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The charity making life better by water

250 years on and still going strong

This month, the ancient North Yorkshire city of Ripon celebrates the 250th anniversary of its canal. The beautiful rural waterway is only 2.3 miles long, with just three locks, but is far from a forgotten backwater. As you can see from our video, it’s a wonderfully green and tranquil destination for boaters and walkers, keen to visit this gateway to the Dales. Join us as we stroll through a rich past and vibrant present.

Built by William Jessop and opening in 1773, the canal was designed to link rural Ripon with the River Ure, from where boats reached York and the port of Hull. Carrying butter, cheese, bricks and a little lead south, wide-beamed river boats also brought fuel north from the South Yorkshire coalfields.

But as with many canals built in the canal mania era, its commercial success was short-lived. The arrival of the railways led to its decline. 1847 marked the real turning point when it was bought out by the Leeds & Thirsk Railway Company.

An antique map of the Ripon Canal from 1844

That's when these fascinating survey maps of the canal were drawn up. Recently uncovered by Tom Rayward, our charity's record manager, the waxy, crinkled but beautifully drafted plans offer an amazing insight into the canal and the town at the time.

Marking every bridge, home and garden surrounding the canal basin, plus the owner of every parcel of land along its length, this map was vital to the railway company who were looking to buy the navigation and route their rails alongside it.

An old map of Ripon Canal

Tom tells us: “The remarkable thing about these plans is how wonderfully precise they are. That makes them invaluable to us all today because original plans like these are the blueprints from which the canal maps, we rely on today are drawn. The Geographic Information System (GIS) our operations teams use to plan and prioritise works on our canals, were created back in 2003 by turning these originals into digital assets.

A man standing with a plan of Ripon Canal

When we're planning works on listed structures, or those of a particular historical value, our heritage team will always come back to these records,” says Tom. “Mainly to understand how a bridge, lock or embankment was originally designed and make sure that our works today are sympathetic to the original features.”

Some ancient deeds from Ripon Canal

Tom goes on to tell us that these documents are among 20,000 boxes of canal records that he cares for covering every single canal and river on our network. All carefully stored on over 600m of shelving in an anonymous Leeds warehouse; a real Aladdin's Cave of canal history.

The more recent history of the Ripon Canal is just as fascinating. Restoration efforts began in earnest in 1961 when members of the local motorboat club formed a canal society. They gradually restored the canal mile by mile until it was fully opened in 1996. But local legend has it that the motorboat club itself was only formed by accident some years earlier when intrepid boaters got stuck trying to navigate the canal and never left. The motorboat club grew from their unplanned mooring.

Walking along the towpath out of town, or cruising through the lush green fields today it's easy to see why those boaters decided to hang around. And now paddleboarders like our friend Jo Moseley are also discovering its delights.

So, if you're looking for a special canal space to explore this autumn, why not head north to Ripon? And who knows, you might decide you never want to leave either.

Last Edited: 18 September 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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