Ex­plore a var­ied route off the beaten track

Canal Boat - - Front Page - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

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


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