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The UK’s First Coast-To-Coast Canoe Route

3rd October 2015

I start to appreciate the epic nature of our expedition when a group of young natives gather to watch. They stand in a huddle by the water’s edge, pointing and waving.

Our guide, Greg Brookes, shouts at them. “Do you want to have a go at paddling?” But they run away. It’s as if they’ve never seen a canoe before.

The attack comes next day: a giant white warrior is sent to meet our boats and comes alongside, puffing out his chest, making unintelligible war cries and generally trying to provoke something.

I turn my back and say, with the air of a man who has seen the world and knows a thing or two: “It’s all just macho posturing. He won’t attack.”

Seconds later there is a massive clatter and the swan is on the side of Greg’s canoe, wings battering the air, threatening to wrestle him into the water.

A paddle waved in his face deters him and he retreats into the canal and sails off, head held high. We pull to the side, under a bridge that seems to mark the end of his territory, and breathe a sigh of relief.

 A pair of territorial swans (Image: Kevin Rushby)

Trading Road For Water

I had not expected a simple canoe journey to become quite such a Homeric epic, but then the concept of crossing England from west coast to east by canoe is surprisingly new and, as yet, not fully tested.

The trail starts in Liverpool’s docks and finishes at the Humber estuary, via the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, several porterages around locks, a stretch of the Aire and Calder canal, plus a few kilometres of river Ouse, spanning the country in 240 kilometres.

Not that we are doing the whole thing – I’ve cherrypicked a three-day section between Burnley and Bradford.

 Preparing to embark at Reedley marina (Image: Kevin Rushby)

We start at Reedley marina, north of Burnely, and are soon paddling through the backyards of Nelson, a former mill town, which is where we encounter those young lads who seem bemused by canoes.

Maddy, my daughter, is counting shopping trolleys as if they were water creatures: “There’s another one, Dad. I think it’s a female. Lovely plumage.”

We pass coots and moorhens nesting on piles of rubbish, gorgeous stonework bridges – all the ingenious craft of 18th-century navigational engineering laid out among the brambles – then the melancholy of empty mills and lost fortunes.

This feels like archaeology, a fascinating canoe trip down the ages, into the gloom of the industrial revolution.

 Kevin Rushby’s daughter Maddy paddling on the Leeds and Liverpool canal near Skipton (Image: Kevin Rushby)

We emerge from under the M65 into rolling pastoral land and tie up at Blakey Hall Farm B&B for a night, a stop we have great difficulty dragging ourselves away from next morning, so amazing is its breakfast.

Next day we have to skip a bit because access through the Foulridge tunnel has not yet been agreed. That’s the kind of work Greg is doing, slowly pulling all the elements together: maps, access and a network of helpers. The first of 10 hubs, centres for events and information, opened in Bootle in July.

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Impossible Not To Be Engaged

Having driven around the tunnel, we stop at Café Cargo in Foulridge village. Its owner, Thomas Randall, is a mine of information on the canal – he’s lived with it all his life. “For most of its history the canal people never moved far. Some boats would just do a few miles up and down.”

As he talks a lost world emerges, a world of fustian and flax, of female leggers, who would lie on narrowboat roofs and propel the boats through the tunnel using their feet, of the ancient division between Yorkshire wool and Lancashire cotton.

 Maddy and Greg Brookes drag their canoes from the waterside to the B&B (Image: Kevin Rushby)

By this wriggling waterway the heart of northern England was intricately woven into a global economy that encompassed the slave plantations of South Carolina and the lawless goldfields of Ballarat in Australia.

Absorbed by all the history, we are a bit late leaving, but are soon paddling past Barnoldswick – facing down that swan – and reaching the Greenberfield locks.

As canoes are not allowed in locks, Greg has devised an ingenious little canoe trolley to save us the hard work of portering our boats through this section, which has lovely long panoramas of moor and dale, punctuated by soft green tunnels of vegetation where kingfishers spear through the air.

 Bingley Five RIse locks (Image: Kevin Rushby)

Crossing into North Yorkshire, we stop for the night in Skipton, then resume. The wind is behind us and Maddy rigs up a sail.

We are soon powering along, passing Silsden and reaching our final destination: Bingley Five-Rise locks, a spectacular piece of hydraulic engineering.

When it opened in 1774, a crowd of 30,000 turned out to see what was one of the wonders of the modern world: a series of five locks that lifted boats through nearly 18 metres. Standing at the top, you have the sensation that the boats are climbing a cliff.

If we hadn’t been calling a halt here, we would have had to porter our canoes down this mountain. Standing on the top lock gate, watching the lock-keeper at work, I imagine the canoes that will be hauled up and down here.

 Maddy paddling near Bingley Five-Rise locks (Image: Kevin Rushby)

For Greg, the objective is to revitalise the canal and the lives of some of the young people who live along its route, like those lads in Nelson. He wants to get them all paddling.

But my dreams are much bigger. Perhaps there might be a trans-England canoe race, teams competing for glory, like the Iditarod sled race in Alaska or a Tour of Britain for paddlers. What a spectacle as they struggle up the Five-Rise, cheered on by Alpine horns and cow bells.

Mind you, they’d also have to face the beast of Barnoldswick, the dreaded monster swan. He’s out there … waiting.

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This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.