The canal towpath: joggers jogging, toddlers toddling (and toddling old men); cycling and walking; couples, young couples and old couples; mums and dads and little ones on little bikes. That is the Leeds-Liverpool Canal towpath on a sunny weekend.
Passing through Skipton, Keighley,Shipley and Kirkstall on its 127-mile journey into the centre of Leeds, where it joins up with the Aire-Calder Navigation the canal provided what was in the 19th Century an important trade and transport route between Liverpool and Hull for coal, limestone for mortar and agriculture, textiles and much else, keeping pace with the industrial revolution unfolding in the West Riding and Lancashire, until superseded by the railways and later by the motorways.
On July 2, 1766, a public meeting took place at the Sun Inn, Bradford to promote the building of a canal. The first sod was dug on November 5, 1770 and the main line of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal completed nearly 50 years later in 1816, 127 miles long with 91 locks.
But, beneath the then necessities of commerce and today the pleasure of the water, the fishing and the delight of the narrowboat-turned-pleasure craft, lie the ghosts of 250 years ago, the ghosts of the canal navvies, so many of whom sweated and died building the canal with little more than shovels and hard muscle.
There was ‘a stranger called Thomas Jones supposedly from Shropshire, having been unfortunately killed in the works near Gannow by a fall of earth.’
This being from an entry in Leeds Committee Minute Book, Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company February 27, 1800 (see A Burton, The Canal Builders, 1993, p 155)
There was no health and safety executive then, no hard hats, compensation for death and injury being largely within the will and whim of the company.
Publicly owned and managed by the British Waterways Board after the War until 2012, British canals, including the Leeds-Liverpool, their assets and their management, were then handed over to a sort of public charitable trust, the Canal and River Trust (Glandwr Cymru in Wales).
The declared statutory purposes of the Trust today would have made curious reading to a narrowboatman and his family back in the 19th Century, when their living depended on the boat - for them and their family the boat was probably their workplace and their home.
For example: ‘Section 2.1 states: to preserve, protect, operate and manage the [canals] for public benefit, (a) for navigation; (b) for walking on towpaths; and (c) for recreation or other leisure-time pursuits of the public in the interest of their health and social welfare.’
Today, there are still links to the canal’s industrial past.
The last skeletal rib of an old coal barge could, at least until recently, be seen poking out of the water at what is now a marina but was the docking for the coal barges serving Kirkstall Power Station, until it was converted to oil and finally closed in 1976.
Still more interesting beside the canal between Kirkstall and Leeds there is an upside down notice on the wall whose watery reflection reads: THE REMAINS OF A WOODEN ICEBREAKER LIE SUBMERGED.
Its meaning I will explain in the second part, which will be published on January 2.