Once known as King Coal Canal, the historic navigation has seen many change in its long life
The coal traffic that sustained Yorkshire’s busiest freight waterway for 300 years might have vanished, but the Aire & Calder is still impressive to cruise – and may yet have a cargo-carrying future
Some years ago I remember an article about the Aire & Calder Navigation titled King Coal Canal. While out taking photographs for this guide, I couldn’t help but reflect that unless you were writing a history feature, you wouldn’t use that title today.
In the last couple of decades the tugs with their trains of three coal ‘pans’ heading for Ferrybridge with 500 tons of Kellingley Colliery’s finest have gone; as have the pairs of coal barges coming down the Wakefield line before them; the trains of 19 small ‘Tom Pudding’ compartment boats heading for the hoists at Goole have long since departed. And that’s just the coal trade: more recently it’s been followed by a decline in other cargoes – such as gravel and oil – so that from being a busy commercial waterway as late as the 1990s, the Aire & Calder is almost entirely the preserve of pleasure craft.
But note that I said ‘almost entirely’: steel traffic from Goole still uses the easternmost length on its way to Rotherham via the New Junction Canal, and just recently, a new regular trade has begun between Goole and Lemonroyd Lock. It’s only a couple of trips a week
but there are hopes it will build up. And while the sight of several hundred tons of approaching barge might make some visiting narrowboaters nervous, somehow these wide channels with their large mechanised locks cutting through the mainly flat landscapes between Leeds and Goole don’t look the same without some of the heavy trade that they were built (and repeatedly rebuilt and enlarged) for.
There’s still plenty of waterborne freight to be seen at Goole, where we start our journey at the eastern end of the Aire & Calder Navigation’s main line. But these days it’s mainly seagoing trade entering and leaving Goole Docks via the ship locks connecting to the tidal Yorkshire Ouse. Most visiting inland boaters will arrive and leave via one of the Aire & Calder’s four other connections, but Goole is the THE YORKSHIRE WATERWAYS MUSEUM at Goole features a selection of historic boats including the barge Sobriety and several survivors of the Aire & Calder’s trains of compartment boats known as ‘Tom Puddings’. There are indoor displays of local waterways, and boat tours to see the docks and a preserved Tom Pudding hoist
main access for full-length narrowboats whose only route to Yorkshire’s waterways is via the River Trent and Yorkshire Ouse.
Once clear of the dock area (and those who aren’t travelling to or from the Ouse should avoid it completely), there are visitor moorings at the beginning of the canal, where you can moor up to visit the town and the Yorkshire Waterways Museum before heading west.
You may have noticed that I’ve used ‘navigation’ and ‘canal’ interchangeably up to now: that isn’t just sloppiness on my part, it’s a bit of both.. Opened as early as 1704 as a river navigation based on the Aire and the Calder, the waterway was continuously enlarged and improved.
The largest single improvement was the bypassing of miles of winding River Aire in 1826 by the 19-mile Knottingley & Goole Canal. It is this canal we are following out of Goole, as it heads westwards accompanied on its south side by the Dutch River (the tidal River Don).
Straight and with few bridges, it isn’t the most exciting of waterways, but it’s where you’re most likely to encounter working barges. Passing Rawcliffe, a dog-leg to the left brings the canal to a junction where the New Junction Canal diverges southwards.
This was built jointly by the two companies to link the A&C to the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation, and opened as late as 1905. Dead straight from end to end, you might think it an even less exciting waterway, but its five miles are enlivened by substantial steel aqueducts over the Don and Went, plus a series of lift-bridges and swing-bridges and one lock, all power-operated by boaters.
The main line continues its westerly course, passing Pollington, Great Heck and Eggborough villages (all with handy pubs) and climbing through Pollington and Whitley locks. These, like most on the Aire & Calder system, are large chambers around 200ft long by 20ft wide, equipped for keeper-operation but generally unmanned these days and worked by boaters using a Canal & River Trust key.
The canal has been crossing fertile farming countryside so far, but
‘You may have noticed that I’ve used the words navigation and canal interchangeably up to now: that isn’t just sloppiness on my part, it’s a bit of both’
approaching Knottingley there are increasing signs of industry. The remaining traces of the cargo that sustained the waterway for so long are disappearing, though. Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in the country and source of much of the canal’s trade 20 years ago, finally closed in 2015.
Knottingley is a handy place to stop for shops, and it’s also where the long canal section ends and the waterway finally makes the acquaintance of one of the rivers in its name. But before we continue west, we’ll take a sharp right turn onto what is now the start of a branch line to Selby, but was originally part of the main route of the navigation.
Soon comes Bank Dole Lock, looking rather forlorn with its lock cottage’s windows bricked up. Unlike the locks we’ve seen so far it’s manually operated, its dimensions are more familiar to narrow-boaters, and it opens onto the River Aire heading downstream.
This was the route that boats heading down from Leeds towards Goole would have travelled in the early days before the Knottingley & Goole Canal was built.
With its twisting natural course interrupted by just the odd modestly sized lock and adjacent weir at Beal, it perhaps gives more of an idea of what the original Aire & Calder Navigation looked like. Beyond West Haddlesey, the original route continued via a long-abandoned lock into the tidal Aire; today’s navigation bears left through a flood-lock onto the Selby Canal.
Five miles long, this was opened under an earlier improvement scheme in 1778, which bypassed the tidal Aire and formed the main route to the Ouse until the 1826 improvements. Today it forms a handy link for those heading up the Ouse to York and the Ripon Canal or simply visiting the attractive market town of Selby, as well as being a pleasant cruise in its own right.
Back at Knottingley, the main line continues through the rather industrial town, brightened up by ‘Freda’s Garden’ – a length of towpath which a local resident used to plant with wildflowers and garden plants, and where a volunteer group now continues this in her memory.
Ferrybridge is another useful stopping point for shops and pubs, and was another name closely associated with the coal trade, as its power stations were a main destination. But now all three have closed, and the cooling towers won’t loom over the waterway for much longer.
The lock is rather an oddity – not quite straight, and with sections of the chamber walls built from stone, brick, concrete, steel piles, and timber. It finally leads out into the River Aire, which forms the main line of the navigation for four miles, as it meanders through industrial land being reclaimed and landscaped. This length lacks a towpath, but walkers can detour north via a series of footpaths.
Bullholme Lock marks the approach to Castleford, whose town centre can be reached on foot via a striking modern bridge over the weirstream – which also
affords a fine view of the remains of an unfortunate barge which went over the weir some 40 years ago. The lock cut ends with an odd-shaped flood lock, leading to a waterway ‘crossroads’.
Don’t turn left – unless you want to emulate the unfortunate barge mentioned above – but turn right to continue up the Aire towards Leeds, or straight ahead for its tributary the Calder, on which the Wakefield line of the navigation is based.
As with the main line, the Wakefield line has seen many changes, and uses less of the river today, but the first few miles follow an attractive reach of the Calder to Whitwood. Fairies Hill Lock leads off left: formerly on the navigation route, this was bypassed by the present line but has been partly reinstated as private moorings. The towpath follows the old route, where you can find traces of another long-abandoned lock; while the navigation passes through the deep Woodnook Lock.
Stanley Ferry has some interesting waterway claims to fame. Firstly, it’s a rare example of a river navigation crossing its own river on an aqueduct – or rather, since 1981, crossing on a pair of aqueducts. The cast iron structure with its trough suspended from metal arches alongside (on a similar principle to the Sydney Harbour Bridge), dating from an improvement scheme of the 1830s, was suffering from distortion.
With loaded barges still using the route it was felt safest to replace it with a modern concrete aqueduct, but to renovate the original and retain it for pleasure boats. Stanley Ferry’s second claim to fame is that it’s the location of one of CRT’s two lock gate workshops.
And finally, Stanley Ferry was the site of an odd freight operation, whereby ‘Tom Pudding’ compartment boats were winched out, put on railway trolleys, and taken by rail to a nearby pit for loading.
A final flood lock leads back into the Calder for the last mile to the edge of Wakefield, where the through route is continued by the Calder & Hebble Navigation, leading in turn to the Rochdale and Huddersfield trans-Pennine canals.
Back at Castleford, the main line of the navigation follows the River Aire along what is today a very attractive length of river flowing between heavily wooded
banks but which not that many years ago was a bleak area of opencast mining, and the site of a major breach when the river water flooded into the coal workings.
The navigation was rebuilt and two locks were replaced by the deep Lemonroyd Lock.
The new barge traffic serves a depot just above the lock, so the last few miles into Leeds are the preserve of pleasure boaters now. Woodlesford has moorings, shops and pubs, and is separated by a final couple of miles of country from the industrial approaches to the city.
Thwaite Mills (see inset) is followed by Knostrop lock and flood lock. These are the last of the large mechanised locks, with Leeds Lock being something of a ‘halfway house’. It’s a conventional-looking lock taking craft up to about 68ft long, which has been mechanised and extended by the addition of extra gates for longer boats – but these are manually operated and currently out of use pending repairs.
That’s a shame for owners of 70-footers, as even though there’s only another three quarters of a mile until the first of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal’s 62ft locks, it’s a fine length of urban navigation. The centrepiece of a lively regenerated area of the city centre, it’s a great finale to our journey along a waterway which has seen so many changes in its long life.
Boats crossing Stanley Ferry’s old and new aqueducts
An variety of craft moored below Pollington Lock
The New Junction Canal bridges the River Went
MIDDLETON RAILWAY A 20-minute walk from Knostrop or a bus ride from Leeds, this former horse-drawn colliery line pre-dates the railway age as the world’s oldest working line. Industrial steam engines now haul passenger trains.
Narrowboats dwarfed by Sykehouse Lock
A quiet wooded length of the Selby Canal
Haddlesey Flood Lock, Selby Canal
Above Castleford on the River Calder
On the Wakefield line below Woodnook Lock
Entering Leeds’ industrial outskirts
THWAITE MILLS A water-powered mill which produced dyes, oils and putty right up to 1976 is now a working museum. See Thwaite House, the Georgian mill-owner’s home, the workers’ cottages, and the mill engineers’ workshop.
Approaching Birkwood Lock