prior to their journey to the Black Sea (see C&RB August 1994).
A little way after Bramwith Lock we made a sharp right turn on to the Sheffield and South Yorkshire New Junction Canal, Britain's newest waterway, opened in 1905. My 1991 edition of the Nicholson's guide stated that the lock and swing bridges on this canal were all operated by keeper's but in fact we had to operate them ourselves. The swing bridges are all electrically operated and fairly straight forward; Sykehouse Lock is less so, having a swing bridge across the middle of the lock that is inter-locked with the gate and paddle mechanisms so that nothing else will operate until the swing bridge is open.
The New Junction Canal ends in a tee-junction with the Aire and Calder Navigation where we turned left towards Castleford. The locks on this waterway are all controlled by lock keepers and have traffic lights to indicate when boats may enter. At one lock a large tanker came out of the lock as we waited to go in but the lights remained red and the lock gates open. While we were wondering what was delaying us the gates at the other end of the lock opened and another tanker came out; these locks are very long with three or more sets of gates so that the second tanker was able to be let into the lock behind the first, which was already descending to the lower level.
At Kellingley Colliery we saw barges being loaded with coal, the empty barges having about eight or nine foot of free-board while the full ones had only one or two. These barges, in trains of three, are pushed by a tug to Ferrybridge Power Station where a massive piece of machinery lifts the barges from the water and empties them. The empty barges then wait for a returning tug to pull them back to the colliery. I was pleased to see this water-borne coal carrying for power generation which is a rare example of a once common traffic, who can say how many more years it will continue.
At Castleford Junction we went straight on, to the Wakefield Section of the Aire & Calder, the main line to Leeds turning right here. The locks here are still manned and large but not quite as big as those on the main line. At Stanley Ferry we stopped to buy a hand spike that is needed for many of the Calder & Hebble locks, I also took the opportunity to buy the "handcuff keys", or anti-vandal keys that are needed for the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Once through Wakefield Flood Lock we were on the Calder & Hebble Navigation, where the locks are worked by boat crews, and after a few miles the lock sizes reduce to just 14 foot by 57 foot 6 inches. The navigation is a mix of cuts and lengths of the River Calder with several flood locks.
Joining the Huddersfield Broad Canal at Cooper Bridge Junction we immediately entered the first of the nine locks that take the canal up 54 foot to Huddersfield. The water looked very clear but, on a canal of less than four miles, we had to stop twice to clear the propeller of plastic bags, pieces of rope, tights and the remains of a haversack. The surroundings are mostly industrial, but not oppressively so, the flora and fauna finding their way to the waters edge. At one lock a pied wagtail caught a dragonfly, an over ambitious catch as the insect was almost as big as the bird, after a brief struggle the dragonfly escaped and flew off looking none the worse for the encounter. The approach to the town centre is marked by the Turnbridge Loco lift bridge, a unique design with chains and counter-weights that lifts the whole road section above the level of the boat. After this Aspley Basin, and the junction with the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, is a short distance. There are good moorings outside Sainsbury's by Aspley Basin and the town centre is only a short walk from here.
After retracing our route from Huddersfield back to the Aire and Calder main line at Castleford we turned towards Leeds and were once again on unfamiliar waters. Between Castleford and Leeds a massive amount of earth moving could be seen, I thought at the time that this was to reclaim land formerly used for coal mining but it may have been for the Aire & Calder diversion which will change the course of the navigation, scores of large trucks formed a constant traffic up and down each side of the canal, and across the waterway by means of temporary bridges. The journey through the centre of Leeds is quite pleasant with a lot of new and restored buildings, mostly the usual mixture of offices, restaurants and pubs that seem the norm for water-side developments.
The Aire and Calder Navigation meets the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in the centre of Leeds at River Lock the first of 91 on this trans-Pennine route. The Bingley Five Rise (or staircase) Locks are one of the best known features of the Leeds and Liverpool but the first part of the canal is characterised by staircase locks, 23 of the first 29 locks being in this form. Starting with the double Oddy Lock, numbers 4 and 5, we encounter two more doubles and four triples before arriving at locks 25 to 29 the Bingley Five. After this there are no more staircase locks, Bingley being the spectacular finale to these staircases to the dales.
Another characteristic of the Leeds and Liverpool is the number of swimmers found in the locks. It was hot July weather but I got the impression that it was the custom for many people to treat locks as a free swimming pool, and that a major reason for locking paddles with an anti-vandal key is to prevent swimmers filling empty locks for their activities. Un-chaining and chaining paddles is an irksome, but necessary, part of working locks here.
Before reaching Bingley it is worth stopping at Saltaire, a new town of the mid nineteenth century and the creation of Sir Titus Salt, who moved his mills here from Bradford in 1853. The mills dominate both sides the canal, indeed the only other building adjoining the canal is the church, but behind these is Salt's town of 820 homes built over a twenty year period. The town is still substantially as it was built, with school, institute and shops as well as the church. Motor vehicles and antique shops proclaim the arrival of the present but there is still no pawnshop or pub thus maintaining Salt's Victorian principles.
After Bingley there is a 17 mile stretch without locks but with numerous swing bridges, some electric but most manually operated. The electric ones normally need a British Waterways key and may need the Leeds and Liverpool anti-vandal key, as do most of the manual ones, and some need a windlass as well; so, unless you take all three items to every bridge, there is a good chance of arriving at the bridge carrying the wrong combination of keys. All along this pound, and for some miles beyond, the scenery is magnificent with views of the dales and charming villages.
Almost 14 miles from Bingley is Skipton, an ancient and attractive town, with an 11th century castle which guarded the Craven Gaps, the lowest route through the Pennines, for centuries before the canal came this way. The castle looks down on the Springs Branch of the canal which runs in a deep rock cutting below. The town itself has a good selection of shops and a market in the main street. Four miles on from Skipton we encounter locks again then the popular and picturesque village of Gargrave, on the Pennine Way and edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Leaving Gargrave the canal loops back and forwards clinging to the contours of the hills. Sometimes the canal with its dry stone walled towpath can be seen going in completely the opposite direction on the other side of the valley. Bank Newton and East Marton were passed then, unmarked, just before Barnoldswick the canal entered Lancashire, where there were still more miles of good scenery and places of interest, but this is the end of our Yorkshire journey, at least for the present. We decided to return the next year to see some more of the Yorkshire waterways, the Calder and Hebble to Sowerby Bridge, the Ouse to York or the Sheffield and South Yorkshire, there is still a lot to see.
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