Cycling along the canal is one of my favourite local days out in Leeds. Back in the Spring, Oli (9) and I tested out the bike he got for Christmas by riding out to Saltaire and back and when I told him that you could go all the way to Liverpool by the canal we found ourselves planning to do just that. After all, having done Kirkstall-Saltaire as a round trip of 21 miles in 3 1/2 gentle hours, it would only involve doing another hour and a half a day over 4 days to cover the full 127 or so miles. On summer days, that would allow for long stops for lunch and drinks and snacks.
So, a few months later, starting over the August Bank Holiday weekend we found ourselves setting off to do the whole trip. We agreed it would be more fun as a holiday to start at Liverpool and work our way back so that we could have a day out in Liverpool first, as we might not fancy it at the end of the journey. The only problem with this was that that the most comprehensive guide to the Leeds Liverpool Canal is written as if nobody in their right mind would contemplate going in that direction – to the extent of even having the maps oriented with the East on the left. Of course, that’s not a huge problem when the whole nature of the canal is that it runs between Leeds and Liverpool so map reading isn’t that high a priority.
Oli rode a Frog 69 which is a hybrid MTB without suspension and was on road/track tyres – in retrospect, it might have been better to have switched to the knobbly tyres it came with in case of wet weather, but as it turned out this wasn’t a problem as we only had about an hour of rain on the third day and that came while we were on well-surfaced paths. As a birthday present I got myself a Revolution Country 1 touring bike from Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Operative in Leeds, along with a pair of 40l waterproof panniers (I thought it would be pushing our luck too much to expect Oli to carry more than our snacks and lunches in a handlebar bag). Both bikes were comfortable and well suited to the trip, although some of the sections had only rudimentary paths (particularly in the middle of the Lancashire countryside between Liverpool and Wigan, between Accrington and Burnley, and between Gargrave and Kildwick) where a bike with front suspension might have been more comfortable for me. A road bike would have struggled but pretty much anything else other than a BMX would be perfectly fine for the trip.
After breakfast and a dog walk on Sunday morning, we set off on the easy downhill journey to Leeds station for the train to Liverpool. The Transpennine Express train was quick and had good space for our bikes to be stowed in the carriage safely. We then had a little confusion trying to rely on Google Maps cycle satnav (the iPhone mount worked well) to get us to Prince’s Dock and the Malmaison where we were staying. I haven’t been to Liverpool for years and was pleasantly surprised by how vibrant and lively the waterfront is. We spent the afternoon going on various rides, listening to the bands playing at the music festival that was on and having a wander around Tate Liverpool. We finished off by going out for a Pizza at Pizza Express in the newish Liverpool One shopping centre and a game of mini-golf at Jungle Rumble, which was excellent (and I won by 9 shots over the 18 holes, go me!).
The Road to Wigan Pier
Day 1 of our cycling started on Bank Holiday Monday and involved following the canal from where it started, right by the docks where we were staying, up to Wigan. Due to the circuitous route the canal ended up with as a result of complicated local political wranglings in the C18th, this was a 36 mile journey rather than the 22 miles or so it can be done in by road. It was a really nice sunny day with a little breeze at times but otherwise perfect conditions. There wasn’t a lot to see along the canal going out of Liverpool through Bootle and Aintree, but as we were just warming up that wasn’t a problem. Once we’d left the edge of the city behind the countryside was fairly flat but pleasant. There were also, handily placed through mid-afternoon, at least half a dozen canalside pubs with beer gardens any one of which we could have happily spent the whole afternoon. After passing a couple we succumbed to the Saracen’s Head, Halsall for a drink, a snack and a rest after having already exceeded the longest distance either of us had ever ridden in a day (the 21 miles from our initial ride to Saltaire). All along this section, taking advantage of the fine weather and the Bank Holiday, were many families and groups walking or riding their bikes. There were also more bichon frises than we’d ever seen before – they’re clearly very popular in Merseyside and West Lancashire – and these made Oli miss Fluffy. Everyone was very friendly.
We then got back on our bikes and didn’t have another major stop until we reached a lovely ice cream cafe, Yours Is The Earth in Parbold, just outside Wigan. Luckily we got there just in time at 4.30 to get what turned out to be their last ice creams of the day. We felt a little bad wolfing them down on a bench outside the cafe as more than a dozen other people arriving after us were turned away even though the cafe seemed still to be serving coffee! Even though Google Maps was saying we weren’t far from Wigan, it wasn’t clear whether we would have to cycle up the 27 locks to get to the Premier Inn we were staying at so we thought a rest would be a good idea just in case (it turned out that that climb was instead what we’d be starting day 2 with). The Premier Inn staff were very helpful and not only allowed us to keep our bikes safely with us in our room but moved us to a disabled room to give more space. After a shower and a rest we finished off with an underwhelming meal at the Moon Under Water Wetherspoons in the town centre (from my perspective mainly for the George Orwell link).
Day 1: 36.4 miles, 5 hr 53, average speed 6.18mph, 1043ft climbed (a large proportion of which was in Wigan town centre!).
A lock and lunch
Wigan to Burnley
Planning the route to divide into 4 manageable days of cycling was made difficult by trying to find places to stay at the end of each day. Stopping at Blackburn would have been too early and made the third day too long and Accrington didn’t appear to have anywhere at all to stay. So we had to prepare for a longer day to get to Burnley. After spending a week last summer in Dubrovnik if anyone had said I’d have my next summer holiday staying at Premier Inns in Wigan and Burnley I’d have given them a very funny look, but, here we were!
As mentioned, the day started with cycling up the 27 locks going out of Wigan. Just after we passed them we had our first fall as Oli went over in a deep rut, resulting in his new shoes and hand getting muddy but nothing more serious. We then pressed on towards Blackburn. Although we’d stocked up with sandwiches from the M&S in Wigan town centre before setting off, I’d hoped that as with the first day, we’d be able to find a nice pub or cafe by the canal. We were out of luck in the country, but surely a decent sized town like Blackburn would oblige?
No. We passed one pub by the canal on entering Blackburn from the West but it didn’t really have a garden and sitting in a car park having a bag of crisps and a coke didn’t appeal. Unfortunately, that was as good as Blackburn got. There was literally nothing there along the canal to appeal to anyone. We barely passed anyone who could be described as walking for pleasure – almost everyone we met were groups of miserable looking teenagers ambling around – and there was nowhere to stop other than a bench which looked like it had been set up to offer a view but the only view it offered was of the back of a brewery, a factory car park and rows of houses. In the end we pressed on, Oli concluding firmly that Blackburn’s score for appeal was minus 20 out of 100 (he gives Leeds, his home town 92 and had concluded that he’d happily live in Liverpool, for comparison).
Our moods lifted as we left Blackburn and finally we managed to find a cafe by the river in Rishton. Well, although it had tables and menus it was more like someone’s back yard than a cafe, but the owners were very friendly (even offering to go upstairs and find me a charger for my phone) and it was nice to be back in a place with people who smiled and were having a nice day. We then pressed on through Accrington, which, after having visited some years ago to stand and be sleeted on during a midweek match back in Brentford’s League 2 days (we lost) I didn’t feel any need to inspect further beyond the marker post for having reached the half way point of the canal.
We then slowly ground our way in to Burnley (and I had a small crash as my pedal got stuck in the ground in a narrow rut I was going down) where Google Maps got a bit confused, took us past some Travelers who were preparing to race round some open ground on pony and traps and eventually took us to our second Premier Inn. We were both surprised by how nice the big park in the centre of Burnley was and the welcome in the Brewer’s Fayre attached to the hotel was friendly. In a final rebuff to Blackburn, Oli awarded Burnley 63 points. The breakfast was also nicer than at the Premier Inn in Wigan.
Day 2: 41.0 miles, 6 hours 36 minutes, average speed 6.20 mph, 1887ft climbed
Burnley to Gargrave, Gargrave to Kildwick nr Skipton
Being the middle of the week the towpath had few people walking other than a few older men going for an early stroll in Burnley so we were able to crack on at a decent pace. By now we were well used to riding the towpath so even though we had a spell of fairly heavy rain it didn’t dampen our spirits. It was also interesting for Yorkshireman Oli to see us cross the border from Lancashire to Yorkshire and watch as the flags turned from Red to White Roses (we even saw a pair of semi-detached houses a little past Nelson where one had a red rose and the neighbour a white rose – potentially a premise for a sitcom). By the time we got to Barnoldswick and the highest point on the canal (yay, all downhill from here!) the sun was out again and we found a nice cafe for lunch. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to get going again after lunch we probably didn’t stop long enough to digest and Oli developed a headache a bit further along which was exacerbated by the bumpy towpath. Fortunately the nice lady at the cafe had told us that there was a bit of the national cycle path which allowed us to avoid part of the towpath on the way to Gargrave and we took that but by the time we reached the outskirts of Gargrave Oli was flagging and we ended up walking the last mile. Gargrave gave the option of taking a train home or trying to find a room to stay the night and cancel our booking further on in Kildwick, but after a good rest and another drink and a snack, Oli piped up to ask how much further we had and on hearing it was “only” 10 miles said “let’s do it” and then spent the next hour making up and singing songs, when only a little earlier he’d nearly had enough. So we then went on to make it to our final night’s destination, the White Lion in Kildwick where we had a nice large room and a very hearty meal (and some very nice ale for me).
Burnley to Gargrave: 20.0 miles, 3 hours 26 minutes, 5.81mph, 1005ft climbed
Gargrave to Kildwick: 10.1 miles, 1 hour 36 minutes, 6.25mph, 432ft climbed
Kildwick to Kirkstall
Although the food was great, both of us were pretty much done with full English Breakfasts by this, our fourth in a row so Oli just had cereal. Plus we had lunch at Salt’s Mill to look forward to, or so we intended, on this our final day and one which was planned to be shorter. However, the towpath all the way was well surfaced and wide so we ended up bombing along much more quickly than on the first three days, especially with the assistance of the downhill slope at Bingley and arrived in Saltaire just past 11, far too early for lunch. We decided instead to have an ice cream from the canal boat diner and then to pedal the final familiar ten miles to Kirkstall where Oli’s mum and Fluffy would be waiting to meet us and to take Oli, his bike and our luggage back home to save the slog of the steep hill up from the canal. I followed on my bike, but it felt very strange without the weight of the panniers over the back wheel, even though at times through some of the narrower gates along the previous 128 miles I’d been cursing the panniers and wondering which bits of kit I could safely dispense with for our next cycling adventure!
Day 4: 20.3 miles, 2 hours 29 minutes, 8.14mph, 1277 ft mainly downhill!
Altogether it was a great few days away and a proper holiday. Unlike many holidays where the last day can be a bit down because of the feeling of the holiday coming to an end, we found ourselves excited and at times literally racing to get to the end. If doing it again I’d probably look more closely at finding somewhere to stay around Accrington at the end of day 2, then to finish day 3 in Gargrave before going from there to Leeds at the end, or perhaps going in the opposite direction. But those are minor changes and both Oli and I agreed that it was a great adventure and I think a big achievement for a 9 year old (and not inconsiderable for a slightly out of shape 44 year old!). I wonder what would be good for our next trip. As Oli said, we could go a lot further each day on the road once he’s got more experience with roads and traffic. Any suggestions gratefully received!