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The Interview

Andrew Leatherbarrow

Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities


I caught up with our local Canal and River Trust Volunteer Team Leader to discuss his life and times and check out the details of his present role. I met him just before he was due to move from the Cragg Vale house he had lived in for 40 years.

Andy grew up in Bolton. His brothers were 8 and 10 years older than him. They lived in a council house, but his mum was a midwife, and back in 1938 was given a car, a week to learn how to drive it, and a phone to react to call outs. As a toddler he remembers being given to aunts and uncles who looked after him whilst mum was out delivering babies. Andy's dad, from a family of thirteen children - there's lots of other Leatherbarrows out there - was a boiler maker, "basically, making trains."

After our meeting, Andrew sent a note about his early years. He 'did well at school academically, but always loved playing sport.' Secondary school was a Church of England school in Bolton … 'again a mixture of academic success and lots of sport, basketball, cricket, volleyball, etc. Head boy.' His biology teacher ran the Duke of Edinburgh award. He 'used to take us to moors above Hebden Bridge for expeditions.'

With Drink after work, during his apprenticeship

There was no 6th form at his school, so he left to do an engineering apprenticeship, but studied in the evenings and qualified to study maths at Aberystwyth University … 'Loved it!' In his first year, he 'did some damage to his back whilst playing hockey and had to have an operation, but ended up summitting Mont Blanc, 3 weeks after operation.' He set up and ran a parachute club, 'I got up to doing 20 second freefalls'. On graduating he decided, 'I wanted to work outdoors, not in an office,' so he applied for jobs in outdoor centres and 'ended up working in the Lake District between Windermere and Ambleside.'

Kayaking on rivers in the Yorkshire dales

Two years ago, after a career as an FE outdoor educator, he decided he needed a different challenge and moved to his new role just before COVID entered our lives.

Having a day going riding whilst working in outdoor centre

Q&A with Andrew Leatherbarrow

You joined Canal and River Trust in January, 2020. Can you describe your duties?

As Volunteer Team Leader, I have a wide remit, there is the running of the task forces, rangers and partner groups. This includes recruitment and on site training. I also deal with any community engagement that comes in for the area. Lastly, there are the projects I think will align with CRT aims, related to well-being and promotion of the canal as a nice place to spend time.

The area I cover is all of the Huddersfield Broad Canal, Huddersfield Narrow Canal from lock 1 through to Standedge tunnel, and lastly the Rochdale Canal from Sowerby Bridge to the summit just past Walsden.

I've seen repair work to canal banks. Why are the walls built in a curved manner. It seems to make it tricky for people mooring their boats?

The original design of the canals were based on transporting goods from point A to point B in the quickest fashion, so they are designed for barges moving along the centre of the canal, not moored up. The only real points where mooring was accommodated was where you were loading/ unloading by the mills and wharfs. This is particularly true of the Huddersfield narrow which was designed as a shallow canal, because it was cheaper to build. This does cause issues where a more residential boat owning group wants to have permanent mooring.

Right, and I think there's a charter requiring CRT to maintain the 'structural heritage' of the canals. As for the natural heritage, if you carry out maintenance work, you sometimes have to remove all the fish. Is that a complicated operation?

Yes. If the pound (the stretch of canal between locks) is going to be emptied, then the CRT ecologist does an assessment and will require the fish to be rescued whilst the work is done then returned when its refilled.

How reliant are C&RT on volunteer workers?

Volunteers are a key part of the CRT family going forwards, with limited resources to look after 2000 plus miles of canals, protected heritage sites, listed buildings, sights of special scientific interest and a smaller work force, they are key to ensuring the effective running of the canals. Tuel Lock at Sowerby Bridge is totally volunteer run to allow manned passage through the deepest lock in the country.

Local flood management has included lowering the level of moorland reservoirs. What's the system for maintaining the level of canal water?

Given the reduced number of water resources that we can call on as sources of water, the reduction means it's a careful balancing act between helping to have leeway to absorb high rainfall events to slow down flooding and having full reservoirs as we head into the dryer parts of the year. Water is an important commodity that we are managing on a daily basis.

Andy, can you explain the tasks undertaken by CART and your volunteers when floods happen?

The operative staff are responsible for water control on the canals, so we are always weather watching and will take action to mitigate heavy rainfall events in advance 1-2 days beforehand, certain pounds have waste weirs which allow water to be moved to the river system, so any boards which maintain pound levels at these points are removed to lower the levels to prevent the canal flooding, bywash grids are kept clear of debris to allow water to move down the canal. Also all feeds into the canal are switched off. On some canals there have been works to allow weiring over the gates (Head and Tail) to prevent the water overtopping at locks. Lastly reservoirs are monitored, to ensure they remain operationally safe. This is the flip side to trying to keep water in the canal in order for boat passage to occur.

What's CART's role following a flood, and what tasks do volunteers undertake?

We inspect some structures that we have responsibility for, e.g weir boards on the rivers at draw off point for damage; we are checking levels to see if it's safe to open and use river feeds. Sometimes the canal and river run next to each other in close proximity so we are checking boundary walls etc for any damage.

Was CART involved in the water meadow scheme in Brearley?

CRT has been involved as a key partner, as the river and canal are interconnected throughout the Calder Valley. We work alongside the organisations responsible for the river catchment areas, and this has led to cooperation about planning and carrying out the recent flood prevention works in the Calder Valley, including the installation of a larger waste weir on the canal near Brearley Fields which drops water into the recently created wetlands area, this has been designed to drop water in a controlled manner.

You're the first Leatherbarrow I've met. Where did that magnificent surname originate? Are there many more out there?

It's a Lancashire speciality. I brought the name across the Pennines, but there are many around the Leigh/ Astley area of Lancashire. There are several accounts of the name's origin, but the most likely seems to be it came out of Cumbria around the 13th century, as people from Latterbarrow moved into south Lancashire

What kind of music did you like as a teenager. Any favourites?

At school we were all into the then rock scene, Deep Purple, Led Zepplin, Black Sabbath. I particularly enjoyed the punk era, so my favourite band is Souixie and the Banshees. But I enjoy listening to all sorts of music from classical to current pop.

You worked hard at school, loved sport, were academically successful, became headboy, and you remember visiting the moors above Hebden Bridge?

Yes, strange really as no one in my family was outdoorsy at all. I just responded to a notice in school about the Duke of Edinburgh award being run by the biology teacher, went along and was hooked: didn't progress through the awards but did do all the expeditions. He introduced us all to the moors above Hebden Bridge. So I really owe him an awful lot for that opportunity. A small thing which has had a large impact on choices I have made in life.

I left school at 16, as my school had no 6th form. I had been on several careers events, one of which was an engineer one for local firms, so I filled in forms and was offered an apprenticeship at several firms. I ended up at Hick Hargreaves Ltd in Bolton, on a five year general engineering apprenticeship - learning practical skills alongside gaining ONC and HND qualifications through day and block release.

At university you formed a parachuting society? Tell us more.

At 18 and working, I decided to sort my first holiday away from parents so I booked a two week adventure course in Northumberland at a small centre with the main part being parachuting. When I went to university after my first year playing lots of hockey I decided, with my girlfriend, to start a club, and parachuting came to mind, so we did! Our local centre was Swansea airport, a mere 4 hour plus drive from Aberystwyth University.

You qualified as a schoolteacher, and then became a lecturer, but you managed to combine work with your love of the outdoors?

Yes, I decided to do a teaching PGCE as I was doing a lot of class based teaching in outdoor centres, generally for YTS courses. So I headed off to Bristol, with maths and outdoor education as my subjects. It was a formative experience, and I did a reasonable amount of climbing in the Avon gorge.

When did you move to Cragg Vale?

My mother took early retirement and was looking for a place to buy away from Bolton. I indicated the area around Hebden Bridge as being a nice place so she took a look and came back saying she had bought a small cottage in a place called Cragg Vale. That was in 1979, so I visited and stayed now and again. When she passed away in 1989 I inherited and took up residence and remained there until selling it this month.

Do you do a lot of walking round there?

I have done a lot of local walking over the last two years, discovering different parts of this area. Always setting out from my front door on foot.

You told me there's an area near Great Manshead that played a part in diverting bombers away from Manchester - you can still find the hard standing?

Yes, it was used as a diversion to encourage bombers to unload on the moors rather on the residential and industrial areas of Manchester. Oldham and Rochdale.

Three favourite books?

I'm currently reading a Tim Weaver book which is about his lead character David Raker, who solves missing person cases that the police can't.

Adventure books: I'll choose an inspirational one called The Push, a climber's ambition to climb an unclimbed section of wall in Yosemite, and how his previous life experiences contribute to his ultimate success after many years of effort.

In terms of classics: Laurie Lee's As I walked out one midsummer morning was enjoyable and covered a section of history I didn't know a lot about.

What makes you laugh?

Stories people tell, reminiscing about shared times is always good, but I do like comedy programmes. Black Books is a favourite. When I was young, Dave Allen. So I suppose dark subversive humour!

You've got adult children and a grandchild?

I have two children, the youngest is in her last year at university and the eldest has just had a daughter with his partner, so I have the pleasure of a grandchild. Always a nice thing for anyone to have.

When you're not working, what would make a perfect day for you?

Being out with friends in the outdoors, having an adventure, no better thing regardless of weather.

What question do you wish I had asked - and what would be your answer?

Q: What's next in life?

A: That's the big question I guess, I have gone through most of life's big moments and, having sold my house, can look forward to what I want to do next. The next adventure is waiting but I've no idea what it will be at the moment.

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