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