The standard answer to a question like ‘How long will it take?’ is another: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ May we offer an alternative to that somewhat annoying response – ‘How long is a canal?’?
For canals vary in their length just as much as pieces of string – though few strings will reach the length of the world’s longest canal, the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal. It runs for 1,115 miles and is also the world’s oldest, with parts dating back to the 5th century BC. The UK’s longest single canal, the Leeds and Liverpool, is a mere tiddler at just 127 miles.
But what about short canals? We often claim that few canals can rival Ripon’s for lack of length. Ripon Canal runs for just two-and-a-half miles from the canal’s basin to its junction with the River Ure. Engineered by John Smeaton and William Jessop, it opened in 1773 by carry coal inland and lead ingots and agricultural products from Ripon to distant markets. Railway competition killed the canal, and by 1906 it was impassable; it was officially abandoned in 1956.
Its eventual reopening right to the canal basin in 1996 was thanks to the dedication and persistence of many volunteers. From the basin below the Cathedral the canal runs by the racecourse and through peaceful farmland, with three locks enabling craft to reach the River Ure. In many ways it is an idyllic – if brief – journey.
Are we right to boast about its brevity, though? How does it rank with other short canals in England? Let’s try a few comparisons.
We’ll start with Ribble Link. Riponians have cause to resent the Ribble Link. For some years Ripon’s canal basin marked the northernmost limit of the connected canal system in England, but with the opening of the Ribble Link in 2002 boats could access the Lancaster Canal, which until then had long been isolated from the network – and the Lancaster Canal take them further north than Ripon.
The Link was first new canal to constructed for almost a century and the first to be dug just for pleasure craft. With a staircase lock at the Lancaster Canal end and a sea-lock at the west, giving access to the tidal River Ribble, the canal also has five conventional locks between them.
At least Ripon Canal has something to cheer about, though; at four miles long, the Ribble Link is not as short as our canal. But it would be as well not to rejoice too soon; there are other rivals.
In East Yorkshire there is Beverley Beck. Just over half a mile long, the canal was probably first adapted for navigation from the original small stream in the 12th century to join the town of Beverley with the River Hull, and thence to the Humber and the North Sea. It was twice upgraded in the 18th century, and the lock into the Hull was added in the 19th. The Beck is now home to a preserved tannery barge, the Syntan, and to many pleasure boats, and offers excellent views from the water of the town’s historic centre and to Beverley Minster.
A little longer, at one-and-half miles, is one of London’s canals. Since 1830 the Hertford Union Canal has run through Tower Hamlets, linking the Regent’s Canal to the Lee Navigation. Never a commercial success, it’s come into its own in recent years as a wonderful tree-lined thread of attractive waterway, with three locks and with five bridges spanning it. For much of its length it runs alongside the large and well-loved Victoria Park which, with its lakes, play areas and café, has been voted the nation’s favourite park. At the canal’s eastern end there are impressive views of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
But a mile and a half may be too long for you. How about a canal that’s just 400 feet long? That is possible – though you’d have to eschew country scenery or attractive parks and make do with the industrial landscape just to the north of Manchester city centre. The Islington Branch Canal originally stretched more than half a mile from its junction with the Ashton Canal, to serve the industries of the Islington area of the city.
The Branch is approached though typical brick canal bridge that takes the Ashton Canal’s towpath above its entrance. Only an early-19th-century brick building survives from the days when wharves handled scrap metal, coal, sand, salt and flint and served industries including a glassworks. The northern end has been filled and built over, leaving only about 400 feet of the Islington Branch today.
Four hundred feet still too much? Then you can save your energy by taking a stroll along England’s shortest canal. It’s just 154 feet long. The Wardle Canal links the Trent and Mersey Canal at its east end to the Shropshire Union at the west. Most of its length is taken up with a lock that’s 72 feet long.
The Wardle Canal was built in 1829 by the Trent and Mersey authorities as a way to control the junction and to stop the Shropshire Union getting into Middlewich, just to the north. It also meant that the Trent and Mersey could charge high tolls to the traffic using it. But don’t rush to take your boat on England’s shortest canal; the Wardle is currently closed after an embankment collapse nearby.
Ripon Canal can’t, therefore, claim pre-eminence as the shortest, nor as the oldest, but we can probably claim that, of all the short canals, it is the most scenic. So next time you have a stroll along the towing path, remember that in its short length it can encompass both landscape and history. We’re lucky to have it on our doorstep.