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.
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.