Port: dreams of leaving

Liz White and Kate O’Flynn in Port

In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refuse to shine
People tell me there ain’t no use in trying
Now my girl you’re so young and pretty
And one thing I know is true
You’ll be dead before your time is due

We gotta get out of this place
If its the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
‘Cause girl, there’s a better life
For me and you
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’

I remember the buzz that surrounded Port, the play by Simon Stephens, when it was premièred at the Royal Exchange Manchester in 2002.  The play was set in Stockport, Stephens’ hometown, and had been written during a year he spent as resident dramatist at the Exchange in 1999. I didn’t see it then, but, in London last week, I had the curious experience of having travelled 200 miles to watch a play set in the town nearest to the place where I grew up.

Port spans 13 years in the life of the bright and vivacious Racheal, from the age of 11 when she and her six-year-old brother Billy are abandoned by their mother. The play begins (and ends) in a car parked outside a block of flats in Stockport. In the first scene, set in 1988, Racheal is a restless, inquisitive 11-year-old, sitting with her mum and brother after they have all been locked out by a dad who has gone a bit ‘mental’ (one of the joys of the play is Stephen’s ear for the vernacular, for the street argot of a time when everything weird was ‘mental’).

Stephens’ drama follows Racheal (that’s how her name is spelled in the script by the way) as she comes to terms with the emotional shock of her mother’s disappearance, her father’s isolation and alcoholism, and the death of her grandfather. She is the spirited focus of the play, resilient and fiercely articulate, fighting to overcome the hand that she has been dealt in life. We see her struggle to define herself – in love and in marriage, through work and getting her own place.  She is protective of her younger brother (prone to getting repeatedly run over, and, later, to thieving and subsequent spells of incarceration), but makes mistakes in her own erratic life.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs in a hotel room in Edale on the eve of the millenium, with Racheal left cowering and terrified after a brutal onslaught by the abusive man she has unwisely and unexpectedly married.

Racheal is central to the play, ‘open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic’ in Stephens’ words, but complicated, too, with unlovely aspects born out of neglect and abuse. Above all, though, it is Racheal’s tenacity and resilience (reminiscent, as Michael Billington observed in his review for The Guardian, of Shelagh Delaney’s Jo in A Taste of Honey) that means that you leave the theatre, not downhearted, but with your spirits lifted.

Kate O’Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats)

All of the performances in this production at the National were convincing: Mike Noble as Racheal’s brother Billy, Jack Deam as her fearsome husband, and Calum Callaghan as boyfriend Danny are all worthy of mention.  But it was Kate O’Flynn, mesmerising in the central role of Racheal, who held the whole thing together.  She makes the transition from child to young woman in the early scenes without leaving the stage, discarding one layer of clothing after another like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.  She made the difficult transition from an mercurial 11-year-old to a 24-year-old – hurt, divorced, but still standing – look entirely convincing. O’Flynn’s performance made Racheal likeable and human, someone whose feelings you could understand and empathise with, not out of pity, but because of the sheer strength of her character.

Simon Stephens has written about the origins of Port:

I was given a commission by Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It made sense to write about where I was born.  I returned to the town for weeks at a time, my visits coinciding with the last few months of my dad’s life. The combination of seeing old friends, going to places I’d not been to for years, and watching my dad fight cancer are manifest in the play, in ways I’ve only now come to realise. The places where I’d grown up became my dramatic landscape: the Mersey Way shopping centre and Stockport bus station, drab municipal shells sitting in the shadow of the mighty viaduct. And the kids I’d been to school with and worked with in shit weekend jobs gave me its characters. They were dryly funny, smart and skint. The music we had all listened to came to inform the play’s structure.

Although I began this review by quoting what seem like pertinent lines from the Animals 1965 hit ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’, the National Theatre production is drenched in the music made in Manchester in the late 1980s.  Stephens explains:

Port is about a place and a time – south Manchester in the late 1980s – that was charged with music. I wanted to dramatise that charge. I wanted the play to have the same effect on an audience that the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had on me. I tried to build scenes with the same pace and structure as their songs. I tried to evoke the imagery of their lyrics in my dialogue.  […]

So I went back home and interviewed five women who had lived in Stockport all their lives – relatives, old friends, friends of my mum. The oldest was my 85 year-old nana; the youngest my teenage cousin. They told me about their jobs and marriages, their aspirations and frustrations. Many of these stories – from the discovery of a dead sparrow to a disastrous New Year’s Eve in a hotel – made it into the fabric of the play.

The story began to develop: a series of scenes focused on one character, Racheal Keats. We watch her grow up. We watch her deal with a family falling apart and a complicated marriage, with a broken-hearted brother who has criminal proclivities, and with the love of her life. She’s open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic.

Chris (Danny Kelly), Billy (Mike Noble) and Racheal (Kate O’Flynn)

Stephens portrays Racheal’s struggle as a battle between love and hatred for the town where she has grown. She longs for the countryside beyond the town, for different places, better places.  She leaves but returns, a somewhat philosophical 24-year-old who acknowledges her mistakes and the continuing sense of loss she has felt since her mother’s disappearance (ironically, the one character who does escape the place).

In the NT’s programme there’s an extract from Paul Morley’s forthcoming book The North (and almost everything in it).  He grew up in Stockport, too.  He writes of a town where ‘wit and bloody-minded acceptance cauterise hopelessness’, and of the ‘frustration, …. the broken hearts, resolution and ferocious, native candour’ running through Port.Morley continues:

The town carries on, Stoicport, and nothing much changes, except the people, still being born there, spending their time there, making do, making it up as they go along, maybe plotting escape routes. Some are in the posh parts, some are stuck where Stockport itself stays stuck near enough to the happening, still modernising big city, with its own battles a little adrift, desperately looking for tomorrow in a place that often settles for what it’s got, where it is and the miserable weather like there’s no tomorrow. I’d left by 1978, because all major roads and railways lines lead out, towards possible adventure, and Manchester Airport begins where Stockport ends. I turned my back on the place, but took with me the Stockport fighter, the Stockport lip and defiant, non-fey accent, as personified by anti-establishment 1930s tennis champion Fred Perry, born in the centre of the Stockport valley a few hundred yards from where the Mersey begins. I left Stockport, but eventually got to realise, you never completely leave.

In an interview with the Metro, Stephens said, ‘Port is a play that I hope inspires. But theatre is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise and my plays are rooted in a faith in people. That’s what makes me want to write.’  The Metro piece continued:

The only personal history Stephens admits to pilfering is his burning teenage desire, like Racheal, to get out of Stockport, where he grew up. ‘Now I go back and can see the beauty of the place,’ he says. ‘I see what I’ve inherited from it: an intolerance of pretension and an insistence that I do my bloody job, that I work hard. But when I was 14, Stockport took on the mantle of the place to flee.’


If the acting shone, there were difficulties with the staging.  When Port was first staged at the Royal Exchange, it was in an intimate theatre in the round setting that would have suited Stephens’ play better than the Lyttleton’s cavernous stage.  In scenes such as the opening one which takes place in a car outside a block of flats, the largely empty stage seemed to dwarf the actors, and I had difficulty hearing some of the lines in the vastness of the Lyttleton.

See also

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brinksway caves: photo by Stopford lad (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

Lowry in Stockport

Lowry in Stockport

When I reached Stockport on the Mersey walk the other day, I took a stroll around the town and ended up in the Art Gallery on Wellington Road where a new exhibition had just opened. Street Scene: Artworks from Stockport’s Art Collection features the work of well-known artists with local connections such as L.S. Lowry, Alan Lowndes and Harry Rutherford alongside the lesser known painters.  The common theme in all the works  on display is that they depict life in the streets of Stockport – street parties, demonstrations, carnivals and parades.

Lowry, A Street in Stockport, 1930
Lowry, A Street in Stockport, 1930

The centrepiece of the exhibition is A Street in Stockport – Crowther Street (above), painted by Lowry in 1930 and bought by the gallery in 1935 for 35 guineas.  It’s been a favourite of mine since I first saw it displayed at the Lowry Centre in Salford a few years ago.  It might just be the depiction of a scene by a well-known artist nearest to the place where I grew up – Poynton, ten miles to the south.

What the gallery didn’t realise until they examined the painting was that they were getting two Lowrys for the price of one.  Also on show is a reproduction of an unfinished painting that was discovered on the reverse of the canvas.  A Crowd Scene must have been started by Lowry before his painting of Crowther Street.  An intimate crowd scene, it is in quite an advanced stage, but there is no evidence as to why it was abandoned.  The two faces of the painting were conserved by the North West Museums and Galleries Service in 1992.  There are lighter oblong patches visible on the reverse image where labels from various exhibitions have been removed.

Crowther Street today
Crowther Street today

Afterwards, I went to see Crowther Street, which survives about half a mile away, near the centre of town.  I took the photo above which reveals the artistic licence taken by Lowry in sharpening the angle of the curve of the street, and depicting the terraced houses sporting white and red washes rather than the plain brick.  What is missing from the photo are the people – today Crowther Street is a quiet, half-forgotten lane lacking the bustle and animation of Lowry’s picture.  There is a plane, though: every three of four minutes one follows the flight path over the town centre on the approach to Manchester airport.

Lowry, Old Steps, Stockport 1969-70
Lowry, Old Steps, Stockport 1969-70

There was one other Lowry in the exhibition – a pencil drawing made in 1929 of Meal House Brow.  It shows the view from Stockport Market Place looking down towards Underbank. This is the view of Meal House Brow today.  Lowry’s drawing is reminiscent of the much later one above – Old Steps, Stockport – made in 1969.

Meal House Brow
Meal House Brow

Lowry on Wellington Steps, Stockport, 1962 <i>(C) Crispin Eurich contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. 023 80 462723 email <a href="mailto:Margery@TheFirstGallery.com">Margery@TheFirstGallery.com</a></i>
Lowry on Wellington Steps, Stockport, 1962 (C) Crispin Eurich contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. 023 80 462723 email Margery@TheFirstGallery.com

Two photos – the above and the one below – show Lowry in Stockport in 1962.  Prominent in both photos is the famous railway viaduct that Lowry incorporated into many of his paintings which, although the composition might be imaginary, often incorporated elements of real places into the view.

Lowry sketching Stockport Viaduct, from Wellington steps. (C) Crispin Eurich contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. 023 80 462723 email Margery@TheFirstGallery.com
Lowry sketching Stockport Viaduct, from Wellington steps. (C) Crispin Eurich contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. 023 80 462723 email Margery@TheFirstGallery.com

Stockport Viaduct seems to have haunted the artist.  In The Viaduct (below), for example, it appears as the backdrop to a fairly desolate urban landscape containing only two rows of terraced cottages and a large pub, towards which three men are resolutely making their way.  The Viaduct was once owned by Sir Alec Guinness.

Lowry, The Viaduct
Lowry, The Viaduct

In Industrial Landscape (below), painted in 1955, the viaduct can be seen in the middle left of the picture. But on the whole the image presents a generalised impression of an urban environment, dominated by smoking chimneys, factories, roads, bridges and industrial wasteland. These features seem to overwhelm the human presence in the scene, limited to tiny figures in the foreground going about their business in a terraced street and on wasteland.

Industrial Landscape, 1955
Industrial Landscape, 1955

The title of Stockport Viaduct (1958, below) might suggest a realistic depiction, but again the scene is an imaginary composite.

Lowry, Stockport Viaduct, 1958
Lowry, Stockport Viaduct, 1958

Again, in the 1969 drawing below, The Viaduct Stockport, Lowry has neither realistically portrayed the details of the scene, nor accurately rendered the viaduct’s proportions.

Lowry, The Viaduct, Stockport 1969
Lowry, The Viaduct, Stockport 1969

Alan Lowndes, who has two paintings in this exhibition – Stockport Street Scene and Love Lane Corner, both seen below – was a local artist who painted many scenes in and around Stockport, including the view of Stockport Viaduct in 1973, also below.  Born in 1921 in Heaton Norris a, suburb of Stockport, Lowndes was the son of a railway clerk. He left school at 14, and was apprenticed to a decorator. After serving in the Second World War, he studied painting at night school, but was largely self-taught. He began to achieve success with his scenes of northern life in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just at the time when interest in northern culture was at its height.

Stockport Viaduct 1973 by Alan Lowndes
Stockport Viaduct 1973 by Alan Lowndes

Stockport Street Scene by Alan Lowndes
Stockport Street Scene by Alan Lowndes

Love Lane Corner, 1972 by Alan Lowndes
Love Lane Corner, 1972 by Alan Lowndes

Harry Rutherford, whose  September, Mottram (below) is on show in the exhibition was born in the Stockport suburb of  Denton in 1903, the youngest of four sons of a hat trimmer. The manufacture of hats was one of Stockport’s main industries (gone now, but the town still has a Hat Museum), based in the town centre and in nearby Hyde, and it was to Hyde that the family moved in 1905.  Today there is Blue Plaques to Harry Rutherford at 17 Nelson Street where he lived.  While he was still at school Harry attended Saturday morning classes at the Hyde School of Art. He left school at fourteen but continued to develop his skills through evening classes at the Manchester School of Art, where he met L.S. Lowry who was attending the same classes.

Harry Rutherford: September, Mottram
Harry Rutherford: September, Mottram

In 1925 Walter Sickert came to Manchester to open an art school at the invitation of a local art dealer. The class had places for thirty pupils, and Harry was both the first and youngest to enrol. Rutherford and Sickert became firm friends and Sickert’s influence on Rutherford’s technique was very strong.  Harry’s painting Saturday Afternoon, now called Northern Saturday (below), depicting Hyde town centre, is arguably his most famous. It was acquired by Hyde Corporation in 1948.  Tameside Council has a web page with information about Rutherford here.  More paintings by Harry Rutherford can be seen on the BBC Your Paintings website here.

Harry Rutherford: Northern Saturday
Harry Rutherford: Northern Saturday

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

John Davies: photographing the Mersey

A new photographic gallery – EDGEspace – has opened on Slater Street and this afternoon I went down to have a look at the opening exhibition, Two Rivers – a selection of photographs by John Davies.

The exhibition brings together a selection from series showing the urbanised landscape around two rivers – the Mersey from Stockport to Liverpool (photographed between 1986 and 1988) and the River Taff from the Brecon Beacons to Cardiff (1995-96).  I was particularly interested because of my own plans to walk the length of the Mersey this coming year, but, disappointingly, there were only a few images from the Mersey series.

John Davies, who now lives in Liverpool, has gained an international reputation for his large-scale rural and urban landscape photography. In the 1980s he began to document urban Britain, concentrating on the changes provoked by the industrial and post-industrial landscape. In recent years he has broadened his attention to focus on the landscape of different European countries. His large-format photos are refined, almost austere, pure black and white images, which usually emphasise the vastness of natural space and industrial architecture, seeming to dwarf any human beings in the frame.  ‘I try to look for the best view to show features in context, and aim to get the maximum detail from my photographs,’ Davies has said.

This is impressive photography, though the urban shots tend to be austere in the manner of an architectural record.  Panoramic views like the one of the Victorian railway viaduct in Stockport (above) reveal the layers of architecture and building history in view. In this image we see the railway viaduct, built in 1839 towering above a calm river Mersey beneath its arches. Reflected in the water are enormously varied architectural forms: the columns of the viaduct, the brutal form of a modern tower block and the more mellow textures of the warehouses on each bank.

Davies always attaches detailed explanatory labels to his photos which draw attention to the social and economic history of the area, and the architectural features.  So, for example, Mersey Square in Stockport (above), photographed in 1986, carries this label:

The production of felt hats was a thriving cottage industry in Stockport during the mid 17th century, and by the 18th century the town had become a major industrial centre. Water-powered mills dominated the banks of the Mersey there,with factories producing silk and, later, cotton fabrics. In 1844 Frederick Engels described the town as ‘one of the dustiest, smokiest holes in the whole of the industrial area’.  By 1884, with over 50 firms, Stockport was at the centre of the country’s hatting industry, exporting more than 6 million hats per year. The Wellington Mill is one of the last remaining Victorian mill buildings along the Mersey, and in 2000 it re-opened as a hat museum.

Perhaps the most remarkable photo on display was ‘Reddish Vale, Stockport, 1988′ (above – click to enlarge).  This image also appears in John Davies’ impressive book, The British Landscape, published in 2006.  In the introduction, Jonathan Glancey writes of this image:

It depicts what at first sight appears to be an uneventful English scene, in countryside with none of the drama of the Lakes or Snowdonia – the sort of countryside where people say nothing ever happens. Always the same. Now, look again. The all-but-dormant Arcadian world that two fairy-tale young girls appear to be discovering for the first time, is far from still. On the left the river – into which neither you, me, those girls, John Davies … could ever step twice – has carved its way over centuries. Its waters are far from still; restlessly alive, it continuously alters its course through Reddish Vale. In the mid-distance, meanwhile, a concrete road bridge under construction over the valley. lt is as if a cartoonist had decided to draw a modern structure across Constable’s Dedham Vale. Davies’s ReddishVale is in the
act of changing before our eyes.

Though I have suggested that Davies’ vision is a touch austere, his pictures often reflect a humanist outlook, concerned to explore the impact of the environment on the people in the pictures. His widely reproduced image, Agecroft Power Station, Salford (above), which was taken in 1983, speaks of the scale of industrial architecture overshadowing the human figure. Under four towering chimneys in a bleak industrial landscape, players on a football pitch are reduced to mere specks.

A fundamental aspect of my approach to landscape is the sense of power it can symbolise and evoke. Images of land, water and sky can become metaphors, which reflect our emotional and spiritual states. But the landscape can also represent power in terms of land ownership and material wealth. It is this dual and often ambiguous representation of the metaphysical and the material in the landscape that underlies my photographic work. I believe in the beauty of truth rather than the truth of beauty even though the meaning of visual truth can be challenging and often fluid. My work attempts to raise questions about our collective responsibility in shaping the environments in which we live.
– John Davies

‘Runcorn Bridges, Cheshire 1986’ (above) is labelled:

Designed by William Baker, the high-level railway bridge crossing the Mersey Estuary and the Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1869, shortening the journey from Liverpool to London. It was named Aethelfleada Bridge after a daughter of Alfred the Great whose castle once stood beneath the path of the bridge. Openedto traffic in 1961, it featured the longest single-arch span in Europe. It was widened to four lanes in 1977 and renamed the Silver Jubilee Bridge in honour of Queen Elizabeth II.

And this is his view of Widnes, on the opposite bank of the Mersey:

To view the landscape as a pictorial composition of elements is simplistic. To perceive the landscape within a set of rules (art, science, politics, religion, community, business, industry, sport and leisure) is a way people can deal with the complexity of meanings that are presented in our environment. We are collectively responsible for shaping the landscape we occupy and in turn the landscape shapes us whether we are aware of it or not.
– John Davies

John Davies’s work belongs to the world of contemporary documentary photography. Faithful to a refined, pure black and white, taken on as the absolute rule of a subtle, analytic style. He chooses the vastness of space inhabited by the powerful elements of nature and the contradictory ones of culture to operate in two directions. On the one hand, the evocation of emotional states through the photographic rendering of a space-light that is alive, almost metaphysical, and recalls the symbolisation of the forces of nature in Turner. On the other, a crystal-clear gaze that sounds the material aspects of the contemporary landscape which is tied to the development of the productive activities and concrete structuring of the world through the molding power of economy and property.
– Roberta Valtorta, photographic historian