Jumping on board a Humber keel might not seem the wisest move in today’s environment of child abduction, trafficking and health and safety driven agendas, but for a seven-year-old Jim Hood back in 1943 it was all about adventure.
Jim wasn’t exactly sailing the high seas, more enjoying the experience of river and canal boats on the Driffield Navigation that celebrates the 250th anniversary next weekend of when the first act of parliament was passed to build the canal from the River Hull to Riverhead in Driffield. From its official opening in 1770 until the 1870s it played a major role in the development of Driffield as a grain trading centre.
Driffield Navigation Trust and Driffield Navigation Amenities Association (DNAA) have worked tirelessly since their inception in 1968 to restore the canal to being fully navigable through its 11-mile stretch to the River Hull and apart from one final and rather costly hurdle yet to be overcome, they have largely achieved their aim.
The 250th anniversary will see Riverhead at its busiest with boat traffic for over 60 years next Saturday and Sunday as the planned gala weekend will give a flavour of the anticipated surge in tourism when the final hurdle has been completed.
Jim farms at Chesney Farm that borders the canal in Driffield. He’s 81 next month but still recalls his childhood days with great affection and although his exploits back then would certainly not be condoned in a week’s time, his experiences were all about the joy of being on board when times were much more innocent.
“I’d go down, jump on and have a great two or three hours. I’d very often go missing from home when I was a lad. I’d go all the way down to Hull and back. The sailors would give me loads of monkey nuts to keep me going. They’d put them in my cap and tell me not to spill them.”
Driffield Navigation was built with the grain trade in mind. At the time the two communities of Driffield and Kilham, a handful of miles further on, were around the same size, with Kilham slightly larger. Grain merchants and others saw the advantage of water transportation. At the time waterways were the 18th century equivalent of today’s motorways. Boats proved to be effective means by which goods could be conveyed from the arable heartland of the Wolds and Holderness for food production.
“Driffield was buzzing,” says David Taylor, trustee for Driffied Navigation Trust and a member of the DNAA. “The commercial development of Driffield largely came about because of the canal. Grain and ale would go down to Hull, coal and other commodities would come back up. It made the town what it is today - Capital of the Wolds - and established important trade links. Huge warehouses were built here by grain merchants Mortimer’s and Bradshaw’s.
“The Driffield Navigation actually runs to 13 miles as there is a spur at Frodingham and restoration has been our aim with the replacement and reopening of locks and bridges particularly prevalent in the past 15 years.”
The final hurdle is Wansford Bridge, a concrete bridge two miles from Riverhead, that was installed in 1967 when the then East Riding County Council replaced an old wooden bridge that had fallen into disrepair. The resurgence of canals for recreational use hadn’t occurred and the resultant bridge has proved a barrier with only canoes and kayaks able to get through.
John Scholey is a retired haulage contractor from Hutton Cranswick, vice-chairman of the trust and a member of the DNAA. He and partner Jayne Briggs recently purchased the former Mortimer’s Warehouse at Riverhead and he’s keen to see the building become a heritage centre and museum.
“As trustees we’ve spent around £650,000 replacing every lock and many of the bridges. The new swing bridge at Brigham can now be operated by one person and we’ve also renewed half of Bethel’s Bridge at Hempholme where 100 mainly pleasure boats are moored. We have two small bridges to replace this year, but the one sticking point is Wansford Bridge. We’re on the case though and hope, with the support of East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to once again have the full Driffield Navigation, from Riverhead to where the River Hull takes over, open once again.”
The organisers of next weekend’s gala are encouraging boat owners to moor their vessels in the canal basin. The spectacle starts this Tuesday when a 35ft narrowboat will be lifted in to Riverhead by crane. Smaller boats on trailers will be launched there, while larger craft can sail as far as Wansford and tie up for the weekend at moorings outside The Trout Inn, from where transport will be provided to the festival. Larger boats can sail to North Frodingham landing where they will be lifted out by crane and transported by road to Riverhead.