CRUISE GUIDE: YORKSHIRE WATERWAYS
Join us on a trip northwards along the Yorkshire Ouse, the River Ure and the Ripon Canal
A tidal river, a non-tidal river with two different names and a canal: it’s a varied chain of waterways that lead northwards through Yorkshire, (almost) as far north as possible on the connected waterways network of England and Wales
Articles about the chain of waterways leading northwards from the Yorkshire network to Ripon always used to be sure to mention the snippet of information that this was the northernmost point on the connected network of waterways of England and Wales.
Not any more: since the Ribble Link opened up a connection to the Lancaster Canal in 2001, Tewitfield in Lancashire has stolen that honour from Yorkshire. But despite losing out to the Red Rose rival (by about a mile and a half), Ripon is still an outpost of the system that it’s well worth making the effort to visit. And just like getting to Tewitfield, it begins with an interesting tidal passage.
There are three ways of reaching the Yorkshire Ouse: from the tidal Trent at Trent Falls; from the Aire & Calder Navigation’s main line at Goole; and from the Aire & Calder’s Selby Canal branch at Selby. Most visiting inland craft will use the last of these (but see Boaters’ Notes); so that is where we will begin.
The need to take account of tides and lock opening hours may mean waiting in Selby for some time – but with a good shopping centre, plenty of places to eat and drink, and the Abbey to visit, there’s plenty to fill the time. It used to also be a shipbuilding centre, with the final vessel launched as recently as the 1990s.
It’s a good idea to take the Selby lock-keeper’s advice on the best time to
depart, but typically, the tide will be coming in quite quickly, so you will need to be alert as you turn left into the river and line up for the two swingbridges. First there is a rather fine old railway bridge (don’t worry, you won’t need it opened for a narrowboat) complete with signal-box on top. This is followed after a couple of hundred yards by the road bridge, a 1970s concrete structure built in the style of the 18th Century timber bridge which it replaced, and also high enough for inland craft to pass under. You no longer need to watch out for cargo ships and other commercial vessels these days, so after a sharp right turn on the edge of the town, you can settle down to enjoy the journey, with the force of the tide reducing as you continue up-river.
Bridges on the Ouse are few and far between – it’s eight miles until the next road crossing at Cawood, a swingbridge dating back to the 1870s. Other than
‘York city centre makes the most of its riverside from Skeldergate Bridge to Lendal Bridge where it passes within the city walls’
Cawood, villages such as Barlby, Riccall and Kelfield have been built some way from the river to avoid floods, making for a rather quiet and isolated waterway. (Not that we’d advise you to attempt to tie up on the tideway to visit these places anyway.) And speaking of floods, to get some idea of what the Ouse is capable of, look at the height of Cawood Bridge at normal levels, and bear in mind that at times of flood, the water has been known to flow over the top of the bridge.
Another seven miles of winding river between high banks leads past Acaster Selby to Naburn Locks and the end of the tideway. When we say ‘locks’, we actually mean ‘lock’ these days: only the larger of the two locks is now in use, having been mechanised in recent years.
The non-tidal river has a different character from the tideway, meandering through pleasant countryside and with
moorings and waterside pubs at Acaster Malbis and Naburn villages. A two-span metal bridge (the first since Cawood) used to carry the East Coast Main Line railway; since the line was diverted in 1983, it has become a cycleway.
The York By-pass bridge heralds the beginning of the approach to the city, but a margin of water meadows on each side means there isn’t really a feeling of being in a built-up area. A lift-bridge on the right shows where the River Foss joins: once navigable for 11 miles via eight locks to Sheriff Hutton, since the mid-19th Century, navigation has been limited to the first mile and a quarter (including Castle Mill Lock) in York.
York city centre makes the most of its riverside, especially from Skeldergate Bridge to Lendal Bridge where it passes within the city walls. King’s Staith and Queen’s Staith face each other across the water, both with riverside bars and restaurants, and numerous trip boats ply the water in summer. There are visitor moorings just north of the city centre, where you can tie up with most of York’s attractions an easy walk away.
As on the south side, York’s northern outskirts keep their distance from the river, which soon returns to attractive countryside with waterside meadows. Rawcliffe Meadows and Clifton Ings stretch along the east bank for almost two miles, providing a reserve for many plant, bird, mammal and insect species – as well as the original water meadow functions of grazing cattle in summer and holding floodwater in winter.
Leaving York behind, the river heads north-westwards, passing Beningbrough (where the Georgian Beningbrough Hall is open to the public) and Nun Monkton (where the Nuns’ Chapel survives from the priory which gave the village its name). The tall spire of Newton-on- Ouse church is a landmark as the river turns westwards to reach Linton Lock, in an attractive setting with its adjacent weir.
Linton is something of a riverside centre with boatyard, chandlery, campsite and moorings based around the lock. It’s also been something of a historical quirk at times: until the 1980s when the then British Waterways took it over (as part of a funding package to put it back in good order), the lock was still owned by the independent Linton Lock Commissioners, whose income from boats was formerly supplemented by a small hydro-electric station at the weir. Of rather more practical importance today is the fact that at around 60ft long, Linton Lock marks the limit of navigation for full-length narrowboats.
Another quirk of the river is that two
miles beyond Linton, where its course turns northwards again, and a small stream called the Ouse Gill Beck enters, it changes its name. From here onwards, we are on the River Ure Navigation.
One thing that hasn’t changed for our entire journey is the long distance between bridges: a toll bridge and a footbridge near Aldwark are followed by many miles of attractively winding but quiet river to Boroughbridge. Midway along this length the River Swale enters from the north: the Swale (along with its tributary the Bedale Beck) was to have been made navigable under the same Act of Parliament which authorised the building of Linton Lock, but lack of money meant it was never completed. Approaching Boroughbridge, the navigation channel leaves the river,
passing through Milby Lock and a half-mile artificial cut to reach Boroughbridge’s bridges. Note the plural: after so long with hardly a bridge, this is one of the few places on the waterways where a navigation passes through a traffic roundabout, so there are two just yards apart! There’s also a handy visitor mooring site, where Boroughbridge’s town centre with shops and pubs are a short walk across the river bridge.
Leaving the town, look out on the left for a glimpse of the Devil’s Arrows, three tall Neolithic standing stones. Then enjoy another three miles of quiet countryside leading to Westwick Lock. There’s a change to the scenery here, with wooded reaches forming part of the estate of Newby Hall (see inset). Beyond Newby a fine, straight, wide length of river might give the impression that there are many miles of navigable water to come – but, in fact, we’re nearing the limit of navigation.
As the Ure bends northwards, we
take a narrow channel on the left: this is the entrance to the Ripon Canal, the last of this chain of waterways. Climbing through Oxclose Lock, the canal continues north-westwards past Ripon Racecourse and Ripon Motor Boat Club’s marina. For many years this was the head of navigation (and, indeed, the northernmost point on the navigable network), as the remainder of the canal had fallen derelict and it was only the Boat Club’s existence which kept this section open. But a restoration campaign
led to the reopening of the final mile and two locks in 1996.
Passing Ripon Racecourse Marina, the canal enters the edge of the city (yes, Ripon is a city, albeit a small one), and the final half-mile is the closest to an urban waterway that we have seen in our journey. It’s no less pleasant for that, and it ends at a small basin surrounded by a mixture of original buildings and modern ones built in a sympathetic style, with the city centre just a short walk away.
It may no longer hold any geographical records, but it’s a real outpost of the waterways network, and a splendid end to a northward journey.
Cawood Bridge, the only crossing between Selby and the outskirts of York
Waiting to enter the tideway at Selby Lock
Leaving the tidal river behind at Naburn Locks
Linton Lock and weir, the limit for longer craft
Entrance to the River Foss on the approach to York
Passing through York city centre, with Lendal Bridge in the background
Quiet moorings at Boroughbridge
A wide reach of the Ure near the head of nacvigation
Enjoying the water near Newby Hall
The Ripon Canal above Oxclose Lock
Journey’s end: the Ripon terminus