Working the Rochdale Canal one summer some 15 years ago offered Gareth Mason a glimpse into another age…
Hebden Bridge, a picturesque small town in West Yorkshire nestling up to the Pennines, gave me my first taste of canal life. Recently returned from overseas, I moved to the dales for a while where several friends of mine had happily settled away from the London smoke. Studying part-time, working the barges wasn’t really on my radar, but I was open to interesting offers.
My last experience handling a boat had been inauspicious. Our family motor-cruiser snagged a fishing net in a squall in Holland’s Zuyder Zee and we spent an hour signalling for help to the passing traffic as the sea battered us from side to side. All waved back cheerily till some more logical seafarer realised we weren’t just eccentrics happy to be caught in the eye of storm. After that, my family’s sailing life ground to a halt.
Into the valley
Fifteen years later, Calder Valley Cruising promised me a more peaceful return to the water. CVC ran trips for tourists along a stretch of the Rochdale Canal between its eastern end at Sowerby Bridge to Todmorden roughly 10 miles away, just over the Lancashire border.
The trips varied according to which of the company’s three boats were booked from the horse-drawn narrow boat, Sarah Siddons, to the 12-berth motorised Gracie and the diminutive tug-boat Oliver. Gracie was named after Gracie Fields, one of the region’s most famed daughters – the singer and entertainer whose working life began in a Rochdale cotton mill.
Oliver chugged between the locks bracketing the Marina in the heart of the town offering a brief tour between them. The larger boats travelled through the locks. Our ‘captain’ gave a commentary pointing out which local buildings had been connected with the industry – those that had once crammed in scores of workers and now housed a comfortable nuclear family. We also explained how the locks worked, the words ‘It’s like a giant bathtub…’ remain with me. I witnessed a similar tour in Panama last year though the scale of the Central American version allowed for oil tankers to be squeezed into the available space.
Oliver’s 20-minute journey passed by one of the old cotton mills, its canal-side steps reaching down to the water where goods were once loaded directly onto the barges. Rusting barbeques and childrens’ toys now fill these spaces.
Hebden Bridge’s reputation as a clothing manufacturer was encapsulated by its nickname, Trouser Town, as its water-powered weaving mills harnessed the one natural resource never likely to dry up. In the town and half-hidden in the dense woods surrounding it lie the ruins of old mills – their crumbling smokeless chimneys poking through the treelines of the surrounding valleys. Along with cotton and wool, coal, limestone, timber and salt also moved sedately through the valley before rising up and over the Pennines. In 1890, 50 barges used the Rochdale Canal daily carrying an estimated 700,000 tonnes of goods.
After thriving in the industrial revolution, Hebden Bridge fell into a long and gradual decline. But it was the canal, and later the railway, that created the town we still see. The canal carved into the boggy valley floor tamed the River Hebden though it still floods the surrounding fields as a grumpy reminder of what it could once do. But 300 years ago, the population were stranded high, if not entirely dry, on the steep hills sides of the valley through which the original pack horse route wend its way between Halifax and Burnley.
The bridge, after which the town was named, was part of this first incursion into inhospitable territory. The distinctive top and bottom houses that characterise the town were due to this limited living space with two households occupying one five-storey house, the top two floors usually facing uphill, the bottom three facing down to the valley. Looking down on all of this is the striking 400-year-old hill top village of Heptonstall, an ever-popular haunt for visitors. Aside from the vehicles passing through the town centre, the pace of life hasn’t noticeably increased for the 5,000 or so population with neither the weekend walkers nor the canal traffic exceeding the 4-mile an hour speed limit.
My Victorian past
The town’s regeneration from the 1970s has brought well-to-do commuters from Leeds and Manchester, along with a tradition for attracting a bohemian and motely crowd as likely to hail from the antipodes as the Calder Valley. My Home Counties accent identified me as part of that influx as I gave my pre-trip talk to the assembled boat passengers. If that didn’t spoil the illusion that I wasn’t really a Victorian bargeman with my ‘authentic’ waistcoat, neckscarf, and the lock key hanging from my belt, then the adidas trainers that stood in for the clogs that I usually forgot, probably did.
My default position as ‘tugman’ piloting Oliver was possibly earned by my lack of polished technique elsewhere. As the ropeman on Sarah Siddons, I consistently blotted my copybook. It seemed simple enough to flick a rope around a bollard to ease the boat to a smooth stop within the lock gates. But I had an unfortunate talent for snagging the rope on some hidden protusion of the boat. That extra few metres of rope caused the boat to slide remorsely towards the gates as if in a slow-motion scene in a horror film. It was no way to stop 50 pensioners enjoying an afternoon tea cruise. Spilled tea and scones were the least of it – one painful memory involved an octoganerian granny being catapulted through the boat’s lavatory doors with her knickers around her ankles.
Legging through the tunnel was a better bet. I could be trusted to slowly stroll upside down through the 100m stretch before hurling the rope back towards the owner of the horse without mishap. During my brief boating career, we used a giant shaggy-hoofed 17-hand Shire horse called William to tow Sarah Siddons. It could hardly be described as skittish and was bigger than ideal. One day it clopped lugubriously through the tunnel and rather than following the curve of the path continued unstoppably forward into the canal. After crashing heavily into the water, it plodded rythmically on towards the marina and into its horsebox without once breaking its metronomic stride. A model professional.
Occasionally, I’d have an unexpected day off due to the effective absence of a canal, which for one day only morphed into a long damp damp channel after someone misunderstood the logic of keeping one gate closed when moving through the locks.
The standard cruise stopped at Walkleys Clog factory, which has now moved to new premises nearby. It still provides the footware of boatmen for miles around let alone hundreds of businesses around Europe including many that have never trod a boat deck in anger. It even sells to the Dutch.
Craftsmen and women still pack the honeycombed units of the old factory selling clothes that protect their wearers from the harsh Yorkshire winter, along with hand-worked goods made from leather and glass, to jewellery and knick-knacks that are pure 21st century.
Beyond the old clog factory, the longer tours continued to Mytholmroyd and usually took place at night under the theme of dinner or world beer cruises. Private parties took place too – hen nights proving a nerve-wracking study of the Yorkshire woman at play for us callow boatmen. The forlon hired guitarrist bore the brunt of their inebriated enthusiasm. With both hands full he had little chance to defend himself as the guests swarmed around him drowning first his music and later his cries for assistance. To our shame, we turned blind eyes and deaf ears and went about our business guiltily aware that but for the grace of god…
On calmer days, the signs of life returning to the waterways were all about us, whether it was the scowling fisherman whose tranquil waters we stirred, the bad-tempered geese that guarded a section of the towpath or the growing number of narrow boats that moved their homes about the canal as their whims dictated.
Two of my friends even made the journey south to West London carrying a cargo of pumpkins for Halloween. Too bad the stock had gone rotten before they got there – it offered them a tranquil view of the English countryside unseen on the tarmac bustle of the motorway.
Several of my colleagues lived on their own boats and from time to time we travelled upstream to parties gathering revellers as we went while trying to slip past the lock-keeper as quietly as we could lest we received a lecture for breaking a myriad of canal bylaws. We arrived in style from the waterfront if some time behind the guests who came by car, bus, train, or foot.
We even developed our own boatman’s dance – a kind of twisted take on a Morris dancing. Sticks and hankerchiefs were replaced by windlasses, and white smocks gave way to leather clogs and woollen waistcoats, with our movements dictated by shakey sea legs and doses of rum. The dance, like my brief career on the canals has not been repeated in the intervening years, but I look back fondly on a summer that let me glimpse a world I thought was gone.