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This article Pennine Passage is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Leeds & Liverpool Canal. First published in Waterways World January 1998


Pennine Passage

Of the three trans-Pennine canals the Leeds & Liverpool was the first to be authorised (by an Act of Parliament of 1770), the last to be fully opened (in 1816), by far the longest (127 miles) and the only one still navigable throughout. The other two canals are the Rochdale (33 miles, authorised by an Act of 1794 and fully open in 1804) and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal (20 miles, authorised by an Act of 1794 and fully open in 1811).

The period of forty-six years taken to build the canal started hopefully with the 200,000 capital being raised within two months and over fifty miles of waterway being open by early 1774. Unfortunately all the original capital had been spent in constructing less than half of the canal. This was by no means a unique situation in the history of canal companies, often a company would go back to parliament to obtain a new Act allowing them to increase their capital. In many cases there was little choice, with a canal leading from a major town to the middle of nowhere the shareholders had to raise more money or lose their original investment. The Leeds and Liverpool shareholders were not faced with this stark choice, they had a canal from Liverpool to Wigan and another from Gargrave, via Skipton and Bingley, to Shipley, where it joined the Bradford Canal. There was a growing trade on both these sections, and the tolls, plus various loans over the years, financed the completion of the scheme. A disadvantage of this approach was that by the time the Leeds & Liverpool linked the cities of its title two shorter cross Pennine routes were already open.

Cross Pennine traffic never formed the bulk of commercial carrying, shorter journeys on both the Lancashire and Yorkshire providing the main profits, which continued, albeit at a reduced rate, well into the Railway Age. Today the centre section of the canal is attracting more interest than ever before, as increasing pleasure boating has replaced commercial carrying. From Barrowford in Lancashire to Bingley in West Yorkshire are 32 miles of rural canal that are a joy to cruise, not that the rest of the Leeds & Liverpool is without charm, far from it, there is interest and good scenery throughout its length. The drawback of the canal for boaters of the South and Midlands is the long journey needed to get there, but if the time can be found the effort is well rewarded.

Although a wide canal the locks from Wigan to Leeds are 62 feet long, so a full length narrowboat cannot pass. In the other direction from Wigan (at the Leigh Branch junction, which forms the link with the Bridgewater Canal and the South) to Liverpool the locks are 72 feet long. If you join the canal at this point you have the choice of turning west, towards Liverpool, or east, up the 21 Wigan Locks, to Leeds, 92 miles away. Although most boats head towards Leeds the route to the west has its attractions. Just a short distance, and two locks, from the junction is Wigan Pier & Heritage Centre in restored canalside buildings opposite the site of the original Wigan Pier, now marked with a plaque. The entrance charge to the heritage centre also includes admission to the nearby Trencherfield Mill housing a museum of mill machinery, including a huge steam driven mill engine with a flywheel of 26 1/2 feet diameter. An impressive sight even if, like me, you are not an engine buff.

Once out of Wigan the countryside is pleasant and there are good moorings at Crooke Bridge and Appley Bridge. Just over ten miles from the Leigh Branch junction is the Rufford Branch with a picturesque little settlement around the top lock. The eight locks on this branch are 62 feet long, the last one, at Tarleton, giving access to the tidal River Douglas and the Ribble Estuary. This will be the route to the Lancaster Canal once the Ribble Link project has been completed. On our journey up the Rufford Branch, at the end of April, we were surprised to meet Hythe, a hire boat from Clifton Cruisers of Rugby. The hirers told us they were on a two month voyage and that they had come down the Leicester Section of the Grand Union, the Trent, Aire & Calder, and across the Leeds & Liverpool.

If you choose to head east from Wigan you face the 21 locks of the Wigan flight. Assisted passage through the locks can be booked with British Waterways and at times of water shortages booking may be mandatory. With a small crew booking is well worth while, not only for the help given by the lock keepers but it also increases the chance of sharing locks with another boat. Unlocking and re-locking all the anti-vandal devices on each paddle slows progress and unless you have enough crew to prepare the locks ahead working the flight will be time consuming. On our last trip up we shared the locks with a boat with an experienced crew and the lock keepers had all the locks set in our favour with the gates open. It took us 3 1/2 hours to reach the top.

Above the top lock you are out of Wigan, which can be seen 200 feet below, and we can look forward to 10 miles of lock free cruising before the seven Johnson's Hill Locks, then another 8 miles before Blackburn. As a shopping centre Blackburn is fine but be careful where you moor, ask the lock keeper's advice or stop at Eanam Wharf, which is only a short walk from the town centre, but even here overnight mooring cannot be recommended. The 15 miles from Blackburn to Burnley have less rural stretches but can still offer some magnificent views. Around Church the industrial units line the canal banks but on the last two occasions I went through here I saw a kingfisher flying across the canal.

As we come into Burnley there is much of interest. First the 559 yards Gannow Tunnel then a modern aqueduct over the M65, followed by the 19th century industrial buildings of the Weaver's Triangle which line the canal just before we reach the British Waterways yard. The 3/4 mile Burnley Embankment, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, runs straight from the BW yard, 60 feet above the town. Burnley is also a good place for shopping and better than Blackburn for mooring. The seven miles from Burnley to Barrowford Locks are mainly urban as Burnley, Brierfield and Nelson come with hardly a break between them.

Barrowford marks the beginning of what I consider the most scenic section of the canal. Less than a mile after the seven locks we come to Foulridge Tunnel, 1640 yards long and controlled by traffic lights. We are now on the summit level, under seven miles long, which ends at the three Greenberfield Locks, and after the locks we come to the unmarked border where we leave Lancashire and enter North Yorkshire. After East Marton the canal begins a series of spectacular twists as it follows the contours of the valley, we pass a radio mast then twist back to pass it again on the other side. We continue our serpentine progress. Look across the valley and you will see the dry stone wall that runs by the towpath, you may see a boat making its way along the opposite hillside. The twists and turns are ended by Bank Newton six locks. From here we follow a more direct course, through a number of single locks to Gargrave where there are good moorings above Higherland Lock. It is worth stopping here for Gargrave is a pretty village, on the River Aire and Pennine Way as well as the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, and set in the middle of some excellent walking country.

A little way after Gargrave we pass through Holme Bridge Lock, our next lock is at Bingley, over 16 miles away, but don't worry about missing your exercise, there are plenty of swing bridges to keep you in trim. After 5 swing bridges, and just 4 miles, it is time to stop and look round Skipton. This attractive market town has its main street full of stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it also has good selection of the usual shops and many independent small shops that cater for tourists and locals alike. Just a short way from the centre is a large Morrison's Supermarket, close to Brewery Swing Bridge, No. 177. The 11th century castle overlooks the 1/2 mile Springs Branch, opened in 1797 to serve the nearby limestone quarries. The branch is still navigable but there is no proper turning place at the end, however the towpath walk in the wooded and rocky cutting is very pleasant, particularly on a hot summer day.

In the next 13 miles to Bingley there is a lot more inviting countryside, some interesting small towns and villages and a lot more swing bridges. If I see another boat following as we go through a swing bridge I always wait to let them through, hoping that they will go on and open the next one for me, and I try not to be too disappointed if they moor before getting to the next bridge. I have been in a chain of four boats on this part of the Leeds & Liverpool, the front boat stopping to open and close the bridge and then joining the back of the line, passing effortlessly through bridges until we reached the front of the queue again.

At Bingley the long lock free pound is ended in a spectacular manner, with the Bingley Five Rise locks, like Burnley Embankment one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, the Leeds and Liverpool being the only Canal to possess two of the seven wonders. We may also meet one of the living wonders of the waterways in the shape of Barry Whitelock, lock keeper at Bingley for the last eighteen years and one of the best known waterways personalities. He will see you safely through the complexities of the five lock staircase. The sixteen miles from here to Leeds has another 24 locks, including 4 three rise locks and 3 two rise locks. On the way is Saltaire, a model Victorian mill town built by Sir Titus Salt. From the canal you can see the elegant church and the impressive mill buildings. A short walk will reveal the neat streets of workers homes, the shops and the school but no pub, Sir Titus Salt's Victorian morals still prevail, in this at least.

The rest of the canal provides varied cruising, open fields and woods, and increasing villages and industry as we approach Leeds, although we still find some green tree lined lengths even when we are quite close to the city centre. If you want to stop in Leeds there are good moorings between Office Lock and River Lock, next to the car park by the railway arches. The arches provide an entrance road to the car park and a pedestrian short cut to the city centre. This area is often busy during the day, and may not appeal to you as an overnight mooring, but around 6pm the car park closes and gates at both ends of the arches are closed and locked. Although this means you have a longer walk to get to the city centre it makes it a comparatively quiet mooring. An alternative mooring in Leeds is on the Aire & Calder Navigation at Clareance Dock by the Royal Armouries Museum.

The Aire & Calder provides the alternative route to the Leeds & Liverpool. Coming from the south, down the Trent, most people turn off the river Keadby on to the Stainforth & Keadby Canal, which leads via the New Junction Canal to the Aire & Calder. For those who make the journey from the Midlands or South a one way trip across the Leeds & Liverpool makes sense. This is the way I have done the trip; once, down the Trent, across the Pennines from east to west and returning via the Bridgewater and Trent & Mersey; and twice in the opposite direction. West to east, or east to west, it really doesn't matter, it looks good from either direction.


The Pictures

  1. The Springs branch at Skipton.
  2. Cruising between Skipton and Gargrave.
  3. Bank Newton Locks.
  4. Visitor moorings at Saltaire.
  5. Field staircase locks.


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Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List