October 2016 marked the 200th anniversary of the completion of the Leeds Liverpool Canal. This stretch, between Blackburn and Whittle-Le-Woods, was the final piece of the jigsaw in Britain’s longest waterway.
Our old ‘cut’ has changed over the years, mostly for the better. As a teenager in the 1970’s I first enjoyed walking along the towpath through Blackburn and beyond. In my pocket was a copy of a Nicholson Waterways Guide to the North West. Unfortunately our waterway was like an open sewer back then, as industrial decline had finished off its commercial usage. It wasn’t unusual to see the odd dead dog or cat floating by, along with all sorts of dumped waste items. But there was a silver lining to this cloud. A burgeoning leisure industry was starting to open up to the public. Pleasure boats were replacing commercial traffic.
We even had a marina back then, which we could do with now. Moorgate Marina was owned by a chap called Joe Bolton and its clubhouse eventually became a nightclub. There used to be lots of cabin cruisers moored at the marina back them, but narrow boats were a rarity. This reflected the situation on the canal at the time. Now the narrowboat is king, but plenty of cabin cruisers are still to be found on the canal. And in a reverse of fortunes, it is the canal which has become the place to be in Blackburn. Housing has been built along its meandering western route. Also the towpath has been resurfaced in such a way as to enable walkers and cyclists the ability to enjoy using it as a thoroughfare. Anglers also park themselves at the towpath and watch the world go by along with the one that got away.
The canal eventually arrived in Blackburn in 1810, but took a further six years for the ‘missing link’ to Johnson’s Hillock to be completed. It actually joined what was the old southern section of the Lancaster Canal, but the Leeds & Liverpool eventually took over this stretch to Wigan and continued on to its finishing point at Liverpool itself. Sadly, the canals fell into decline during the 19th and 20th centuries due to the growth of railways and road transport. But it is ironic that things started to change following our Blackburn MP, Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act. This encouraged canals to embrace leisure purposes and became the turning point in the fortunes for many of Britain’s waterways.
Many canals which shut down have since reopened. This was thanks to the work of enthusiasts and a change of attitude towards their leisure and environmental value from the public and powers that be. In Blackburn and along the rest of the Leeds Liverpool Canal, our waterway continued to operate where others closed down. 200 years of ‘the cut’ helped make our town into the large industrial base it became. Hopefully our canal will continue to serve the town and add to its amenities and rich heritage for many more years to come.