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The Lancaster Canal and Millenium Ribble Link

Introduction to a cruise to the Northern Reaches of the Waterways

This is the story of a cruise by two David Piper narrowboats to the most Northerly part of the connected canal system, Tewitfield on the Lancaster Canal. This canal was only recently joined to the rest of the system with the opening of the "Millenium Ribble Link" in 2002, the only new navigation to be opened since the Mersey Ship Canal almost a century ago. Formerly the most northern part of the system was Ripon and the David Piper Owners Club made the trip to Ripon shortly after that was reopened in 1997 (written up as The Great Northern Ring), so a visit to the Lancaster Canal was inevitable.

It requires a passage down the Tidal River Douglas and up the Tidal River Ribble before entering Savick Brook and then through the new sea lock and flight of locks comprising the Ribble Link which joins the Lancaster Canal to the main canal system. It is arguable whether the combination of the Tidal Trent and the Yorkshire Ouse, to visit Ripon, or the combination of the River Douglas and the River Ribble, to visit Tewitfield, is the most challenging voyage but nobody seems to put forward other candidates save perhaps the Tidal Severn from Sharpness to Bristol. None of these should be undertaken lightly and without extensive preparation (or a pilot in the case of the Severn). We cover in some depth the activities which we carried out on Corinna prior to the cruise, and those we perhaps should have done.

This cruise by members of the probably starts from Crooke Marina, on the Leeds and Liverpool canal close to Wigan, Piper Owners Club where the boats finally met. But the preparation and journeys had started long before. The two David Piper narrowboats, Dugald and Lesley's Elmley (No 271) and Peter and Pauline's Corinna (No 302) had come from Red Bull Basin and the River Thames respectively. A third David Piper Boat, Ken and Vera's Gandalf (No 304) was also booked in for the cruise, but unfortunately had to pull out through a medical problem. This left only two of the boats that had been on the Great Northern Ring with it's visit to Ripon and the cruise to the Great Ouse and the Eastern extremities of the waterways.

We were accompanied on the cruise by Malcolm (Holbrook), a long time friend of Dugald and a very experienced single handed boater on his 55' narrowboat Priory.Ken Cook joined him as crew for both the outward and return Ribble passages and a friend of Ken, another Malcolm (Allcard), who runs Top Lock Training, also joined Elmley for both passages and had the time to take some of the best of the photos which we thank him greatly for his permission for us to use them. Next year - maybe time for the South extremities, the river Wey and the Basingstoke Canal again.

The write-up is being split into three major sections, this overview containing some background, a little history of the canal and the Millenium Ribble Link and further sources of information as well as a "bottom line" verdict on the trip.The second section is a Cruise Log by Pauline and the final section is a comprehensive article on Planning and Preparation by Peter.

Each section has lots of pictures and overall the write-up covers 8 web pages. All the pictures on this and the following pages provide details of where they were taken if you hover the cursor over them and they can all be clicked to open a larger version in an Overlay (Lightbox style) or Popup Window. The image display options can be changed using the settings links at the bottom right corner of every page which includes pictures. The 'Spanner' icon or the following link takes one to a page covering the Image Display Options in more detail including bandwidth reduction options.

The selection and order you read the pages will depend on your interests so there is a comprehensive set of links to aid navigation at the top and bottom of each page with, for example, the two Crossings on separate pages so they can be accessed as part of the chronological log and also be available when you are planning the crossings and want to find out exactly what is involved. Enjoy.

What has the Lancaster Canal to Offer

An important question one should ask before visiting the Lancaster Canal via the Ribble Link is: Why should one risk what is arguably the most demanding piece of inland waterway one is ever likely to take a narrowboat onto? To many people the answer is simple; the Lancaster Canal is now the most Northerly part of the Canal System. To others the Millenium Ribble Link is the first new navigation to be added in over a century to the system, the last was the Manchester Ship Canal. Others may be looking for new challenges. Needless to say the Lancaster canal has a long history as the "Black and White canal" and still has lot to offer with a unique character as it has been isolated for so long. An extended visit provides an ideal base from which to visit the Lake District using the excellent public transport available. In our case the most important factor was that it would be a cruise with other friends with David Piper narrowboats and we would have mutual support from people with whom we had cruised many thousands of miles on other interesting waterways.

The Millenium Ribble Link project

Another important reason to visit the lancaster Canal is that the Millennium Ribble Link Project has also been very expensive. If it is not used fully the chance of future projects receiving funding is reduced. The project cost £5.8 million and can only support a limited number of passages because the crossing is dependent on the height of the tides. 106 passages are planned each year with a maximum of 6 boats each which only allows for just over 300 boats to visit the Lancaster when one remembers that only an up or a down passage can be accommodated in a day by the Link. If you assume the cost of money is about 7% a year that means that each visit is worth well over a thousand pounds even before the costs of staff and maintenance are taken into account. Taking everything into account, including the inevitable losses of passages through bad weather and cancellations, my guess is that the overall cost is closer to £2000 for every boat visiting the Lancaster Canal or vice versa.

This makes the efficiency of the booking system extremely important and it is with regret that we found that there were a large number of cancellations reported to BW which had not worked through to the staff on the ground. Two days before we crossed we understand that only one boat went from Tarleton across the Link although some of the cancellations had been made in plenty of time for the places to have been filled. Staff on the ground have taken to ringing people to confirm that they are still coming. For example, Ken had rung in and cancelled because his wife was ill well before the day yet his name was still on the list for the outward crossing - worse still he was on the return list two weeks later although it should have been obvious he could not return when he had not gone in the first place. And this was when potential visitors were told the Link was booked ahead for 4 months. We heard one cynic say that it ensured Waterways could report in their statistics that the Link was fully utilised!

You may wonder why we are careful to refer to the Ribble Link as a navigation rather than a canal unlike many people. The Ribble Link is strictly not a new canal but a new river navigation (See FOCUS on Industrial Archaeology No. 62, June 2004 ). River navigations pre-date canals and differ from them in several respects. First and foremost apart from locks and a 200 metre section from the triple staircase lock (Nos 1-3) to the Lancaster canal, the link occupies the bed of the Savick Brook, a small stream flowing into the River Ribble. The bed of the brook has been dredged, widened and straightened where necessary and 8 locks constructed. By using the bed of the brook no puddle clay lining was necessary or provided. The majority of the bridges over the brook have not been altered, dredging being carried out where more headroom was needed for boats. This has resulted in some fearsome bends especially north of the Savick Bridge. We had no problems being just 47 foot, but longer boats got badly caught out, including a very experienced crew in a highly manoeuvrable boat. In theory wide beam boats from the Lancaster Canal were supposed to be able to use the Link, but current limits are only 10.6 feet width. Although the locks are double width but some of the other structures are not. The Link also suffers typical river navigation problems. For example in the first year heavy civil engineering work took place at lock 7 where flood water had caused severe erosion in the by-wash (which takes all the water coming down the brook when the lock is not being used) resulting in the banks collapsing. Also silting was evident below the bottom gates of lock 6, opposite the by-wash, which needed removing before deep-draft boats could pass.

History of the Lancaster Canal

The idea for the Lancaster Canal was first put forwards in 1772 by a group of merchants who proposed a new canal from the Leeds and Liverpool near Wigan, northwards through Preston and Lancaster to terminate at Kendal. The existing port of Lancaster had been suffering from the silting up of the Lune estuary, and competition from the port of Liverpool. After an initial survey the plans stagnated until 1791 when a public meeting was held and the engineer, John Rennie, was asked to survey a line for the proposed canal, which he completing in January 1792. His plan was similar to the earlier plans and was for a broad canal, largely lock free, making extensive use of cuttings, embankments and aqueducts.

The Act of Parliament authorising the new navigation was passed in June 1792, and incorporated the Lancaster Canal Company, with John Rennie as its Chief Engineer. The canal was of standard construction lined with puddle clay. The bridges were mostly built to a standard design and where the canal crossed rivers and streams aqueducts were built, including the splendid Lune Aqueduct at Lancaster. Another major aqueduct was planned to cross the river Ribble at Preston but never completed.

The Lune Aqueduct is arguably the most out-standing feature of the Lancaster Canal and is widely regarded to be John Rennie's masterpiece. The structure is six hundred feet long and some sixty feet high, with five semi-circular arches supported by huge pillars. Along its top is a deep cornice and balustrades along the parapet. The channel across the aqueduct is semi-circular, and lined with stone over a clay puddle lining said to be a yard thick. The bottom of the channel is some seven or eight feet below the level of the towpath.

Financial problems resulted in the Lancaster Canal initially being constructed only as far as Tewitfield in the North. Only part of the Southern section was initially completed from Preston towards Wigan and the costs of the aqueduct over the river Ribble led to an interim solution of a tramway which linked these two completed lock free sections in 1804. The tramway was carried over the River Ribble on a wooden bridge. The original was washed away by flooding, and replaced by a sturdier copy which still carries a footpath. The inclines on the tramway, in particular the two climbs on the southern section were a continual source of accidents as the wagons were pulled up the inclines by steam engines driving continuous chains which frequently broke and wagons, horses and sometimes people were dragged downhill.

The Southern section from the tramway towards Wigan came close to the proposed line of the Leeds and Liverpool canal - logic eventually prevailed and it was agreed there would a common stretch from Johnson's Hillock (North of Chorley where the Leeds and Liverpool starts the climb towards Leeds) to close to Wigan where the Leeds and Liverpool drops down the 21 locks into Wigan and on towards Liverpool. The two junctions are still visible although the southern section never went as far as the original objective of Westhoughton. The southern section and was first leased and later sold to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company.

Construction of the northern reaches, from Tewitfield to Kendal, began in 1812. This section, including the Hincaster Tunnel and the flight of eight wide locks at Tewitfield took seven years to build. Water supply was a potential problem so a reservoir was built at Killington Common which supplying the water via a feeder channel which can still be seen entering the canal at Crooklands. The reservoir was completed in 1819 and has been enlarged several times to cover over 150 acres and has a maximum depth of nearly 50 feet beside the clay and stone dam. The reservoir supplies up to 3.7 million gallons of water per day to the canal and is one of the largest canal feeders in the country.

The main cargoes carried on the canal were coal from the south Lancashire coal fields, and limestone from Westmorland, critical components for fertilisers. These two cargoes gave the canal its nickname of the Black and White Canal. Other cargoes included slate, salt, timber, grain and potatoes. The average load for a laden coal barge was about 44 tons and on average travelled about 15 miles per day so were often drawn by two horses.

The Lancaster Canal Company proposed a link between the canal and the Lune estuary at Glasson as early as 1793 but agreement to proceed was only finally reached in 1823. By 1825, the two and a half mile arm was ready for use. The branch has seven locks in total each with a drop of ten feet and a large basin forming one of the larger ports of the time.

One of the most interesting parts of the history is that of the packet boats. A passenger boat service initially started on the canal between Preston and Lancaster in 1798, and was extended through to Kendal in 1820. The journey time for the whole length between Kendal and Preston was 14 hours. The railways posed a new threat and a new fast passenger service using swift packet boats was introduced in 1833. There were four vessels used on this service - the first and best known was the "Water Witch", a sleek iron-hulled craft with a length of 76 feet and a beam of six feet. She could carry 120 passengers, and the packet boats cut the journey time between Preston and Kendal to seven hours 15 minutes hours. The passengers usually changed boats at the Tewitfield locks to save time. The boats were pulled at 10 mph by two horses, which were changed every four or five miles at stables along the route - some still exist. The service was aided by the fact that the towpath was on the same except for a short stretch in Lancaster. The fast packet boats (fly boats) had precedence on the canal, and any boat which did not give way risked having its towing line cut. The second horse was ridden by a boy postilion who would sound a horn to warn other vessels of their approach. The packet boat service was aided

The Lancaster Canal Company was formally dissolved on 1st January, 1886 but the life of the canal continued with freight being carried to Lancaster until 1947. The decline continued until 1968 which saw the construction of the M6 Motorway, which cut the line of the canal in three places to the north of Tewitfield, and the associated road alterations resulted in a further three obstructions and the culverting of the canal effectively stopped navigation at Tewitfield. The building of the A590 further severed remaining sections of the canal. Some remaining short lengths of the northern reaches above Tewitfield are used by canoes and dinghies and small trailed boats and a little trip boat runs at Crooklands.

This account is a precis of information we gathered from many sources including the Lancaster Maritime Museum and the various web sites, books and other useful information listed below.

Web sites, books and other useful information.

The Crossings

The crossings and the Ribble Link itself are covered more fully in full in Pauline's Daily Log Part 2 - Outward crossing - Tarleton, River Douglas, River Ribble to Savick Brook and the Millenium Ribble Link and Part 5 - Return crossing - Ribble Link, Savick brook, River Ribble and River Douglas to Tarleton so this is only a brief summary for completeness at this point.

Both crossings were on nearly perfect days with excellent visibility, little wind and smooth seas without swell. We had no problems with cooling or other boat systems running close to flat out the whole way and our navigation was spot on. Despite this we only just made it across in time on the outward trip on a day with 8.6 metre tides. We were in the second locking from Tarleton of three locks and both boats passed one of the boats from the first locking within a mile. At the other end we made it with only two or three minutes to spare before the deadline phoned to us during the passage as we were approaching the control lights at the entry to Savick Brook - any slower and we would have had to divert to Preston Dock as did the boats in the last locking of our day. The outward crossing took 1 hour 40 minutes and the GPS log recorded the length as 8.7 statute miles. One surprise was that there was turbulence as we turned the Asland Lamp and we were glad that we had padding in the kitchen cupboards and had screwed the doors shut. The sensation of even a small angle of heel is not comfortable on a narrowboat.

The return was with 9.1 metre tides and the margin is also much greater on the return trip. We were however surprised how strong the incoming tide was on Savick Brook and on the River Ribble and once more ran at close to full power, as on the outward trip, completing the crossing from Rotating Sea-lock to Tarleton Lock entry in 1 hour 42 minutes (8.8 statute miles) with a large margin as the tide had barely turned at Tarleton. Both outward and return GPS log distances were slightly longer than the British Waterways figures but inspection showed we had taken the optimum route.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, of course, "Would we do it again"? The answer is yes, we enjoyed the Lancaster Canal and, in retrospect, the crossings and we will do it again if the canal is ever opened as far as Kendal. But there are some caveats which we ask are included if anyone quotes us! Firstly we would only do it with a 'buddy boat' for mutual security and in the knowledge that both boats had been fully prepared and equipped and proven (qualified) to the levels which are met during the crossing, as we have discussed. Secondly we would fit a more powerful engine and better matched prop as we had the power for the crossing in ideal conditions but without any margin for problems, rough seas or, most important, to offer help to a 'buddy boat'.


This series of articles is intended to increase your awareness and help you prepare and not replace any information from British Waterways or other bodies responsible for operating the waterways. You should carefully consider your own requirements and any suggestions here should be looked at in your own circumstances and any information cross-checked as we take no responsibility for the accuracy or appropriatness of any information provided here - you have ultimate responsibility as skipper of the safety of your boat and all on it. Where there are any differences between what we say or imply and the advice of British Waterways or any other professionals responsible for operations you should follow their instructions.

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