Ten Things We’ve Learned: From walking the Leeds Liverpool

Now we’re precisely half way to Leeds and taking a weekend’s break from canal walking, Sarah and I have done a bit of reflecting on the eight walks we’ve done so far and a few things we think in general. So here they are.

1 Canal time is different

Now we’re far from home it’s been taking us a good while to get to the canal to start each walk where we finished the last one. But once we get there and slip onto the tow path we enter a very different place, where we’ve never walked before and yet it feels like we’ve never been away. Like setting off from the Harry Potter platform into our own magical world. A slow world too, where us and the occasional canal boat all move along at pretty much the same pace. Except we have the freedom to stop frequently, smell the flowers and gaze at, well, all the beauties and leftovers and canalscapes we’ve been showing you this year.

Losing track of the time and even of the century, because canal time is different.

2 Bikes are a problem

It pains me to say this, though I’ll say it anyway, because most of my best friends are enthusiastic bike riders. But bikes on the canal path are a nuisance. Not all of them of course, but too many of their riders to be comfortable with think us walkers are in their way. We might get an imperious ‘Get out of my way’ ring of a bell, but we pretty well never get a thank you. Two ‘thank yous’ I’d say we’ve had.

Local authorities themselves might be part of the problem here, including stretches of the canal in things like ‘The Chorley Trail’ to encourage bikes onto the tow path. But it means that particularly around towns, and because we’re walking at the weekends, we’re walking in single file to the side of the main path because of the bikes. Which are in turn, by the way, turning much of the main path into a narrow rutted groove of a path by their over use of it.

So, Canal and Rivers Trust, maybe a better quality path with a line down the middle if bikes must use the canal? End of rant.

3 It’s our own El Camino

This walking has become our pilgrimage. A sacred journey to a place so near to our own doorstep and yet so far from our everyday activities. Where we return, mostly, to our own peaceful selves and contemplate our spirits and the meaning of our  lives, really.

A very doable pilgrimage it is too, as we’re proving. But unlike the actual El Camino, in Southern France and Northern Spain there is virtually no wayside economy yet. Places to stay, places to eat, gathering places to mix with fellow pilgrims. Last week, for example, we passed only our second tow path café. Showing, I suppose, there’s not much of a market here yet. But there could be. We’re self catering the whole journey (well actually Sarah is!) but if the many people reading these posts started walking themselves, and we’ve heard from a good few who have, a canal-side economy could begin to grow.

And as a first step towards this, could we have more benches? For lunch, or just for a sit and a read. There are very, very few. Benches are civilised and definitely not a threat ( see ‘5’ below).

4 It’s the story of the North

We are walking through the agricultural and industrial history of the north of England. Seeing it up close and learning so much, so slowly and so deeply. Much like from a train, but much slower, we are seeing our history through its back yards and rear, if crumbling, elevations.

Learning how the canal got made, the politics of evolving its route over the decades it took to build. How accommodation bridges, for example, would be built for the use of a single farm, to cross to its other fields now the canal had arrived in the landscape. The history of spinning and weaving and of coal. Of limekilns and fertiliser and of getting to now.

The story of us all, listening to the canal side’s accent change so gradually from our scouse to your east Lancashire. The beauty of that. The beauty of the engineering too, like last week’s aqueduct over the M65. The feeling of now in our towns. The hollowing, the poverty, the arid retail parks and seeing quite clearly where the money still lives. Even here in the North.

5 It’s not actually a threatening place

Several commenters on social media and many a Neighbourhood Watch scheme through suburban stretches of the canal seem to think of the canal as a dangerous place. We haven’t found that to be so, ever, anywhere. Not once have I felt I should put my very nice camera away. Not once have we thought we should stick our heads down and get through somewhere as quick as we could. Not once.

It’s not as if the canal is all through rolling hills and verdant woodland. Of course not. One of my big fascinations in wanting to do the walk has been to see how our urban places are doing, by walking through them. And the answers are mixed. For every MOT back street garage we see getting on with things, we’ll see edge of town streets in grinding austerity-driven poverty. Decent people in them though, who are unfailingly friendly to us when we tell them we’re walking through their places to Leeds.

Even the young, yes the supposed black clad, drug taking, out of their heads main threat. Pleasantly curious or simply ignoring us. But definitely no threat.

6 But it’s definitely post-industrial

Back on the history I suppose, but even we’ve been shocked at so much vacant edgeland and so many places being virtually wiped clean of their characters by property speculation and could-be-anywhere development. Sure, the middle of Wigan, say, still looks very like the Wigan where I went to tech college in the early 1970s. But most of the rest of it could be anywhere. And the area around the football stadium there is an easy winner of ‘most arid place we’ve walked through so far.’ Safe yes, but arid.

Here in the north, once the workshop of the country, we are not making very much any more. Making me more pleased than ever that here in Liverpool, just where the canal begins, my friends at Make Liverpool are tooling up and making things again. Thinking of them and how important they are, as we walk along, they feel as much Post Apocalyptic as Post Industrial. Not merely a ‘good idea’ so much as ‘essential to our eventual survival .’

7 Narrow boats are static caravans

As the walks have progressed you may have noticed less and less pictures of canal boats. That’s because we’ve come to hate them. Not the big barges that were always the trading and industrial boats of the Leeds Liverpool, but the chintzy narrow boats, that mostly don’t seem to move and clog up the marked out ‘marinas’ on the canal bank. Behaving like they’re part of a history they were never even in. Static suburban caravans. At least they never moor up in the towns. Probably think they’re ‘threatening.’

8 More could be made of canal side living

Given how popular and elemental living by water usually seems to be, we’ve seen relatively few people making the best of living by the canal. A few back gardens just into Lydiate opening onto the water, some new houses in Bootle doing the same. But far too many a back fence which seems to turn away from the beauty it hides. New estates right on the water where the canal seems to have been deliberately ‘designed out’ of the scheme.

Come on, let’s see a bit more imagination. This canal is so precious.

9 This canal is so precious

That we still have it all, given virtually no trade has been done on it in forty to fifty years is a miracle. There must have been pressures to fill bits in by lazy councillors or greedy speculators over the years. But thank you British Waterways and now the Canal and Rivers Trust, for the canal we still have.

So do come and use it. Show your children the miracle that runs through your town, the watery road that leads to everywhere. So that when their children grow up it will still be here for them to play along and walk all the way to Leeds or Liverpool if they want.

A word though about the state of some parts of it. I’d understood only the canal  through Liverpool has been ‘remaindered.’ So, kept structurally sound but not otherwise maintained. Well I think that’s wrong but we also think it’s happening in East Lancashire too. The water in Blackburn and Rishton being noticeably dirtier and undredged than anywhere where there are marinas full of narrow boats, for example.

It’s all precious, even the working class bits.

10 The walking brings us together

We are so loving doing this walking together.

Sarah and I spent many years working together and so doing pretty much everything together. But now that we’re off doing such different things walking this canal is, in fact, the main thing we’ve been doing together this year. A busy year for me of getting Coming Home going with our friend Jayne, while Sarah kayaks round the coast of Britain when she’s not running funerals!

So our walks have been important to us. Time together doing something we so love. A bit like the Friday Walks we did when Sarah was getting active again after all her cancer treatment a few years back, but different for all the reasons we’ve said here. A journey, a pilgrimage, where we arrive at each other.

Thank you for the days Sarah. These endless, these precious days.

Our walking resumes soon, when we’ll go and stay up in the Pennines for the next sections.

See all of our Leeds Liverpool Canal walks here.


Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

Join the Conversation


  1. I agree with all you say, but most particularly your point about bikes. We have seen some really rude cyclists over the years we have been walking the canal, they seem to think the towpath is just for them. Most of them don’t even have a bell, they either shout rudely from behind you, or barge past, nearly knocking you into a field or even the water! Despite everything though we love canal walking, it is the perfect escape.

    1. Yes, it’s worth it all to do the walking. I do have some sympathy for the bike riders. They’re treated so appallingly by so many on the roads that they’re glad of anywhere where they don’t feel threatened!

  2. Couldn’t agree more with every one of your comments. But unless it’s changed recently, I have one more. Fishermen with their very long poles. As a walker and (polite) cyclist on the canal, I find these an encumbrance and the majority of fishermen seem to resent having to dismantle their pole to let you past. Best wishes for part 2, great walks and views but as you and Sarah have already sussed out, a logistical travel nightmare, until you reach proper civilisation again. You’ll love Yorksheeer. And that from a born and bred scouser.

    1. Thanks John. Well our idea for cracking the logistics comes from Paul and Linda McCartney, bless her memory. I remembered when they started touring America again in the 1970s, with a young family, they set themselves up in a few regional hubs. Close enough to get ‘home’ to the children after each night’s gig. Our first hub will be Barnoldswick!

  3. When we first moved back to England in 1977 the canal near my parent’s house was in very poor repair. There were lots of gaps in the footpath that made it quite unsafe. I think it was in the 80’s when they started repairing them and re-laying the hedgerows.
    I moved away from home (and England) at the end of the 80’s. The canal near my mother still sees quite a bit of traffic with holiday makers renting boats for a week. A big new marina was built in the years since I have been to see my mother, I am quite curious what it is like.

  4. Sadly, I have to agree with everything that’s been said so far about cyclists. And around Leicester and Coventry, they’re even worse on the roads – or rather, on the pavements.

    But to something more interesting – in the background of the picture of Sarah you added at the end of your post, I spotted two ‘Lambton Worm’ benches! Look at the supports – they form a stylised snake, and given that a lot of the benches were provided to the North Eastern Railway on Tyneside, I gather that they are supposed to represent the Geordie mythical beast, the ‘Lambton Worm’. When I was photographing north-eastern railway stations in the 1970s, it was rare to find one of these intact, because if the bench got tipped over, the pointy tail of the Worm hit the ground first and the casting would break off. These seem to be intact (and so are noteworthy). I’m tempted to suggest that they were the product of the Armstrong factory on Tyneside, but I could easily be wrong about that. For a long time, I also thought that they were an exclusive design for the North Eastern Railway; then I came across odd examples elsewhere, including at two separate locations (a couple of hundred miles apart) in Austria, of all places! So I don’t know if they were offered for sale to councils generally. (Lancashire was not North Eastern Railway territory, so these have either been brought in more recently or someone picked them out of a catalogue in the 1890s or thereabouts.)

  5. I haven’t walked the local canals admittedly except few paces either side of the Burscough/Halsall pubs! But we used to live in Bradford on Avon int he 1990s and the towpath to Bath was a nightmare of bikes thinking they owned the place. A universal phenomenon it seems.
    Looking forward to the rest of your journey, now :-)

  6. I might just make a couple of comments on bikes.

    ‘Cyclists’ are just people on bikes, all kinds of different people, doing different things. It’s never helpful, as some commentators often do BTL, to lump everyone in together as some weird out-group. Those people on bikes are us.

    The canal out of Liverpool heading North would be my obvious route to and from work, but I never use it as I know mixing pedestrians and cyclists in a narrow space is tricky. But I’d love to ride it. It’s got to be better than the A565…. Perhaps it’s an example of the canal serving 2 very different purposes – Pedestrians walking and enjoying the scenery, cyclists looking for quick and direct routes A to B (although the riders you’ve seen are unlikely to be commuting).

    The use of bells on bikes is an endless discussion even in cycling circles, but I think it’s easy to hear it as ‘Get out of my way’, when that’s not the intention. It’s just a message.. a bell.. ‘Hello!’ I’ve stopped using a bell and just use my voice. It’s a more human approach.

  7. Great observations and nice to read all positives. It seems like a real treat, and a slow pace just like the canal. I enjoy reading about your walk’s, and not just on the canal. I am from Liverpool but now live very far away in Vancouver. Of your list, I think number 10 was special. Must get my wife out and walk more here. Not quite the same history, but lovely nonetheless. 20 years ago I was surveying the water catchments and channel’s for North West Water. What a treat of a job that was. Next time I’m home Ronnie, maybe we can walk around Orrell Park and Walton, where I grew up. I’ll buy you a pint. Would also love to see the regeneration work in Liverpool.

  8. I truly enjoy this kind of walking, at a slower pace, allowing time enough for ourselves to savor the landscapes and notice the small details often missed. Your essays have so much meaning and truth. I especially agree with your opening paragraphs to No. 3 and 4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts gained from your excursion so far.

  9. Hi Ronnie
    Loving the blog and also how much Sarah and yourself are enjoying it. I feel as though I am doing it with you through the writing. I have commented before that I and two friends cycled the canal over a few days five or so years ago. We are considerate cyclists though I like to think. Although I really enjoyed the ride and travelling through history very much I did think at the time we missed a lot and your writing and observations just confirm that. It’s made my mind up that I am going to follow in your footsteps and walk it so two of us are looking to do so next year. Enjoy the rest of the walk and I look forward to reading more.
    Best wishes

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