Reopened in late 2016 following severe flood damage the previous winter, this breathtakingly beautiful, yet arduous canal, can once again be navigated in its entirety. Unlike the nearby Huddersfield Narrow Canal, it goes over, not under, the Pennines, twisting and turning as it surmounts one of the greatest geographical challenges of the canal age. It is among the most memorable experiences on the network.
The descent to Yorkshire is particularly pleasant, with friendly little towns such as Todmorden and the surprisingly Bohemian Hebden Bridge. The canalside architecture is little changed from its commercial days, and the Pennines are ever present until the Sowerby Bridge terminus, where it gives way to the Calder & Hebble. The 91 broad locks, all built to the same rise, are exercise enough in themselves, but if you have any calories left to burn, this is ideal hiking country.
The western side, as the canal descends to Manchester, is like the curate’s egg: good in parts. Littleborough continues the theme of the eastern side, and the Irk Aqueduct is a delightful spot. But Rochdale itself has yet to appreciate its canal, and the Manchester sprawl is no better.
The canal looks up (literally) past the imposing mills of Ancoats, to end on a high with the Rochdale Nine – a final lock flight burrowing past the backstreets of Manchester. Part of the Cheshire Ring, and so never officially closed to navigation, it emerges blinking in the sunlight at the Bridgewater Canal’s basin of Castlefields.
Like other newly restored canals, the Rochdale is as yet light in facilities and still arguably under-maintained; but if you have the stamina, it will repay in spades.