The South Yorkshire Navigation comprises of several individual canals and rivers which were amalgamated and improved in 1888 after years of decline. The principal navigations are the Stainforth and Keadby Canal, the New Junction Canal, the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal, and the River Don Navigation. The improvements included widening and straightening the whole of this network and, in 1905, cutting the New Junction canal to give Sheffield access to Goole and the northern coalfields. One wonders, without this historic foresight, whether the vast steel works in Sheffield that supplied us with arms and munitions during two world wars would have a) existed, or b) been capable of the task. Did the navvies, with their wheelbarrows and steam shovels of the 19th century, not only bring about the industrial revolution, but also save Europe from an unthinkable future? Food for thought.
Unlike the rest of the network, freight traffic on these waters survived the coming of the railways and investment and improvement continued. By 1983 the route from the Humber to Rotherham and Castleford had been upgraded to the 700 tonne Eurobarge standard with 200’ x 20’ locks and 8’2” draught. Sadly, the huge explosion in global container shipping also happened around the same time, the Eurobarge project was abandoned, and nowadays there is only one big barge still plying the route from Goole to Rotherham, the oil tanker “Exol Pride”. You can read about it here.
The first thing you encounter after leaving Keadby is very curious Vazon sliding railway bridge. The line crosses the canal on the skew and the whole bridge section is on tracks so that it can retract at 45˚. You can see it on Google Earth. When we were there it was being worked on so instead of being operational 24/7 it was only available for passage on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30, which is why we’d picked a tidal passage down to Keadby on a Wednesday. We did our morning run up the towpath and spoke to the bridge keeper on the way back, who said he’d get us through at 11:30. We told the crew of Nb Living the Dream, and both boats were breasted up at the bridge at 11:15, only to be then told - by the same bridge keeper - that he wouldn’t be opening it till 12:45. By that time another narrowboat was breasted up as well and the wind had picked up.
Ann-Marie went over to the little swing bridge on the other side so that she was ready to open that when the rail bridge opened. After all the waiting, the actual event was quite swift; an alarm sounded, all the Railtrack workmen dispersed and the bridge disappeared into its recess. Ann-Marie swung the little bridge on the far side and all three boats were through in no time.
Dave pulled over on the landing on the other side to pick Ann-Marie up...
...and we set off behind the other two along the wide, straight Stainforth and Keadby canal.
We stopped at Godnow bridge an tried to find out why our new washing machine wasn’t playing nicely. Dave had the back off it and discovered that the drive belt had come off; a result, we assumed, of it being shaken around on its side in the back of our car. That might well have been the case, but once the belt was back on and aligned properly it was still struggling to turn the drum once there was more than a certain amount of water in it. We tried it with the genny supplying the power and it was fine, so it doesn’t like our cheap Chinese inverter. For the time being we can cope with that. From October to March we run the genny to charge the batteries about three or four times a week, but we’d rather be able to do a wash while we’re going along, so a better inverter is on the list.
Our next stop was at Thorne. There are some interesting buildings and what was once a lovely park with a miniature railway but sadly, like so many ex-mining towns, it feels tired and run-down. In the morning a very nice volunteer lock keeper helped us through the lock/swing bridge combo...
...then we stopped at Staniland marina for some much needed diesel.
Unfortunately they didn’t have any Calor gas, a situation which was becoming all too common in 2021. Since the lockdowns, Calor supplies have been virtually non-existent. Boat yards, fuel boats, builder’s merchants, nowhere we usually get our gas from have anything in stock. We’ve got about six weeks left in the bottle that we’re using, so we’re being as frugal as we can be - cooking on the fire and using CRT showers rather than our own whenever we can - but if the situation doesn’t improve soon we’re going to be stuffed. We can boil a kettle on electric, and we won’t freeze, but not being able to buy any gas is something we really didn’t factor into our off grid survival plan.
We stopped at Stainforth and took the car forward to Barnby Dun, which was a much nicer place to spend the night, so when we got back we had some lovely early evening boating past Branwith Junction...
...then moored up just off the 48hr bollards at Barnby Dun. This pleasant village used to be called Barnby upon Dun, and the cutting here is called the Dun Navigation, but the reason it’s “Dun” and not “Don”, apart from “the Don is sometimes called Dun” seems to have been lost in the mists of time.
However, it’s a fabulous mooring; there’s a very nice service block with a lovely hot shower, there’s a car park just over the bridge, and there’s a handy Co-op too. Everything an itinerant boater could wish for.
The next day we took the car to Sprotbrough on the other side of Doncaster. We’d been to Sprotbrough when Laura & Alison where there on Nb Large Marge, so we knew there were good moorings, and the walk back along the river bank and through Doncaster town centre was very enjoyable. It was a Sunday and we’d been promising ourselves a Sunday roast for weeks, so we kept our eyes peeled for somewhere suitable. In the end we walked all the way to Kirk Sandal before we found somewhere, but with hindsight it was just as well that we got most of the way back, because we were so full when we left the pub that the two mile hop from there to the boat was about all we could manage.
In the morning, after pulling forward to fill and empty everything, we nipped through the busy lift bridge as efficiently as we could. It was after the school rush, but it’s a busy road and there was still a fair amount of traffic about. We try to not keep people waiting and Ann-Marie always has a smile and a wave for the drivers we hold up, but once in a while we can tell we’ve ruined someone’s day. We feel sorry for the any single handers at a busy lift bridge; they have to open the bridge, then go back to the boat, untie it, take it through, moor up and then go back and drop the bridge. At least we can work as a team and have the boat through the bridge as it’s going up.
From Keadby to Barnby Dun the navigation had been wide and straight, but the locks had still been the original 60’ x 14’ Humber Keel size. After we’d passed the end of the New Junction canal, we were on the uprated Eurobarge section. Long Sandal, Doncaster Town and Sprotbrough locks leave you with no disillusions that this is where the big boys live.
After a couple of nights at Sprotbrough we moved on to Mexborough Low lock.
We set off early and had planned to go further, but the rain that was forecast for the afternoon came early, so we called it a day and tied up just above the lock on some big concrete bollards on the off side.
Later that day the Exol Pride came up the lock on its twice weekly trip, carrying 500 tonnes of oil from Hull to Rotherham. Built specifically for these waters and formerly called the Humber Pride, this barge makes sense of the huge locks and has a hydraulic lowering wheelhouse so it can get under the bridges. Coming out of the lock it seemed to go on forever.
As instructed by various signs along the way, we had phoned CRT and booked our passage up the Tinsley flight into Sheffield. Lou, one of the volunteers, had told us that the best plan was to moor overnight above Ickles lock so we could be at Holme lock, the first of the flight, by 9:30 the next morning.
We had a lovely trip down the last bit of the Don from Mexborough along the Kilnhurst cut and the beautiful secluded valley into Rotherham, apart from Mexborough Top lock where it all got a bit too exciting for our liking. Having seen Exol Pride go past us the day before, we were quite prepared to meet her on her way back. The lock keepers move from lock to lock to assist the Pride on her journey so it came as no surprise to find a red light at the lock, meaning it was manned and set against us. We could see the top gates were open, so we pulled over onto the 48hr moorings expecting to wait until the Pride had penned down. However, no sooner had we stopped, than the top gates shut and the light went green, so we set off towards the lock landing on the other side, assuming that the Pride must be a fair way off and there was plenty of time for us to penn up. Before we had time to tie up on the lock landing, the lockeeper opened the bottom sluices, which made life interesting for a while, then the gates opened and we motored in. Before we’d got our ropes round the sliders, the top sluices were opened and we had the quickest rise up a lock of our lives. The locky poked her head out of the cabin and told us that we’d have to be quick as the Pride was on her way. Dave informed her that we would have been perfectly happy to wait and was about to complain about Legend being thrown about, but further conversation was curtailed by the appearance of the Pride bearing down on the lock.
The top gates opened and Dave put our faithful Lister in full ahead, while above the lock the Pride was in full astern, her skipper trying to keep her in a straight line while no doubt uttering expletives into the radio. We shot out of the lock like a scared rabbit and kept ourselves as far to the right as we could as we nipped past...
...while 700 tonnes of huge blue tanker straightened up and slotted herself into the lock.
No harm done, but someone is going to get their ear chewed off.
Eastwood lock was the last big one, shortly after that, on the Rotherham Cut, we passed Exol’s depot, where the Pride unloads her oil, then immediately afterwards the navigation reverted to much smaller dimensions. From Rotherham Town lock up the Tinsley flight into Sheffield it was back to The Humber Keel size and fully manual. When we got there, Rotherham Town lock was in the middle of a huge town centre redevelopment scheme, there was Herras fencing all over the place, the proper lock landing looked like it had been bombed and the temporary pontoon lock landing was fenced off from the lock, so it was a bit a kerfuffle getting off the boat. However, Ann-Marie managed to clamber up a wall and went to set the lock. One of the workmen noticed her and came over to find out why she was in the middle of his building site.
“I’m setting the lock for my boat.”
[Points to Legend, less than 20’ away] “That boat.”
She was holding a windlass and had a hat with “First Mate” written on it so goodness knows what else he thought she might be up to.
They very kindly stopped the piling machine while we went past them and we carried on to Ickles lock, just the other side of the town centre where we’d been told to moor before going up the flight. There was a bit of a hoohah there as well because some contractors who were erecting scaffolding under the next bridge were using the lock landing to moor their floating pontoon overnight, so when they came back we were in their way. However, we managed to shuffle forward and it all ended peacefully. We made sure we were gone before they started in the morning and were tied up at Holme lock in enough time to go for a run before our CRT chaperone arrived. With Nigel unlocking and setting the bottom gates for us and a couple of volunteers doing all the winding and gate pushing we were up the flight in about three hours.
At the top of the flight we thanked our team of helpers and chugged our way along the last mile and a half of the Sheffield and Tinsley canal towards its limit of navigation. As we got further into the city the trees lining the canal gave way to urban jungle...
... and then suddenly it all opened up and we found ourselves in the centre of Sheffield in the beautifully restored Victoria Quays.