Book review: From Lancashire to Yorkshire by Canal by Andrew Hemmings & David Swidenbank

On July 19 1958, eleven sea cadets and three officers from Lytham Sea Cadet Corps set sail on an exciting and historic journey across England.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 12th November 2012, 9:00 am

Using the canals of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the adventurous group of young sailors travelled from coast to coast on what proved to be an ambitious and testing voyage.

Their vessel was the Training Ship Queenborough and it was from the deck of this hardy little boat that Alf Firby, one of the officers, took a series of photographs of what we now know were the dying days of a vanished era.

In the 1950s, Britain’s waterways were still full of commercial traffic and many were lined with the mills, factories and ports of what was then a leading industrial nation.

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As they journeyed from the Ribble Estuary, via the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Aire & Calder Navigation to the Humber Estuary, the cadets saw regular merchant shipping on the Humber, coal barges and the dying throes of other commercial traffic on Britain’s dangerously tired and neglected canals.

But they also glimpsed the occasional ‘pleasure boat,’ little realising that such craft and their owners would be the salvation and resurrection of Britain’s waterways.

This amazing pictorial adventure has been reproduced by Andrew Hemmings and David Swidenbank in their fascinating book which is based on the original photographs, documents and interviews as well as their own replica journey across the same canals.

By combining photographs from the 1950s with stunning modern-day images, they show how canal life and the landscape of towns and cities along the way have changed over the last 50 years.

The 1958 crew began their journey across the tides of the Ribble Estuary, up the River Douglas to the Rufford branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

From this semi-derelict waterway they joined the main line of the Leeds & Liverpool at Burscough Bridge, then headed east and north through the manufacturing towns of Wigan, Blackburn and Burnley, experiencing the Wigan flight of locks, Gannow Tunnel, the Burnley Embankment and Foulridge Tunnel before crossing the Pennines into Yorkshire.

It was here they faced the challenge of Bingley Five Rise Locks before the village of Saltaire and the industrial landscape of Leeds. They then joined the Aire & Calder Navigation through Castleford and Knottingley to Goole Docks where they were met by members of Hull Sea Cadet Corps who escorted them through the tricky waters of the Humber Estuary to Kingston upon Hull.

The photographs taken along the way, including TS Queenborough at Tarleton Locks and children playing near the lock-keeper’s cottage, coal barges piled high at Wigan and overgrown embankments near Burnley, portray a country on the cusp of change.

From Lancashire to Yorkshire by Canal is a voyage of discovery, a wonderful reflection on the transformation of the landscape of the north of England and an evocative and nostalgic trip into a bygone age.

(Amberley, paperback, £14.99)