Graham Hudson tells the story of an 18th century project to build a canal linking Bedale to the River Swale.

IT WAS a brief reference to Bedale Harbour in Peter Ridley’s article Basin Street Blues in Bedale, which appeared in his Past Times column in the D&S Times of March 17, 2000, which prompted me to delve into the history of this relic of Bedale’s canal age.

Mr Ridley gently mocked the town for building a canal basin with no canal leading to it, but I felt it hardly likely that the Bedalers of the 1760s would have been so foolish.

And so it proved, the project ultimately failing not through any impracticality in engineering a navigation to Bedale, but through financial problems.

From John M Graham’s Millennium Book of Topcliffe, I discovered the role played by the civil engineer John Grundy.

In February 1767, Grundy reported favourably on this locally- promoted project to render Bedale Beck and the River Swale navigable to the Ure, thereby linking Bedale with York, Hull and places beyond.

The Swale could be made navigable with several locks, but Grundy regarded the beck itself as too narrow and winding for this, and instead recommended linking Bedale to the Swale with a new canal.

His estimate for the whole scheme from Swale Nab to Bedale was just under £20,000.

An Act of Parliament was obtained in April 1767, and John Smith was appointed as resident engineer to oversee construction.

The case for the canal had been put so clearly that I was surprised to learn that the commissioners had subsequently decided to improve the beck instead – the very idea that Grundy had rejected.

Nevertheless, that was what Smith undertook and, over the following three years, what had once been a very meandering stream was transformed into the series of largely straight cuts we see today.

Traces of the old meanders can still be seen in the adjoining fields.

Grundy envisaged the canal basin on the Aiskew side of Bedale Beck, opposite the site of today’s Big Sheep and Little Cow open farm.

This would have placed it 700yds from the town centre, and it was probably for this reason that Smith changed the location to where we see the harbour today, on the Bedale side and a quarter-of-amile closer.

In those days, the beck followed a course much nearer to Aiskew Mill, and building the harbour entailed the stoppage of the mill for long periods while the basin and its adjacent channels were excavated and the beck redirected through it.

The prime source for North Riding waterways history is Charles Hadfield’s Canals of Yorkshire and North-East England (D&C 1972), but Hadfield did overlook one of this project’s major engineering works.

A lock was needed at Leeming Mill, and Smith realised that building it would lift the upstream level of the beck above that of its tributary, the Floodbridge Beck, leading to the latter backing up and flooding Snape Mires.

Smith’s solution was to dam off the tributary and extend it via a half-mile of new channel to discharge directly into the lock itself.

Known as the Snape Cut, this watercourse runs parallel to Bedale Beck, though it no longer extends to Leeming Lock, but joins the main beck just short of the A1 Leeming bypass.

Smith also planned a lock some distance below Bedale Harbour and we know from Hird’s Annals of Bedale (NYCRO, 1975) that stone for this was led to the field known as Dumfodders, but, as Hird records, “that lock was never seen.”

In January 1769, a lock was completed at Topcliffe enabling vessels to reach the confluence with Bedale Beck when the river was high, and further locks were planned.

But, by the middle of August, the commissioners were finding difficulty in getting promised money from the subscribers and, in December, all work stopped at Dumfodders and elsewhere along the navigation, never to be resumed.

Thus, the project failed.

Smith estimated that £25,000 was still needed, but, though a second Act was obtained in 1770 enabling the raising of further capital, there were to be no takers.

Today, Bedale Beck affords a pleasant afternoon’s walk, following the long, straight cuts down from the harbour to cross the bridge below Floodbridge Farm, from where one can return to Bedale via permissive paths and public footpaths.

Pursuing the history of the Swale and Bedale Beck navigation has taken me to records offices and libraries in Northallerton, York, Leeds and Wakefield, to the Institute of Civil Engineers in London, and the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster.

But questions remain unanswered and one can but hope that further evidence will come to light.

What, for instance, became of the navigation’s accounts, which Thomas Hird saw, but only partly transcribed, and the engineer’s weekly reports of the building of Bedale Harbour?

Do these or other records still exist somewhere in Bedale, I wonder? If so, I would love to hear about them.