Guide to the Leeds Liverpool Canal
Exploring the waterways of the UK
Exploring the waterways of the UK
Taking almost 50 years to complete, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway by one company, at 127 miles. Designed to improve transport routes between east and west in the latter part of the 18th Century, the canal leaves Liverpool in the east, passing through Lancashire and crossing Pennine countryside and historic villages on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales before reaching Leeds.
In the mid-18th century the industrial revolution meant that the towns in the north east such as Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford were developing rapidly and looking to trade with both the east and west of the country, as well as wanting access to the port of Liverpool and the overseas markets. The Aire and Calder Navigation provided a link east for Leeds but links to the west were limited. Bradford merchants wanted to increase the supply of limestone to make lime for mortar and agriculture using coal from Bradford’s collieries and to transport textiles for export from Liverpool.
On the west coast, traders in the busy port of Liverpool wanted a cheap supply of coal for their shipping and manufacturing businesses.
An Act was passed in May 1770 authorising construction, and the renowned engineer James Brindley was appointed chief engineer and John Longbotham clerk of works. The canal took nearly 50 years to build, sadly James Brindley died in 1772 and never saw his planned works brought to life.
The Leeds Liverpool Canal managed to have a longer commercial life than many other canals in the UK. The heavy industry along its route, together with the decision to build the canal with broad locks, ensured that the Leeds and Liverpool competed successfully with the railways throughout the 19th century and remained open through the 20th century.
The canal was built at a cost of £259,777 (equivalent to about £32.67 million today).
Starting at Leeds, the canal heads northwest through Bradford, Keighley and Skipton to it’s most northern point in the large village of Gargrave, which sits on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. After passing through the centre of this village the canal turns and heads south west through the old textile mill towns of Burnley and Blackburn and then due south to Wigan.
At Wigan you can take the Leigh Branch south east towards Manchester or continue on the Leeds Liverpool Canal through East Lancashire through Burscough, around Ormskirk and finally heading south into Bootle and Liverpool, coming to the end at the Albert Dock.
It’s a route that mixes the old industrial towns of the north together with the beautiful countryside of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
You can cruise the Leeds Liverpool Canal from our canal boat hire base at Acton Bridge in Cheshire, enjoying a three week cruise through Cheshire and Lancashire to the famous Albert Dock in Liverpool.
Locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal were for the most part built to a size of 62 feet by 14 feet (18.8m x 4.3m), much broader than the traditional narrowboat locks. These broad locks allowed broad-gauge vessels to transport goods totalling up to around 45 tons, twice that of the standard narrowboat.
The Leeds and Liverpool canal proved successful because of the length of the canal and the number of different types of traffic that was able to cruise between all the different and important manufacturing towns. For many years the canal beat off the railways’ competition by being more competitive, more efficient and even, it was claimed, considerably quicker on some routes than the railways.
Travelling across the Pennines between Lancashire and Yorkshire was always going to be challenging but the Leeds Liverpool Canal attempted to keep the locks to a minimum and more grouped for easier navigation.
Most of the locks are concentrated in groups with long level sections between. Tunnels and cuttings are avoided where possible with the canal following the contours around bends and loops. The earliest locks, between Leeds and Bingley, are often grouped together to form staircases of two or three locks.
The most spectacular bit of engineering on the Leeds Liverpool Canal is the five rise lock at Bingley. They are the steepest staircase locks on the longest canal in the country and one of the Canal and River Trust’s Seven Wonders of the Waterways.
An 18th Century engineering masterpiece, these five locks operate as a ‘staircase’ flight – in which the lower gate of one lock forms the upper gate of the next. When completed in 1774, thousands gathered to watch the first boats make the 60 foot descent. Little has changed on this staircase since they were first built.
The canal was so successful that the reservoirs built to supply the canal were never adequate, with water shortages in dry summers. Despite this, the canal continued to carry large tonnages well into the 1950s.
Like other major waterways across the UK, the Leeds & Liverpool Canalformed part of Britain’s defence plans against foreign invasion. Today, you can still see some remaining concrete pill boxes and blockhouses in west Lancashire.
When the canal was revamped in the late 20th Century, an investment of £22 million enabled the creation of the Liverpool Canal Link which meant that the Leeds Liverpool canal extended right into the heart of Liverpool and its historic Royal Albert Dock.
There were five branches to the Leeds Liverpool Canal – Rufford, Leigh, Springs, Stanley Docks and Walton Summit.