The Rochdale Canal from Sowerby Bridge to Todmorden and Manchester

 Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Rochdale Canal was built by 1804, unusually with wide beamed canal boat capacity and locks capable of taking large barges, even small coastal vessels.  It was designed as a connecting canal to enable heavy goods to be transported over the Pennine chain of mountains from the east coast ports like Hull to Manchester and onward to Liverpool and Ireland. Like the Leeds and Liverpool canal the biggest problem for the canal owners was that of maintenance of a constant supply of water to feed the summit pound.  In dry summers the canal often had to be closed along the top lengths because of the lack of water.


Above: The Calder valley at Hebden Bridge with the canal visible far below - photo by Nigel Homer and reproduced by kind permisison.

Trade on the canal was constant right up until the First World War, but with competition from railways and roads inevitably canal boat transport was less and less.The last loaded barge which is known to have traversed the Pennines with cargo from Manchester to Sowerby Bridge Yorkshire finished its journey in 1937. The canal fell into disrepair and was closed in 1952. 

However, by 1975 there was a movement to restore the canal for leisure use, and over the past 30 years the Rochdale Canal Society has worked continuously with the local authorities and volunteer labour to reopen the canal, which is now navigable all the way from Sowerby Bridge and its junction with the Calder and Hebble Canal up to Todmorden  and Littleborough in Lancashire and on right up to the junction with the Ashton and Bridgewater canals in Manchester. 

Restoration was not actually complete along its entire length until 2002. It is a huge success story, and it enables boaters to complete another high level "Pennine Ring" using the Rochdale and the Leeds and Liverpool canals. The canal is owned an operated by the Waterways Trust and you will need a special licence to use it.

The canal starts at Sowerby Bridge Yorkshire, which it branches off in a westerly direction from the Calder and Hebble canal. The canal passes through some fairly industrial scenery, up the valley of the River Calder.  

By the time you reach Luddenden Foot the scenery becomes more "green" with small fields stretching up either side of the hills on both sides of the valley, and each field surrounded by dry stone walls so characteristic of Yorkshire and the Pennines.


Above: The canal at Luddenham Foot - photo by Martin Clark and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The canal at Mytholmroyd - photo by Betty Longbottom and reproduced by kind permission

The canal continues to Mytholmroyd, once a peaceful village which grew into a woollen weaving town and dyeworks centre, but which has suuplies for the boater. The next settlement is Hebden Bridge, which also grew from a very old village to a large industrial mill town, served by the canal. The streets stretch upwards steeply from the canal and there are lots of pubs and shops here as you might expect.

From Hebden Bridge the canal begins to climb up into the Pennines, and countryside views are more visible, although the whole length of the Calder valley has woollen mills, dyeworks and signs of its industrial past. The canal is climbing slowly but steadily upwards  and soon the town of Todmorden is reached.

This is a unique little town in that the buildings are built in a "Victorian classical" style as a whole.  They were mostly designed by John Gibson, a London architect, who was employed by the local rich mill owners, the Fielden family, to improve the town. The Fielden family actually cared for their workers, (rather like Sir Titus Salt over in Saltaire Leeds), and one of them, John Fielden, was the MP who was instrumental in getting the "Ten Hour Working Day" bill passed through Parliament in 1847. This only applied to boys under age 18 and women of course!  Todmorden will provide boaters with all their supplies needed and there are lots of pubs hereabouts.


Above: The canal at Todmorden - photo by Paul Glazzard and reproduced by kind permission

 Above: The canal at Walsden - photo by Paul Glazzard and reproduced by kind permission

After Todmorden the canal begins the climb up over the Pennines in earnest with 17 locks for you to navigate and work in 3 miles. The village of Walsden is accessible by canal boat and is the last stop where you can get your supplies before the wilder stretch of the canal ahead of you. 

The canal eventually reaches its highest point at Longlees south of Todmorden.  The scenery here is of desolate moorland, with boggy peat marshes and mosses, and rushes growing in the acid peat soil.  This is great countryside for a wide variety of birds, but wild and forbidding to most of us. You will soon see the village of Summit (aptly named as it is literally on the summit pound of the Rochdale canal. There are lots of pubs here to feed and water the thirsty boater.

After the village of Summit the canal begins the descent all the way to Rochdale and on the Manchester.  You first reach Littleborough, which is a  nice little town with shops, pubs and coffee and tea shops to help you on your way.  From here the descent to the junction with the Ashton Canal at Manchester is relentless.  This section of the canal was the subject of a restoration programme that cost many millions of pounds sterling, and involved the replacement of several bridges and the complete rebuilding of the canal and roadway at Rochdale where the motorway blocked the route of the canal.

Rochdale is a huge centre of population and - as you might expect - has every sort of shop for supplies. After leaving Rochdale the canal comes to Castleton - where again the canal was once blocked by the route of the M62 motorway. The canal now goes through a tunnel under the motorway, before you reach Chadderton and the outskirts of the  conurbation of Greater Manchester.


Above: The canal at Littleborough - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Left: The canal at Chadderton - photo by Keith Williamson and reproduced by kind permission

The scenery is of industry and housing all around you. Once again, in Chadderton, the route of the canal had to be changed because the M60 blocked the old route.

From Chadderton you navigate onwards to Failsworth, Newton Heath and - finally -the centre of Manchester.  This latter part of your journey will enable you to link up to the Peak Forest and Ashton Canal at Ducie Street Manchester.


Above:  The canal at Manchester - photo by Martin Clarke and reproduecd by kind permission

I hope that this brief introduction to the newly restored Rochdale Canal will be of interest to you, and that it might inspire you to make a journey on it yourself one day.