Driffield Navigation and River Hull – History

The Driffield Navigation is actually made up of a number of linked waterways situated in East Yorkshire to the north of the Humber. The main part of the route is the River Hull while at the northern end is Frodingham Beck and the Driffield Canal. Also connected to the Hull are Beverley Beck and the Leven Canal. The River Hull and part of Frodingham Beck are navigable while the Driffield Canal is mostly unnavigable – though under various stages of restoration.

1767
The Driffield Navigation Commissioners gained an enabling Act allowing them to create a canal of about 5 miles in length from the town of Driffield to the River Hull. The upper reaches of the Hull would then continue the navigation south towards the Humber. Work began with John Grundy (who had worked on the Louth Canal) as engineer.

The Commissioners totalled 95 men which must surely be a record? This early date makes the Driffield Navigation one of the earliest canals to be built in this country though it was regarded as an extension to an existing river navigation rather than an independent waterway.

1775
The Driffield Canal opened after 5 years of construction and having cost around £15,000. Its main use was in carrying agricultural produce south to the Humber from Driffield and the surrounding land.

In return it carried coal upstream into the villages along its route. On this basis the route was fairly successful though problems on the river portion of the navigation gave the Commissioners a lot of problems and proved very expensive to maintain.

1817
Constant repairs and maintenance, including rebuilding Hull Bridge, caused the commissioners to fall into debt.

An Act was gained to allow the raising of tolls but this was granted only with the agreement that the tolls would be reduced again as soon as all the debts were paid. Once the debts were cleared the navigation would only be allowed to charge enough to keep the waterway maintained – without making a profit. This was easy enough to agree to at this time as the Commissioners knew it would be many decades before the debts would be cleared.

1847
The Hull & Bridlington Railway arrived in Great Driffield. This forced the Commissioners to drop their corn tolls but when two more railways opened in the area the navigation began to struggle. However, despite a drastic decline over the next few decades the navigation stayed in business and continued to slowly clear its debts.

1906
It was reported that only £200 was left outstanding and the navigation would soon be out of debt.

1940’s
Trade continued on the whole length of the navigation until the start of WW2. However, the trade which was lost during the war was not regained afterwards and all trade came to a halt by 1949. In 1949 Brigham swing bridge was fixed in place cutting off the Driffield Canal from the rest of the navigation. No boats have navigated the whole of the canal section since this time though the bridge was reopened in 1964 and boats were able to reach Wansford Bridge until 1970.

1960
After a decade of disuse the future of the Driffield Navigation was secured when it became a major channel for the supply of drinking water for Hull, millions of gallons of water now pass along the route everyday. The navigation is also an important drainage channel so there is little chance of it ever being closed or officially abandoned.

1968
The Driffield Navigation Amenities Association was set up as a fund raising organisation for the navigation. One of their first jobs was to re-establish the Commissioners for the navigation. However, this was no easy task and it took some 10 years of lobbying by the association and the IWA before the association could gain control of the waterway.

The Driffield Navigation became one of a very small number of waterways in Britain which is managed independently (it is now looked after by the Driffield Navigation Trust) and the re-establishment of the Commissioners meant that restoration of the canal could begin.

In the late 1960’s the area around Driffield Basin was landscaped and had a picnic site added. Old buildings, warehouses and two canal cranes were preserved and can still be seen today.

1992
Driffield Town Lock was restored though it has stood unused since this time due to a dispute with a local resident over the rights of access to the lock side. This dispute is still on-going in 2001 although the land around the lockside has now changed ownership. The new owner is said to be “far more reasonable” and it is hoped the dispute will be resolved fairly soon.

Another dispute arose near Snakeholme locks during the mid 1990’s. This time it was the local Trout Farm company who complained following some unauthorised works which were carried out on the locks by well-meaning, but misguided, volunteers who were not members of the Driffield Trust. The Trout Farm believed this work threatened water levels which were needed in the course of their business. Court action followed but eventually work on the locks was allowed to continue. The final stage of this work is due to commence in Spring 2001.

2001
The river portion of the route and the Frodingham Beck branch remain navigable and are used by local sailing clubs, pleasure boats and a trip boat. The top part of the original navigation, the Driffield Canal, is unnavigable but it’s restoration continues and full navigation is expected in the near future.

Driffield Navigation and River Hull – Route

The River Hull starts on the Humber at Kingston upon Hull , or simply “Hull” as it is more commonly known. (The junction of the Hull with the Humber is situated at OS Grid ref TA101283, map 107). The River Hull travels north out of Hull and after about 7 miles it passes to the east of Beverley where there is an entrance lock into Beverley Beck (TA054398).

A further 1½ miles north is Hull Bridge (TA054417) where the original road bridge (A1035) has now been superseded by a new bypass. However, the old bridge is still used by pedestrians and there is still a fine pub and small settlement around the river. I had a nice lunch at the pub in April 1997, boats were constantly moving up and down the river, many more were moored alongside the pub while sailing boats and canoes were also making use of the waterway.

A lot of the stretch from Hull to Hull Bridge has a road alongside it though there is no “towpath” as such. The river here is often higher than the level of the surrounding land so views of the waterway are not always clear from the road. However, it is possible in places to walk along the top of the embankment alongside the river.

About a mile north of Hull Bridge the river takes on a big loop near Arram (TA044442), about another mile north is the point (near Aike) where the Hull Navigation officially becomes the Driffield Navigation. Close by is the junction with the Leven Canal (TA062462 approx) which heads east for a couple of miles into the village of Leven. It would appear that there is no road access to the junction though the Leven Canal is short enough to walk its whole length from the main road (A165) in Leven (TA106451) or from the lane/track leading to some holiday homes about half way along the Leven Canal (TA096450). Go to the Leven Canal page for more info.

The River Hull takes the Driffield Navigation north on a meandering course. Over to the west, though not always close by, is the Beverley & Barmston Drain. On this stretch are (or were) Tophill Low Landing, Baswick Landing and Wilfholme Landing, the names suggesting that they were formerly staithes or wharves where goods would be loaded and unloaded.

After 4 miles the navigation reaches Stuncheon Hill Locks (TA079498) near the settlement of Hempholme. There appears to be a track/road leading to the locks. Just above the locks is the joining point of the river and the Beverley & Barmston Drain.

Half a mile further north the navigation passes the entrance to Scurf Dike which heads off (straight) to the west. This dike (on a map) looks as though it may once have been navigable? About ¼ of a mile further on is the only remaining operational swing bridge on the navigation. This is Bethell’s Bridge which gives access to Hempholme to the east and Rotsea to the west. However, vehicle access appears to be from the east only as the roads on the western side are marked on the map only as tracks.

About 400 yards further north is a junction (TA082518) with a branch which runs westwards. This watercourse is actually the old River Hull, known as West Beck, which leaves the main navigation and meanders north west to Great Driffield. It is still navigable for about 2 miles to Corps Landing. Although this stretch is still covered by the original Act of Parliament (and therefore is open to pleasure craft), mooring on its banks and at Corps Landing (at the head of navigation) is not permitted. Nevertheless, it makes a very pleasant diversion for boaters who fancy a trip off the main navigation. The tiny settlement of Corps Landing is marked on my map, one small lane/track appears to be the only road access but I don’t know if this is open to the public (probably not).

After passing the junction of West Beck (the old River Hull), the main line of the Driffield Navigation continues northwards, now using the course Frodingham Beck. Another ¾ of a mile brings the navigation to another junction (TA082527). To the north west is the partly disused Driffield Canal while straight ahead (north east) Frodingham Beck continues for one more mile to a former swing bridge beside Frodingham Wharf. This bridge is on the B1249 about one mile west of the village of North Frodingham. The navigation used to continue north eastwards via a short arm to Foston Mill. When I visited Frodingham Wharf in 1997 I found a large trip boat moored at the head of navigation. It runs trips at weekends and on bank holidays.

The Driffield Canal, heading north west, is still navigable for its first mile to the village of Brigham which is on a minor (dead-end) road off the B1249. This pretty farm village lies on the east bank of the canal, the minor road comes to an end at the swing bridge in the village – on the west side of the bridge is farmland. The bridge (formerly a swing bridge) has been fixed in place since 1970 and was in poor condition when I saw it 1997, its restoration would open up another mile or so of the navigation. My latest information on this bridge is that a new one has been made and is awaiting installation.

On the next stretch, between Brigham and Wansford, is Snakeholme Lock – or “Locks” as there was a staircase of 2 here which replaced a single lock in the 1790’s. This flight, which is currently under restoration, has been officially listed as a “historic structure” (TA067555).

The passage through Wansford is tree-lined with Wansford Lock situated just before the B1249 swings along side the canal (TA062562). The lock has survived well though its top gates had rotted badly when I saw them. However, the Driffield Navigation web site reports that the top gates are now in good condition and are complete. A number of tree roots still need to be removed from the brickwork although the brickwork itself is in good condition. The bottom gates have survived but will need to be renewed. In the 1970’s a sunken barge lay on the canal bed beside the lock. The canal at Wansford, alongside the main road, is very pretty though there is no towpath.

It is here at Wansford that perhaps the biggest obstruction to full restoration is situated. This is the road bridge (leading to the village of Skerne) which is now fixed in place. However, this is a minor road and the bridge should be easy to restore – unlike so many other restoration schemes which have dozens of such bridges and even motorways to contend with.

The canal and road run side by side out of the village, within half a mile or so Whinhill Lock is reached (TA051568) beside a bridge which gives access to Whinhill Farm. This used to be a roving bridge though it has now been flattened and will have to be rebuilt to allow navigation. The top gates of Whinhill lock appear to be in good condition though the beams are very short and will need to be extended before the lock can be used. The bottom gates have long since gone but the stonework is in fairly good condition.

From Whinhill Lock there is a good towpath on the western side. Near Whinhill Farm the canal curves away from the road to head south west for about a mile. It then bends around to head north west into the small town of Great Driffield.

The last lock on the navigation is Driffield Town Lock (TA031569), this is the one which has been restored but awaits official opening. A pretty bungalow stands beside the lock with an immaculate garden which is actually right on the lock side. A former owner of the bungalow refused access to the lock, claiming that when he bought the house it stood alongside an abandoned canal with no apparent right of way. Now that the lock is restored and, unofficially, usable again, the lock side is once again a right of way. The bungalow has changed ownership in recent years and the newer owner is said to be far more reasonable. For the time being though – unless you are daring, rebellious or seeking attention – it is best to stick to the well marked footpath around the back of the bungalow.

About 600 yards above the lock is Driffield Basin (TA027574). The approach to the basin is flanked by a well kept grassy area. There are two preserved canal cranes at the basin – seating and tables have been provided for picnics here since the 1960’s. The whole area was then described as “very pleasant” and was said to be the most attractive feature of the town. Having seen the basin myself in 1997 I can confirm that this still holds true. There are lots old buildings at the basin including a number of terraced cottages and warehouses which have been converted into flats. Access to the basin is via the minor road which runs across the south eastern edge of the town from the B1249 to the A164.