ENGLAND: A PERFECT PADDLE
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