Throughout the 2015 General Election campaign, one of the most heard political buzzphrases was ‘Northern Powerhouse’. From my understanding, this is a plan to make northern cities such as Manchester and their surrounding towns work together with their municipal neighbours to improve transport links, develop new industries and limit the economic and cultural pull of the South East.
This got me thinking. How could I show the current state of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in a bike ride? The answer was simple. All I needed to do was ride along the network that turned the north of England into a world powerhouse – the Leeds Liverpool Canal.
In the 1700s, the north of England was growing at a rapid rate due to industrialisation, but its geography was a constraint in getting goods from the mills towns of West Yorkshire to the seaports for export. Building a canal across the Pennines to link the towns and cities of Leeds, Burnley and Wigan made trade possible with the rest of the British Empire and as a result, the north became very rich selling manufactured goods with the canal playing a key part in this. It was essentially, the high speed train or jet engine of its day.
Stretching for 127 miles from Leeds City Centre to Liverpool via Skipton, Blackburn and Wigan, the canal today is a very different picture. The heavy industry is long gone and many of the imposing mills such as the World Heritage Site of Saltaire are now converted homes or offices. The towpath is now a fantastic traffic-free cycle path across the north of England and the best way to see it is on the bike.
My friend and colleague Simon decided to join me for this journey across the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ with the aim of riding 100 miles along the towpath from Leeds to the Bridgewater Canal Junction in Leigh (Greater Manchester).
We set off from Manchester Piccadilly train station on an early train to Leeds to get to the starting point at Granary Wharf in the city centre. We left the numerous office blocks behind and started riding along the Aire Valley Cycle Path passing through the mills towns of Keighley, Apperley Bridge and Saltaire. There were several inclines to negotiate including the famous Bingley Lock Rise. Unfortunately, the towpath surface deteriorated from Skipton as we curved around Gargrave to head west into Lancashire. This was a shame as everything becomes really quite remote here and the surface is rutted with hidden obstacles.
As we headed into Lancashire, the all important riding surface improved as we passed through Barnoldswick as the route changes into the official Pennine Cycleway (NCN 68). As we passed into Colne and through Burnley, there was increasing evidence of a former industrial past with numerous factories, mills with row upon row on terrace housing adjacent to the canal. By this time, we had covered nearly 70 miles since leaving Leeds City Centre and for Simon this marked the furthest he had ever rode in a day.
Having passed through Blackburn and a quick pit-stop in a nearby retail park, we kept pedaling until the M6 flyover near the famous Botany Bay site in Chorley. The weather had been fantastic all day, but started to grey over as we rode along the final Leeds Liverpool Canal Mainline stretch into Wigan. After 11 hours in the saddle, we turned south at the canal junction just outside of Wigan ready for the final leg into Leigh which marked the end of the ride.
Upon reaching the end 100 miles later, it dawned on me that our canal ride was not only a great endurance effort, but we had actually cycled through a couple of centuries worth of history in one day. With every pedal stroke, we saw how the ‘north’ has evolved to reflect changing times and the ways in which the original northern powerhouse defined not only the north of England, but the rest of the world.