The Sheffield canal cruise you can enjoy that will transport you back to the city's industrial past
What was built to work and now serves to relax? Welcome to the Sheffield and Tinsley canal, your transport to something special.
Green and clean, the canal is a far cry from its industrial heritage, having been built to work for the merchants of the 19th Century.
Now you can take a heritage cruise, soak up the history and relax as dragonflies perch on water lilies.
Our hosts are Dorrie Grange, her sister Georgina and husband Paul, the family behind A and G Passenger Boats, based in Victoria Quays on the edge of the city centre.
Dorrie, aged 58, will tell the stories and Paul, 57, will steer. Georgina stays behind because there’s work to do.
The heritage cruises have been a constant for the firm since it was set up in 1996 and that’s what we take, setting off from Victoria Quays and heading for Tinsley Locks.
On board the LB Hardfeet, it is easy to get comfortable. The boat was built to Dorrie and Paul’s specifications in 2008 and can accommodate up to 70 guests.
Low level windows give good views of the canal’s industrial past and green open spaces.
“We are part of the city’s heritage and if you get a cruise where people really want to know, we will tell them,” says Dorrie.
A lot of the history revolves around the Duke of Norfolk, who owned the land the canal was built on in 1819.
Prior to that, says Dorrie, most of Atterciffe was farmland but the industrial revolution and war with France was changing everything.
Merchants started wielding more power and told the duke they wanted to get their goods to sea, which meant building a canal. It would also help the war effort, taking cannon balls from Sheffield to the frontline.
The duke was less keen, wanting to protect what he had and the argument continued for 15 years by which time the war was over and soldiers could be used as labourers.
It took four years to build and the 20 locks at Tinsley lead you to Stainforth where you can reach the coast at Keadly.
So starting at Victoria Quays is Terminal Warehouse, the only original building left in the basin. It was used for storage and had a grain house. There’s also Sheaf Quay, the first steam powered cutlery firm in Sheffield.
“The reason the canal is here is it was here to serve,” says Dorrie.
The opening section is still industrial but as we sail out there are lots of boats moored, with people living on them. We’re going at three miles an hour with options for a two-hour journey to Tinsley or 90 minutes to Don Valley.
Dorrie remembers taking school trips where there was no hint of green until what she calls Attercliffe Cut, just before the Olympic Legacy Park. “Now it’s much greener. There’s been a conscious effort to plant more trees.”
That’s thanks to the efforts of volunteers from the Canal River Trust, which also got funding to relay the footpath so you can now walk from Victoria Quays to Tinsley Locks.
It’s all very pleasant and within 20 minutes of setting off, it is green as far as the eye can see.
Factories and workshops are shielded by trees, dragonflies buzz around and there are lilies on the surface of the water. A far cry from when the water was orange due to iron ore being pumped in from the former Nunnery Colliery.
As we sale up to Bacon Lane Bridge, there’s a huge swathe of red brick wall, with one patch of white. Time for the first tale from the canal. “Thieves removed the red bricks and tried to break into a scrapyard,” says Dorrie. “We knew what was going on and the police were there to stop them.”
Around the bridge is where the brilliant steal a steel scene from the Full Monty was shot. Who didn’t laugh as Gax played by Robert Carlyle reclaimed a steel from his old factory, put it halfway across the canal onto a car marooned in the water only to get stuck?
Gaz wouldn’t find any cars now, the water is almost pristine. And on the walls of the footpath is some impressive graffiti art which features among other Billie Eilish.
Guests have included Sheffield Council offers who like to point out what’s listed and the casts from various theatre shows have enjoyed a cruise once their run is over.
It’s easy to see why, as Dorrie explains. “The cruise takes you away for 90 minutes from the hussle and bustle of life. Just sit and relax.
“You can escape and you’ve not had to go far to do it. If you want to do something special, this is it.”
As the journey continues, you wonder if Dorrie ever gets bored. “I see different things every time,” she says, as we reach the Olympic Legacy Park.
Now the industry is long gone. Flowers adorn the walls and Dorrie has more tales.
“I remember a rave outside the OLP which we sailed past one Saturday evening and they were still going, swimming in the canal, when we passed on Sunday morning.”
There’s more as we pass an alcohol recycling centre. “There were crates of beer stacked outside for two days in a row and then on the third we noticed they’d gone. It turned out someone cut a hole in the fans and people started helping themselves.”
It is interesting to see how everyone respects the barge, fishermen moving their rods and poles aside when we pass. We reach Tinsley Locks in what feels like no time, although it has actually been an hour.
Volunteers from the Canal River Trust are doing maintenance after coving stones fell on the tow path. The work never stops but the canal is so still and peaceful you don’t notice.
It’s time for Paul to turn the boat around for the return journey and as he does so we discover he’s nursing a broken nose after hitting the ice when skating two days before ago.
But it will take more than that to stop him and the same can be said if the company.
In 26 years, only five cruises have been cancelled. “It’s a proud record, we don’t stop for much,” says Dorrie.
The pandemic did stop them. They had no choice after being as classed in the same category as theatres. Fortunately, the company had no debt and with an office it qualified for business grants and furlough.
“There were points when we thought we might have to close,” says Dorrie.
“It is still an issue, we could sell the boat and if we go to another lockdown, who knows?”
They did reopen for a period in summer 2020 and Dorrie says: “The phone was ringing because people thought we were getting back to normal.
“Now people are cancelling because we can’t do what they want to, like a hen party cancelled recently because they couldn’t dance.”
But they are resilient despite the knockbacks. Dorrie used the time in lockdown to redesign the website at her Sheffield home in Upper Crabtree.
The website now has lots more pictures along with the content Dorrie wanted.
As lockdown eased, the family began to run heritage cruises with groups of six socially distanced and Dorrie hopes to be able to return to the days of wedding parties, poetry readings and busker boats. “We’ll take whatever we can that pays a penny.”
The company started in 1996 as Aitken Grange Cruising, with a hotel boat called Tiny Purple, taking guests around the canal network. The family ran a restaurant on the boat and realised their winter earnings were matching the summer income.
“I thought that was interesting so we looked into getting a bigger boat and finally got one in 2000,” says Dorrie.
“We stripped it out and refitted it, that was called A39.”
It cost £30,000, was built in 1932 as a Leeds-Liverpoool short boat at 60ft. And so A and G Passenger Boats was born and for a while the family ran two boats.
Staffing proved a problem so the hotel boat went. Now they have the LB Hardfeet, which has served many parties including ones on Christmas Day.
Dorrie did the cooking, following her mum who was in the catering trade. “I’ve done Christmas Dinner and if you have it with us you get fresh turkey,” she says.
“But the staff have a life and Christmas is one day a year which everybody has the right to enjoy.”
The regular menu offers favourites such as pie and peas. Dorrie has also put on petit fours. “I tried getting a fancy chef, but it is a small kitchen and you need to be organised.”
She is organised and the experience the family offers is magical in many ways. It is well worth a spell of your time.
Book via phone 0114 2786314 or email [email protected] and visit the website sheffieldboats.co.uk