Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes

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

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head.  It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago. Continue reading “Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey”

Walking the Mersey (sort of) from south Manchester to Warrington

Walking the Mersey (sort of) from south Manchester to Warrington
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Leaving Timperley on the Bridgewater canal

More than a year has passed since I completed the most recent stage of my project to walk the river Mersey from its source to the sea.  I left the river at Sale in the south Manchester conurbation, where it crossed the Bridgewater canal.  Now, looking at the map, I realised that it was going to be virtually impossible to walk the bank of the river from this point to Warrington since the Mersey is either surrounded by industry and inaccessible to walkers- or absorbed into the Manchester Ship canal.  Only at Warrington, another ten miles or so downstream, does the river regain an independent identity and become accessible again to walkers.

So for this stage I decided to follow the Bridgewater canal through the broad valley that the Mersey shaped as it wended its way through the Cheshire countryside, aeons ago, long before humans settled here and thought of naming the place.

I got the train to Deansgate, and then the Metrolink tram out to Timperley, where I rejoined the Bridgewater canal.  The tow-path walk forms part of the Cheshire Ring, a 97 mile circuit of canal paths through the county.

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The Bridgewater canal: Walking from Timperley towards Warrington

The Bridgewater Canal was developed in stages, taking more than 35 years to complete. Construction began in 1759 – the section I walked opened in 1766. It’s a ‘contour canal’ – so-called because it maintains the same elevation along its length. There are, therefore, no locks. The canal is named after the man whose idea it was: Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater who built the canal to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester. The Bridgewater is Britain’s first real canal (rather than the canalised sections of rivers that heralded the age of the canal), so it is the forerunner of the network of canals that developed between the 1760s and the 1830s.

As a young man Francis Egerton, travelling in Europe, had been impressed with the canals on the continent, and this spurred him on to develop this means of transport to serve his collieries in Lancashire. He was 23 years old when he presented his first Bill to Parliament to compel landowners to cede land for the construction. He gained support from businessmen in Manchester and Salford with his undertaking to reduce the delivered price of coal in Manchester to no more that 4d per cwt.  The first stage from Worsley to Castlefield in Manchester opened in 1761, and did indeed supply Manchester with cheaper coal.

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Canalside apartment development near Altrincham

For the first few miles of the walk the canal skirted the northern fringes of Altrincham, where Manchester’s suburban sprawl pushes towards Cheshire farm land. It’s been interesting on my canal walks to see how the growing popularity of waterside living has resulted in new canalside housing development, sometimes quite prestigious.  There was an architecturally dramatic example on this stretch, with twin apartment blocks protruding above the canal like the bows of two ocean liners.

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The Linotype works at Broadheath

These days Altrincham is part of the south Manchester commuter belt, prosperous and often labelled ‘stockbroker country’.  But Altrincham, and especially Broadheath, the area through I was passing now, was once industrial, with its own docks, warehouses and factories. In 1801 there were four cotton mills in Altrincham, part of its textile industry, although they had closed by mid-century. Later, the proximity to rail, canal and road links was attractive to companies making machine tools, cameras and grinding machines, and by 1914, there were 14 companies operating in Broadheath, employing thousands of workers.

One remnant of that industrial presence remains on the opposite bank – the fine Linotype Works building, dated 1897. The works utilized the Bridgewater canal for both receiving raw materials and distributing finished products – there once was a wharf here. Linotype also created 172 workers’ homes near the factory, that manufactured linotype printing machines.

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South of Altrincham: leafy suburbia and leisure craft

Soon, though, the canal pushes out beyond the conurbation, into leafy suburbia and then open farm land.  The canal side scene changes: along the banks up to Lymm and beyond are many enterprises dedicated to supporting the leisure craft that now ply up and down the canal, and several times I came upon long stretches of moored narrowboats, dreaming of weekend and holiday voyages.

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Serving the needs of those using the canal for leisure
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Narrow boats moored up on the approach to Lymm

Into the countryside, and it became clear what a good year it has been for berries and soft fruit – the wet, chilly spring followed by long, warm summer days full of sunshine has been ideal, apparently.  We’ve seen it on our allotment, and in the park where the rowan trees have been resplendent with scarlet berries these past weeks.  Along the canal, rowan, elderberries and blackberries offered a profuse bounty, and I met a few people out picking blackberries.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking…
– from ‘Blackberry-picking by Seamus Heaney

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A good year for Rowan berries

A mile or so of country walking brought me to Dunham Massey, where I broke away from the canal to take a quick look at the Dunham Massey estate, a National Trust property with a Georgian house set in a magnificent deer park.  The place  was first mentioned in 1323, but the present house was built in 1732 for George Booth who was descended from the first owner, Hamon de Massey.

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The Georgian house at Dunham Massey
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Just a few of the one huhdred fallow deer

I only had time for a quick look, strolling through the deer park that extends before the house, and where holidaying children were entranced by the deer (there’s a herd of around 150 fallow deer on the estate). I took a walk through the winter garden where I was impressed by the stands of silver birch.

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Silver birch in the Winter Garden

The thing I was really here to see was the old corn mill that has stood here for 500 years and is the oldest building in the park. There is a long history of water mills on the Dunham estate, dating back to 1347. There were probably five medieval water mills on the River Bollin nearby, all leased to tenant millers. The present Old Mill was constructed around 1616, and would have been financially important to the Dunham Massey estate.  ‘Soke rights’ meant that they could insist that all the corn grown by their tenants was milled here.  From its construction until the 1860s, the Old Mill was a corn mill. It ground wheat, malt and barley for the House and for the local tenant farmers.

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The Old Mill at Dunham Massey

By the 19th century the mill was too small to cope with the amount of grain produced on the estate, and in the 1860s it was converted to a water-powered sawmill and was replaced by Bollington Mill half a mile away on the river Bollin, now converted into apartments.

The saw mill was used for processing tree trunks to produce fence posts, floorboards, window frames and other carpentry and joinery elements for the estate.  In the early 20th century the mill was replaced by an up to date steam-powered saw mill located outside the park.

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Crossing the Bollin at Dunham

A short walk from the Old Mill brought me to the river Bollin.  I grew up in a Cheshire landscape shaped by the Bollin and its own tributary, the Deane.  At Dunham, an aqueduct carries the Bridgewater canal over the Bollin.  The coming of the Bridgewater canal did not affect the Bollin, but the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal did. For a long stretch between Irlam and Bollin Point, the Mersey and the Ship Canal are one and the same. So now, instead of joining the Mersey as one of that river’s age-old tributaries, the Bollin now flows into the Ship Canal and its original confluence with the Mersey has been lost.  Just beyond Bollin Point, the Mersey leaves the Ship Canal and follows its original course towards Warrington.

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The Bollin: looking upstream

I stopped for awhile at the nearby pub, delightfully named The Swan with Two Nicks, Little Bollington’s old village pub.  On the pub’s website there’s an explanation of how the pub got its name: it’s all to do with swan upping, the annual process of taking a census of swans on a particular river and marking them.  These days, the birds are ringed, but in the past the two companies who have carried out the count under Royal Charter since the 15th century – the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company, two Livery Companies of the City of London – made their own marks on the birds’ beaks: one nick for a dyers’ bird and two for a vintners’.

From the medieval period into the twentieth century, the entire village of Little Bollington belonged to the estates of the Earls of Stamford and Warrington whose family seat was Dunham Massey. Each building in the village was given a number in the estate papers. In those days, the formal name of The Swan with Two Nicks was Bollington Tenement No. 17.

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The Swan with Two Nicks

Having enjoyed a welcome pint of Swan with Two Nicks ale, specially brewed for the pub, I rejoined the Bridgewater canal and forged on towards Lymm and Warrington.  Bridgewater decided to extend the Canal to the Mersey tideway at Runcorn to establish a link with the port of Liverpool. Despite opposition, the Duke’s third Act to make this possible was passed in March 1762.  The need for an embankment and aqueduct over the Mersey at Sale Moor, and across the Bollin, coupled with disputes with landowners, delayed completion for many years.

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Agden Wharf, a mile and a half outside Lymm

Walking up to Lymm, I wondered why Bridgewater routed his canal through this pretty Cheshire village.  I found the answer on an interpretation board by the canal in the village. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lymm was a small industrial town, and the canal transported goods produced in Lymm, including the production of nails and metal hoops for beer barrels and fustian (a coarse cloth made of cotton mixed with flax to produce labourers’ clothing  and sailcloth), as well as farm crops.  One of the old canal warehouses still remains at Agden Wharf, a mile and a half outside Lymm.

One of the goods transported to Lymm was nightsoil from Manchester: in the days before sewerage systems, human excrement was collected from the city and transported into Cheshire to be spread on farmers’ fields.

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By the canal at Lymm
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An old lane by the canal in Lymm

Today, Lymm is a pretty village, noted for its historic buildings. But it’s a place that has stood four-square in the line of successive transport developments. Bridgewater’s plans for the canal divided the village, and opposition by local landowners held up its development. Nowadays, however, the canal provides a picturesque backcloth to village life as  narrow boats cruise leisurely up and down.

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Picturesque canalside at Lymm

Those who opposed the plans for the canal lobbied Parliament. A few decades later it was the canal owners who lobbied Parliament to oppose the construction of the railways.  The railway came to Lymm in 1853 – a line long since closed and the track torn up, but leaving behind the track bed which would provide the last two or three miles of my walk.

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Opposition to HS2 in Lymm

Now a new railway is coming to Lymm and the locals are up in arms.  As I walked through the village I encountered several posters rallying opposition to HS2 – the Manchester spur will cross the Bridgewater canal and the Bollin to the east of Lymm, and fears are growing about the impact on the local alndscape.

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Opposition to HS2

Ironically, for the next mile, as I walked along a bucolic stretch of the canal and then left it to join the Trans-Pennine Trail, the roar of traffic on on the M6 nearby was a constant presence.  The noise grew as I approached the point where the Trail passes under the motorway, just south of the Thelwall Viaduct.

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A bucolic stretch of the canal past Lymm

I branched off from the canal to join the Trans-Pennine Trail for the last mile or so to the Manchester Ship canal on the outskirts of Warrington. The  trail follows the route of an old Garston to Timperley railway line that opened in 1853. with stations along the way at Dunham Massey, Lymm and Thelwall.

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Approaching the M6

With the M6 behind me, the Trail was peaceful, a green tunnel that felt almost like walking through an ancient holloway.

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The Trans-Pennine trail near Thelwall

I pondered the incongruity (at least these days) of a railway line from Timperley to Garston.  Back then, I suppose, it linked the industries around Altrincham to the Garston docks, as well as giving the rural inhabitants of Dunham Massey and  Lymm the opportunity to step on a train in their village and get off in Liverpool or Manchester.

Ownership of the line passed to LNWR in 1861 then the LMS in 1923, until the formation of British Rail in 1948. In the following years, however, the story of the line is one echoed across the country – an increase in car ownership led to a decrease in use of railways. The infamous Beeching Report recommended closure of the line, and passenger services ended in 1962. The line continued to carry freight for a further 23 years. But by then extensive repairs were required to the high level bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal at Latchford and the line was closed, the last train running in July 1985. The Trans-Pennine trail opened in 1993.

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Latchford bridge

At Latchford the Trail leaves the railway embankment (the bridge would obviously defeat every risk assessment schedule you could throw at it).  Passing under the bridge, I arrived at the Manchester Ship Canal. The last time I was here was on a blisteringly hot day in June 2009, sailing up the canal from Liverpool on one of the regular Mersey Ferries cruises.

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Latchford Locks on the Ship Canal

I crossed the canal on the Barton Road swing bridge and looked east towards Latchford locks.  Turning in the other direction, I saw a container ship approaching from the direction of Liverpool.  As I reached the Warrington bank of the canal, warning bells rang and lights flashed, announcing that the swing bridge was about to close to allow the ship to pass.

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Container ship approaching

I stood and watched as the bridge swung round on its massive cog to allow the ship to pass.  An impressive piece of engineering that is now a grade II listed structure.  Even more impressive, a little further downstream, is the Barton Aqueduct Swing Bridge that carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Ship Canal in the form of a giant rectangular metal box!

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Barton Road Swing Bridge

That was it, I was done for the day.  I caught a bus to the train station, passing over the river Mersey on the way.  Next time, I’ll walk the Mersey around Warrington.

Gallery

See also

Cressington and Grassendale parks: river access restricted

Cressington and Grassendale parks: river access restricted

Cressington 4

Recently, when describing a Mersey estuary walk along the Garston shore,  I wrote that, on arriving at the boundary of Garston docks,

this as far as you can go: Garston Docks and the private residential Grassendale and Cressington Esplanades prevent public access to the riverside.  The docks I can understand, but as a freeborn Englishman I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river.

That’s not entirely true: although the long-distance footpath, the Mersey Way, comes to an abrupt halt here, the river front at Grassendale and Cressington Parks in Aigburth is accessible on foot, even if you can’t continue your walk through to the adjacent Otterspool promenade or onward to the Pier Head.  A couple of weeks back, I went down to have a look.

Grassendale gate
Sandstone gates at the entrance to Grassendale Park

Grassendale and Cressington Parks are 19th century gated private estates, built for wealthy Liverpool merchants in what was then open country.  They were ‘carriage folk’ who had the means to travel to and from the city centre.  Turn off the busy dual carriageway of Aigburth Road through the ornate sandstone gates and past the elegant sandstone lodge house and you enter a quiet enclave of Victorian mansions laid out in the early to mid 19th century along carriage ways both leading to an elegant riverside esplanade.

Cressington Park Lodge
Cressington Park Lodge

But beware! Don’t attempt to bring your car down here.  These are still private estates and on every lamp post there are warnings that if you are not a resident with a parking permit and you dare to park your car anywhere on these deserted avenues you will be hit with a substantial fine (£85, if I recall correctly).  So I parked on Aigburth Road and walked down leafy roads past detached Victorian villas, no two alike, each standing in their own grounds.

Cressington Park notice
This is a private park – there is no public right of way!

Grassendale and Cressington Parks, begun in 1845 and 1846, respectively, were the second and third of Aigburth’s gated  riverside housing developments (Fulwood Park, which has the largest and most elegant houses, was the first). The residents even had their own railway station when the Cheshire Lines branch opened in 1861.  Today, as a notice (above) warns, access to the station by non-residents remains a concession granted by the Trustees.

Cressington Park
Cressington Park

Restrictive covenants relating to the size of plots, building lines, external materials and other design features continue to be enforced by Trustees of the Parks. Cressington Park consists, mainly of solid, but not particularly outstanding, red-brick Victorian villas, though I did notice several plots where modernist post-war dwellings had been erected.  Had these been empty plots, or were earlier buildings demolished?

Cressington railway station
Cressington railway station

The railway station is one of the most desirable features of Cressington Park.  The Liverpool Heritage Bureau describes it as ‘a splendid complex of buildings with elaborate details such as pierced bargeboards, half-hipped roofs, and curious eaves brackets’.  Renovated by British Rail back in the 1970s, the cast iron canopy is now under threat of being demolished, having fallen into disrepair.

Very few houses in the parks are of the same design, the most attractive being those built in the 1840s in Grassendale Park. Some have fine iron balconies and beautifully proportioned windows, doors and stucco details. The later Victorian and Edwardian houses are not as architecturally distinguished, but, as Pevsner has commented, ‘the whole area achieves unity and grace through a wealth of generous planting and mature trees’.  As I neared the riverfront, I noticed that the parks also possessed a private tennis club.  But perhaps what gave the parks their greatest exclusivity was having their own stretch of river promenade.

Grassendale Promenade Early 20th century postcard
Grassendale Promenade: early 20th century postcard

The view from the eastern end of Cressington esplanade is not so elegant: razor-edged fencing and floodlights mark the boundary of Garston docks.  At its height, over 1000 people were employed at Garston Docks and on the miles of railways that serviced and connected them.  Victorian Garston bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rural village had once been. Public health, hygiene, and living conditions were desperately poor, and the working environment was dangerous and hard. By 1937, there were 93 miles of railway sidings serving the docks, with 8 miles of these running alongside the quays.

The economic and industrial decline that afflicted all of Liverpool’s docklands in the 1960s and 1970s had a devastating effect on  Garston as local industries and shipping declined.  The docks have revived in recent years, with a new container terminal that handles a growing volume of freight, but which is much less labour-intensive.

Garston docks

Garston docks

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The view west along Cressington esplanade.

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Low tide on the Mersey, looking across to the Wirral shore.

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The elegant Victorian terraces of Grassendale promenade.

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Reaching the end of Grassendale promenade, Otterspool promenade is visible less than a hundred yards away, but there is no public right of way.  Leaning over the metal fence that forms the boundary here, I noticed this mysterious culvert.  I’ve since discovered that this marks the end point of a network of 19th century drainage channels laid down at the time the parks were established.

Cressington 8

Cressington 9

See also

A poem on Otterspool Prom

A poem on Otterspool Prom

Carol Rumen’s current Poem of the Week on The Guardian website grabbed my attention since its subject – Otterspool Prom – is the riverside walk and area of parkland by the Mersey where I often walk our dog.  It’s by Peter Robinson who, I have to admit, is a poet I’ve not encountered previously, even though he grew up in Liverpool (he was born up the river in Salford in 1953).  He has a distinguished career as a poet, critic, teacher, editor and translator, and this poem comes from his latest volume, The Returning Sky, published last year.

Otterspool

Otterspool Prom

‘O cursed spite’
– Hamlet

There’s a dazzle of sunlight on the low-tide river
and our far shore
has a silver-grey blur, bright as never, never,
ever before.

You see it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes
by silhouetting trees,
winter boughs spidery on mist-like white skies
twitched in a breeze.

But then down the promenade its flyers release
their dragon-tailed kite;
frost on the pitches is shrinking by degrees;

a student’s words return, her going ‘England’s shite!’
and I’m like ‘Please
yourself’ in sunshine born as if to set it right.

17 February 2008

It’s an appropriate poem to post today: it celebrates a day in February, and this has been a day of glorious spring-like sunshine when the ‘dazzle of sunlight’ did indeed shine on the river, ‘bright as never, never, ever before’.

The photos here were taken on Otterspool Prom last month, and in other springs. There’s a full discussion of the poem by Carol Rumen here.

Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.

The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team.
– Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines

A walk in the edgelands: along the Garston shore

A walk in the edgelands: along the Garston shore

Coastal Reserve 15

We’re still enjoying days of crisp, February blue skies, so when I had to get something from B&Q on Speke Retail Park, I decided to take our dog and walk a stretch of the Mersey estuary shore I hadn’t explored before.  Two minutes drive from the bustle of the shops and the roar of traffic along Speke Road there’s a hidden pocket of wildness and Edgeland strangeness.

Coastal Reserve 9

Speke-Garston Coastal Reserve is a haven of tranquillity carved out of the old Speke Airport site.  It consists of a stretch of the estuary shore from Garston Docks to Speke Hall.  The hi-tech office and warehouse blocks of the Estuary Business Park are never out of sight, but from the footpaths and cycle trails that wend their way through meadows and banks of tall reeds alongside the river there are fine views over the Mersey and the silence is broken only by the calls of sea birds and waders – and the occasional plane making its approach to John Lennon Airport.

Coastal Reserve 2

This may be the edgelands, described by Marion Shoard (who coined the term) as a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’.  Raggedy, it may be, but it is peaceful, and the mix of saltmarsh, tidal mudflats, grassland, reedbeds, farmland and wildflower meadows attracts birds of great number and variety.  No wonder the area is popular with bird watchers.

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I could hear them (the birds, that is) – but, apart from the familiar cry of Oystercatchers, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing.  However, the RSPB and bird bloggers report that along this shore can routinely be seen plenty of the common wader species: Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Redshank, and Snipe together with Teal, Mallard, Shelduck, Grey Heron, and Cormorant.

I walked out from the car park at the roundabout on Blackburne Street where sandstone marker stones with plaques that announce the Coastal Reserve suggest ambitious plans a few years back when the Business Park first opened.  If there were plans, it looks like they were abandoned soon after: the car park is deeply pot-holed and the the sandstone boulders covered in graffiti.

Coastal Reserve 22

Coastal Reserve 21

I walked southwest, towards Speke Hall.  If you are walking the shoreline path (now designated the Mersey Way) in the other direction, this as far as you can go: Garston Docks and the private residential Grassendale and Cressington Esplanades prevent public access to the riverside.  The docks I can understand, but as a freeborn Englishman I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river.

Coastal Reserve 8

Coastal Reserve 7

The boundary of the Garston docks is marked here by an old sandstone jetty and tin-roofed warehouse.  The tide was out and the mud flats glistened in the brilliant sunshine.  Inland, across the strip of rough grassland, the new low-level office blocks and company headquarters of the Business Park gleamed white and silver.

Coastal Reserve 10

The path was fringed with tall reeds in winter colours of gold and brown.  Across the river, the stacks of Stanlow oil refinery gleamed through the haze.  There were few around apart from one or two people walking dogs and a couple of guys with a van beachcombing: hauling huge driftwood timbers up from the mud flats.  But there were birds – lots of them, a constant background chorus of cries and calls.

Coastal Reserve 3

It’s this haunting, slightly disorientating juxtaposition of the natural and the ordered, the sublime and the unlovely that marks out the edgelands.  Here were mysterious concrete structures and piles of rubble – left-overs from the old airport site presumably – amidst the reeds and wild flower seed heads. Look one way, and the land had a half-abandoned feel; look the other way and there were the pristine new buildings of the Business Park.

Coastal Reserve 18

This is the kind of landscape which Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness by Liverpool-born poet Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts celebrates.  The two poets begin their book with this explanation of the attraction that these landscapes can hold:

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. […]

I think that one important aspect of the edgelands that Farley and Roberts identify is relevant here on the Garston shore: the mutability of edgeland territory.  They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:

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…

‘As difficult to pin down as poetry’ they write: decay and stasis, but also dynamic and deeply mysterious.  ‘Edgelands are always on the move’: true here, where I’m walking on the landscaped rubble of the old 1930s airport (a few streets away, the elegant 1930s terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel), while behind me the clean lines of Estuary Park’s new office blocks coruscate in the low winter sun.

Some of the Park boulevards I drove along to get here are so new they don’t show up on Google Maps.  The approach is landscaped in the way of business parks that aim to attract prestigious, high-tech companies: manicured lawns and reed-fringed lakes.

But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:

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 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.

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As Farley and Symmons Roberts note, it was Marion Shoard who coined the term, in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:

Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists. […]

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Coastal Reserve 12

I walked as far as the lighting gantry that juts out into the Mersey and which, at night, guides the planes into John Lennon airport.  This was the end of the last walk I did along the Oglet shore last August.  Before I reached the gantry I passed the Liverpool Sailing Club, housed in a remarkable (and, I thought, quite beautiful) building shaped in the form of the billowing sail of a yacht.  The Club’s concrete slipway provides the only access for sailing boats to the Mersey from the north shore.

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I retraced my steps, entranced by a landscape which is, I think, magical, even though it is, in Marion Shoard’s words, ‘raw and rough’.  The edge-lands, she said, do not conform to people’s idea of the picturesque :

On the contrary, they seem desolate, forsaken and unconnected even to their own elements let alone to our preferred version of human life. Tidiness is absent: here no neat manicured lawns with sharply demarcated edges are found. If there is grassland, it is likely to be coarse and shaggy. …  swamped by a riot of wild, invasive plants that seem to over-run everything in their path: fragments of tarmac, wrecks of cars and derelict buildings.

There is a wild beauty here, something to be treasured so near to the city.

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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.

 

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Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

This is the first 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.

There’s a rough surface car park about half a mile down Dungeon Lane, much frequented by plane spotters who take up positions along the lane with folding chairs, flasks and binoculars, waiting for the planes coming in to land on the last minute or so of their descent to the runway.  I parked the car and set off down to the Dungeon.

Once the road ran all the way down to the foreshore here.  Now Dungeon is an abandoned and neglected place where rubble, broken bricks, and the remains of a sandstone quay suggest some kind of industrial past.

The name ‘Dungeon’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘dunge’ or ‘denge’, meaning marshland, or land that adjoins a marsh (think of Dungeness in Kent), rather than having any association with castles or imprisonment.  But this place does have some significance in Liverpool’s economic history, because it was here, after the discovery of rock salt in Cheshire in the 17th century, that a salt refinery was established, the remains of which are still visible in the crumbling stone work and overgrown sandstone jetty.

The development of the trade in salt from Cheshire was the catalyst for improvements in communications from the Cheshire salt fields and the Lancashire coal fields to the River Mersey and Liverpool, a process that boosted the town of Liverpool and the growth of the port. The first step in these developments was the transformation of the small fishing hamlet of Dungeon into a place of industry.  Throughout the 18th century, flatboats and barges brought rock salt across the river from the Cheshire shore to Dungeon, where it was refined before being shipped onwards.

The salt works closed in the late 1840s, and the quay was then used by a firm of ship breakers.  But by the early 20th century the river channels had begun to silt up, and the shipyard closed in 1912.  That was the end of industrial activity at Dungeon, and the little bay slipped once again into isolation and abandonment.

From Dungeon I turned to follow the broad sweep of the bay southeast towards Hale Point.  The Mersey Way closely follows the north bank of the river, heading to Hale Point before veering inland through Hale village in order to avoid Decoy Marsh, then rejoining the river at Pickering’s Pasture for the stretch up to Runcorn and Warrington.  The route in part is concurrent with the Trans-Pennine Trail.

This is a lovely stretch, with fields and wooded copses inland and the Mersey estuary opening out from the Runcorn gap in a series of broad, sweeping bays.  Once a filthy industrial wasteland, the estuary is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because the intertidal flats and saltmarshes provide feeding and roosting sites for large populations of waterbirds. During the winter the estuary is of major importance for ducks and waders, and in the spring and autumn migration periods it’s a crucial stopover for wader populations moving along the west coast of Britain.

The web page of the Mersey Estuary Conservation Group reports that dunlin, turnstone, teal, black-tailed godwit, redshank, pintail, and shelduck visit the estuary, while it is nationally important for wigeon, lapwing, curlew, golden and grey plover.  As the river continues to recover from industrial pollution, the range of fish species in the estuary has increased to over 50.   Sea bass, flounder and shoals of sprat are now common, and recent catches have included sole, dogfish, rays, mackerel as well as conger.   Salmon are probably breeding in the Mersey river system since juveniles were found in the river Goyt. As fish numbers increase, so to have sightings of  Cetaceans  (porpoises, dolphins and whales).  Seals, too, are regularly seen in the estuary, the most unusual and rarest being a Hooded Seal – a Greenland species – which hauled itself on the mud banks at Spike Island in 1997.

There are many Liverpudlians for whom this stretch of the river has provided a welcome opportunity to experience a quite wild and appealing area of countryside close to the city – not least for those who were rehoused on Speke Housing Estate in the postwar period, among them Paul McCartney.

In his biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now,  Barry Miles describes how Paul and his brother Mike, like thousands growing up on Liverpool’s new housing estates, were raised on the border of country and city:

For Paul and Michael, 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.

In the early fifties the McCartneys moved to another new house, surrounded by a muddy building site, at 12 Ardwick Road in the expanding eastern extension of the estate. It was not without danger. Paul was mugged there once while messing about with his brother on the beach near the old lighthouse. His watch was stolen and he had to go to court because they knew the youths that did it. […]

The little village of Hale was less than two miles away, with thatched roofs, home of the giant Childe of Hale who, legend has it, was nine foot tall. … The worn gravestone is still there, inscribed ‘Hyre lyes ye childe of Hale’. It was a favourite destination for a family walk. On the way back Paul’s parents and the two boys would stop at a teashop called the Elizabethan Cottage for a pot of tea, Hovis toast and home-made jam. It was a pleasant, genteel interlude, a touch of quality before they walked back to their very different life among the new grey houses and hard concrete roads of the housing estate.

‘This is where my love of the country came from,’ Paul said. ‘I was always able to take my bike and in five minutes I’d be in quite deep countryside. I remember the Dam woods, which had millions of rhododendron bushes. We used to have dens in the middle of them because they get quite bare in the middle so you could squeeze in. I’ve never seen that many rhododendrons since.’ Sometimes, however, rather than play with his friends, Paul preferred to be alone. He would take his Observer Book of Birds and wander down Dungeon Lane to the lighthouse on a nature ramble or climb over the fence and go walking in the fields: ‘This is what I was writing about in ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, it was basically a heart-felt song about my child-of-nature leanings’.

Speke was originally planned in 1936 as a complete town for 22,000 people, with an industrial estate, schools, a civic centre, a cinema, an ‘open-air music garden’ and a stadium and pleasure beach on the banks of the River Mersey. Unfortunately building work was interrupted by the Second World War and, though more homes were built in the postwar years, the gardens, stadium and pleasure beach never materialised.  Instead, social and community facilities and services were overlooked or inadequate.

1936 model of the planned Speke new town
1936 model of the planned Speke new town

The path to Hale follows the edge of farmland, skirting fields of barley, potatoes and carrots.

You can’t forget that the airport is nearby – on this stretch you walk parallel to the approach which aircraft make on their descent to the runway.  But the noise levels are not intrusive, apart from the brief roar of the reverse thrust engines as the planes touch down; for most of the time the only sounds are of rooks in the copse leading up to Hale village, or the calls of gulls and waders out on the mudbanks of the river.

Speke airport was constructed between 1930 and 1933, but until 1986 was located on a smaller site near Speke Boulevard (where the old terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel).  The major redevelopment of the 1980s saw the move to the new site near to the river at Oglet, and a transfer of ownership from Liverpool City Council to Peel Holdings, the company that now owns assets on both sides of the Mersey, from Liverpool to Manchester.  These include: the port of Liverpool, Birkenhead docks, the Manchester Ship Canal, the Trafford Centre, MediaCity UK at Salford Quays, and a great deal more.

The path follows the top of the low clay cliffs; between the path and the cliff edge is a strip of shrubs, reeds and saplings.  Flocks of hedgerow birds were exploiting the late summer seedheads; there were burdock (the dog came home with her coat festooned with the velcro-like burrs), teasel, and a delicate pink-and-white striped bindweed.

Walking on, the church tower at Hale was visible across the fields where a tractor was ploughing, pursued by a flock of seagulls.  Hale (the name is Anglo-Saxon again, deriving from ‘healh’ meaning promontary of land-  a reference to the village’s location on a bulge of land protruding into the Mersey. The village still retains something of its rural and farming character, the product of the rich and fertile soils hereabouts.

There are salt marshes between the village and the river which can flood at particularly high tides or during storms.  There used to be extensive osier willow beds around the marshes which gave rise to another village occupation, basket-making.  The industry died out long ago, but there are still remnants of the old willow beds marked on the Ordnance Survey map.  Along the cliff top and down on the foreshore there are dense reed beds: I imagine that in the past villagers  would have harvested the reeds for thatching (in fact, there are still a few thatched cottages in Hale village).

The walk ends at Hale lighthouse (top) which stands at Hale Head.  The first  lighthouse was built here in 1838, but the present building dates from 1906.  It ceased operation in 1958, since there was no longer any shipping on this side of the river. Since then it’s been a private residence. From here there are superb views of the hills at Frodsham and Helsby on the opposite bank.

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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 (http://bit.ly/P9fBd6)

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

Helen Clapcott: where two rivers meet

While I’m on about painting Stockport’s viaduct, I must mention a local artist who has painted it repeatedly in recent years in wonderful paintings that record Stockport’s urban landscape, often with the Mersey snaking sinuously between the viaduct’s pillars, the mills, motorways and derelict sites of the town.

Her name is Helen Clapcott and, although born in Blackpool in 1952, it was moving to Stockport at the age of ten that ultimately became the inspiration for much of her work.  Like I did, she tracked the Mersey to its end to study in Liverpool in the sixties, taking Fine Arts at Liverpool Polytechnic.  After a spell in London, she returned to live in Macclesfield where she now paints works that depict the mutation and evolution of a once industrial valley, now a commuter corridor. In her paintings we can see how Stockport has been dominated by ‘the three Rs’ – river, rail and road – and now boasts a motorway, a congestion of roundabouts, sliproads and a pyramid.  She is one of the few artists working in egg tempora, a traditional medium that mixes pigment and water with egg which was used by painters in the Renaissance.

This is Helen talking about how Stockport and the Mersey have been her inspiration (you can listen to her talk here):

My connections with Stockport, I moved here when I was ten with my family, in 1962 and spent sensitive adolescent years exploring the town and taking the train to Manchester, where I scraped just enough O Levels to get me to art school.  There’s a wonderful view of the valley, as the train travels across the viaduct. In the 70s you could see the river, inaccessible, walled by red brick edifices winding into the Cheshire plane. And the King Mill where the Pyramid now stands stood loud and grand in the centre of this landscape, with the sun chasing round the numerous chimneys, that was the view that inspired me to paint.

I was in my late teens when I saw that view on an almost daily basis and I think it just sank slowly in. Until the mid 70s when I came back to Stockport and began painting. It was the view of the chimneys and the sun chasing round the valley. The sun silhouetting the mills was just a very inspiring sight, especially in Autumn when that white light would chase across the grounds.

The river was always black. The river was inaccessible. The mills stood all along the river and you couldn’t get to the river. There is so little access to the river, the town planners seem to prefer to cover it up rather than use it as an asset. I think very many local people don’t even know the river exists.  Even though I grew up in Stockport and went to college in Liverpool, I never related the Mersey in Liverpool to the Mersey in Stockport. In Liverpool there was, at that time, ‘Ferry Across the Mersey’ and I was reading Helen Forrester’s Tuppence to Cross the Mersey. I couldn’t, I couldn’t possibly relate it back to Stockport. It was romantic in Liverpool, it was something that was hidden in Stockport.

Stockport has changed enormously in the time I’ve known it, I’ve seen the motorway built right through the middle of the town. I’ve seen the great mills demolished and the land used for car parks and department stores and the river covered over. The Mersey is now retired in Stockport.  But the river’s cleaner than it used to be and I can see creatures in the water as well as supermarket trolleys and tyres. Crayfish, look like lobsters, they’re quite big too.

It has given Stockport its names, Merseyway, Mersey Square and it’s written in the official handbook of 1966 that all roads lead to Mersey Square. So perhaps the river is there just to give name to its present, perhaps to remind us where it came from.  I don’t know if the river could be important to the town again. It would be lovely to see the Mersey brought into its, its own again. It would be lovely to see a natural feature in a more natural state.

The river is central to a lot of my paintings. The river structured the town and in my paintings the river structures my paintings. It’s a kind of white line that runs through the middle of each piece of work. I’m painting the Mersey because it is still there, you can still see it.   Surprisingly as the mills come down so one can get access to bits of the river that one couldn’t get access to previously. There is a walk along towards Brinksway that now has a wall where you can look over and see the river, that certainly wasn’t possible in the past.

The best view of the Mersey was from the top of the viaduct as the train went across. There was a train strike many years ago and that meant I was able to walk across the viaduct and take photographs of the Mersey. Some of my friends who enjoy photography would deliberately take the train back and forth across the viaduct just to take that shot. If you could do it again today, you would see an awful lot of road, you would see the motorway, you would see the river, really dominated by roads. Back then the river was framed by the mills and with the sun shining, reflecting the light, the river would look sparkling and bright, a white line running through the town.

It’s strange because the opposite applies now. It’s looks duller now but it’s cleaner.  I suppose my favourite spot on the river is on the West side by Brinksway Bridge which is a lovely stone bridge which stands next to the motorway slip road. It seems to crop up in a lot of paintings, though it’s very small. There’s a beautiful spot I’m painting at the moment which is in Tin Brook where the plane came down in 1967, which has a lovely stone culvert. Tin Brook runs underneath the stone culvert. It’s extremely attractive.

See also

Stockport: the past in the present

Stockport: the past in the present

My post the other day on walking the Goyt into Stockport was long enough already, but I wanted to add something more about the town itself, because ambling around its streets that afternoon I was pleasantly surprised by the number of historic buildings and the general character of the place.

Stockport is where the Mersey begins and where, in medieval times, a hamlet with a market was established on a steep-sided promontary of red sandstone on the south bank of the River Mersey.  The reason a settlement grew here was that Stockport was the most easterly point at which the Mersey could be conveniently crossed as a single ford before the confluence of the Goyt and Tame rivers. The hamlet occupyied the valley bottom and spread up the steep slopes to the market place and medieval church.  The dizzying changes in street levels can still confuse the pedestrian today, when suddenly emerging at roof top level on the iron bridge that crosses Little Underbank, for example.

Little Underbank from the bridge

The bridge from Little Underbank

Stockport has never been a port: the Mersey is not navigable here for any boat of significant size.  It was that market that gave Stockport its name: first recorded as Stokeport in 1170, from the Old English stoc, a market place and port, a hamlet; hence, a market place at a hamlet.  There was a castle here by 1173, situated where Castle Yard is now, and the market grew up around it.

The market place remains exactly where it was at the end of the 13th century, after it was established by charter in 1260. Today stalls selling all kinds of everything are housed in the Victorian covered Market Hall, one of the few remaining traditional street markets in the North West and a Grade II listed building that dates back to 1861. One of Stockport’s best known landmarks, the wrought and cast iron framework was originally an open-sided building with a glazed roof.   In 1898 Ephraim Marks, one of the founders of Marks & Spencer, closed the sides of his grocery stall to help shield customers from the cold, and the whole market was enclosed within two years.

Also visible in the photo above is the tower of St Mary’s parish church, another reminder of that early settlement by the Mersey. A church was on the site as early as 1190 but of this church only the original oratory remains. Around 1310 a new church was built, of which only the chancel remains.  The rest of the present church, a Grade 1 listed building, is early 19th century.

As I explored the streets around the market place, I discovered several more historic buildings.  The Three Shires (below) is a listed 15th century building on Great Underbank, thought to be the town’s second oldest building.  It was once the town house of the prominent local family, the Leghs, who owned the land here.  Their main residence was Adlington Hall, one of Cheshire’s finest Tudor half-timbered stately homes where Handel is reputed to have played the historic great organ.

Another 15th century half-timbered building is Underbank Hall (below),  also Grade II listed. It was home of the Arden family of Bredbury until 1823 when it became a bank. A banking hall was then added to the rear in 1919. The hall is still used as a bank today and currently houses the Natwest branch for Stockport.

At the end of Great Underbank stands The White Lion, reckoned to be the oldest hostelry in the town, with a licence dating back to the 14th century.  It was a coaching inn on the main coaching route into and out of Stockport, situated close to the only crossing point of the Mersey at Lancashire Bridge. It was rebuilt in 1904 in mock Tudor.  Unfortunately, when I passed by, the building was boarded up, and for sale signs displayed.

Here, in 1831, a local man, William Clayton, auctioned his wife to the highest bidder.  She was handed over to the purchaser, J Booth, for five shillings with a halter around her neck, as if she were a piece of livestock.  Whether this sort of thing was a regular occurrence, I don’t know, but Thomas Hardy opens The Mayor of Casterbridge with a scene in which a man also sells his wife in a pub auction:

“For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ’em, shouldn’t get rid of ’em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses,” said the man in the tent. “Why shouldn’t they put ’em up and sell ’em by auction to men who are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her!”  “There’s them that would do that,” some of the guests replied, looking at the woman, who was by no means ill-favoured.

Without doubt, the most astonishing historic building in Stockport is Staircase House, though you wouldn’t gaive a second glance to the exterior that faces onto Market Place (below).  But that bland, modern facade hides a remarkable Grade 2* listed medieval town house that dates back to 1460: tree ring dating of the original frame of Staircase House has revealed that the timber was felled in 1459 and the house was built in 1460.

At the heart of the house is the cage newel staircase from which it takes its name.  The first owner of Staircase House may have been the Mayor of Stockport in 1483, William Dodge, whose family later helped found Dodge City, USA. The first definite residents were the Shawcross family, who owned the property from 1605 to 1730. Part of the landed gentry, it was they who installed the elaborate Jacobean cage newel staircase in 1618, one of only three surviving examples in Britain, which gives the house its name.  Wikipedia explains what is distinctive about a cage newel staircase:

The distinctive feature of a cage newel staircase is that each newel post extends throughout the full height of the staircase, the four posts and the banisters thus forming a stairwell which is not fully enclosed, but, rather, contained within a cage-like structure. In fact, at Staircase House, at some date before the first surviving descriptions of the staircase in nineteenth century, the newel posts were each sawn through, just below the stringer board and just above the handrail. That may have been done as a response to changing tastes, or possibly to overcome the practical difficulties of moving large objects, such as furniture, about the house.

The staircase visitors walk up today is the original – but much restored.  The carved staircase was badly damaged by a fire in 1995 and has been carefully reconstructed conserving as much of the remaining fabric as possible.

The house was last in use as a residential building in the 1940s, and survived several demolition attempts in the 1980s which were successfully opposed by Stockport’s Heritage Trust. Even though the value of Staircase House had been recognised in the 1950s, when it was awarded a Grade 2 listing, the condition of the property had deteriorated sharply.  In the 1990s, Stockport Council acquired the property derelict, inaccessible and in a state of partial collapse.The fire in 1995 caused great damage, and the building was thought to be on the point of collapse.

But proposals for repair and subsequent reuse provided the basis for successful grant applications to a range of funding agencies, including the Heritage Lottery. In view of its significance, it was proposed that the house should become a museum interpreting its social history and its various forms of vernacular construction. Work began on site in November 2001 and included the stabilisation of the structure, restoration of the 17th and 18th century interiors and conservation of the timber framing and wattle and daub.

I took the tour around Staircase House, and I can’t recommend it too highly: included in the admission price is the loan of a handset which provides a detailed audio guide recounting the full history of the house, explaining the architectural features and social history, room by room. My time was limited, and I had to rush through some of the narration, but I took away with me a copy of the excellent guide book.

The view from the staircase (above) shows the framework of the original part of the house, with the original wattle and daub filling.  To the rear, the windows and brickwork of the 18th century extension can be seen.

The tour begins in the cellar storehouse (above) , laid out with objects to illustrate how, in the 1650s, the area would have been used to store dry foodstuffs for the household.  Today, Staircase House is in the middle of a built-up area, but in the 1600s it stood on a long strip of land or ‘burgage plot’ which stretched down to the river Mersey.  The plot allowed the ‘burgess’, or house owner, to farm the land.

The restoration work on the house has been meticulous, employing traditional building techniques and specialist skills – the timber framework of the house was repaired with authentic English oak, while the historic technique of wattle and daub was used to repair the walls.  The rooms are furnished with a mixture of original and replica furniture, each room reflecting diffferent period styles from the 1600s to the 1940s to illustrate that the house had been continuously occupied for over 500 years.  In the Linen Chamber (above), the replica linen press or cupboard seen on the left was modelled on a 17th century piece from Marple Hall.

The 17th century Bed Chamber (above) houses a replica four-poster that has the emblem of the Shallcross family carved on the headboard. On the wall beside the bed is a ventilated wooden cupboard called a livery cupboard.  The guide notes that this would have contained food supplies – cheese, meat, wine and bread – for long winter nights, or even cold days when a great deal of time would have been spent in the warmth of the bed.  I liked the claret jars on the cupboard shelf.

The 27 arches of the railway viaduct dominate the Stockport townscape as it spans the Mersey valley 111 feet above the river, just to the north of the station at which trains from Manchester to London stop. When built in 1840 the viaduct was the largest in the world and remains one of the biggest brick-built structures in Western Europe.

Looking at it, the thought occurred to me whether the architect Norman Foster, who was born into a working class family in Stockport in 1935, gained any inspiration from his home town viaduct when designing the beautiful Millau viaduct in southern France seen earlier this year which even more dramatically spans the Tarn gorge.

The viaduct is a reminder of the period in which Stockport’s growth in population and manufacturing was exponential.  Friday night’s Olympic opening ceremony in which Danny Boyle depicted a communal rural England transformed by the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution, could well have described the transformation of Stockport in the early 19th century.  Between 1780 and 1850, cotton spinning and weaving was the dominant industry of the region, powered first by the fast-flowing waters of the Goyt, Tame and Mersey, and later by coal mined locally.  In the 1830s Stockport was second only to Manchester in the amount of cotton being produced.  Three quarters of the inhabitants were engaged in cotton manufacture.  Mills sprang up along the banks of the Mersey.  By 1815, there were 40 large cotton mills in the town.

In 1845, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Frederick Engels vividly described what a desperate place Stockport had become:

There is Stockport, too, which lies on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, but belongs nevertheless to the manufacturing district of Manchester. It lies in a narrow valley along the Mersey, so that the streets slope down a steep hill on one side and up an equally steep one on the other, while the railway from Manchester to Birmingham passes over a high viaduct above the city and the whole valley. Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district…. “

Lurching forward a century and a half, by the early 1990s, Stockport’s former industries had been decimated. Secure and decently paid jobs had gone, and with them the community pride created by a tradition of skilled work in a local mine or factory. An Oxbridge-educated lad, Owen Jones, had attended a Stockport primary school starved of resources and was the only member of his class to reach university. In his book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, published last year, he has no doubt that he made it only because his family was middle class. To be working class was no longer something people felt that they could be proud of. Far from it: it had become effectively synonymous with the pejorative label ‘chav’. The demonisation of working-class identity has, he claims, had an impact on the attitudes of not only middle-class people but also both those who are working-class. With a political consensus that we should aspire to become middle-class, and with few positive representations of working-class people (how many MPs from a trade union or working class background are left in the House Commons, even on the Labour benches?) this, Owen argues, is as unsurprising as it is depressing.

With reference to Stockport, the truly despicable website Chavtowns has this example of the kind of contemptuous attitude that Owen Jones is on about:

I’d like to nominate Stockport as the chaviest place in the entire world, and have the town’s name changed to ‘Rockport’. It says a lot about the culture of the people of your home town, when your cultural hotspot isn’t a museum, park, art gallery or even cafe/bar, but a McDonald’s Drive-Thru. Chavs, or scalls as they’re charmingly referred to, are ferried day in and day out from council estates by a constant stream of buses driven by drivers with nerves of steel….

One local councillor was quite shocked when she found Stockport was on The Idler’s list of bad towns, proudly declaring that 50% of the borough is greenbelt land. What she’d failed to notice however, is that the remaining 43% are council estates, 2% is a giant refuse tip (handily situated near the largest of the council estates for chucking out old 3-piece suites and unwanted kids), 3% is the River Mersey, leaving the remaining 2% to those who actually work for a living as opposed to waiting for their tax credits to come through. Our town is so bad, many people are even considering relocating to Milton Keynes….

Stockport’s most famous hero is of course Fred Perry, the only British man ever to have won Wimbledon, and every day the kids pay tribute to him by wearing his branded stripy tops and jumpers. Stockport is also the only town in the world where the local demolition experts are the kids…

As I’ve already stated, I found Stockport a pleasant enough place to walk around.  In these hard times there seemed to be evidence of a local council working to improve the urban environment and preserve the town’s historical heritage, contradicting this view from art critic Andrew Lambirth in 2003:

Today Stockport is in denial. Instead of valuing the extraordinary resources the town possesses – principally its river and its history—these are ignored, old buildings are demolished and the river is even built over (as it is in Merseyway Precinct) in order to provide more shops for the addicts of tat. A river is a living thing, not a drain. The architect Richard Rogers has called the Thames (another under-used resource) a ‘blue highway’, and the Mersey should be treated not only with similar respect but with the imagination that will transform it into a contemporary asset. Unfortunately, however, Stockport is now attempting to shed its past, industrial and otherwise, and transform itself into another soulless and indistinguishable conurbation. In their wisdom, the city fathers want to turn it into an ‘entrepreneurs paradise’, full of ‘swanky apartments’, with a frenzied night-life to match. This supposedly new economic plan is of course death to the real identity of Stockport, to its long-cherished individuality, to those features and customs and landmarks which have made it what it is.

Until they pull down the Merseyway shopping centre and reclaim the Mersey for the centre of the town, little can be done to reverse the decision to culvert the Mersey – a decision that was actually made back in the 1930s.

Local historian Coral Dranfield, a member of Stockport Heritage Trust, gave this interview about the town to the Mersey Basin campaign in 2007:

I was born and brought up in Stockport, mainly in the Cheadle area. My first recollection of the river is when we used to get off the bus, just outside Mersey Square and the river was right near the bus stop and it was all very threatening and fast and you know I was always pleased that there was a railing between me and this big gorge. That’s my first recollection.  There was also a place where you could stand at the side of the shopping area before Merseyway was built and look down underneath Merseyway Road and the river looked very black and again it looked a dangerous, threatening place. Most people of my age remember that. Yeah us kids we would stand there and look at it.

If it wasn’t for the river, Stockport wouldn’t be here. Its position, right next to a ford was where people had to come to get across and it was the dividing line between Lancashire and Cheshire, so it became a gathering if the river was in flood and they couldn’t cross the ford they had to wait on both sides. Of course it wasn’t long before they built a bridge and that again was a focus point where people got across the river. Travellers used to pay the little man who lived underneath for a safe crossing.

So that was the start of it really and like a lot of towns, the river became part of the history of the area, right from very early Medieval times, corn milling brought in a big income for the Lord of the Manor and in Stockport, he had two corn mills and he ran them with water wheels, off the river. But again, the Mersey is very unpredictable, it can be very dry, it can be in flood, it would wash the wheels away and he actually built tunnels to control the river and to make more money out of his corn mills. Those tunnels were perfect when silk became popular, because he’d built the mills next to the tunnels and he’d got the power there and he ran the silk mills, it wasn’t long before cotton became more productive than silk and again the silk mills, well the cotton mills ran off the river in these tunnels, so much so that sometimes the river was completely empty and all the water was going down the tunnels to feed the mills. And that really is how Stockport’s cotton industry started off more important than Manchester’s to begin with, because of the river.

Stockport is also full of springs which all drain into the Mersey. You could virtually dig a well anywhere I think in Stockport and find water. It was definitely built on water, springs, brooks. We have the Tin Brook which still runs underneath the shopping areas. And discharges under Merseyway. The water’s there but nobody knows it’s there anymore.

There’s a lot of people in Stockport who still worked for the mills and the water was used but it wasn’t used then for turning wheels, but it was used for the industrial processes. Cotton needed a lot of water. The steam engines needed water, there are a lot of foundries in Stockport because the water’s there and because they need it and again these were positioned along the river. And people will remember working in places like that.

Water was very important to a lot of activity, a lot of industry and wealth. I think this is probably one of the problems, because the mills have closed down and these iron foundries have gone, they think the river’s not needed anymore. Certainly when it was built over and Stockport tried to forget it was there. I think by opening it up and getting people to re-use the river and to celebrate the river, rather than hide it, far from dividing the town, like it used to, it can reunite the two sides and bring people down to the river to do things.

Well the river became a divider to the town. North of the river became part of Stockport, although it used to be part of Manchester, it joined to Stockport and the river was in the way. They also probably thought this would make a great road from East to West through the middle of the town, so they built over it and this amazing structure for the 1930s covered the river completely and made a dual carriageway. From then on people didn’t want to know the river in Stockport, it was hidden, it was buried, it was dirty, it was full of industrial waste from the mills and they really didn’t want it anymore and unfortunately it hasn’t changed. People, they don’t know it’s there, they don’t want to know it’s there. If they happen to look over a railing and see something dumped, everybody complains you know, dirty River Mersey and it would be so nice to change all that and bring it back to something that people want again.

If you talk about the Goyt Valley, they think of Derbyshire, but we also have the Goyt Valley, it comes right into Stockport, right up to where the Mersey starts, but no, they don’t relate it at all.

Under Merseyway, you’ve got the start of the Mersey, I mean it is just slightly round the corner. But that is the beginning of the Mersey and it goes all the way to Liverpool and people don’t tend to know that. You know that Stockport is where it all began. It didn’t used to be, the Mersey used to begin further up in Marple where the Etherow joins the Goyt but somebody made a mistake, probably writing a map, put it down wrong and it’s been different ever since. I’ve seen it on some very early maps where they’ve written it down for the first time, wrong, and I think that’s how it changed. And that’s how these things do change, even today. Somebody will write something down wrong on a street name and that street changes it’s name, that’s how it happens.

There is a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that Bonny Prince Charlie camped above the gorge outside Stockport and look down and they thought it was so beautiful it reminded them of home and they christened that particular area Tiviot Dale and that’s still it’s name today. But it was the Mersey Valley that they were looking at.

The caves at Brinksway, we always thought were workshops but just recently we’ve found out that they were built by the navvies who built the viaduct. So you have the link there, the caves are by the river and the navvies were working to build the bridge over the river for the railway and were very much in danger of being on top of it, of falling in while they were working and it was apparently a shanty town, which is what they used to do. Thousands of them would turn up in a town to build viaducts and railway lines and had to find somewhere to live and they weren’t paid very much so they couldn’t get board and lodging and they used to build these shanty towns and of course the caves, probably was a bit of a minor cave network and they’ve increased it made themselves somewhere to live. They would be mainly Irish and they would travel around with the railway wherever they were being built, with their families as well, not just the men. It just happened to be that we were doing a talk about it and a gentleman came up, as they often do and said “my grandfather told me when I was a little lad that he remembered or his grandfather had remembered them actually living there”. So it had been passed down through the family and everyone else had forgotten about it.

I do have a spot that I would like to see celebrated. I don’t know whether you would call it a favourite spot but when I walk from the Peel Centre car park across the bridge towards Merseyway, I always feel very sad that you cross the river there, there’s a very old bridge and people don’t notice it, they don’t notice the river, they don’t notice the bridge and they should do, I think it should be brought to the fore and made something of, in that spot.  I don’t think there are any nice feelings in Stockport at the moment about the river. We want to bring it back, we definitely want to make people proud of the fact that Stockport has a river, not keep it all hidden, celebrate it really, yes be proud of it. it’s much cleaner, it’s much nicer, getting that message through to people I think is still difficult and that’s what, that’s what we’re trying to do.

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