I spent most of my childhood in a small town called Burscough in West Lancashire, where the Preston-Ormskirk railway crosses the Southport-Wigan line. Once upon a time the lines were linked, but the Burscough Curves were long closed by the time we moved there – having been victims of the railway cuts at the end of the 1960s – leaving us with a couple of “dead railways” that were the perfect, hidden, spot for den-building and, later, the first tentative sips from cans of warm beer.
But the old railway lines were not the only place that shaped our lives and provided a venue for adventures and misadventures in our free time as we moved from childhood into adolescence. The other was of course the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the still waters and the towpath continuing to loom large in the memory even though I have not been back in over a decade. At primary school my best friend lived in a cottage close to the locks where the canal met the Rufford branch. I remember bike rides on birthdays and walks on the weekend, and heard tales of Scouting friends and their canoeing exploits. The canal bank provided another venue for those illicit Friday and Saturday nights with friends, and later, the Ship Inn became our local pub and was still the venue for Christmas drinks with old school friends long after most of us had left the town to go off to university.
The canal was part of our everyday life, as we crossed it back and forth on the way to school, and somehow it was easy to forget that our little stretch was just a small part of a two hundred kilometre waterway that linked two cities on either side of the Pennines. Even though you knew that it was the same canal that you saw on the television as the horses thundered past during the Grand National, and you had read that it passed by Wigan Pier, Bingley Five Rise, Salt’s Mill and other Lancashire and Yorkshire towns you had vaguely heard of, but for some reason it never registered that this was the same waterway as the one you saw every day.
After I left I lived at the other end of the waterway, but during four years in Leeds I barely registered the presence of the canal in my new city, and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal remained so linked to my home town in my imagination that it still came as something of a surprise when I stumbled across it somewhere else, such as in Skipton or Saltaire. As it was a few weeks ago, during a week in Yorkshire where we found ourselves walking along a stretch of the canal only a few miles short of Leeds. I had never been to Apperley Bridge before – although I had once ridden my bike from Burscough to its Lancastrian near-namesake just beyond Parbold – but there was still something familiar about the setting as we walked along in the late winter sunshine, passed canalside cottages and barges moored on the opposite bank.
It was a nice to think that if we turned on our heels and kept on walking we would eventually reach the Ship Inn for a pint before the last push into the village, where the bridge carrying the abandoned Burscough Curves crosses the canal and where, no doubt, the local teenagers are still sipping from their cans of warm beer and imagining the world that is waiting for them beyond the canal bank.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig