For most of its working life few people wanted to spend their leisure time within a sniff of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It was like a varicose vein across northern England, an unhealthy ditch along which moved cargoes from coal mines and dark satanic mills. The steep-sided dales that carved much of its route through the Pennines were funnels of smoke and grime, and rivers and drains which fed the canal were so polluted by dye works in the industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire that some stretches were said to turn a different colour every day.
The waterway was initially conceived by Bradford merchants to move loads of coal and limestone through the Aire Valley, but it soon dawned on them that extending the route across the Pennines would allow Bradford’s worsted goods to reach cargo ships on the Mersey and open up trade with the Americas.
When its heavy cargoes began transferring to rail and then road the canal’s great days were over, although it was thought to be so strategically important that in 1939 someone at the War Office had a terrifying vision of invading Germans pootering in narrowboats towards Leeds from the Liverpool end and ordered the construction of concrete pill boxes along a stretch of towpath in Lancashire.
Today, though, there’s a very real invasion. The canal attracts armies of fun-seekers from across Europe. It is the most popular conduit of leisure craft on the UK’s 2,200-miles of waterways. A survey in 2014 showed that around one-fifth of all visits to the UK canal network were recorded on the Leed and Liverpool.
Like the Settle-Carlisle railway line it has become an icon of the North, its equivalent of the Ribblehead viaduct being the much-photographed watery staircase at Bingley’s Five Rise Locks.
But as the canal approaches its 200th birthday later this year its age is becoming evident in the amount of repairs required to keep narrowboats moving. This winter the Canal and River Trust, which took over the network from British Waterway three years ago, announced that it needed to spend £3.5m in just five months on maintaining it and the other Yorkshire canals.
The big ticket items are lock gates, which can cost up to £45,000 a time. There are 91 locks on the Leeds-Liverpool, and each gate needs to be replaced every 25 years. That’s just on one canal, so it’s a job that keeps 14 carpenters busy all year at the Trust’s Stanley Ferry depot in Wakefield.
The gates are hand-crafted using traditional methods in a workshop that once rolled out the old “Tom Pudding” boats which used to transport coal from Yorkshire pits to the port of Goole. Now the massive shed has three new sets of lock gates under construction at a time.
Currently in its yard is a stack of new gates, each around three tons, awaiting delivery to Bingley’s lesser flight of locks, the Three Rise. The manager Steve Brunt puts the gates’ limited lifespans down to pollution.
“It degrades the timbers over time. The decay is below the water level because that’s where pollutants start to rot the gates. It is pollution from industry along the route findings its way into the canal.”
The busiest lock gates tend to deteriorate earlier than others because they get more wear and tear. Thus the Five Rise Locks tend to have a shorter lifespan than gates at one of the isolated locks surrounded by fields in East Lancashire. When an inexperienced sailor smashes a narrowboat into one of the gates – it happens more often than you would think – it is considered easier to replace the gate than to repair it.
Every gate is bespoke, Steve says, because no two locks are the same on the entire UK network. The timber used is solid English oak from a sawmill in Shropshire, and the only use of modern technology is the computerised CAD designs given to the carpenters.
But it’s not just lock gates that need to be replaced. The bed of the canal is prone to leakage, especially on the long man-made embankment that was constructed to carry the canal up the Aire Valley between Keighley and Skipton.
Locating these leaks is never easy and in some cases the Canal and River Trust relies on the expertise of engineers that has been passed down from father to son.
The easy leaks to find are those where water is seen trickling or gushing out of the side. But the point at which the water escapes is often some distance from the actual hole in the canal’s lining. Environment-friendly dyes are used to see where the colour flows out from a leakage. When the hole is eventually pinpointed, the material used for sealing the canal is something called puddle clay, the same stuff used to line the canal 200 years ago.
But there is relatively new modern-day problem affecting the canal, one that the Trust is planning to address.
Shopping trolleys, traffic cones, car tyres, bottles and plastic bags are dumped in the water, damaging narrowboats and harming wildlife. Everything that’s found in the canal during this winter’s maintenance work will be put on display later this year to show the public the extent of the problem.
There is a constant challenge for the Trust to find the money to keep the canals open. The income received from narrowboat users is never enough, and although the Trust receives income from owning land on some waterways it has come to depend more and more on donations.
As the 200th birthday approaches, the canal will be getting a spring clean, with towpaths tied and overhanging vegetation cut away. But all maintenance work is done in a way that remains sympathetic to the original design. One manager says the more he works on the canal the more he respects the genius of the engineers who built it with such limited technology at their disposal.
Another manager likens the Leeds and Liverpool to historic buildings like York Minster and Harewood House. Which isn’t too far fetched given that work on the canal began in 1770, just as architects John Carr and Robert Adam were putting the finishing touches to their magnificent mansion at Harewood.
A programme of events to celebrate 200 years of the canal is planned this year, culminating with special boats travelling from Leeds to Liverpool to commemorate the inaugural journey in October 1816. For more details visit canalrivertrust.org.uk