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News article created on 29 October 2015

Towpath Taskforce knuckles down in Selby

Saturday 17th October saw the Selby Towpath Taskforce team set to work near the intriguingly-named 'knuckles' of the Selby Canal, between Burn and Brayton. Volunteer David Lewis tells us about the day and the history of the knuckles.

Selby Towpath Taskforce team Selby Towpath Taskforce team

Old-time working boatmen gave the name 'knuckles' to these peculiar-looking cylindrical pools that straddle the canal at four places along its six-mile length, presumably because they're round like a clenched fist. Like that fist, they can also be a source of trouble as they reduce the width of the channel, making steering tricky.

Knuckles on the Selby CanalIn reality William Jessop, the canal's engineer, had to answer concerns from landowners along the course of the canal that the new waterway could be a source of flooding after wet weather. He devised U-bends that went underneath the base of the canal to absorb any extra water and lead it to field-side ditches. The knuckles are just the open ends of these bends, surrounded by mighty stonework.

Whilst Jessop's solution was successful, the presence of the U-bends meant that the canal's channel couldn't be deepened when barges with a greater burthen than 70 tons were introduced in the 1830s, around 50 years after the canal opened. This limitation was one factor that pushed traffic towards the larger Aire & Calder Canal.

Our task was to uncover the undergrowth of ages to bring the fabulous large stone setts that formed the walkway for horses pulling barges along the canal back into view.

In these quieter days, no commercial boatmen pass. Whilst the pools are still doing their work, the water inside them has become weed-infested and filled with litter.

The challenge today

The Towpath Taskforce team's initial task was to give the pedestrian bridge a good coat of paint and to uncover the undergrowth of ages to bring the fabulous large stone setts that formed the walkway for horses pulling barges along the canal back into view.

The task of accessing the debris in the pools themselves is a trickier one.

Lucy Dockray, our volunteer leader commented:

"Safe access to the pools is tricky. Our barge-borne cranes couldn't reach down into the chambers, the chamber walls are sheer so there's little chance of being able to get a ladder down the sides, and it looks impractical to try to use a big net to scoop up the rubbish."

The knuckles do prove quite a talking point on the towpath. Whilst the team were working, several passers-by stopped to chat about the knuckles and were interested to learn about their use.

You can learn more about canal heritage and the amazing relics of days gone-by which stand next to our canals and rivers in our history pages.

Our thanks to David Lewis for this article.

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