The Leeds to Liverpool Canal, which runs through the centre of Skipton, was completed in 1816 and is 127 miles long. The main line of the canal has a number of historic connections to footpaths around the town, many of which would have been created to allow mill workers routes from residential areas to the town’s mills. The road crossings in the town are all to allow the continuation of historic routes when the canal was built.
The stretch of canal between Skipton and Bingley was one of the first parts to be opened in 1773 and would help transport corn, limestone, coal, wool and cotton by boat. Skipton is situated on a length of the canal known as the Skipton Pound (a length of canal with no locks) that runs west to east from the bottom of the Gargrave flight of locks to the top of the famous Bingley Five Rise Locks (Grade I Listed Building) a distance of over 18 miles. Maintained today by the Canal & River Trust, the towpath, originally intended for shire horses pulling canal boats, has been upgraded to encourage walking and cycling.
The canal itself is popular with narrow-boating and leisure cruises with several companies offering day trips and holiday boat hire attracted by both its heritage and views to some of the finest countryside in Britain. In his book Barging Round Britain John Sergeant writes, “It gives those with a love of history the chance to contemplate the extra-ordinary changes which have shaped people’s lives over the past two centuries”
Starting at the canal side is the Millennium Walk, which is a heritage trail that takes visitors to some of the Skipton’s most important landmarks, including Skipton Castle, High Corn Mill and Caroline Square, where there is a memorial plaque marking the birth place of Thomas Spencer, the co-founder of M&S.
The Springs Canal Branch above Mill Bridge differs from those along the main line of the canal, being partly in a very tight valley. The original length up to Mill Bridge took land from a long line of the medieval crofts that ran back from the High Street, and the footpaths and narrow lanes that pass between these plots now all terminate at the foot of the castle.
One of the oldest mills in North Yorkshire, High Corn Mill is still powered by the waters of Eller Beck, and dates to 1310. Once belonging to Skipton castle’s estate it was one of two corn-grinding mills in the town, supplying local breweries along the Leeds and Liverpool canal with their key ingredients. Perhaps in a nod to that heritage, Skipton today is home to numerous micro-bars and pubs.
Of great architectural interest, however, and often cited as possibly the finest mill to be built in that century, is Victoria Mill on the canal side, built by William Wilkinson in 1847 for the purpose of milling corn. Victoria Mill and associated mill chimney further along the canal, in the direction of Gargrave, are Grade II listed. Its very regular window openings and prominent chimney stacks, together with the survival of the tall mill chimney represents a very good and increasingly rare surviving example of mid-C19 industrial architecture.
Victoria Mill is marked on the First Edition Ordnance Survey map (1854) as a corn mill. It was steam powered and the corn is thought to have produced flour and animal feed for all of Skipton, as well as supplying the surrounding brewery trade. The mill was still marked as a corn mill in 1909, but by 1938 it had been converted into a paper mill. Disused by the 1980s, the mill was converted into apartments in 1988-90.
Historically Victoria Mill serves as a surviving marker of Skipton’s industrialisation in the 19th century, closely associated with the adjacent Leeds and Liverpool canal. Its purpose today demonstrates Skipton’s appeal as a lifestyle town and how the local economy has shifted to tourism and wellbeing, aided by its historic architecture and proximity to the Yorkshire Dales National Park.