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By the beginning of the 18th century, the Aire & Calder Navigation had made the River Calder navigable as far upstream as Wakefield.
The aim of the Calder & Hebble Navigation was to extend navigation west (upstream) from Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge near Halifax.
Construction was started in 1757 by the civil engineer John Smeaton (assisted by William Jessop). The navigation originally consisted of improved stretches of the River Calder with short "cuts" between sections of the river to avoid circuitous stretches, shoals or weirs.
Construction of the initial phase was finished in 1770. Later side-extensions were made from Thornhill to Dewsbury (necessary because the main line of the navigation had by then bypassed the Dewsbury section of the Calder) and from Salterhebble to the centre of Halifax (along the River Hebble).
In later improvements, longer cuts bypassed (even longer) sections of river.
These days the navigation now largely consists of long "cuts" (all named as such : eg "Horbury Cut") with fairly short river sections.
The importance of the Calder & Hebble as a through route makes one notorious feature of the canal very significant: its short locks.
The canal is a "wide" navigation, meaning that its locks are wide enough for 14ft boats, but its shortest locks are amongst the very shortest on the connected network of English/Welsh inland waterways (the Ripon Canal has locks of a similarly restricted length). The canal was built to accept (57' by 14') Yorkshire Keels coming up the Aire & Calder Navigation. The Locks on the Aire & Calder and the lower Calder & Hebble (below Broad Cut Locks at Calder Grove) have since been lengthened, but the shortest locks on the upper Calder & Hebble force boats longer than about 57 feet to lie diagonally in the locks. This is only possible for narrowboats, so 57 feet is the maximum length for a wide-beamed (14') barge on the C&H. Even for a narrowboat (less than 7' beam) the maximum possible length is about 60ft (which is 12 feet shorter than a full-length English narrowboat). Narrowboats approaching 60ft can only be squeezed through the shorter locks, even when lying diagonally, by expedients such as removing fenders, having shore parties pole the boat into position, and going down locks backwards. In particular, an inexperienced crew of any boat longer than about 57' might find it impossible to negotiate the middle lock of the "Salterhebble Three", which is the shortest of all.
The Calder & Hebble Navigation, and the Salterhebble locks in particular, thus define the maximum length of a go-anywhere English narrowboat.
It was the diparity in boat sizes between the Calder & Hebble and the Rochdale Canal, which made Sowerby Bridge (at the junction of the two canals) so important : long boats coming over from Lancashire had to have their cargoes unloaded, stored, and transferred to shorter boats at Sowerby Bridge Wharf.
Sowerby Bridge Wharf has a collection of some of the finest restored 18th century warehouses you will see, with warehouse #4 being the first of its kind ever built.
Another quirk of the Calder & Hebble locks is the handspike, a length of 2" by 4" timber shaped at one end to provide a comfortable two-handed grip. Calder & Hebble boaters have to carry these in addition to the more usual windlass, in order to lever open the simple lock gear which lifts the lock paddles to allow a full lock to empty or an empty one to fill.