One thing I’ve been asked more than once “Is the River Aire navigable?” The questioner is normally imagining Viking longboats or nineteenth century barges heading inland looking for new places to settle or trade. The short answer is “yes, but only below Leeds,” but the long answer is “definitely, loads of it.”
If we expand our idea of navigation to include people on foot, for as long as people have lived in the Aire valley the river has formed an important part of our transport network. Once, the rare crossable points formed the focus for settlements. Ancient fords can still be glimpsed when water levels are low in Bingley and Kirkstall. The oldest bridge on the river at Kildwick (built in 1305-1313) served the monks of Bolton Abbey. It formed a vital route for monks from Bolton Abbey, across the River Aire towards Lancashire (although I’m not sure why they’d want to get there). Despite being widened in the 1960s, it remains Britain's earliest documented medieval bridges.
Now the riverside paths form a vital part of our leisure and commuting routes.
Browsing through Facebook I stumbled across two news stories about our river and its paths. The contrast couldn’t be more stark or more disappointing.
In the lower Aire, CityConnect has announced the completion of a 1.3km section of the Castleford to Wakefield Greenway linking Castleford and Green Row at Methley Junction alongside the Aire. It is fantastic to see a sizeable investment, £730,000, in a safe, new route along the Aire as the result of a partnership with Wakefield Council, Leeds Council and Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity. This kind of investment recognises that getting people walking and cycling has huge environmental and health benefits. It diverts people away from our increasingly busy roads and encourages people to be proud of their river.
In Leeds, improvements in riverside footpaths are a clear aim of the Flood Alleviation Scheme 2. Through these they aim to provide a new green and blue corridor for commuters away from the congested and polluted Kirkstall Road. It’s great to see Councils recognising the potential the river offers.
Sadly, in Baildon we see the closure of a well-used footbridge that forms a vital link for many residents and commuters. Buck Lane bridge is one of my favourite bridges on the river. Erected in 1889, it bears a plaque seemingly listing every Council employee involved in designing and commissioning it. A recent inspection by the Council’s Highways department has determined that it lacks “a safe walking surface”. The engineer noted in a reply to a local resident that:
“This closure will effectively be permanent until funding can be identified. My small maintenance budget will not cover the refurbishment works these will have to form part of the capital programme which is not in my control.
To put a timescale to this is it is unlikely that the bridge will be reopened during this financial year.”The Thackley and Idle Community Facebook Group
It’s hard to lay the blame solely at the door of the Council. In response to tightening in funding, Councils' nationally have slashed their Rights of Ways budgets. Footpaths find themselves competing with potholes for funding. In urban areas it is clear that car users shouted louder. A 2012 campaign by the Ramblers Association found this to be the case in nearly 70% of highways authorities, with 11% reducing it by more than half.
It’s great that we’re investing in shiny new routes along unexplored riverbanks but vital that we don’t forget well-trodden paths.
I couldn't end this piece without promoting the recent self-guided walks our volunteers have written alongside the river. So far we have eight circular walks from Kildwick to Kirkstall. You can download them for free here and explore the natural heritage of our wonderful river.
Perhaps the idea of writing one in Baildon will have to wait....