Eastern Daily Press - June 06

A choc-a-lock icon

Oli Franzen tackles the Rochdale canal, an epic passage to the top of the Pennines, and marvels at those pioneering industrialists of a bygone era who made it possible.

THE ROCHDALE CANAL IS ONE OF THE GREAT ICONS OF THE INDUSTUAL REVOLUTION and climbs relentlessly from the mill town of Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax, to the surnmit of the Pennines, which divides Yorkshire and Lancashire. Sadly, the canal was abandoned with the advent of the railway, but finally reopened more than a century later in 2002, enabling tourists to relive a bygone age.

To discover what waterway had to offer I hired a narrowboat from Shire Cruisers in Sowerby bridge and spent a midweek break experiencing an epic passage through the Calderdale region of the Pennines.

My journey took me past beautiful hilly countryside but also provided a unique vantage point from which to view towns and more isolated industrial heritage. Most notably, I spent the trip in awe of the pioneering industrialists who had resolutely constructed the canal despite the impossibly steep and wild terrain.

The journey is still very much a battle of man versus mountain since the canal has many locks to compensate for the topography. As a result, the holiday is in stark contrast to a relaxing cruise on our native Broads. Instead it is a constant workout and requires good teamwork to manually operate machinery and navigate the boat through the locks.

To maintain the charm and identity of the waterways, the hire boats are all built to a traditional design and must be steered using a~ heavy tiller at the stern of the boat, which increases the challenge of the journey. This also meant that I found myself praying for clear skies since there is no shelter for the helmsman when the boat is under way.

Despite this, the holiday is still suitable for all the family since the hire craft are designed to be a real home from home while afloat. All have central heating, running water, flush toilets, a domestic-sized cooker dge, a colour TV, a CD player and points your mobile phone.

My 56ft vessel, Dorset, had two bedrooms -one with a very comfortable fixed double bed and another with two singles. There was a toilet for each bedroom and a large galley and saloon area which led to outside seating through patio style doors.

It's best to plan your route so that you moor for the evening in the towns of Hebdon Bridge and then Todmorden as there are few riverside pubs or obvious stop-off points in the countryside. Both towns provide an eclectic mix of pubs and restaurants that should satisfy any taste or budget.

However, if you want to make a longer stopoff your best bet is Hebdon Bridge. This was voted the Funkiest Town in Europe and given an award for the Best High Street for Independent Shops. It's certainly a delight to wander round the town's quaint little streets, soaking up the character of its unique shops, cafés and bakeries, which reflect its artistic bohemian past.

Another highlight is taking the steep trail from Hebdon Bridge to the medieval hillside settlement of Heptonstall. In the settlement there are the atmospheric ruins of a 13th century church, a museum built in a school dating back to 1642, one of the oldest Methodist chapels still In use and the resting place of American writer Sylvia Piath, who was the wife of late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.

While Todmorden, near the summit of the Pennines, is less striking it's the centre for industrial history thanks to the Fielden family who revolutionised the textile industry here and brought about factory reform. There is an enormous town hail built by the family and also a magnificent gothic-style Unitarian Church to enjoy, where some of the Fieldens are buried.

After Todmorden, the last section of the canal is so heavily locked that progress on a boat is extremely slow. This means that many people choose to leave their vessels in Todmorden and make the rest of the journey on foot. -This option only takes a couple of hours and Is an easy way to enjoy the most dramatic scenery on the canal, which is otherwise only available to the hardiest of crews.

On reaching the summit, boaters must turn around and descend the canal towards Sowerby Bridge, where it is advisable to spend the last night of their holiday in order to avoid a stressful rush to return the boat in the morning. The town provides an exciting end to the holiday since you must navigate the deepest lock in England to reach Shire Cruisers. Better still there are a number of newly-developed bars and restaurants near the boatyard in which to celebrate getting your vessel back in one piece!

A journey along the Rochdale Canal provides a totally different holiday experience. The waterways are far quieter than those in the Midlands and the Broads and, while it's a challenge to progress uphill, the satisfaction of reaching the summit makes all the effort worthwhile. The industrial heritage gives the waterway a strong identity and Hebdon Bridge provides a real highlight off the water.