Rochdale Canal

Please Note: This page was written before the full restoration of the Rochdale Canal. The canal is now fully open to walkers and boats from end to end.

Rochdale Canal History

The Act of Parliament for the Rochdale Canal was passed during the era of "Canal Mania". A local rival, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, also began construction in the same year and thus the race was on to be the first to open a cross-Pennine route which (ultimately) would link the east coast to the west coast, but probably equally as important, it would link the industrial areas of Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds to those of Manchester and Liverpool.

However, neither the Rochdale or the Huddersfield canals were the first cross-Pennine routes to be started. To the north, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal had been started over 20 years earlier. It had met with rough times as well as rough terrain and was currently at a standstill in mid-construction.

The original survey for the Rochdale line was carried out by John Rennie although William Jessop was appointed as Chief Engineer. The route was to have 92 broad locks which would carry it right across the Pennines. It was to be 33 miles long, from Sowerby Bridge where it would join the Calder & Hebble Navigation on the east side of the Pennines, to the centre of Manchester where it would meet the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield Junction on the west side of the Pennines.

One of the strangest decisions in the creation of the route was to build a summit level just ¾ of a mile long. On a canal with 92 locks this seems to be a very obvious - if not stupid - mistake to make.

As we mentioned above, the original survey was made by John Rennie, a man who seemed to believe summit levels were of little importance. Almost all of his canals, from the Kennet and Avon to the Crinan, appear to have suffered from this same fault.

Many reservoirs were needed to supply the canal and some of these had to be built many miles away from the route. At least there was always a regular supply of rain water thanks to the canal being in the Pennines!

Before the Rochdale Canal was complete another local rival opened it's route. This was the Ashton Canal which ran from Ashton-under-Lyne near Oldham into Manchester. Although this route would provide competition for the Rochdale Company, it also would provide income as the Ashton Canal terminated to the east of central Manchester where it met the Rochdale Canal. A junction was made between the two canals so that boats travelling from the Ashton Canal into the heart of Manchester could use the final section of the Rochdale Canal. This, of course, was no act of charity by the Rochdale Company as lucrative tolls were to be charged for use of this short section. Added to this was the Peak Forest Canal which opened around the same time as the Ashton Canal. It ran from Bugsworth in the Derbyshire hills to the Ashton Canal at Ashton. All traffic from this canal would also have to use the Rochdale Canal to reach the very centre of Manchester. The Rochdale Company must have had a broad smile when it learned that the Huddersfield Narrow Canal (which was still far from complete) would also terminate at Ashton-under-Lyne and its traffic would also have to use the Ashton Canal - and therefore the Rochdale Canal - to reach central Manchester.

The Rochdale Canal was open and fully operational seven years before the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was complete. As a result of this, the Rochdale Company was able to build up a large trade, giving it a major head start over its nearest rival. In fact, it was a head start that the Huddersfield company was never able to catch up with.

The Rochdale Canal was an instant success and it saw quite a mixture of vessels in its early years. Because the canal had been built with broad locks, Humber Keels and even small coasters could cross the Pennines from the east coast to the west. Nicholson's Canal Guide says they did this via the Mersey & Irwell Navigation though at this point there was no connection into that waterway. The only route would have been via the Bridgewater Canal to Runcorn. Cargoes included timber, salt, cement, wool, cotton, grain and coal.

Within 25 years of opening the Rochdale Canal was a profitable success. Huge warehouses were built at the Manchester end and the canal was easily beating its competitors, the Huddersfield and Leeds & Liverpool canals.

The Manchester & Salford Junction Canal opened in the centre of Manchester. It was just ½ a mile long and was built primarily to allow Rochdale Canal traffic to reach the River Irwell (and then the Mersey) without having to travel on the Bridgewater Canal. Its junction on the River Irwell was also very close to the entrance of the Manchester, Bury & Bolton Canal which meant traffic from that waterway could now use the Rochdale Canal.

The Rochdale company had continued to see rising profits but the railway age was growing fast and soon the canal would see its income begin to fall. The usual rate cutting wars began but eventually agreements were reached to stop both modes of transport from going out of business. During the 1840's the Rochdale Canal company also had to avoid a number of take-over bids. The first attempt came from the Aire & Calder Navigation who feared a railway take-over which would sever their through route (via the Rochdale Canal) from Goole to Manchester. After successfully fighting off the Aire & Calder company the Rochdale Canal then had to fight off take-over bids from various railways. Although the company was successful in keeping control, the threat never went away.

The Manchester & Salford Junction Canal which had been open for 3 years was proving to be something of a flop. Traffic from the Rochdale Canal to the River Irwell was not nearly as high as had been expected due to the Bridgewater Canal creating a shorter link serving the same purpose. Although the Rochdale company had gained some trade from the Manchester, Bury & Bolton Canal, this too was lower than had been hoped. The Junction Canal was sold to the Mersey & Irwell company.

The neighbouring Bridgewater Canal bought its big rival, the Mersey & Irwell Navigation. Along with it they also acquired the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal which had originally been built so that Rochdale Canal traffic could avoid paying tolls to the Bridgewater company!

The Rochdale company eventually leased the canal to a partnership of 4 different railways of which the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway was the biggest shareholder. Tonnage continued to be very high though the figures are a little deceptive as much of the traffic only used the few miles in central Manchester where the canal formed part of the short link for through-traffic from Huddersfield and the Peak District. The main bulk of the canal, including the massive climb over the Pennines, was only used by local carriers who rarely ventured very far. There was always a problem for through-traffic because the Calder & Hebble Navigation at the eastern end of the Rochdale Canal had locks of irregular sizes. These were broader than standard locks but were also much shorter and this meant that normal narrow boats and barges were too long to travel east of Sowerby Bridge while the Barges from West Yorkshire were too wide to use the Rochdale Canal to the west of Sowerby Bridge. Even when boat dimensions were correct, it can't have been much fun working up and down 92 locks across wild terrain - especially once the trains began to steam past at high speed.

The railway lease ended after 45 years. Meanwhile, the Rochdale company began to run its own carrying business. Its fleet totalled 68 boats which were built to varying widths and lengths to allow passage through the differing lock sizes on the waterways on either side of the Pennines.

Due to dwindling profits the company gave up its carrying business after 31 years.

The company made a statement warning that they felt there was no future for canals in this country unless the government provided them with some sort of aid. Sadly, nobody in Parliament was listening.

After many years of decreased usage the last boat passed across the whole Pennine route. This was narrow boat "Alice" which carried 20 tons of wire from Sowerby Bridge to Manchester.

The company sold much of its property, leased many of its numerous reservoirs to local authorities and officially abandoned the through-route across the Pennines. However, the link in Manchester between the Ashton Canal and the Bridgewater Canal was always kept open though it was barely navigable and was hardly used until pleasure boats became popular in the 1970's. This short navigable stretch in Manchester was not nationalised by the government and was still owned and run by the private Rochdale Canal Company.

The Ashton Canal, which made a junction with the Rochdale in Manchester, was officially abandoned after years of decline. The Peak Forest Canal had seen virtually no traffic since WW2 and most of the Huddersfield Canal had been closed since 1944.

When the book "Lost Canals" was published, its author, Ronald Russell, wrote strongly about the importance of keeping the Rochdale Canal alive. The locks across the Pennines had been converted into weirs, many bridges had been culverted and there were numerous plans ranging from turning the route into a waterway park to filling it in and running its water through pipes to supply local towns. Russell reported that the short "navigable" stretch in the centre of Manchester took 5 hours to travel through its 9 locks in 1965. He did not mention if any boats had attempted to beat that record in the time since! He saw hope for this stretch though, if only the Ashton Canal could be restored and re-opened.

In Spring a massive clean up of the derelict Ashton Canal began the movement which eventually saw the Ashton and Lower Peak Forest canals re-opened just two years later. As Ronald Russell had predicted, this brought renewed hope for the survival of the Rochdale Canal.

On the east side of the Pennines plans were being made that would eventually enable boats to climb to the summit once again.Although some places were completely blocked, most of the route had survived intact and was still in water.

Longbottom Bridge, between Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd was restored to navigable proportions by the Manpower Services Commission. It had been flattened when the canal was closed and the water was piped through a culvert. The towpath was also restored in the same area using money from the European Commission Regional Development Fund.

A number of the locks which climb the Yorkshire side of the summit were restored with money coming from many sources. For instance, Smithholme Lock (No.25) was paid for by the Halifax Building Society. Further east work was going on all along the line and at Sowerby Bridge a brand new lock and short tunnel were being built.

During Spring, navigation was restored at the eastern end of the Rochdale Canal. The last major obstacle was removed at Tuel Lane bridge in Sowerby Bridge where a brand new lock, now the deepest in the country, was opened. Boats could now travel to the summit level and beyond to Littleborough. This is a distance of about 18 miles with over 20 locks and one original tunnel. The new navigable stretch is still owned by the Rochdale Canal Company but is run and maintained by the Rochdale Canal Trust. Today the privately owned Rochdale Canal is perfectly placed - from the company's point of view - as it now forms part of the popular "Cheshire Ring" holiday route in central Manchester. Because of this the company is able to charge £30 for a licence which allows one passage through 9 locks on the 2 mile section in Manchester. Not only is the price extortionist but the locks are renowned for being among the most difficult to use in Britain. Sadly, controversy over licence fees has come to the newly opened eastern end of the canal as well. The company still owns its many reservoirs which it now leases out to local water authorities. The rather hefty licence for pleasure boats and the reservoirs have kept the canal in business - and in profit. There still remains some 13 miles of unnavigable waterway from Littleborough to Manchester. The Rochdale Canal Trust are still hard at work with the intention of re-opening the whole route. A number of blockages will make this very difficult but enough of the route has survived to make full restoration viable.

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Rochdale Canal Route

From Sowerby Bridge in the West of West Yorkshire the Rochdale Canal takes over where the Calder and Hebble Navigation ends. Albert Wood lock takes the canal out of Sowerby Bridge basin as it heads north west into the Pennines. There are lots of canal buildings around the basin and lots of moored boats. The whole area had become derelict until it was saved and became a popular mooring and hire boat centre. The Rochdale Canal almost immediately passes under the main street (A58) and then enters the brand new Tuel Lane lock - now the deepest in Britain. The route follows the River Calder out of Sowerby Bridge with the A646 alongside it (to the north). At Luddenden Foot there is a picnic area on the south of the canal and a number of mills on the north. There is a car park near Station Road bridge on the site of the former Luddenden Foot Wharf. Just after Station Road the canal crosses the small River Ludd on a short aqueduct just before the river runs into the Calder.

Although the canal passes under numerous bridges en route to Mytholmroyd there are few locks at this stage, only Brearly Upper and Lower Locks are to be seen on this stretch. At Mytholmroyd the main road crosses over to the south side, the bridge is rare in that it has a building on it. The canal passes Falling Royd Clog Factory on the east side of Hebden Bridge. The factory, although still a working cobblers, is open to the public and contains a small exhibition and numerous gift and craft shops. The main road crosses the route again as the canal passes through the short Fallingroyd Tunnel. Near the tunnel is the terminus of Calder Valley Cruising's Water Bus route which takes passengers through Hebden Bridge. In the centre of Hebden Bridge there are two locks, just past the first, the route passes close to the railway station (to the south) and the town wharf (to the north). Then, after the second lock, the canal crosses the River Calder on a three arched aqueduct before turning south west to continues its climb towards the summit. If (God forbid) you were to get bored of canal viewing while on this stretch, may I be so humble as to suggest a trip to the nearby Hardcastle Crags. It's a beautiful place and has such a wonderful name!

On the west side of Hebden Bridge the railway crosses the route and two more locks are reached close to the Pennine Way near Charlestown. Beside the higher of these, Callis Lock, there is a BW maintenance yard where lock gates are built and repaired. Before the re-opening of this eastern end this yard must have been the most isolated on the canal network. Also alongside the lock is a stinking sewage works which expels thick black fluid into the adjacent shallow river.

At Todmorden the A646 heads off towards Burnley and is replaced alongside the canal by the A6033. In the centre of Todmorden, near the roundabout junction of the two roads, the A6033 crosses the canal to run on the east side of the route as both curve south westwards. There is one lock to the east of the road and one to the west. In fact the one to the west (Town Lock) is so close to the road bridge that it's lower gates were removed in 1996 and replaced with a guillotine gate.

Just past Town Lock the canal bends left with a railway retaining wall lining the canal on the off side. This is no ordinary wall however, it reaches up high above the canal and stretches for a good few hundred yards - millions of bricks in every direction!

After another 2 locks the canal then curls on a horse shoe bend which the railway crosses twice, firstly on the impressive Gauxholme Bridge and then on a much less impressive structure. Between the two, the A681 also crosses the route on its way to Bacup while the 3 Gauxholme locks are situated on the bend. Also before the second railway bridge is an old warehouse which is now home to a builders supplier. The company have an entrance on the canal.

The A6033 crosses once again as the canal begins its winding climb through 12 more locks to the short summit level. The first of these locks (Smithholme) was restored with money donated by the Halifax Building Society. At the penultimate lock (Warland Upper) the canal crosses from West Yorkshire into Lancashire and beside the top lock (Longlees, No.36) is a white painted lock keeper's cottage while across the field on the main road is Steanor Bottom toll house. There is a pub at the summit named The Summit Inn and, in fact, the village at the summit is called... Summit!

The canal soon begins its descent as the summit is amazingly short at just ¾ of a mile. The problems this caused for water supply is easy to see on any map as reservoirs line the route of the canal in the hills to the east and west. In 1990 the water level on the summit level was no more than a trickle but in 1995 (a drought year) a boat rally was held at the summit. In 1996, when the canal was officially re-opened, I found notices saying the descent to Littleborough was temporarily closed due to lack of water. Below the top lock (name West Summit) the canal had been drained and the bed was "dry". This was all something of a joke for me as I was so wet due to constant rainfall that I felt I may as well be swimming rather than walking!

While the canal crosses the short summit level, the railway disappears into a long tunnel, reappearing shortly after the canal has begun its descent. There are 12 locks over the next 2 miles between Summit and Littleborough. In the centre of Littleborough the A58 re-appears and crosses the canal. The B6226 also crosses the route after running alongside it for a few hundred yards. This, however, is where official navigation ends as the road bridge has been flattened.

Out of Littleborough the still derelict canal leaves the main roads and heads south west towards Rochdale. It has not been left completely alone however as the railway follows closely on the canal's western side. To the east, on the B6226, is what is now known as Hollingworth Lake. It is now part of a popular country park and is used as a picnic area, sailing and skiing centre. It has not always been a "lake" however, in fact it was originally a reservoir (one of the largest) built by the canal company to feed water into the summit level. I came here too on that wet day in 1996. Worse still, while I sat in the rain beside the huge lake the sky lit up with thunder and lightening. I made a very quick escape.

After 2 miles the railway and waterway leave each other and the A664 (Rochdale ring road) runs alongside for about a mile. The A640 crosses the route during this section and then the busy ring road also crosses over as the canal swings more westerly (rather than south westerly) to reach the south side of Rochdale town centre.

The next major road to cross the route is the A671. Immediately after the road bridge a short branch leaves the canal and runs straight north into Rochdale centre. The A671 follows the branch very closely on its eastern side. The branch appears to end near Rochdale railway station.

The main line runs on the north side of the A664, to the south of Rochdale town centre, until the interchange for the A627(M) is reached. The link road, which is called Edinburgh Way, is one of the main problems facing restorers of the western side of the canal. When it was constructed it was built directly across the canal with no attempt to make a navigable bridge. The builders etc. should not be blamed however as no boat had used the canal for over half a century. The A627(M) motorway crosses the canal within another few hundred yards and it too blocks the route. Restorers are currently (1996) negotiating a navigable culvert which could be built when the motorway is widened to 3 lanes.

After the new motorway the canal is immediately crossed by a much older structure, Gorrell's Lane bridge. This bridge is thought to be the first ever canal skew bridge to be built in Britain (constructed diagonally across the water). Gorrell's bridge is accessible from the A664 on the lane which runs under the A627(M) motorway to Lyntown Trans-Pennine Trading Estate. Further on, March Barn bridge stands behind an old mill (accessible via the mill lane) it is also a skew bridge. These are the most notable structures on the whole canal and were probably designed by William Jessop though this is not certain as all records were destroyed in a fire. Past the bridges the canal continues to stick close to the A664 while both the road and the canal curve southwards on a long bend. Another A-road crosses the route beside Castleton Station where the railway also comes right alongside the canal for ½ a mile or so.

The route now heads directly south and the Manchester A-Z street map marks two locks before the canal reaches the M62. However, these appear to be out of reach from the main road though they may be accessible from side roads such as Mount Street and (more likely) Bridge Street.

South of the M62 the canal bends about a bit but generally it heads south. This stretch is away from any roads and has the Hopwood Park Golf Course, home to Manchester Golf Club, on its western side.

There is a large roundabout on the A664 at Slattocks where a newish link road joins the A627(M). Right alongside the roundabout, on the western side of the road, are Slattocks Locks. The A664 crosses over the canal at the locks while the canal continues south and is crossed by a railway within another 500 yards. Half a mile further it is crossed by Boarshaw Road and then the railway crosses again.

Over the next mile the canal bends south easterly and then goes on a wild horse shoe loop to cross over the small River Ink. At Mills Hill the canal straightens out once more and heads south again. Immediately it is crossed by the A669.

The canal is now on the western outskirts of Oldham though it never actually enters the centre of the town. There is now in a typical townscape of houses, schools, factories and old mills. Only a few roads cross the canal, including the B6189 which is preceded by another railway which crosses at Middle Junction. Past here the landscape opens out a bit though the scenery is not pretty - a sewage works is situated on the eastern bank.

Her Majesty's Stationary Office is past at White Gate where the A663 crosses the route on Brierley Bridge. A housing estate comes very close to the western bank and Whitegate Schools can be seen further over to the west before the A6104 dual-carriageway crosses over. Past this busy road the canal begins a long curve taking it from its slightly south easterly course to a south westerly one. As it does so it passes a large housing estate on the west side and more open land on the east. On the bend a weir is marked in the A-Z, this is probably a converted lock. Further on, a football pitch, a bowling green and then 5 mills are passed all within ¾ of a mile. The A62, Oldham Road, crosses beside the third mill but sadly the canal disappears on the A-Z at the crossing point and reappears several hundred yards further west. Unfortunately this does not indicate a tunnel but signifies that the route has been wiped out by Failsworth Shopping Centre. How the restorers will get past this obstacle is not yet known.

The canal, now in the town centre of Failsworth, is surrounded by houses and industry as it heads more westerly than southerly while it heads towards the centre of Manchester. As it leaves Failsworth, two locks are marked in the A-Z beside a bridge on Poplar Street, just off the A62. There is another lock marked on the A-Z at Newton Heath though it appears to be inaccessible by road. Further west two more locks are marked between the bridges on Ten Acres Lane and Grimshaw Lane. The A6010 crosses the route and then the canal travels through Miles Platting. There is a mill on the northern side here and the canal is probably accessible from the likes of Varley Street and Naylor Street which are side roads off the A62. At this point the Ashton Canal is running parallel to the Rochdale Canal less than ½ a mile to the south east. The last major road before the junction with the Ashton Canal is the A665, Great Ancoats Street. This road crosses both canals before they bend towards each other and meet at Ducie Street on the eastern edge of Manchester city centre.

The Ashton Canal terminates onto the Rochdale Canal at Ducie Street Junction near Piccadilly where the old Dale Street Basin is now a car park. However, the original stone gateway still stands over the entrance of the car park. From Ducie Street the canal is navigable for the short stretch running through the centre of Manchester to Castlefield Junction where the Rochdale Canal ends and meets the Bridgewater Canal. This short stretch has nine locks, one of which now stands in the dark under a large office block. There was also one (78 yard) tunnel under Deansgate. Although this is now little more than a long bridge, it was once much longer at 335 yards.

In the city centre the canal is completely hidden from view as it sneaks between tall buildings and under bridges with very high walls. In the past, the only people who ever got a glimpse of the waterway were those travelling on the upper decks of buses. However, this is changing in a big way and much of this stretch is being redeveloped and opened up to walkers and joggers. I visited the area in 1995 and found the towpath fully restored and open from Princess Street to the terminus. Access east of Princess Street to Ducie Street Junction is a little more difficult at present. From Princess Street to the terminus the canal is hemmed in by high buildings and railway viaducts. All along the inner city section their were once short arms leading both north and south into small wharves and basins. Near Trumpet Street was the entrance to the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal and west of Deansgate is a building which was once used to tranship goods from the Bridgewater Canal. The Bridgewater Canal past under the Rochdale Canal beneath the building and into a tunnel. This stretch of the Rochdale Canal is by no means the prettiest sight on the inland waterways network but it is certainly very interesting. A number of traders are now opening their (back) doors to the canal and cafes and pubs now look over it rather than overlook it! At the terminus is the last lock and the pub called Dukes '92. West of here is Castlefield Junction where the Bridgewater Canal takes over. At Castlefield there are numerous warehouses, the basin (Belonging to the Bridgewater Canal) has been revitalised and opened up to the public.

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