Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Thursday 28 June 2012

Rotherham's Bridge Chapel

What are the oldest buildings on our inland waterways?  Bridge chapels have a good claim.  Only four remain on their bridges, and the only one entire and unaltered is at Rotherham  -  over the River Don, a few yards downstream of where it’s joined by the Rother.

Such chapels were once a common sight for travellers, thankful for a substantial bridge, rather than the ferries from which many lives were lost, or the fords that were impassable when river levels were high.

But a stone bridge was expensive to create and maintain.  Medieval non-military construction engineering was almost solely in the hands of the church.  The men who built the great cathedrals were probably responsible, chapel-bridges usually having spans the same shape as arching and vaults in religious buildings.

It was chantry-chapels that were built on the bridges, specially designated as sites where priests were paid to chant masses for local people.  The funds received were used to maintain the bridge, a system that survived until 1547 when masses, and chantry-chapels, were abolished in the religious traumas of that century.

That was when most of the bridge chapels were lost  -  Rotherham’s survived, but lost its fittings and windows.  After that it had centuries of various uses, an almshouse, a jail with a cell in the crypt, a house, then a tobacconist’s shop in the 1880s. 

The town’s inhabitants signed a petition for the restoration of the chapel and in 1924 it was re-consecrated by the Bishop of Sheffield.

Now attention switched to the bridge.  The challenge was to create a bridge for motorised traffic without harming the chapel or the medieval arches on which it stood  -  built in c1483 its roadway was only 15 feet wide, increased to 24ft 6ins in 1769.

The answer was the present Chantry Bridge opened in 1930, about 20ft upstream.  The old bridge was incorporated into it as a footway only, reduced to its four arches and original width.

And the River Don?  It’s no longer the navigable route, having been bypassed by a lock-cut, and the growth of the town meant its channel was progressively edged westwards.

As a result the chapel’s bridge-arches are now usually on dry land  -  but not always.

When water levels are very high the Don still flows under the bridge of the Chapel of Our Lady.

The four arches of the original bridge are shown here, with the current road bridge extending from it over the Don's main channel.

 Services in the Chapel of Our Lady  -  Holy Communion, 11.00, Tuesdays.

The other three chapels still on their bridges are at  -

St.Ives, Cambridgeshire  -  over the Great Ouse.
Wakefield  -  over the River Calder
Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire  -  near Bradford Lock on the Kennet & Avon Canal

Tuesday 26 June 2012

So Few Visitors?

I write this blog to spread awareness of a lesser known region of the waterways network.

It seems my efforts are needed  -  at Castleford flood-lock the car-park provided by British Waterways appears to be miniscule.

Only one visitor at a time?

And only one fisherman?

It's to be hoped that when the Canal & River Trust take over running our waterways adequate facilities will be installed!  Or an awareness of apostrophes.

On the other hand  -  when driving to the flood-lock the road-lanes for Castleford and Pontefract were painted Cas' and Pont'  -  just two little blobs of white paint, but a pleasure to behold.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Castleford - Four Days Later!

In the previous blog the first pictures show the waterways at Castleford  -  the River Aire flowing over the weir, and the area of the flood-lock at the end of the lock-cut.

That was four days ago.  After the torrential rain in the Calder valley last night, a month's worth in 24 hours, the same scenes looked like this.  The weir has almost disappeared.  These water levels are only 6 inches less than the highest recorded in modern times.

Compare the two sets of photographs.

What fish, eel, lamprey and otter ladder?

The conduits near the mill have been over-topped.

But the geese have found a sheltered spot out of the very fast flowing waters.

At the confluence of the rivers Calder and Aire  -  in the foreground the entrance to Castleford cut to bypass the weir.  The red traffic light indicates navigation is prohibited and, not surprisingly, the gates of the flood-lock are closed.  Four days ago they remained open.

The levels are so high that water is running through the top slats of the closed flood-gates.

As a result the water-levels in the lock-cut have risen substantially.

The green boat on the left is heeling over because a mooring rope, to the centre of the roof, has been tied too tight.  We, of course, slackened it off.

As I type  -  the whole of the Rochdale Canal has been closed to navigation, its route being along the inundated Calder valley.

And all of this water, and more, will end up at Airmyn  -  then into the Ouse, then into the Humber.  Truely Waterways of the Humber.

Friday 22 June 2012

Two Rivers - One Aim - the Calder & Aire

Fine weather was forecast for two days this week so we got out and about the waterways  -  this time to the rivers Calder & Aire.  I’ve named them in that order to distinguish them from the successful man-made system now known as the Aire & Calder Navigation.

It started with the wool trade.  Throughout medieval times the valleys of West Yorkshire had made a good living from wool.  But by the early 1600s they were beginning to make serious money exporting woollen cloth to Europe, sending it on slow-plodding packhorses to Rawcliffe and Selby to be loaded onto sea-going ships.  Slow, and expensive  -  Leeds to Selby in the winter could take two weeks, at £5 per ton, later water-borne cargoes would take only three days at a cost of only 10 shillings a ton.

Trade would expand throughout the century and by the 1690s it was making mega-fortunes for those involved in Leeds (on the Aire) and Wakefield (on the Calder)  -  money to be invested in improved transport, which in those times meant waterways.

The tide flowed up the Aire to Knottingley, so navigation that far upstream was possible for small craft on suitable tides, and free of charges which was good, but it was a long way from the two booming towns deep in the Yorkshire hills.

What we see today as the Aire & Calder Navigation is the result of almost 230 years of effort by the merchants of Leeds and Wakefield  -  culminating in 1826 with their towns having a direct waterways link to a new port at Goole, with docks for sea-going ships.  It was an instant success  -  3,200 ships used the docks in 1866, of those 463 were foreign-flagged.  Goole is still the furthest inland operational port.

We started our first day out at Castleford, parking near the River Aire where it crashes over a weir, one of the earlier navigational works to increase the depth of the river.  There’s a lovely new s-shaped footbridge across, opened in 2008, with innovative seating to enjoy the cool air.  Now the industrial pollution has been cleared from the river the bridge has opened up the area for the town. An added feature to the weir is an up-pass for fish, plus a similar but covered section for eels and lampreys, and steps on both sides for otters.

The footbridge and weir, viewed from the south bank.

Fish, eel, lamprey, otter up-pass.

At the south end of the weir is the former Allinson’s flour-mill which was the world’s largest carrying out traditional stone-grinding.  Unfortunately, after 100 years it closed in February 2011 but it’s still a striking building.

Constructing a weir is one half of a scheme, the other is to provide another route for boats to avoid it.  We walked upstream on the Aire’s north bank, a grassy path taking us round a bend to the confluence of the Calder and the Aire. 

The bush in the centre of the photograph is at the confluence of the two rivers  -  the Aire flowing down from the top right, the Calder from the upper left.  The waters of both rivers flow down to the middle left, heading for the weir, but boats pass through the entrance to Castleford flood-lock, in the foreground.  Its gates remain open when water-levels are normal.

The two rivers drain vast areas of the South Pennines so if there’s been copious rain the levels soon rise and the flood-lock’s gates are closed, as are those upstream on both rivers, and navigation ceases until normality returns.  When we were there Castleford flood-lock had recently re-opened.

It’s a pretty scene, and there’s usually boats about.  We happily mooch about such places, talking to people, gathering news about the waterways, and looking at boats.

The sheltered waters behind the flood-gates.  At the other end of this short straight section of canal a lock drops vessels down to the Aire at its lower level, it having descended the weir.  This is the way rivers were improved for navigation, often piecemeal, before canals completely bypassed the upper reaches  -  but, unusually, it’s the lower reaches of the Aire that are very bendy so it was those stretches that were instead bypassed by the Aire & Calder Navigation Company.

Where does the Aire end up?  On the second fine day we went to explore.

Airmyn village is quiet, its clock-tower the most memorable image, and sound.  The river is hidden behind well-mowed flood-banks, as is the way of things all along the lower reaches of the Aire and the Ouse  -  but walking along the bank tops is pleasant.

We parked near the clock-tower and went up the steps to the top of the bank.  It was mid-morning and the tide was ebbing, resulting in a fast-flowing river lined with mud as the levels fell with the tide.  We strolled along towards the confluence of the Aire and the Ouse.

When the weather’s sunny it’s often comfortable walking near these large rivers where their waters cool the air.  The silence was broken by the songs of chaffinches, skylarks and yellow-hammers.  Across the adjacent wheat-field, through gaps in the distant trees, could be seen two River Ouse bridges, the high modern one of the M62 soaring high, and the seldom-swinging one at Boothferry. 

The one aspect that’s frustrating are areas where bushes, and in this case trees, have grown between the flood-bank and the river, thus making it difficult to see the waterway  -  a visit on a fine winter’s day when the foliage has gone is often the answer.  But here we were on a beautiful early summer day, a day when frustration is not allowed.  I took what photographs I could before we strolled back to Airmyn.

As much as we could see of where the Aire flows into the Ouse.  Great big fingerpost for directions though.

The village used to be a busy port, but now boats on the river here are an extreme rarity.  By 1778 the Aire & Calder Navigation Company had decided that the extremely bendy lower reaches of the Aire could be tolerated no longer  -  so they built the Selby Canal to cut across from the Aire to the Ouse, the “king” of all Yorkshire rivers.  So, in one swoop, Airmyn’s days as a major port were finished, and there’s no reason for boats to visit.

But the A&C hadn’t finished  -  Selby was limited by only having a small basin above the lock, and no room to excavate more so in 1820 they started on their major works, to build a very wide canal all the way from Knottingley to Goole, a small village further downstream from Selby.  That way they could also avoid further bends on the Ouse, have direct access to deeper water on the river, and have room to create docks for ships and canal traffic.  This was not a company to do things half-heartedly!  By 1826 they had completed the task, with the only lower part of the Aire now used by boats the short stretch between Knottingley and Haddesley, to give access to the Selby Canal.

Of course, by then, the wool trade of Leeds & Wakefield had abated  -  coal was the next source of riches for the Aire & Calder Navigation.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Humber Canals Across the Ages

One of the reasons this country has an intricate network of canals is that it also has many navigable rivers that are not geographically far apart.

Those rivers were the “motorways” of the past so it was natural that canals were built to provide a water link to them  -  then the second phase was to link the canals to each other.  It’s for those reasons that the Humber area, rich in major navigable rivers, is also the region with the widest historical range of canals.

This is an overview of them, and where each fits into the Humber network.  The map at the head of the blog shows their locations.

The Fossdyke is generally labelled “Roman”, which is a catch-all phrase because we don’t know exactly when in that era it was built.  Between the years 71 and 74 the Roman 9th Legion advanced from Lincoln to a new base at York, so that may a pointer.  It’s now accepted that waterways were crucial transport routes for them, carrying building materials, food, and other bulk supplies.  Therefore, the Fossdyke linking Lincoln to the Trent would have greatly helped in the expansion of the Roman occupation.



Torksey  -  above the lock which is the Fossdyke's junction with the River Trent.


Torksey  -  the lock-gates and the short arm to the River Trent, which has safe moorings off the main stream of the tidal river.

The Fossdyke is the area’s earliest canal that is still navigable, but it was probably preceded by the Turnbridgedike and the Bycarrsdike.  There is a well-researched theory that the three Roman waterways linked local rivers to make a route between the Roman cities Lincoln and York  -  but to do that justice it will be covered in a separate post.  [I know the're not on the blog's map, but their locations and routes need some research before I can include them.]

On the A1041 there's a bridge which crosses a small ditch, all that remains of the route of the Roman waterway now known as the Turnbridgedike

Chesterfield Canal
It was a considerable number of years after the Romans, about 1,700 of them, before the Chesterfield Canal was completed in 1777  -  but the motivation was similar, to provide a water-transport link to a major river, again the Trent, just downstream from the Fossdyke.

However, the technology available was very different.  This was the energetic, resourceful, organised, powerhouse that was England in the second half of the 18th century.  Before now single canals had been built as and when required by a landowner or an industry  -  now the burgeoning industrial revolution was a shouting, wriggling infant that screamed its need for a national transport system for bulky and heavy goods  -  principally coal (“black gold”).

One engineer personified that pioneering era of canal construction in the 1760s and 1770s, James Brindley.  The canals created by him formed the strategic strands of the network which would eventually spread across the country  -  and one of Brindley’s waterways was the Chesterfield Canal.

Although early the Chesterfield is the longest, most intricate and geographically challenging of the Humber’s canals.  Crucially it crosses a watershed, accomplished via a very long tunnel and complex flights of locks.  In addition to those engineering marvels it has aqueducts, wide and narrow locks, a loading/unloading basin on the banks of the Trent, and a tidal lock into the river.  This 46-mile canal was pushing the limits of what could be achieved in the 18th century.

Currently this lovely canal is navigable in two sections at either end of its route, with a nine mile gap still to be restored  -  but the closing of that gap is actively in hand, with the banner of the cause flown by the enterprising, energetic and successful Chesterfield Canal Trust.  http://www.chesterfield-canal-trust.org.uk/ .  Meanwhile the canal’s towpath is walkable for the whole length, and signed as the Cuckoo Way.

Boats on the River Trent approaching the entrance lock to the Chesterfield Canal at West Stockwith.


West Stockwith basin, where cargoes used to be trans-shipped between river and canal boats.

Part of the historic Thorpe flight of locks.

Selby Canal
On the other hand the Selby Canal, completed in 1778, was an echo of an earlier age.  The River Aire had been used for centuries to transport the output of Leeds and Wakefield, even though the river had all the frustrating limitations which had motivated Brindley’s canal promoters to bypass such waterways by going across country  -  too much water, too little water, bendy courses, no engineered towpath, low bridges, etc, etc.  Now that the Yorkshire towns were rich and booming with the wool trade they looked for an alternative  -  but only as far as another river, the Ouse, which was larger than the Aire, straighter and deeper, although still leaving much to be desired as a transport route.  Because of the Brindley achievements there were many different proposals to bypass using the Aire,  but a cut to avoid the river’s tortuous lower miles was all that could be decided upon  -  it was what people were used to.

So a weir was built across the Aire to keep the tide out, and above it the straight and short Selby Canal, only 5¼ miles long, was built to cut across from the Aire to the Ouse at its name-town.

At Selby, the canal's only permanent lock  -  down into the tidal River Ouse.

Boats leaving the lock  -  going upstream on the River Ouse, towards York.

West Haddesley - at the western end of the Selby Canal.  Normally the water is at the same level as the River Aire and the gates are left open, but if the river's levels are high the gates are closed, as seen here.  The gates form a flood-lock, but boats usually wait in the canal for the Aire's water- levels to normalise.

Market Weighton Canal
After the previous three decades of boom the 1780s were years of depressed trade.  trading problems, therefore little was done about building canals.  One of the few that were completed at this time was the Market Weighton, although it was a project of the 1770s.  This is a typical example of canals as planned prior to the Brindley networked era  -  it was to solve local problems, namely land drainage in the plain of York, better transport, and agricultural improvement.  It was a piecemeal effort, done at various times, delayed by financial problems, compromised, and re-sized before it was finished in 1782, all 9Fundamentally this was because some pesky colonists in America had, late in the previous decade, eventually declared themselves an independent country.  The reverberations of this act caused widespread ½ miles of it.  And it never reached its name-town, ending two miles short.

The canal is said to be navigable for over four miles to its junction with the Foulness River, the waters of which are diverted into its course for discharge into the Humber  -  but few boats visit.

The Market Weighton Canal, just over a mile from its entrance lock on the Humber's north bank.

Stainforth & Keadby Canal
Eventually the shock of the loss of the American colonies faded and the 1790s were the first decade of what can accurately be called the Canal Age.  There were so many authorising Acts of Parliament sought (required to raise public funding) that Westminster had to make special arrangements to deal with the volume of them all.

Many had been planned during the earlier Brindley era but had been lost during the 1780s recession.  Now the confidence typical of the second half of the 18th century had returned and all over the country those schemes were dusted off and progressed with vigour.  They often bore the names of the towns at each end of the route  -  typical was the Stainforth & Keadby Canal  -  providing an obvious link from the navigable River Don to the Trent.  Its 12¾ miles were completed in 1802 and it meant boats sailing between the Ouse and the Trent did not have to go via the sometimes dangerous waters at Trent Falls, where the two rivers merge into the Humber.

Thorne is the major centre on the canal for shops and boating supplies, boat repairs and public transport.

From 1858 to 1987 Thorne was also a busy boat-building centre, not just canal boats, but tugs, fishing boats, tankers and many other types.

Pocklington Canal
Entirely different in nature were the motivations to build the Pocklington Canal which, like the Market Weighton, sought to provide water-borne transport from its isolated name-town to a navigable river, this time the then-tidal Derwent.  Completed in 1818 the cargoes along its 9½ rural miles were always sparse.  It’s now navigable for its first five miles, up to Melbourne  -  with the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society campaigning for complete restoration.

The Pocklington is famous for its distinctive circular lock-operating gear.  The used to be found elsewhere in the region but have been replaced.

Although walkable for its entire length, boats can only get to the basin at Melbourne.  However, the end of the canal near Pocklington is a well-maintained and pleasant spot.

Sheffield & Tinsley Canal
The canals of the Humber Waterways include widely various types  -  the nature of the rural and agricultural Pocklington having nothing in common with the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal.  Through indecision, prevarication, trade rivalries, and objections from various bodies Sheffield became the last major city to have the benefit of a canal  -  having to wait until 1819.  Of course Sheffield had the River Don but that was only navigable to Tinsley, both because of its diminishing size and the city’s use of the river to power vast mills and factories.  So, the output of Sheffield’s heavy industry was lugged by road the four miles down to Tinsley to be loaded onto boats  -  a ludicrous situation, but at least progress was downhill, whereas incoming raw materials had to be pulled up the valley.

Eventually the almost 4-mile Sheffield & Tinsley Canal was completed, bringing water-borne transport into a basin near the city centre, a complex of buildings now known as Victoria Quays.

Part of the Tinsley flight of locks in Sheffield, climbing up to the summit level.

The basin at Sheffield, now known as Victoria Quays.  The warehouse in the background straddles the waterway, and there is another, even older, behind it.

Aire & Calder
Changing character again, the Aire & Calder in the Humber region is one end of a major waterway, the history of which goes back to 1621.  As early as that the prosperous towns of Leeds (on the Aire) and Wakefield (on the Calder) were scheming to improve those rivers for navigation.  The name goes back to 1699 when commissioners were appointed to continuously improve water-borne access to/from both towns, and over the centuries they did, always keeping up with the engineering abilities being developed for waterways and the capabilities of boats.  As mentioned above the Selby Canal was part of their achievements.

Eventually the final part was constructed, which is the section in the Humber area.  It was a wide 17-mile canal, completely bypassing the lower reaches of the River Aire, and accessing the River Ouse at Goole.  Completed in 1826 it included at Goole a basin, and barge and ship docks.

The Aire & Calder was just in time.  During the 1830s the newly-developed railways started to make an impact and as a consequence investment in canal building was limited.  However, the Aire & Calder had been designed very efficiently  -  it still carries commercial cargo-carrying vessels, and Goole docks are still busily in use, the furthest inland in the United Kingdom.

Part of Goole docks, at the eastern end of the Aire & Calder.  Locks link the docks to the tidal River Ouse.

New Junction Canal
There’s only one more to cover.  Completing the historical range of the Humber’s canals, and one of the very few finished in the 20th century, is the New Junction.  Absolutely straight, and 5½ miles long, it is a tribute to the success of the Aire & Calder, built to give River Don boats access to that booming waterway.  The Aire & Calder also benefited by a new route to more  collieries to assuage its appetite for transporting coal.  The New Junction opened in 1905 and was further modernised in 1983, along with the River Don, as part of a scheme to give large vessels the ability to navigate to Rotherham, a little downstream of where the River Rother joins the River Don.

The resultant route, part of what is now known as the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation (SSYN), is one of the most modern in this country, completing almost two thousand years of canal building and trade on the Waterways of the Humber.

The New Junction Canal crossing a tidal section of the River Don.  There is a guillotine gate at each end of the aqueduct, which are lowered when the river levels rise and threaten to overflow into the canal.

Commercial vessels use the canal, and bridges such as this are power operated to assist their passage.


And this is the type of vessel now using the SSYN  -  Humber Princess taking oil from Hull to Rotherham.

It all fits together  -  natural and man-made waterways all link into a network.  An isolated waterway is as rare as an isolated road.

Monday 4 June 2012

Congratulations Wheldale

Wheldale on her home mooring at the
Yorkshire Waterways Museum in Goole.
Waiting to be spruced up for the Queen.

Well done Wheldale.  This little, but tough, tug left her home at the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, at Goole on the Aire & Calder Canal, on Sunday 27th May  -  to make her way to London to take part in the Jubilee Pageant on the Thames.

She was specifically designed for canal work only.  Her job was to bring long chains of tubs, full of coal, from the collieries of South and West Yorkshire to ships in Goole docks  -  as part of the “Tom Puddings” system.  Nothing ever said she would leave her home canal, go down the River Ouse, into the Humber, out into the North Sea, a long way down the east coast, and up the Thames.  But she did.

On TV we saw Wheldale in London’s West India Dock, which was the holding berth for boats coming from seaward.  Then during the pageant she was one of the very few with a BBC person on board, and it was delightful to see two of her crew being interviewed live to the world.  They managed to explain about Wheldale’s past, and the tom-puddings. (One of too few informed comments about a boat during the whole of the BBC's coverage).

Wheldale waited in London for a weather-window to come back home to the Waterways of the Humber.  Which she safely did.

Congratulations to all involved.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Barmby Barrage

These boats are on the tidal section of the River Ouse, waiting to enter the River Derwent. 

At the confluence of other rivers this would be a straight-forward matter of waiting for the water levels to rise to a navigable height, but here the Derwent is not free to flow.  Instead it is controlled by Barmby Barrage.

Seen from the Ouse the entrance to the River Derwent looks like thisBuilt in 1975 Barmby Barrage stops the saline and sediment-rich tidal waters of the Ouse from contaminating the fresh and clear waters of the Derwent, which, further upstream, is extracted for drinking water.  Another function is flood-control by excluding high levels on the Ouse which sometimes struggles to deal with high volumes of fresh water coming down from the hills north of York, and abnormally high tides. All the water-level calculations are done automatically, with the barrage-keeper on hand to deal with any problems and operation of the lock for boaters.

On the left are the closed gates to the lock-chamber, the opening of which was awaited by the boats in the photograph above.  On the right are the sluices which control the levels between the Ouse and the Derwent.  Between the lock and the sluices is the jetty which juts out 37ft.
The jetty, seen from the Derwent side
(No, it doesn't have a power station on it). 

A recent addition is a “lamprey ladder”, seen here during installation, sloping down into the Ouse.  These eel-like, but not eels, fish need to come in from the sea to breed in fresh water  -  a supply of which from the Derwent flows down the “ladder” and the lampreys in the Ouse sense it and swim up the ladder.  It was installed in 2011, so what the lampreys had been doing since the barrage was installed in 1975 I don’t know.  Nevertheless, they now have an Environment Agency ladder to help them on their way.

Having passed through the barrage's lock boats are on a very different waterway.  Navigation on the Derwent has a complex history  -  the Navigation Act was repealed in 1935, and waterways enthusiasts fought long and hard in the 1970s and 1980s to have the legal right to boat upon the river.  The situation remains unclear - there is no navigation authority, and boats can only cruise as far as Stamford Bridge.

The Dewent, looking upstream
from the barrage's mooring pontoon
On the Derwent the surroundings of the barrage are a well-maintained amenity site with leisure facilities which include course fishing, a bird-watching hide, a wildlife reserve and a picnic area.  There’s also a mooring pontoon for boats waiting for passage through the barrage.  It’s a quiet area with free parking, at the end of the road from Barmby on the Marsh.  We like it.