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The Leeds and Liverpool - A Grand Canal!

Traditional canal narrowboats

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

The UK has more than 4700 miles of navigable canal and river, most of them a product of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The roads at the time were unsuitable for carrying large amounts of material (especially fragile goods, like pottery) and the building of canals allowed large volumes of material to be carried both more quickly and more cheaply. One of the earliest canals, the Bridgwater Canal, reduced the cost of coal in Manchester by 75%. The building of the railway network in the middle of the 19th century largely removed the need for canals and although some commercial traffic lingered till as late as the 1980s, gradually over the next 100 years most were abandoned. Thankfully, as the canals were being abandoned by commercial traffic, there was a rise in interest in their history and their use for leisure. Today, approximately 34,000 boats use the canals, and many canals are busier now than during their commercial days. Although the canals were built to connect industrial centres, cities and ports, many cross open countryside, and even when they do enter towns, they frequently traverse secluded and overlooked areas.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Map courtesy of public domain

The Albert Dock, Liverpool. The western start of the canal

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

Original 'working' boats, lovingly maintained by their owners

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is a canal in Northern England, linking the cities of Leeds and Liverpool and is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway. Construction began in 1770 and largely completed by 1816, although it was extended in 1822. With a total length of 127 miles it crosses the Pennines and includes 91 locks on the main line. It has several small branches, and in the early 21st century a new link was constructed into the Liverpool docks system. Locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal were for the most part built to a size of 62 feet by 14 feet. These broad locks turned out to play a key part in the long-term success of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The local cargo craft were known as 'short boats', broad-gauge vessels capable of carrying around 45 tons. The larger payload of the short boats - around twice that of a standard narrowboat - enabled the line to prosper for many years. The canal’s most important cargo was coal closely followed by merchandise. Thanks to the combination of local heavy industry and the decision to build the canal with broad locks, the Leeds & Liverpool was able to compete successfully with the railways throughout the 19th Century. It even remained open for much of the 20th Century, with the last cargo of coal being carried along the Leigh Branch to Wigan Power Station in 1972.

The canal where is passes through the Yorkshire Dales

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

This shows how busy the canals are in modern times, and also how perfectly suited the towpaths are for cycling and walking

Photo: Courtesy of the public domain

The spectacular Bingley Five-Rise Locks. This unique staircase locks give a total rise of 60 feet

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Skipton

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

After leaving Liverpool, the canal passes through East Lancashire and then crosses Pennine countryside and picturesque villages on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales before reaching Leeds. Walkers love the canal, and thousands of visitors come every year to marvel at the impressive Bingley Five Rise Locks, pretty villages and historic towns like Skipton, Hebden Bridge (‘Trouser Town’) and Saltaire. It is satisfying that this historic waterway, once so vital to the manufacturing industries of the north, is continuing to play an important role in this second age of the canals.

The spectacular Victorian architecture of the Yorkshire town of Saltaire

Photo: Courtesy of public domain

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