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

The Goyt: Whaley Bridge to Marple

I walked with the river in a kind of a dream
hand in hand the all knowing river and me
to the clamour of rushes and deeply bowing trees
and drunk making blossom that blushed to be seen
– Elbow, ‘The River’

Yesterday I returned to the project to walk the Mersey and its main tributaries from source to sea.  Last summer I began by locating (approximately) one source – the emergence of the Goyt up on Axe Edge above Buxton in Derbyshire.  From there, I followed the river down the valley, past the two reservoirs, as far as Whaley Bridge, exploring the ruins of Errwood Hall on the way.

Now, on a day that was breezy and chill after the recent hot weather, the dog and I walked the section of the Goyt Way from Whaley Bridge to Marple.  It’s a stretch that brings home the fact that the Industrial Revolution began along fast-flowing rivers like the Goyt, and ancient footprints of early industrialisation are everywhere.

Before leaving Whaley Bridge, I went along to the Mechanics’ Institute (above), the most prominent building on the main street.  The Mechanics’ Institute movement was one of the most remarkable in British educational history, and took root especially in the mill towns of northern England. They were a significant development in a period when educational provision for the working classes was practically non-existent: in 1833 only about 800,000 children were receiving some form of instruction, mostly in very elementary reading and writing.

George Birkbeck, a Glasgow professor, founded the movement in 1800, with the creation of the first Mechanics’ Institute in Glasgow.  The movement aimed to create learning opportunities for skilled industrial workers, especially in the scientific and technical principles underpinning the processes they were using in their work. Most of the institutions had their own libraries and workers could follow vocational courses by way of lectures and other programmes of study.

By 1850, there were 660 Mechanics’ Institutes in England and Scotland. They were famous for their libraries but, significantly, also offered newsrooms with newspapers and journals, viewed with suspicion by the upper classes who feared a working class armed with too much knowledge.

The Whaley Bridge Institute is a striking building, still in use as a centre for municipal offices, library and Citizens Advice Bureau.  Upstairs is a large meeting hall where, no doubt, the local mill-workers attended scientific and technical lectures and political meetings.

This sign was originally from Goyt Mill, established on this site, just behind the main street, in 1865. It was the largest one-room weaving mill in England and employed over 300 people, adults and children, working day and night.  In the 1870s the textile industry employed 28% of the population of Whaley Bridge.  Goyt Mill operated until 1970.

Whaley Bridge expanded rapidly in the early 19th century, as cotton mills, initially powered by the fast-flowing Goyt, were established, soon overtaking coal-mining and agriculture as the main sources of employment.  The first stretch of the Goyt Way begins at the Canal Basin (below), the terminus of the Peak Forest Canal, built in the 1790s and opened on 1 May 1800 to carry limestone from Derbyshire to the early industrial centres of Lancashire and Cheshire.

The building in the photo above is the Transhipment Shed, built in 1832 and now a grade II listed building.  It was the hub of industrial activity in the town, providing a transhipment point for coal (for lime burning) and the resulting limestone between the canal and the High Peak Railway.  Cotton came into the shed, on its way to the town’s cotton mills.

It seemed strange at first, setting off along the canal, which the Goyt Way follows for the first few miles: like a return to the Leeds-Liverpool canal trek.

In 1831 the Cromford and High Peak Railway opened for passenger and goods traffic. It was built to provide a shorter route to industrial Lancashire for Derbyshire coal than the Trent and Mersey Canal.  The railway linked the wharf at the Whaley Bridge end of the Peak Forest Canal to the Cromford Canal at Cromford wharf.  I’d encountered the line of the dismantled railway walking around Fernilee reservoir.

Past the new Tesco superstore, a branch of the canal leads for half a mile to Bugsworth Basin (below), once a busy interchange for the transport of limestone and gritstone from the Derbyshire quarries. The canal linked Bugsworth to Manchester and the trans-Pennine canal network.  However, with the decline of the canals and the advance of the railways, Bugsworth Basin fell into disuse.  Now it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and considerable restoration work has been completed.

The tunnel (below) was built to allow horses that hauled the boats along the canal to walk below the canal and return to the towpath on the other side to be re-hitched to their boats.

For the next couple of miles both canal and railway line steer a relatively straight course along the valley bottom, while the Goyt meanders alongside.  Above, strung out along the A6 on the western side of the valley, is Furness Vale.

Finally, at Carr’s Weir, the Goyt Way leaves the canal and rejoins the river, though without the OS map I wouldn’t have known – this must be the worst waymarked long distance path I’ve set foot on.  In fact, within minutes I’d lost the path and was wandering aimlessly in Goytside Meadows Nature Reserve.

It wasn’t without its benefits, though.  Across the river there were llamas, while in the reserve I found a fine display of marsh marigolds and a Standing Sundial consisting of two stone columns, designed so that at midday the shadow from one falls directly on the other.

I’d lost the Goyt Way, but eventually regained it in New Mills, where the Torrs, a 70 feet deep gorge, cuts through walls of sandstone.  Here, where the Goyt is joined by a tributary, the Sett, situated on a rocky outcrop at the bottom of the Torrs gorge is a fine example of a late 18th century cotton mill.

Torr Vale Mill was built in the late 1780s, powered by two waterwheels to spin and weave cotton. It was rebuilt in 1856 when a steam engine was added. It continued to be driven by steam and water till the 1940s when electricity took over.  It continued in operation producing towelling products until 2000 – the longest continuous period of cotton production in the UK.  Apparently, there have been various plans by the current owner to renovate and develop the grade II building, none of which has come to anything, though when I passed there was some activity in the mill.

The fast-flowing waters of the Sett and Goyt meant that by 1810 New Mills had nine cotton mills, plus three weaving mills.  In 1835, Pigot’s Directory gave this description of New Mills:

The factories are in a great measure hid from public view in passing through the village, being built at the foot of the stream, under high towering rocks. Good house coal, as well as other kinds for the purposes of machinery, is obtained near to the village, the top bed strata running from sixteen to twenty inches thick. The village is built chiefly upon a stone quarry, but the soil in many parts is fertile, producing good crops of wheat and potatoes.

The river now enters a very pleasant stretch as it flows through meadows at Mousley Bottom and on to the hamlet of Hague Bar, where the path leaves the river by way of a fairly steep climb up steps to the road and then, still climbing, along a rough lane to Brook Bottom that once was one of the main pack horse routes.

From Brook Bottom there are fine views back across the valley.

But the finest view is of the Fox Inn, the pub at the end of the lane.  It feels remarkably isolated for somewhere so close to the incessant traffic of the A6.

The 18th century inn is a grade II listed building, and it was here that the dog and me took a break – she had biscuits, I had the ploughmans and a pint of Robinsons Ginger Tom, a seasonal ale that had a very distinctive taste:  it’s brewed using an infusion of Chinese bruised ginger root and botanical extracts.

From the pub, the path drops down into the valley again, eventually arriving at Strines railway station, which feels far from anywhere. In fact, the village of Strines lies about half a mile away, but the lane to the station is cobbled and can’t have changed much since the railway arrived in the 19th century.  It’s easier to imagine a horse-drawn carriage arriving at the station, than a car.

Although the setting seems rural, Strines is another settlement that owes its origin to industry – a print works was established here around 1790, and remained in operation until late in the 20th century.  Strines was once renowned for its annual Bullshit competition. A farmer would measure out a plot of land in a field, fence it off and then divide it up on paper into 100 squares. Villagers paid money and chose a square. When all the squares had been taken, the farmer would turn his bull out into the fenced of plot of land and everyone would stand around and wait to see whose square the bull would shit in!  Apparently it could take some time and villagers would make a day of it, having picnics and listening to a brass band. Glorious English eccentricity!

After the tunnel under the railway line, the Goyt Way passes the impressive Strines Hall with its mullioned windows and mill pond with an ornate dovecote in the centre (above).

On a bank by the path there was a fine display of violets, forget-me-nots and wild strawberry flowers.  Around the same time that the printworks came to Strines Jane Taylor was writing poems, many of them for children, with her sister, Ann (it was they who wrote ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’).  One of Jane’s poems is The Violet:
Down in a green and shady bed,
A modest violet grew,
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view.
And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colours bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there,
Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused its sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.
Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility.

The blackthorn, sloe, puts on a fantastic display of brilliant white blossom at this time of year.  Back in the 18th century, blackthorn would have been harvested for its autumn fruit for jam and wine, and for firewood, fencing and making walking sticks.

Quite possibly this splendidly-named house – ‘Windy Bottom’ it says over the door – is 18th century, too.  Through another tunnel under the railway, it was back to the river.

Half way between Strines and Marple the picturesque Roman Bridge spans the river (below, with dog quenching her thirst).  It’s not Roman, though; it’s a packhorse bridge dating back to the 17th century that was given the Roman tag in Victorian times to add a bit of romanticism.

The path from Strines and crossing the river here at Roman Bridge was an ancient way down off the ridge, across the river and up out of the valley.  Originally there was a ford here – in the 17th century this must have been a very important route to have warranted the construction of the packhorse bridge.

A bit further on from the Roman Bridge this curious octagonal  house  stands by a weir under  the  railway viaduct.  It  was  built  as a home for the sluiceman and tollman. It was built  in  1804, the  same  year  as  the  Roman  Lakes,  Old  Hall  and  Mellor  Mill, and the toll road originally went along the other side of the house.  After  the  Lakes  and  the  house  were  built  the  road  was moved to where it is today. On the front wall of the house is a stone pillar with a gate bracket on which the toll gate hung.

The Roman Lakes (below) were constructed in 1804 by the Stockport mill-owner Samuel Oldknow as  reservoirs to supply  water to Mellor Mill.  By the late 1780s, with the help of a loan from Richard Arkwright (the mill owner and inventor of the Spinning Frame and Carding Frame that revolutionised cotton spinning) Oldknow had established himself  as the leading muslin manufacturer in the country.  He invested his capital in building Mellor Mill, where yarn was spun on Arkwright’s water-frames or ‘throstles’.  This involved purchasing land in Marple and here at Mellor – as well acquiring the water rights to the river Goyt.

In order to utilise the Goyt’s power, Oldknow created a complex system of waterways and millponds, resulting in the diversion of water into the millpond now known as Roman Lakes.   Mellor Mill was completed in 1793 – built of brick, and 400 feet long and six stories high.  It was powered by three huge water wheels.  At its peak, over 500 people were employed in the mill.

Oldknow had big plans for the industrialisation of the valley.  He was the  driving  force  behind  the  Peak  Forest  Canal, developed lime kilns in Marple, ran a fleet of narrowboats  and  constructed  a  warehouse  and  wharf in Marple.  Several roads and housing  complexes  were constructed  at  Samuel’s  behest, as  well as All  Saints Church in Marple.  However, Oldknow overextended himself financially, continued to borrow heavily from Arkwright, and was hit badly by a lump in the cotton trade.  When he died in 1828, the whole Oldknow estate passed to the Arkwright family in payment of his huge debt.

In Victorian times, the millponds and the area alongside the river became known as the Roman Lakes, although there were no links with the Romans. It became a popular leisure resort, with crowds of people arriving at Marple Station by steam train for days out.   Now the lake supports fishing and large numbers of water fowl.  I stopped at the cafe for a cup of tea, and while I was perusing a display on the history of the site, the dog devoured my ginger nuts.

The final stretch of this section of the Goyt Way crosses meadows, overlooked  by 1960s suburban housing on the bluffs above the far side of the river, before crossing the river and making the steep ascent across the railway line and up into suburban Marple.

I only had a short wait at the bus stop before catching the 67 bus that was heading for Tideswell.  I got off at Furness Vale and only had to wait a few minutes for the 199 into Whaley Bridge.  Driving back down the A6 towards Stockport, the Cheshire lowlands glinted in the late afternoon sun, stretching west to the sea.

And then with the sun in the west
he showed me the sea
– Elbow, ‘The River’

Next: The Etherow Valley Way: from Longdendale to the Goyt


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