History of the Calder and Hebble Navigation

The Calder and Hebble Navigation, running for 21 miles from the Aire and Calder Navigation at Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge, was one of the first navigable waterways into the Pennines. It was an extension westwards of the Aire and Calder Navigation and was surveyed by John Smeaton and the later sections by James Brindley.

Work began in 1758 to make the River Calder navigable above Wakefield. The navigation to Sowerby Bridge was completed in 1770. Sir John Ramsden's Canal, now known as the Huddersfield Broad, was opened in 1776, providing a branch to Huddersfield.

In 1804, the Rochdale Canal opened, branching off the Calder and Hebble just before its terminus in Sowerby Bridge, crossing the Pennines to link Yorkshire with Manchester.

Various improvements were made over the following years, including new cuts at Mirfield and Brighouse and the construction of new locks.

In 1798 Thornhill Cut was constructed, bypassing Dewsbury Old Cut and river sections. The old main line as far as Savile Basin is now the Dewsbury Arm.

In 1828 a branch to Halifax was opened, rising 110 feet to a terminus at Bailey Hall, behind Halifax Railway Station. There were 14 locks on the branch. Most of the branch was abandoned in 1942 apart from the short section from Salterhebble to Exley.

About half of the navigation is along the course of the River Calder, with short man-made cuts with locks to by-pass weirs. There are two lengthy man-made sections, from Calder Grove to Ravensthorpe and from Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge. The Halifax branch closely followed the course of the River Hebble.

During the navigation's busy years, it was improved continuously. In 1804 the Rochdale Canal was opened between Manchester and a junction with the Calder and Hebble just short of its terminus at Sowerby Bridge. This brought a lot of through traffic along the Calder and Hebble, including sea-going barges travelling between the Humber and the Mersey.

Most commercial traffic on the Calder and Hebble had ceased by 1955, although coal was still carried to Thornhill power station until 1981. However, the whole of the Calder and Hebble remained open for leisure use. The re-opening of the Rochdale Canal between Sowerby Bridge and Littleborough summit in 1996 and Manchester in 2002 has increased the traffic along the Calder and Hebble and it now forms part of the South Pennine Ring.

The maximum boat dimensions on the navigation above Broad Cut Lock are 57' 6" length and 14' beam although narrowboats of up to 60' can just fit into the locks at an angle. See page about lock sizes.

One of the unusual features of the navigation is that some of the paddle gear requires a special wooden "hand-spike" to be operated. See page about hand-spikes.

The navigation never went out of use and is popular with leisure boaters along its length.

Virtual Journey along the Calder and Hebble Navigation