Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Friday, 22 June 2012

Two Rivers - One Aim - the Calder & Aire

Fine weather was forecast for two days this week so we got out and about the waterways  -  this time to the rivers Calder & Aire.  I’ve named them in that order to distinguish them from the successful man-made system now known as the Aire & Calder Navigation.

It started with the wool trade.  Throughout medieval times the valleys of West Yorkshire had made a good living from wool.  But by the early 1600s they were beginning to make serious money exporting woollen cloth to Europe, sending it on slow-plodding packhorses to Rawcliffe and Selby to be loaded onto sea-going ships.  Slow, and expensive  -  Leeds to Selby in the winter could take two weeks, at £5 per ton, later water-borne cargoes would take only three days at a cost of only 10 shillings a ton.

Trade would expand throughout the century and by the 1690s it was making mega-fortunes for those involved in Leeds (on the Aire) and Wakefield (on the Calder)  -  money to be invested in improved transport, which in those times meant waterways.

The tide flowed up the Aire to Knottingley, so navigation that far upstream was possible for small craft on suitable tides, and free of charges which was good, but it was a long way from the two booming towns deep in the Yorkshire hills.

What we see today as the Aire & Calder Navigation is the result of almost 230 years of effort by the merchants of Leeds and Wakefield  -  culminating in 1826 with their towns having a direct waterways link to a new port at Goole, with docks for sea-going ships.  It was an instant success  -  3,200 ships used the docks in 1866, of those 463 were foreign-flagged.  Goole is still the furthest inland operational port.

We started our first day out at Castleford, parking near the River Aire where it crashes over a weir, one of the earlier navigational works to increase the depth of the river.  There’s a lovely new s-shaped footbridge across, opened in 2008, with innovative seating to enjoy the cool air.  Now the industrial pollution has been cleared from the river the bridge has opened up the area for the town. An added feature to the weir is an up-pass for fish, plus a similar but covered section for eels and lampreys, and steps on both sides for otters.

The footbridge and weir, viewed from the south bank.

Fish, eel, lamprey, otter up-pass.

At the south end of the weir is the former Allinson’s flour-mill which was the world’s largest carrying out traditional stone-grinding.  Unfortunately, after 100 years it closed in February 2011 but it’s still a striking building.

Constructing a weir is one half of a scheme, the other is to provide another route for boats to avoid it.  We walked upstream on the Aire’s north bank, a grassy path taking us round a bend to the confluence of the Calder and the Aire. 

The bush in the centre of the photograph is at the confluence of the two rivers  -  the Aire flowing down from the top right, the Calder from the upper left.  The waters of both rivers flow down to the middle left, heading for the weir, but boats pass through the entrance to Castleford flood-lock, in the foreground.  Its gates remain open when water-levels are normal.

The two rivers drain vast areas of the South Pennines so if there’s been copious rain the levels soon rise and the flood-lock’s gates are closed, as are those upstream on both rivers, and navigation ceases until normality returns.  When we were there Castleford flood-lock had recently re-opened.

It’s a pretty scene, and there’s usually boats about.  We happily mooch about such places, talking to people, gathering news about the waterways, and looking at boats.

The sheltered waters behind the flood-gates.  At the other end of this short straight section of canal a lock drops vessels down to the Aire at its lower level, it having descended the weir.  This is the way rivers were improved for navigation, often piecemeal, before canals completely bypassed the upper reaches  -  but, unusually, it’s the lower reaches of the Aire that are very bendy so it was those stretches that were instead bypassed by the Aire & Calder Navigation Company.

Where does the Aire end up?  On the second fine day we went to explore.

Airmyn village is quiet, its clock-tower the most memorable image, and sound.  The river is hidden behind well-mowed flood-banks, as is the way of things all along the lower reaches of the Aire and the Ouse  -  but walking along the bank tops is pleasant.

We parked near the clock-tower and went up the steps to the top of the bank.  It was mid-morning and the tide was ebbing, resulting in a fast-flowing river lined with mud as the levels fell with the tide.  We strolled along towards the confluence of the Aire and the Ouse.

When the weather’s sunny it’s often comfortable walking near these large rivers where their waters cool the air.  The silence was broken by the songs of chaffinches, skylarks and yellow-hammers.  Across the adjacent wheat-field, through gaps in the distant trees, could be seen two River Ouse bridges, the high modern one of the M62 soaring high, and the seldom-swinging one at Boothferry. 

The one aspect that’s frustrating are areas where bushes, and in this case trees, have grown between the flood-bank and the river, thus making it difficult to see the waterway  -  a visit on a fine winter’s day when the foliage has gone is often the answer.  But here we were on a beautiful early summer day, a day when frustration is not allowed.  I took what photographs I could before we strolled back to Airmyn.

As much as we could see of where the Aire flows into the Ouse.  Great big fingerpost for directions though.

The village used to be a busy port, but now boats on the river here are an extreme rarity.  By 1778 the Aire & Calder Navigation Company had decided that the extremely bendy lower reaches of the Aire could be tolerated no longer  -  so they built the Selby Canal to cut across from the Aire to the Ouse, the “king” of all Yorkshire rivers.  So, in one swoop, Airmyn’s days as a major port were finished, and there’s no reason for boats to visit.

But the A&C hadn’t finished  -  Selby was limited by only having a small basin above the lock, and no room to excavate more so in 1820 they started on their major works, to build a very wide canal all the way from Knottingley to Goole, a small village further downstream from Selby.  That way they could also avoid further bends on the Ouse, have direct access to deeper water on the river, and have room to create docks for ships and canal traffic.  This was not a company to do things half-heartedly!  By 1826 they had completed the task, with the only lower part of the Aire now used by boats the short stretch between Knottingley and Haddesley, to give access to the Selby Canal.

Of course, by then, the wool trade of Leeds & Wakefield had abated  -  coal was the next source of riches for the Aire & Calder Navigation.

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