We spent a wonderful week in June on the canals of Yorkshire and Lancashire. We rented a 55′ cruiser, No Turning Back, from Canal Boat Escapes in Barnoldswick. We (mostly) followed the suggested itinerary to Hebden Bridge, a week of travel that encompassed portions of the Leeds & Liverpool and Rochdale canals, as well as the Aire & Calder and the Calder & Hebble navigations. (For those unfamiliar with the terminology, as I was, a “navigation” means a section of a river that has been made navigable by engineered improvements, such as locks and weirs. These are also called “cuts.”) We were a crew of four — me, my partner Rob, his sister Ruth and her husband Lloyd. Ruth and Lloyd are former narrow boat owners, so they were the experts on all things. Rob has also done some narrow boat travel, with them and with others; I spent two days on their boat once a few years ago, but I was definitely the novice on this adventure. Rob and I took nearly 200 pictures during that week; it was a lovely journey. We had glorious weather, with no rain, and while I wouldn’t count on that ever happening again, it was grand.
To start, please note that by car, this is a journey of some 18 1/2 miles, about 41 minutes along the B6251 according to Google Maps. The canal journey is longer AND slower — a narrow boat goes at a top speed of about 4 m.p.h., less in some conditions, and there weren’t many long unbroken stretches on our route. We traveled just over 50 miles in our six and a half days; we also worked 94 locks and 34 swing bridges. (For a map of the canals, you can go to this site and zoom in on the area around Leeds.)
Day 1: Barnoldswick to East Marton
We were at the marina by noon, and our boat arrived soon after that. It had to be taken to the nearest winding hole (wide spot where you can turn a boat around) and turned round for our trip, since the previous party had brought it up from Hebden Bridge. Richard and Karen, the proprietors of Canal Boat Escapes, showed us around the boat, answered questions, and made us feel very welcome.
They saw us off, and Richard drove to meet us at the first set of locks, where he watched us work to make sure we knew what we were doing. These were the Greenberfield Locks, a set of three separate locks that were installed in the nineteenth century to replace a staircase lock.
If you’ve never worked locks, the ones on the Leeds & Liverpool are pretty typical. You carry a windlass handle to crank open sluices in the gates (or ground paddles outside the gates) to let water in or out of the lock. You get the water in the lock to the same level as the water outside the lock where the boat is, then you put the boat in, shut the gates, and fill or drain the lock to raise or lower the boat to the level of the water on the other side.
Locks are how boats go uphill or downhill on a canal, and they have to be operated (manually, or in some cases mechanically) either by the crew of a boat or (for complex locks) by lock keepers who work for British Waterways.
Due to low water levels, the Leeds & Liverpool was operating on restricted hours while we were there. Locks were only operable from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; outside those hours, they were padlocked by the lock keepers.
This first stretch of canal we traveled went along high ground overlooking beautiful countryside. This bridge, just outside East Marton, was a particularly fine example of the bridges crossing over the canal all along the route:
Of course beautiful Yorkshire scenery would be incomplete without sheep. There are lots of them; one farm we passed had lambs kept in a shed near the house, which means they were being fed by hand, either orphans or rejected by their mothers.
We stopped for a couple of pints our first evening at the Cross Keys, a lovely pub in East Marton. It’s an uphill walk from where we moored, just past bridge 162. They have Copper Dragon ales, brewed in Skipton; we visited the Copper Dragon brew pub in Skipton on our way to pick up the boat and were glad to find it. But friendly as the locals were, we decided to press on a bit further and moor in the open between villages, cooking dinner on the boat. We moored here.
Day 2: Bank Newton to Silsden
We had wonderful weather on our second day, which was to be the case for the rest of our journey. So much sun; everything was beautiful.
We started the day with the locks at Bank Newton; six separate locks, placed quite close together. Then came Gargrave, with another six locks. It was quite a workout to start our day.
This is the aqueduct in Gargrave, just before the last lock.
After that lock, we met a family of swans. They demonstrated typical swan family behavior. The papa swan swam forward and put himself between his family and the threatening strangers (us and our boat), while the mama swan hung back with the cygnets. We saw this repeatedly.
This papa was more persistent than others, and he followed us.
I fed him a piece of bread, but then stopped because I didn’t want to lure him too far from his responsibilities.
This made him angry, and he attacked our boat and then attacked Rob – alas, I didn’t have the camera to hand for that part.
While we were dealing with the crazy swan, we encountered a swing bridge, the first of many on the Leeds & Liverpool
For those as unfamiliar with canal boating as I was, a swing bridge is where a road, footpath or cattle path crosses the canal without being elevated for boats to go underneath. The crew of the boat disembarks, unlocks the bridge and swings it open for the boat to pass. You then close and relock it, then rejoin your boat. Many of the bridges are fully manual, some are partially operated by electric machinery, others are fully mechanized. If there is vehicle traffic, there are traffic barriers to operate as well. We saw several different types of bridges, and figuring out the British Waterways instructions for operating each one was a challenge.
This leg of the journey goes through Skipton, the home of the Copper Dragon brewery and pub restaurant. We didn’t take time to stop.
Just past Skipton, in Low Bradley, I experienced my first electrified swing bridge. I have to admit, stopping traffic gives a real sense of power.
We chose to moor earlier than the itinerary suggested, because we knew this was our last evening on high ground for a while. We chose this lovely spot:
Day 3: Bridge 193 to Bridge 211
An early start on day three, because we knew there might be a wait at Bingley. There was, and we also took on water there.
The Bingley 5-Rise is a very complex set of staircase locks that takes the boat up or (in our case) down 60 feet. That is followed by the Bingley 3-Rise, a 30-foot total descent. Unlike earlier locks we encountered, which are filled and emptied separately, in staircase locks the water flows from lock to lock, making the management trickier.
Lock keepers direct the operation of both of these rises, although boat crews still provide most of the muscle to work the sluices. They pair boats up where possible and alternate boats going up and down to make the best use of the water.
We travelled with another boat, Juniper, crewed by an English family now living in Ireland. Travelling in tandem with another boat gets you through locks and bridges faster by giving you more crew to work the machinery. There were four bridges and a couple of locks after Bingley, in Saltaire and Shipley.
Saltaire is a beautifully preserved mill town; I wish we had taken time to explore it, but we couldn’t. Barry, the lock keeper at Bingley, had warned us that there was a lock on our route that was due to be closed for repair; we were hoping to get past that point and complete our journey, rather than having to turn back.
Shipley isn’t quite as picturesque as Saltaire; like a lot of the urban areas we passed through, it is a mix of attractive older architecture and signs of urban blight.
We got as far at the Field 3-Rise Locks just after 4:30 p.m., and they were already padlocked shut for the night (due to water restrictions). So we moored up at bridge 211, in site of the lock, so as to be first through the next morning.
Day 4: Field 3-Rise to Woodlesford
We were up early and ready to go as soon as we saw a lock keeper appear. We were quite concerned about the reported lock closure ahead and wanted to get on our way. We had to wait, however, while the lock keeper sorted out his information about the repairs.
He finally let us through in tandem with a hired boat carrying the repair crew for the Dobson 2-Rise; having a crew of workers made the locks and the two swing bridges a lot easier on us. We took on water at the BW works at Apperley Bridge and were permitted through while the workers were setting up the barriers and safety equipment for their work on the Dobson locks there.
There was more lovely countryside, including grazing Clydesdales with foals, as we proceeded towards Leeds. All was well until we the Newlay 3-Rise, where the lock keeper was reluctant to let us pass.
It was by this time about 1:00 in the afternoon, and he said he could only let us through if we were sure we could make it through all the Leeds locks by 4:30 when they closed the locks.
We persuaded him with assurances that we would travel straight through and not stop, and that’s what we did. We had a lock keeper with us most of the way through Leeds, in fact, padlocking gates behind us as we were the last boat allowed through for the day.
Just before the city of Leeds itself, we passed the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey.
We had some interesting encounters in Leeds. At the Oddly 2-Rise, a group of local residents had filled the middle lock and were swimming in it. They were not too pleased that we were bringing a boat through, which necessitated emptying their swimming pool. One young man threatened to let me test the water temperature first hand if we didn’t promise to fill it up again behind us; I was glad the lock keeper came along at that point, and I could refer such a request to him.
At the Office Lock (number 2 on the canal), we were slightly delayed by an unhappy event. A mother duck with ten ducklings had gotten too close to the lock and lost eight of her babies into the water flowing through. Workers were there painting the gates, and they had all the drains and access points open to try to rescue them. They fished out six, of whom two recovered well enough to join their mama and siblings once the shock had worn off. The others looked too badly injured to survive, but they were alive and making noise, so the mother duck stayed nearby. We didn’t go through until the workers were sure they had found all the live ones. It was sad.
Leeds has some beautiful architecture, both old/restored and new. It’s nice to see new buildings that fit in with the older ones.
We passed through River Lock to leave the Leeds & Liverpool and travel awhile on the River Aire. While still in Leeds, there are some wonderful bridges across the river, including these three.
The Aire and Calder navigation is much wider than the Leeds & Liverpool, and the locks are sized for ocean-going barges. All the locks are automated; our guidebook said that they were attended some of the time, but we ended up operating all of them ourselves (with the exception of one boat we shared with on day 5).
At Knostrop Fall Lock there is a weir. Fishing there was a heron, who obligingly posed for photos. On this leg of our trip, I also got my first view of a coot, and of several grebes, mixed in with the usual complement of mallards, geese and swans.
We moored for the night in Woodlesford; we walked into the village for supplies and a few pints of beer at the Two Pointers pub. (A running theme of this holiday was the number of pubs we went to with food advertised but not actually available. The variety of reasons we heard for this became a source of some amusement. We ate on the boat a lot.) Rob took some beautiful photos that evening.
Day 5: Woodlesford to Broad Cut Low Lock
We spent most of this day on the Aire & Calder, which meant working only automated locks. It was consequently less strenuous than previous days, at least for the most part.
The river is big and broad, and we really enjoyed just going along at our easy pace. We did some of the big locks at the same time as another boat, swapping off the “work” of the locks with the couple on board. They were with us as far as Stanley Ferry.
In addition to a nice bridge, Stanley Ferry is the home of workshop where new lock gates are built for the canals. We saw many gates on our trip with the “made in Stanley Ferry” label, and it was wonderful to find that our route took us right past the works. We saw finished gates being soaked in water to season them before installation, as well as gates in other stages of completion.
We moored up in Stanley Ferry intending to have lunch. Alas, while we found a real ale pub (the Ship’s Inn) and had delicious Theakston’s Best and Old Peculiar, we had just missed their lunch service hours. The theme continued.
Wakefield provided some interesting scenery, including some young gentlemen bathing (I promised to post their photograph, but only the one taken after they were partially dressed). We also saw the railway viaduct where the main London to Leeds line crosses the rivers and the city, known as the 99 Arches. The bridge over the river was fancy and I liked it.
Now the hard work of the trip began. The lock gates on the Calder and Hebble are huge and heavy, and the paddle mechanisms can be very difficult to work. Some are hydraulically assisted, but most are very difficult to move.
In particular, this navigation features many gate and ground paddles that are not operated with a windlass, but instead are opened and closed using a handspike — a three-foot length of hardwood that you jam in the gear of the paddle to wind it a few inches, then move it to a new space in the cog to wind a few more inches, repeating as needed. The ground paddles in particular are very powerful, so it’s good that you can’t open them too quickly; you need to be careful not to bounce the boat around too badly with huge surges of water. In most locks, we used a center line attached to a mooring point to try to keep No Turning Back from being bashed against the wall. Being the one standing on the roof of the boat trying to keep the line taut was something of a change from working heavy paddles, so we swapped duties some of the time.
By the time we reached Horbury, we were happy to moor up for the night and go in search of food. The Navigation was one of the few pubs that did not disappoint in this regard, and we enjoyed our meal (including the house special onion rings) very much. The owner told us that a kingfisher had been spotted further along the canal, so we knew to watch closely the next day.
Day 6: Horbury to Brighouse, with side trip to Dewsbury
Wednesday was spent on the Calder and Hebble, where it seems that each set of locks is slightly different. We learned to take Sticky, our hardwood handspike, with us when we went ahead to work the lock, because you could never be sure whether you would need him, or windlasses, or both.
By far the highlights of the day for me were our kingfisher sightings. I had never seen a kingfisher, and we were on the lookout. We actually had traveled beyond the bend where we had been told to look when Ruth and I saw the first one — a bright flash of blue as it flew across the water in front of our boat, and then its bright orange rump as it took cover in the trees.
My only disappointment was that Rob hadn’t seen it too; I didn’t realized that he had never seen one either. So it was even better the second time, when one flew ahead of us for a bit before flying into cover, and Rob was sitting in the front of the boat with me, watching. A special moment, and it really epitomizes the best aspect of narrow boat travel for me. You move slowly through the landscape, with time to see details that you would miss traveling faster, and there are lovely stretches where you can just relax and watch the world go by, until the next lock or swing bridge anyway.
We took a side journey up the Dewsbury arm to Savile Town Basin. We were looking for a brewpub there that was featured in our canal guide, The Leggers Inn. We learned that it no longer brews its own ale, but it did have a relatively interesting variety of guest ales available. The décor was fascinating; there was a lot of Victorian (and earlier) era memorabilia, including some fun posters.
I realized just how accustomed I had become to the slow pace of our journey when we passed by the motorway. The cars seemed to be going SO fast!
We stopped for the night in Brighouse, again because of a pub that was recommended in our guidebook. We found the pub, The Red Rooster; it was quite crowded when we arrived, since the World Cup match had just ended. They had a pretty good variety of beer on, and we enjoyed several pints before walking back to the boat – no food, however, because the kitchen was closed during pub renovations.
Day 7: Brighouse to Hebden Bridge
Our last day of the trip was very busy. We started from Brighouse with several other boats, and there were also quite a few boats coming the other direction. We traveled most of the morning with another boat, hired out of Sowerby Bridge by a very friendly couple. Once again there was an interesting variety of locks, including the guillotine lock at Salterhebble.
We appreciated the scenery on this last day as well.
We moved from the Calder and Hebble to the Rochdale Canal. This was a new experience for Ruth and Lloyd, as the Rochdale was only reconnected to the rest of the canal network in 1996. We went through the Tuel Lane tunnel and lock, which at 20 ft. is one of the deepest locks in the entire canal system. You have to contact the lock keeper and get permission to come through from that side; we were fortunate not to have to wait.
On the Rochdale, we passed a hired boat carrying a dozen or so young men, probably university students. They were in pirate outfits, in various stages of undress, and the boat was full of beer cans and bottles. It wasn’t too surprising that at the next few locks we traversed, we found paddles left open and or unlatched.
We fed some apples and carrots to horses in a pasture near one lock.
This was one of our last locks: Ruth and I were working the paddles, and we thought the name was just perfect.
It was a beautiful last afternoon on the boat.
At Hebden Bridge we moored the boat at the Bronte Boat Hire marina. We had a last dinner on the boat, walked into town for a few pints of beer at the Station Inn, and entertained ourselves watching road crews re-surface the streets.
Day 8: The End
Karen picked us up in Hebden Bridge and drove us back to our cars in Barnoldswick. It was strange to travel in under an hour to where we had started a whole week before!
This was a fine holiday. With the beautiful weather, the friendly people and the excellent accommodation and equipment provided for us, we had a fabulous time. We highly recommend this trip to others interested in exploring the canals.