Travel: The Leeds and Liverpool canal

Sam's Drum on the canal near East Marton. Picture: Janet Watson
Sam's Drum on the canal near East Marton. Picture: Janet Watson
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A week puttering on the Leeds and Liverpool canal is slow and special.

Bingley five-rise locks are a daunting place to start your first narrowboat holiday in 20 years. As I really didn’t want our first day on the Leeds and Liverpool canal to be a crash course for my teenage sons in how to plunge our 47-footer, Sam’s Drum, to a murky lock floor, we decided to head west as we navigated our way out of Silsden Boats’ yard, close to Keighley, West Yorkshire.

And, as Silsden’s Richard Bradburn said – while imparting 30 years of narrowboat know-how such as “pushing the tiller to the left makes the boat go right”, and “don’t have a shower without turning the shower pump on first” – heading west towards Skipton and the Yorkshire Dales would give us “some of the best of what this 250-year-old canal has to offer”. He wasn’t wrong. On its 127-mile journey through beautiful Yorkshire scenery, and beyond, across the border with Lancashire and through the mile-long Foulridge tunnel, the canal takes holidaymakers into a beautiful new world of... slow.

The thing I rediscovered as I steered our 4/5 berth boat – complete with fully-appointed kitchen – was that it is impossible not to relax and let the world beyond the canal (for which the first sod was dug in 1770) slip away. Everyone is in such a rush; glimpses of “normal” life through gaps between canal-side houses, or queues of cars we caused as we opened and closed swing bridges, or people dashing around with trollies as we wandered aisles of food feeling like we had all the time in the world, had me sighing with relief as our engine kicked into life each mist-filled morning, and we pushed off from our overnight mooring into another day of fresh air and sunshine.

And yes, of course the sunshine helped. Particularly for the teens, who when not taking a turn at the tiller, or “windlassing” lock paddles and pushing open mega-ton gates, were often to be found lying on the boat’s warm roof, beer by elbow, book in hand. I’ve wanted to take them on such a holiday since they were born, having had similar golden times as an 18-year-old on a school trip that took us underneath the infamous spaghetti junction (it’s surprisingly peaceful). Later, it was odysseys with friends around the Cheshire and Avon rings, Pearson’s Canal Companions always to hand, as well as the ubiquitous beer.

Silsden Boats is a family business. Barbara and Richard Bradburn bought it in 1995, seeing an opportunity to share their experiences and enthusiasm with other people, like us, who are interested in the canal network as a holiday venue.

And with Richard’s sage advice ringing in our ears, we cruised from east to west, mooring where the restaurants and pubs looked good either from the water, or from Pearson’s colourful descriptions. We went through the market town of Skipton, then on to the picturesque villages of Gargrave and East Marton, then to Barnoldswick before puttering through the eerily dark Foulridge tunnel to execute a passable, multi-point turn and coming back to face my nemesis, at Bingley.

The five-rise lock staircase, opened in 1774 and situated about half a mile north of Bingley Station, is the most spectacular feature of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The locks open directly from one to another, with the top gate of one forming the bottom gate of the next, and their total rise is 60 feet. They are closed overnight and open daily under the supervision of a team of about ten lock-keepers, of which the aptly-named Barry Whitelock, MBE, is the longest serving, having kept a wary eye on boating teams, for safety and to conserve water, since 1978.

The evening before we were due to navigate the locks – our penultimate day afloat – I went for a stroll alongside them, peering through the dusk into dark, slimy depths, and would likely have had nightmares about them had I not been so relaxed. Thanks to my now lock-perfect crew of husband 
and teens, and the team of keepers, 
we made our way down like old 
hands, sailing on to the Bingley three-rise, then the two-rise. Finally we moored for a well-earned beer between the beautiful Victorian mills of Titus Salt’s Saltaire – where we ate at the cheekily named bar, Don’t Tell Titus (he, and his town, were teetotal), before turning round and heading back to Silsden, and the end of our lovely week on the water.

Stepping from the boatyard shop the next day after buying model narrowboats and a keyring or two before getting in the car and heading back to Edinburgh, I took a look back at Sam’s Drum, and knew just how much I would miss going slow.

THE FACTS Silsden Boats’ Sam’s Drum costs from £548 for a weekly hire, sleeps 2-5, and the price includes diesel, gas, bedding, car parking and damage waiver. This boat is a Saturday start, from 1pm, until 9am the following Saturday. Children and non-swimmers are issued with buoyancy aids (; Don’t Tell Titus café bar, 6 Victoria Road, Saltaire, Bradford, BD18 3LA (