The Leeds-Liverpool canal celebrates 200th anniversary

The Leeds Liverpool canal at Wheelton by Bernard Noblett

The Leeds Liverpool canal at Wheelton by Bernard Noblett - Credit: Archant

This month marks 200 years since the Leeds Liverpool Canal was completed. Martin Pilkington reports on the celebrations

Ian McMillan Photo: Des Willie

Ian McMillan Photo: Des Willie - Credit: Des Willie

The government today believes a Northern Powerhouse requires rail improvements that will start in London. Lancashire (and Yorkshire) merchants and industrialists changed the North’s fortunes 200 years ago by building the Leeds Liverpool Canal, boosting the textile, quarry and coal industries – and enhancing the landscape.

‘I hate that phrase Northern Powerhouse, said as if it’s new. There have been Northern Powerhouses for years,’ says poet Ian McMillan, speaking about the canal’s landmark anniversary. Ian is collaborating with Merseyside-based composer Ian Stephens on a major musical event that, like their creative partnership and the LeedLiverpool itself, is uniting forces from both sides of the Pennines, including the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band.

‘A great thing to remember about the canal is that it was built by these people who broke their backs to get it done, though they didn’t have statues built to them. They are not the ones usually remembered,’ he says. ‘But it’s not just a thing of the past, but for the future, so I was pleased to be asked to write the words to this Super Slow Way, which is a rhapsody to the canal that will be premiered on October 16 in Blackburn. We’re celebrating those men and women who spent so long in terrible conditions building this canal, celebrating how this canal has survived, and more than that, is thriving,’ he says.

Another way the anniversary has been marked already this year is equally apt: lock 38 near Gargrave, in the Yorkshire Dales countryside, is now named in honour of industrial historian and founder of the Leeds Liverpool Canal Society Mike Clarke, who is from Liverpool. ‘Mike has made a unique contribution to the Leeds Liverpool Canal, through the work he has done over the years,’ says the chief executive of the Canal and River Trust Richard Parry. ‘He has a passion for and enormous knowledge of the canal.

Mike Clarke reads his book on the history of the canal

Mike Clarke reads his book on the history of the canal - Credit: not Archant

‘Wherever I visit in the world this is the view I always use as a comparison, it’s a fabulous inspirational view,’ says Mike, gazing out over the hills through which the waterway threads from the standpoint of the lock now bearing his name.

‘Canal engineers were of course practical, but I think they fitted canals into the natural environment so they become part of the scenery much more than railways or roads do. They were all built on the cheap, but built by craftsmen. And these canals have lasted 200 years – what will be built today that endures as long? It was the opening of the Leeds Liverpool Canal which encouraged the development of the textile industries in Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

‘For many years, they were the mainstay of Britain’s economic development so the Leeds Liverpool can rightly be said to be the most historically significant canal in the country.’

Mike, who lilves in Barnoldswick, is also the leading light in turning The Kennet, a 1947 Leeds Liverpool Canal Short Boat, into an interactive museum and learning resource. ‘When the change to the Canal and River Trust from British Waterways came along, the Waterways had to get rid of some of their heritage assets, and because we were looking after Kennet and were doing exactly what they wanted, it was passed to us at a peppercorn price,’ he said.

‘We had £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and sums from elsewhere, restored it, added displays inside, and will take it along the canal in October to commemorate the first voyage from Leeds to Liverpool in 1816.’

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Contemporary reports record that flotillas “decorated with flags and streamers,” accompanied by “hearty cheering of immense assemblage of spectators” greeted that original ceremonial boat journey in October 1816, a trip that took just five days to travel from Leeds to Liverpool. Two hundred years on and the bicentennial trip is planned to take four more days than its Georgian forerunners required, perhaps emphasising the waterway’s transition from a vital economic resource to a leisure facility, albeit with great economic value still.

Kennet will leave Leeds on October 15 and will arrive in Liverpool on Sunday 23.

‘Today there are fewer industries along its banks but the canal still gives many benefits to communities along its route. Today there are opportunities for leisure where once hard labour prevailed, and the towpath is open to all,’ Mike added.

Canal knowledge

Construction began in 1770

The Liverpool-Parbold and Leeds-Gargrave sections were built by 1777

The joining stretch was completed on October 22 1816

The canal is 127 miles long in total, containing 91 locks

It handles boats 14ft 3in wide and 62ft long

The maximum rise 487ft above sea level

It is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway

The last commercial cargo of coal was carried in 1972

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