Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Gargrave – through chocolate water
“I was never going to find a canal in better weather conditions than this, so I stopped the car, crossed a field to a lock, and went up the towpath to a quiet spot, wondering about old bicycles, prams and supermarket trolleys on the canal bed. I didn’t dive. I went into the chocolate water feet first…”
After the disappointment of failing to find the tufa pool on Cowside Beck, the thought of easing myself into a canal is less appealing than spending a morning catching the whiff of slurry on farm fields. But having done the latter as I walk out of the Youth Hostel in Malham, I realise that I’ll only complain if I fail to dip a toe in the Leeds to Liverpool canal while I have the chance.
The weather is warm, the forecast drizzle staying away to the east of the Dales for now. I’m running out of excuses as we park up on the far side of the lock in Gargrave and begin our walk down the towpath. Blazing sunshine and the rainbow glint of boat oil make for a confusing blend: The heat is making me itchy for a swim; the shit brown waters and passing barges suggesting I turn back and begin to make my long journey back to London without getting wet.
We pass under a stunning stone bridge, flanked by two cottages with gardens that reach down to the banks of the canal. A bike, spray–painted yellow in honour of the Tour de France, which has recently zipped through these parts, lies jauntily next to a hydrangea. This is most definitely not the place to get in. Gardeners potter and curtains twitch as I pause and work out exactly where I’m going to make my entrance.
A few hundred yards downstream, the main road thundering to our right and Sharp Haw looming to our left, we find the place. It’s far away enough from prying eyes that it won’t elicit cries of horror, open enough that its near banks aren’t tangled with brambles.
I yank off my shoes just as a passerby stops with her puppy, an inquisitive Border Collie, eyes trained on a flock of ducks in the middle of the water.
‘Are you birdwatching?’ she asks. At this point I’m standing on a damp floral towel, belt unbuckled, all set to pull myself into my swimmers.
‘Er, no, just looking around,’ I reply in embarrassment.
She nods and falls into conversation with Dave and Jim. They talk about the weather, retirement and her cottage upstream and its well–loved garden. She chirrups a farewell and disappears, her dog following obediently but looking back as if he’s got my number.
I waste no time. Neoprene boots and bathers on, I sit on the bank and slip in. The squelch of mud sees me whisper an involuntary prayer for having decided not to go in barefoot. I wade out and push off into the central channel. A duck and her young quack and scatter from the reeds, affronted by my presence.
There’s no chance of me swimming ‘a token mile’ like Roger. Instead I opt to plough up and down over a 50 metre stretch. There’s a distinct murk to proceedings. This is, after all, a working canal, not a mountain stream. My arms are only visible to about an inch deep. I drop my foot and realise that even in the centre I’m easily within my depth.
I manage a few more minutes before hauling out. What started out as a swim of necessity has become a surprisingly pleasurable detour. I think of other canals I know. The Regent’s Canal through London. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal as it passes through Marsden. Of these, I’d much rather paddle in the Leeds to Liverpool.
I leave the scene quickly, glowing with a sense of achievement. Yorkshire semi–conquered, I turn south and ready myself for a final push on my Waterlog journey.