A fascinating section of The Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The canal at Burnley suddenly goes from winding and meandering, into a direct line through the town and towers above many of the buildings. This is the Burnley Embankment or most commonly known as The Straight Mile. One of The Seven Wonders of the Waterways.
It was here that I finished my 4 day walking journey along the canal where I had started in Leeds.
How Long Is It?
Before we get into the history and the marvel of it we need to answer the question. Is it a mile? Actually it may look it, or if travelling by canal boat, where distance and time is relaxed, then you can say it is a mile.
But the embankment is more precisely just short of three quarters of a mile at 0.71 miles long.
It is impressive to see and even more so when I got to see it from above. The straight line of waterway, seemingly splitting the town of Burnley into 2. An engineering feat indeed in its time and history tells us that in truth the town was expanded around it not that it split it.
We have mentioned previously on these pages the history of this canal stretching from Leeds to Liverpool. The beginning of the construction began in 1770. Costs and the American War of Independence got in the way in the following years so it was incomplete with missing sections for many years.
This also gave rise to a many number of route changes thought up in the meantime. In this area the canal needed to cross the Calder Valley. At first it was going to be well away from Burnley via an aqueduct at Whalley. Burnley wasn’t considered at all at first due to the width of valley to cross here.
Then how about further up the valley at Towneley? No the Townley family put a stop to that due to it being their Towneley Hall.
So they decided in 1794 to go via Burnley as by now it was becoming an important industrial town. Now to do it the normal way would have meant many steps of locks to get down into the valley and on the other side, many more steps of locks again. This would have meant slowing industrial production as boats wouldn’t be able to get through fast enough.
So, the idea to build a raised embankment was born, to make it easier to pass through the valley.
Building The Embankment
If you walk along the embankment today it easy to think that the canal split the town through the middle. However when it was built it was on the eastern outskirts of town and went through what was open fields and farmland. It was the canal arriving that made the town and population grow bigger on either side.
It is raised 60 foot above the town and valley floor to give it the height. You can only imagine the amount of work that was involved in the late 18th Century. 270,000 square metres of soil was used to create it.
It was not just a case of building an earthwork canal crossing. For example what is now Yorkshire Street had to be crossed over via a bridge aquaduct, called ‘The Culvert’. Although for the pedants out there yes, a culvert allows a waterway to go under a road etc so this is the other way round and is technically an aqueduct.
The Canal Heyday
Again, as you walk along the towpath it is hard to imagine what Burnley started to look like after the canal arrived plus how it grew.
First there were the coalfields plus all the industrial canal traffic passing through. Then came the cotton and textile industry. Iron works were created to make machinery (looms) for the said cotton mills. In fact by the 1880s, Burnley was creating more looms that anywhere else in Britain. The Burnley Loom.
For the cotton industry there were at least 12 mills and factories beside the embankment. Not only a perfect spot for trade and transportation but using gravity and water from the ‘higher’ embankment to help power the factories.
The population boom over this time was massive so rows and rows of terraces and back to backs where built and thus the east side of the embankment was built up. Looking to east now you can see a place people from Burnley are proud of, Turf Moor the home of Burnley F.C.
Features On The Walk
Walking up on the embankment it is like you are getting a raised view over the town. It is also an oasis away from the busy streets either side. Close by I could see that factories and mills had by now changed to town centre supermarkets and bus shelters etc but just a stones throw away up here you could escape to calmness and discover a time gone by.
When you cross over The Culvert from above you can’t really imagine a busy street with buses etc passing under your feet.
At this spot also stand an old ‘stop plank’ crane. These were used to left heavy planks up and down from the embankment so they could plug gaps in flooding or dam the canal for maintenance.
There are little pieces of art as you walk along that locals of an older generation will be reminded of days gone by with. Here I saw an old mosaic piece that was dedicated to an old Odeon Cinema that was nearby.
Finsley Gate Wharf
Now then at the southern end of ‘the mile’ there is plenty of work going on. A huge regeneration of Finsley Gate Wharf, or locally known as The Mile Wharfe.
One of the oldest wharfs on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal it dates back to the 18th century. It would have been a huge hub of activity. The canals where the main mode of transporting goods and this was the longest man made waterway in Britain. The industrial growth meant lots of traffic and lots of maintenance.
This wharfe had blacksmiths, carpenters, boat builders, boat repairers and so much more. The grade II buildings that remain are being brought back to life thanks to the Canal and Rivers Trust in partnership with The National Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund.
So much hard work has been underway and ongoing to create a huge centre for visitors and more. Hubs for children to learn about the past and discover nature in the present. Conference centres, guesthouses, cafes etc.
Building with original features as well as restored features yet in settings that befit the 21st century visitor. I was honoured to have been shown around during the early work being done. I must head back once complete too.
This wharf regeneration is wonderful for the history, wonderful for the area and wonderful for visitors. Plus it will be a perfect start and end point for a walk along the Burnley Embankment.