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.

Above Castle­ford on the River Calder

On the Wake­field line below Wood­nook Lock

A quiet wooded length of the Selby Canal

Had­dle­sey Flood Lock, Selby Canal

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

Boats cross­ing Stan­ley Ferry’s old and new aque­ducts

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

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