Canal Trip: 3 – Manchester to Marple

The last two days have seen us navigate through two of the most dramatic lengths of waterway on our canal system, although dramatic for very different reasons. From the historic Castlefield Basin in the centre of Manchester we follow the first nine locks of the Rochdale Canal for our first drama.


The canal rises up through the heart of the City to Piccadilly Junction, completely overshadowed by, yet an integral part of, huge office buildings, alongside people at workstations, gazing into their PCs and canalside commuters, business people and tradesmen, some of whom stop to watch us go by, some with a sombre blank expression, lost in thought, others with a cheery wave from an office window.


We go past and then right underneath huge buildings, the foundations of which form dark, low-roofed tunnels, Victorian history below a high-tech City. New construction soars over the canal, a working crane vertically above us as contractors create a new development straddling the canal. We have to duck low as the bridges press down on the waterway, stealing its valuable city space in every direction.


Trains and vehicles criss-cross the canal on historic iron and period brick arched bridges straight from the history books, mixed in with modern concrete, glass and steel structures that showcase the vibrancy above. It’s a hugely busy scene and one that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.


As we approach Piccadilly we follow Canal Street, self-proclaimed home of Manchester’s Gay Village. Many of the bars along this colourful street overlook the canal, and travelling along here on a Saturday night must be a different experience again. Perhaps one we’ll forgo for now.


We’ve heard stories of problems with drug users in this area, and we keep our wits about us. Canals seem to draw certain types of people for some reason, and today there are a couple of young men who we aren’t too sure about. They seem harmless enough though, and we pass without incident.


At Piccadilly Junction we turn right on to the Ashton Canal and the 18 locks that take us up to Dukinfield. This part of the city has changed a bit since our last trip through here, with the Manchester City FC ground dominating the skyline and lots of new community developments. The locks, by contrast, are old, heavy and creaky. They have anti-vandal locks fitted which makes progress even slower, and this isn’t the most enjoyable flight we’ve ever navigated.


Coming through Manchester by boat isn’t an experience everyone would savour for their holiday, I’m sure. For me though, the trip has been hugely enjoyable and full of unusual perspectives on this great City. If you like life in all its aspects, you’ll enjoy it too.


And then, a day later, the total contrast of working the flight of 16 locks rising into Marple. The canal crosses a superb aqueduct, built in 1805, offering the always unusual experience of navigating a boat along a channel itself high above a waterway. The views down to the River Goyt below are vertiginous and stunning, a picture of the English countryside at its best. The locks themselves are as fine as any, set in gorgeous woodland with tantalising views through to the rolling countryside beyond. The solid stone locks are attractive and relatively easy to work after the slow and heavy Manchester versions, and Marple welcomes the canal to its heart with obvious pride.  Reaching the top feels like a real achievement, and we finish the day with a very tasty Indian meal on board, supplied by ‘Marple Spice’ only yards from the canal and highly recommended.


It’s been a very enjoyable day.

Canal Trip: 2 – Straight Through Sale

There’s a stretch of canal on the approach to Manchester that is unusual in boaters’ experience by virtue of its remarkable straightness. After miles of waterways that meander gently around bridges, trees, bushes and moored boats, swinging from left to right and back again following the contours of the land, this length is arrow-straight for over 2 miles – too far to see from one end to the other, so that the pilot can’t discern whether that shape in the far distance is an approaching craft or a bridge across the cut.


Slicing its way through Sale towards Stretford, this is one of the earliest waterways of its kind anywhere in the world. When built, it would have been a scar through open countryside, but its arrival in the late 1700’s – a gamble by Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgwater after whom the canal is named, that nearly bankrupted him, costing a then colossal £200,000 – soon started to pay off as Manchester and its burgeoning industry started a revolution that was to lead the world. The price of coal from the Duke’s mines halved in price immediately, turning the demand into a clamour and leading to annual profits of £70,000, a good return on capital by any standards. This blossoming of enterprise led to a huge influx of workers, and they had to be housed somewhere. Ironically it was years later when the railways took over from canals that Sale became one of the world’s first ‘railway dormitory’ towns as thousands of commuters travelled in to the City to work.


To Infinity….and Beyond!

Sale has matured since then, and the canal is no longer a scar but a sanctuary through the urban sprawl. Travelling this stretch is a delight, joined as we are by exercising joggers, serious runners, leisure cyclists and head-down commuters, to say nothing of the local dog population, all enjoying the wide and well-formed towpath on the west bank. On the east side the regular Manchester Metrolink trams are ever-present, reminding us of the proximity to the City.


Entering this straight one wouldn’t be aware of the built-up nature of the surrounding area if it were not for our map revealing all. We pass open fields and meadows, which give way to a nature reserve which doubles as a flood overflow area. Onwards we go, to a delightfully laid out park, a sports centre, rowing club and then a large cemetery, smart headstones laid out in neat rows with the vivid colours of remembrance flowers making a lovely picture despite the sombre purpose.


Further still and rows of well-kept cottages just a stone’s throw across the road are in keeping with the period feel of the canal, until we reach a school, a mix of old and new build with classroom areas on outside balconies so that, presumably, lessons can be held overlooking the canal. The King’s Ransom offers us its culinary and alcoholic delights from a deck running alongside the canal, no doubt to become much livelier later in the day. Further still to attractive modern flats, each with its own balcony, although none are occupied on this wet and windy afternoon. Everyone wants to be a part of this waterway.


From our vantage point on the slightly elevated rear of our narrowboat we have a view of all of this life in action. It is tempting to stop the boat, walk all the way back to the beginning, and explore each of these delights in turn, finding out more about them and savouring their story. I’m sure that this two-mile stretch of canal could yield more than enough material for several documentaries. It would be great to go exploring and find out more. One of the great pleasures of travel is the opportunity to experience such landscapes, and one of the great tragedies that one so often does so as an observer rather than as a participant.


And now here we are at Castlefield Basin, deep in the heart of Manchester. It’s a fascinating place, and an important part of our industrial and social history with its own story to tell. This trip is yielding some wonderful nuggets.

Canal Trip: 1 – Rainy City Delights

The rain is pattering down outside, and judging by the look of the skies it seems there is more water above us than below, even though we’re already afloat. One of the joys of holidaying in the UK is the unpredictability of the weather, which brings another unknown dimension to the experience we’re having.

If we’re going to tackle the inclement weather head-on there’s probably no better way to do it than from the helm of our narrowboat. We’re not far from Lymm on the approach to Manchester, in a surprisingly rural spot in our green and lovely countryside. The city beckons ahead.

As always on our canal system, surprises are a regular occurrence. If you have any interest in our industrial heritage, or even if you don’t, you can’t fail to be impressed by the engineering skills that helped to create the system in the first place. From our 21st century perspective the canals are a quaint anachronism of a bygone age, green corridors through a verdant land. At their inception, though, they were a bold and highly innovative solution to moving goods and produce around the country in bulk and at speed. When Josiah Wedgewood first starting shipping his valuable pottery, the only way was by pack horse. If you think canals are slow, try taking one of those from Stoke to London laden with china.

Rainy City Delights

This innovation resulted in wonders such as the mile and three-quarter long Harecastle Tunnel which we tackled on Sunday, and the amazing Anderton Lift yesterday (Tuesday). Although strictly we didn’t ‘tackle’ Anderton so much as visit it, a special licence being required to navigate the River Weaver to which the Lift transports boats and their cargo from the Trent & Mersey canal above.

Like so many features of the waterways, when it was first built in 1875 people came from miles around to see the Anderton Lift in operation. After falling into neglect it was brought back to its former glory as a result of a preservation campaign in the 1980’s, and now the site hosts a lively and instructive visitor centre which offers an excellent fried breakfast along with boat trips between the two levels on their resident narrow boats. If you’re in this part of the world an excursion here is highly recommended. Make time to do the trip and you’ll have a very enjoyable and informative day out. You can find out all about it on the Canal & River Trust Website here.

Sunday evening offered one of those magical Summer evenings that are special to England, with no wind, a balmy temperature and the sun casting deep pink and golden hues across the sky. Chugging along gently on not much more than tickover, watching the world go by and feeling connected with it all, was about as good an experience as there is.

So if we have to put up with a few drops of rain today, so be it. At least Manchester is living up to its ‘Rainy City’ moniker. Who knows what further delights are in store?