On a normal self-catering holiday, you go out for the day, then, er, come back to your accommodation at night. Next day, off you go again. But what if you could take your accommodation with you? And what if your accommodation gave you free parking wherever you went, without ever getting stuck in the traffic?
Well you can – if you go by boat. Let’s explore the Calder Valley by canal.
We start on the River Calder at Cooper Bridge, a secret place just off the snarling A62, typical of the parallel universe in which Calderdale’s waterways live so close to the bustle of everyday life. Then up a couple of locks through farmland, and sail under the soaring viaduct of the M62. A stretch of river brings us up to Brighouse Basin, with pleasant moorings just off an interesting town centre – who’d think to find an organ in a pub, for example? Mills have been converted into very modern flats right by the water’s edge.
After Brighouse, the canal wanders below a wooded cliff, beside lakes and the river to reach Elland, a small town well worth the climb. The canal continues, hidden among the tress, to the guillotine lock at Salterhebble. At the top of this attractive flight you can turn right to moor and walk up the Hebble trail to Halifax, with tantalising glimpses of the long-disused locks and bridges of the Halifax Arm. In Halifax don’t miss the Piece Hall, Square Chapel and Town Hall by Charles Barry, who had designed Parliament – working with Pugin, architect of All Souls’, Haley Hill (neither lived to see any of these masterpieces built).
Back on the boat, head off to Sowerby Bridge Wharf, a set of four Georgian canal warehouses built to feed the textile industry. Carefully restored for modern use, they now employ more people than when the canal was used for cargo. The new businesses and eateries are set around the thriving boatyard.
You now switch onto the Rochdale Canal, heading up into the Pennines. Quiet moorings next to the boatyard allow you to sample the astonishing variety of food and drink in Sowerby Bridge. When you can tear yourself away, climb through three locks – one of them the deepest on the English canals – and find yourself sailing above the roofs, through a short tunnel and suddenly back into the countryside. At Luddenden Foot you’ll see an enormous boatman’s knot in black stone.
At Brearley you’ll find a settlement of stone houses, cottages and mills, just above an outstanding single-arch river bridge. Cross the bridge and explore, and you may come across a stone giving an ‘A full and true Account Of a barbarous, bloody, and inhuman MURDER’.
Back on the boat, and travel beside the playing fields – village cricket is a serious activity in Yorkshire – into unpronounceable Mytholmroyd. You go under a bridge for which Ted Hughes wrote a poem, and can see his birthplace. There are good pubs and restaurants, and small shops. At Broadbottom Lock is a sculpture of a Ted Hughes hawk.
After a short, but dark and wiggly, tunnel you come into Hebden Bridge, walker-friendly and plastic bag free. Hebden oozes character, with quirky shops and cafes, and loads of pubs. Don’t miss the ancient pack horse bridge over Hebden Water. Many fall for Hebden and never leave, but if you do get away you cross a plain but impressive aqueduct over the Calder and begin to climb past old mills and terraced houses – with gardens on the towpath – to reach the Stubbing Wharf: another pub at which to linger. You can feel the Pennines closing in with craggy woods and views of the moors. The Calder, by now tiny, runs alongside.
Pass a line of alternative residential boats (and a sewage works) to the pretty settlement of Shaw Plains. Now the trees thin, so that the hillside leaps from the water and leads the eye up on to the moors, with Stoodley Pike adding to the drama (well worth the slog from Shaw Plains). Lob Mill has one of many lock houses to have survived on this canal. All are now private houses, and the canal is ably patrolled by CRT staff and volunteers. After Woodside Mill, an outstanding conversion to flats which helped make the case for restoration of the canal, you begin to arrive in Todmorden.
Above Shop Lock you’ll see a shoal of silver fish above the canal. This is Fielden Wharf, with a facilities block put in by local people to welcome visiting boats. There are good moorings opposite. Todmorden has an eclectic mix of shops, an excellent market, lots of good places to eat and drink, and a town hall to equal some of its richer rivals – look for the frieze on its entablature, marking the meeting of Yorkshire and Lancashire, wool and cotton.
From here the going becomes more Alpine than Pennine as the locks get closer together. The Great Wall of Tod supports the railway high overhead, and an astonishingly ornamented railway viaduct carries the railway over the canal as each climbs determinedly towards its summit. At Walsden you can enjoy the tearoom and farm shop at Gordon Rigg’s garden centre.
Then at last you break into more open country and can see the summit pass through which the canal and turnpike squeeze. Look for the toll keeper’s house by the road, but look in vain for the railway: it’s dived into a mile and a half long tunnel. At lock 35 is a post marking the county boundary, and so the edge of Calderdale. We will leave you here, tantalisingly within sight of the Summit, but your journey can continue across 2000 miles of canals.
Boat Hire in Calderdale
Shire Cruisers – holiday hire boats
Hebden Bridge Cruises – short trips with a skipper
Bronte Boats – self-drive day hire boats
Canal & River Trust – looking after Calderdale’s canals