Walking the canal: Saltaire to Leeds

The first milestone on the canal – one mile to the end

It was humid and already in the twenties by ten when I set off from Salt’s Mill at Saltaire at the start of the last leg of the Liverpool-Leeds canal walk.  The heat was a reminder that, although there’s been a good deal of torrential rain this past week, the spring drought will result in the closure of a long stretch of the canal in a week’s time.  The planned closure of almost half of Britain’s longest canal will take effect from Monday 2 August, and will close it for boating for 60 miles from Wigan to Gargrave in North Yorkshire.  It’s all down to the extremely low level of the summit reservoirs that feed the canal at Barrowford and Foulridge.  This was Barrowford reservoir when I passed in June.

From Saltaire, the canal skirts the northern edge of Shipley, and there are many reminders of the industrial past, with old warehouses and wool mills interspersed with recent residential developments.

Typical is this warehouse, purpose-built for loading barges on the canal, with its own basin and covered loading bay.

Shipley is where the former Bradford Canal (now filled in) met the Leeds – Liverpool Canal.  Junction bridge is so-called because the canal junction was here (on the right, just through the bridge). The large building by the bridge on the right bank was the toll office and bargemen’s dormitory, known as the Barracks.

This is the time of year when two extremely successful invasive plants come to dominate places like roadsides, railway tracks and canal towpaths – the Himalayan Balsam and the more congenial Buddleia.  Both are introductions from the Far East; the Balsam and its compatriot the Japanese Knotweed being the most troublesome.  Buddleia was introduced to Britain from China in the 1890s. It is a highly successful coloniser, and really came into its own after the Second World War in bombeded areas of many cities. It is now widespread, especially on highly disturbed sites such as quarries, railway sidings and derelict building sites. There was plenty to be seen on this walk, especially along the last mile into Leeds city centre, where the canal is bordered by derelict sites smothered in Buddleia and Russian Vine.

Buddleia is named after Adam Buddle (1662–1715), an English cleric and botanist. Buddle didn’t discover the plant, but was commemorated by Linnaeus, who named the genus Buddleja in his honour.  It seems to be a rare example of a beneficial invasive plant –  a facilitator of species successions by providing a positive environment in which other species can establish. During the flowering season it is the favourite source of nectar for almost all native butterflies and in Britain it attracts more species than any native plants. The shrubs being highly attractive to insects, it encourages insectivorous birds to visit the sites to forage and in doing so they may inadvertently deliver seeds of other species in their faeces.

Leaving Shipley the canal stays close to the course of the river Aire, winding its way around the foot of the 500-foot densely wooded Buck Hill.  The railway, which also says close for much of this stage, here cuts straight through the hill in a two-mile tunnel.

Halfway around the hill are Field locks, and the circuit of the hill is complete at Dobson locks, just outside Apperley Bridge.

Apperley Bridge is one of the posher areas of Bradford and certainly exuded a cheery charm on a sunny Saturday.  There were tasteful new housing developments around the Apperley marina, while between the river Aire and the canal, playing fields were crowded with kids and parents involved in a local football tournament.

There’s a curious event associated with Apperley Bridge: on 29 February1824, watched by an estimated 30,000 people, John Wroe, also known as Wroe the Prophet, was baptised here, having announced in flyers that he would part the waters of the Aire like Moses.

Wroe was one of the most outrageous religious impostors known to history. The son of a worsted manufacturer at Bradford, Wroe, who was born in 1782, never received any education worth speaking of, and seems to have led an idle and purposeless life during his youth. In 1819 he had a serious illness, and after a seeming miraculous recovery Wroe started having visions or trances, which were usually preceded by his being struck blind and dumb. He joined the Southcottians, the followers of Joanna Southcott, at Leeds in 1820 and two years later claimed the succession as their leader.

After failing to part the waters of the river Aire at Apperley Bridge in 1824, Wroe continued his shameless ministry. In 1830 he announced that he had had ‘a comand from heaven to take seven virgins to cherish and comfort him’. Three local families duly provided the virgins from amongst their daughters and Wroe set off on a preaching tour with them. When he returned one of the girls was pregnant – this scandalized some of his followers and they attempted to hold an inquiry at which fighting broke out; pews, fittings, doors and windows were torn out and broken, and ‘pandemonium reigned’. Others were prepared to believe Wroe’s word that a Shiloh, or messiah would be born to the girl and great preparations were made for the birth. At Peel Park Museum, Salford, there used to be preserved the magnificent cradle made ready for the Shiloh’s reception.  When the messiah was finally born it was a girl; at this point the Southcottians finally lost patience with Wroe and he was forced to leave town.

Another example of Wroe’s shameless behaviour is related by the Rev. S. Baring Gould in his work Yorkshire Oddities:

On one occasion Wroe announced that he was to lie in a trance for twelve days, and this beginning, people came from far and near to see him. At the foot of his bed was a basket in which visitors deposited gifts of money. At a fixed hour of the day all visitors were turned out, and the door of the house locked. One day Mrs Wroe went out and forgot to fasten the door behind her. Two neighbours, watching their opportunity, opened the door and looked within, to discover the Prophet sitting in the inglenook, supping very comfortably on beef-steak, pickled cabbage, and oat-cake. Notwithstanding this and many other exposures, Wroe continued to flourish. In 1854 he announced that the spirit had commanded him to build a house forthe believers, and to collect money for its erection from the latter, and subscriptions poured in readily. He bought a piece of land and commenced to build a great mansion, on which large sums of money were spent. When it was finished he conveyed it to the Society by will, but immediately made another will, revoking the first, and leaving his ill-gotten property to his son James.

Cultures change:  in 2002 Bradford’s Hindu Cultural Society submitted a proposal to Bradford City Council to allow a small stretch of the River Aire at Apperley Bridge to be used for the scattering of ashes after a traditional Hindu funeral. A spokesman for the cultural society said, ‘Most of our community still travel to India for the purpose. But using the River Aire would allow those who can’t afford it to also scatter ashes’. I haven’t been able to discover whether approval was granted.

Leaving Apperley Bridge, there was a fine example of an old mill conversion into residential or office accommodation.

A little further on, a short, cheery woman with earphones passed me singing away to herself.  The man on the canal bank fishing said, ‘She’s been past three times now singing to herself’. I asked why the chimney had a pointed top like a biro.  He didn’t know.

I stopped for a pint and a ploughman’s at the Railway Inn at Rodley, another settlement associated with the woollen industry that at one time had fulling mills and scribbling mills powered by the fast-flowing waters of the Aire.

Setting off again after lunch, I was impressed by this imposing building on the opposite bank.  Hailing the chap doing stone work in the grounds, I quickly discovered how you can draw the wrong conclusions.  The building predates the canal, when it was a farm (perhaps an indication of the prosperity of wool farmers in the early 18th century).  But with the arrival of the canal it had changed its function and become a brewery.

Pressing on, I pass Newlay and Forge locks, and with the river Aire so close it becomes apparent how high the level of the canal is being raised above the river.

A bit further on I notice, above the trees to the north, some sort of ruined tower.  It’s Kirkstall Abbey, built between 1152 and 1182, and, though ruined, still substantially its full height and a unique example of early Cistercian architecture. Dissolution came in in 1539, and subsequently  the Abbey and its lands were granted to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, but reverted to the Crown in 1556 when he was burnt at the stake for treason.

Having been stripped of its roofs and windows, the abbey served as a quarry for local building works and housing for cattle, while the cloisters were planted as an orchard, and the gatehouse converted into a farmhouse. Grass, trees and ivy began to engulf the ruins, giving them a particularly rich quality of romantic beauty. The Abbey was painted by JMW Turner in 1824.

At Kirkstall itself, the old Mackeson brewery has been converted into a student hall of residence.

At Spring Garden lock the tower blocks of Leeds first come into view.

Just past Spring Garden lock there was a magnificent display of buddleia and water lilies.

At Oddy lock the lock-keeper was busy with maintenance work.  There’s a mural here, called ‘Fragments from the post-industrial state’ by Graeme Willson. It was painted between 1981 and 1985 and has lasted very well.  Willson is well known locally as a creator of public art and in 1978 he founded the Yorkshire Mural Artists group. His 1990 mural ‘Cornucopia’ on the Corn Exchange in Leeds has become a familiar landmark and won the Leeds Award for Architecture and Environment.

Just after Oddy lock stands this very impressive mill building – Leeds Mill – with elegant windows and curved bays at each end.

With less than a mile to go to the end of the canal, river, rail and canal are funnelled together, heading towards their common destination at Granary Wharf.

A really striking landmark here is the towers of the former Tower Works which produced pins and needles for the textile industry. The grade II listed structure is about to be redeveloped. The oldest of the three towers dates from 1864 and is based on the Torre del Commune, or Lamberti tower in Verona. Next to it is the Giotto Tower based on the Campanile of Florence Cathedral. The Giotto tower, which was in fact a chimney, is about half the height of that in Florence and rather than the marble cladding it has a finish of red brick work and local Burmantoft tiles. The third tower looks plain by comparison but is believed to be based on one of the towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

Towering over the second lock on the canal, Office lock, is Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in Yorkshire.

Next to the lock is the Canal Company office with the lock-keeper’s house to rear. The Canal Office building is listed and was built after the completion of the canal in 1816 (the canal from Leeds to Gargrave was completed by 1777, but there was a long delay in the completion through to Liverpool due to a lack of funds).

Finally, I arrive at Granary Wharf, the canal basin at the end of the canal.  There has been a great deal of redevelopment here in recent years, with new buildings housing office, residential and retail units.

Granary Wharf represents the heart of the industrial revolution in Leeds, since the canal triggered the growth of Leeds as an industrial city.  The earliest building in this area is the canal warehouse (below, left) built to a design by canal engineer Robert Owen in 1776, in time for the canal opening as far as Gargrave. In the area between the canal and the railway viaduct are a couple of small docks, now the focal points of the redevelopment of the area. These docks were used for repairing boats.

In the centre of the photo above is Candle House, a striking 23-storey round tower containing apartments, named after the candle and tallow packing warehouses that were previously located on the site. To the right is the new City Inn hotel.

I walked out across the footbridge over the river Aire to take this photo of the first lock – River lock – which begins the process of lifting the canal above the floor of the river valley. Behind me, a man dived off the Victoria Bridge into the river.  This is a Grade 2 listed structure,built by George Leather Junior, engineer of the Aire and Calder Navigation between 1837 and 1839.

With the long walk finally over I wandered into the city centre through the railway arches known locally as the ‘Dark Arches’.  They reminded me, in a rather bizarre way, of arriving in Orvieto, the Umbrian hill-town, where, after parking your car at the foot of the sheer cliffs that the town is built on, you enter the town via a series of tunnels and underground passageways.

When the railway arrived in Leeds, New Station was constructed on a large viaduct spanning the River Aire. Beneath the station and the tracks a series of arches were built with passageways connecting them, and many of these vaults were used for handling goods from the railway or nearby canal.  These days they seem to be used mainly for car parking.

Next: Envoi


8 thoughts on “Walking the canal: Saltaire to Leeds

  1. Completely splendid narrative and illustration. I felt I’d actually walked this stretch just by reading it – and you walked and typed it both! Wonderful.

  2. Very enjoyable reading and pictures. I have tried to find out why the bridge was named after Apperley but so far have not been successful. Can you help?


    1. I found one source that suggests it’s Old English for ‘Wood or clearing where apple-trees grow’.

  3. Really good description and discussion. I’m walking he canal bit by bit the other way – reading yours backwards – Great Stuff


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