Explore a varied route off the beaten track
Arriving from the tidal Trent at the often rather windswept outpost of Keadby Lock and heading west along the straight, flat, quiet and sometimes lonely Stainforth & Keadby Canal, it might be hard to believe that this is the start of an industrial waterway which served the heart of the Sheffield steel industry. But that reflects the complex history and geography of a waterway formed from three separate navigations – two canals and one river.
When I say three, there were actually four – and a fifth, if you count a later addition. Oh yes, and the river actually had two distinct and very different sections. But let’s start at the beginning of the story…
The tidal reaches of the River Don, whose branches emptied into the Trent and the Aire, had always been tricky to navigate. Early improvements for land drainage purposes in the 17th Century resulted it being linked instead to the River Ouse, but didn’t do much to make it easier for boats.
In the early 18th Century, the non-tidal lengths above Doncaster were made navigable by a series of locks and cuts reaching as far as Tinsley, just outside Sheffield. However, it wasn’t until 1802 that the Stainforth & Keadby Canal was opened, bypassing the difficult tidal reaches of the Don by providing a link to the Trent. Finally, in 1819, the Sheffield Canal brought navigation from Tinsley into the city centre.
All three, plus the Dearne & Dove Canal (which branched off north at Swinton) amalgamated in the 1840s, but spent the next half century under railway company control. This, plus a continuing shortage of finance once they had escaped the railway’s influence as the independent Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation in the 1890s, meant that the waterway didn’t see the same major enlargement and modernisation programme which kept the neighbouring Aire & Calder Navigation busy with freight until recently.
Freight traffic continued and there were some improvements such as individual lock enlargements and the 1905 opening of the New Junction Canal to link to the Aire & Calder. But when enlargement as far as Rotherham for 700-tonne barges was finally completed in 1983, it was too late and (some would say) too little.
A little freight traffic to Rotherham still survives, but it’s largely a pleasure boat route today – a varied and interesting one, off the beaten track for most boaters, but worth visiting.
You won’t see any 700-tonne barges at
Keadby – the Stainforth & Keadby section wasn’t part of the enlargement scheme. The entrance lock will take widebeam craft up to well over 70ft, but the lock at Thorne was built for craft about 61ft 6in by 18ft (a slightly longer single narrowboat may pass). So full-length narrowboats can only reach the lengths beyond there by a roundabout route via Trent Falls, the tidal Ouse, Aire & Calder and New Junction Canal.
Leaving Keadby behind, the canal takes a straight course across flat and rather empty countryside, with just a railway line for company. A series of opening bridges include a very unusual sliding one that carries the railway (and is operated by the signalman) plus a couple which are operated in conjunction with adjacent level crossings. Crowle village provides shops and pubs, then the empty landscape continues to Thorne.
This was traditionally a market and boat-building town and, at one time, was where sailing barges left their masts behind on the bank, to be horse drawn for the inland journey. Today it still has several boatyards as well as plenty of pubs and shops – plus the short lock referred to earlier.
Continuing westwards, you catch your first glimpse of the River Don – a narrow, straight and (at low water) muddy tidal channel that parallels the canal on the north side past Stainforth and Bramwith. At Stainforth a mooring basin on the north side marks where a lock used to take boats into the tidal river; at this point the Stainforth & Keadby ends and we are on what was originally the River Don Navigation.
Bramwith Lock was enlarged by adding an extension at the bottom end so that large barges could reach the former Hatfield Main colliery, but today the original upper chamber suffices for any craft which can fit Thorne Lock. The lock leads to the junction where the New Junction Canal comes in on the north, a five-mile dead-straight link to the Aire & Calder. Look back along it from the junction and you’ll see the unusual steel aqueduct over the tidal Don, protected by guillotine flood gates at the ends.
We are now on the route used by the small amount of remaining commercial freight traffic on its journey between Goole and Rotherham – so keep a look out just in case – and the waterway is noticeably wider as it follows a series of sweeping bends past Barnby Dun and Kirk Sandall.
Long Sandall Lock sets the pattern for the locks from here to Rotherham: around 200ft by 20ft and power-operated, but with the former lock-keepers now replaced by boater-operation using a Canal & River Trust key.
Those exploring the waterway on foot will have to leave the
‘We are now on the route used by the small amount of remaining commercial freight traffic – so keep a look out just in case’
navigation for the couple of miles into Doncaster, as there is no towpath: Don’t be tempted to follow the rough track alongside the River Don, or you’ll end up coming to a dead end at a very secure looking fence, and having to retrace your steps for two miles.
Doncaster Lock is surrounded by industry and railway tracks with the East Coast Main Line bridging the channel just below the lock, and the town centre and shops are a short distance away: use a CRT key to leave the lock operating area by the lock tail, climb the spiral steps up to the main road and turn right.
From Doncaster Lock onwards the towpath reappears but, when we explored it (in summer 2015), the first part was closed, necessitating a short detour around the far side of the prison which stands by the north bank.
For a sizeable town, Doncaster is surprisingly soon left behind and the navigation is in open countryside, joining the River Don for the first time on our journey. This is the most attractive length of the waterway, with the river cutting a deep and winding valley through the higher ground on the edge of the Pennines, heavily wooded and spanned by a series of impressive viaducts carrying railways and the M1. This was once a heavily quarried area, and stone was still being carried away by barge until a few years ago.
A glimpse of Conisbrough Castle high above the river on the south side indicates where Conisbrough town provides useful services, while occasional locks continue the climb towards Rotherham. Walkers will once again need to leave the waterway, and take to a series of footpaths and trails that follow the valley side, crossing the River Dearne on a footbridge before returning to the Don at Mexborough Low Lock. Speaking of the Dearne, this tributary looks almost large enough to be navigable – but never has been, although there’s a chance that it might one day be… see later.
After following the natural river for some time, we’re back to an artificial cut for the next few miles – and we’ve also
‘The most attractive length of the waterway, with the river cutting a deep valley through higher ground on the edge of the Pennines’
left the wooded hillsides behind as the canal passes through Mexborough and Swinton. An assortment of moored freight barges marks Waddington’s barge yard – sadly there’s not a lot of work for them these days – and also the former junction of the Dearne & Dove Canal. The first four locks and first few hundred yards of this former through route (it linked to the Barnsley which in turn connected to the Aire & Calder at Wakefield) survived until the 1970s: the remains of the first two locks have been incorporated into Waddington’s yard, while the others are worth exploring on foot.
Sadly, much of the rest of the canal has disappeared under industry and building work, and if it is ever to be reopened (as proposed by the Barnsley Dearne & Dove Canal Society), it is likely that the link to the Don will be via the River Dearne instead of the original locks. New housing is taking the place of former industry as the navigation leaves Swinton and finally rejoins the River Don at Kilnhurst Flood Lock. Here, walkers will need to make their final detour, as the towpath disappears and the river follows a heavily industrial course through the Aldwarke steel works.
Aldwarke Lock signals the start of the approach to Rotherham, with more factories lining the banks on the run into town. Eastwood is the last of the enlarged locks, a widening provides a turning point for barges, and then it’s back to the original small dimensions for the rest of the way to Sheffield.
There are handy moorings for the town just below Rotherham Lock, which is the first of the unmodernised locks and looks tiny by comparison. In fact, it was built for 62ft by 15ft (or so) craft, but will take a single narrowboat somewhat longer. The waterway leaves the town via a not unpleasant but rather unkempt length of river, giving the impression that Rotherham might have forgotten that it has a waterway. Just past where the navigation and the Don separate again, you might just spot the River Rother entering from the south: this may one day form another navigable link, if proposals to
‘Lock 6 received an altogether more drastic modification when it took a direct hit from a German bomb’
canalise it to meet the restored Chesterfield Canal come to fruition.
Three more locks follow in a lengthy artificial cut leading west from the town, before the last navigable stretch of the River Don leads us to the final one of the waterways which made up the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation.
From Tinsley to Sheffield we are on what was originally the Sheffield (of Sheffield & Tinsley) Canal and it begins with a flight of 11 locks. No debate about the length of these: boaters must book passages in advance and be accompanied by a keeper – and a strict limit of 60ft length is applied, irrespective of the physical limitations.
The locks have seen a few changes over the years. It was originally a flight of 12, but Locks 7 and 8 were rebuilt as a single deep lock (known as lock 7/8) to facilitate building a railway bridge in 1959. Lock 6 received an altogether more drastic modification when it took a direct hit from a German bomb in the Second World War: this event is recalled by a plaque on the lockside, and also by a pile of monumentally-sized stone blocks from the old chamber still lying in a heap nearby. The M1 viaduct makes its presence felt, but otherwise the surroundings are pleasant with trees and vegetation reclaiming former industrial land, and the top of the flight is enlivened by an assortment of boats moored in a couple of the widened pounds.
The canal passes between the Don Valley Stadium and Meadowhall shopping centre on one side and a large
amount of industry on the other, but its largely tree-lined route makes for a surprisingly secluded entry into the city.
Industry returns for the final couple of miles, a length notable for a wharf decorated with a truly bizarre assortment of statuary including a couple of skeletons shaking hands across a pub garden table, and also for having been the location of the opening scene in featuring a car sunk in a canal.
Finally, a left bend followed by rail and road bridges herald our arrival at Victoria Quays. The restored and redeveloped terminus basin features a splendid straddle warehouse bridging the canal, a series of old railway arches that have been converted into shops, bars and restaurants, and a boatyard plus moorings, trip-boat and floating restaurant. It provides an excellent base to explore the city, and a fine end to the journey from the Trent.
The traditional boating town of Thorne Previous page: liftbridge at Barnby Dun
Keadby Lock, waiting to enter the Trent
Follow the route with our map showing distances, locks and pubs
Quiet, flat landscape east of Thorne
Boats passing near Barnby Dun
The New Junction Canal joins at Bramwith
Impressively deep valley above Doncaster
The approach to Doncaster
Impressive old mill in Mexborough
Attractive surroundings at Sprotbrough
Aldwarke Lock glimpsed through the trees
The industrial approach to Sheffield
Climbing towards Sheffield at Tinsley Locks
The terminus basin in Sheffield
The Full Monty
Blue Water, Thorne 01405 813165
Thorne Boat Services 01405 814197
Stanilands, Thorne 01405 813150
Tulley Marine, Rotherham 01709 836743
Victoria Quays, Sheffield 0114 276 7111