When I gave a lecture recently to the Driffield Wolds Decorative & Fine Arts Society [http://www.nadfas.org.uk/default.asp?section=209&page=1046], I met Ian Toon, who was about to canoe the Yorkshire length of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal from Foulridge Tunnel down to Leeds. I was impressed.
I can see that canoeing a canal is an excellent way to see every yard of waterway at close quarters, and to enjoy the wildlife as well as the history. How much of the scenery you see from water level is another question, but it’s an experience most of us will miss.
Foulridge (usually pronounced “Foalridge”) is a good place to start an exploration in either direction, by canoe, by narrow boat or on foot, because it’s downhill all the way in either direction. It’s also a relevant place to consider the dilemmas the original canal surveyors faced as they plotted their routes across the Pennine hills.
The traditional, James Brindley solution was to hug the contours regardless of the distance: this is what the Leeds & Liverpool Canal does, and it’s 127¼ miles long with two tunnels. The alternative was to save mileage with a tunnel: the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, highest in England at 684 feet above sea level, punches the three-mile Standedge Tunnel through the hillside; it’s not quite twenty miles long, but it took seventeen years to complete. The Rochdale Canal, 33 miles long, has no tunnel, was finished in ten years, and was bedevilled by water-supply problems.
There was a major argument when the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was under construction about whether it would be cheaper to tunnel at Foulridge, or to carry the canal higher and increase the mileage further. The engineer, Robert Whitworth, airily declared that building Foulridge Tunnel would be “a small affair…compared with what has been done in other canals”.
In fact, it took five years, 1791-6. It proved a liability when the lining failed in 1824 and again in 1843, and there were such difficulties in between those dates that the canal company engineer, Samuel Fletcher, estimated it would cost £23,000 to open it out as a cutting. In the end, the tunnel was repaired, and it’s been kept in repair ever since.
The main problem on the Leeds & Liverpool is and remains, ironically, water supply: for much of the nineteenth century the company kept building additional reservoirs, the last in 1893. As recently as 2010 the upper stretch of the canal was closed for lack of water.
Hindsight is easy, of course: it was a different matter for an eighteenth-century engineer staring at a hillside without so much as an Ordnance Survey map and deciding the best strategy. All three canals did their job, and the Leeds & Liverpool maintained traffic against rail competition until the early twentieth century and has always remained navigable. The other two trans-Pennine canals are once again navigable, despite decades of neglect [see The return of the Ring and Longest, highest, deepest].
Now you can walk, cycle, canoe or sail along these waterways with relative ease.
The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.