Nicola here, with a question that you don’t get asked every day: Can industrial history be sexy and romantic? On more than one occasion I have pitched to my editor the idea of a Regency historical set against a background of the industrial revolution. The response was a very definite “No, thank you”. And yet to my mind the huge changes in Georgian, Regency and Victorian society that came with the developments in engineering, technology and industry have enormous potential as the backdrop for a romance. There’s change, there’s conflict, there’s the clash of ideas. In Cranford it was the coming of the railway as much as the arrival of Dr Harrison that set hearts a-flutter. And I defy anyone to watch North and South with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe as John Thornton and Margaret Hale and fail to see that the industrial North can be very romantic indeed.
So when we planned a holiday on the Leeds to Liverpool Canal I decided to view it as a research trip as well as a vacation. Who knows – one day my editor may relent and my canal-based Regency may set sail. And in the meantime I am happy to be able to share with everyone the highlights of the trip and a few snippets of industrial history. I hope you enjoy the voyage!
A step back into the industrial past
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was the first of the Trans-Pennine canals to be started and the last to be completed. The length and the complexity of the route meant that the canal took 46 years to build at a cost of five times the original budget. The canal originated from a proposal in 1765 to construct a canal from Preston to Leeds to carry woollen goods from Leeds and Bradford and limestone from Skipton. Prospective backers in Lancashire argued for the canal to start from Liverpool. The Yorkshire men wanted it to start in Leeds. Yes, Yorkshire and Lancashire were still arguing 300 years after the Wars of the Roses!
We picked up our narrow boat in a little village called Silsden in the Yorkshire Dales. Our boat, Golden Dale, was 56 foot long and designed for only two people. That meant that we would have to be prepared to open every lock and swing bridge ourselves. To add to the theme of romance on our “northern cruise” we were told that this was the honeymoon boat, but after we had struggled to open a few heavy bridges and steer through some narrow gaps and around some tight corners we reckoned that not everyone would still be talking to their partner after such stressful experiences as running aground or ramming another boat, let alone feeling in a honeymoon mood!
Our first stop was at the village of Kildwick, which was very nostalgic for me as I had sung in the choir here when I was a child and had not been back for over 30 years. We moored for the night near Kildwick Hall, a stone mansion built in 1642. This was a literary diversion. During the period in which the Brontë sisters were writing the Currer family lived at Kildwick and when Charlotte Brontë sought a masculine nom de plume she chose the pseudonym of Currer Bell. Miss Frances Currer (1785-1861) who was known as a scholar and collector of books lived at Kildwick Hall at that time and may have been known to the Bronte family. Certainly Heathcliff’s home in Wuthering Heights bears a striking resemblance to Kildwick Hall and the house was also used as the setting for Thrushcross Grange in the 1920s silent movie version of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.
His Own Personal Canal
Moving at a pace of about three miles an hour (canal travel is not to be hurried!) we reached the ancient market town of Skipton the next day and moored up to explore. I’ve blogged about the medieval castle and some other aspects of my trip on my personal blog here. As we came into Skipton we saw that many of the former warehouses and factories that were in use when the canal was a bustling industrial waterway have now been beautifully converted into flats and houses. Many retain their original features such as these curious jutting bays that feature in the photograph.
At Skipton there is a half mile branch canal that opened in 1797. This was a private canal belonging to Sackville Tufton, 8th Earl of Thanet, who owned Skipton Castle and also the local limestone quarries. Lord Thanet had asked the canal company to divert the main Leeds to Liverpool Canal in order to carry the limestone away for sale. This request had been refused. Lord Thanet’s solution – to build his own canal. As one did. We followed the Springs Branch, as this canal is called, on foot and ended walking through the beautiful woods behind Skipton Castle and admiring the impregnable fortress high on its precipice.
The Wonder of the Waterways
This unique double arched bridge west of Skipton is know as one of the wonders of the waterways because of its combination of beauty and practicality. The original bridge over th canal was built at the end of the 18th century but when road traffic became heavier it was not strong enough. The solution was to add another arch to carry the new road.
There was originally a set of staircase locks here at Greenberfield but early in the nineteenth century these were replaced by a new set of six locks. The fields beside the canal are full of lumps and bumps where the original canal features have grassed over. Here were took pictures of the photogenic canal architecture including this charming original lock keeper’s cottage. And Andrew took a photograph of me struggling to open the locks in the heat of a summer day! Here I am below getting some welcome help from my sister-in-law who came out to spend a day on the boat with us and her family!
The canal prospered through the nineteenth century and was used for carrying stone, coal and many other goods. The impact of the railway age was not as great as with other canals but the coming of the lorry finally saw commercial traffic on the Leeds and Liverpool dwindling. Unlike many other canals, however, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was never abandoned, remaining open for navigation throughout the last century. It suffered some damage during the Second World War when it was breached by a German mine. I was fascinated to discover that the canal in west Lancashire was part of Britain's defensive plans against invasion. Along the canal there were tank traps, bunkers and block houses. Some buildings such as barns and pubs along the canal were fortified and there are still some remaining concrete pillboxes to be seen.
On our trip we got as far as the highest point on the canal, the summit level at Foulridge, 487 and a half feet above sea level. The Foulridge tunnel was opened in 1796. A tale that has passed into local folklore tells of a cow called Buttercup who fell into the canal and swam the whole mile length of the tunnel before being pulled out at the other end and revived with brandy. The tunnel has no towpath so in the days before mechanisation the boats had to be propelled through the tunnel by leggers. Two people were required. They would lie on a plank across the bow of the boat, and holding the plank with their hands, would propel the boat with their feet against the tunnel wall. While the boat was being legged through the tunnel, the horse would be led over the hill. Leggers were only replaced by steam tugs in 1880. I couldn't help feeling that this would have been a very dangerous pastime. The tunnel has one way traffic only, is very, very wet inside and is full of bats!
I hope you have enjoyed this miniature travelogue. Now over to you - have you ever read a Regency with a background of the industrial revolution? Or a historical novel you enjoyed that featured some element of industrial history rather than the customary diversions of high society? Do you think that a historical romance set in the industrial north would appeal to you? Should I continue to pitch the idea to my editor??? Thank you!