Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

It had been six years since I last walked this stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, at the start of a plan to walk the length of the canal in stages – a project completed in July the following year. Now I was reprising one of the most attractive stretches of the canal – between the small town of Burscough Bridge and Wigan – this time in the company of two friends, Bernie and Tommy. Continue reading “Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier”

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

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.

Walking the canal: East Marton to Skipton

It was hot already at ten in the morning when I set off from the little village of East Marton on the most beautiful leg of the canal walk so far.  This stretch was an amble through an outstanding landscape with fine views across rolling fields and hillocks to distant rugged hills.

East Marton comprises a picturesque cluster of buildings, with pub, restaurant and an extensive stables and livery yard where horses were being exercised and groomed. The first stretch is green and tranquil as the canal pushes through a heavily-wooded cutting.

This stretch of the towpath actually forms a section of the Pennine Way.  It must come as a relief to those walking that toughest of long-distance paths.

I was noting how, even in the two weeks since my last canal walk, the flowers have changed: though the hawthorn is still ubiquitous, now the dog-rose, yellow flag and birdsfoot trefoil are making their presence felt.

Heading towards Gargrave, the canal winds in extravagent loops through humpy hills smothered in buttercups (those drumlins again).

At Bank Newton, six locks lower the canal into Upper Airedale. This was once an  important base for canal maintenance to keep this particular length of the canal in full working order, with carpenter’s workshops and other buildings that are now converted into houses.

The first part of the Leeds-Liverpool canal to open was the lock-free section from Skipton to Bingley, in 1773. The datestone on the lock-keeper’s cottage indicates that the canal reached here 18 years later.

Close to the village of Gargrave an aqueduct carries the canal over the river Aire, flowing in from the north.  From here, the canal will follow the Aire valley down to Leeds, accompanied by the railway line from Carlisle and Settle.

At Gargrave, the Pennine Way leaves the canal to head north towards Malham.  Here the canal enters the Yorkshire dales National Park.

There is an interesting account of the impact that the canal had on this part of the world on Out of Oblivion, a website that documents change in the cultural landscape of the Yorkshire Dales:

In the 1760s, Yorkshire merchants were keen to improve the supply of limestone from the Craven Dales to the farmland and towns of the West Riding. The limestone, once burnt and turned into lime was needed to improve yields from marginal agricultural land while the mortar produced from the same source went to build taller weaving sheds and houses for mill workers. They conceived the idea of building a canal from Leeds, up the Aire valley, to Gargrave. They also saw the possibilities of extending the canal to Liverpool in order to take advantage of the trade in textiles to the growing colonial markets in Africa and America…

The effect on the southern Dales of the arrival of the canal at Gargrave can not be overestimated. Although limestone was intended to have been the canal’s major traffic it turned out to be coal instead. Up until then coal for domestic and industrial use in the Dales had come from often remote collieries such as those above Threshfield or on Tan Hill. The state of the roads and the difficulty accessing many of these collieries meant that packhorses and to a lesser extent wheeled vehicles had been the only method of transporting it. Added to that, local coal was shaley and poor quality. The Leeds-Liverpool canal offered a viable alternative by being able to transport bulk materials over distance at a low cost. Better quality coal at cheaper prices was delivered to warehouses in Gargrave and from there the coal was collected by carriers who delivered it throughout Wharfedale and beyond. The Cupola smelt mill on Grassington Moor was now assured of a regular supply of good quality fuel. Domestic users had an alternative to collecting wood or cutting and drying peat. During much of the nineteenth century over one million tons of coal a year was transported on the canal. This contrasted with around 50,000 tons of limestone per year.

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was an efficient carrier of both bulk raw materials and merchandise such as groceries, beer and machinery. It continued to compete successfully along its length with railways until road transport began to take off after the First World War. Coal remained the main cargo, but as factories began to turn from steam power to electricity demand for it fell away until finally in 1972 the last regular commercial traffic ceased.

Approaching Skipton,in the meadows beside the canal, hay had been cut and this was attracting a great many birds.  A heron flew up just in front of me, and curlews were noisily investigating the mounds of cut grass. I was surprised to see a pair of oystercatchers so far inland. In the hot midday sun, martins swooped to catch insects over the canal’s still water.

Although the canal had been busy with barges, I had encountered hardly a soul on the towpath.  It was quite a shock, then, to arrive in Skipton which was heaving and bustling with day-trippers, a goodly proportion of whom were decidedly elderly.

Skipton is a very pleasant little town.  The area around the canal basin appears to have been constructed all of a piece around the time that the canal arrived in 1773 .  This gives the buildings, bridges and embankments a pleasing homegeneity, constructed largely from glowing yorkshire stone. The Leeds Intelligencer reported on 8 April 1773:

“On Thursday last, that part of the Grand Canal from Bingley to Skipton was opened, and two boats laden with coals arrived at the last mentioned place, which were sold at half the price they have hitherto given for that most necessary convenience of life, which is a recent instance, among other, of the great use of canals in general. On which occasion the bells were set ringing at Skipton; there were also bonfires, illuminations, and other demonstrations of joy.”

The Springs Branch is a short section that branches off from the main canal to enter a wooded ravine bounded by an escarpment surmounted by Skipton Castle.

Lord Thanet in Skipton owned both Skipton Castle and local limestone quarries. He proposed the construction of a quarter mile branch canal to connect the quarries with the new Leeds Liverpool Canal. An Act was passed in 1773 to enable construction to go ahead and the branch canal was built quickly.

Skipton has a long history, with its name deriving from the Saxon word for sheep and meaning ‘sheep town’. Settled by sheep farmers as long ago as the 7th century, the town has an entry in the Domesday Book, and Skipton Castle was built around 1090 by Robert de Romille, who came over from Normandy with William I in 1066. But it was the arrival of the Leeds-Liverpool canal that boosted the town’s fortunes and Skipton boomed during the Industrial Revolution, with cloth making becoming the major activity.

I walked up Springs Branch, past the waterfall where Eller beck cascades into the canal, to the rock face where the canal branch ends abruptly.  This is where the limestone was once quarried.

Continuing beyond the canal branch, a path takes you into Skipton Woods. I should have been here a few weeks ago: everywhere I looked, as far as the eye could see, the woodland floor was thick with wild garlic, but the recent blossoms were faded and gone.  The wood is managed by the Woodland Trust, which states on their website:

A magical land in the heart of town – that’s one way to describe Skipton Woods, a woodland haven by one of Britain’s best preserved, most popular medieval castles. The wood’s links with the castle date back at least 1,000 years.  Most of this ancient woodland is dominated by ash but the occasional sycamore, beech, Scots pine, Norway spruce and hornbeam indicate a greater variety in the past. The woods are renowned for their vivid displays of bluebells and wild garlic and sustain five species of bat. Green and greater spotted woodpeckers add their colour, while kingfisher and heron may be seen fishing the waterways.

The woods were originally used by Skipton Castle primarily for hunting and fishing, although during the 18th and 19th centuries, the woods were also used to provide timber, building stone and water. The timber and stone was moved out of the woods via Springs Canal. The water was obtained by damming Eller Beck to form Long Dam, which in turn fed a small reservoir called Round Dam, also known as Mill Dam or Mill Pond. The water was used to power the former sawmill and corn mill located by the castle. Public access to the woods was only allowed by the owners of the castle in 1971.

Someone was here at the beginning of May this year and made a video of it:

By the canal basin there’s a striking statue of the Yorkshire fast bowler, Fred Trueman, that was unveiled a few months back. It was created by Yorkshire sculptor Graham Ibbeson, from a studio in his back garden in Barnsley, with the blessing of Trueman’s widow Veronica. Trueman made his Yorkshire first-class debut in 1949 and went on to play 459 games for the county, notching up 1,745 wickets. In 67 Test matches for England he took 307 wickets, and retired in 1972 for a career in the media. He died in 2006, aged 75.  The Truemans made the Yorkshire Dales their home in the 1970s, although Fred himself was born in Stainton, a village between Rotherham and Doncaster.

I walked to the outskirts of Skipton, before turning back to catch the X80 bus that would drop me back in East Marton. I am now over 100 miles from Liverpool.

Next: Skipton to Saltaire

Walking the Canal: Nelson to East Marton

I set off from bridge 141D at Nelson on a bright sunny morning and the temperature rose steadily as the day progressed. The countryside was smothered in buttercups and hawthorn: has the blossom been particularly striking this year, after the hard winter and cold spring?

A couple of miles further on the M65 motorway bridge piggybacks over the original 19th century canal bridge. Then, with Pendle Hill’s distinctive form to the north, it’s into beautiful Pennine countryside, heading towards the pretty Barrowford locks.

At the bottom lock, work was being carried out to repair damage to the lock floor which had caused an escape of water.  The lock was completely drained and further up, above the top lock, there was a considerable tailback of narrowboats, held up by the stoppage which, chatting with one of the navigators, I discovered had lasted several days.  He didn’t seem to mind – being parked up in beautiful countryside with good weather to boot!

Barrowford locks and lock-keeper’s cottage form a very pretty complex, and the lock-keeper enterprisingly sells second-hand books and local ice cream. A little further on, the canal passes Barrowford Reservoir, in which surplus water is stored.

Another mile brings you to the entrance to the Foulridge tunnel, which is  just under a mile long.  It opened in 1796, after five years of excavations. Because the tunnel is so long and there is no towpath for a horse to pull the barges through, between 1880 and 1937 a steam boat tugged barges through. Before 1880 men would ‘leg it’ through the tunnel, lying on their backs and pushing the barge through by walking along the ceiling of the tunnel.  In the Hole-in-the-Corner pub, near the far entrance, is a picture of a cow named Buttercup that fell into the canal in 1912 and, instead of just wading out, decided to swim the entire length of the tunnel before being rescued. It is said she was taken to the pub and revived with a pint.

A little further on, I noticed a ventilation shaft for the tunnel in a field of buttercups.  Then the walker’s route skirts the large reservoir that feeds the canal before eventually bringing you into the village of Foulridge. Although just a small village, Foulridge was to become an important centre on the canal, as it was here that the water supply was organised. Water came not just from reservoirs, but also from streams feeding into the summit level. By  1879,  around 90 boats were passing through the tunnel each week, and the leggers were replaced by the steam tug in 1882. But by 1930 there were only 13 boats using the tug each week and the service ended  in 1934.

When I was looking at the today’s route I imagined that Foulridge had gained its name from being some desolate, windswept Pennine crag. Not so: the fine countryside here is far from bleak, and the place-name has a totally different etymology.  It’s actually pronounced ‘foalridge’, and derives from the Anglo-Saxon words for ‘foal’ and ‘ridge’, suggesting that this was a renowned horse-rearing area in those days.

Foulridge Wharf was built in 1815 to bring American cotton, limestone and coal to Colne. Now it has a pleasant cafe and is a stopping off place for those travelling the canal.

From here I walked on another mile or so before taking a break for lunch and a pint at the Anchor Inn, near Salterford. This canalside pub is unusual because when the road and bridge were built outside, another storey had to be built on, so the original upstairs of the old pub is now the present pub, the original pub is now the cellar and it has a second cellar, which has stalactites and stalagmites created as a result of water leaking through from the canal.

While I was having lunch in the beer garden, this chap was practising the old craft of dry-stone walling, repairing damage to the pub’s boundary wall. The roots of drystone walling as a method of enclosing fields lie at least as far back as the Iron Age.  Drystone walls are not merely features of agricultural interest; they are in a sense, living history; a legacy of the movement towards enclosure of common farming and grazing land. Most of the drystone walls we see today are products of the post-medieval move toward enclosure.  I sat and mused on how many tens of thousands of miles of dry stone walls there must be in the British Isles – and how many man-hours of labour went into their construction.

Just past the bridge at the pub are two of the few remaining tow line rollers along the UK canal network.  When the canal turned a sharp bend, as here, it was difficult for a horse-drawn boat to steer; and the tow rope would pull the boat into the bank instead of around the corner. To stop this  from  happening, vertical  rollers were fitted  to upright wooden posts, the tow rope passing across the rollers and keeping the pull on the boat such that it was not a problem for the boatman steering the boat.

Tow lines would rub against the bridge arch after the horse had passed underneath. This caused grooves tobe worn into the stonework. Vertical wooden rollers were fitted to most bridges to stop such wear. The iron bearings of the wooden roller guard irons often survive, though most of the rollers have disappeared. Here they have been renewed.

For the next  couple of miles the canal meanders along the outskirts of Barnoldswick, the highest town on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Barnoldswick remained a small village until the arrival of the canal, and later the (now closed) railway, spurred the development of the old woollen industry, and helped it to become a major cotton town. The engine of the last mill to be built in Barnoldswick, Bancroft Mill, has been preserved and is now open as a tourist attraction.

Today, Barnoldswick is home to Silentnight Beds, the UK’s largest manufacturer of beds and mattresses, and Rolls Royce.  The model number of many Rolls Royce jet engines start with the initials RB which stands for Rolls Barnoldswick.

At the northern edge of the town, the Greenberfield locks, opened in 1794,  have been voted the best kept in the country. Greenberfield is the highest point on the canal. From here, it’s all downhill to Leeds!

Copy Hill

The original function of the canal here was to carry limestone from several local quarries, one of which was located just above this lock. The quarry closed in the late-nineteenth century and was filled in.

25 degrees C

As the afternoon wore on, we were all hotter and thirstier. Walking in a bucolic haze through a landscape of rounded hillocks often topped by clumps of trees (such as Copy Hill, above), all that industrial activity seemed long ago.

These rounded hillocks are drumlins, formed when melting glaciers deposited rock debris and then moulded the piles into theses oval hillocks characteristic of this part of the Yorkshire Dales.

Finally, I arrived at the curious Double-Arched bridge at East Marton.  This odd-looking structure carries the busy A59 road over the canal. It would appear that after the original bridge was built the height of the road was raised to eliminate a dip, and as a consequence a second bridge was built on top of the first. And as I climbed steps to the road to catch the bus back to Nelson, there was the milestone – 38 miles to go!

Next: East Marton to Skipton

Walking the Canal: Accrington, Burnley and Nelson

Yesterday saw another leg of the canal walk completed: arriving at Nelson, there are now less than 50 miles to go to Leeds. It was a dry, warm day, sometimes overcast but mainly sunny. Leaving Clayton-le-Moors, the canal winds its way eastwards through the Calder valley.  To the north there are views across to the Pennine fells, most notably Pendle Hill. Along this stretch there were many derelict or ruined farm buildings. Further on, the theme would continue, with a succession of derelict or ruined industrial buildings, probably reflecting the decline of, firstly, sheep farming supplying the woollen industry, and then the closure of the textile mills themselves.

There were still some signs of sheep farming, though.

To the south, the M65 motorway is never far away – largely out of sight, but audible as a hiss or, when closer, a dull background roar.

Under one of the motorway bridges, over on the far side of the canal, there was this extensive and painterly graffiti.

A little further along I photographed art of a different sort. This is a style of painting called Narrowboat Art, which originated on the canals in England during the 19th Century. The earliest boats did not carry this style of decoration, but it began to appear once wives and children joined the boatmen as residents on the narrowboats (because competition from the railways meant they had to give up their cottages and move completely onto the boats).

Canal family at Burscough, early 20th century. The boat was built in 1916 for the Liverpool coal trade.

The website Canalia explains:

The life of the working boatmen and women was very tough, with the entire family living in an aft boatmans cabin around 6 feet in length. Boat children recieved little or no education and were expected to assist with the heavy work from a young age, often leading the horse or mule which pulled the boat for many miles each day.

Almost every single part of working narrowboats and their equipment was painted. The most distinctive aspects of Narrowboat Art are the roses, painted in bright primary colours, together with panels depicting castles. The reasons why roses and castles predominate are unclear. So ‘Roses and Castles’ is the common name for this folk art, which would embellish the outside of the boat and its equipment, entwined with lettering on the cabin side, on the rudder and even appeared on horse harnesses and feed tins.

This guy was carrying on a scrap metal business on two narrow boats.

Just north of Accrington the canal diappears into the Gannow Tunnel, re-emerging after a third of a mile to cross the M65 by acqueduct.

The canal now enters an industrial stretch that leads into Burnley, and there’s a real sense of how the canal was once a main artery for the town and its industries, though now most of these buildings lie derelict.

The area between bridge 130 and Burnley Wharf is known as the Weavers’ Triangle, and was once at the heart of Burnley’s textile industry. The name was first used in the 1970s, as interest developed in preserving Burnley’s industrial heritage.  Coming from Liverpool, the first significant industrial building that you encounter is Slater Terrace, built by the millowner George slater in the late 1840s.

What’s unique about this building – currently in a state of dereliction – is that it combines canal-side warehousing with eleven two-storey houses above, their front doors opening on to an iron landing jutting out over the canal.

The warehouse would store raw cotton which had been brought up the canal from Liverpool, while warehouse or mill workers would live in the houses.  Although built to a good standard, they soon became overcrowded and were last inhabited in 1900, after which they were converted to industrial use.

At Burnley Wharf there is an excellent Visitors’ Centre in the old toll house and wharf master’s house.  While the ground floor rooms provide an insight into the daily routine and home life of the wharf master, the basement has been set out to show what home life was like for mill workers a hundred years ago.

Weavers’ Triangle Visitor Centre – Burnley Toll Office where fares were paid for using the canal.
Weavers’ Triangle Visitor Centre: mill worker’s home

The area now known as the Weavers’ Triangle is the best remaining Victorian industrial district in the town – and possibly the country.  The factories here line the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, constructed through Burnley between 1796 and 1801,  which provided transport for the raw cotton and finished cloth, and also, after 1842, water for the mill boilers.  The industrial architecture of the area has a solid, dignified and massive appearance, in a simple, functional
tradition, with walls of local sandstone and stone or slate roofs.

One display shows, in a series of maps, how rapidly  the area developed in the 19th century, the first showing the Weavers’ Triangle area of Burnley in 1827:

Then in 1848:

And finally in its heyday in 1912:

There’s also an evocative photo of the area in 1910, looking for the world like an LS Lowry urban landscape:

The Wharfmaster’s House, which is now the Weavers’ Triangle Visitor Centre, was built in 1878. The warehouses on Burnley Wharf have been converted to modern use: there were some very attractive-looking office spaces and the Inn on the Wharf, a pub in which the original beams, stonework and flagstones have been preserved, and where I had an excellent lunch (whitebait starter and delicious Shropshire Blue cheese ciabatta-style baguette) accompanied by a pint of Old Speckled Hen.

Burnley’s textile industry dates from the Middle Ages, when a fulling mill was built on the banks of the Brun in 1296.  Wool was the main cloth made in the area until the end of the 18th century, when it was superseded by cotton.  The first cotton mills were for spinning – weaving being done in the home.  By 1850, weaving had also become a factory industry and East Lancashire was taking the lead in improving the power loom.  After 1870, the weaving side of the industry expanded at the expense of spinning, which became concentrated in the south of the county.  By the end of the century, Burnley was the leading cotton-weaving town in the world.  The peak was reached in 1913 when the district had over 100,000 looms.

The ‘Straight Mile’ is the name given to the Burnley Embankment, which carries the canal across the valley of the River Calder.  The embankment was constructed between 1796 and 1801, by an army of navvies using spoil brought by boat
from the canal cutting to the north of Burnley. Earlier, observing the way that the canal maintained a level course by being raised on an embankment above the surrounding fields, I had wondered – why don’t canals leak? The answer, apparently, is a process called ‘puddling’ – heavy clay was used to line the bed of the canal.  Nowadays, of course, concrete would be used.

Construction of the Embankment meant the Calder valley could be traversed by the canal without the need for two systems of locks. Walking along the 60 feet high embankment  gives dramatic views across the rooftops of the town to the surrounding hills.  Half-way along the embankment, the canal crosses Yorkshire Street on an aqueduct, known locally as ‘t’ Culvert’.  It was constructed in 1926 to replace the original one built in the 1790s.

Although the Embankment and the surrounding area have been tidied up to provide an attractive promenade and shopping district, further on there are more signs of the decayed industrial past.

But the surrounding landscape is beautiful, with Pendle Hill dominating the views.

Five more miles of towpath brings you to Nelson, another town that grew as a result of the arrival of the canal in 1796.  It takes its name from an inn called the Lord Nelson around which the town started to grow.  Like Burnley, its economy was based on cotton weaving. Later the town became noted for the production of confectionery as well, including Jelly Babies and Victory Vs. These industries have long gone, leaving the town with high unemployment.

Driving home along the M65, the sea at Morecambe Bay was a glinting gleam of silver in the evening sun. On the stereo: Paul Weller, Wake Up The Nation, and the Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street.

Next: Nelson to East Marton

Around the start of the 19th century, on the road between the towns of Burnley and Colne there was an inn called the Lord Nelson. Just off the road was a tiny village called Marsden. As the Lancashire cotton industry grew, a town started to grow around the inn, and it took its name from the inn.

Walking the canal: Blackburn to Clayton-le-Moors

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind
Don’t seem to mind if I smile, don’t seem to care if I don’t

I’m a fly upon the wall, I’m in company and I am alone
There’s a message on the bridge in graffiti-written words
And it reads as an answer or it reads as nothing at all
Don’t seem to mind if I show, don’t seem to care if I don’t

I’m a bird upon the bridge, I look out and I look in
When the city’s back is turned it looks a lot like this
When a mind begins to burn it needs a place like this
Don’t seem to mind if I’m right, don’t seem to care if I’m wrong
I’m the dirty river flow, I need you so that I can let go

– Emily Barker,’The Greenway’, from the album Despite The Snow

Got started again on the canal walk. A gentle seven mile stage from the outskirts of Blackburn to Clayton-le-Moors, via the villages of Rishton and Church, to ease me back in, and attune the dog to hiking.

We started off from the car park of PC World at Whitebirk Bridge. The photo above gives a sense of the juxtaposition of urban and country landscapes here: a retail park to the left, pylons striding down the centre and open farmland to the right, with the wild Pennine moors in the distance ahead. All the photos posted today were taken on my new Canon Powershot S90 which produces pretty impressive results for such a small, pocketable camera.

There was a nippy breeze blowing from the east, keeping the temperature down, but it was a bright and sunny day nonetheless.  But there’s still not much colour up here: after the coldest winter for many a long year, these coltsfoot and celandine, one pussy willow and a lone flowering hawthorn were about all.

A tractor hauling a scarifier made turns around a field by the canal. Beyond, there were distant views of Pendle Hill and Lancashire fell villages strung out along the hillsides.

Rishton first became an important textile town in the 19th century, with cotton being brought in along the canal from Liverpool, and it was also the first place where calico was woven on an industrial scale, with 10 mills being in operation. All have now gone, or are in ruins.

A little further along the canal at Church, the family of Sir Robert Peel established an industrial community based on calico printing, with terraced housing, mills and a parish church featuring two windows designed by Edward Burne Jones. At Simpson’s Bridge, there is a fine old wharf building – now in a serious state of dereliction – with a large central arch.

Just before Church you reach the halfway marker on the canal – with 63.5 more miles to go to Leeds.

After an encounter between dog and horse, we arrived at Bridge 114A, and I got a decent fish and chips with mushy peas at the Hare and Hounds. The dog slumbered, and I learnt that while we’d progressed seven miles the nation’s airports had been clogged with people going nowhere as the cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption in Iceland grounded all flights over northern Europe.

Footnote: I later discovered that Nimrod, the osprey whose annual migrations I have followed on the Highland Foundation for Wildlife site, was at one point somewhere over the canal at Chorley, heading back at 3000 feet to his summer home in northern Scotland after wintering in Gambia.

Next: Accrington, Burnley and Nelson