Heritage - March 06

Bygone Byways

Penelope Rance enjoys a refreshing view of Yorkshire's dramatic scenery on some of its recently-restored waterways

Can there be a better way to while away a weekend than drifting through glorious countryside, cup of tea in hand, aboard your own narrow-boat? One of the beauties of travelling by canal is the experience of taking your home with you, and our traditional boat provided by Shire Cruisers was well-equipped, comfortable and homely. It provided the perfect platform from which to enjoy an area of Yorkshire that has only recently opened up to boaters.

Shire Cruisers, a family run business, has pioneered holiday boating on the newly restored Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale Canals, and has the largest fleet on those waterways. Their in-depth knowledge of the region allows them to create tailored trips for experienced narrow-boaters and beginners alike, from circular tours to meandering weekends.

One advantage of choosing the canals around the cities of Huddersfield and Leeds for your waterways holiday is that they are less travelled than, say, the Kennet and Avon or the Oxford Canals, with lighter tourist traffic.When you have many locks to pass through in one day, not having to queue to enter each one can be a real benefit, as can having the freedom to travel at your own pace, rather than going with the flow of boats.

The Leeds and Liverpool, Rochdale, Huddersfield Broad and Huddersfield Narrow

Canals are all covered by Shire Cruisers trips, but we chose to travel along the Calder and Hebble Navigation, a lovely, quiet, rural waterway that passes through villages and fields, and boasts the delightful Hebden Bridge canal marina.

The Calder and Hebble is a very old navigation, and with its lack of river traffic and sheltering trees, it is easy to imagine oneself back in the days when narrow-boats were a primary means of transport around the country, along its ny canals and rivers.

After a comprehensive training session, wewere taken through our first lock at Sowerby Bridge by Nigel Stevens, who runs Shire Cruisers with his wife, Susan. This lock also happens to be the deepest in country - quite an experience for the one left onboard to man the tiller.

Having been shown the ropes - and everything else on the boat - we were in sole charge of the Norfolk (each of Shire Cruisers' vessels is named after a county in Britain). With just two of us to crew her, getting the Norfolk up and down the locks and moored on the canal bank proved to be a tiring experience. As one person must remain on the boat when it is not tied up, the work of the locks was left to the other crew member. Fortunately, we shared a number of the lock trips with other boats, and there were several fine pubs along the way to revive and refresh us.

The Norfolk herself is a lovely boat, recently refurbished and well finished, from the curtains to the central heating, with everything in its rightful place. We were amazed at how compact yet spacious the interior seemed, with its bathroom, kitchen and separate bedroom.The living area has a window seat from which to watch the world bob by, and there is nothing quite like washing up in front of a constantly changing view.

Having stopped in the middle of nowhere for our first night - another beauty of canal travel is you can moor up wherever you wish, as long as the canal is wide enough, and there are no restrictions - we headed on to Hebden Bridge, where the dedicated narrow-boat marina has been created. A beautiful village, Hebden Bridge has everything that the weary narrow-boater might require, including some excellent fish and chips.

Returning along the canal past Sowerby Bridge, we witnessed a glorious sunset in complete solitude, and moored beneath the trees for the night, with only some friendly horses for company. Back at Shire Cruisers, it was a wrench to leave the Norfolk, our floating caravan, which had so quickly begun to feel like home. We will certainly be returning, hopefully for a longer trip that will allow us to get to know all the Pennine waterways.