Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Top 100 Sites
This article Rochdale Reconnection is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World November 1996
For the waterways enthusiast there is a special delight in seeing a long abandoned canal come back into use, to make solid what was previously a dotted line on our waterways map. The Rochdale canal restoration is a long running major project, offering, as it does, a shorter trans-Pennine route than the Leeds & Liverpool and excellent cruising scenery. The recent opening of Tuel Lane lock and tunnel provides a few hundred yards of water that gives access to 15 miles of restored canal which, for most of us, was inaccessible before, giving us an important addition to the inland waterways system.
The first week in May saw the official opening rally at Tuel Lane. Just over a week later we were at Sowerby Bridge, ready to see what the restored Rochdale Canal had to offer. We moored in the Calder & Hebble Basin which provides all the usual facilities and is the home of Shire Cruisers, we had met their boats on the Leeds & Liverpool and the Aire & Calder, and were to meet even more on the Rochdale, so it is not surprising that there was not a single Shire boat in the basin when we arrived. A walk round the town provided evidence of recent festivities with many shops and businesses displaying pictures of the restored section of the canal and related material. Just behind the Kwik Save supermarket is the new Tuel Lane lock manned by a lock keeper who issues Rochdale Canal licences. The charges are based on boat length, £27 for seven days in the case of our 57 foot boat. With our licence we were also given six other documents giving conditions, restrictions and information (including a four page diagrammatic map of the canal).
Outside the Calder & Hebble terminal basin is a junction, straight on takes us back down the Calder & Hebble, the way we came; to the right is the Rochdale canal which skirts round the back of the basin and up two locks before arriving at Tuel Lane tunnel. The tunnel is fairly wide and is well lit by electric lights on each side, but it does have a bend in it and the water rushes through when the 20 foot deep Tuel Lane lock is emptied, for this reason entry to the tunnel is not allowed without permission of the lock keeper. After checking that the lock was ready for us the lock keeper blew a whistle at the other end of the tunnel to signal that it was clear for us to enter.
After Tuel Lane there is a mile and a half pound up to the two Brearley locks then over a mile to the next lock. This is an easy introduction to the waterway, after this the locks get closer together as we climb towards the summit. The lock gates and paddles are stiff and heavy to work, probably due to newness and lack of use, no doubt this will improve with time. After Broadbottom Lock (No 7) we come to the short Falling Royd tunnel, a new structure under a road, this too has a bend and the navigational guide warns that the horse trip boat is legged through.
There is plenty of interest on this canal, it is mainly rural but not remote and away from habitation, passing as it does through towns and villages, and signs of industry, past and present. There is a clog factory and even a boat builder (Pickwell and Arnold at Todmorden), but for me it is the hills that create the strongest impression, always in view, and in places rising steeply up from the canal, trees and sheep clinging to their sides.
Just after Mayroyd Mill Lock (No 8) we come to Hebden Bridge where there are visitor moorings, sanitary station and water point. By this point we have done 51/2 miles and 7 locks. Hebden Bridge is close to Haworth and Bronte country and firmly on the tourist trail, all of which is reflected in the shops, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions in the town. From here the horse drawn trip boat operates and civic pride is evident in the very attractive public gardens on both sides of the canal here.
A little further on the Stubbing Wharf Hotel offers moorings as well as reasonably priced food. Mooring can be a problem on this canal as the edges are often shallow and recognised mooring sites comparatively few at present. However we did manage to find a towpath mooring above Lob Mill Lock (No 16) when we realised that we had cruised beyond the 4pm lock restriction imposed to save water. Use of locks was restricted to between 10am and 4pm but the lock gates were not padlocked after hours as they are on most canals. We found that six hours a day was quite enough when working these heavy wide locks.
For most boaters this is a new canal but other users have been here before us and two groups make an indelible impression. The first is anglers, the navigation guide describes the canal as an important fishery and suggests that, in addition to slowing down past anglers, we empty locks slowly when people are fishing nearby and do not proceed into a pound if the water level is low. There is also advice about fishing matches. One angler I met said that fishing would be impossible if they got six boats a day. I said that many canals had considerably more boats than that and were still lined with anglers. He gave no direct reply but I could see he found this idea as incredible as if I had said that the canals of Mars were fished from gravy boats. The second group are dog walkers, evidence of their dog's activities can be seen along the towpath and add another hazard to jumping ashore.
Todmorden, 9 3/4 miles and 17 locks from Sowerby Bridge, is the next town and has a full range of shops and services. Todmorden Library Lock (No 19) is the only one that is 57 foot long (Calder & Hebble size) rather than the usual 74 foot. This was no problem going up but on the way back water was flooding over the top gate, despite the water shortage, and I had to move the boat back into the torrent to get the bottom gates open. I then had to bail a few gallons of water out of the engine compartment. It is intended to convert this lock to full length by installing an electrically operated guillotine gate in early 1997.
By the time we reached Hollings Lock (No 27) we had done over eleven miles and were pleased to see the gates being opened by David Evans, a member of the Rochdale Canal Society, he helped us through seven locks and told us some interesting things about the history of the canal, including that Nip Square Lock (No 29) is mentioned early in L T C Rolt's Narrow Boat. It is one of the names that fascinated him in the distance tables of Bradshaw's Guide to the Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales which he used to plan his own journeys on Cressy. We could have got all the way to the summit that day but the 4pm deadline on lock usage defeated us and we moored just before Warland Lower Lock (No 34), just three locks from the summit.
The next morning we found that we were moored in the middle of a fishing match, due to start at 10am, the same time as the locks opened. We gently moved up through the next two locks and past the anglers. Almost immediately above Warland Upper Lock (No 35) is a swing bridge but between the lock and the bridge is the Yorkshire and Lancashire county divide, marked by a simple modern stone boundary post. Once through Longlees Lock (No 36) we were on the summit. As we left the lock we were stopped by the lady from the lock house who sells attractive Summit Pass plaques (£6 in aid of the canal society). I don't usually buy plaques for the waterways we visit but I felt that this was a worthy exception.
Unfortunately the summit level was the limit of our cruise. Although the canal is now restored to Littleborough, another mile and a half and 12 locks, the water shortage meant that it was not navigable when we arrived. We went down the three-quarters of a mile summit level to West Summit Lock (No 37) but found we could not turn our 57 foot boat there, so we had to tow the boat backwards for the length of about half the pound before we found a turning place. After that we were ready for Sunday lunch at the Bird in the Hand, near Warland Upper Lock. This seemed to be everyone's favourite pub for lunch, full of tables, packed with diners. We had to stand with our drinks waiting for a table although it was a lunch worth waiting for.
We had an enjoyable return trip retracing our route back to Sowerby Bridge, but now over half the Rochdale Canal is open we seem much nearer the day when the whole canal is restored and we can go through to Manchester, as its builders intended.
1. The horse-drawn trip boat Sarah Siddons at Hebden Bridge.
2. The author's boat in Sands lock.
3. Pennine scenery at Old Royd Lock.
4. Trip boat leaving Blackpit Lock at Hebden Bridge.
Return to the main Articles Listing page