Weather report

Weather report

Kenmare Road sunset

Sunset over Kenmare Road on 30 November

We’ve had some contrasting weather this week. After several days of calm, a storm swept in today, bringing an unusual storm surge to the coasts of Merseyside.

During the calm weather earlier this week, there were some beautiful sunsets.  Terence Chan’s photo at the top of this post captures the sky over Kenmare Road on the afternoon of 30 November when the clouds looked like a pink patchwork quilt.

Two days later, the storm swept in, hitting Scotland and the east coast (where the storm surge was actually higher than the one in 1953) hardest.  Even on the relatively sheltered Merseyside coasts, there were dramatic seas, as these photos reveal:

Crosby 5 Dec 2013

Crosby: no sign of Gormley’s iron men

Formby 5 Dec 2013

Formby Point: the recently-constructed walkway took a hit

Liverpool 5 Dec 2013

Liverpool: the Albert Dock gets a pounding

New Brighton 5 Dec 2013 2

New Brighton saw the largest surge

New Brighton 5 Dec 2013 3

New Brighton: Morrison’s car park

New Brighton 5 Dec 2013 4

New Brighton

New Brighton 5 Dec 2013 5

New Brighton

New Brighton 5 Dec 2013

New Brighton

New Brighton Morissons Wave

New Brighton: Morrison’s car park


These were the waves on the Mersey at Liverpool today:

And this was West Kirkby:

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The call of the river

The call of the river

Canada geese in flight

Canada geese in flight. Photo by Philippe Henry

The day began, walking with the dog in the park, with a skein of geese flying overhead, a honking arrowhead of birds heading straight for the river. I don’t think there is any another sound that so lifts my spirits.  By mid-afternoon, the sunlight slanting brightly in the avenue, I heard the call of the river too.

As if pulled by the same primordial force that drew the geese, I headed out of the city, beyond Speke and the airport to Pickerings Pasture.  This is one of the best places to gain an appreciation of the breadth of the Mersey estuary, gouged and widened by glacial ice as it advanced south-eastwards and flooded as sea levels rose at the end of the ice age.  Here, at high tide, the river makes a broad S-bend sweep from the pinch point of the Runcorn gap south and west along the Cheshire shore towards the silver towers and chimneys of Stanlow oil refinery, glinting in the late afternoon sun.  Beyond lie the darkening outlines of the Clwydian hills.

The tide is running strongly toward the sea as, with the dog at my side, I set off to walk the short stretch along the river to the Runcorn bridge.  It’s a walk that embraces wild beauty and big-sky views, whilst snaking around the fringes of the Merseyside edgelands with its arterial roads, industrial estates, retail distribution centres and mysterious industrial processes.

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The starting point, Pickering’s Pasture Nature Reserve, symbolises this dichotomy. Until the 1950s the  area was a salt marsh, grazed by cattle and home to wading birds and estuary plants. Then, for the next 30 years, the site was used as an industrial and household waste tip and a mountain of refuse rose on the salt marsh. But the land has now been reclaimed by Halton Borough Council, creating a haven for wildlife, covered by wild flowers, shrubs and trees and once again a place visited by resident and migrating birds. Surrounded by industry, it is a place of peace and quiet with magnificent views of the Mersey estuary.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1

We’re walking a section of the Trans-Pennine Trail here, encountering the occasional commuting cyclist who creeps up silently behind.  Along the track the autumn abundance of this ‘mast year’ is apparent; a year when, as the Guardian’s Plantwatch noted a few weeks back:

Trees are weighed down with an astonishing crop of nuts. … A mast year includes all the other nuts of woodland trees – acorns, sweet chestnuts, conkers, hazel, ash, maple, lime and many others. … Berries have also appeared in a bonanza season that should make for good foraging. There are heaps of big blackberries, elderberries, bilberries, sloes, rowan berries and others.

Pickerings Pasture walk 3

There were still a few blackberries, battered by the wind and rain of the past two weeks, along with elderberries and rowan, and lots and lots of rose hips.

Pickerings Pasture walk 2

Along with all those easily-identifiable berries there was this unfamiliar (to me) large shrub with long thin leaves and bright yellow berries.  I later identified it (I hope correctly) as Sea Buckthorn that gets its name from being largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from out-competing it.  The berries are an important winter food resource for birds, especially the fieldfare – a bird regularly sighted here by the volunteers of the Friends of Pickering’s Pasture.

Pickerings Pasture walk 4

The Pickering’s Pasture site was regenerated between 1982 and 1986 when Halton Borough Council reclaimed the land, safely covering the waste of the land fill site with a thick layer of clay.  A little way along the river bank is this obelisk, erected on the site of an old navigational beacon that was used by shipping on the Mersey right up to 1971.  The obelisk was constructed by men employed on the regeneration project.

Pickerings Pasture walk 5

One of the benefits of that scheme was the construction of the elegant white footbridge across Ditton Brook that rises somewhere around Netherley and flows through Ditton Marsh before joining the Mersey at this point.  Before its construction, the idea of walking from Hale to Runcorn along the river must have been out of the question if you weren’t carrying waders.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1b

The brook, edged with tidal mud that attracts many wading birds, winds through the low-level industrial units of Halebank Industrial Estate.

Pickerings Pasture walk 6

But, at the eastern end of the footbridge a staircase of steps leads to a very different view: turn your gaze towards the river and, at high tide you’re presented with a view of the broad sweep of the Mersey with Cheshire’s sandstone ridge rising up behind Frodsham on the far bank and the hills of Wales on the skyline to the west.  The view is at its most impressive as sunset nears.

Pickerings Pasture walk 8

Walking on, the path is edged on the landward side by classic edgeland scenery: storage tanks, drainage ditches, railway arches and industrial units. We’re looking at the back end of the grandly-named Mersey Multimodal Gateway which, ‘if you’re into the movement and storage of goods’ – according to the group’s website – ‘is a unique piece of infrastructure with unrivalled features’.   At one point the path runs right alongside a food processing plant that is both noisy and smells richly of some ingredient that might be used in the brewing industry.

Pickerings Pasture walk 10

Since I last walked this stretch a huge Tesco distribution hangar has appeared, while nearby there is an Eddie Stobart cold storage yard where a ceaseless procession of articulated lorries were returning from making the day’s freight deliveries.

Pickerings Pasture walk 9

By now the bridge is dominating the view, although to be accurate there are two: the more westerly rail bridge and the distinctive Runcorn-Widnes road bridge that carries the A533 over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, opened in 1961 as a replacement for the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge which I remember crossing the Mersey on as a child.

Pickerings Pasture walk 11

Pickerings Pasture walk 14

At the foot of the railway bridge are the remains of an old dock, the walls constructed from the distinctive red sandstone of this region.

Pickerings Pasture walk 13

Pickerings Pasture walk 12

Pickerings Pasture walk 15

Returning along the path, I could make out the Manchester Ship Canal on the opposite shore, with what looked like another Eddie Stobart distribution facility adjoining it.  Beyond loomed the sandstone crags above Frodsham.

Pickerings Pasture walk 21

As the sun began to set behind clouds to the west, a Ryanair flight made its descent towards John Lennon airport.

Pickerings Pasture walk 17

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The western sky was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set beyond the Welsh hills.

Pickerings Pasture walk 19

Pickerings Pasture walk 20

Pickerings Pasture walk 23

Walking back I suddenly realised that I was not alone: above me, silent columns of seagulls leisurely made their way, following the river, headed for the sea.  There were hundreds in any one batch, thousands strung out ahead of me moving towards Liverpool, and more coming on silently behind.  I don’t know if this is a nightly movement towards roosting areas on the shore along the coastline of the Mersey Bay, or whether it was associated with the tide, running strongly towards the sea. Whatever it signified, it was a magnificent sight, making a perfect end to a day that begun for me with that honking skein of geese flying above me in Sefton Park.

Pickerings Pasture walk 22

Pickerings Pasture walk 25

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

Pickerings Pasture walk 24

See also

Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore

Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore

This is the second of two walks that I took along a stretch of the Mersey Way, accompanied by our dog and starting at the end of Dungeon Lane, a road that runs, alongside the perimeter fence of John Lennon Airport, from Speke estate down to the river.  Last time I headed southeast to Hale Point; this time I turned northwest to follow the Oglet shore parallel to the runways of John Lennon Airport.

This is a landscape of strange juxtapositions and incongruities:  an airport control tower looms across a field of potatoes, wild banks of gorse share the view with the cracking towers and storage tanks of Stanlow oil refinery across the river, and a horse gallops through pasture as an aircraft passes low overhead.

The views are good today: across the estuary, the Clwydian hills with the distinctive peak of Moel Famau lie distant and blue. There may be an airport just a field away, but this is old country: Neolithic flint scatters have been found here, close to the Mersey shore. People may have lived here 5000 years ago, or simply come to the river to fish.

Walking northwest along the Mersey Way, it’s plain that, despite the airport and Speke housing estate, this is still farming country, and surprisingly rural.  The path keeps to the bluffs above the river, skirting the edge of fields of barley and potatoes.  But whereas, walking in the other direction towards Hale, the path is easy and clearly defined, here I found it overgrown and almost impenetrable – especially for a diminutive King Charles spaniel!   As soon as possible I broke off the path and scrambled down to the foreshore.  The tide was out and, at least for a time, the going was much easier along the sandy shoreline.

The estuary here is broad, with large areas of saltmarsh and extensive intertidal sand and mud flats, edged by boulder clay cliffs.  It was low tide and looking out across the estuary to the Cheshire hills and Stanlow oil refinery, the river seemed, apart from a few meandering water channels, to be  one long stretch of sands.  Even so, it seems amazing to contemplate the idea of walking across the river here.  Yet that is what Graham Boanas, a charity fundraiser, did in the summer of 2006. He walked from Ince Banks near Ellesmere Port to Oglet – a distance of two miles. Although he is a remarkable 6 foot nine tall, Boanas struggled against strong currents, treacherous mud and shifting sandbanks.

Walking the Oglet shore today, with its mud banks and washed up litter at the high tide line, it’s hard to imagine that, even into the 1970s, families would come here for a day out on the beach.  In Speke Memories, Vinny Edwards recalls childhood days on Oglet shore after his family was rehoused to Speke in the late 1960s:

The summers seemed endless in those days …we would spend all day playing on the fields next to the airport runways …there was marshland where we would go fishing with nets for newts , sticklebacks and frogspawn….or we would go egging ….but we would leave the house with an old lemonade bottle of water…and we’d be back home for tea .

We would also go down Oggy Shore….does anyone remember standing under the planes as they landed?  We used to throw stones at them as they flew to their landing a hundred yards further on down. We’d go down to Oggy and on those hot days we’d walk along to Hale lighthouse…..there used to even be a beach in those days and I have old black and white photos of us as a family on the foreshore at Oglet beach….

Looking at Oglet shore these days its hard to recognise as my old playground of 30 years ago. However, it is great to see how the wildlife has adopted my old stamping ground.

Similarly, in his excellent book Discover Liverpool, Ken Pye also recalls coming here with is parents in the late 1950s, skipping around the concrete pyramids on the beach (laid as tank traps during the War, and now reduced to rubble on the high tide line), and later, as a teenager in the 1960s, when he and his mates would bring girlfriends to steal kisses and swim in the river (risky before the clean-up, when domestic sewage and industrial pollutants were discharged directly into the river). Pye includes in his book this evocative photograph of youngsters having fun at Oglet back in those days.

The biography of Paul McCartney, Many Years from Now, by Barry Miles also recalls childhood days along this shore:

Speke was named after the swine fields that surrounded Liverpool; the Anglo-Saxon ‘Spic’ means bacon. The old village of Speke, together with the hamlet of Oglet, had only thirty-seven houses when construction began in 1936 of a ‘new model town’. Over 35,000 houses and flats were built, mainly to house people from the slums of the south end of Liverpool. Despite being well equipped with schools, clinics, parks and playing fields, it was a pretty soulless place. The idea of rehousing people in rural surroundings didn’t work. They missed the street life, the local pub, the corner shops and sense of community and felt that the council had taken them and dumped them in a field out of sight. The low, monotonous terraced houses, the lack of nearby shops or entertainment and the great distance from the city centre quickly combined to make it into a rough working-class ghetto, separated from the rest of Liverpool by an industrial estate and the airport. However, there were thick woods nearby, full of bluebells in spring, now engulfed by a Ford motor factory, and it was only a short walk to the River Mersey.

For Paul and Michael [his brother], the best thing about living in Speke was the countryside. In a couple of minutes they could be in Dungeon Lane, which led through the fields to the banks of the Mersey. The river is very wide at this point, with the lights of Ellesmere Port visible on the far side across enormous shifting banks of mud and sand pecked over by gulls. On a clear day you could see beyond the Wirral all the way to Wales. Paul would often cycle the two and a half miles along the shoreline to the lighthouse at Hale Head, where the river makes a 90-degree turn, giving a panoramic view across the mud and navigation channels to the industrial complex of Runcorn on the far side. These are lonely, cold, windy places, the distant factories and docks dwarfed by the size of the mud banks of the river itself.

I like the strange juxtapositions and incongruities of this landscape: the airport control tower looming over the fields of potato and barley, the modernistic, gleaming warehouse blocks of the terminal buildings alongside the old red brick farmhouse at Oglet.

What I didn’t like – and began to feel depressed by – was the way the shoreline is littered with industrial and domestic detritus  – discarded bottles, crates, tyres, old shoes and wellies, road signs, buckets, and plastic, plastic, plastic. In one place a complete wooden bench – in good condition and of municipal design – had been washed ashore right way up, looking incongruously as if it had been placed there deliberately. The quality of the river water may be good again, and salmon have returned to breed, but this littered shore is evidence that the river is still regarded as a convenient place to dump rubbish.

Encountering this concrete pillar, original function unknown, I was reminded of the early hominids discovering the black monolith at the beginning of the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  And we all know what that led to…

My walk ends just short of the airport light gantry that juts out into the river just below where the Tudor half-timbered Speke Hall stands, incongruously only a few yards from the runway and new terminal buildings of the airport. You can’t see the Elizabethan manor house from the shore because of the Speke Hall bund, created to conceal the runway from the house.

Liverpool Airport was a product of the craze for airport development that gripped Britain’s towns and cities in the inter-war years. It was built on land that once formed part of the Speke Hall estate.  Following the death of Adelaide Watts, the last private owner of the house, ownership passed to Liverpool Corporation which saw Speke as an ideal site for airport development. The original Speke Airport was a large levelled grassed area to the other side of Speke Hall from the present airport. The first flight from the new airfield was in 1930, though the airport didn’t officially open until 1933. When it did it had the most impressive airport buildings in the country, including the Art Deco terminal building and control tower (now the Crowne Plaza Hotel) and two nearby hangars (one now a sports centre, the other the headquarters of Shop Direct).

The former terminal building of Speke Airport

The development of the original northern airfield required a large acreage of the former Speke Estate be converted from agricultural to aviation use. The resulting airfield was, however, compact and the majority of flights would take off over the Mersey. The redevelopment of the airport in the 1980s resulted in the construction of the new runway required for jet aircraft on the new site nearer to the river at Oglet.

The Beatles arriving at Speke Airport for the northern premiere of A Hard Day’s Night, 10 July 1964

The runway development of the 1980s swallowed up more of the Speke Estate and led to the southern part of Speke Hall’s ornate gardens being concreted over, effectively separating the Hall from the River Mersey.  Though now surrounded by the airport and new industrial units, Speke Hall remains a stunning building: it always has always felt to me slightly surreal, encountering this a wood-framed wattle-and-daub Tudor manor house, built in the mid-16th century, amidst the hurly-burly of 21st century life reflected in airport arrivals and departures, industrial units and Speke retail park.

Speke Hall was built by the Norris family, and three generations lived there before the family’s Catholic faith led to them losing the estate after the Civil War, and the house being left in a state of neglect. In the late 18th century, Richard Watt, a merchant and slave trader, bought the house with profits made from Jamaican sugar plantations. He began much needed restorative work before leasing the house to Frederick Leyland who, from modest beginnings, had made his fortune in shipping.

There’s an etching of Speke Hall done by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1870 that’s in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, as well as a rather wonderful oil painting entitled Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall.

Speke Hall by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1870)

The story behind these works is that Leyland was a great patron of the arts (sometimes referred to as ‘the Medici of Merseyside’,he was responsible for the superb William Morris wallpapers which are a special feature of the house), and especially of  the Pre-Raphaelites and Whistler. Whistler eventually received an invitation to stay with the Leyland family at Speke Hall in 1871. Over the next five years, during many often extended visits he painted the whole family. During these visits, with Leyland at work in Liverpool and London, a strong affection grew between Whistler and Frances, the wife of his patron. The relationship deepened, was to last for the rest of their lives, and was instrumental in the breakdown of the Leyland marriage.

The oil painting (below) seems, whether intentionally or not, to hum with suppressed feeling.  Frederick Leyland is on the far left, with his three daughters to the right.  Seated in front of a desperately bored looking Whistler is Frances, deliberately picked out in scarlet.  The depiction of the women, billiard cues at the ready, and especially of the woman on the left wielding her cue, is, I think, delicious.

Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

All the land hereabouts was once part of the Speke Hall estate.  Today, there are still a couple farms in Oglet (an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘oak tree by a stream’) and, leaving the shore I returned up the lane to where the red brick Yew Tree Farm stood on the opposite side of the road.

Behind the farm, a horse grew restless as an Easyjet plane made the approach over the fields to the runway.  Another odd juxtaposition.

At all seasons, at all states, the River was beautiful. At dead low water, when great sandbanks were laid bare, to draw multitudes of gulls; in calm, when the ships stood still above their shadows; in storm, when the ferries beat by, shipping sprays, and at full flood, when shipping put out and came in, the River was a wonder to me.
– John Masefield, in New Chums, 1944, his account of the time he spent from 1891 on HMS Conway at New Ferry training as a merchant seaman navigator before joining his first ship in 1894.



See also

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

This leg of the walk along the Mersey from its source to the sea was a pleasant surprise.  For here the river winds its way through one of the densest stretches of conurbation in Britain – a tangle of suburban housing, power lines, industrial estates, pullulating arterial roads and motorways, and railway lines. Walking here, where it was possible, any time from the 19th century to the 1970s, would have been to follow a polluted river past the smoking chimneys of grimy cotton mills and the clamour of railway marshalling yards.  Until only recently, the vista that greeted the walker would have been the depressing one of a river brutalised by flood barrier works of naked concrete and edged by a wasteland of industrial dereliction and waste tips.

Instead, what greeted me minutes from the centre of Stockport was the bucolic scene above, the river flowing between thickly-wooded banks.  Today, from Stockport to Sale, for a distance of about 12 miles, the Mersey and its environs has become a great green belt of Manchester, a pleasure ground where nature is restored.

I set out from the town centre on one of the rare days this summer when the sun was shining and the mercury rising.  After emerging from its culvert beneath the Merseyway shopping precinct, the Mersey passes beneath the railway viaduct before heading west out of town on a course parallel to Chestergate and Brinksway.  From King Street I turned onto the surfaced path that forms a signposted stretch of the Trans Pennine Trail, following the north bank of the river past low rise offices where workers hunched over computer terminals looked out impassively at the passing walkers and cyclists.

A bit further on stands one of the distinctive Trans Pennine Trail mileposts that I’ve seen in Liverpool where the trail comes through Sefton Park.  There are 1000 of these, funded by the Royal Bank of Scotland that are actually markers on the National Cycle Network.  For walkers this stretch of path can have its perils – bikes, fast approaching from the rear.

The riverside path emerges briefly into the hurly-burly of the M60 junction at the start of Brinksway.  An old pub, the Woolpack, stands here by the bridge over the river, suggesting that this was a trade route out of town long before the arrival of motorways.  But the most dramatic sight here is the Stockport Pyramid, a six storey structure clad in blue glass, completed in 1992.

Extraordinarily, the pyramid is the only fragment that remains of a 1987 plan which failed – to erect five pyramids along the banks of the Mersey on a site to be given the grandiloquent name of King’s Valley. But only one was ever built after something like the Curse of the Pharaohs struck and several developers and builders went bust.  In the early 1990s the developers went bust while this first pyramid was being built.  The developer’s bank, the Co-op, took control in the hope of finding tenants when it was completed in 1992.  But the eye-catching building stood empty until 1995, when the bank cut its losses and occupied the property itself, from where it operates its telephone banking centre.

A few yards further on I pass the first of several weirs found along this stretch of the river – usually built by late 18th century mill owners who needed power for their spinning machines. Interestingly, these Industrial Revolution weirs, coupled to 21st century technology, could revolutionise the way the former mill towns along the Mersey and other rivers in the North West get their power: not from some distant fossil fuel or nuclear plant, but from the rivers at their heart.

I saw this on the last stretch of the walk at Otterspool bridge where two massive Archimedean screw turbines have recently been installed.  Before that, an Archimedean screw eight metres long and two and a half metres wide had been  installed alongside the weir at Torr Mill in New Mills to channel some of the Goyt’s flow across the drop in water level, turning the screw as it would a turbine and generating 70kw of power in the process.

There are steps down to the river, here almost in its original state, apart from the inevitable dumped shopping trolley and, visible just beneath the water, dozens of abandoned tyres.  I have to say, though, that such sights were extremely rare along this stretch.  Along the bank wildflowers provided splashes of vivid colour – clumps of blue tufted vetch, bird’s foot trefoil, yellow ragwort, purple knapweed, willow herb, buddleia, and gorse were all encountered along a short stretch of the path, along with blackberries ripening nicely in the in the warm sunshine that has been so rare this summer.

Here, on the far bank, rise sandstone cliffs for, like Liverpool, Stockport stands on outcrops of this red rock.  Beneath the summer’s tree growth it wasn’t possible to see any signs of the Brinksway caves, set high above the river.  They are man-made and thought to date back to 1670, though their purpose is unknown.

Brinksway caves: photo by Stopford lad (

During the Second World War, tunnels were dug here as air raid shelters for civilian use.  Work started on the tunnels in 1938 and the first set of shelters was opened on 28 October 1939. Stockport was first bombed on the 11th October 1940.  The tunnels were 7 feet wide and 7 feet high and had electric lighting and wooden bench seating.  There were toilets, a warden’s post, a first aid store and a tool store.  As the threat of bombing receded in 1943, it was decided that the tunnels no longer needed to be open every night.  After the War, the tunnels were sealed up and left virtually as they had been.  There are atmospheric photos of the tunnels as they appear today here, and a fuller account of Stockport’s tunnel shelters can be read here.

When I passed through Stockport on the last leg of this walk, I mentioned Helen Clapcott, a local artist who, in recent years, has recorded Stockport’s urban landscape in distinctive paintings.  In ‘Brinksway’ (above) she visualises the sandstone cliff at Brinksway in almost epic terms, with mills and people illuminated by the glare of a coruscating sun.

And so, onward through arcadian scenes, dodging frequent cyclists and joggers and past horses in a paddock, before arriving at Mersey Vale Nature Park, created from land previously contaminated by industrial use.

Now turned by Stockport Council into a riverside park, this area in Heaton Mersey was once the site of a derelict bleach
works, refuse tip and railway sidings.  It was a place where people felt unsafe and anyway had no inclination to linger because of the dereliction. Then, in 2000, a joint project between Stockport Council, Mersey Basin Campaign and the local community reulted in thousands of tonnes of soil being used to create new open spaces, with access to the coast-to-coast Trans-Pennine trail, two canoe access points to the Mersey, a wildlife pond and children’s play areas.

Aerial photo of Heaton Mersey bleach works in the early 1950s

Before the industrial revolution this was farming country: the name Heaton Mersey means ‘the high farmstead beside the Mersey’. Then, in the late 18th and early 19th century the Mersey attracted industrialists who built cotton mills along the banks to harness the power of its water.

But it was Samuel Oldknow (whose works I encountered earlier in the Goyt valley) who, in 1785, with his brother Thomas, transformed this place by establishing a bleachworks on the north bank of the Mersey. Here, bleaching, dyeing and printing of cloth were carried out. Although best known for his industrial and canalbuilding activities around Marple and Mellor, Samuel Oldknow was involved in pioneering industrial  development in both Stockport and in what was to become Heaton Mersey. The ready supply of water from the Mersey provided both power via a waterwheel and water for the washing and bleaching of cotton cloth that took place here. By 1790 Oldknow had begun to  experiment with chemical bleaching.  The Tithe Map of 1848 (below) shows the development of the industrial village around Vale Road and the string of fashionable villas along the spur of the ridge above the Mersey valley.

A map of Heaton Mersey in 1848

The bleach works is just one reminder of the Mersey’s industrial heritage, one of over 100 textile production and finishing units that sprang up along the river between the late 18th and early 20th century in Stockport alone.  The result was that fifty years ago the Mersey was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe.  Michael Heseltine made this astringent observation in 1983:

The river is an affront to the standards a civilised society should demand of its environment. Untreated sewage, pollutants, noxious discharges all contribute to water conditions and environmental standards that are perhaps the single most deplorable feature of this critical part of England.

Today, following an intensive clean-up operation by the Mersey Basin Campaign, water quality has improved so much that fish, including salmon, are thriving.  Salmon are fussy about water – they prefer it clean, so their return reveals something important.  This is symbolised in a salmon sculpture sited just by the weir at Heaton Mersey where there are also canoe and fishing platforms.  Atlantic salmon are returning to the Mersey catchment and, although in low numbers, successfully moving upstream to potential spawning areas (their progress somewhat impeded by those weirs, unfortunately).  Recent survey data confirms that salmon are successfully spawning in both the Bollin and Goyt.

The successful river clean up required the engagement and participation of many different organisations, authorities and communities. The Mersey Basin Campaign broke new ground in British administrative practice with its uniquely collaborative programme. In 1999 it became the inaugural winner of the International Thiess River prize for best river system clean up. The citation read:

A combination of massive investment in the water infrastructure by a privatized water company, tough environmental legislation, and major sewage upgrades made the difference.  The remarkable transformation  was made possible by the work of many organisations and individuals  working together. The Mersey Basin Campaign  was a pioneer in partnership. Today the Mersey and its tributaries are cleaner than at any time since the end of the industrial revolution. Water quality has improved and fish have returned to formerly polluted stretches of the river. For the first time in living memory, juvenile salmon have been found in the upper reaches of the river near Stockport.

Strangely, this was a consequence of the Toxteth riots of 1981, because the Mersey Basin Campaign was one of the projects instigated by Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the aftermath of the riots. Heseltine recognised the relationship between environmental improvement and economic regeneration. By improving water quality in the Mersey Basin, he saw that derelict land beside the river could stimulate regeneration.

After Heaton Mersey the riverside path is wooded for a while before emerging into open landscape south of East Didsbury traversed by power lines.  Cheadle bridge (below) marks the point where the river enters a succession of serpentine meanders around three suburban golf clubs, with West Didsbury to the north and Northenden to the south (work that one out!).

Somewhere along here I stepped down to a stony beach where the dull roar of traffic from the M60 – not visible but audible from where it hugs the south bank – was displaced by the sound of rushing water from the fast-flowing river.

The smooth, rounded pebbles of red ochre that peppered the beach were, I realised, chunks from the broken bricks that lay on the river bed.  An urban river, for sure.

The reaches from south of Stockport to Carrington, notorious flood fields, mark one of the . The flood danger protects it from planners for only the foohardy would attempt a planning raid here

I paused here awhile in this bucolic setting, in this great green belt for Manchester – open to all to walk, cycle or canoe – and thought about George Monbiot’s astonishing news in yesterday’s Guardian that

The UK now has a natural capital committee, an Ecosystem Markets Task Force and an inspiring new lexicon. We don’t call it nature any more: now the proper term is “natural capital”. Natural processes have become “ecosystem services”, as they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests and river catchments are now “green infrastructure”, while biodiversity and habitats are “asset classes” within an “ecosystem market”. All of them will be assigned a price, all of them will become exchangeable. […]

Land ownership since the time of the first impostor has involved the gradual accumulation of exclusive rights, which were seized from commoners. Payments for ecosystem services extend this encroachment by appointing the landlord as the owner and instigator of the wildlife, the water flow, the carbon cycle, the natural processes that were previously deemed to belong to everyone and no one.

But it doesn’t end there. Once a resource has been commodified, speculators and traders step in. The Ecosystem Markets Task Force now talks of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the ROI [return on investment] of an environmental bond”. This gives you an idea of how far this process has gone – and of the gobbledegook it has begun to generate. […]

Rarely will the money to be made by protecting nature match the money to be made by destroying it. Nature offers low rates of return by comparison to other investments. If we allow the discussion to shift from values to value – from love to greed – we cede the natural world to the forces wrecking it.

We’ve been here before: with the Norman Conquest there was a profound change in the concept of land ownership.  Where once before folk could pretty much wander around the countryside as they pleased, now William made all land the property of the Crown, and then parcelled it out to his barons.  Just as profound was the impact of the parliamentary enclosures of the  late 18th and 19th centuries, viewed as a tragedy by John Clare:

The freshen’d landscapes round his routs unfurl’d,
The fine-ting’d clouds above, the woods below,
Each met his eye a new-revealing world,
Delighting more as more he learn’d to know;
Each journey sweeter, musing to and fro. […]

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound, – 
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fix’d his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
– Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.
–  from ‘The Village Minstrel’

Clare’s thoughts recalls those of Jean Jacques Rousseau:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.

There’s not much chance of any of this land being enclosed for profit (unless, god forbid, rare earth metals, the lifeblood of smartphones, iPads and the rest, were discovered here).  There’s a simple factor that prevents it. Look at this stretch on the Ordnance Survey map and you notice that the river carves a clear mile-wide belt through Manchester’s urban and industrial sprawl.  Even the M60, Manchester’s outer ring motorway, though it follows the Mersey valley from Stockport to Stretford, mostly stays about half a mile clear of the river – for a very good reason.

For centuries the Mersey flooded areas of Sale, Northenden and Didsbury after high rainfall. As development and increased population led to land being built on closer to the river’s edges, the old flood banks and measures such as widening the river channel were less and less successful.  The last major flooding here was in 1965 because since then flood defences have mitigated the effects of rising water on the river.

These photos shows how the riverside landscape was transformed by the flood defences put in place in the 1970s.  Levees were constructed to raise the banks on either side.  From now on the river would be ‘cribbed, confined, bound in’ between concrete embankments. Thankfully, these barriers, although they don’t look natural, are now thickly covered in grass and flowering plants (I noticed great swathes of comfrey along one stretch).

Simon’s Bridge (below), where the river winds close to the southern fringe of Didsbury, is an old iron bridge constructed in 1901 with money provided by Henry Simon. It was built to improve access to Poor’s Field, from which the church collected rent to pay for blankets and clothes for the poor of the area. Before the bridge there was a ford here, the site of a skirmish between locals and Charles Stuart’s army who were ambushed as they were retreating north to Scotland in 1745.  A line of trees and mounds visible on the golf course marks the graves of the unfortunate Scots.

The ford at this point would once have been one of the main crossing points of the Mersey, as there was no bridge over the Mersey between Sale and Stockport. Packhorses carrying loads of salt would have been a common sight in mediaeval times, since the route was probably one of the ancient salt ways from the Cheshire salt fields into Lancashire.  Northenden, on the southern bank, prospered in medieval times from the packhorse trains that crosssed at the ford.

The river loops twice beneath the M60 at Northenden, the motorway pillars heavily graffiteed.  But there has been some sympathetic  riverside landscaping with a sculpture of a heron by Philip Bew installed in 2010.  Northenden has the distinction of hosting the largest Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in the area in a former 1930s cinema. I passed it on the bus returning to Stockport, my attention drawn by a spectacular display of red begonias outside the church.

Towards West Didsbury there is a pretty stretch, with weeping willow, rows of tall poplars, and flocks of Canada geese dozing along the riverbank.

Where the main road to Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Moss Side crosses the river there were signs of how high and powerful the recent flood waters had been.

Beyond this bridge, the river enters a highly-engineered reach, hemmed in by the levees (seen above at Barlow Moor), and with several sluice gates (below) that can be opened to release water when the river is rising to threatening levels.

Where does the water so released go?  For the answer I had to climb up over the levee to explore Chorlton Water Park which lies adjacent to the river on the north bank.

It’s an idyllic spot today, but has very mundane origins.  In the 1970s, when the first section of what is now the M60 motorway was being constructed, gravel was excavated from the site and used to construct a raised embankment to ensure that the motorway was clear of potential floodwater from the Mersey.   The gravel pit was later flooded, creating the lake that is the centrepiece of  the Water Park today.

As the trees have grown and the grasslands developed, the Park has become increasingly valuable for wildlife.  The lake is stocked with fish and has developed into a popular fishery, and in the winter months is a nationally important refuge for wildfowl.

Leaving the lake, I returned to the riverbank where, in the warm sunshine, large brown dragonflies – Brown Hawkers, I think – were active.  The scene ahead was dominated, though, by the sight of the bridge being constructed to carry the new Manchester Metro tramline out to the airport.

It was time to stop for lunch as I had reached my objective, the only pub actually on the riverbank between Stockport and Sale – Jackson’s Boat.  There has been a pub here for many centuries, the original name being ‘Jackson’s Ferry Boat’, signifying that for centuries this was where a ferry took people across the river.  The present brick building was constructed at the end of the 18th century, replacing an old wood house that stood on the site.  It was then that a local farmer named Jackson regularly ferried people across the river by boat, charging them a small fee. In 1814 the land came up for sale as ‘Jackson’s of the Boat’.

The ferry was made redundant in 1816 when a wooden footbridge was built over the river and a halfpenny toll charged to cross it on foot or one penny with a bicycle, and for many years the pub was known as the Bridge Inn. This bridge was washed away in a storm and was rebuilt in 1881 as an iron girder bridge which still stands today. It wasn’t until the 1940s when Manchester Corporation bought the bridge that the toll was finally abolished.

I joined the families, walkers and cyclists thronging the beer garden behind the pub to rest my feet and consume a cheese sandwich and a pint.  In the distance there was the constant thump of pile driving for the new Metro line.

Rested and refreshed,I set off on the short stretch to Sale. The afternoon was hot and muggy, and there were many people out on the river banks (there are paths on both sides of the river here).  Some were walking their dogs: I watched enviously as two black labradors leapt repeatedly into the river to cool off.

To the south of the river is Sale Water Park, another lake formed by flooding a gravel pit excavated to provide material for the motorway embankment in the 1970s.  The lake is 90 feet deep in places. If the water level of the river rises dangerously high, then a weir can be opened to allow water to flow from the river into the water park, where it can be stored until the floodwaters have passed. This is just one of a number of similar flood basins in the area: Chorlton Water Park on the north side about a mile upstream is another, along with areas within Didsbury and elsewhere. Monitoring the water level of the river and deciding when to open the sluice gates into the park is the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

It was here that, on the opposite bank, that some flood damage revealed how the flood embankments had been constructed from great sheets of concrete, reinforced by rough concrete boulders.  When new it would not have been a pretty sight!

Chorlton Brook, heavily culverted, enters the river here.  The brook flows through Chorlton Ees, an area of floodplain on the north bank of the Mersey once used as water meadow and pasture.  Gradually flood control measures were developed to reduce the disruption caused by periodic floods.

In the 19th century Chorlton Ees became a landfill site and a Sewage Farm was established on part of the site.  More recently the land has been cleaned up to create Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Nature Reserve.

I puzzled over this unusual word: Ees.  On the OS map it crops up all along this stretch of river: Chorlton Ees, Sale Ees and Stretford Ees. It turns out that this is an archaic English term that harks back to the past use of these flood meadow as pasture. The names ‘Moss’ ‘Ees’ and ‘Carrs’, which are all associated with the river reflect its wetlands and periodic flooding.  Ees (plural of ee) means a piece of land liable to flood, or water meadow, and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon eg meaning ‘island’.

So, at least, I reached the point where I left the Mersey.  A mile from Sale, the Bridgewater canal and the Metrolink line to Altricham cross the river, the canal carried over the Mersey by an aqueduct.  This is like my O-level history coming to life: studying the Industrial Revolution, we learned how the Bridgewater Canal, built by Duke of Bridgewater to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester, ushered in the golden age of canals which lasted from 1760 to 1830.

Officially opened on 17th July 1761, the Bridgewater Canal was the first canal in Britain to be built without following an existing watercourse and it revolutionised the nation’s transport.  By the end of 1761 the Canal had reached Stretford, and by 1765 was through to Castlefield Wharf in the centre of Manchester. One of the panels of Ford Madox Brown’s Manchester Murals in Manchester Town Hall depicts ‘The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal A.D. 1761’.

I walked down the canal into Sale, where I caught the X5 bus back into Stockport; there I alighted at the bus station, beneath the arches of that magnificent viaduct.

Local artist EE Smith placed the viaduct centre-stage in his 1906 painting ‘Stockport from Brinksway’.

See also

Where two rivers meet: walking the Goyt to Stockport

Where two rivers meet: walking the Goyt to Stockport

Water is Life and Heaven’s Gift
Here Rivers Goyt and Tame Become Mersey
Flowing Clear From Stockport to the Sea

After a long sabbatical, I’ve returned to my project of walking the length of the river Mersey, from its source to the sea.  On the last leg I  walked the Goyt valley as far as Marple.  Today’s walk of about 6 miles, took me from there to Stockport, where the river Tame joins the Goyt and the river officially becomes the Mersey.  Later, I spent some time exploring Stockport, to be the subject of subsequent posts.

Driving into Marple, a garage was advertising for sale ‘sandbags – for flood defence’, a reminder of the atrocious summer we’ve been having until a few days ago.  When I reached the Goyt near Marple Dale Hall the river looked entirely different to when I last saw it in the spring last year – now deeper, faster-flowing and richly copper-coloured like a fine brew of tea. And, despite the last few days of dry, warm weather, the riverside path in many places was wet and muddy, occasionally requiring diversions into the undergrowth to escape the mire.  In several places along the river, debris from the recent floodwaters still lay stranded against the obstacles that had halted its progress.  A whole tree, its roots undermined, had collapsed into the river and, swept downstream, had ended up straddled across a weir.

Nevertheless, the walk was a pleasant one, through sun-dappled riverside woodland all the way to the centre of Stockport.

I had chosen to walk the south bank of the river; if I had followed the Etherow-Goyt Valley Way on the north bank I would have been able to make a small diversion into  Chadkirk Country Estate, where a 14th century chapel has been restored by Stockport Council and there are woodland walks, a restored walled garden and a wildflower meadow.  And if I returned next week, I would be able to cross the river at Chadwick, because a new bridge for pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists will be officially opened on Sunday 29 July.

As it was, I encountered the bridge, still in wrappings, and with a team of workmen applying finishing touches to the site.  The project has been a partnership between Stockport Council and Sustrans, the charity which builds new walking and cycling routes across the UK.

The new bridge will improve community links within Stockport, and connect the Middlewood Way from Marple to Macclesfield with the Trans Pennine Trail.  I thought how often we encounter settlements named Newbridge, and how, in the past, a new crossing place like this would almost certainly have sown the seeds of a new community taking advantage of the river crossing.

A little further on I came to another bridge, this one, built in 1660 and widened in the 19th century, replaced a much older bridge that marked the northern boundary of Macclesfield Forest.  Today the busy A627 thunders over Otterspool bridge, though the view back upriver (above) is a peaceful one.

Viewed from the other direction, though, we are definitely in the 21st century.  Alongside the weir that once controlled the flow of water to a leat that supplied water to a nearby mill, two massive Archimedean screw turbines have recently been installed.  This hydro electric power scheme abstracts water from the Goyt to power generators which convert the water’s mechanical energy into electricity which is then fed into the national grid.

Remarkably, this is a community-owned hyrdo-electric project, led by Stockport Council.  A community share offer, was supported by a grant from the North West Development Agency and a loan from Charity Bank.  The scheme will generate electricity equivalent to that used by about 60 typical homes and save over 100 tonnes of CO2 per year, or over 4,000 tonnes during the estimated 40 year life of the project. The renewable power generated will feed into the national grid and profits will be distributed amongst local community projects.

Otterspool: there is at least one other Otterspool along the Mersey – a few miles from my home, on the river shore at Aigburth.  These placenames are a reminder that otters once swam in these waters.  But, maybe they will return. In 2011 the BBC reported that otters had returned to the Mersey, once one of the most polluted rivers in Europe.  The animals’ pawprints were spotted by Forestry Commission rangers by the river near Fiddlers Ferry, though rangers had yet to spot an otter on the riverbank.  The animals will only live in clean water so their reappearance was being interpreted as evidence that the Mersey is now less polluted.

Leaving the river, the path follows Mill Lane, an old sunken lane that once led to the aforementioned mill, before rejoining the Goyt to cross to the other bank via the Jim Fernley Memorial bridge, named in memory of the Etherow Goyt Valley warden from 1979 to 1986.  Before dipping down to the river, however, there is a distant view across the fields of a white-domed building, shimmering in the heat-haze like some unlikely northern Taj Mahal.  Later I’ll discover what this apparition really is.

Apart from the occasional bindweed or cow parsley, for the length of this walk there were few places where dense stands of Himalayan balsam did not dominate  the scene (below).  Introduced to Britain in 1839,  each plant can produce up to 800 seeds. These are dispersed widely as the ripe seedpods can shoot their seeds up to 22 feet away.  Moreover, once established, as here along the Goyt, in the catchment of a river the seeds, which can remain viable for two years, are transported further afield by water.

Himalayan balsam may be beautiful and prolific, attractive to bees and first to colonise the empty mud banks of rivers, but it is reviled for its invasiveness and is accused of shading and squeezing out native varieties (although naturalist Richard Mabey took a different view in his celebration of the plant, broadcast on Radio 4 and still available on the iPlayer).  Ironically, they were promoted in the 19th century as having the virtues of ‘herculean proportions’ and ‘splendid invasiveness’, offering ordinary people the opportunity, for the cost of a packet of seeds, to rival the expensive orchids grown in the greenhouses of the rich. Within ten years, however, Himalayan balsam had escaped from domestic cultivation and had begun to spread along the river systems of England.

The path soon enters the dense but dappled shade of Poise Brook Local Nature Reserve, an area of ancient woodland officially recognised as a Site of Biological Importance.  It’s an important habitat for many interesting species of plants, insects and birds. There is the cow parsley look-alike Sweet Cicely, sometimes known as garden myrrh and once a widely cultivated culinary herb strewn on the floors of churches in medieval Britain for its sweet scent – as well as ancient woodland indicators like wood anemone, golden saxifrage, bluebell, yellow archangel, speedwell, and ramsons or wild garlic.

Poise Brook, which runs down through Offerton to join the Goyt here, has an interesting geology: over many years the brook has exposed seams and layers of different geological strata, from fine sandstone to coarse gritstone, with layers of stones and gravel deposited by ice movements at the end of the last ice age.  The Poynton coal seam (named after the former mining village in Cheshire where I grew up) finishes here below the river level, and fossils of ferns have been regularly found.

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
   I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
   To bicker down a valley.

By thirty hills I hurry down,
   Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorpes, a little town,
   And half a hundred bridges.

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow
   To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
   But I go on for ever.

I chatter over stony ways,
   In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
   I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret
   By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
   With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow
   To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
   But I go on for ever.

I wind about, and in and out,
   With here a blossom sailing,
And here and there a lusty trout,
   And here and there a grayling,

And here and there a foamy flake
   Upon me, as I travel
With many a silvery waterbreak
   Above the golden gravel,

And draw them all along, and flow
   To join the brimming river
For men may come and men may go,
   But I go on for ever.

I steal by lawns and grassy plots,
   I slide by hazel covers;
I move the sweet forget-me-nots
   That grow for happy lovers.

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
   Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
   Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars
   In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
   I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
   To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
   But I go on for ever.

– ‘The Brook’, Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is difficult to believe, walking the path along this peaceful stretch as it enters Woodbank Memorial Park, that a few strides out of the valley would bring you out into the Stockport suburbs and the busy main road to Marple.

The parkland was presented to Stockport Council in 1921 by Sir Thomas Rowbotham, a former Major of Stockport, in honour of the Stockport men who died in the Great War. The park is 90 acres in extent, is beautifully wooded and, skirted by the river Goyt, presents striking natural views. The bluebells in the woods are reputedly almost unequalled in any public park in the country.

Then, through the trees, I caught glimpses of the white dome and towering edifice I’d seen earlier from across the valley, shimmering in the heat haze. It was revealed as a fine industrial mill – Pear New Mill, one of the last cotton spinning mills built in England. It stands on the northern bank of the Goyt in the Stockport suburb of Bredbury, and is a Grade II listed building. Pear Mill was an Edwardian cotton mill that began production in July 1913. It continued to operate as a textile mill until 1978.

I paused awhile and watched the sun glint on the copper brown water, rippling in the noonday sun.  I thought of how crucial this water has been for countless generations on its length: water of life, water of livelihood.  From here down to the sea, these rivers were the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, powering mills and machines, replenishing drinking water reserves, serving as sewers and conduits for industrial waste, and as the region’s first effective transportation network.

In this, the worst and wettest summer for a century, I thought of UA Fanthorpe’s witty poem ‘Water Everywhere’, anthologised in The River’s Voice, published by Common Ground:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.
Officially they honour assorted immortals
In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

Their houses betray them. Above ceilings,
Tanks for the precious stuff. Below, a shrine
To the godhead. Here they may stand alone

In confessional boxes, or lie full length
In his hollow bed, singing. Here he sometimes speaks
In loud, disquieting, oracular tones.

Fish are considered holy; where they go
We found contemplatives, with green umbrellas,
Making symbolic gestures at the stream.

In the hot month they consecrate their gardens
With a wet rite involving children, rubber, dogs.
On Sunday mornings they lustrate the car.

They pretend to disparage the god and his rainy gift,
Using set litanies: Lovely weather for ducks!
Last Thursday we had our summer. Flaming June!
(Black comedy is native to this people).

Daylong, nightlong, ministers of the god
Recite on different airways his moods and intentions.
The people claim not to believe. But they listen.

Their literature is great. They never read it.
Water, water everywhere the only
Line they can quote. Though ignorant of the context,
They reckon these words cover everything.

The path becomes broader and more clearly defined as the Goyt nears its rendezvous with the Tame.  Before that significant marker, the river winds past Vernon Park, a formal Victorian park opened to the public in 1858.

Vernon Park was the first official public park in Stockport when it opened in 1858. It was built by Stockport Corporation on land donated by Lord Vernon (George John Warren), a man whose name was familiar to me when I was growing up in Poynton a few miles to the south.  In the village, which only ceased to be a coal-mining village a few years before I was born, the Vernon name was applied to buildings, roads and monuments.  The reason becomes clear reading this extract from Bagshaw’s Directory 1850:

Poynton, township, chapelry, and compact village, situated 5 miles S.S.E. from Stockport, near the Macclesfield branch of the London and North Western Railway, in 1841, contained 152 houses, and 854 inhabitants. Population in 1801, 432 : in 1731, 747. The township comprises upwards of £2,400 acres of good land, and mostly well drained, but its subterranean wealth far exceeds that on the surface. Lord Vernon is the owner and lord of the manor.

The Poynton and Worth Coal Mines, the property of, and worked by the Right Hon. George Warren Lord Vernon, are numerous, and spread over a compass of two miles. The coal is of good quality, and the mines are very prolific, having seams of coal varying from 2 to 7 feet in thickness. A railway about a mile in length, on a self acting incline, worked by a wire rope, conveys the coal to the Macclesfield branch railway, which is thence forwarded to Macclesfield and Stockport in very considerable quantities. It is said that the mines were thus discovered :- ‘An old tenant of one of the farms was obliged to procure his water from a considerable distance, and frequently petitioned sir George Warren to sink a well for him; but his request not being attended to, he gave notice to quit the premises. This induced Sir George to pay more deference to the man’s desire, and the well was begun. The spring lay at a great depth : but before they found the water, they discovered a large vein of superior coal’.

I wonder what man recompense, if any, that man obtained for his serendipitous demand?

When Vernon Park first opened it was known as Pinch Belly Park or the People’s Park, a reference to the fact that, though the land had been donated by Lord Vernon and the park built by Stockport Corporation, the ornamental fountain (above) and the drinking fountain (below) were donated by local cotton mills which raised the money by collections from their workers.

The Lily Pond with its fountain at the centre was an original feature of the park, the fountain at its centre paid for from contributions  from the workers of India Mill, a fact recorded on its stone base. Originally the pond would have been powered by a gravity fed water system operating from the Goyt in Woodbank Park. The restored fountain is now powered with electric pumps.  The upper part of the cast iron and bronze drinking fountain has been restored, the original having been taken for scrap in 1940 as part of the war effort.  Again, it was an original feature of the park, financed by the contributions of workers at Greg’s Mill in Reddish.

During the grand opening of the park in September 1858 there was a 21 gun salute fired using cannons which had been donated to the park by the War Office. These were Russian cannons which were captured at the battle of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. The original guns were taken away for scrap around 1940 as part of the war effort and have been replaced by two 24 pounder cast iron
cannons seated on cast iron garrison carriages. This one, situated outside the Museum at the top of the park, seems to be awaiting a workers’ insurrection at Pear Mill.

When I lived in Poynton in the 1960s, Vernon Park was run-down, neglected and shabby. A major project to restore the park was planned during the 1990’s and this restoration was completed in 2000 with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The park is designated Grade II in the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens as an important example of an early public park.

Leaving Vernon Park, I took a dog leg along the designated Midshires Way, the long-distance footpath across middle England that links the Ridgeway with the Trans Pennine Trail and the Pennine Way, through an area of urban wasteland to where the Way joins the Trans Pennine trail as it comes down to Stockport through Reddish Vale.  The purpose of this detour was to arrive at the point where two rivers meet: where the Goyt joins the Tame, and the Mersey begins.

I soon found myself in a perfect example of the sort of urban landscape – the ‘half-rural, half-urban nothingness that surrounds our cities’ – described as ‘edgelands’ by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their book Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness. I’ll let their words, in a few extracts from the book, illustrate the photos I took as I traversed this no-man’s land (redolent of ‘the  Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker), with its abandoned railway line, waste ground and unkempt buildings, some derelict others housing marginal trades, through its graffiti-embellished pedestrian underpass beneath the M60 motorway, and its dank and dripping railway tunnel.

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where ruderal shrub plants familiar here since the last ice sheets retreated have found a way to live with each successive wave of new arrivals; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard. […]

For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.

Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word “edgelands”. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have “edge”. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas. In English we have an abundance of words to account for the variety of landscapes on our doorstep; in our built environment. […]

The edgelands are a complex landscape; a debatable zone, constantly reinventing themselves as economic and social tides come in and out. If parts of remote rural Britain feel timeless, then the edgelands feel anything but. Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands that any writing about these landscapes is a snapshot. There is no definitive description of the edgelands of Swindon or Wolverhampton – only an attempt to celebrate and evoke them at one particular time.

Time and again, we found a place that is as difficult to pin down and define as poetry, but like poetry, you’d know it when you saw it. It often contained decay and stasis, but could also be dynamic and deeply mysterious. Edgelands are always on the move.

In our own lifetimes, we’ve noticed how they have changed, largely as a result of the big push for the motorways and the rise of out-of-town shopping, as retailers shifted their operations to the huge floor space and parking opportunities available on the margins of our cities.

Such developments tend to perpetuate further development, as infrastructure forms its busy threads of connective tissue, and the course of existing roads is altered, like light bending towards a black hole.

The rudely functional big sheds of retail, their battleship greys festooned with the primary colours of brand names and logos, were largely unknown to us thirty-odd years ago, as were the reinvented spaces of the outlet village. We remembered a kind of Arcadia. The Lancashire edgelands we explored and played in as children were formed in some of the wider spaces of dereliction and waste left behind in the aftermath of mass industrialisation. Visiting Lancashire a generation earlier in the Thirties, JB Priestley had written: “Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there.”

As we grew up, the chimneys came down, the slag and spoil heaps were shifted or landscaped and the lay of the land had begun to appear less raw than it had done to another Thirties visitor, George Orwell. In this cooling wake, a less apocalyptically ugly landscape was emerging, haphazardly, beyond the edges of our towns and cities, which themselves were growing outwards in the post-war rush to throw up cheap, high-density housing. But it was a new landscape that made no sense, one with no obvious artistic or literary analogue, no rhyme or reason.

At their most unruly and chaotic, edgelands make a great deal of our official wilderness seem like the enshrined, ecologically arrested, controlled garden space it really is.  Children and teenagers, as well as lawbreakers, have seemed to feel especially at home in them, the former because they have yet to establish a sense of taste and boundaries and have instinctively treated their jungle spaces as a vast playground; the latter because nobody is looking. Sometimes the edgelands are written off as part of the urban (or suburban) human landscape that has to be escaped, or transcended, in order to discover true solitude in the wilds of northern Scotland, or on the fringes of our island archipelago.

At other times – as in the work of some so-called psychogeographers – they are merely a backdrop for bleak observations on the mess we humans have made of our lives, landscapes, politics and each other. In our view, both these “schools” run the same risk – using the edgelands as a shortcut to nihilism. Most of our cities will contain wastelands just like this, either lying completely fallow or in the process of being redeveloped.

It’s always a surprise, walking along a busy street, to find a gap in the shiny advertising hoardings or a bent-back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a view on to an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer, or the archaeological earthworks of new building work where foundations are being laid.  The city – suddenly – has a new scale; an underness and overness – and the eye is overwhelmed.

The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communion with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.

Strangely, I found a greater diversity of plant life in this short stretch of wasteland than I had along the river bank in the Goyt valley.  There was Dog Rose, valued in former times for its fruit, high in antioxidants and vitamin C and used to make syrup, tea and marmalade and to treat colds, scurvy and diarrhoea; there was Meadowsweet, once strewn on floors to give rooms a pleasant aroma, used to flavour wine and beer, and, having medicinal properties, as a traditional remedy for an acidic stomach.

Here were stands of Great Willowherb and patches of creeping Tormentil, both plants which our forebears would have utilised for their medicinal properties – the former, with its with anti-inflammatory properties, applied to wounds, while the latter had uses as an astringent in treating diarrhoea and as vegetable dye to dye leather red.

Emerging from this edgeland landscape, the way now took me through a short section of Reddish Vale, through which flows the river Tame.

Reddish Vale Country Park opened in 1985, an area of former wasteland that provides a green corridor linking Stockport town centre with Denton in Tameside at the north and Woodley to the west. There are walks that link with the Goyt-Etherow, Saddleworth and Longdendale trails as well as the Midshires Way and Transpennine Trail. The Visitor Centre is sited where a former calico printing works was supplied with water from the river via mill ponds and reservoirs. Now, sand martins and kingfishers nest in the river banks.

The Tame leaves the Country Park and heads towards the confluence with the Goyt, just beneath the M60 motorway.

When the motorway was constructed, a pedestrian way was incorporated, leading to a balcony from which the merging of the two rivers can be viewed.  In Mersey, The River That Changed The World, the excellent book edited by Colin McPherson, David Ward writes eloquently of this spot:

This is the confluence that makes the Mersey.  It is a significant but far from beautiful spot.  Supermarket trolleys mark the last yards of the Goyt; the Tame limps in under a utilitarian bridge bearing the M60.  The two waters meet with little ceremony and are brutally bent by the motorway embankment round the back of Sainsbury’s.  The young river is then shoved out of sight and out of mind under a branch of Barclay’s bank.  This is not how a mighty waterway should begin.

I was pleased to discover that Stockport Council had marked the significance of the spot with an attractive piece of public art incorporating these words:

Water is Life and Heaven’s Gift
Here Rivers Goyt and Tame Become Mersey
Flowing Clear From Stockport to the Sea

The work was placed here in 1994 as part of a project by Mind Stockport and the residents of the nearby Lancashire Hill district. The piece incorporates depictions of Victorian mills and the birds and other wildlife found along the river.  There is a fisherman, a football player (presumably a reference to Stockport County FC) and an aeroplane.  This might be a reference to the planes that, every three or four minutes, file past directly overhead as they descend on the flight path to Manchester airport, 6 miles away (or it may commemorate the air disaster in 1967 when a plane crashed in the town, killing 72 people.

Stockport’s distinctive railway viaduct is depicted, and hats represent the town’s long tradition of hat-making.  Buildings in the town, such as the Victorian market hall, the long-gone castle, and the bus station are shown, while two tennis rackets refer to Fred Perry, a native of Stockport and the last Englishman to win the Wimbledon title.

The traffic on the M60 thunders by overhead, as the river that is now the Mersey flows round a bend. Its course, for the first half mile or so, will be underground. But, before I pursued that thought, I needed a pint and some lunch.  I chose to call in at one of the town’s most historic pubs, the Arden Arms, an early 19th century coaching inn on Millgate.

I ordered a hot brie, cranberry and rocket panini (they didn’t serve those around here when I were lad), and to go with it, a pint of build a rocket boys bitter, supposedly ‘created’ by my favourite British band, Elbow.  It was a fine brew.

The ale was created in partnership with Stockport brewers, Robinsons, and helps raise money for Oxfam’s East Africa appeal. Elbow and Robinsons have pledged to donate a significant percentage of all profits raised by the sale of ‘build a rocket boys!’ beer to Oxfam’s appeal, launched as millions of people in East Africa face desperate food shortages following the worst drought in 60 years.  Across the region, Oxfam’s emergency response is reaching 2.9 million people, providing clean water, seeds and tools, and helping repair infrastructure.

The Good Beer Guide describes the Arden Arms as ‘Grade II listed and warranting a visit for the building alone’. The coaching inn was built in 1815 in late-Georgian style and retains its character to this day, both inside and out. In fact, it’s one of only 250 pub interiors — of 60,000 around the country — to appear on the CAMRA National Inventory as being of outstanding heritage interest. There’s a fine bar, a tiled lobby, a grandfather clock and several traditional rooms, including a splendid snug.  In winter there are coal fires.

The day was warm and close, so I went outside where the cobbled courtyard has been turned into a beer garden.  The land on which the Arden Arms stands was originally a market garden owned by the Raffald family, who had been florists, gardeners and seedsmen in Stockport since the sixteenth century.  In 1760, John Raffald handed ownership of the garden to his brother, George Snr. and took up the position of head gardener at Arley Hall in Cheshire where he met Elisabeth Raffald and married her in 1763. It was John and Elisabeth’s nephew, George Raffald Junior, who built the present pub in 1815. In return for ceding a portion of field to the town to widen Millgate, then a narrow ditch between buildings, he was granted the right to build a larger public house in the contemporary late Georgian style on the site.  In 1889 the Arden was bought by Robinson’s, who still brew great beers at their brewery just a stone’s throw away.  It was the beer I was weened on as a teenager in Poynton.

Fed and watered, I ambled around town, noting the changes since I last walked these streets as a teenager, and the historic architecture that probably passed me by in those days, when Stockport was just about the nearest place to go to the cinema, and was best known for its modern shopping precinct, Merseyway.

This view of the Merseyway closely approximates the course of the Mersey – for the shopping centre is built on concrete columns which rise from the riverbank. The walkway in the photo below runs the length of the riverbank beneath the precinct.  There are some more photos by Paul Powers of what it looks like underneath Merseyway here, with more here, a page which also features an old photograph of Lancashire Bridge, improved and widened in 1881, but subsequently hidden when the Mersey was culverted in the 1930s.

The river emerges at the western end of Merseyway, seen here in this photo by Paul Powers.

Standing at the end of Merseyway (on the old Lancashire bridge, though you can’t see it), I took a photo (below) of the Mersey emerging from beneath the town before flowing under the A6 to Manchester and then, in the distance, under the arches of the railway viaduct.  That’s where I’ll resume this walk next time.

See also

Goyt walks: Fernilee reservoir

Fernilee Reservoir

We were lucky with the weather today – after a month of mainly grey skies and rain, the sun shone and the temperature climbed.  We continued the Goyt valley walk with a circuit of Fernilee reservoir, the lower and older of the two reservoirs in the valley.

The earliest history of the Goyt Valley belongs to Neolithic farmers around 3,000 BC, who were the first to start felling trees and clearing the ground for cultivation. Farming continued to be the predominant use of the valley for centuries. Following the Norman Conquest the Goyt lay between two Royal Hunting Forests (Peak Forest and Macclesfield Forest).

From the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the Goyt Valley supported a flourishing community. Tenanted farms, coal mines, a water mill, a railway and a gunpowder mill were all part of the landscape. The flooding of the valley to form the Errwood and Fernilee reservoirs changes its use dramatically.  Fernilee was the first reservoir to be built in 1938 by the Stockport Corporation after they purchased the Grimshawe estate. It wasn’t until 1964 that work started on Errwood Reservoir which was officially opened in June 1968.

The Chilworth Gunpowder factory (which is thought to date back to the 16th century) now lies under the waters of Fernilee Reservoir. A serious explosion in 1909 killed three men, but the factory was still very active during the First World War.

Reaching the northern end of the reservoir, we carried on, following the Goyt through woodland and pasture in the direction of  Whaley Bridge, following old lanes and pack-horse tracks.

Reaching a point where we had a clear view across to the poetically-named Windgather Rocks, we turned and headed downhill through woods towards the footbridge across the Goyt.  At some point we lost the path and found ourselves negotiating a boggy morass.

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die; and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

– Derek Mahon, Heraclitus on Rivers

The return path along the east side of the reservoir follows the line of a dismantled railway – the Cromford and High Peak railway line was completed in 1831 to provide a shorter route to industrial Lancashire for Derbyshire coal than the Trent and Mersey Canal by linking the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge with the Cromford Canal near Matlock.

Initially the railway was powered by horses on the flat sections, while on nine inclined planes, stationary steam engines were used.  By the 1860s steam locomotives had replaced horses though they were still hauled up and down the inclines, along with their trains, by static steam engines.  A passenger service ran on the line from 1874 but it ended in 1877 after a fatal accident.  This is the same line that, as the High Peak Trail, runs down from Buxton through places like Parsley Hay to Cromford.

And so we arrived back at the start, and a Derbyshire ice cream from the car park refreshment van.  Then a short drive into Buxton for a substantial hummus, olive and tomato baguette at our favourite cafe, The Cafe at the Green Pavilion.

The Source: song of water

The Source: song of water

Seeking sea level: walking the Mersey from source to sea

It pleases me, loving rivers.
Loving them all the way back to their source.
Loving everything that increases me.

– Raymond Carver

With the canal walk completed, I cast around for another project.  Then an idea began to take shape: to walk the Mersey from its source to the sea.  The Mersey is formed from three tributaries: the River Etherow, the River Goyt, and the River Tame. The official start of the Mersey is at the confluence of the rivers Tame and Goyt in central Stockport, a few miles south of Manchester. Older definitions place its start a few miles up the Goyt; for example, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica states, ‘It is formed by the junction of the Goyt and the Etherow a short distance below Marple in Cheshire’.

I will delight thee all my winding course,
From the green sea up to my hidden source
About Arcadian forests; and will shew
The channels where my coolest waters flow
Through mossy rocks; where, ’mid exuberant green,
I roam in pleasant darkness
I will delight thee all my winding course,
From the green sea up to my hidden source
About Arcadian forests; and will shew
The channels where my coolest waters flow
Through mossy rocks; where, ’mid exuberant green,
I roam in pleasant darkness.
John Keats, Endymion

My idea is not just to walk the Mersey proper, but also its headwaters and main tributaries.  Apart from the general interest of these walks, there is a personal reason, too: it seems that my life and family history is contained in these waters.  The river Goyt rises in the Derbyshire Peak District.  A few miles to the southeast is Youlgreave, the small village where my mother was born. Derbyshire represents one tributary of my family.

Another tributary of the Mersey is the river Irwell, which flows through Manchester before joining the Mersey at Irlam. My father was born in Openshaw, to the east of Manchester city centre: the house where he grew up was a few streets from the banks of the Medlock that flows into the Irwell in the city centre. My wife’s father’s family were miners and mill-workers from Little Lever, near Bolton, where the Irwell twists and turns before heading due south to Manchester.

I grew up in Poynton, south of Manchester, in the 1950s when the village still retained visible traces of its coal-mining past and went to school in Macclesfield, near to the source of the river Bollin, yet another tributary of the Mersey.  In 1967 I left home to go to university and the car I travelled in followed the course of the Bollin and then the Mersey, over the Runcorn bridge from where the river opens out into an estuary three miles wide, before reaching Liverpool.

So, returning to the source…back in 2007, inspired by the excellent book, Mersey: The River That Changed The World, we sought out the source of the Goyt up on Axe Edge above Buxton in Derbyshire.  On a bright and crisp autumn day, we walked over the moors from Derbyshire Bridge down the upper Goyt valley as far as Errwood reservoir.  That’s when these photos were taken.

The name of the valley derives from the dialect word goyt or goit, meaning stream or watercourse, in turn rooted in the Old English gota.  The stream flows off the moors to cross the old Buxton to Macclesfield road at Derbyshire Bridge, once the county boundary between Derbyshire and Cheshire.  The landscape of the valley has been formed over millions of years through ice ages and by the stream that cuts down through the valley. The signs of human  influence are all around, too.

In places like this ‘where the wires end’ and ‘the moor seethes in silence’ you always have that sense, in Derek Mahon’s words, of the ‘banished gods sitting out the centuries in stone, water and the hearts of trees’:

Paros, far-shining star of dark-blue earth,
Reverts to the sea, its mother.
The tiny particles,
Rose quartz and amethyst,
Panic into the warm brine together.

Near the headwaters of the longest river
There is a forest clearing,
A dank, misty place
Where light stands in columns
And birds sing with a noise like paper tearing.

Far from land, far from the trade routes,
In an unbroken dream-time
Of penguin and whale,
The seas sigh to themselves
Reliving the days before the days of sail.

Where the wires end the moor seethes in silence,
Scattered with scree, primroses,
Feathers and faeces.
It shelters the hawk and hears
In dreams the forlorn cries of lost species.

It is here that the banished gods are in hiding,
Here they sit out the centuries
In stone, water
And the hearts of trees,
Lost in a reverie of their own natures –

Of zero-growth economics and seasonal change
In a world without cars, computers
Or chemical skies,
Where thought is a fondling of stones
And wisdom a five-minute silence at moonrise.

– Derek Mahon, The Banished Gods

Borrowing Seamus Heaney’s words in Anahorish, it’s  a ‘place of clear water, the first hill in the world’ where ‘springs wash into the shiny grass’.  Or, Alice Oswald, evoking the source of the Dart:

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots…


The heather and grassland vegetation of the moorland has been formed through human influence over thousands of years. Heather, cotton grass, crowberry and bilberry are common plants here, with heather dominant in the better drained areas. Blanket bog is found on the higher, flatter and wetter areas of the moor where the vegetation is dominated by cotton grass with bilberry and big moss.

There are areas of bracken, particularly in the cloughs, the moorland valleys cut by streams.

knee-deep in bracken
wade out into green
the displaced waves
of bracken fronds
settling around you

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

the hundred
thousand places
with a stone
and some grasses

the dwellings
in ruins
the stones
given back

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

stretching inland
blackland and moorland
grassland and acid heath
a dark country
of heather and moor grass
of deer grass and moss

around the ruined
sheep folds and shielings
green islands
of sweet vernal grass
bent grass and fescue
rescue wilderness

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

one song of water
picking up
from another

the slopes
spilling water

as you climb
it pours
around you

rushing, dashing
leaping to find
its level

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills

– Alice Oswald, Dart

the rock in the water
breaking the full
weight of the flow
produces melody

the rock by the water
broken by bracken
tormentil and heather
releases colour

– Thomas A Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places

Where the stream flows through the sharp incision of Goyt’s Clough it passes under an old pack-horse bridge which was moved upstream in 1967 when Errwood reservoir was constructed to supply Stockport with water. This is a reminder that the valley has been a well-worn trade route, with  Roman roads and medieval pack-horse routes. The nearby Goytsclough quarry was where the Pickfords started trading in the late 17th century when Thomas Pickford purchased the quarry. Trains of pack horses were used to transport stone from the quarry and rather than returning empty the horses were used to return goods to the area.

By the 1740s the business was based at the end of Clumber Road in Poynton (where I grew up). In August 1756 James Pickford could describe himself as ‘the London and Manchester wagoner’ with a base in London where he employed a bookkeeper:

This is to acquaint all Gentlemen, Tradesmen and Others, that James PICKFORD the London and Manchester Waggoner has removed his Waggon from the Blossoms Inn in Lawrence Lane to the Bell Inn in Wood Street, Cheapside, from whence it goes every Wednesday. And his other Waggon goes every Saturday, as usual, from the White Bear in Basinghall Street.

Each Waggon, for the Carriage of Goods and Passengers, at reasonable Rates, goes by and through the Towns undermentioned, viz. Newcastle-under-Lyne, Congleton, Macclesfield, Stockport to Manchester, and delivers Goods etc. for Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Bolton and other adjacent places. At which places Gentlemen etc. may depend on having their Goods. etc safely delivered. By Your Humble Servant, JAMES PICKFORD.

His vehicles took nine days to reach London and eight to return on his twice weekly service. He evidently carried passengers somewhat uncomfortably as well as goods. Poynton was a convenient base not far from his northern terminus where vehicles and animals could be looked after by local craftsmen – there was a well established smithy at Poynton Village and Midway. The route from Manchester had been turnpiked to Hazel Grove in 1724.

After his death in 1768, his son Matthew took over the business. During the years 1775-1803 he offered a coaching service to places like Bath, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool – and London, as shown in this 1777 advertisement:

A new and excellent Diligence is advertised from Upper Royal Oak Inn, Manchester to London to carry 3 persons at 2s 6d each three days a week via Poynton and a flying coach on Tuesday and Thursday, inside passengers £1 16s, outside £1 1s … taking 2 days from 4 p.m., performed (if God permit) by Mr. Pickford of Poynton.

Near Goytsclough Quarry are the few remains of a 19th century paint mill, where a water powered wheel crushed barytes (mined locally) to a powder, which was used in the manufacture of paint.  Around Derbyshire Bridge are the remains of dozens of old coal mining shafts, which provided coal for homes and for the local lime burning industry.

This underlines the point that before the reservoirs were built the valley was home to a thriving community with many farms, the paint works, a railway, a Victorian mansion, coal mines, a quarry, a school and even a gunpowder factory.  But an increased demand for drinking water in the early 20th century led Stockport Corporation Waterworks to acquire the land to create two reservoirs. By 1930 the farms and houses were empty and demolished in order to provide an uncontaminated water catchment area.

Much of the moorland and the cloughs that cut across it, have been designated an SSSI, in recognition of its national importance. The designation helps to protect the habitat and its valued bird community. Birds found on the moors include birds of prey and golden plover which need large undisturbed areas. There are snipe, curlew, lapwing, skylark, meadow pipit, whinchat and ring ouzel; voles, hares and foxes.

Staring at this water I wonder, how long before these drops pass the Pier Head?  They’ve along way to go, much work to do, and it continues endlessly:

Not the beck only,
Not just the water –
The stones flow also,
As continental drift,
As the growth of coral,
As the climb
Of a stalagmite.
Motionless to the eye,
Wide cataracts of rock
Pour off the fellside,
Throw up a spume
Of gravel and scree
To eddy and sink
In the blink of a lifetime.
The water abrades,
Erodes; dissoves
Limestones and chlorides;

Organizes its haulage –
Every drop loaded
With a millionth of a milligramme of fell.
The falling water
Hangs steady as a stone;
But the solid rock
Is a whirlpool of commotion,
As the fluid strata
Crest the curl of time,
And top-heavy boulders
Tip over headlong,
An inch in a thousand years.
A Niagara of chock-stones,
Bucketing from the crags,
Spouts down the gullies.
Slate and sandstone
Flake and deliquesce,
And in a grey
Alluvial sweat
Ingleborough and Helvellyan
Waste daily away.
The pith of the pikes
Oozes to the marshes,
Slides along the sykes,
Trickles through ditch and dub,
Enters the endless
Chain of water,
The pull of the earth’s centre –
An irresistable momentum,
Never to be reversed,
Never to be halted,
Till the tallest fell
Runs level with the lowland,
And scree lies flat as shingle,
And every valley is exalted,
Every mountain and hill
Flows slow.

– Norman Nicholson, Beck

NextFernilee reservoir

Along the Mersey: Eastham

Along the Mersey: Eastham

Yesterday we explored the banks of the Mersey at Eastham, one of the oldest villages on the Wirral Peninsula, inhabited since Anglo Saxon times and site of a ferry crossing from the early 14th century.

Eastham Ferry, first recorded in 1357, was once a vital river crossing but ceased operating in 1928. The early ferries were operated by monks from the Abbey of Saint Werburgh, the patron saint of Chester. By the late 1700s, up to 40 coaches each day arrived at a newly built pier, carrying passengers and goods for the ferry.  In Victorian times it was a popular destination for day trippers. The 1857 ticket office (below) and part of the 1874 pier (above) can still be seen today.

Ferry routes from the Wirral to Liverpool across the River Mersey operated from various places, including New Brighton, Egremont, Seacombe, Woodside, Monks Ferry, Birkenhead, Tranmere, Rock Ferry, New Ferry, Eastham, Ince, Frodsham and Runcorn.

In 1724 Daniel Defoe in his book, A Tour Through England and Wales, wrote: “This narrow strip of land, rich, fertile and full of inhabitants, is called Wirall, or by some Wirehall. Here is a ferry over the Mersey, which at full sea is more than two miles over”.  An account from 1750 also mentions using the Mersey ferry: “Here is a ferry over the Mersee…. You land on the flat shore on the other side, and must be content to ride through the water for some length, not on horseback but on the shoulders of some Lancashire man who comes knee-deep to the boat’s side to truss one up …”.

In the early 18th century it took a day to travel to Liverpool and back, via Eastham, but the rise of Liverpool and the emergence of Parkgate as a resort and harbour for Ireland demanded better roads into and across Wirral. The roads to Parkgate and the Mersey ferries were turnpiked in 1787 and also offered a main route from Liverpool to the south.

Eastham Ferry Hotel

Paddle steamers were introduced in 1816 to replace the sailboats, but the demand for a service declined in the 1840s with the opening of a railway link between Chester and Birkenhead Woodside Ferry. In 1846, the owner of the ferry, Thomas Stanley, built the Eastham Ferry Hotel, one of two pubs that remain today. Soon after, the Pleasure Gardens were added to attract more visitors.

Eastham Pleasure Garden entrance

The entrance to the Pleasure Gardens was through a magnificent Jubilee arch which stood next to the Eastham Ferry Hotel and was built in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The gardens were landscaped with rhododendrons, azaleas, ornamental trees and fountains. Attractions included a zoo, with performing bears, lions, monkeys and antelope, an open air stage, tea rooms, bandstand, ballroom and boating lake.  The bear pit is still there, along with the remains of three fountains, once part of the 19th century zoo.

One performer who once appeared at the Pleasure Gardens was Blondin, the legendary tightrope walker. During one act he is said to have pushed a small boy in a wheel barrow across a tightrope at a great height.  The Pleasure Gardens eventually fell into disrepair during the 1930s and the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were later dismantled.

In its heyday Eastham Ferry was known as the ‘Richmond of the Mersey’, he ferry could cross the river in 20 – 45 minutes and moored at Liverpool.  But its popularity declined during the 1920s and the last paddle steamer crossing took place in 1929.  The Pleasure Gardens fell into disrepair during the 1930s and the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were later dismantled.

Eastham Pleasure Garden Jubilee Arch


And now…

Today the site of the Pleasure Gardens forms part of Eastham Country Park, with pleasant woodland walks where you may encounter pieces sculpted from fallen trees by local sculptor, Bill Welch.

The early Eastham village clustered around St Mary’s church, which has been a place of worship since Anglo-Saxon times – a  timber-framed wattle and daub chapel was in existence before the Norman conquest.  The churchyard contains an ancient yew (below) which was reported to have been in existence in 1152, and estimated to be at least 1500 years old.  A  plaque  by the tree reads:

“When in 1152 the abbot and monks of St Werburgh received the manor of Eastham at the hand of Earl Randall of Chester, the villagers of Eastham; entreated the new owners ‘to have a care of ye olde yew’ .

In 1854 the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, whilst in Liverpool as United States consul, visited Eastham and declared it to be “the finest old English village I have seen, with many antique houses, and with altogether a rural and picturesque aspect, unlike anything in America, and yet possessing a familiar look, as if it were something I had dreamed about.”

Eastham old yew

In 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal was opened by Queen Victoria, bringing added prosperity to the area.  Eastham Lock (below) forms the western end of the Manchester Ship Canal, and is the largest lock in the UK.

The view from Eastham upriver towards Runcorn.

Sunset on the Mersey

I drove out to Pickering’s Pasture this afternoon with the intention of catching the spectacular nightly starling roost on the Runcorn Bridge. It’s a great place for spectacular views down the Mersey, with the Welsh mountains on the skyline. I didn’t stay for the roost – it was too damn cold, and treacherous underfoot with the path a sheet of ice for most of the way (we had rain last night that froze hard later).

However, it was a beautiful afternoon and I got some lovely shots of the sun setting over the river:

Pickering’s Pasture a former land fill site has been reclaimed and an excellent wildlife area created in its place. The wildflower meadows make a colourful sight through the spring and summer justifying a visit just to see them alone and the many butterflies they attract. The reserve has wide views across the River Mersey and offers great opportunities for birdwatching. It is a peaceful place where people can enjoy quiet walks, picnics and wildlife watching. The Pickering’s Pasture Visitor Centre presents information about the variety of wildlife interest on the site. [From RSPB Liverpool website]

Many different kinds of animals, butterflies and birds can be found in the meadows and woodlands of Pickerings Pasture. In winter the River Mersey has huge numbers of wildfowl and wading birds, while birds of prey, including peregrine falcons, patrol the skies overhead.Video produced for Halton Borough Council with Friends of Pickerings Pasture.

As I said, I didn’t stay for the starling roost – but here’s an image from A flock of starlings is called a murmuration – when thousands or even millions come together they swarm as if they are one organism. During the winter months it is estimated that up to a million starlings visit the bridge nightly to roost. The bird droppings left by these and resident flocks pose a continual hazard for workers carrying out maintenance. Over a period of years a number of different “bird-scaring” methods have been employed but all, ultimately, with no success. These have included broadcasting distress calls and various other noises, pyrotechnics, strobe lighting and loud explosions.

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Panoramic views

To celebrate R’s birthday today we had lunch at the Panoramic, the restaurant on the 34th floor of West Tower.  The views, on a bright, crisp afternoon, were stunning. No wonder – you’re 100m above sea level, four floors from the top of the highest building in Liverpool, and apparently the highest restaurant in the UK.  The views are 360 degrees – we could see across the Wirral to the Welsh mountains, up the Mersey to the Runcorn Bridge and down the estuary to New Brighton, Crosby and beyond. On a clear day you can see all the way to Manchester.

It was a beautiful winter’s afternoon so we had superb views of the city and the river, from the Runcorn Bridge down to the Mersey bar. The food was excellent, too.We had the lunch set menu (currently £25 for three courses). It’s beautifully-presented nouvelle cuisine – not large portions, but perfectly adequate for lunch and very tasty.

At 140 metres and 40 floors, Beetham West Tower is Liverpool’s tallest building. The first five floors are the new headquarters for the Beetham Organization and the remaining floors, apart from the 34th, have been divided into luxury apartments and penthouses. The 34th floor houses the Panoramic and is completely clad in a clear glass perimeter offering spectacular views of the city of Liverpool and beyond.