WATERWAY TO SEE THE COUNTRY
You’ve got a week’s holiday at short notice so what do you do? Walk from Liverpool to Leeds, says NIGEL HEATH
MANY memorable journeys have started from Britain’s great ports, and none more so than from Liverpool on the banks of the mighty river Mersey. From here in times past, countless souls have sailed forth, seeking new lives over the rainbow of their dreams. Even today, ferries sail to Ireland and cruise ships depart for sunnier climes.
My walking colleague Peter Gibbs and I were also embarking on a long journey but we were turning our backs on the Mersey to follow the 127-mile-long Liverpool to Leeds canal, from the old Stanley Dock flight of locks in November.
Further on we came across Canal and River Trust volunteers Len Weeks, Joe Harrison and Jim Carr pulling a supermarket trolley out of the water as part of a rubbish collecting and litter picking exercise.
We picnicked beside the canal close to the Primrose Valley Country Park and then walked on towards Aintree, the home of the famous racecourse, where we were booked in for a night’s B&B.
We were on our way again just as the sun was rising over the water and casting an orange autumnal glow, and we knew we’d still be walking when it started to dip towards the west.
It wasn’t until midday that we finally reached open country and felt that Liverpool and its environs were now well and truly behind us.
It was approaching journey’s end at Burscough when we met a lady dog walker and asked how far it was to our hotel.
“Oh that’s a long way away,” came her reply. We should walk past the village until we came to the Rufford branch of the canal, and the hotel was another four miles along that
branch, she explained. It was obvious we’d never reach the hotel in daylight but luckily a taxi was on hand to take us there. Sometimes you have to compromise. Peter had found our hotel with a postal address of Burscough, and Google Maps had confirmed it was only a couple of minutes from the canal – the only problem was that he’d found the wrong canal!
That wouldn’t have done for the official responsible for measuring the canal, Britain’s longest single man-made waterway. It took more than 40 years to build, and opened in 1816, it was exactly 124¼ miles long. Why they didn’t lose that pesky quarter rather than having to include it on every milepost along the entire route, I simply can’t imagine.
Still, it provided an amusing topic of conversation for Peter and I as we set out from Burscough in January on the second stage of our walk.
By flask of coffee time we’d reached the West Lancashire village of Parbold, beyond which we entered the Douglas Valley in company with the River Douglas, and followed it to pass under the M6 high on a massive flyover. What a contrast, a super highway of the 18th century meeting that of the 20th.
Walking into Wigan, it was sad to see that the Wigan Pier cultural quarter, opened by the Queen in 1986, had stalled due to the 2008 financial crash and that the massive Eckersley Mill complex was still derelict.
But it’s almost always an ill wind because the site and surrounds made a perfect setting for the hit TV drama Peaky Blinders!
A magnificent flight of locks on the edge of Wigan led the way out of town the following morning at the start of our 10-mile walk to Chorley. Soon, the long line of the West Pennine moors hoved into view, an exciting prospect of more lovely scenery to come.
Here, we met Ann Briscoe, Barbara Snape and Doreen Jolly, who were out planning a future walk for fellow members of the Mawdesley U3A.
They’d already walked the canal in sections, like we were doing, and had enjoyed it.
Old and new: A motorway soars above the canal
That afternoon, we came upon a red double-decker bus and were delighted to find it had been converted into a tea shop by Adam Pope and his business partner Lucien Berkhardt who run Ellerbeck Narrowboats at Heath Charnock.
The temptation was too great to resist so we climbed aboard for mugs of tea and a Bakewell tart.
“I wonder what adventures we’ll have today,” I said as we set out for Blackburn the following morning.
It was tempting fate because, on rounding a bend, the canal came to a dead end in a jumble of reeds. Where had we gone wrong?
Thankfully, help was at hand when our knock on the door of a nearby house was answered by Louise Birchall, who explained that we’d simply walked past a side lock further back.
“Dozens of people make the same mistake and on summer weekends we can have as many as 20 confused walkers and cyclists all going around in circles before knocking on our door and asking for directions,” she said.
Luckily, all we had to do was to walk up the road to the next bridge to rejoin the canal.
Now, we were back in lovely open country with a hill rising on one side and a valley below us on the other.
“How far have you
walked?” asked a lad in a peaked cap as we trudged wearily into Blackburn. “From Chorley,” I replied.
“Cor, I wear my shoes out just walking to the job centre!” he retorted.
We passed several large redbrick reminders of Blackburn’s industrial past, including one formerly used as Granada TV studios, as we left the city the following morning – and it was midday when we came upon the official halfway point on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The views now opened up as the canal contoured around the rising landscape in a series of wide curves until at last we met the M65, which accompanied us to Chorley.
We plan to return soon to walk the final 50 or so miles into Leeds via Skipton in the Yorkshire
Dales. Ann Briscoe, Barbara Snape and Doreen Jolly
Beauty along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal
Time for tea
Nigel Heath and Peter Gibbs reach the halfway point
Canal and River Trust volunteers Len Weeks, Joe Harrison and Jim Carr
Helpful Louise Birchall