BRITAIN’S WILDEST WATERWAY
Float along Yorkshire’s Pocklington Canal, which, after decades of hard work, is being restored to its former glory for boaters and wildlife.
Land is low-lying between the Derwent and the Humber, rising only gently to meet the Yorkshire Wolds. In winter, Pocklington Canal is barely discernible from the floods that swamp meadows and fens, and attract waterfowl such as golden plover and ruff.
In summer great burnet, meadow foxtail and sneezewort flourish while lapwings, curlew and snipe breed, but the canal remains elusive. Everything is green – meadows give way to rush and aquatic plants. Edges dissolve. But it catches your breath when you find it. The sparkling water teems with lilies and fish.
It could have been very different. Following the 1968 Transport Act, Pocklington was reclassified as a ‘remainder waterway’ by British Waterways, meaning it was deemed unfit for commercial or leisure use and so there was no need to keep it in a navigable condition. As a ‘favour’, the Sheffield Corporation Waterworks even offered to fill it with sludge. Luckily, the community rallied and the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society (PCAS) was founded in 1969 to restore the rural waterway.
Restoration is no small task – funding, time and labour must be found. But 50 years on, the society is halfway there and the section between Cottingwith Lock at the Derwent Cut and Bielby is now navigable.
200 YEARS IN THE MAKING
Navvies began building the Pocklington Canal following a public meeting in 1814 and by 1818 it was open. Almost 10 miles long, it had nine locks, four road bridges, two arms to the villages of Bielby and Melbourne, and a terminal basin just before Pocklington.
In its heyday, the canal was quite active. The Hull Packet operated a regular five-day round trip, merchants hired landing places, locals fetched water from it and learned to swim in it. Coal, lime, bricks, iron and timber came in, and potatoes, carrots, grain
and sawn timber went out. Granaries, warehouses and water mills were built.
But the canal was never prosperous. The water supply, from two small becks, wasn’t reliable and led to frequent closures. When the York and North Midland Railway Company arrived, it bought out the canal’s shareholders. Dwindling trade collapsed and, in 1932, to avoid maintenance duties, the company presented the owner of Pocklington’s last commercial craft with a lorry to replace the boat. The canal fell into disuse and ownership was turned over to British Waterways, which later became the Canal and River Trust (CRT), a charity caring for 2,000 miles of waterway.
Today you can walk along the towpath, watch kingfishers, caress the reeds, lose yourself in a world of green leaves and light, and meet no one. But abandoned it is not. “It looks natural,” says CRT ecologist Phillippa Baron, “so it’s easy to forget that canals are man-made and need maintaining. We have to manage it for ecology and canal users, so we prune branches to let boats pass but also keep perches for kingfishers. When we cut back the common reed, people worry about the reed buntings and sedge warblers, but we just do a bit at a time. It’s a balancing act.”
CRT heritage advisor Judy Jones agrees. “We keep as much historic
“EVERYTHING IS GREEN – MEADOWS GIVE WAY TO RUSH AND THE EDGES DISSOLVE”
Church Bridge was carefully restored by volunteers using materials in keeping with its original style
FAR LEFT Work begins on the restoration of Thornton Lock LEFT Weeds soon took over the waterway when it fell into disuse BELOW Boating serenely along at Melbourne
ABOVE The restored weed-cutter hard at work ensuring the Pocklington’s water remains clear and navigable RIGHT Julie and some of the PCAS team at the Cottingwith LockBELOW Rushes poke through the water on the Pocklington Canal