More than a year has passed since I completed the most recent stage of my project to walk the river Mersey from its source to the sea. I left the river at Sale in the south Manchester conurbation, where it crossed the Bridgewater canal. Now, looking at the map, I realised that it was going to be virtually impossible to walk the bank of the river from this point to Warrington since the Mersey is either surrounded by industry and inaccessible to walkers- or absorbed into the Manchester Ship canal. Only at Warrington, another ten miles or so downstream, does the river regain an independent identity and become accessible again to walkers.
So for this stage I decided to follow the Bridgewater canal through the broad valley that the Mersey shaped as it wended its way through the Cheshire countryside, aeons ago, long before humans settled here and thought of naming the place.
I got the train to Deansgate, and then the Metrolink tram out to Timperley, where I rejoined the Bridgewater canal. The tow-path walk forms part of the Cheshire Ring, a 97 mile circuit of canal paths through the county.
The Bridgewater Canal was developed in stages, taking more than 35 years to complete. Construction began in 1759 – the section I walked opened in 1766. It’s a ‘contour canal’ – so-called because it maintains the same elevation along its length. There are, therefore, no locks. The canal is named after the man whose idea it was: Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater who built the canal to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester. The Bridgewater is Britain’s first real canal (rather than the canalised sections of rivers that heralded the age of the canal), so it is the forerunner of the network of canals that developed between the 1760s and the 1830s.
As a young man Francis Egerton, travelling in Europe, had been impressed with the canals on the continent, and this spurred him on to develop this means of transport to serve his collieries in Lancashire. He was 23 years old when he presented his first Bill to Parliament to compel landowners to cede land for the construction. He gained support from businessmen in Manchester and Salford with his undertaking to reduce the delivered price of coal in Manchester to no more that 4d per cwt. The first stage from Worsley to Castlefield in Manchester opened in 1761, and did indeed supply Manchester with cheaper coal.
For the first few miles of the walk the canal skirted the northern fringes of Altrincham, where Manchester’s suburban sprawl pushes towards Cheshire farm land. It’s been interesting on my canal walks to see how the growing popularity of waterside living has resulted in new canalside housing development, sometimes quite prestigious. There was an architecturally dramatic example on this stretch, with twin apartment blocks protruding above the canal like the bows of two ocean liners.
These days Altrincham is part of the south Manchester commuter belt, prosperous and often labelled ‘stockbroker country’. But Altrincham, and especially Broadheath, the area through I was passing now, was once industrial, with its own docks, warehouses and factories. In 1801 there were four cotton mills in Altrincham, part of its textile industry, although they had closed by mid-century. Later, the proximity to rail, canal and road links was attractive to companies making machine tools, cameras and grinding machines, and by 1914, there were 14 companies operating in Broadheath, employing thousands of workers.
One remnant of that industrial presence remains on the opposite bank – the fine Linotype Works building, dated 1897. The works utilized the Bridgewater canal for both receiving raw materials and distributing finished products – there once was a wharf here. Linotype also created 172 workers’ homes near the factory, that manufactured linotype printing machines.
Soon, though, the canal pushes out beyond the conurbation, into leafy suburbia and then open farm land. The canal side scene changes: along the banks up to Lymm and beyond are many enterprises dedicated to supporting the leisure craft that now ply up and down the canal, and several times I came upon long stretches of moored narrowboats, dreaming of weekend and holiday voyages.
Into the countryside, and it became clear what a good year it has been for berries and soft fruit – the wet, chilly spring followed by long, warm summer days full of sunshine has been ideal, apparently. We’ve seen it on our allotment, and in the park where the rowan trees have been resplendent with scarlet berries these past weeks. Along the canal, rowan, elderberries and blackberries offered a profuse bounty, and I met a few people out picking blackberries.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
– from ‘Blackberry-picking by Seamus Heaney
A mile or so of country walking brought me to Dunham Massey, where I broke away from the canal to take a quick look at the Dunham Massey estate, a National Trust property with a Georgian house set in a magnificent deer park. The place was first mentioned in 1323, but the present house was built in 1732 for George Booth who was descended from the first owner, Hamon de Massey.
I only had time for a quick look, strolling through the deer park that extends before the house, and where holidaying children were entranced by the deer (there’s a herd of around 150 fallow deer on the estate). I took a walk through the winter garden where I was impressed by the stands of silver birch.
The thing I was really here to see was the old corn mill that has stood here for 500 years and is the oldest building in the park. There is a long history of water mills on the Dunham estate, dating back to 1347. There were probably five medieval water mills on the River Bollin nearby, all leased to tenant millers. The present Old Mill was constructed around 1616, and would have been financially important to the Dunham Massey estate. ‘Soke rights’ meant that they could insist that all the corn grown by their tenants was milled here. From its construction until the 1860s, the Old Mill was a corn mill. It ground wheat, malt and barley for the House and for the local tenant farmers.
By the 19th century the mill was too small to cope with the amount of grain produced on the estate, and in the 1860s it was converted to a water-powered sawmill and was replaced by Bollington Mill half a mile away on the river Bollin, now converted into apartments.
The saw mill was used for processing tree trunks to produce fence posts, floorboards, window frames and other carpentry and joinery elements for the estate. In the early 20th century the mill was replaced by an up to date steam-powered saw mill located outside the park.
A short walk from the Old Mill brought me to the river Bollin. I grew up in a Cheshire landscape shaped by the Bollin and its own tributary, the Deane. At Dunham, an aqueduct carries the Bridgewater canal over the Bollin. The coming of the Bridgewater canal did not affect the Bollin, but the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal did. For a long stretch between Irlam and Bollin Point, the Mersey and the Ship Canal are one and the same. So now, instead of joining the Mersey as one of that river’s age-old tributaries, the Bollin now flows into the Ship Canal and its original confluence with the Mersey has been lost. Just beyond Bollin Point, the Mersey leaves the Ship Canal and follows its original course towards Warrington.
I stopped for awhile at the nearby pub, delightfully named The Swan with Two Nicks, Little Bollington’s old village pub. On the pub’s website there’s an explanation of how the pub got its name: it’s all to do with swan upping, the annual process of taking a census of swans on a particular river and marking them. These days, the birds are ringed, but in the past the two companies who have carried out the count under Royal Charter since the 15th century – the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company, two Livery Companies of the City of London – made their own marks on the birds’ beaks: one nick for a dyers’ bird and two for a vintners’.
From the medieval period into the twentieth century, the entire village of Little Bollington belonged to the estates of the Earls of Stamford and Warrington whose family seat was Dunham Massey. Each building in the village was given a number in the estate papers. In those days, the formal name of The Swan with Two Nicks was Bollington Tenement No. 17.
Having enjoyed a welcome pint of Swan with Two Nicks ale, specially brewed for the pub, I rejoined the Bridgewater canal and forged on towards Lymm and Warrington. Bridgewater decided to extend the Canal to the Mersey tideway at Runcorn to establish a link with the port of Liverpool. Despite opposition, the Duke’s third Act to make this possible was passed in March 1762. The need for an embankment and aqueduct over the Mersey at Sale Moor, and across the Bollin, coupled with disputes with landowners, delayed completion for many years.
Walking up to Lymm, I wondered why Bridgewater routed his canal through this pretty Cheshire village. I found the answer on an interpretation board by the canal in the village. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lymm was a small industrial town, and the canal transported goods produced in Lymm, including the production of nails and metal hoops for beer barrels and fustian (a coarse cloth made of cotton mixed with flax to produce labourers’ clothing and sailcloth), as well as farm crops. One of the old canal warehouses still remains at Agden Wharf, a mile and a half outside Lymm.
One of the goods transported to Lymm was nightsoil from Manchester: in the days before sewerage systems, human excrement was collected from the city and transported into Cheshire to be spread on farmers’ fields.
Today, Lymm is a pretty village, noted for its historic buildings. But it’s a place that has stood four-square in the line of successive transport developments. Bridgewater’s plans for the canal divided the village, and opposition by local landowners held up its development. Nowadays, however, the canal provides a picturesque backcloth to village life as narrow boats cruise leisurely up and down.
Those who opposed the plans for the canal lobbied Parliament. A few decades later it was the canal owners who lobbied Parliament to oppose the construction of the railways. The railway came to Lymm in 1853 – a line long since closed and the track torn up, but leaving behind the track bed which would provide the last two or three miles of my walk.
Now a new railway is coming to Lymm and the locals are up in arms. As I walked through the village I encountered several posters rallying opposition to HS2 – the Manchester spur will cross the Bridgewater canal and the Bollin to the east of Lymm, and fears are growing about the impact on the local alndscape.
Ironically, for the next mile, as I walked along a bucolic stretch of the canal and then left it to join the Trans-Pennine Trail, the roar of traffic on on the M6 nearby was a constant presence. The noise grew as I approached the point where the Trail passes under the motorway, just south of the Thelwall Viaduct.
I branched off from the canal to join the Trans-Pennine Trail for the last mile or so to the Manchester Ship canal on the outskirts of Warrington. The trail follows the route of an old Garston to Timperley railway line that opened in 1853. with stations along the way at Dunham Massey, Lymm and Thelwall.
With the M6 behind me, the Trail was peaceful, a green tunnel that felt almost like walking through an ancient holloway.
I pondered the incongruity (at least these days) of a railway line from Timperley to Garston. Back then, I suppose, it linked the industries around Altrincham to the Garston docks, as well as giving the rural inhabitants of Dunham Massey and Lymm the opportunity to step on a train in their village and get off in Liverpool or Manchester.
Ownership of the line passed to LNWR in 1861 then the LMS in 1923, until the formation of British Rail in 1948. In the following years, however, the story of the line is one echoed across the country – an increase in car ownership led to a decrease in use of railways. The infamous Beeching Report recommended closure of the line, and passenger services ended in 1962. The line continued to carry freight for a further 23 years. But by then extensive repairs were required to the high level bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal at Latchford and the line was closed, the last train running in July 1985. The Trans-Pennine trail opened in 1993.
At Latchford the Trail leaves the railway embankment (the bridge would obviously defeat every risk assessment schedule you could throw at it). Passing under the bridge, I arrived at the Manchester Ship Canal. The last time I was here was on a blisteringly hot day in June 2009, sailing up the canal from Liverpool on one of the regular Mersey Ferries cruises.
I crossed the canal on the Barton Road swing bridge and looked east towards Latchford locks. Turning in the other direction, I saw a container ship approaching from the direction of Liverpool. As I reached the Warrington bank of the canal, warning bells rang and lights flashed, announcing that the swing bridge was about to close to allow the ship to pass.
I stood and watched as the bridge swung round on its massive cog to allow the ship to pass. An impressive piece of engineering that is now a grade II listed structure. Even more impressive, a little further downstream, is the Barton Aqueduct Swing Bridge that carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Ship Canal in the form of a giant rectangular metal box!
That was it, I was done for the day. I caught a bus to the train station, passing over the river Mersey on the way. Next time, I’ll walk the Mersey around Warrington.
- Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale
- Seeking sea level: walking the Mersey from source to sea: links to all my Mersey walks
- Cruising the canal: Pier Head to Salford Quays
- The Duke’s Cut: complete text of book on the history of the Bridgewater canal by CJ Wood
- Lymm’s industrial history