The months drifted by, and to complete my plan to walk the Mersey from source to the sea I still had the section from Warrington down to Widnes to do.  On what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, four of us set out on a walk through 250 years of industrial history.

Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie
Setting out: with Tommy, George and Bernie

I had conceived the idea of a 12-mile hike, walking the length of Sankey Brook from St Helens, passing to the west of Warrington to reach the Mersey at Fiddler’s Ferry and then along the Mersey to Spike Island at Widnes. The reason? I remembered from O-level History that the Sankey Brook Navigation – also known as the St Helens Canal – was Britain’s first canal when it opened in 1757, the precursor of the ‘canal mania’ of the late 18th century.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 3
Stanley Bank canal wharf on the Blackbrook branch

The actual starting point of the Sankey Canal is in the centre of St Helens, near to the Tesco store (originally, the canal stretched further, past the later Pilkingtons’ glass works, but that section was infilled in 1898, when Pilkingtons extended the glass works). However, in order to have a place to park the car, we began our walk at the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre on the Blackbrook branch, just outside the town centre.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 2
Stanley Bank Wharf: the derrick sculpture

There were four of us – myself, Bernie (with whom I’ve walked the Sandstone Trail, and who is shortly leaving to walk another leg of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim trail through northern Italy), Tommy (who has just completed research for the Reader Organisation into Siegfried Sassoon’s connections with Liverpool) and Tommy’s brother George (like the rest of us an adult educationalist who once taught in Hampshire where he often walked the South Downs Way, something I hope to do myself some day, and who left the comfortable south for St Helens. He was based in an adult education centre that, in a hallucinatory manner, we found ourselves passing repeatedly during the day, the result of errors of navigation on my part).

There were no mistakes in finding the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre, and it seemed we were off to a good start. Near to the Visitor Centre is Stanley Basin, once a loading wharf for coal which arrived from a nearby collieries by means of an inclined plane. Nearby are the remains of Stanley Iron Slitting Mill, built around 1773, which processed iron ingots, forged at Carr Mill and transported here along a branch canal. The ingots were heating and rolled, then slit into sheet metal bars for the local nail-making industry.

Stanley Bank canal wharf 1
Stanley Bank Wharf: Tommy inspects one of the sculptures

And there you have the reason for the construction of the canal: the need to move coal in large quantities to serve the burgeoning industries around Liverpool and in west Lancashire. There are two sculptures at Stanley Bank Wharf, designed to commemorate this industrial history. One is of the kind of coal cart in use around here in the early 18th century, the other is of a wharf derrick.

The creation of the canal brought about the growth of St Helens and the industrial development of the town. Before its construction, the movement of goods between the expanding port of Liverpool and the outlying areas had been extremely difficult. Horse drawn carts were the major form of transport – along roads that were just rough tracks and which were virtually impassable in winter. The biggest problem lay in moving quantities of heavy coal, needed for the growing industries of Liverpool and surrounding areas.

I used to work at the FE college in the Old Swan district of Liverpool. Before the advent of the canals and the railways, Old Swan had grown up around inns that offered refreshment to hauliers and their horses who led packhorse trains into Liverpool down the lane from Prescot through Old Swan, sometimes with as many as fifty horses roped together, panniers loaded with coal from the Lancashire mines for Liverpool. They would make the return trip with American cotton from the docks bound for mills in the Manchester area. That was how it was until the canals and the railway came.

The Sankey canal was built principally to transport coal to Liverpool from mines around St Helens, and was first conceived as a navigation: instead of digging a completely new canal, the idea was to make the Sankey Brook navigable by barges. The plan was supported by Liverpool businessmen who employed Henry Berry to survey the route (Berry had previously worked with Thomas Steers, Liverpool’s first Dock Engineer, on the Newry Canal in Northern Ireland, the UK’s first canal). Berry was Second Dock Engineer for Liverpool, but was released for two days a week by the Dock Trustees to work on the canal.

However, a problem emerged: Henry Berry’s survey revealed that the Sankey water course was too small to convert into a navigation. At the time the idea of digging a new canal across someone’s land was as about as popular as a proposal to frack is now.  Indeed, Parliament had just refused permission for a canal in another part of the country. So the promoters resorted to a bit of subterfuge, presenting the scheme to Parliament as the Sankey Navigation, but with clauses embedded in the bill which allowed the engineers ‘to make cuts, canals, trenches or passages for water, in, upon or through lands or grounds adjoining or near to the River’. Parliament approved the scheme and work began in 1755.

Map of Sankey canal
Map of Sankey canal in 1833

The St Helens Canal opened in November 1757, with over 95% of its original ten mile length cut through new ground, making it the first canal to be dug in England (though, because this was proposed as a navigation, some histories give the accolade to the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, opened in 1761, that eventually brought coal from his mines in Worsley, near Manchester to the Mersey at Runcorn.

St Helens 1824 (www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)
A view of St Helens in 1824 (from http://www.sthelenshistory.co.uk)

The St Helens canal was an outstanding success, reducing the cost of transporting coal to Liverpool and leading to cheaper coal. New industries boomed; for example, in 1779 a copper smelting works was opened at Blackbrook. The ore for the works was mined in Anglesey which was one of the largest producers of copper ore in the world at that time. From there it was shipped to the Mersey and up the canal to Blackbrook where the ore was smelted into copper.

The Old Double Lock
The Old Double Lock

Leaving the Stanley Basin things got off to a shambolic start, the result of rubbish map-reading on my part which resulted in us circling St Augustine school playing fields at least twice (that night I dreamed I saw St Augustine) and heading off down the wrong brook (Sutton Brook, not Sankey Brook). By the time we had orientated ourselves successfully the clouds had parted and the day was seriously warming up.

Finally on course, we came to the Old Double Lock, the first staircase lock in England, built in 1757 with two chambers. It is known as the Old Double Lock because a second lock staircase, the New Double Lock was built a mile to the west in 1770.

Sankey Brook 2

Sankey Brook 1
Along Sankey Brook

This was a walk through classic ‘edgelands‘ territory, as defined by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their book, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, so I expected something different to what we found. Robert Macfarlane provided a succinct definition of the terrain in a review he wrote of their book:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

We certainly encountered several of those items.  There were brownfield sites and allotments upon which so many sheds had been erected that it looked like a shanty town, and we skirted the transit hub that has grown up on the site of the old USAF airbase at Burtonwood (Asda, et al) and the Gemini retail park that boasts IKEA as its main attraction. But although we were following the course of an old canal (sluggish in parts, filled in for the most part), this was cleaned-up edgelands.  Land that had once ranked amongst the most polluted on earth has now been transformed by St Helens and Warrington councils into the Sankey Valley Park, a pleasant, almost bucolic corridor hemmed in by industries, housing developments, railway lines, dual carriageways and a motorway.

Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds
Broad Oak Basin fishing ponds

For instance: a short distance beyond the dried-out Broad Oak Basin, where coal from Broad Oak Colliery was brought by tram-road to be loaded into boats, we found several old sections of the canal that remain in water as fishing ponds, wooden platforms for the fisher-folk helpfully provided by the local council.

Havannah Flashes

Havannah Flashes 4

Havannah Flashes 2
Havannah Flashes

At Havannah Flashes there is an attractive stretch with areas of open water edged with tall, golden rushes.  The Flashes are the result of ground subsidence after the nearby Havannah Colliery mined too close to the surface.

Sankey Valley 1
Following the line of the in-filled canal

Along this stretch the canal has been in-filled, but further on the water returns. It was here that we came across a team of council workmen restoring the canal bank where the stonework had been collapsing into the water.  They were also installing sandbag-like rolls of rushes to support the banks and resurfacing the path.  It was good that such work was still proceeding, even in times of austerity (Our Local Voice, the website of an independent group of volunteers from the local area, states that, unlike most of Britain’s other canals which are the responsibility of the Canal And River Trust (formerly British Waterways), the Sankey is the responsibility of the three local authorities through which it passes – St Helens, Warrington and Halton).

Sankey Valley 2

At times we would have water on both sides – canal to our right and brook to our left. Along other stretches the canal had been in-filled, and sometimes the path followed the course of the buried canal.

Sankey Valley 3

The canal disappears in the stretch skirting the edge of Newton Common, but after Penkford Bridge, which carries the main road from St Helens to Newton-le-Willows, the canal is once again in water.

Sankey Valley 4

Penkford Bridge was originally a swing bridge, but now is permanent with very low clearance. We saw a lot of this along the way: in some cases the canal had been in-filled for a road crossing, making it seem extremely unlikely that the canal could ever be reopened in its entirety, even though that remains the long-term aim of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society:

There is only one ‘First Canal of the Industrial Revolution’ – it’s the Sankey, and it should never have been allowed to fall into the neglected state it was in by the 1970’s. We intend to ensure that the canal’s primacy is fully acknowledged, and that funds are found to return it to full navigation.

In the meantime, the Society’s volunteers continue to protect and restore, where possible, the canal’s remaining infrastructure. We came across several examples of this on our walk: locks which had been buried by infilling, but now partly uncovered by Society volunteers (as at Newton Common Lock, just before Penkford Bridge, and at Winwick Lock, where we stopped for lunch.  The Society is currently concentrating on their ‘Linking the Locks’ project which seeks to open up navigation again to the lower sections of the canal between Fiddler’s Ferry and its river entrance at Spike Island, Widnes.

Sankey Viaduct 1
Approaching Sankey Viaduct

Soon we were approaching the highpoint of the walk – at least in terms of industrial archaeology. The nine arches of the Sankey Viaduct were designed by George Stephenson in 1830 to carry the Manchester to Liverpool railway line, the world’s first passenger railway, across the Sankey Canal and Sankey Brook with enough clearance to allow Mersey flats, the barges for which the canal was constructed, to pass beneath with sails raised (as can be seen in the 1831 print, below).

Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, from Bury's Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1831
Viaduct across the Sankey Valley, print from Bury’s ‘Liverpool and Manchester Railway’, 1831

It must have seemed like a new wonder of the world at the time, but must have sent a chill through those working on, or investing in the canal. In fact, although the advent of the railway saw canal earnings fall, to counter competition from the railway, a further extension of the canal was cut from Fiddler’s Ferry across Widnes salt marshes to the Mersey at Widnes, opening in 1833.

The viaduct is now designated a Grade I listed building, its listing describing it as ‘the earliest major railway viaduct in the world’.  According to the Spartacus Educational website:

The Sankey Brook Navigation Company objected to the building of the railway and made life difficult for George Stephenson and his team of engineers by insisting on a 60 ft clearance over their canal. William Allcard was given the responsibility of designing the Sankey Viaduct and came up with a nine arch structure. Each of the arches is of 50 ft span and rises from massive sandstone slabs quarried locally, including at Olive Mount [in Wavertree, Liverpool]. Thousands of tons of marl and moss, compacted with brushwood, was used to increase the height of the embankment. The Sankey Viaduct was built of brick with stone facings and cost the company over £45,000 to produce.

Sankey Viaduct 2

The sight of the viaduct had us all recalling history lessons at school in which we learnt about the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and how, when it was near to completion, the directors of the railway organised a competition to decide whether stationary steam engines or locomotives would be used to pull the trains. In October 1829, five engines competed, running back and forth along a mile length of level track at Rainhill. Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials, and was declared the winner.

A year later, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway took place on 15 September 1830, with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, riding on one of eight inaugural trains. Huge crowds lined the track at Liverpool to watch the trains depart for Manchester.  But the day was marred by mishaps.

The trains left Liverpool on time, with the Duke of Wellington’s special train on one track, and the other seven trains running on a parallel track. About 13 miles out of Liverpool the first of many problems occurred, when one of the trains derailed and the following train collided with it. However, there were no injuries or damage, and the derailed locomotive was lifted back onto the track and the journey continued.

At Parkside railway station, near the midpoint of the line, the locomotives made a scheduled stop to take on water. Although the railway staff advised passengers to remain on the trains while this took place, around 50 of the dignitaries on board alighted, including William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool. Distracted, he did not notice the Rocket approaching on the adjacent track. Panicking, he fell  in front of the train, suffering serious leg injuries and died that night.  Not surprisingly, this provoked a flurry of concern about the safety of the railway. However, a report in Mechanics Magazine the following month strove to calm fears:

We shall only observe, that no inconvenience whatever was felt by any of the passengers, even when moving at the extraordinary rate of 20 and 25 miles an hour. The motion, on the contrary, was smooth and easy beyond any thing hitherto experienced on the smoothest turnpikes of Mr. McAdam, so much so, that we could read with the greatest ease, and even manage to write a letter. In a very short time we became quite unconscious of the rapid motion, and at the highest speed which we attained, we could observe the passengers, among whom were a good many ladies, talking to gentlemen with the utmost sang-froid. From all that we have observed, we should consider the rate of 25 miles an hour, on a level, or nearly level, road, as perfectly practicable and safe.

Sankey Viaduct Illustration from the “Penny Magazine, 1830
Sankey Viaduct: an illustration from the Penny Magazine, 1830

The viaduct is still in use, but the last sailing barges passed under its arches in 1919. The canal was abandoned north of this point in 1931, and the path now follows the line of the towpath, with the in-filled canal bed to the right.

Sankey Viaduct 3

As we passed underneath the arches, we noted the graffiti painted along the parapet; terrifying to think of youngsters out there on a narrow ledge 70 feet above the ground!

Sankey Viaduct, 1930 (c National Railway Museum)
Sankey Viaduct in 1930 (c National Railway Museum)

Nearby was the site of the Sankey Sugar Works, opened in 1855 and the last industrial user of the canal.  Raw cane sugar imported through the Liverpool docks was converted at the refinery into the finished white product.

Sankey Sugar

The Sankey Sugar Company was eventually taken over by a Dutch firm in 1924. The refinery ceased operation in 1959, leading to the closure of the last navigable section of the canal in 1963. The canal above the sugar works had already been abandoned in 1931.

All four of us walkers were old enough to remember bags of Sankey Sugar from our childhood.

A short way beyond Sankey Viaduct, we found the canal back in water at Bradley Lock, where the upper lock gates are still in place.  On the OS map I noticed that we were passing through Mucky Mountains Nature Reserve, and wondered how it had got its name. It turns out that the ‘mountains’ are mounds of waste from a nearby soda making works. Musprat’s Vitriol Works produced two tons of waste for each ton of soda.

Sankey Valley 5 Sankey Valley 6 Sankey Valley 7

Despite the Mucky Mountains appellation, this is a picturesque stretch of the canal, edged by wooded bluffs splashed with white blackthorn blossom. Swans were nesting on the Brook, and the damp, shady places beneath the trees were carpeted with celandines. Above the canal here is Vulcan Village, once the site of engine works established in the 1830s, where railway locomotives were built and repaired (apparently, the foundry sent a locomotive to India every week for a century until it closed in the 1990s).

Swans nest Celandines and shadows

Beyond Vulcan Village the canal ran close to the West Coast mainline for a while.  Here the route of the canal and towpath has been obliterated by dense tree planting, and we had to follow a detour down a lane before reaching Winwick Lock, where we paused for lunch. Although the lock has been filled in, the stonework is visible and the remains of the gates are still in place.

Winwick Lock
Winwick Lock

After a restorative lunch we set off again in blazing sun, now heading towards the M62 motorway. There is no sign of the canal here: in 1974 British Waterways decided to use the canal bed for tipping rubbish, creating a long in-filled section down as far as Bewsey Hall.

Approaching the M62 Approaching the M62 2

South of the motorway we passed Winwick Quay, where a group of attractive, though dilapidated, buildings once housed the main maintenance depot on the canal. The buildings and former stables, are grouped around a yard, now used by small businesses.  In another setting this would have made attractive holiday homes, but here it’s a real edgelands site, hemmed in by railway and motorway, and buffeted by the constant roar of traffic.

Winwick Quay 1

Winwick Quay 2
Winwick Quay

The main building, built in 1841, was a large wood and metal workshop. Timber bridges, gates, decking and fencing were all made and repaired here. The forge produced countless items of ironwork needed to keep the canal and its vessels functional. The yard was a resting and feeding point
for horses and mules hauling their boats to St Helens so horse fodder was also stored here.

Winwick Quay 3
Winwick Quay: the dry dock

A few yards further on from Winwick Quay is the dry dock, the only remaining dry dock on the Sankey Canal. It was built entirely of sandstone with stepped sides that allowed workers to get down to the floor, where you can still see the sleepers oon which the traditional Mersey Flat boats would have rested while being repaired. Once the boat was inside, the dock gates were closed and the water drained off via a small culvert in the western wall. After the repairs were completed, the dock was filled again and the boat floated out.

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 2 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 1

Gemini
GCHQ outpost perhaps?

We were now skirting the fringes of Gemini Retail Park, home of Ikea, Toys R Us, M&S, and the rest – a further symbol of the economic changes that have occurred in this area. On the far side of a high security fence we spotted this silent and mysterious-looking building, painted in battleship grey. An outpost of GCHQ perhaps?

Sankey Valley Park Warrington 3 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 4 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 5 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 6 Sankey Valley Park Warrington 7

Now we were following the Brook through Sankey Valley Park on the western edge of Warrington, a very pleasant landscaped linear park, bucolic in the afternoon sunshine. The buried line of the canal has become a broad, grassy meadow.

Gatehouse Bewsey Hall
The gatehouse at Bewsey Hall

It was the school holidays, so the park was thronged with families, especially around the entrance to Bewsey Hall and Gulliver’s World theme park. Part of the estate belonged to the monks of Titley Abbey, Essex. The Hall was originally built on the site of a monastic grange known as ‘Beausee’ or ‘beautiful site’. The present building dates back no earlier than 1597. We didn’t have time to explore the grounds, pausing only to look at the relatively-modern half-timbered gatehouse.

Sankey Bridges
Sankey Bridges

The landscaped linear park continues – with the canal once more in water – as far as Sankey Bridges where there is a series of canal crossings. One carries Liverpool Road and was originally a swing bridge, then later a lifting bridge. Beyond the road bridge are two others. The first is a narrow swing bridge for emergency use if the road bridge was out of action. Beyond that is a railway bridge.

Heading for Fiddler's Ferry
Heading for Fiddler’s Ferry

Now the canal bears right, heading directly for Widnes. When the canal first opened in 1757, it went straight ahead here, through Sankey Lock, where boats joined the final part of the Sankey Brook to reach the Mersey. However, there were difficulties and delays due to tides and the winding nature of the Brook. The extension we now followed to the right, leading to Fiddlers Ferry Lock, was opened in 1762, at which point Sankey Lock ceased to be used. Soon the cooling towers of Fiddlers Ferry power station appeared in the distance.

Fiddler's Ferry 1
Fiddler’s Ferry power station

Now we’re on the Trans-Pennine Trail, with the railway that serves the power station running alongside the canal, on the inland side. From here to Spike Island it’s a long, straight hike, hemmed in on one side by the railway and the canal, mostly overgrown with dense rushes, and on the other by high fencing that seals walkers off from the river bank and the lagoons which provide the 195 million litres of water which the power station consumes daily from the Mersey.

That is, except at Fiddler’s Ferry Reach where the Ferry Tavern looks out over one of the most beautiful vistas of the river that I’ve encountered anywhere on the Mersey. Here, the river makes a broad sweep with views across to the flatlands of Moore Nature Reserve and, further south, Wigg Island Nature Reserve at Halton.  Beyond rises Windmill Hill, a bluff of red sandstone surmounted by Norton Priory.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 3

From earliest times, Fiddler’s Ferry was one of the few places where the Mersey could be crossed by ferry on the long stretch between Birkenhead and Warrington. And as at Birkenhead, the ferry crossing was operated by monks – in this case from Norton Priory near Runcorn.  The ferry ran until it was closed when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed. Interestingly, the traditional spelling was Fidlers (one ‘d’), although the power station and maps now spell it ‘Fiddler’s’.

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 2

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey 4

Fiddler's ferry Reach on the Mersey
Fiddler’s Ferry Reach on the Mersey

This is a beautiful spot, making a good deal more understandable the idea of day day-trippers coming here to watch the boats and the river, and visit the Ferry Tavern. Because, between 1856 and 1950, that was a regular thing: trains would bring day-trippers from Liverpool, Warrington and other places to the railway station that once existed on the line behind the inn. The pub was built when the canal extension opened in 1762, though almost certainly it would have replaced an earlier one.

The ferry Tavern
The Ferry Tavern

On the Ferry Tavern website, there’s an article  written in the mid-1990s by local historian Colin Mason which captures the special quality of this place:

The solitude of the place is what is most striking, and entirely in keeping with the shrill cries of the curlew and gentle, monotonous lapping of the mighty river only feet away. Tired of the city, there have been times when I have craved this sort of quiet oneness with nature in the raw, on the marsh, with the salty air rushing eastwards from the Irish Sea.

Step over the level crossing which carries coal to the Fidlers Ferry Power Station some distance away, and cross the bridge over the first navigable canal, the Sankey Brook Navigation, 1757, and you are indeed in a calmer world, isolated almost from the stress and bustle of a modern industrial society.

Famous, in a manner of speaking, in these parts for at least 200 years as an inn of some repute, The Ferry at Penketh could have been the settling for a Dickensian drama in a sepia film where young boy meets chained convict bound for Australia, on the marsh at night.

While a page on the BBC website that records recollections of the area before the power station has this evocative memory:

As children, well before the power station was built, one of the places to visit was Fiddlers Ferry which we travelled to on our home built bikes. We swam in the water there, fished for tiddlers and refeshed ourselves with jam butties and a bottle of Tizer. Fiddlers Ferry was a rural retreat away from the chemical and soap works which polluted the area.

The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler's Ferry by Frank Ward
The Ferry Tavern at Fiddler’s Ferry by Frank Ward

You can find a selection of wonderful old photos of the Tavern on the history page of the pub’s website. That’s where I found the oil painting of the pub by Frank Ward who was ‘manager of the old sheep dip factory at Fidlers Ferry’ according to the site. The painting is not dated, but must be late 19th or early 20th century, since Ward was born in 1875 and died in 1922.

Fiddler's Ferry Marina
Fiddler’s Ferry Marina

Nearby is Fiddler’s Ferry Lock which provides access from the Mersey for the boats and yachts that are moored up in Fiddler’s Ferry Marina, located on a section of the canal, and accommodating a commercial boatyard and a yacht club.

Fiddler's Ferry lock 2 Fiddler's Ferry lock 3 Fiddler's Ferry lock

Between 1762 and 1833 Fiddlers Ferry Lock was the end of the Sankey Canal, where boats joined or left the tidal River Mersey. A second lock, now filled in, was built a short distance to the west, to enable more boats to lock through with each tide. The locks became disused after the canal was extended to Widnes in 1833. Fiddlers Ferry Lock was restored in the 1980s by Warrington Council and now provides access to the marina.

Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal
Fiddlers Ferry power station and canal overgrown with reeds

By now it was late afternoon, and with the temperature rising, the pub not being open, and the miles covered, it was a matter of thirsty boots, as Eric Andersen put it in his sixties folk song.  Moreover, from here the canal seems to stretch on endlessly, heading straight as a die for Widnes. It’s a dull and uninteresting hike with the canal silted up and overgrown with reeds, and the path hemmed in by the railway on one side and the high fence that cuts off the walker from the river on the other.

Fiddlers Ferry power station
The ever-present Fiddlers Ferry power station

The cooling towers of the power station loom constantly to the right. We mulled over the curious fact of a coal-fired power station once fired by coal from mines literally up the road, but now relying entirely on coal imported from the far side of the world. I wonder how long the plant will continue to operate if the movement to leave fossil fuels in the ground gains momentum?

Mersey view 1
The view from Widnes Warth

There is one breakout point, however.  A couple of miles beyond the pub it is possible to walk out onto the river bank at Widnes Warth Nature Reserve and drink in the panoramic view that takes in a sweep of the river looking across to the Wigg Island Nature Reserve on the opposite bank  and Norton Priory on the bluff beyond. ‘Warth’ is an old dialect word for a river bank or a flat meadow beside a river or estuary; I wonder if it appears in Robert Macfarlane’s latest lexicographic book, Landmarks?

Between the canal and the river, paths and viewing points have been constructed, with information boards to alert visitors to the diversity of wildlife it’s possible to see on the marshes.

Future Flower on Widnes Warth
Future Flower on Widnes Warth

It was there that I found a striking art work called Future Flower. In 2007, Widnes organised an international design competition to create a piece of landmark public art for the Widnes waterfront, as part of a wider programme of environmental improvement.  The winning entry, Future Flower was designed by the architectural practice Tonkin Liu. It’s a 14 metre-high piece that appears to grow out of the land, and move gently in the wind. Mini wind turbines transfer energy into pulsing red lights at night. Future Flower was designed to reflect the transformation of an area of former industrial dereliction, and took inspiration from the collision of industry and nature in this place where light reflects off the water, and the wind shimmers in the reeds.

I paused for a moment beneath the petals of Future Flower and thought of the monks, rowing travellers across a river teeming with life centuries ago.  As late as the 1760s the right to fish the abundant river cost as much as £400 a year when over 40 different species of fish thrived in its waters, including sea trout and Atlantic salmon.

Within two decades, however, the industrial revolution had begun its profound transformation of this part of the Northwest, as Manchester became the world’s first industrial city, and Liverpool the great port of the British empire. From the first cotton mills new industries grew, and the population exploded as workers flooded in to the area.

By 1877, the landscape through which we had walked was a toxic industrial wasteland. Due to the pollutants poured into the Brook by the local Leblanc alkali works, it was reported that:

The mud deposited in the Sankey Brook, near St Helens, has been found to contain no less than 2.26 percent of arsenic. … The water of the Sankey Brook is so acid that iron fittings cannot safely be used in the barges and lock gates.

By 1891, 500 acres of Widnes and Ditton Marshes were buried under an average depth of 12 feet of toxic galligu from soda works along the Sankey Canal. The land surrounding the canal became a polluted wilderness as the industrial waste and domestic refuse of St Helens was dumped wherever possible. Mature woodlands, for many years home to a great variety of wildlife were destroyed to provide even more space for tipping.

The limited sanitation of the time was completely overwhelmed. After the cholera epidemic of 1848 in Liverpool that killing hundreds of people, the city built a new sewage system. It saved lives, but emptied directly into the Mersey. By the 1960s the raw and partially treated sewage of five million people was being disgorged into the Mersey and its tributaries. Meanwhile, all along the Mersey a huge variety of polluting industries – chemicals, abattoirs, tanneries, detergent manufacturing, even food processing – poured toxic effluent into the river.

In recent decades, however, there has been a transformation, largely due to the work of the Mersey Basin Campaign launched in 1985.  Dr Peter Jones of North West Water Authority explained the scale of the problem faced back then in a Campaign publication, Who Saved the Mersey?:

When I joined North west water in 1974 the rivers in the Northwest were gruesome, whether you looked at the chemistry or the biology, by any indicator the Mersey was as bad as you could get. This was the birthplace of the chemical industry worldwide, so we had dangerous chemicals of all kinds – lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, as well as organic chemicals like solvents. Thirty years ago, if it was a man-made chemical you could pretty much find it in the Mersey.

Today many forms of wildlife – otters, salmon, seals and sea birds – have returned to a cleaned-up Mersey.

Mersey Flat
An abandoned and decaying vessel

Approaching Spike Island, we came across a ruined vessel slowly rotting and subsiding into the canal. Was it a Mersey Flat, the type of doubled-ended barge that once worked the canal?

Spike Island was the name given to the area between the canal and the estuary at Widnes. It was once occupied by a chemical works, and numerous railway sidings and waste dumps. The area has now been landscaped, its maze of abandoned chemical factories, rail lines, canals and docks reclaimed as an attractive green space with views down towards the Runcorn Bridge.

Spike Island is also home to the Catalyst Museum, the only science museum in the UK solely devoted to chemistry. The Museum is housed in the former office block of Gossages’ Soap Works, makers of Magical soap bars, and later absorbed into the Unilever conglomerate.

Unfortunately, it is not possible at the moment to complete the walk along the canal to Spike Island: preparatory work for the second Runcorn crossing means that walkers are now re-routed inland around a lengthy and noisy diversion across busy dual carriageways.

Footsore and weary we had finally reached the end of the canal. In serious decline by the 1860s, its condition deteriorated and by 1898 the Ravenhead Branch had been closed. By 1932 the whole canal beyond Newton Common Lock was also abandoned. Sankey Sugar Works continued to use the canal until 1959, but the canal was finally abandoned in 1963, ending 200 years of industrial history.

In the sixties and seventies, much of the canal was destroyed, with long sections filled in with rubble from slum clearances and factory demolitions. The lock chambers, once bustling with activity were destroyed and the old lock gates were damaged beyond repair.

But now new life has been breathed into sections of the canal as we discovered.  A radical environmental clean-up means that wildlife has returned and a pleasant linear park created for leisure activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, and – in part at least – boating.

See also

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7 thoughts on “Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

  1. A fascinating trip and excellent history lesson. Thanks.
    Reminds me to get back to finishing The Cheshire Ring Walk which also gives an insight into our important industrial past.

  2. I was directed here by my good friend Bowland Climber (previous comment). My interests latterly focused on hill walking (Munros etc.) and rock climbing, but more recently age has switched me to backpacking both in France and the UK. Whilst I still love the mountains there is often much of a different character to discover walking the old footpaths, and contrary to many of my acquaintances’ opinions, urban landscape can be rewarding as your post here demonstrates. Last summer I came across sections of the Trans Pennine Way back over in the east whilst walking down to Rutland from home in Arnside and put it on my list of possible future trips. Your post has had me looking at the map in that area and I didn’t realise how many waterway footpaths there are – there always seems to be so much to do and so little time. Thanks for your post.

  3. Really good and informative description of the canal and the excellent walk the towpath provides. There are now more upgrades to the path and positive developments along the southern end of the waterway. Our website at sankeycanal.co.uk has an interesting historical gallery and news of what we are currently up to. Thanks for bringing the Sankey to a greater audience.

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