“What are you up to?”
The head of a lady peered over the bridge parapet, a pelmet of silver hair quivering in the nithering Northern breeze. I stuffed away the inflation bag and looked up.
“Canoeing.” Well, packrafting, actually.
“Oh, right. Have you canoed here before?”
“Then I need to warn you – there’s a weir just past the village.” She waved a hand downstream. “The farmer put up a fence there to keep the cows out of the river – they were disturbing the sea trout – and the bank’s a lot less open than it was, so make sure you get out in plenty of time. We get lots of visitors here, mostly walkers on the Pennine Way, who don’t know what they’re doing. Where are you from?”
“And where are you going?”
“Back towards Leeds – as far as I can get.”
Then she asked for my full name (including surname) and repeated it carefully, as if she might need to recall it in some future discourse, possibly with the emergency services or the local media.
“Well now I know your name, it’s only fair that you know mine. I’m Councillor Janet Turner, chairman of Gargrave Parish Council.”
“Nice to meet you.” I was quite impressed; this was almost like meeting a tribal elder in Africa.
The conversation flowed onwards to Janet’s birthplace, Castleford – an industrial town many miles further down the River Aire. She dreamt of returning there on the river after death, like in a Japanese funeral where they cast little boats out to sea. Sadly, she couldn’t swim.
“Perhaps I’ll get a boat!” she said, her face brightening.
“Good idea.” I tied my painter to the raft’s nose and squeezed the side tubes. The air pressure was good. All my knots were tight. I was ready to go.
“Have you got a mobile phone with you?”
“Yes.” and a drysuit, throw rope, buoyancy aid and even a satellite tracker, I wanted to say, which anybody can use to track my exact position on this river and follow my progress live on Google Maps 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the push of a button I can summon the emergency services myself – even this close to Bradford.
A man in a brown leather hat then appeared beside Janet, but their whispered conversation was lost on the wind.
“Be prepared.” she said. “Lovely to have met you. Remember the weir.”
Her husband was clearly a man of fewer words, and simply said, as a kind of farewell:
“People go missing in there.”
“People go missing in there.” The man’s words re-circulated in my thoughts as I drifted towards the weir’s dark lips, bullied on by a brisk wind, pushing me ever closer to the brink. I slashed at the water with my paddle. The raft span around and I pulled hard. I kept pulling, and paddled faster. My hand grabbed at a rock, then a rope, and I scrambled ashore.
There was not a sea trout in sight.
My journey began an hour earlier at the railway station in Shipley, one of Bradford’s better eastern suburbs. The waiting room on the eastbound platform – where trains run to Leeds – is three times larger than the one on the westbound, where the trains leave for Skipton, Morecambe and my destination, Gargrave. This small village on the verge of the Yorkshire Dales, close to the Lancashire border, was clearly a little visited and remote place.
Through the train window, the hilly country swelled, darkened and became the Dales. We scampered between stations at Keighley and Skipton, where it seemed every waiting commuter was engaged in a private staring battle with the iPhone or Samsung cupped in their palm, or the tablet held at face height like a clapperboard, only occasionally glancing up along the tracks or at the departures screen. But while computers and smartphones continue to suck our attention from the real world, they can, in the right hands, empower the explorer. To them, the ability to reconnoitre almost anywhere on earth – using online maps – is perhaps the greatest benefit of the internet age. Street-level photography can pinpoint exactly where that crucial footpath leaves the main road, while satellite imagery shows up the permanent hazards on a river, like weirs. To preserve the mystique of the never-visited place, the balance of information and ignorance, readiness and recklessness, must be carefully considered. But as temporary dangers – like fallen trees and barbed wire fences – still mostly elude the technology, common sense and a careful attitude remain very much a necessity.
Tossing the raft over the fence (it bounced like a beach ball) I ducked down as a 4×4 pitched along the farm track. As the law regarding passage on “unnavigable” rivers is famously unclear, you have to be a little discrete, almost secretive, when “navigating” them. While most people you see on the banks pay little attention, it can be hard to tell friend from foe. Despite my insouciance, Janet’s advice was most certainly of the friendly kind. But with so little water* in the river, the weir itself was not especially dangerous, at least in the usual sense. Large weirs of this size need matching volumes of water to power their hydraulics, or so-called “stopper” waves, which can pull swimmers and boats into a spiralling hole from which they may never escape. But even at low water levels, falling from the top of the weir onto the concrete ledge five feet below, with no water to soften the impact, would not be a good idea. The safest approach to any river, whether or not you perceive it as safe, is to exaggerate your own ignorance and assume mistrust in your knowledge and experience. Anticipate the “unknown unknowns” and remain conservative. You can always come back another time.
Paddling on past Skipton (known for its castle and as the ‘Gateway to the Dales’) I re-entered the West Yorkshire hinterlands I wrote about last spring. A mother and child leant their bikes against a wall and watched as I floated by. “He’s in his boat.” Over the flood plains at Cononley, I saw and heard a wonderful chorus of birdlife, with curlews, kingfishers, yellow wagtails, cormorants, herons, a dipper, mallards, Canada geese and swans all mingling on the water and in the skies. A black bird was engaged in a dogfight with another, tracking its every move like a heat-seeking missile. The river itself was reasonably clear and smelled clean. The water quality has improved enormously in recent years (perhaps thanks to EU legislation?) although large amounts of flotsam still hung in the trees, like moraine from the winter floods, when the Aire slides though the valley like a giant grey slug, leaving behind its trail of grime.
It was growing late (for spring) as I climbed around the weir and paddled under the bridge at Bingley. The evening was full of warmth and I was thirsty. My hands were hot and blistered and my sides felt like they had been stretched indefinitely. My arms were dead to the fingertips. It seemed unlikely that I would achieve my aim of paddling all the way home. It was time to find somewhere to stop, preferably on a bus route. The next place was Saltaire.
After a bouncy slope of river strewn with rocky rapids and shaded by spring green trees, the Aire became calmer, straighter and more like a highway. Yuppie joggers loped along the path and fully crewed rowing sculls darted and stalled in mid-stream. I never expected to find the river deep enough and clear enough for rowing, or to discover a part of Bradford so reminiscent of Henley, and the River Thames.
I landed on hard mud beside a clipped green space called Roberts Park. The sun had dropped below the trees and the river and park were lit with the afterglow from a day of joyous and long-awaited spring sunshine. Socialites clinked glasses and the aroma of cannabis drifted on the air outside a bar called “Don’t Tell Titus”. Passionately averse to drink (and presumably illicit drugs), Titus Salt was the founder of Saltaire and the patron of Salt’s Mill, which stands solidly beside the river, opposite the park where Salt’s statue gazes in a fatherly manner over the children at play. Although a successful businessman, Salt was better known for his philanthropy and benevolence than for his productive prowess, and is perhaps the only 19th century employer that most of us would happily work for today. Doing his bit to crystallise the notion of workers’ rights, Salt built Saltaire (a shameless portmanteau of his name and the River Aire) as a complete community: here his workers would live and graft together, their houses nearly identical, their purpose and routine and lives one shared entity. Though they lacked individuality, the people of Saltaire were well treated and did not have the same worries as their counterparts in other jobs. Life was never lonely, unpredictable, unproductive or terribly unhealthy in Saltaire. Its very name seems to steam with freshness and vitality, like a walk up a mountain or a trip to the seaside, as rosy and invigorating as an image on an old-time railway poster: “Come and breathe the bracing Saltaire”.
I must admit though, over a short lifetime of living within five miles of this world-famous World Heritage Site (passing by often en route to the Dales) I developed for it contempt that only recently came closer to affection. How could this grubby grid of terraced houses be as culturally important as the Taj Mahal, Dorset’s Jurassic Coast or the Statue of Liberty? As a youngster I thought the architecture unoriginal, the houses dull, dreary and depressing. To me, Salt’s Mill was just the location of a rather boring cookware shop, full of the kitchen gadgets my Mum likes. But on a recent visit I was pleased to find an excellent bookseller, stocking a range of artisan titles and drawing equipment. The fabulously overpriced Salt’s Diner remains, as does the cookshop, which is still boring, but now irresistibly attractive to my fiancée and our joint finances.
Salt himself is long gone, but a place so geometrically planned must still have a ruler. The mill’s current patriarch is the artist David Hockney, who, when not in Los Angeles, can often be seen wandering the streets, a cigar pursed between his lips like a well-chewed paintbrush. I wandered myself among Hockney’s works, lingering in a gallery called “The Coming of Spring”; a vivid collection of iPad paintings documenting an East Yorkshire lane though the changing seasons.
But as I walked uphill from the mill and the river, towards the road, my raft slung over my shoulder like a sack of coal, I thought not of Hockney and his dachshunds, but again of Salt. If it wasn’t for him, maybe I would have spent the last eight hours stuck in my office, in front of a computer. Industrial history and 21st century labour economics came together as I looked across at the mill and had a thought: perhaps I should be thanking Sir Titus, and his legacy, for days spent like this.
*Note for paddlers: the photos show a last recorded river level of 0.41 metres on the Environment Agency’s Kildwick Bridge gauge.