Walk of the Week: In the workshop of the world

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The Independent Travel

Fear not, the only significant link between this walk and the pestilential farming industry is rhubarb. And even then it is historical rhubarb. The low-lying ground between Kirkstall Abbey and the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was famous 100 years ago for its rhubarb fields and dark forcing sheds where the stalks were picked by candlelight.

Fear not, the only significant link between this walk and the pestilential farming industry is rhubarb. And even then it is historical rhubarb. The low-lying ground between Kirkstall Abbey and the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was famous 100 years ago for its rhubarb fields and dark forcing sheds where the stalks were picked by candlelight.

There is more work for the imagination than the limbs in walking this six-mile stretch of towpath from Leeds City railway station to the suburb of Rodley. The great engineering and textile works once served by the canal have largely gone, though there are props remaining. It's an easy walk, with the only gradients beside the lock gates.

The walk takes in most of the Leeds Waterfront Heritage Trail. Start in the "Dark Arches" beneath the station's south side. Follow signs for Granary Wharf where boutiques, cafés and a craft market have introduced light to a subterranean scene. Here, an iron bridge spans the River Aire as it is channelled under the station and into the canal basin.

Leave the arches and skirt a car park to join the westbound towpath on the canal's north bank by a lock at Office Bridge. On the far side is a sandstone building with "Canal Office" carved above the door.

A few yards along the towpath is the first milestone, bearing the legend "Liverpool 127 miles". The canal over the Pennines was one of the most audacious engineering projects of the industrial revolution. It took 40 years to build and was finally opened in 1816.

The canal contours above the River Aire, giving the towpath an elevated view over the industrial heart of Leeds. To the south, two Italianate campaniles denote the former Tower Works where pins were made for the textile industry.

Closer to hand, on our recent visit, the scene was less classical, with old chairs and the inevitable supermarket trolley and traffic cones sinking in to the mud. The canal had been drained to allow culvert repairs beyond Monk Bridge. This necessitated a short diversion from the towpath but the work is due to be completed by the middle of this month.

While the sounds of the city are ever present, the canal and River Aire form a greenish corridor, lined by birches and frequented by waterfowl. On the opposite bank, the route passes the foundations of the Leeds Forge. On our side comes Armley Mills, an industrial museum after 400 years of textile production.

The far bank has sandstone cliffs while the towpath side becomes a wasteland, passing the wharf of the former Kirkstall power station. There is a brewery-turned-apartment building and then Kirkstall Lock and the rhubarb fields. JMW Turner painted this scene in 1820, with quarrymen chipping away at the cliff in the foreground and the ruined abbey in the distance.

Lock staircases follow by Kirkstall Forge and Newlay, with the surroundings becoming more rural. Park woods rise on the south side and there is a bird reserve in the valley bottom. The walk ends at a bridge by a huge green shed on the far bank - remains of the crane works that gave rise to Rodley. Cross the bridge, walk by the side of the factory to the busy road and catch a bus back to Leeds: a single costs £1.

Unfortunately, the towpath is cordoned off upstream of the crane works as a precaution for foot-and-mouth, preventing a tidy finish in old Rodley village.

Approximate distance six miles, allow up to 2 hours and 30 minutes. The official 'Leeds Waterway Heritage Trail' guide by Peter Brears costs £2 plus 50p p&p from Leeds Museum Resource Centre, The Commercial Office, Moorfield Road, Yeadon, Leeds, West Yorks LS19 7BN.

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