The week before Easter, and it was still feeling quite wintery. Another burst of snowy weather was promised for the Easter weekend itself, but today was due to be dry with light winds. It was time to seize the moment and get out for a second trip in my holiday week. It had been too long since I had paddled on the Calder, so I decided to head for Stanley Ferry to do the north loop down the Calder and back on the Air and Calder Navigation.
Stanley Ferry has a long association with the River Calder. It was the site of a historic ford the where the Roman road from Pontefract to Lingwell Gate in Wakefield crossed the river. In 1699 an Act or Parliament was passed to make the Calder navigable, resulting in the river becoming deeper. A ferry replaced the ford as the Aire and Calder navigation came into being in fits and starts, with meanders and shallows replaced with artificial cuts through the 1830’s.
The aqueduct at Stanley Ferry was completed in 1839 to carry the canal over the river, and this double barrier to land transport in turn lead to a toll bridge replacing the ferry in 1879. The aqueduct is still the longest made from cast iron in the world, but was supplemented with a second concrete one in 1981 to allow larger commercial barges to cross without risk of hitting the bottom of the trench.
The put-in is down the side of the modern bridge that replaced the toll bridge in 1971. Today that bridge was being inspected for structural integrity – a process that appeared to involve three people watching a fourth hit it with a hammer.
A broken weir immediately below the put-in is best passed on river right, and the a fairly fast flow carries you over several shallow riffles over the next couple of kilometres before the river starts to be dammed back by the weir Low Common.
So I kept my Grey Owl Sugar Island paddle in hand for the first section, saving my preferred Chieftain for water deep enough for its long blade. Even in late March, the landscape looked quite wintery, under a grey sky. Trees were barely into bud and the bank-side undergrowth had yet to regrow.
Every time I have done this trip, I have noticed just how much plastic waste seems collect in this river. There is a large trash screen protecting the aqueduct trenches from debris in the river at high water levels, but plenty seems to make it further downstream to lodge in the trees and give a clue as to the heights the river can rise too. An Irish friend of mine calls these tattered remnants ‘witches knickers’, in which case Wakefield’s witches must spend most of their time with bare behinds!
Last year’s bullrushes were being slowly shredded by the weather, waiting for another gusty day to spread their seeds.
Plenty of geese were grazing on the flood plain, audible from the river but mostly out of sight over the levee. In places though they were down on the water. This group of greylag geese soon took flight as I approached.
There was almost no flow now as the river meandered across the flood plain, sometimes within earshot of the canal, although the cut was hidden by the river bank. The bank was punctuated by individual trees under a big winter sky as the noise of the M62 motorway began to heard in the background.
Some small signs of Spring were evident on the banks. Pussy willows were coming into bud, their catkins mostly still silver, but one or two opening out to show their bright yellow fronds. Alder bushes were also bearing their catkins, not yet ripe with pollen, and small red leaf buds.
Before long I had passed under the motorway, and the drone of traffic has replaced with the noise of the weir. A handy beach leads to a short portage on river left.
The put-in is just below the weir in a gentle eddy, but the bank is quite steep and rocky. I found some broken branches to protect my hull from the rocks, and slid the boat down on its painter.
Back on the river, a pair of mute swans that had been preceding me down the river for some time finally lost patience and took to the air to loop back upstream.
It is only a short distance downstream before the canal rejoins the river from the right. You paddle to the bottom of the lock and exit onto the mooring platform, or haul up the bank above the lock and have a shorter carry across the track to the cut. I chose the latter today. Being by myself, it was easier to haul on the painter and drag the boat up a muddy slope than lift it clear of the water onto a metal platform.
Once on the cut, there are another two locks to portage, but the bulk of the distance has been done. Last time I did this trip, tandem with my son, it was so windy we ended up trolleying two kilometres along the towpath. Today I had no such problems.
A large barge, as wide as my hull was long came down-lock towards me, but was careful not to raise a wake.
The final lock was soon in view. It has a handy beam below the mooring platform, that makes exit from a canoe much easier.
A short trolley got me to the final stretch, just as a light drizzle began to fall. Just before the boatyard, a solitary tree and its reflection caught my eye, but as the rain set in I pressed on rather than explore the boatyard.
The boat yard now makes oak lock gates for the canal network, but from 1863 until 1985 was a transhipment point for ‘Tom Pudding’ boats to transfer from railway cars to barge trains. These boats were open hopper barges that were hoisted from the water and transported by rail to the coal mine to be filled. Back in the water, fully loaded, they were chained into barge trains between a bow section and a pusher tug for the journey to Goole, where they were again hoisted, and simply tipped upside down to load coasters holds. I remember seeing some of these barge trains on the River Aire as a child – long low barges with only a foot or two of freeboard and the tug cabin sitting high above them a very long way back from the bow.
A short distance remained now – across the aqueduct and passed the moorings outside the pub to reach a clear bit of bank and a short trolley to the main carpark and my van.