By Paul Scraton:
We walked up the Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Bingley town centre, past old factories and the quay where barges would once have been loaded and unloaded. The towpath was busy; Easter weekend and the walkers, runners and cyclists were out in full force. When the canal network was built, its function was transport and the aim was making money. What it is now is a reminder and a resource, a web crisscrossing the country that at once offers us a stroll through some of the country’s most beautiful scenery while charting the rise and fall of industry, and how water was replaced by rail and road.
I grew up a few hundred metres from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in West Lancashire on the other side of the great divide from Bingley. The canal was an ever-present in my childhood and teenage years, a place of walks and birthday bike-rides, the place where we snuck our first cans of beer and then – later – our first legal pints in a pub by the locks. There was a mill in our village. Now it has been turned into apartments. Where the bridge crossed the canal on my way to school there has been a new development since I left home, a cobbled courtyard surrounded by cafes and restaurants, galleries and other craft businesses. The 21st century industry on the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
At Bingley Five Rise Locks we arrived as a barge had just entered the first of the locks. The lock keeper had come down from the office and was making the initial steps of opening and closing the various parts of the five-step system. In less than a hundred metres, the barge would rise nearly twenty – the steepest canal ‘staircase’ in the British canal network and a marvel of engineering. When the Bingley Five Rise locks opened in the 1770s, almost thirty thousand people came to celebrate. It was the 18th century shuttle launch, a technological wonder, and in all those years since there has been no real need to substantially alter the locks system. It just works.
We stayed to watch the barge make its progress, ever upwards, until it had reached the top of the locks. Later, I learned a word that seemed almost too good to be true. A gongoozler is someone who enjoys watching activity on the canals, born out of a derogatory term canal-workers used for those who stood idle while they worked up a sweat. The lock keeper at Bingley Five Rise did not look like he needed any help, so we let him get on with it. On either side of the canal, the gongoozlers stood and watched. We joined the club.