Five years ago this month the Rochdale Canal was reopened and the Calder Valley Cycleway came into being. Paul Kirkwood takes a look at the waterway from his bike.
A main road, the Rochdale Canal, trans-Pennine railway and River Calder are threaded along the Calder Valley like wires in a cable. The most recent route, the cycleway, provides the perfect way of untangling these strands and exploring the industrial heritage of the region.
Completed in 1804, the canal runs 33 miles in total from Sowerby Bridge to Manchester and includes 92 locks. Space for a canal was so limited that, in some places, it was built into a ledge created by blasting away the rockface of the valley sides. Initially it was successful as a cross-country waterway link but increasingly from the mid-19th century the traffic was localised at the two ends. The lack of through traffic resulted in slipping standards of maintenance. Much of the canal had become unpassable by the 1940s. It closed in 1952 only to reopen 50 years later following restoration.
I began by taking the train from Sowerby Bridge to Walsden where I joined the Calder Valley Cycleway. (It actually starts a little further up the valley on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border at Warland but there’s no station there). The glory of taking the train first and cycling back rather than the other way round is that you start from the top – the nearby village of Summit is just that – and can freewheel down all the little slopes beside all the locks. And if you run out of puff you can always hop back on the train as there are three stations along the way.
The route follows the canal closely from Todmorden until Hebden Bridge. On this occasion I didn’t have the time to explore the town properly but even on from the towpath I got a distinct whiff of its famed Bohemian ambience. Callis Community Gardens consists of allotments roughly cut out of the ground with borders formed from upturned bottles and old railway sleepers. A little distance further on I propped my bike up against a green trellis fence outside the Canal Café and went inside. A sign in the café advised of where you can recycle used candles and the toilet was a privy with handpainted sign above the outside of the door. I set off passing the Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre and Green Shop and a woman with red hair reading The Guardian on her doorstep.
I left Hebden Bridge in second place – ahead of the canal boat to my left but behind of the train to my right. On the opposite side of the canal there were lots of little boathouse-like huts, one promoting driftwood sculpture and, at the end of the row, a couple were erecting a greenhouse. The town is hardly a buzzing metropolis but, equally, it made a pleasant change to get away from it and onto a quieter stretch of the cycleway with just occasional boats and ducks for company.
The route includes 12 artworks depicting themes relating to the canal and its corridor. Earlier, at Todmorden, I’d passed models of its town hall and Stoodley Pike through which the real monument can be viewed. My favourite – and by far the most perplexing – artwork is the sculpture of Branwell Bronte, brother of the literary sisters, at Luddenden Foot. Bronte was employed as clerk in charge at the village’s station before being dismissed after just nine months in 1842 and was previously assistant clerk at Sowerby Bridge station. The sculpture gives his dates as 1840 to 1878 which is straight forward enough. But he appears to be standing in a sort of castle and arranged around his feet is jumble of images including Todmorden town hall, a fish, canal boat, blackbird, set of cogs, boot and pair of scissors cutting a coin that bears a Latin inscription and skeleton.
At Sowerby Bridge you can continue along the towpath for another four miles to Halifax via the Calder & Hebble Navigation and Hebble Brook. If you’ve had enough then head for the award-winning redeveloped warehouses of Sowerby Bridge Wharf where you’ll find a pub, coffee shop and restaurant.
Distance: 10 miles – short enough to walk, if you prefer.
Bikes on trains: Northern Rail allows bikes free of charge. The door for bikes is usually in the middle of the train and indicated by a bike symbol. A cheap day single from Halifax to Walsden costs £2.35 and the journey takes 26 mins.
Refreshments: There is plenty of choice in all the towns you pass through. You cycle right past the Stubbing Wharf pub (with tables outside) and Canal Café at Hebden Bridge. The pub at Sowerby Bridge Wharf is called The Moorings.
Directions: From Walsden station cross over the main road via the zebra crossing heading for Alma Road. Go over bridge and take first left down Hollins Road. From this point follow your map and the signs for Route 66 of the National Cycle Network. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the route simply follows the canal towpath all the way. It doesn’t! In places it splits from the canal and runs closer to the railway. There are signs for Route 66 but not at every turn which is why you need the map.
In Todmorden this is particularly necessary as a short section of the mapped route under the railway viaduct after Stansfield Road is currently not accessible. Instead where the route meets the Burnley Road turn right and under the viaduct. Just after the left turn for buses only, dismount and walk your bike past the side of the Public Market. Pass under a height restriction barrier, fork right, pass between two stones and continue ahead beside the river – and back onto the cycle route.
Map: A map is essential for this route. You can get a free pocket route map from the Hebden Bridge Visitor & Canal Centre at Butlers Wharf in the town or, by post, by ringing 01422 843831. Mapping is also available from http://www.sustrans.org.uk.