Cycling in central Leeds at the end of a week in the office may not be your idea of fun but it should be if you’re heading out of the city on the Aire Valley towpath.
That’s what I did – and I have scarcely enjoyed an urban bike ride more. The 15½ mile route westwards to Bingley is packed with history, scenery and variety. What’s more it’s perfectly flat, well surfaced, traffic-free and requires no navigation which, if you’re anything like me, is a big plus. You basically hop on the bike at Granary Wharf close to Leeds railway station and keep pedalling.
A milestone at the start indicates 123 miles to Liverpool. The scale of this grand old industrial highway could not be more understated for the Leeds to Liverpool Canal is actually the longest man-made canal in Britain. It was the main trade and communication link with the outside world for Yorkshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside making the Irish and North Seas connect with the national network of inland waterways.
Predictably, the route is punctuated with bridges, some on turntables. They are numbered as if part of a cherished collection which, today, they are. In total, the canal boasts 295 listed structures. You also never cycle far before a lock appears, sometimes as many as four times in quick succession. My favourites were at Dobson Locks which are overlooked by a neat little row of cottages. You pass over the water just twice – at Dowley Gap Locks and along an aqueduct.
Canalside properties are in all states of repair – new, old, converted and unoccupied. One of the first en route is the former Kirkstall Brewery which today is rather appropriately accommodation for students at the university. Shortly afterwards the blackened ruins of Kirkstall Abbey appear on the other side of the railway line.
On my ride canoodling couples then gave way to texting fishermen, the low hum of an electricity sub-station to the right of the towpath contrasting with the flapping of wings on water on the other. After Rodley fields become more commonplace than buildings. It’s hard to believe that so many cattle graze within a conurbation. An ideal spot to rest – which is at the nine-mile point – is the coffee shop within the marina at Apperley Bridge. This was formerly the site of an old boatyard where the boat used by Chay Blythe and John Ridgway to row across the Atlantic in 1966 was built.
Shortly afterwards I wanted to explore Saltaire, the model industrial village built by Titus Salt for the workers at his wool mill in the 1850’s. I popped up from the towpath as unsure of my bearings as a dazed meerkat. The tall chimney I had spotted from the canalside was, it transpired, out one of several in the vicinity and didn’t belong to Salts Mill as I’d thought. In fact, I was in Shipley and, after a quick tour of the one-way system, returned gratefully to the path.
After a mile or so the canal formed the bottom of a sort of gorge with towering mills on either side forming the walls. A-ha, this must be Salts Mills and, indeed, it was. In its hey-day the mill employed 2,500 workers. Today it houses a substantial collection of David Hockney paintings, a diner and some unusual shops and boutiques. The rest of the village is well worth exploration along with the Roberts Park, the finishing touch to the new community which opened in 1871. Close to a wonderfully quaint cricket pavilion stands a statue of Salt who, curiously, is standing facing away from his creation.
After my history lesson, I proceeded all the way to Bingley (where the cyclable section of the towpath ends) but it was barely worth it. Woods gave way to derelict industrial premises and the bypass swept down to join me. Dusk was falling as I stood at the station awaiting the train back to Leeds. I felt rather out of place among all the young girls with their high heels and little handbags. My night out was ending but theirs was about to begin.
Distance: 15½ miles – but 2 miles less if you stop at Saltaire.
Time: 1½ hours excluding stops.
Trains: There are about four trains per hour between Bingley and Leeds (stopping at Saltaire and Shipley too). The fare is £2.20 for a single and the journey takes 20 mins.
1. For a shorter, more rural ride start at Calverley Junction where there is a car park right beside the towpath.
2. Just after bridge no. 10 near Aireside Road in Shipley the path narrows considerably and gets bumpy. You’re better off cycling alongside the road that runs parallel for a few hundred yards.
3. For refreshment in Saltaire try the Boathouse Inn, idyllically situated on the banks of the Aire and signed from the path that leads up from the canal into the village.
4. Make sure you have a bell on your bike. You will need it!
5. To cycle along the towpath you need a permit from British Waterways. They are available, free of charge, from local British Waterways offices and can be downloaded from waterscape.com/cycling which also has many routes for canalside cycle rides.
6. The Aire Valley towpath is part of Route 66 on the Sustrans National Cycle Network. See sustrans.org.uk for detailed mapping.