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Two hundred years on the towpath...

12:00am | & News

Looking out from the windows of Acorn Stairlifts' head offices in Steeton, West Yorkshire, it is just a short distance to a man-made feature which powered the industrial revolution in this part of the world.

This weekend will mark 200 years since the opening of the full length of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the UK's longest canal built as a single waterway, stretching 127 miles and the economic superhighway of its day. A number of events have been planned to mark the bicentenary throughout the year, including a recreation of the first complete crossing from Leeds to Liverpool, which set out on October 22nd, 1861, and reached Liverpool five days later.

The recreation of that historic voyage is being done at a more leisurely pace, scheduled to take nine days and ending in Liverpool this Sunday, October 23rd. It is being done by a former working boat, the Kennet, which is carrying a mobile museum along with members of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Society and the Canal and River Trust.

Newspaper coverage in 1816 reported that the ceremonial first boat was greeted all along its route by pealing church bells, brass bands playing, cheering crowds and canal barges decked out in bunting, flags and streamers. The Kennet's bicentennial recreation of that historic first voyage hopes to stimulate some of that same atmosphere. A number of celebrations are planned at key points all along the route from Leeds in the industrial heartland of West Yorkshire, across the Pennines and through the once-thriving textile towns of East Lancashire to Liverpool.

A huge engineering project for its time, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal took a full 50 years to build, but its effect on communities all along its route was profound and long-lasting. In the mid-18th century the fast growing textile towns of West Yorkshire were badly in need of a reliable link to the west to advance their trade.

The origins of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal can be traced to a public meeting at The Sun Inn, Bradford, on July 2nd, 1766, when a proposal was made for a new canal across the Pennines to Liverpool and the west coast. Two groups were set up to promote the scheme – one in Bradford and the other in Liverpool – and plans were set in motion to survey the best route.

Financial backing was sought from industrialists all along the proposed route, with the cost initially estimated at almost £260,000, equivalent to around £33 million today. An Act of Parliament authorising construction was passed in May 1770 and work started later that year, involving hundreds of “navvies” - so named because they were working on the “navigation”.

As with all such ambitious projects, it would take far longer and cost far more than originally anticipated. Some of the lengthiest delays were far beyond the canal builders' control, such as the American War of Independence and later the Napoleonic Wars, which diverted both manpower and finance and halted building for several years.

There were also a number of  major engineering works along the route, including the five-rise locks at Bingley, a mile-long tunnel at Foulridge on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, and major earthworks around Burnley. Arguments continued about the exact route and where the new canal should link up with smaller, existing navigations. Engineers came and went, some backers pulled out and new ones were found, but through it all somehow the project ground relentlessly on.

As each new section opened enthusiasm grew and communities on the route began to feel the economic benefit. Finally, in October 1816, the full 127-mile length of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was open for business and very soon began to thrive. The main cargo was always coal, with more than a million tons per year carried to Liverpool in the 1860s from the collieries in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Other cargoes included cotton, wool, limestone, sugar, mill machinery and all manner of other goods, including the euphemistically named “nightsoil” – human sewage from the densely populated Liverpool which farmers in rural Lancashire welcomed with open arms as a highly effective and nitrate-rich fertiliser for their fields. There was human cargo too, with a good trade enjoyed by the passenger-carrying 'packet boats'.

The early decision to build the canal with broad locks meant that, unlike many other canals, the Leeds and Liverpool competed successfully with railways throughout the 19th century and remained open well into the 20th century.

Ultimately the growing popularity of more speedy road transport, combined with a steady decline in the traditional industries sited along the canal, saw a gradual reduction in its use for trade, finally ending in the early 1980s. But by then the leisure potential of the route had already been realised, with a growing number of pleasure boaters using the canal, holiday companies offering the chance to experience life on the canal, and even people choosing to live full-time aboard converted narrowboats.

Now the heritage value of the canal is also widely recognised. Many of the former mills and warehouses which had fallen into a sad and dilapidated state are being renovated and converted to apartments or offices to house new 21st century businesses. While its industrial heyday may have passed, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal continues to play an important role as it celebrates its 200th birthday and looks forward to a bright future.

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