Jess, my Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and I set off early on a Wednesday morning. It was a perfect Spring day for walking: sunny with a light breeze which ensured we never got too hot. With only some water, sandwiches and a few treats for Jess, we didn’t have a plan as to how far or where we’d go; we just went for it, knowing that, when we got far enough, we could move off the canal and get a train back. So, that’s what we did.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is Britain’s watery leviathan, being the longest canal at 127 miles, with 91 locks which raise it a massive 487 feet from its lowest point. It runs from the very heart of Leeds City Centre all the way to that of Liverpool, connecting the famous Granary Wharf to the synonymous Albert Docks.
In days gone by, we’d have been able to set off along the canal from, pretty much, our front door, living, as we do, close to Bradford’s Canal Road. Bradford’s canal, a branch which linked the city’s wool traders with the world, has long since been covered and plans to reopen stretches of it have, so far, come to little; the stretches which remain open are overgrown, un-repaired and inhospitable, with signs warning of contaminated water and litter strewn across the neglected towpaths and caught in the weeds which are slowly undoing the navvies’ work. This dilapidation is all the more sad because Liverpool understands the importance of the canal system in generating tourism, opening an extension, the Liverpool Canal Link, in 2009; and the idea of a canal linking industrial West Yorkshire and the hugely important world and Empire ports of Liverpool and Hull was born in Bradford – The Sun Inn hosted a public meeting in 1766 to promote the idea, and it was a group of colliers, merchants and industrialists from the city who really made it work.
Can anyone tell me why the mile markers are the wrong way round? The distance to Liverpool is facing Liverpool, so you have to be closer to Leeds to see it, and vice versa.
If you’re like me, dates don’t really mean much and I find it hard to appreciate what the world was like back when the idea was conceived and to imagine what a feat of engineering this was. To put it into perspective: Bradford was such a force in the global market that, because of its state of the art woolen trade, it can be compared to Silicone Valley today and it was the power and pull of Bradford that made it possible; Wigan’s coalfields were of such value and importance that original plans which did not include it were so vociferously argued over that an independent arbitrator had to be brought in and no canal could go forward without at least a branch to the town, satisfying Liverpool’s shipbuilders’ need for coal; and the whole project was halted for more than a decade because of the American Revolution – that’s right, some parts of the canal are older than the USA!
How hard do you think it is to build a canal? Pretty hard? Very hard? Imagine doing it without a JCB, a dumper truck, cement mixers! Imagine doing it in the 1700s! Canals are often called ‘cuts’, because the earth was cut out by ‘navvies’ (from ‘navigation’, the proper name for canals) who were unskilled labourers who worked tirelessly to change the direction of vast amounts of water making it do exactly what they wanted it to. I’ve heard that the French nickname for the British, les Rosbeefs or les Rosboeufs, caught on because of the vast quantities of roast beef eaten by navies when British know-how and muscle was used to further France’s industrial growth through canal building.
Saltaire, it is well known, was built as a model village to house the workers of Sir Titus Salt who moved production from his 6 Bradford mills on to one site. This allowed him to control the lives of his workers much more and, whilst it undoubtedly improved their lot, it was much more beneficial for Sir Titus. Although not a teetotaler himself, the village had no pubs and no alcohol was sold so that his workers were less likely to turn to drink. Today, Saltaire has some great pubs, with the cheekily named ‘Don’t Tell Titus’ (referencing his anti-alcohol stance) and ‘Fanny’s Alehouse’ (named after one of the streets) great places to have a drink and a bite. He was, though, a campaigner and wanted to move the industry forward by making less of an impact on the surroundings: Salt’s Mill was at the forefront of modern technology, being designed to be less polluting and the village, with its hospital, clean water and gas lighting & heating, to be much better for its inhabitants. He wasn’t totally PC, though, and argued against raising the working age to 9. Yes, that was raising it to 9!.
Imagine coming from the country in the 1800s to find this!
I love this picture because it really encapsulates what it was like to be there. The sun was streaming down and caught the lush greens which perfectly frame the canal through Saltaire before the industrial and residential buildings of Bingley entirely change the feel and look of the walk.
The United Reform Church was built by Sir Titus for his workers, and is a most wonderful building. As a Grade I Listed Building, it has the same protection Hampton Court Palace and Salisbury Cathedral. Unlike many churches, it doesn’t impose itself on the landscape, but sits pleasantly, enhancing its surroundings and, as I often have, is easily missed, especially if you are walking from the Bingley side or have eyes only for the ice-cream barge.
The perfect place to stop and cool down.
What’s the right name for these water flows?
Canal locks are amazing! I could crib other sites here and explain it to you, but I wouldn’t do it justice. I’d really recommend clicking here for a great interactive game where you can build and operate a lock, or click here for a more grown up, but less fun, explanation.
I had a great chat with a cyclist after taking this photo. She was asking about digital cameras and how easy they were to use and, after I gave her a go, I think I turned her on to investing in a digital camera.
My most amazing thing on the walk is Dowley Gap aqueduct. I simply can’t get a photo that will do it justice, but I will and I’ll cheat and add it here once I do. OK, here’s what’s amazing: you are walking along a towpath next to the canal. You look over the wall and 30 feet below you is… the River Aire! You are on a bridge which carries a canal over a river! Is it just me that finds this mind-blowing?
The last two pictures show how much the landscape changes as you arrive in Bingley. You move from feeling like you are in the middle of nowhere, a rural idyll, to a modern, industrial setting where there’s little of the nature we saw earlier. This is a great example of why Bradford & District is described as valleys of green and grey.
So, here we are at Bingley. I hope you’ll click here to read about the second part of our journey..