Living the Dream on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal

Written by Julie Noble
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)

Smart paintwork
Smart paintwork reflected in the sage-green water

The week before we go on the boat, roads all round England are gridlocked and people wait for days to enter the Channel tunnel and escape that way. When the radio features canals, we dream of forthcoming peace while we sit melting in traffic jams.

The trip is a wish ticked off the bucket list. We’ve picked the Leeds-Liverpool because it’s near two of our older children and also because when I was a student I loved driving past the stretch between Skipton and Gargrave. It seemed ideal when I internet searched, late at night, as it didn’t appear to have many locks in that direction. ‘Appear’ being the operative word.

Our holiday date brings rain forecast by the bucketload, but it’s dry when we arrive and the narrowboat looks delightful with its smart paintwork reflected in the sage-green water. The little ones love playing ‘house’ as we unpack bags into plentiful storage. Expecting minimal space, I have underpacked for the first time ever and end up spending the last day hopping on and off the deck in my favourite little black dress!

Ducks follow hopefully
Swans follow hopefully

Three narrowboats head out in the same direction at the same time, and everyone barring one is – excuse the pun – in the same boat: complete novices. This gives us all extra enjoyment when we meet up at locks, do ‘leapfrog’ at gates, and spot each other at pubs or supplies stops. By the last night, my children and I are doing crazy, waving-arm dance-offs with a delightful seventy-something woman every time one of us opens a gate and the other boat moves through!

The first day s bathed in sunshine. My eldest stretches out on the top of the cabin, conveniently out of the reach of her younger siblings, and chats while I look at the scenery and the wildlife. Pretty, purple wildflowers flourish between the fresh, thrusting rushes, geese nibble at grass in green fields, children wave from the towpath, swans follow hopefully. Glasses clink in nearly every barge we pass; one glides alongside loaded with singers and guitar players who serenade us and the ducks.

The locks are big, bold, and surprisingly numerous
The locks are big, bold, and surprisingly numerous

In Skipton, flowers bloom in mini balconies on the stylish factory conversions and overflow the tops of lived-in barges. We do name-spotting, intrigued by ‘Justice’ and ‘About Time’. There are a couple of bridges to open which prove an entertaining challenge. Near the railway station, a passerby helps push – but only so he can
get to his train on time!

The locks are big, bold, and surprisingly numerous, with thirteen on the third day. With expert guidance through the first, we soon enjoy the chance for exercise and interaction with other boaters.

At times you are literally in touch with history itself, because some parts that make up the gates seem old enough to be original, especially where the paddles are broken. As the water is forced like a pressure washer through the gaps, the sheer power and weight behind those gates is astonishing, certainly a threat to any boat that isn’t clear of the cill. Fortunately, canal boat accidents are very rare, and we have no problems moving through.

The next morning the rain arrives, but Greenberfield is stunning even on a soggy day. Showers are suffused by intermittent sunshine which brings out the green in the reeds as we meander round the curving canal. James Brindley designed it to save time and water by following thve contours of the land. These days the twisting turns allow narrowboats to be rocked gently between pasture fields and overhanging trees.

Living the Dream
The darkness is silent

Middle son joins us for a spot of fishing with his little brother, though no fish actually appear, while the girls curl up inside the cabin.

Exactly the sort of cosy time you long for in the midst of busy, distant lives. At night, you are free to moor almost anywhere. One evening we stop in a busy dock lined with other boats in Gargrave, eager to have a meal at a popular pub, another time we sleep by fields. The darkness is silent, but the next day we wake to the huffing breath of cattle, stretching their curious noses over the fence to sniff our strange scents.

As the canal climbs the locks, myself and my eldest jumping out at every stop, over three days we reach the plateau in the Pennine peaks. No locks at last! While the children play board games, my daughter and I lift our drinks to the landscape and chat: living the dream.

POSTED 30th June 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of JULIE NOBLE. The 1st, 2nd and 4th photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.