Country & Coast: Roger Ratcliffe

The likes of the Leeds-Liverpool canal are great spots for wildlife.  Pic: Pauline Robinson.
The likes of the Leeds-Liverpool canal are great spots for wildlife. Pic: Pauline Robinson.
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Yorkshire seems to have the biggest share of the UK’s 2,000-odd miles of navigable canals and rivers, and they are seen at their chocolate-box best on shiny blue autumn days.

Perhaps our most picturesque stretch of waterway is along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal between the villages of Slaithwaite and Marsden, where on Sunday afternoon the reflections from red and yellow leaves on overhanging branches danced gently over the surface of the water like a natural kaleidoscope.

Close to where the canal passes Sparth Reservoir I heard a young couple complaining about a large patch of glistening mud they were clearly not prepared to negotiate on one stretch of the towpath, and wondered at their choice of footwear: spotless white trainers for him, sparkly gold sandals revealing painted turquoise toenails for her.

Canal towpaths form some of our best rights of way, offering more miles of walking than most of us can manage in a day, and I haven’t been able to find anything in the terms of reference of the Canal and River Trust which says they have to be maintained like city pavements.

Long may that be the case. Many towpaths have not been altered since they were laid down more than two centuries ago, and if they are treated with respect they allow us easy access to a world which - in places - has barely changed in all that time.

For example, one of the more atmospheric scenes in the Oscar-winning 1959 film adaptation of John Braine’s novel Room at The Top shows the book’s anti-hero, Joe Lampton, lying on the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Shipley, and if you go there today you will find the place looks pretty much the same.

Little wonder, then, that our timeless canals are so attractive to wildlife, although you usually have to get out of bed early in order to catch most of it unawares. Deer and foxes are regulars in early daylight along my own local stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool, as are kingfishers and sparrowhawks.

I’ve become used to seeing large red damselflies and broad-bodied chasers - one of our most common dragonflies - in summer and even well into autumn. The same is true of orange-tip and speckled wood butterflies, which seemed to be everywhere on Sunday. And in early winter it is rare that I don’t find waxwings, redwings and fieldfares stripping berries from hawthorns and rowans at Dowley Gap near Bingley.

The most scenic canals are those which cut deep into the Pennines, as do the Huddersfield in the Colne Valley and the Rochdale Canal in Calderdale, and you see the classic landscape photography combination of still water framed by mature trees and steep hillsides, which at this time of year are now turning bronze with dead bracken.

In all but name, our canals are both linear nature reserves and National Parks, and the Canal and River Trust does a great job balancing the needs of wildlife and humans.