Canal Culture

Canal Culture

For a relaxing holiday and the antidote to boredom, a canal boat cruise is hard to beat. Paul Miles takes us for a ride.

Don’t you love a rooftop garden? Views across towns and fields, flowers in pots, wooden chairs and a table with a G&T filtering the sun’s rays as it sinks behind hills. Perfect. Even better, tomorrow, from this very garden, the view will be different. How? It moves. It’s on a boat that voyages in and around the Yorkshire countryside.

Lady Teal is a five-star hotel vessel, sleeping just five passengers, that cruises the canals and rivers of the county of the white rose (and, whisper it, sometimes ventures unwisely into neighbouring red rose territory). This custom-built steel barge is one of very few canal boats with a roof strong enough to support a rooftop decking complete with safety rail, tables, chairs and planters. I relax amid sweet smelling, fluffy hydrangeas while my captain, Nick Mead, expertly guides the vessel out of the centre of Leeds. “The Leeds and Liverpool canal is so diverse - from cities to countryside - and it has very little traffic compared to the canals of southern England,” says Nick, standing at the tiller.

Lady Teal leaves sleek canal-side restaurants behind and commences her leisurely ascent of the Pennine Hills, expertly guided by Nick via 200-year-old canal locks with just inches to spare either side. Nick’s wife, Gina, serves coffee and delicious homemade biscuits as our 60ft long, 13ft wide craft squeezes into the first narrow lock. Water rushes in through sluices, operated by the crew. If I fancy, I can lend a hand, or just sit back and enjoy the scenery. We cruise past mills and tall mill chimneys, through the once industrial town of Saltaire, now full of David Hockney’s art and cafés with quick-wristed baristas. I have a little go at the tiller, gliding past stationary herons and darting kingfishers, under shady boughs and in open sunshine.

At the seemingly impenetrable cliff face of gates comprising Bingley Five-Rise Locks, cheery lock-keepers help Lady Teal ascend 60ft. We pass through the Georgian town of Skipton with its Norman castle hidden among trees and between hills embroidered with drystone walls. Boats with names such as Grand as Owt cruise by.

It's night and we moor in the middle of nowhere to a soundtrack of owls hooting and curlews calling, while moonlight ripples on the water. Inside the cosy vessel, wine flows freely and the food is fresh and locally sourced (sometimes from farm stalls with honesty boxes on the towpath). After dinner, I retire gladly to my bedroom (all that fresh air and pampering is exhausting). It’s one of three comfortable guest cabins with en-suite shower and proper flush toilet, cosy, snug, but very luxurious.

The days blend into each other in a haze of lush greenery, historic towns and friendly passersby. A week - but just 35 miles - from Leeds, we reach a particularly scenic and meandering stretch through marshy fields where grazing cattle and sheep are our only company; not a house or road in sight. “We love boating in Yorkshire,” says a fellow guest on their umpteenth cruise as we walk along the towpath to work up an appetite. “The people are so friendly and the scenery’s spectacular. It’s moodily atmospheric in rain and mist, but we’ve had several holidays of wall to wall sunshine.”

After the final night (and the best sleep I’ve had in ages), I wake to the smell of sizzling bacon and freshly baked bread, which I’m able to enjoy outside on deck thanks to the mild weather and milky early morning sun. We cruise back home at a leisurely 4mph. Despite the leisurely pace, it’s all over far too quickly for my liking. This sort of canal holiday has metaphysical dimensions, challenging perceptions of time and space. Especially when you’re sitting on a rooftop garden, Yorkshire hills and towns passing by at 4mph. I’ll definitely be back.

Sail your way to adventure

A holiday aboard the Lady Teal is effortless, but what if you want a slightly livelier experience, a romantic trip or something to keep the kids occupied? Why not opt for a self-steer narrowboat break? Sailing these requires an adventurous spirit and a bit of tutoring.

Of course, the boats you can hire nowadays are far better appointed than the 1950s-converted life-boats from decommissioned trans-Atlantic liners, which once carried brave holidaymakers on the waterways. However, you still need to keep your wits about you and know your windlass (tool to operate locks) from your gongoozler (canal bystander). Learning is a surprisingly straightforward procedure and it’s a bit like learning to ride a bicycle, you never forget how. But be warned, once you’ve experienced a magical journey at the helm of a canal boat you’ll be hooked for life.

There are over 200 miles of navigable waterways in Yorkshire, mostly all connected, so it’s easy to go from one to another. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is the major one - once the busiest motorway of its day - with over 120 miles, all dug by hand, completed in 1816. If you don’t want to stay overnight, why not just go on a day trip? Through the centre of historic York, on the tannin-coloured River Ouse, you can venture for an hour or two in a little self-drive boat or duck under river bridges on the top deck of a city cruiser. Whatever you fancy, there’s something for everyone on Yorkshire’s waterways.

Climbing and caving but not as you know it

The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is famed for its three-mile long tunnel, the longest navigable canal tunnel in the world. The canal climbs for eight miles from Huddersfield through 42 locks before reaching the village of Marsden, once wealthy from woollen cloth and now famed for its annual jazz festival. Here, you leave daylight and trombones behind as the waterway burrows into the Stygian darkness of the Pennine Hills. Occasionally the tunnel opens out into echoing chambers.

In actual fact, dear reader, you are climbing and caving in a boat. To go through it, you need to make a booking (free) with the Canal and River Trust. A member of staff will meet you at the tunnel mouth and step aboard with various safety apparatus, including hard hats, torches and a meter to detect noxious gases. They will chaperone you through while a van drives along a parallel disused rail tunnel connected at intervals by adits (entrances), where the driver checks your progress. If all this seems too much like an extreme sport, you can venture into the swallowing darkness of this engineering marvel on a guided trip boat from the visitors’ centre at the tunnel mouth in Marsden. Standedge Tunnel is one of the wonders of the world’s waterways and it’s in Yorkshire.

Along the hippie trail

The third trans-Pennine route, is the Rochdale Canal. This 32-mile long canal with 91 locks ascends from Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire through Calderdale’s steep valleys, where towns such as Hebden Bridge and Todmorden climb up hillsides hanging with beech trees. Among the mill chimneys and tall houses of Hebden Bridge are cafés and shops selling crystals and magic charms. The canal is lined with narrowboats and cats asleep on roofs among planters of vegetables. Some live-aboard boaters sell decorative tin ware or rope work from their floating homes. Vintage vessels are lovingly and brightly painted with highly polished brass bands around smoking chimneys. Squint into the sparkling sunlight and you can imagine that you’ve been transported back two centuries.

Rural retreat

Pocklington Canal is entirely rural. Fewer than 20 narrowboats a year visit this remote canal in a flat part of Yorkshire at the foot of the Wolds. It’s perfect for quiet canoeing, kayaking or country walks. It passes through internationally important wetlands, visited by migrating bird species.

Fifteen species of dragonflies and damselflies have been spotted and there are barn owls, otters, voles and plenty of kingfishers. On Sundays, between April and October, the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society runs free trips on their narrowboat, New Horizons, from a small marina near the village of Melbourne. Groups of up to 12 can book New Horizons for longer trips. Donations go towards restoration of the canal.

This article was taken from This is Y 2018