The Bridgewater Canal – 1: Worsley to the Trafford Centre

Introductory note – This was written last summer during a slight relaxation of the lockdown. It’s quite hard to be a travel writer when you can’t leave your desk! There’ll be a part 2 in the next few days.

Worsley green. Serene and studded with mature trees, it slopes gently down to a row of handsome houses, bedded neatly into the landscape, for all the world an ancient village green, common land unspoiled by the unfortunate intrusion of commoners, the jewel that confirms this to be the crowning postcode for middle-class Mancunian success. Each tree had a fuse-box nestled among the boughs, to make the Christmas lights an easier installation. The notice board was delaminating and hadn’t been updated for a while. Yoga classes were off or gone online. Professional dog walkers seemingly unnecessary in a time of furlough and work from home.

At the end of the green, the road bends over the bridge, and there’s Worsley Delph, a square hole in the landscape where a sandstone quarry had provided the starting point for a drainage channel that eventually grew into a mine entrance and 46 miles of underground canals. I was standing on the viewing platform, looking at the sunken arches of the twin tunnels running into the hill. It was quiet, my only companions a young mother with two ginger boys who were gleefully using the platform to aggressively pelt Canada geese with hard lumps of bread.

And yet, this exact spot had attracted before me; King Christian VII of Denmark with fifty courtiers, Grand Duke Nicholas, soon to be Czar of Russia, the Duchess of Oldenburg, and so many others.[1] They’d come to stare and ponder this feat of engineering that had showed how to change the world and gone home with awesome new dreams of mechanisation and industrialisation that would sculpt Europe into a series of global and economic superpowers.

The observation platform, a recent replacement for a much older one, had quaint metal sculptures of mining equipment, tubs, picks, lanterns, shovels. You could that tell this is a good neighbourhood because nobody has turned up with a Transit and weighed it in for scrap yet. The coal tub had script on the big logs of coal within, telling tales of life for the children who worked the air doors in the mines. As young as six some of them, it claimed.

The boys were not out of ammunition yet, and the pelting continued as a kingfisher cut across the water, a flare of neon blue, across the face of the sandstone and onto a railing.

“They go to school up in the wood.” The mother told me. “It’s lovely.”

Back on the green, an elegant arched bridge leads to the towpath to Manchester. Three dog walkers had reached a Mexican standoff, each unable to make progress without entering another animal’s exclusion zone. Across from the towpath are the dry docks, the first of their type in the country, listed buildings now, and somewhere I’ve spent a great deal of time replacing planks on an old wooden boat.

The residents of Worsley live in a modern dreamland, unaware perhaps that their idyllic village green is the void left behind by the demolition of the great workshops that serviced the coal mines and the canal, the dry dock the only bit still standing. They don’t care for the banging and sawing of boatbuilding and like to complain when anyone tries to mend a boat, much like those people who move next door to an established music venue and immediately complain to the council about the noise.

One of our group had reacted forecefully against this grumbling, years ago, and drove her Landrover in doughnuts around the green in the middle of the night repeatedly bellowing “THIS IS A MIDDLE CLASS RESIDENTIAL AREA” out of the open window. She later painted a hammer and sickle on the boat’s rudder which we faithfully renew every year. Above the scene, the village clock still strikes 13 at 1pm, an adjustment made so that workers couldn’t pretend they hadn’t heard it when their lunch break was over.

Steep roofed new-builds line the canal side, imaginatively named things like ‘The moorings’, where the upmarket cars of the comfortable rest at safe harbour on weedless bricked drives. It’s an odd disconnect between modern village and history. Some histories bring pride in their telling, others end up capped in concrete and sealed away, grassed over, expunged from the record. A 1575 lease note talks of coal mining in poetic terms;[2]

“To dygg and carry away all suche colles as shalbe found growin with the demesnes of the Peele of Hulton”

Growin. I liked that. Sealed away again now and dropping out of folklore, perhaps they’re regathering, breeding, growing strong in number and strength again beneath the hill.

I followed the path the coal had taken. Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, had quickly realised that the drainage tunnel for his coal mines further up the escarpment could solve several problems at once. The region’s biggest problem in 1759 was the difficulty of getting from one bit to another. The roads were virtually impassable, as was the vast expanse of Chat Moss standing between the mines and their market, a wilderness into which the Iron age residents had merrily planted the severed heads of ritual victims, some of which had periodically turned up on the peat cutters’ conveyor belts as the great bog was slowly drained and used up, perhaps the entirely intended end result of a splendid 2000-year practical joke.

A canal solved all Egerton’s problems. Running right into the hill, the coal could be floated out by boat, and then towed by horse all the way to Manchester. Drainage, transport, and a steady supply of water for the canal. It has been speculated that Egerton was impressed by French canal building on a grand tour of Europe. In my view, it is much more likely he made some sandwiches and went on a day trip to St Helens and saw the Sankey canal, an improved river and just took it one step further, but that’s not so romantic. An act of parliament was obtained in 1759, John Gilbert having made the initial plans, and James Brindley hired as engineer soon after.

Manchester is such a patchwork of radically different communities, and your view changes quickly, even on foot. A burnt-out motorbike made a suitable boundary marker as the towpath took me towards Monton and I felt the social class shift perceptibly in the space of a few strides. Through a screen of supple silver birch, I saw my final field of the day, and through the leaves, the mottled complexion of cattle flanks, unresolved but unmistakable. A man screamed for his dog “Rex” to “Fucking well come here”. Perhaps the services of the professional dog walkers had been too easily let go. On the right, a long row of houses sulked below, thick with the brooding presence of mossing trampolines and alive with the shrill call of the builder’s radio. Dense paneled oblongs of garden, terraced at one end with high screening fences running towards the tall embankment of the canal where the view across the field had been lost to all but the most enthusiastic loft conversions as the land had subsided.

Miners had stripped out the coal like sheets of lasagna being surgically removed from a bake, but the canal’s level must be maintained, embankments thrown up and the bottom filled in as the land went down. These houses had sunk into a gloomy hollow through no fault of their own. Perhaps their first tenants had gone out each day to work to hew and pick and sink their house a little further into darkness. A German Shepherd noticed me stopped in thought and howled up at me like it was all my fault.

For sale signs promised ‘Zero Arrears!’, or ‘0% commission on sale!’ instead of the agent’s name. Cheap flats extruded rusting, empty balconies. At Monton turn, someone has built a lighthouse in their garden. The vast mill that faced it is gone without trace.

Here the canal heads under the encased motorway and through a strange twilight land, where even in my short life I’ve watched as factories became abandoned shells, to demolition, to open plains of rubble stretching to vanishing points, to scraggy brownfield where the summer cats toyed with careless mammals in the buddleia, to identikit housing where perfect lawns overlay the fragments of the past. And behind the headlines of physical change, there’s the redundancies, the ways of life ended, the way it finally looks like it had never truly been there at all and all you’ve got to trust to is your own memory of it.  The world changes a damn sight faster than we do.

Slightly dated signs along the path point the traveler at buildings that may or may not still stand and direct to pubs that may be closed and gone. A modest railway bridge comes over at Patricroft, and it would be easy to miss that it’s the first example of a railway crossing a canal in the world.

George Stephenson crossed Brindley here, with the Liverpool and Manchester line, a railway whose catastrophic first day included an MP being run over and killed by a train, and the inaugural service being driven back out of Manchester by a stone-throwing mob without managing to arrive at the station. It nevertheless led to a revolution every bit as profound as the one ignited by Egerton and Brindley’s canal.

Along the run down to Barton, evidence of a mellowing, as the moored boats no longer need Perspex window protection from pot shots taken by enthusiastic members of the Patricroft public. In the channel, a semi submerged sofa cheerily sailed by towards Liverpool on the wind. Little mounds of rice and worms dotted the path, anglers’ spoil tips, the waste product of a day’s fishing. Only one angler was in attendance today and he’d just caught a fish no more than three inches in length. He held it in one meaty hand, eye to eye, lingering over it like it might prove to be the highlight of his day. I watched, and he became aware of me, replacing the fish in the water, suddenly embarrassed to be caught by a stranger in such an intimate moment with his little fish.

At Barton, the canal has faced a variety of obstacles during its history. In 1760, Brindley had to work out how to cross the Irwell river. The original plan had been to head along the North bank following the contour line, but partly due to landowners in Salford proving difficult, and partly with one eye on where else his canal might later be profitably extended to, Egerton and Brindley returned to Parliament to request a change of route and sought to prove that such an aqueduct could be built by carving a model out of cheese in front of astonished MPs.

This stunt proved deservedly successful and Brindley’s original aqueduct was considered so graceful that ladies were encouraged to visit it on aesthetic grounds. The coming of the Manchester ship canal over a hundred years later, that huge sea lane into Salford, necessitated a rethink, and the even more impressive Barton Swing Aqueduct, designed by Edward Leader Williams was created to take its place, a sealable tank of water that can swing out of the way to allow ocean liners access to the inland port.

These days its all a bit sad. The port of Salford is no more, and maintenance of the bridge limited to essentials. The other parallel swing bridge on the road is no better, and they form a greying pair of rusting hulks, just about functional, lost in a jungle of brambles, ragwort, nettles, and buddleia. A house is collapsing by the southern end, chipboarded windows covering breeze blocks, but at least there’s an observation platform with interpretation board to better provide views of the decay.

The South bank is the start of Trafford park, Europe’s largest industrial estate, another strange kind of wasteland. Industry is still going on here, but it hardly needs anyone to run it these days, factories and plants humming and steaming and clicking away without much in the way of people. The de-manning of industrial work has left these places much like a country graveyard, attended with just enough gentle affection to prevent the bindweed engulfing the gravestones. At the end, a diesel power station has appeared, ready to spring to attention and plug any holes in the UK’s electricity production, no doubt at vast expense, the natural end-product of our failure to have a coherent energy policy for the last three decades.

And then you reach the Trafford Centre. Crown jewel, its curse to be mortgaged again and again, a giant shopping centre so audacious and profitable it has been used to leverage many other projects, ultimately leaving it saddled with debt and teetering on the edge. A very personal statement of intent by John Whittaker, chairman of the Peel group, the Trafford centre was the culmination of his domination of West Manchester, having already taken over the Manchester ship canal, which itself had taken over the Bridgewater canal with the building of the ship canal. There is a continuous thread that links Egerton’s revolutionary expansion to this cathedral of shopping, each step made possible by the success of the last. Part of the building’s electricity comes from hydroelectric at Irlam locks on the ship canal.

I masked up and walked in. There was a sign by Home Sense.

“We regret that we can only allow 78 customers in at any one time.”

A staff member stood by, optimistically, ready to enforce this limit, but the trickle of customers all slid past the door and I allowed myself to be swept along.

The floor had stickers on dictating a one-way system and attendants at the doors directed us into the lanes. Unfortunately, it became clear that the teams who’d been sent out to lay down the signage had failed to first agree which side should be which. One team had gone with the left, another with the right, leading to a complex diffusion zone where everyone mingles through by negotiation.

The central fountain in Barton Square remains our Northern lodestar of bad taste. Robed white male Romanesque statuary surrounds a fountain of entirely golden and naked women. Further along, some women are made of black stone, but their faces remain European, making them achingly tokenistic. The 21 years this place has stood are telling now, and some statues have lost their extremities. Perhaps the Venus de Milo also stood in some ancient shopping centre for a little too long.

I watched a man struggling with a mop and concluded that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone attempt to disinfect his way up a down escalator. Burger King told us that “We were sanitising before it was cool”. Victoria’s secret was shut, which only added to the mystery.

Hardly anyone was wearing a mask unless they were in a shop that demanded it, in which case one was produced from a back pocket and popped on. People will be people. Changes to how we live our lives find it hard to take root without force. It took the legal insistence upon seatbelts to get people to use them, regardless of the statistics. Same with masks. Until we’re told we must, we won’t. It’s something to do with what Aleks Krotoski describes in her wonderful Digital Human podcast as wanting to go back to the old normal. Even when presented with information that a change in behaviour is statistically beneficial for you and others, or when the world simply changes, we seek ways to revert to what made us comfortable even if we know it’s no longer the right way to do things.

In 1900, the citizens of this area started falling ill in great numbers, displaying pallid skin and sickness. Doctors initially assumed some massive surge in alcoholism, but over time it became apparent that Arsenic had found its way into the brewing process. This became a huge scandal, with long lasting consequences, the birthrate in Salford remaining low for several years afterwards, but even when the problem was exposed, people kept going to the pub and drinking the poisoned beer because that’s what they did and they weren’t about to stop.

It’s too much to ask people to gravitate to such changes. If it’s not mandated by authority, it won’t happen. I can’t be critical of the people I saw, after all, why was I there myself? A need to get back to work in some way, be myself again. It’s a fine line between observer and culprit.

A sign for the aquarium said, “Discover over 5000 amazing creatures”. I decided I already had.

To be continued…

If you’ve enjoyed this writing, you may enjoy ‘Seasons of Change’, my book and album about my 18 months spent busking around England. You can order both of them here. I also have a PayPal tip jar via tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive of my previous writing and everything is tremendously welcome, more so now than ever!


[1] Journeys on the Underground Canal – City of Salford Education and Leisure Directorate 1999

[2] The Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal – Frank Mullineux – Eccles and District History Society 1959

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