Like a ballet dancer I stepped daintily to the river, between tufts of dry grass, pirouetting with the packraft tucked under my right arm and the paddle sweeping in my left like an antenna, sounding for solid ground before the bog closed around my ankles. Though dressed in a drysuit and carrying an inflatable boat, I couldn’t have been better equipped for an unexpected dip.
One hour earlier, I stood on firm Yorkshire ground beside the canal in the village of Kildwick, which stands bent-legged on the steep contours of Farnhill Moor near Skipton, 14 miles north-west of Bradford on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. Literally a ‘watery place’, Kildwick is where the River Aire and Leeds-Liverpool Canal almost touch, curving together like the shoulders of a champagne bottle and spitting foam from the weir beneath the 14th century road bridge. Using this fluvial co-incidence to my advantage, I would raft my way up the canal and ride back on the river, returning to Kildwick before the Easter sun melted away.
The same solid ground would be handy, I thought, to brace myself against the (mostly welcome) flood of questions normally asked of anyone ‘weird’ enough to be floating about in such a peculiar craft. “What’s that?” “How much was your boat mate?” are typical examples. Instead, cyclists rode aloofly by above an obscenely busy road, dominated by roaring motorbikes racing away to peace.
Lapping idly against the crumbling mortar of waterside patios, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal flows westwards on a level shelf towards Skipton; the Dales town which emits a constant stream of narrowboats packed to their plimsolls with waving holidaymakers. Mallards bobbed in the meadows among lambs and buttercups and tall buildings (appropriately dark and satanic) glowered above, their opacity offset by bright bollards, window frames and coping stones painted in rusty white.
At the bus stop and snack van – where the aroma of frying onions is imprinted on the air – I left the canal, skipped across the road and scurried awkwardly like a rat towards the river, avoiding the eyes of walkers more aptly attired for a warm spring day. Drifting downstream, I washed the bog from my boots, looking across the valley to a purple hill of bare birch topped with a queer little observatory, domed and white as a space shuttle. This is actually the ‘Farnhill Pinnacle’, a monument constructed by the locals for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.
At first deep and streaked with sand, the Aire shoaled quickly into a chain of three shiny rapids, and I was soon at the bottom with the fenceposts and the flotsam. Birds flew and floated everywhere; wagtails, oystercatchers, cormorants dowsing for fish with their spear beaks and curlews dashing through the sky, trailing frantic polyphonic whistles like display smoke.
After resting awhile beside a field of lambs I returned to Kildwick, spotting a trout skim through shallows under the bridge while traffic seared overhead. There is much of intrigue in Yorkshire’s unbranded hinterlands; places neither moor nor dale, park or paradise, yet with intrinsic appeal. Driving home in a mire of cars, flushed with April sunshine, I felt oddly blessed to live near Bradford. Its faults are many, yet few cities share so wide and wild a view.