The Chesterfield Canal in northern England will be celebrating its 240th birthday in 2017. It originally connected West Stockwith to Chesterfield over 40 miles away, and like many canals of the pre-industrial 18th century, goods were transported by horse-drawn barges. To make their way up and down a 250-foot difference in altitude required locks—64 of them all together—and one particular section is known as the Giant’s Staircase.
The Chesterfield and its locks represent the peak of 18th century canal construction, thanks in large part to the expertise of an engineer named James Brindley, master of staircase lock design. Multiple locks clustered together on a canal are known as “flights,” and grouping locks together so one directly feeds another, creates a “staircase.” In this case, one fit for a giant.
OK, so the term here is a little bit looser than is technically a lock staircase, but the name was locally coined, and it is a combination of two flights—with a rise of almost 100 feet, nearly the height of a 10-story building. Even more impressive for canal enthusiasts (and yes, the world is full of canal enthusiasts), on this stretch of the Chesterfield there are 20 locks within a single mile, an engineering feat likely unequaled anywhere else on the British canal network.
The Chesterfield Canal is also known as the Cuckoo Dyke, picking up the name from cargo boats called “cuckoos,” a unique type found only on the Chesterfield. They were never mechanically powered, but were horse drawn right up to the end of commercial traffic in the 1950s. Real cuckoo boats are long gone, but an accurate reproduction has recently been built by members of the Chesterfield Canal Trust (who prefer the term “last of the line” rather than replica).
No one really knows where the “cuckoo” name came from, and seeing the replica (or any other boats) navigate the flights is relatively rare. But the canal is undergoing ambitious restoration plans, so check with Canal Trust to find out about their occasional boat trips. Plan it right and you can catch one up or down the staircase.
Know Before You Go
The Giant’s Staircase is in Shireoaks, about 20 miles southeast of Sheffield. You can visit on foot, and the best place to park is adjacent to the Shireoaks mooring basin at the Marina, off Shireoaks Road. You can walk the canal from there.
To find out more about boating on the canal, check the Chesterfield Canal Trust website. Occasionally they offer boat trips up the Giant’s Staircase, a fantastic experience even if you don’t think you’re interested in canals. But trust them – you will be.