The Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Leeds to Barnoldswick

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was originally built to enable the transport ofheavy goods over the Pennines from the industrial heartlands of West Yorkshire to the docks at Liverpool. The canal was constructed with wide locks so that it was capable of taking huge barges throughout its whole length. It is one of the the longest canals in the country in terms of overall mileage, and its route passes over the highest chain of mountains in England (the Pennines), so its construction was a tremendous feat of engineering for the time.

The canal at Skipton
Above: The canal at Skipton - photo by Simon Worsfold

The canal company that built it made profits for many years, although the shortage of water supply for the summit pound over the Pennines was always a problem. Despite the fact that the canal company built huge reservoirs there were several summers when because of a water shortage the canal had to be closed to traffic. By the 1960ies commercial traffic on the canal had ceased. Nowadays the canal is used by those taking a canal boat holiday. It is appreciated not only for its beauty in tranquil settings as it passes high over the moorland but also for the industrial architecture along other lengths through such cities as Leeds, and towns like Shipley, Saltaire and Bingley. This latter town is particularly famous in canal boat circles as being the location for the extraordinary construction known as the "Bingley Five Rise" - a unique set of staircase locks, which were totally revolutionary at the time they were devised (more of these later). This will be a memorable part of a canal boat hire or canal boat holiday.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Skipton

Above: The Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Skipton - photo by Simon Worsfold

The Leeds and Liverpool canal starts in the city of Leeds, a huge industrial centre and once the heart of the textile and clothing industry. The canal leaves the Aire and Calder Canal at River Lock in the centre of the city by the railway station. British Waterways Board advise that - as in all big cities - care must be exercised when mooring your boat in Leeds, but that a good place to moor is between River and Office Locks. Once you leave River Lock thenext lock is in fact Office Lock, and the surrounding area is being redeveloped in the style of Brindley Place in Birmingham.

The route of the canal follows the River Aire until the famous ruins of Kirkstall Abbey that you can glimpse from your canal boat . This was a beautiful Cistercian Abbey founded in the 12 century, and was yet again one of those despoiled by King Henry VIII in Tudor times. There is enough left of the ruins of the abbey to give you the impression of its size and the beauty of the original building.

Office Lock in the centre of Leeds Kirkstall Abbey Leeds

Above: Office Lock in the centre of Leeds
- photo by David Burgess.

Above: Kirkstall Abbey Leeds -
photo by Simon Worsfold

Canal boaters-Lock alert! You next pass through two sets of locks at Forge and Newlay on the outskirts of Leeds and a village called Rodley, before reaching Apperley Bridge, which has a BW boatyard and a mooring basin by Dobson Locks.

 Apperley Bridge marina

Above: Apperley Bridge marina - photo by Simon Worsfold and reproduced by kind permission

The canal continues to follow the route of the River Aire with a long stretch of the canal without locks -until you reach the towns of Baildon and Shipley and the model "village" of Saltaire. These towns are largely built of dark Yorkshire limestone and were formerly the centres of textiles and heavy engineering. There are still mills here and factories adjacent to the canal like the Damart mill at Bingley.

The canal at Shipley

Above: The canal at Shipley - photo by Simon Worsfold

Saltaire is one of those experiments in social engineering that the Victorians loved so much. Sir Titus Salt ,the great Yorkshire mill-owner was deeply shocked by the living conditions of many of his workers in his factories so he built a "model village" on the banks of the canal and River Aire, just outside Shipley. The houses were built to tremendously high standard for the time but Sir Titus had signed the pledge against the demon drink.So, he refused to build a pub for his villagers! He did build a beautiful church in the Italianate style and schools and centres so that his workers could spend their spare time in improving pursuits.Not much has changed and the village is visible from the canal and a popular view for canal boaters. There is now even a pub at the bridge called the Boathouse Inn!

Leaving Saltaire and after negotiating Hirst Lock and Dowley Gap Lock, you quickly approach Bingley. This was and may remain the centre of the thermal underwear trade with the very large Damart factory right by the canal. There is also a set of three locks here, the Bingley Three Rise and which should keep serve as a taster for all canal boat travellers of what is to come next  If you are on foot maybe stop and enjoy the sight of others working!

However, the single most visited attraction on the canal is located just after the Three Rise locks. They are known as the Bingley Five Rise staircase locks. These are all "joined together", so that the top gates of one lock are also the bottom gates of the next lock, and so on. They are a magnificent feat of canal civil engineering and they are world famous among canal aficionados. It is fun to watch narrowboats trying to negotiate these five locks one after another. It is not so much fun if you arrive at the bottom lock just after another canal boat has beaten you to it and commenced their ascent  because you know you will then have to wait a considerable length of time -until the locks are set once again . Once you have reached the top of the staircase you will be relieved to know that there are no more locks to negotiate until you reach Gargarve  about 17 miles away and beyond Skipton.

Once you leave Bingley the large industrial towns seem to melt away - you can still see Keighley to the south of the canal, but there are more views of hills and wooded landscapes from now on for you to enjoy. The canal reaches Silsden, which has pubs and shops for essential supplies, and which is the base for Silsden Boats. Beyond Silsden you approach Kildwick, which isanother nice little village alongside the canal, with pubs and shops, before the long stretch of open countryside that preceeds the approach to Skipton.

Bingley Five Rise Staircase Locks Skipton and the canal

Above: Bingley Five Rise Staircase Locks
- photo by Simon Worsfold

Above: Skipton and the canal -
photo by David Burgess

Skipton is a gem. I first visited here about 30 years ago, and its delights do not fade with time. It is - as you might expect - the centre of the canal "industry", with loads of moorings, and shops selling everything you could possibly want for your boatand basic supplies like bread and milk. Springs Branch is a canal basin that is off the main canal, and which leads to the centre of the town. The town is still a market centre with many old and interesting buildings, like the castle, and the parish church of the Holy Trinity, both of which tower over the town. The Springs Branch was built originally to carry stone from a nearby quarry down the canal to Leeds, but now it is entirely used for pleasure boating, and there are several pubs here, like The Royal Shepherd, and Herriots.

When you tear yourself away from Skipton you will be travelling westward over the top of the Pennines, and through the Yorkshire Dales National Park. You are surrounded by moors and hills and you cross a stone aqueduct at Holme Bridge, before approaching the village of Gargrave.

The canal at Gargrave Lock he delightful setting of Bank Newton Lock
Above:The canal at Gargrave Lock - photo by Simon Worsfold

Above: The delightful setting of Bank Newton Lock - photo by Simon Worsfold

This is a walking and cycling centre for visitors because it is so close to some of England's finest moors and dales. Gargrave village has lots of pubs and shops for supplies.

Once past Gargrave, the canal twists and turns following the contours of the land, past Bank Newton and East Marton. You reach the first locks on the canal since you left Bingley. The views are tremendous in all directions. There are six locks at Bank Newton, which raise you up even further towards East Marton and Wilkinsons Farm, where there is a useful shop.

You might need to stock up here, because the countryside beyond this point is fairly remote. The famous Pennine Way, the 250 mile long walking track from Kirk Yetholme in the Cheviots to Edale in Derbyshire passes through here at East Marton, and the track actually goes along the towpath here for a short distance.

Bank Newton Bridge The bridges at East Marton

Above: Bank Newton Bridge - photo by David Burgess.

Above: The bridges at East Marton -
photo by Simon Worsfold

Once you leave East Marton you are now approaching the town of Barnoldswick and Greenberfield locks which are the "top locks" of the whole canal - the pound beyond here is the Summit Pound and it is downhill all the way towards Liverpool from this point.
The lock at Greenberfield
Above: The lock at Greenberfield - photo by Simon Worsfold

Barnoldswick is a busy little town, once the centre of the Rolls Royce aero-engine industry, and it has lots of useful shops and pubs. Thecanalbeyond Barnoldswick takes you through Salterforth and some really remote and beautiful countryside with views in most directions, until you reach the north portal of the Foulridge Tunnel. This is over 1 mile long and very wet: for those in a canal boat you should have cagoules and umbrellas handy to ward off the constant drips from the tunnel roof.

At the southern end of the tunnel the Leeds and Liverpool canal becomes dominated by unrelieved industrial scenes of such towns as Burnley, Clayton le Moors, Blackburn, Chorley and Wigan, which are interspersed with long stretches of flat fields. There are a few sections which are attractive, like Scarisbrick Hall and woods but basically the scenery around this part of the canal is not very interesting, and - it has to be said - unexciting but part of the canal boat holiday experience.

Above,  Photo of the Liver Building –one of  Liverpool's iconic buildings-as, taken from the Mersey Ferry (January 2018) 

The canal finally reaches the city of Liverpool passing through the suburbs of Maghull and Melling through Aintree, and winds its way through some challenging parts of the inner city. Until recently, the canal terminated in a lonely dead-end at Eldonian Village and that was that.

But with a recent £20 million restoration project (March 2009), coinciding with extensive regeneration of the city, the lock flight down to Stanley Dock has been completed once again enabling navigation to be extended across the Pier Head, then into the South Docks and Albert Dock connecting the might river Mersey, within the heart of Liverpool.

Above, Part of the regeneration of the Liverpool docks

Above, Entrance to the docks from the Mersey

You may want to continue your journey all the way to Liverpool, but if you particularly enjoy the moors and mountains that you have traversed across the Pennines, between Leeds and Barnoldswick, you may decide to turn your narrowboat around at Barnoldswick (there is a winding hole at Bridge 153 where you can do this) and retrace your steps towards Skipton once again.