Linking the cosmopolitan cities of Liverpool and Leeds, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway. With rural walks, noteworthy heritage and peaceful boating, its 127 mile length has a lot to offer. But without the efforts of waterway enthusiasts in the middle of the last century we may have lost it altogether.
Leaving Liverpool, the canal passes through East Lancashire and then crosses Pennine countryside and picturesque villages on the edge of the Yorskhire Dales before reaching Leeds. Walkers love the Leeds & Liverpool, and thousands of visitors come every year to marvel at the impressive Bingley Five Rise Locks and the historic salt town of Saltaire.
Download our free guide for a fantastic family day out at the World Heritage Site of Saltaire.
Northern trade and industry flourished in the mid-18th Century, and there was great call for a canal linking the east and west of England.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was the earliest of the trans-Pennine canals to be proposed. It offered a gentler, less direct route than the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the Rochdale Canal, but it still passed through important limestone and coal mining areas. Construction took a long time and it was only completed in 1816, some 46 years after work began.
Together with the Aire & Calder Navigation, which it meets at Leeds, it offered a coast to coast route between the Irish Sea and the North Sea, though not a proper connection until the Stanley Dock branch in Liverpool opened in 1846.
The tunnel at Foulridge was opened in 1796. A tale that has passed into local folklore tells of the cow that fell into the water and swam the whole length of Foulridge Tunnel before being pulled out at the other end and revived with brandy.
Canal hey day
Locks on the Leeds & Liverpool were for the most part built to a size of 62 feet by 14 feet (18.8m x 4.3m). These broad locks turned out to play a key part in the long-term success of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The local cargo craft were known as 'short boats', broad-gauge vessels capable of carrying around 45 tons. The larger payload of the short boats - around twice that of a standard narrowboat - enabled the line to prosper for many years.
The canal’s most important cargo was coal closely followed by merchandise. Thanks to the combination of local heavy industry and the decision to build the canal with broad locks, the Leeds & Liverpool was able to compete successfully with the railways throughout the 19th Century. It even remained open for much of the 20th Century, with the last cargo of coal being carried along the Leigh Branch to Wigan Power Station in 1972.
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.
World War II
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal, like several major waterways across the country, formed part of Britain’s defense plans against foreign invasion. Today, you can still see some remaining concrete pill boxes and blockhouses in west Lancashire. In this area, even canalside buildings such as pubs and barns were fortified.
Decline of commercial traffic
Traffic began to dwindle on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal with the introduction of natural gas and subsequent closure of the canalside collieries.
In the 1950s and 1960s, waterway enthusiasts including members of the Mersey Motor Boat Club tried hard to keep the canal open and navigable using a wide variety of boats, including converted life boats.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal today
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal has continued to prosper in the 21st Century. The Ribble Link, which opened in 2002, allows the Leeds & Liverpool to connect with the Lancaster Canal and opened up a number of cruising opportunities for boaters. And following the £22 million creation of the Liverpool Canal Link, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal now extends right into the heart of Liverpool and its historic Albert Dock.
We are delighted that this historic waterway, once so vital to the manufacturing industries of the north, is continuing to play an important role in this second age of the canals.