Kevin Rushby


I be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate the epic na­ture of our ex­pe­di­tion when a group of young na­tives gath­ers to watch. They stand in a hud­dle by the wa­ter’s edge, point­ing and wav­ing. Our guide, Greg Brookes, shouts at them. “Do you want to have a go at pad­dling?” But they run away. It’s as if they’ve never seen a ca­noe.

The at­tack comes next day. A gi­ant white war­rior is sent to meet our boats and comes along­side, puff­ing out his chest, mak­ing un­in­tel­li­gi­ble war cries and gen­er­ally try­ing to pro­voke some­thing. I turn my back and say, with the air of a man who has seen the world, “It’s all just ma­cho pos­tur­ing. He won’t at­tack.”

Sec­onds later there is a clat­ter and the swan is on the side of Brookes’s ca­noe, wings bat­ter­ing the air, threat­en­ing to wres­tle him into the wa­ter. A pad­dle waved in the swan’s face de­ters him and he retreats into the canal, head held high. We pull to the side, un­der a bridge that seems to mark the end of his ter­ri­tory, and breathe a sigh of re­lief. I had not ex­pected a sim­ple ca­noe jour­ney to be­come quite such a Homeric epic, but then the con­cept of cross­ing England from west coast to east by ca­noe is sur­pris­ingly new and, as yet, not fully tested.

Called the Des­mond Fam­ily Ca­noe Trail — be­cause con­tro­ver­sial me­dia mogul Richard Des­mond has do­nated £1.3 mil­lion ($2.8m) to the five-year project — it starts in Liver­pool’s docks and fin­ishes at the Hum­ber es­tu­ary, via the Leeds and Liver­pool Canal, sev­eral porter­ages around locks, a stretch of the Aire and Calder Canal, plus a few kilo­me­tres of the River Ouse, span­ning the coun­try in 240km. I’ve cherry-picked a three-day sec­tion be­tween Burn­ley and Brad­ford.

We start at Reed­ley Ma­rina, north of Burn­ley, and are soon pad­dling through the back­yards of Nel­son, a former mill town, which is where we en­counter those young lads who seem be­mused by ca­noes. Maddy, my 12-year-old daugh­ter, is count­ing shop­ping trol­leys as if they are wa­ter crea­tures: “There’s an­other one, Dad. I think it’s a fe­male. Lovely plumage.”

We pass coots and moorhens nest­ing on piles of rub­bish, gor­geous stonework bridges — all the in­ge­nious craft of 18th-cen­tury nav­i­ga­tional en­gi­neer­ing — then the melan­choly of empty mills and lost for­tunes. This feels like ar­chae­ol­ogy, a fas­ci­nat­ing trip down the ages, into the gloom of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. We emerge from un­der the M65 into rolling pas­toral land and tie up at Blakey Hall Farm B&B for a night.

Next day we have to skip a bit be­cause ac­cess through the Foul­ridge Tun­nel has not yet been agreed. That’s the kind of work Brookes is do­ing, slowly pulling to­gether all the el­e­ments of maps, ac­cess and a net­work of helpers. Hav­ing driven around the tun­nel, we stop at Cafe Cargo in the vil­lage of Foul­ridge. Its owner, Thomas Ran­dall, is a mine of in­for­ma­tion on the canal — he’s lived with it all his life. As he talks, a lost world emerges, a world of fus­tian and flax, of fe­male leg­gers, who would lie on nar­row­boat roofs and pro­pel the boats through the tun­nel us­ing their feet, and of the an­cient divi­sion be­tween York­shire wool and Lan­cashire cot­ton. By this wrig­gling wa­ter­way the heart of north­ern England was in­tri­cately wo­ven into a global econ­omy that en­com­passed the slave plan­ta­tions of South Car­olina and the gold­fields of Bal­larat.

We pad­dle on past Barnoldswick (fac­ing down that swan) and reach the Green­ber­field locks. As ca­noes are not al­lowed in locks, Brookes has de­vised an in­ge­nious ca­noe trol­ley to save us the work of por­ter­ing our boats.

Cross­ing into North York­shire, we stop for the night in Skip­ton, then re­sume. The wind is be­hind us and Maddy rigs up a sail. We are soon pow­er­ing along, pass­ing Sils­den and reach­ing our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion of Bin­g­ley FiveRise locks, a spec­tac­u­lar piece of hy­draulic en­gi­neer­ing. When it opened in 1774, a crowd of 30,000 turned out to see what was one of the won­ders of the mod­ern world — a se­ries of five locks that lifted boats through nearly 20m.

Stand­ing on the top lock gate, watch­ing the lock­keeper at work, I imag­ine the ca­noes that will be hauled up and down here. For Brookes, the ob­jec­tive is to re­vi­talise the canal and the lives of some of the young peo­ple who re­side along its route. But my dreams are much big­ger. Per­haps there might be a trans-England ca­noe race, teams com­pet­ing for glory, like the Idi­tarod sled race in Alaska or a Tour of Bri­tain for pad­dlers. What a spec­ta­cle as they strug­gle up the Five-Rise, cheered on by Alpine horns and cow bells.

• blakey­hall­farm.co.uk • canal­rivertrust.org.uk

Ca­noe­ing the Leeds and Liver­pool Canal near Skip­ton, North York­shire

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