Walking the canal: Skipton to Saltaire

From Skipton, the canal wends its way along the valley of the river Aire, and for a good part of the way the towpath is wide and metalled so I was able to make good progress and cover 16 miles to Saltaire. Now just one leg of 13 miles remains before I reach the eastern end in Leeds.

Yesterday, like much of the past 10 days, was warm and sunny and the countryside was pleasant, though as far as Farnhill and Kildwick this is a noisy stretch, with the roar of the A629 to Keighley a constant presence.

Upper Airedale is a flat, wide valley here, bounded by tall steep hills and moorlands – especially to the north, where the fells stretch off towards Ilkely Moor.  The canal hugs the hillside just above the valley floor, providing a lock-free pound that extends for the full 17 miles from Skipton to Bingley. The line of the canal was laid out along the Aire valley by James Brindley, one of the greatest of the canal builders.  The canal passes by a series of villages – Bradley, Kildwick, Silsden – each showing evidence of the impact that the canal must have had on this largely agricultural area, with old mill buildings, particularly in Silsden.

At Hamblethorpe swing bridge, just past Bradley, there is a sudden jolt that pulls you back to a tragic moment in the past – a memorial to seven Polish RAF airmen who died when a training flight crashed here in September 1943.  The men had escaped Poland in 1939 during the German invasion, and they enlisted with the RAF, which raised ten squadrons made up entirely of Polish personnel.

With each successive stage of the walk this year, the countryside has become steadily more parched, as rainfall has been scarce here, as well as in the north-west, for most of the spring and early summer. Just past midsummer, the banks and hedgerows begin to lose their colour anyway – though the flowers of the elderbery and dog roses provide splashes of colour.

At Farnhill the canal -passes through woods before emerging at the village where canalside industrial buildings have been converted to residential use.

Kildwick is the next village – all Yorkshire stone and steep streets spilling down the hillside to the canal, one of which runs under the canal.

Silsden is another, larger, stone-built industrial town.  Generally an agricultural area, industry came with the canal and the Industrial Revolution. The town hosted a number of mills, none of which now operate in their original form. There is still industry in the town, some in old mill buildings and some in a new industrial estate between the town and the river.

I stopped at the Bridge Inn at Silsden, which appeared to be a converted end-terrace house.  Certainly entering the bar was like walking into someone’s living room, with a small bar on the far wall.  The room was draped in England flags and posters – at first the landlady said she couldn’t offer me food, as she was only doing it during half-time (this was the day of the England-Slovenia World Cup match).  But she made me a fine cheese sandwich and I set outside with a pint of Black Sheep Ale from the independent brewery of the same name in Masham.

Apparently, the origins of the pub go back to the 1600s when ale was brewed at a farmhouse here. An inn developed in the early 1700s when it was first known as the Coach and Horses, and then the Boot and Shoe Inn. There is an old sign dated 1799, depicting a boot and shoe, over the original inn doorway, which can be seen now from the beer garden. It also bears the initials I S L, which refers to the Longbottom family who had a long connection with the inn. An 1822 trade directory lists John Longbottom as victualler. The canal was dug through Silsden between 1769 and 1773 and eventually, in 1826, a new road (now known as Keighley Road) was built at the other side of the inn, along with a bridge going over the canal. This meant the inn had to extend upwards and a new front door was created at the roadside.

From here the canal gains a decidedly suburban feel – the towpath is widened, level and metalled, with plenty of cyclists taking advantage of it – and the canal is fringed, along many stretches, by housing, much of it recently-developed. But this is still very attractive walking.

The canal wends its way around the outskirts of Keighley, and soon I arrive at one of the great sights of the canal – the Bingley staircase.   An 18th century engineering masterpiece, the staircase comes in two parts – the Five Rise and Three Rise locks. These five locks operate as a staircase no intermediate pounds,  in which the lower gate of one lock forms the upper gate of the next. The locks are supervised by a lock keeper and are closed at night.

The 5-rise is the steepest flight of locks in the UK, with a gradient of about 1 in 5 or a total fall of 60 feet (look at that drop in the photo above!).

The lock system was designed by John Longbotham of Halifax and built in 1774 by local Stonemasons : Barnabus Morvill, Jonathan Farrar, William Wild all of Bingley and John Sugden from Wilsden. The locks raise boats 59ft 2in over a distance of 320ft.

When the Bingley staircase opened on 12 March 1774 it was a major feat of engineering. This meant that the canal from Gargrave to Leeds was now open to traffic, and a crowd of 30,000 people turned out to celebrate.  The first boat down the Five Rise Locks took just 28 minutes. This must have been phenomenal: when I asked some people waiting to enter the staircase yesterday how long it usually took, they said ‘an hour to an hour and a half’.

It’s slow because all five locks must be ‘set’ before beginning passage. For a journey upwards, the bottom lock must be empty, with all the others full: the reverse is the case for a boat descending.

The opening of the staircase in 1774 was given full coverage in The Leeds Intelligencer:

“From Bingley to about 3 miles downwards the noblest works of the kind are exhibited viz: A five fold, a three fold and a single lock, making together a fall of 120 feet; a large aqueduct bridge of seven arches over the River Aire and an aqueduct and banking over the Shipley valley ……. This joyful and much wished for event was welcomed with the ringing of Bingley bells, a band of music, the firing of guns by the neighbouring Militia, the shouts of spectators, and all the marks of satisfaction that so important an acquisition merits”.

Adjoining the Three Rise locks is the mill owned by the Damart company – famous for manufacturing a large proportion of the thermal underwear worn in the UK.

Further along is another example of  the successful conversion of an old mill building into residential apartments overlooking the canal.

A little further along is bridge 205 – Scourer Bridge – an attractive structure that is a grade II listed building.  The citation describes it as ‘Hammer-dressed stone. Single horse-shoe elliptical arch with dressed and chamfered voussoirs. Coped parapet aligned to the slope of the hill’.

Next is Dowley Gap, with more locks and an aqueduct that carries the canal over the river Aire.

Another couple of miles and I arrived at Saltaire, named after Sir Titus Salt who built a textile mill here in 1853, along with a model village for the mill-workers.  Salt moved his entire business (five separate mills) from Bradford to this site partly to provide improved conditions for his workers compared to those in Bradford, and partly to site his large textile mill by a canal and a railway.

Titus Salt built neat stone houses for his workers, wash-houses with running water, bath-houses, a hospital, as well as an Institute for recreation and education, with a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and gymnasium. The village also provided a school for the children of the workers, almshouses, allotments, a park and a boathouse.

In 2001, Saltaire was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  The buildings belonging to the model village are individually listed, with the highest level of protection being given to the Congregational Church which is listed grade I. At the moment it’s undergoing renovation and is surrounded by screens and scaffolding.

Salts Mill closed in 1986, and in the following year the late Jonathan Silver bought it and began renovating it. Today it houses a mixture of business, retail and residential units, with the main attraction being the 1853 Gallery, given over to the work of David Hockney, who was born in Bradford.

Jonathan Silver

Jonathan Silver had met Hockney back in the sixties and approached him about displaying his work in the Mill.  Hockney agreed, and the Gallery now displays paintings, drawings, photomontages and stage sets by Hockney.  Currently there is a large display of opera sets created by Hockney, as well as reproductions of a recent series of water colours of Yorkshire landscapes in midsummer.

David Hockney Yorkshire midsummer: A gap in the hedgerow

Yorkshire midsummer Roadside plants and landscape

There are various shops, including a superb bookshop, plus restaurants and a cafe where I restored my energy levels with an excellent giant scone.

Finally, it was time to catch the train back to Skipton along Airedale line: comfortable, quiet and fast, and with clear travel announcements at every stop. Now only 13 miles remain before the journey ends in Leeds.

10 thoughts on “Walking the canal: Skipton to Saltaire

  1. You’re pictures are always glorious, but the second one of Farnhill woods is particularly stunning. I can’t decide whether, when you saw the milestone for Liverpool, you’re heart must have rejoiced at how far you had travelled or sunk at how far away you were. What a wonderful journey to have taken – I had no idea that canals and locks were such facinating and complicated beasts.

  2. Nice blog. I found it by searching ‘Bradford to Skipton Canal’ as live just outside Bradford and am wanting to cycle to Skipton and back on wednesday. You’ve made my mind up!

  3. Thanks for this – very helpful and gorgeous photographs. It must have been a wonderful walk and your acccount has inspired me to try it too.

  4. The wife and I have cycled Saltaire to Skipton a number of times and never tire of it as the ride is so scenic.

  5. The walk ends in the model village of Saltaire, built in 1853 by Sir Titus Salt for local mill workers. The village, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001, is beautifully preserved and still lived in to this day.

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