It has long been an ambition of mine to cycle the length of the longest complete canal in the UK - one that covers 127¼ miles from the docks of Liverpool over the Pennines to join the River Aire at Leeds.

The Leeds Liverpool Canal used to be the motorway of the north - the northern powerhouse of its day.

Raw cotton was transported to the mills of Lancashire from Liverpool. Cotton and wool cloth were brought out, including much heavier products like coal, iron and quarried stone. Without the canal, until the development of steam railways, the industrial revolution would not have been possible.

Construction began in 1770, but the transpennine route was not fully operational until 1816. By then two other canals crossed the Pennines, the Huddersfield Narrow, completed in 1811, and the Rochdale, competed in 1804.

Now the Leeds Liverpool is largely empty, apart from a few leisure boats. But who knows, with the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, it may come back into use one day, with electric powered barges in place of horses.

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Empty but for a few pleasure boats: the canal descending towards Gargrave

Cycling this route is not without its problems. In places the towpath is rough and muddy and, where there is tarmac, it is often pitted and bumpy. And you must take care not to slip into the canal, especially under bridges. Dog walkers and fishermen with extendable carp poles block the way at times. But most people we met were friendly. Scouse greetings gave way to Lancashire, and finally good old Yorkshire. It is best to take things slowly (we took four days) and to have a bike with thicker tires.

Day One

I took the direct train from York to Liverpool Lime Street (book well in advance as Transpennine trains have few bike slots). After cycling the first eight miles of the canal, I met up with a friend at excellent an B&B in Crosbie. Cycling along the canal north of Liverpool docks at dusk I did not meet a single person apart from a few drinkers at the pub in Bootle. There were plenty of moorhens, buddleia and a few derelict warehouses surrounded by razor-wire. It was four miles before I passed the first narrow boat. Here the canal has a beauty all of its own, with the setting sun picking out brick and iron bridges and wild vegetation.

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The Liver building

Day Two

In the morning there was just time to cycle over to the beach to see the Antony Gormley figures before meeting our two other fellow cyclists, my son and his friend, at Rimrose Valley Country Park. We then set off to Wigan, thirty-five miles away.

After heading west, away from Liverpool, the canal turns north, curving around Aintree racecourse, to reach open country. We stopped at a couple of pubs for liquid refreshments. A good thing about cycling along canals is that there are usually plenty of these. Just before Wigan we passed over a narrow stone bridge marking the entrance to the Rufford branch of the canal that takes you further north to the Ribble estuary and the Lancaster canal.

Entering the outskirts of Wigan we passed the location of the famous pier. Actually the Wigan coal pier was sold for scrap in 1921, fifteen years before George Orwell visited. There were some beautifully preserved warehouses and the Trencherfield Mill standing proud, its gothic tower like a cathedral. The mill has now been converted into flats, but it still houses probably the largest working steam-powered mill engine in Europe, generating 2500 horsepower.

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Trencherfield Mill, Wigan

At Wigan we stayed at the zany but friendly Premier Inn and, following an excellent Indian meal from a nearby restaurant (every dish was a ‘good choice’), hit the karaoke bars of town. We admired Wigan’s beautiful Victorian terracotta-brick municipal buildings and its two railway stations.

Day Three

In the morning it was time to climb twenty-one locks to the foothills of the Pennines. The mill towns of Lancashire are situated over 300 feet above sea-level, the damp atmosphere of the area being ideal for the safe processing of cotton. At the top of the Wigan Flight, narrow boats can collect a certificate. We pressed through attractive wooded areas and under stone bridges. The canal was green with algae. Following another rise of locks after Chorley (only seven this time) the blue hills of the Pennines loomed into view.

Our next mill town was Blackburn. We had lunch on a park bench in the modern town centre, near the cathedral. Two local ladies sat next to us and told us that one of their daughters didn’t hoover the flat properly. To cap it all she has now got herself pregnant and will have to move out. We ate delicious ‘piegatas’ that we assumed were native to Blackburn but in fact turned out to orginate from Italy.

We then separated for a few hours for my son and his friend to cycle to Clitheroe where we were staying the night. Andrew and I took the train.

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Eanam Wharfe, Blackburn

Day Four

This turned out to be the hardest day of the trip as the towpath at Clough Bank was closed necessitating a six-mile detour down the main road through Padiham. This was probably why we did not enjoy cycling through Burnley. Added to this the weather was dull but at least it didn’t rain. Burnley has some interesting warehouses and loading bays, some with canopies, like railway stations. Its pièce de résistance though is the Burnley Embankment. This amazing feat of canal architecture stretches straight across the valley for almost a mile. You would never know it was hand-built by navvies as its banks are now covered in trees. Below we saw chimneys, concrete tower blocks and the home of Burnley FC.

By now we were getting tired, and we had another twenty-five miles to go to get to Skipton. But the countryside improved and the sun came out, which helped. We ascended more locks until we reached the mile-long Foulridge tunnel, the summit of the canal. We had to cycle over the top, but there was a welcome café at the other end.

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Café at Foulridge

The next section was the best of the whole trip. The canal gradually winds downhill towards Gargrave. There were spectacular views of rolling hills and fields full of sheep and cows. We passed brightly painted narrow boats, some mooring for the night, the occupants supping beers and setting up BBQs. From Gargrave it was only five miles to Skipton.

Day Five

On Day Five we cycled the last thirty miles to the canal terminus at River Lock, just below Leeds railway station. Canal boats can continue via the Aire and Calder Navigation to Goole and Hull. Links to York are along the Selby Canal to the Ouse.

The canal initially traverses the eastern side of Airedale, past Silsden and Keighley, before descending at Bingley down the famous Five and Three Rise Locks. We stopped for refreshments at Saltaire, still a world heritage site, unlike Liverpool. We viewed the Hockneys on permanent display. Continuing along the picturesque Aire valley, through woods and meadows into Leeds, it was hard to imagine that urban streets with their pollution and traffic jams were not far away.

It was easy to get on a Northern Line train back to York. Unlike Transpennine there were no restrictions on bikes. It was a great trip, seeing places I had never been and others from a different aspect. I am now hooked on cycling along canals. Next time maybe the Rochdale Canal, across the Pennines from Huddersfield, or from Wigan to Manchester. Who knows?

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Journey's end: Nick, Bob, Andrew and Pat at the River Lock, Leeds