Canal procession from Castleford to Knottingley will celebrate Wakefield's waterways history and reputation for sculpture

For the past 18 months, Sydney Thornbury has called the Aire and Calder Navigation her home. Since moving to West Yorkshire last year, she has lived on board a narrowboat, moored along the canalised waterway that was once a core part of the region’s industrial history.

Sydney Thornbury, the CEO of The Art House, on her boat with friend Tony Wade.
Sydney Thornbury, the CEO of The Art House, on her boat with friend Tony Wade.

It was built to enable a navigable passage of trade between the shipping port at Hull and the cities of Wakefield and Leeds, but today the route is predominantly recreational, used by canal boats for waterways holidays and fishing and leisure trips.

Later this month, Thornbury, who moved to Wakefield to become CEO of the district’s Art House, hopes to capitalise on this use for pleasure in order to celebrate the area’s working canal history, as well as its reputation for arts and sculpture.

“One of the things I was so taken with when I moved to Wakefield was the extraordinary history it has of canals,” she says. “We have now got this beautiful resource in the canal network itself and in the towpaths, for leisure, for health and for everyone’s enjoyment, married to this fantastic and very unique history of working canals and canal life.

Sydney Thornbury, the CEO of The Art House, on her boat with friend Tony Wade.

“Then, of course, you’ve got a district that has an extraordinary history of sculpture as well. For both Barbara Hepworth (born in Wakefield) and Henry Moore (born in Castleford) to be from the same place is really special, and we’ve also got The Hepworth Wakefield gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

"Although it wouldn’t have been the most obvious choice to many, I thought wouldn’t it be fantastic to do something to marry this history of sculpture to this history of canals and make a fun, engaging event that reaches out to everybody.”

That event, Afloat: A Creative Parade of Boats, will see a procession of canal barges travel the waterways between Castleford and Knottingley on bank holiday Monday, each decorated with sculptures inspired by the works of Hepworth and Moore and the history of Wakefield.

Commercial freight on the canal network in Wakefield district.

The flotilla will form part of Index Festival, a visual arts programme taking place in Leeds and Wakefield as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International and organisers have drawn inspiration from the long-standing Regata Storica, a popular event in the calendar of the ‘floating city’ of Venice.

“I had this moment where I came across The Hepworth in my boat as we turned into the canal there and I had this flash of memory of the Regatta in Venice,” Thornbury says.

“I know you wouldn’t necessarily put Wakefield and Venice in the same sentence, but the way the light was - it’s so beautiful there and it’s stunning in Venice as well - and its reflection off the building made me think of the Regatta. It’s this wonderfully beautiful event but also such a community festival.”

A procession of boats will make their way from Castleford to Knottingley for the Afloat event.

Part of the mission of The Art House, which has more than 50 studios for artists, makers and creative businesses, as well as exhibition spaces and on-site accommodation, is to connect arts and culture to the people of Wakefield - and Thornbury sees Afloat as an opportunity to do just that too.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as arts and culture is not for me,” she says. “But one of the things when I moved here that really struck me is that arguably Wakefield has two of the best museums in the world between the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth, and yet a huge percentage of the population in Wakefield doesn’t give a monkeys about those because they feel that art and culture ‘isn’t for me’. I think very often that’s just because people haven’t been engaged in the right way.”

Art, she says, should be about “fun, imagination and everyone’s innate creativity instead of some esoteric, vaulted, untouchable thing”.

“I think there’s a misconception that good art has to be really stuffy and worshipped on some high pedestal. We just don’t feel that way. I think there’s something quite mischievous about saying we are going to have people build sculptures, and put those on boats and float them down the river. But that is art and the joy of creativity.”

Charitable organisation Edgelands Arts, based at The Art House, is running community workshops to bring people together to create the sculptures.

They will be placed across at least seven boats taking part and Thornbury is hopeful residents and holidaymakers on the canal network will also decorate their craft and join in.

“In my ideal world, we would fill the canal with boats from all over,” she says. “It has the potential to be a fantastic visual spectacle and so much fun.”

The canals around Wakefield district were once a hub of trade, thanks to waterways improvements from the first decade of the 1700s. The River Aire was made navigable between Knottingley and Leeds, and, too, was the River Calder between Castleford and Wakefield.

Previously, goods being transported to and from the North Sea could only travel as far as Knottingley, via the Rivers Humber, Ouse and Aire.

But the development of the Aire and Calder Navigation meant that both Wakefield and Leeds were connected, by water, to the sea, providing a direct route for imports and exports to and from the continent and elsewhere in the UK.

Waterways allowed bulk materials to be economically transported long distances inland and linked major manufacturing centres across the country. Freight on those around the Wakefield included everything from coal from the mines of the West Riding to cloth, corn, wool, sand and gravel, copper, and petroleum fuel.

Canal enthusiast George McNally, now of Castleford, worked on the waterways for 12 years, and was involved in transportation of the latter. “If we didn’t have the humble barge and crews to man them, then the industrial revolution probably wouldn’t have happened,” the 76-year-old says. “The canals played a massive part in this country’s growth from the 1700s.”

The development of the railway network, and the decline in industries such as coal, have contributed to a significant drop in commercial traffic on the Aire and Calder and today, around Wakefield district, it is pleasure boats not trade vessels that have become the norm. But it is hoped that Afloat will help to tell history of the waterway, keeping its story alive today.

The event is part of a wider cultural programme taking place in the district this summer, promoted by the Wakefield Cultural Consortium, the voice of the arts collective. “We have incredible organisations and creative companies that are making things happen and the thing we are saying this summer is that the secret’s out,” says project manager Graham Whitehead.

“I call it a Wakefield awakening - we have got a lot to shout about and the programme starts to tell that story. There’s so much going on and it’s about celebrating the broad range of what Wakefield has to offer and connecting people to the full history of the place.

"We are not a small city in the shadow of Leeds. We are a city that has a real voice and sense of identity and events like Afloat really bring that to life.”

AFLOAT: A Creative Parade of Boats takes place on August 26 and is being supported by Wakefield Council. The procession will leave Castleford Lock at 9am and is expected to arrive at Knottingley Amphitheatre at 1pm.

There, off Hill Top Road in the town, there will be a community festival taking place between noon and 4pm, with live music, street theatre, arts and crafts, stalls, food and a bar.

Workshops for people to create sculptures with Edgeland Arts have been taking place in the run up to the event. One will be held at the Old Quarry Adventure Playground in Knottingley today between noon and 4pm and another will be held from 11am until 3pm tomorrow at Kellingley Social Club.