Freesteel Blog » Leeds-Liverpool Canal


Leeds-Liverpool Canal – October 2000

The week before we went on this cycle ride, Becka and I tried to spend a quiet weekend at home. We got on each other’s nerves so much that if we didn’t follow up this canal trip idea we might never do it together. This is our excuse for choosing one of the wetter weekends the North of England was able to provide.

The tobacco warehouse at the Mersey end of the canal.

Liverpool does nineteenth century heritage/dereliction very well. Like war, the nineteenth century version is much more romantic and decent than the twentieth century equivalents. It must have been grimmer for the people at the time, the war and the industrial poverty, but now the smoke has cleared, the chivalry, canal-building, steam engines and monumental brick warehouses are quite attractive. This is more than can be said for napalm bombs, strip mining and sixteen lane freeways which will never look good no matter how many years get between us and them. Fortunately, the twentieth century didn’t make it to Liverpool in any big way, so the good old stuff still stands. I would like to see, though, documents which must exist for the technical costs of filling in the canals and paving them over as roads, and what stopped them given the number of bad road ideas that have gone through.

If my bike broke down I could always hope to fish another one out of the water.

The canal starts by rising up four locks from the tobacco warehouse used as a grim marketplace on Sundays through the middle of a new bungalow estate. The last time I came here the lock ponds were empty and lined with rubbish. Now it had been raining and they were brimming with clean water. The water at this end of the canal was crystal clear so you could see the junk lurking at the bottom. In places it was choked with weeds almost to the middle. The swing bridges were rusted in place. There were herons with their umbrella-like wings every mile, and a large fox on the towpath just outside of town.

Before the next lock, the water became murky like river water, and never cleared again. There were frequent showers all morning and it was impossible to steer round the muddy puddles on the towpath. Further on, the path disappeared and became squelchy grass. Of course we didn’t have mudguards on our bikes. I’d bought mine at a police auction for forty quid, and Becka’s was borrowed from a friend who didn’t use it because he had moved onto something better.

Bridge number 40. The towpath is a little indistinct here.

The intention was to cycle to Clive and Sarah’s place in Yorkshire, about 100 miles in total from Liverpool. The canal does not take the most direct route to Leeds from Liverpool and it includes a diversion about 30 miles north to avoid the hills, passing through Gargrave where Clive works. Since he communtes from home to work and back by bike every day, it seemed an obvious place to break away and end the journey. If you were very optimistic and thought of an average of ten miles an hour, for ten hours, you could get there in a day.

The only wildlife is at the Liverpool end. From then on it’s just fishermen, dogs and the occasional hungry horse that has broken out of its field.

However, from the mile markers we passed, Becka calculated that we were lucky if we were doing 8mph – and on the muddy bits it was much less. Then, passing between a row of fishermenand a recently trimmed hawthorn hedge, she got a puncture. Of course I wasn’t carrying a puncture repair kit because mountain bikes don’t get punctures. It was still raining. We came off at a bridge and asked a garage for help. They were not very helpful and gave ambiguous directions for another garage. I peddled on ahead, Becka followed on foot, and we went our separate ways. For a moment it looked like the whole expedition was doomed as I raced around residential streets looking for traces of her, but I found her in the end. The second garage was useless. We walked the rest of the way into Ormskirk and found an unfriendly cycle shop which sold me a puncture repair kit, another set of tyre levers to go with my collection at home and yet another shite bike pump. We ate chips in the middle of town like two muddy tramps among the Friday shoppers and we failed to buy any cakes or other comfort food because we were so sure we were going to give up and catch the train home after another few miles.

Becka demonstrating the wrong way to negotiate the cycle-“friendly” gates along the way. The shape is just about adequate for the regulation size of cycle and is therefore no good for mountain bikes with handlebars sticking out.

There was nothing to do but press on. There were breaks in the showers but there was so much mud flying in the air from the bike tyres that it didn’t make a difference. I wanted to at least get to Wigan before considering giving up. There are signposts on the motorway for the world famous Wigan Pier, so it was an important destination. Being as it was on the canal, there was no way to miss it. But I did and I had to turn round and go back after passing the epicentre of the Wigan Pier memorabilia explosion. There is an extremely tacky looking pub called “The Orwell” and a building beside the Tourist Information calling itself “The Wigan Pier Experience”. The replica of the original Wigan Pier is on the canal: two rails sticking out less than a metre over the water to allow coal to be tipped onto barges. Entirely insignificant, but that’s the way it is with literary objects, frequently blown out of all proportion to a reality that, by pure fluke, happens to be associated with a catchy phrase. Far more impressive are the Wigan locks taking the canal up 280 feet in a staircase of 23 locks. This was a (relatively) steep climb, but at least the path was good, unless you counted the litter of fag-smoking children just out of school swarming all over the place.

Becka demonstrating the right way to get round the barrier. This works for almost all of them.

It was getting to the point where we had to think about what we were going to do for the night. We actually had a guidebook with us, “Aerofilms Guide: The Leeds-Liverpool Canal”, which showed the entire route using aerial photographs. It’s supposed to be a walking guide, although the idea of requiring a guidebook to follow a canal is pretty weird. It had broken the walk up into eleven parts of about fourteen miles each, stipulating the places to have lunch and where to catch the train home or back to your car at the end of each day. The mile estimates when added up did not agree with the canal markers, but it was useful to know that a day’s walk equated to about two hours of pedalling.

Liverpool is to the left and Leeds is to the right. This doesn’t make sense as you approach it, but is logical if you imagine the sign opened flat against the wall. Closer to Leeds, the convention is reversed, probably due to the posts being modern replicas and the council deciding to do it “right” rather than consistently. Mile markers were useful for calculating freight charges.

Wigan led to Chorley (which I had never heard of) and Chorley led to Blackburn. The canal passes around the town on a hillside so you could see it was a big place. We found the train station where I expected to see some adverts for Bed and Breakfasts, but it was all but boarded up. The Tourist Information person in Wigan had recommended that we look in a Yellow Pages, but since every copy of these is kept off the street and under lock and key in private houses, we were sunk. Finally Becka got directions for a place to stay from a taxi driver (who gave excellent instructions in terms of road names rather than the usual innumerable and unmemorable set of right and left hand turns). It was full, but across the street was another place which had spaces and were kind enough to put our disgraceful bikes in the back hall. Every part of my body was sore. After a shower I changed into a pair of embarrassing stockings which had beenintended for use only on the inside of trousers for extra warmth. However the trousers were coated too heavyily with mud. We crawled down the hill in search of a restaurant.
Blackburn was amazingly dead for a northern town on a Friday night. We found a Chinese restaurant which seemed to have no Chinese people in it, and ordered the vegetarian banquet for two. We finished it just in time to get out of the place before the hired karaoke set got into full swing.

A not so hearty breakfast in Blackburne. Scrambled egg in the singular.

We found our way back through town in the morning, somehow. A canal is a linear object so if you are going within 90 degrees of the right direction you are bound to hit it. We didn’t even bother trying to use the aerial photo picture book to navigate through the city. In fact when we had to leave the canal and find our way over the hill at Gannow tunnel (which is only 500m long) we got lost. On an aerial photo you can’t tell the difference between a carpark and a tall building, and the only real landmarks are railroads and motorways.

The entrance to Foulridge Tunnel. A mile long and straight enough to see a light at the end. We got lost again trying to find the way over land and ended up threading our way along an overgrown, disused railway.

After Gannow came Burnley, where the canal takes a huge loop to the south in the shape of an arrowhead, such that you could save a lot of distance by cutting across a field or two. But then you would miss the Burnley canal embankment which claims, on the faded sign, to be one of the seven wonders of the world. A somewhat bold statement in my view, even if it is quite big for something built by hand and shovel. But it was not for the purpose of burying a despotic king, nor was it a dam which would have flooded the homes of the people needed to be hired to build it (a trick the World Bank has achieved often enough in the third world). It was for the economic benefit of the local population (you could bring in coal for warmth cheaply), so you would expect them to be keen to build it. It isn’t even noisy like a road. There are no nasty side-effects to having a canal go through your neighbourhood so, not surprisingly, many were built.

Between Blackburne and Burnley the canal crosses the thunderous M65 numerous times both over and under.

We dropped into Burnley for a second breakfast. It rainedhard most of that day, so we were more wet than muddy – the mud simply washed off. We’d given up trying to keep anything dry. My shoes were like sponges with soles. We were going to do whatever we could to finish the day at Clive and Sarah’s house so we pedalled as hard as we could. It was quite hilly and the canal swerved around in great loops following the contours of the land. Occasionally the path changed sides over a bridge. I began thinking: if these canal barges were supposed to have been pulled by horses walking along the tow path, I would have expected there to be a path on each side of the canal, one for towing the barges in one direction and the other for the other. But the other path was always missing. It couldn’t have been overgrown because whenever there was a stone bridge, there was a path on only one side underneath. Then I noticed a pattern. The towpath is always on the side of the downslope of the hill the canal is on. Sometimes the slope is frighteningly steep, but then it means the canal can more easily pick the right height to travel at. I still have no idea how the tow-horses crossed over without their barges colliding or their ropes getting entangled on the narrow bank and pulling one of the horses in the water sideways.

This is shortly before the middle-of-nowhere pretty section leading to Gargrave.

From then on it was direct to Gargrave through the rain, this time with a decent number of cakes and sticky buns in our pockets. The grassy miles approaching Gargrave were the most rural, with the canal snaking through the hilly fields like a river, even though it was following a constant contour rather than the direction of the deepest slope. There’s a mathematical theorem somewhere that says that canals should only cross rivers at right angles. However, for the last fifteen miles the Leeds-Liverpool runs alongside the river Aire, so something strange is happening.

Custard pie break in front of the no cycling sign. Naughty. Lucky we don’t have zero-tolerance policing with cameras everywhere yet.

We reached Gargrave at five in the afternoon, at the intended end of the journey, and raided another cake shop. Clive wasn’t in his office that day because it was a Saturday, so we decided that if he was able to commute along the A65 each way every day in forty minutes, we should do it. The road goes up and down – which felt weird after so many miles along the flat – and wandered this way and that for eleven miles, but at least it was smooth. My bike bottom bracket was shrieking because a ballbearing in the crank had shattered, and the back wheel was worryingly wobbly at speed down the hills. It took at least an hour and was nearly dark but finally we made it.

Drying shoes by Clive and Sarah’s fire.

At Sarah’s house she put the fire on and we dripped all over her kitchen and got fed. Clive had just bought an extra video recorder to solve the problem of the TV channels all putting their one good programme a week on at the same time. He was disappointed to find that the new recorder shared the same remote control channel as his old one. He solved the problem by sticking a piece of cardboard over the infra-red detector of one or the other of them. Why can’t you get remote controls that work with a wire any more? They would never need batteries, it wouldn’t matter which way you pointed them, and you wouldn’t ever lose them. Technology doesn’t always take you forward.

This is on the way to Skipton. Yes, it looks sunny. Cameras don’t come out of the bag when there is a downpour going on.

The original weekend plan had been to catch a train back from Clive and Sarah’s, but a brief check with the on-line timetables showed that this wasn’t going to work too well. The first train back to Liverpool was going to start at 4pm and take three hours. The obvious alternative was to get back on the canal and continue to the end at Leeds. Becka dried our shoes with newspaper overnight and we borrowed Clive’s car to save the cycle ride back to Gargrave. Breakfast was going to be found in Skipton, we hoped. Unfortunately the town was useless, and afterthree circuits we had found no cafes of any merit. One wouldn’t do veggie breakfasts because it wasn’t on their fixed menu, and the other was one of those white bread and plastic prawn chain hell “bakeries” which seem to be spreading through the country like Japanese knotweed, strangling out the native trade. The crisis is especially bad back in Liverpool, where there is nothing but “Sayer’s the Baker”, but at least I’ve got a home to make bread in there.

Five-Rise locks, at the top of which is a good cafe. The lock gates function all as one unit instead of in pairs and it takes skill to operate them without flooding the lower levels.

We cleared off further down the canal and had some sun for a change. This brought all the fishermen out. We must have passed millions of them on the bank with all their crazy sailing mast poles for rods. These let them fish a foot away from opposite canal bankfrom where they are sitting – so why don’t they just dangle a baited hookinto the water on the side they are on instead?.Anyway, not one of them had any fish. We also met a handful of cyclists. The main class of people who used the path, though, whether in rain or sun, were the dog walkers. Most of them grabbed their dogs by the neck and pinned them to the ground when they saw us coming. Dogs are so stupid they just wander in front of bikes as if they aren’t there. It’s unbelieveable that these thick animals could have been bred from carnivores. The only effect now of their genetic heritage is their terrible poo. Happily every single dog poo was picked up off the path by someone, so something is working.

Arrival in Leeds. The canal terminates almost underneath the main train draining into the Aire which it has been parallelling, and gradually angling down to, for over fifteen miles.

Before we became too hungry, someone cycled past us and said that there was a good cafe at Five-Rise locks. Indeed there was. It was also the only cafe actually on the canal along the entire 127 miles. There are no guest houses either. Only some pubs, which were never there when we needed them. Most canal users are in their boat which supplies tea and a bed to sleep in, so neither product is likely to be much in demand. A canal boat cafe and bunkhouse would have been perfect for our needs, but none existed. The Five-Rise cafe served us such a First-Rate greasy cheese toastie that we didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day. This was perfect since we were keen to get the whole trip over with. My legs and arms were aching to death, the bikes were falling apart and we just wanted to get home. It was enough already. The locks were at least downhill from now on. The anglers came in lomger clusters and the track was intermittently mud and paved, usually with a “no cycling” sign wherever there was mud.

The train was a bit full. Fortunately Becka had extracted a bike ticket for us for free from the ticket man, so we were guaranteed a place, even though we had to kick people out of the folding seats to squeeze the bikes in.

There’s a long mud stretch just three miles out of the centre of Leeds, amazingly. We doubted we had reached civilization even as the skyscrapers around the train station loomed. Cities sprawl primarily along roads to make themselves look larger than they are to the car drivers coming in, but along the canal the greenbelt extends right the way to the middle. There was Spring Garden Locks, Oddy Locks, Office Locks, and then the final lock feeding into the Aire and Calder Navigation. I wondered about finishing the journey by following this river to the coast, but that would have been too much. The train station was one block away, and we were back to Liverpool in two hours using the technology that superceded the canal.

Julian Todd 13/10/2000.