Somewhere, amidst the calmness and splendour of Sowerby Bridge Basin, the waters of The Rochdale Canal & Calder & Hebble Navigation meet, quietly signalling the start of a trip even higher into the Pennines, than previously encountered. It was dark when we arrived at the end of our Calder & Hebble adventure and the black water added to the subtlety of transition from Navigation to Canal. The following morning did nothing to sharpen the boundary and it was left to a solitary, but prominent, No 1 on the lock gate to make the announcement. However, I was to find that the Rochdale had no intention of hiding its light under a bushel, even if it did keep its start line close to its watery chest.

Straight away, the first 2 locks of the Rochdale Canal declare their individuality by sporting the trendiest rack and pinion paddle gear and dispenses the need for the hand spike, but in a nod to the Canals ASBO reputation, there’s the need for the anti-vandal key. However, this section of the Rochdale is as far removed from its ASBO reputation as one could imagine. Easy paddle winding and gentle filling are conducive to having a chat with passers-by and the wide lock enables doubling up and the skippers to exchange boating stories as well.
After these 2 very “Rochdaley” locks, it was time for Tuel Lane lock; 2 locks created into 1 during restoration. Through the short tunnel under the road, the eagle eyed steerer can see the remains of what was one of the original locks. At 19 feet deep and with regulatory CRT assisted passage, Tuel Lane can sound a little intimidating. However it all works beautifully and with the help of a friendly and chatty lockkeeper, we were soon inching up towards the top and the 19 foot cavernous depth quickly forgotten, as the onward canal beckoned.
Once properly underway, the Rochdale swiftly propelled us out of Sowerby and into tree lined waters, with the Calder Valley below. Suburbia comes and goes, all with a quiet pride in their man made water feature; back gardens make the most of the canal and its surroundings. The trip into Luddenden Foot village is still tree lined, but the journey beyond gives you a taste of what’s to come, as the countryside offers up its bounty; the Calder flood plain with the Pennines gathering height in the distance. Tranquillity goes arm in arm with the gentle pace and a few locks do little to detract from the laziness of it all; once through Brearley top lock, the canal carries on its quiet meander towards Hebden, a single lock enables you to appreciate the breath taking views even more. It’s very easy to get ones thoughts lost in the splendour of the route ahead, as there is little heavy activity to distract you from the pleasure of boating along this waterway. A small section of road and a curved tunnel at Falling Royd have a half-hearted attempt at 21st Century realities, but the Rochdale is swift to move you on.

Arrival in Hebden Bridge signifies a slight change in tempo. The laziness is replaces by a little more bustle, as another lock raises your viewing platform and the town of Hebden introduces itself quite vividly. Restored warehouses and mills are a common feature along this canal and Hebden is no exception. This little market town, nestled in the Calder Valley, boasts plenty of Bohemian credentials and the waterway is a feature amongst many delights the town has to offer. It’s well worth a visit- plenty of independent shops, a quaint old picture house, stunning scenery and the resilience of the twice flood hit community is not only impressive but humbling.
For those who continue further, I can honestly say that the Rochdale has only just got going. Once past the dry dock, visitor moorings and boaters services, 3 more town locks move you on to a more rural setting once more. For a while on this section, the way ahead is kept as a surprise with the help of woodland, sweeping bends and vegetation, whilst the direction from where travelled is the view to marvel over. Evidence of repair and rebuilding from the devastating 2015 Boxing Day floods is apparent and once again an appreciation of the resourcefulness of local people is necessary.
On our last trip up here in the summer, we were only able to get as far as the bottom of lock 15, as the landslide beyond was rendered impassable during the same floods that devastated the canal and town. Back then, all we were able to do was take in the incongruous sight of diggers and earthmovers in the centre of a dry canal bed and get a good view of the mechanics of ground paddles. This time however, the work was complete and we happily locked through Shawplains Lock. We moored for the night on the site of the breach, the new stone side afforded an excellent mooring opportunity.
The next day saw us heading eagerly towards Todmorden and 3 locks took us into the centre of the town. Todmorden is more brooding than its bohemian neighbour- no less welcoming in terms of facilities and canal friendly attitude, but it does seem to epitomise the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution both in terms of how the town looks and the next 18 locks that will carry us to the summit of the Rochdale.

Before passing under the town bridge, there is a boaters services wharf; probably more of a welcome sight for those having just descended from the summit, but a handy pit stop for a traveller in either direction. Once through the guillotined lock, that vies for poll position with the town centre bridge, the Great Wall of Todmorden swings into view around the corner. Estimating to contain about 4 million bricks and built as a retaining wall to the railway above. Although this particular section offers no spectacular natural views, the massive wall can’t fail to impress. Todmorden certainly delivers on impressive structures, as the flight of 3 locks at Gauxholme also boasts a very imposing and impressive skew railway bridge. 2 castellated towers support a cast iron bridge and the trains rumble overhead on their way to and fro, from Manchester to Leeds, oblivious to the amazing structure which carries them on their way.

The double width locks carry with them bigger and heavier gates and whilst they are by no means the heftiest and most cumbersome on the system, they still require a bit more effort than those of their narrower cousins. Naturally, there is a longer filling and emptying time, but this offers the chance of a welcome breather between each lock and the paddle gear is well maintained, so the physical winding is not any more strenuous that it should be.
I don’t want to put you off; the locks are hard work, naturally, and the gap between them means that those who like to walk from lock to lock have a lot of ground to cover before the last paddle is dropped on lock 36. However, the scenery is spectacular as you climb higher & higher, the sense of achievement when you look behind you at the fruits of your labour and see the valley tumbling away below is unrivalled by any that I have thus far encountered on the system. The town of Walsden is as a welcome overnight stop as any for those wishing to break their journey. The smell of fish and chips from the very close proximity of Grandma Pollards was very tempting, but we’ve been caught out once too often with a bad partnership of a heavy meal and lock winding, so it was a light lunch in the shade of a canalside warehouse and then the last 8 locks to the top.

The Rochdale Canal
Autumnal Sunshine on The Rochdale Canal

The canal does not carry sharp twists and turns, but meanders gently with the contours of the hills and takes you from the town to rural, from rural to wild moor and then eventually lets you rest at the summit, 600ft above sea level. It is beyond the village of Walsden that the topography delivers, both in terms of what lies ahead and the omnipresent sense of achievement behind. About 4 locks from the top, the train track enters its summit tunnel and can possibly cause a sense of indignation in the weary boater, as we still have about ½ mile to travel.
The Tardebigge has long been spoken about in boating folklore as a boater’s rite of passage, and with 30 locks on the flight, it is a well-deserved label. Although there are 12 less locks on the journey from Todmorden to the summit of the Rochdale Canal, the wildness of the north and the ruggedness of the Pennines that carries you high towards the top can almost be heard accusing the Tardebigge flight as being a “Southern Softy”! I did say “almost” – the Worcester & Birmingham Canal flight is something special for all of us who have tackled it, but this section of the Rochdale just seems to be more efficacious, like a brooding Heathcliff to the Tardebigge’s more cultivated chic & poise.

No matter how enjoyable a flight of locks is, when they come thick and fast, the end is always a welcome sight. The swingbridge after the penultimate lock afforded some mild entertainment for our 11 year old, as he was able to jump back and forth across county line and also, enjoy with youthful glee, that “1 foot was in Yorkshire and 1 foot was in Lancashire” and that was after he’d wound just as many locks, and pushed as many gates as us. We were all, however, entertained and suitably satisfied to reach the last lock that would rise us triumphantly to the summit of this resolute waterway.

The Rochdale Canal
The Rochdale Canal Summit.

The pound itself is on the broadened out valley floor and as such, affords truly remarkable scenery. On this trip, the autumnal weather had closed in and we were sharing our triumph with a light drizzle. However, it did nothing to dampen our sense of achievement, but as this was also the summit of our trip, we had to console ourselves with cruising the short pound to the next lock that takes the traveller down the other side of the mountain, turning round and the, by now essential, tradition of reversing as far as the water will allow. With our boat’s nose now heading in the direction of home, it was time to call it a day and try to relish the enjoyment of repeating the splendour instead of indulging in the gloom of not being able to continue the journey towards Manchester.