The Aire & Calder Navigation and Yorkshire Waterways

The Aire and Calder Navigation runs for 34 miles from the lively city of Leeds across the wide, flat fertile fields of east Yorkshire to the inland port of Goole. The high banks and flood gates may remind you that this is still a river at heart, made navigable over hundreds of years. The automated manned locks and large trading craft can tell you this is still a busy commercial waterway, despite the demise of many traditional industries. And the marinas, moorings and smaller boats also show it is an increasingly popular waterway with leisure boaters, partly because of the network of cruisable waterways it opens up.

The Aire & Calder Navigation western end is Leeds. Once this was a busy junction with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal but became full of derelict waterside wharves and buildings. However recent tasteful and lively waterside developments, including the Royal Armouries Basin, mean there’s lots to explore and enjoy. Drop down Leeds Lock and a within a few miles the Wakefield branch joins near Castleford, coming down from a junction with the Calder and Hebble Navigation at Wakefield.

The Calder and Hebble Navigation was also originally a river navigation. Leeds and Wakefield had been linked in the early eighteen century by making the Rivers Calder, Hebble and Aire navigable. The Calder and Hebble Navigation now climbs from its junction with the Aire and Calder Navigation up a narrow valley to join the Rochdale Canal at Sowerby Bridge. It’s unusual short (57ft) wide locks require the use of a ‘handspike’ to raise paddles.

Back on the Aire and Calder the flat landscape around Ferrybridge had been dominated for most of the twentieth century by the chimneys and huge cooling towers of three generations of electricity power stations. However the last was closed in 2016 as coal burning was phased out, and the final towers were flattened in 2022. (Three had already been blown down by gales in 1965.) Coal transport to the power stations had been a major traffic, eventually using 170 ton compartment boats which were emptied by a huge ‘tippler’, but rail had taken over much of the work years before the closure.

Aire & Calder developments in Leeds

Near Knottingley the Selby Canal was built in 1778 to bypass the meandering River Aire. It descends 4 locks in 12 fairly straight miles to join the River Ouse at Selby, which became a busy inland transshipment port. However in 1826 the Selby Canal was itself bypassed when 18 miles of new canal was built from Knottingley to a new inland port at Goole, much lower down the Ouse than Selby.

From Nottingley the rest of the Aire and Calder to Goole runs across wide flat farmlands with few villages or deviations, except where it begins to run alongside the Dutch River. The very straight five mile New Junction Canal was a late 1905 development to give cities such as Doncaster, Sheffield and Barnsley on the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigations a better link to the sea. Goole, the navigation’s eastern terminus, is well worth a visit, a fascinating inland port with docks still busy with sea going craft.

Continuing development is a common theme to these Yorkshire navigations, unlike most of our canals which remain almost unchanged since the eighteenth century burst of ‘canal mania’. The huge value and range of potential trade, within Yorkshire and also, via the Ouse and Humber, along coasts and across the North Sea, ensured plentiful investment in these Yorkshire waterways. From the seventeenth century developments were ongoing; waterways were widened, deepened and straightened, locks enlarged and automated and handling methods increasingly mechanised. All so heavier cargoes could be be handled more quickly and efficiently.

The Yorkshire River Ouse flows off the North Yorks Moors through the medieval city of York and on for over sixty navigable miles before emptying into the Humber Estuary. A trading river since Roman times, the Ouse is now a popular leisure waterway. Above York the Ouse becomes the River Ure and then a short two mile length of the restored Ripon Canal takes it the upper limit of navigation in an historic basin in the medieval city. Below York after Naburn Lock the Ouse becomes increasingly tidal and must be navigated with care.

The River Derwent is a tributary of the Ouse and is navigable with care for about 12 miles from the tidal Ouse up to a junction with the Pocklington Canal, above the junction the river channel is now overgrown. The river was tidal up to Stamford Bridge until the 1970s when a barrage and lock was built at its junction with the Ouse at Barmby to enable water abstraction. Seven of the nine and half miles of the once derelict Pocklington Canal between the River Derwent and the Bielby Arm are now open to navigation thanks to the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society.

The River Ouse flooding in York

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. No unauthorised reproduction. Page last updated: 13/01/2023.

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