The Lancaster Canal is today a gentle reminder of the Industrial Revolution that erupted in Britain between the 1780s and 1830s, and which changed the landscape of this island forever.
Work on the canal started in 1794 and wasn’t completed until 1826, by which time the canal stretched from Preston in Lancashire to Kendal in Cumbria. Later still the canal was extended to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, connecting Kendal, and all-points south, with the giant industrial cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and one of the world’s busiest ports at Liverpool. Although by this time the death-knell of the canal had been sounded by the construction of the first intercity railway in 1830.
As you walk its historic towpath today, passing through rolling countryside on the way to Kendal, its hard to imagine that this magnificent engineering feat was brought about by the rise of the industrial cities of Northern England. My destination, Kendal, is known as the Auld Grey Town thanks to its buildings being constructed from limestone – although it could equally refer to the terrible weather – was the most northerly point of the canal.
Kendal was a centre of cloth manufacture, as well as shoe and tobacco production, but the canal also linked several gunpowder works to the outside world. The gunpowder works in this part of the country were for mining rather than military use, and were still in existence in the 1930s. Kendal also provided the reason for the Lancaster Canal to remain commercially viable – until 1944 coal was delivered to Kendal Gas Works on the canal.
When I reached the small hamlet of Crooklands, I diverted off the canal to visit the Church of St. Partick which sits in splendid isolation on top of a hill and can be seen from miles away. Its a picturesque spot with commanding views (albeit of the M6 to the south), and is the final resting place of several generations of my family.
Back on the canal again I headed north towards Kendal. The construction of this canal was special, it is one of Britain’s few ‘contour canals’. The canal follows the natural line of the landscape and consequently has very few locks going up and down hills. It means the canal is flat, making for easy walking. You can see contour construction in operation as you walk the route, although, sadly, the final section of the canal has been drained because of leakage.
What it lacks in locks is made up for by a tunnel at the village of Hincaster: at 378 yards its the longest tunnel on the Lancaster Canal. Like the rest of this northern section of the canal, the tunnel was opened in 1819 at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
There isn’t a towpath through the tunnel – the boats were either punted through or men would lay on their backs on the roof of the boat and ‘walk’ it through. There is a route over the top of the tunnel which was used by the horses which normally towed the boats. Walking over it today you also pass under the west coast railway line – these two forms of transport follow the same route.
After passing over the tunnel its possible to divert through a lovely country park, sliced in two by the River Kent on its way to the Irish Sea. Levens Park was completed in 1710 and is part of Levens Hall. It has a wonderful avenue of oak trees, many dating back to this period and on a good day you’ll spot deer and goats with huge horns in the park, although I didn’t see a single one. Levens Hall dates from the mid-fourteenth century, but much of the present building is from the reign of Elisabeth I.
Once through Levens Park you can either rejoin the route of the canal or take a slightly longer route to Kendal which follows the River Kent. The weather was nice so I chose to do the latter.
After nearly five hours of walking I finally reached Kendal to be greeted by its Coat of Arms next to Nether Bridge, which dates back to the fourteenth century. The three span bridge was completed in 1772 and widened in 1908, but still retains the 1772 elements. More on the Auld Grey Town soon…