The Bridgewater Canal – 2: Trafford Park to Piccadilly

Part two of my mid lockdown walk from Worsley to Manchester. Probably best to read episode 1 first if you haven’t. 🙂

Back on the towpath and marching towards the Kellogg’s factory, I slowly and sadly came to the dissapointing conclusion that I wasn’t following an enthusiastic but careless oil painter along the route after all, but that the abandoned tubes I was seeing were discarded cyclists’ energy gels. The last working boats finished here in 1974, bringing grain from Salford docks to this factory. Recent enough that I know two people who worked on the traffic.

Towards Old Trafford, the canal becomes an inconvenient division between container depots, and the football ground looms over it all, feeling hemmed in by the disruption at the edge of the city proper. It has survived its context, and like the Trafford centre, seems a little shabby round the edges these days.

Such warehouses as survive are becoming painfully trendy now, sustained in this otherwise aging hinterland by the footballing powerhouse in much the same way that a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the sea will sustain a vast array of unlikely and disconcerting life. Amongst the containers and industrial units were red brick venues, bars, night clubs, and ‘Hotel Football’, where young ladies, out of school, sat on the outside benches with portable speakers and smoked.

“Do you have a cig?” shouted one, and when I replied that I didn’t I faded from her view entirely as an ancient irrelevance.

Under the stilts of the tramline at Pomona, two barely teenage boys with partially broken voices were arguing tearfully over their fishing equipment. One threw the other’s kit into the canal shouting “Don’t fucking laugh at me!”, and the other wailed in a voice that see-sawed between youth and adolescence.

These children could have belonged to almost any generation, making a day of it amongst the dust and rubbish beneath the arteries of the city. Two stands down, a graffiti artist in a pork pie hat sprayed away generically whilst a bored looking girlfriend watched on. For an alternative culture, graffiti artists do look so very alike to me.

The city starts to stack up, developments piling on top of one another as you near the centre and the value of the land goes up. Behind a tall and bulging retaining wall at Cornbrook, a machine eats Manchester’s spent cars. You can see it from the tram, but down beneath on the towpath I could only hear it, bellowing away like a perplexed minotaur following a suspicious string, made real by the morsels that had spattered out of the nest and over the fence, a wing mirror, a front headlight unit, some tattered bodywork.

This is where Manchester begins.

The city fits around the railway and grudgingly accommodates the canal because it must. This generation of Manchester’s development came rolling in on graceful cast iron spans a level above the slow and grubby world of the canal, still needed if no longer the wonder it had once been. Mills loom over where the railways don’t span, although each year there’s fewer as they collapse and burn down. The chimneys are gone now, and the vast, emasculated red brick mills and warehouses either fail and die or become remade for Manchester’s future as flats and offices.

Here, Egerton’s vision became complete. His coals, floated out of his mine on the unique M boats, or starvationers as they later became known, owing to their ribby look, were sold to market, unleashing an unquenchable potential. Egerton died incredibly rich, his canal already branching off to Runcorn, connecting with the newly built Trent and Mersey, soon to join the Leeds and Liverpool at Wigan, and ultimately become the first part of a network that transformed the country in a way no country had ever been transformed before. There was no turning back the clock once the Bridgewater canal was built. The onset of industry now inevitable, the scaling up of ambition, volume, density, profit, exploitation, innovation. The city before me now was built up and over this first maternal artery.

It was probably inevitable, as materials improved, technologies became possible, and agricultural mechanisation produced a large workforce searching for something new other than tending fields, but it might have happened elsewhere, far away, and Manchester might have remained a little village by a vast peat bog full of ancient, forgotten stories. Perhaps the startling technological improvements in cotton spinning and weaving would not have happened here in the North West. Perhaps that in turn wouldn’t have driven the exponential growth of the cotton industry in America, and the growth of the slave population to work it. Perhaps it would just have happened a little differently.

This ribbon of dirty water, running into the heart of the city, below what followed, effectively a filter and a drain for what runs down through the layers of later city above it, a cleansing system that carries the filth of the day away. This modest little canal, so small by later European standards, just as big as a two-horse barge needed it to be, couldn’t possibly really have been the fuse that lit the world, could it? The blueprint for the processes that generated wealth on an unprecedented scale and commenced consuming resources so furiously that we still haven’t begun to face up to our addiction.

Here a new canal begins, the transpennine Rochdale canal, built some 40 years later into a country that had already transformed beyond recognition. The first few miles creep through the city to Piccadilly, almost buried, a world within a world, confined, restricted, damp. A sump for its own dingy folklore.

This is the lowest level of Manchester still in use, where once it would have been the top. Goodness knows what lies beneath it. In ‘Men at Arms’ by Terry Pratchett, Samuel Vimes descends into the bowels of the city in pursuit of the villain and realises that what Ankh-Morpork is built on is largely an older iteration of Ankh-Morpork.

“rooms had become cellars, cellars had become foundations.“

As the canal ascends alongside Whitworth street, it’s virtually a tunnel. Trendy bars open out onto balconies far above and routes off the towpath are hard to find. Above this, the tram is on another level again, each new development forced up above the others like trees fighting to get into the canopy. The canal is bottom of the stack, awkwardly refusing to be entirely entombed, and the walker feels like a potholer, staring up at little patches of light, their world one of water cascading over gates and stalagmites of whatever waste material has filtered down this far.

At the Bridgewater hall, a basin on the left leads to a forgotten canal tunnel that once ran through to the river Irwell, and still exists in large part, having been converted to air raid shelters. On the right, the ghost of the Haçienda, another type of underground world, the legendary nightclub that for a period defined Manchester’s remarkable cultural contribution when the city was in every other regard on its arse.

What then is Manchester? It’s a city that has worn so many coats over the decades, finding unexpected renewals and bold new directions every time it seems down and out. Perhaps its whatever it seemed to you to be when you came of age and strode out under the permanently leaden sky to find yourself. The Haçienda for some, Rusholme and curry mile for others, for today’s bright young things perhaps the bohemian transformation of Ancoats, scarcely believable to me to see it. For others its concerts at the much lamented Free Trade Hall, where at least 3 different people all claim to have shouted ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylan, a defining moment in musical history now half as far back in time as the riots following The Rite of Spring. Oh to be at another such moment, or even better cause one! Free Trade Hall where my own parents both attended a Planxty concert without meeting, several years before they were introduced elsewhere, built on the site of the Peterloo massacre, that defining piece of Manchester history and folklore that has resisted and survived its total lack of official recognition, living on within the Mancunian as something definitive to be remembered.

My own Manchester touchstone is probably some combination of the Academy 3 music venue where I encountered such bands as Raging Speedhorn and Will Haven at the age of 18. That and Holts pubs, all of them, that chain of shabby, hard wearing brewery owned pubs that exemplify everything I hold Manchester to be and probably completely alien to today’s youthful bearers of the city’s latest mantel.

At Tib Lock, grey concrete limbs stretch up cadaverously for a dozen stories on three sides, allowing a single channel of progression. Men on cradles drilled holes in 60s low budget concrete constructions far above, and a young family cruising the Cheshire ring worked their hire boat through the lock with the pallid unspoken determination of people who know that they have no choice but to continue.

Then you’re beneath the celebrated Canal Street, home to Manchester’s LGBQT+ community, where every bar spills out into the road with tables and umbrellas. A friend of mine dropped their windlass (lock key) in here once, and we attracted a large and jovial crowd as we attempted to recover it with a magnet. I remember a cheer going up as I pulled up a chain-mail handbag.

It’s rumoured that a serial killer operates here, ‘The Pusher’ as they’ve been titled. People fall in and not all can get out again. The combination of such a thriving night-life centre and a canal deep in a ravine of brick and stone makes a terrible combination, and plenty would rather it was not there at all. Endless safety barriers have been thrown up, making using the canal even more detached and challenging. One lock is virtually inaccessible now, without towpath and locked behind safety barriers.

Yet the myth of the serial killer remains, despite police assurances that no such person exists. Perhaps a city with such a dark streak of dirty water running through it isn’t complete without such a myth. Perhaps we need to populate the shadows and fill in the spaces beneath us.

Above canal street, the canal vanishes into further darkness under the approaches to Piccadilly, and enters a section known as the Undercroft, which is now gated and locked overnight in an attempt to stymy its reputation as Manchester’s leading cruising location. There were several men there today, and I found it a powerful place, with large notices from the police warning against ‘Lewd behaviour’. The roar of water flooding down off the Pennines, over the gates and away, an intensity of dark and sound.

My Father had been part of the volunteer group that restored these waterways, very much against official wishes at the time. One of the locked doors off this strange place into the foundations of the interlocking developments that make up the cellars of Piccadily was once the setting for illicit navvy parties, with electricity jerry-rigged off some random passing mains wire. Known as the ‘Cold Hole’ it has a particular place in the folklore of this group, some 50 years hence. I’ve never been able to work out which door it was.

Above this is Piccadilly basin and you’ve emerged from the Undercroft. Here, the canal splits again, different routes to Yorkshire and beyond. Two basins almost meet a little further up but the final link wasn’t made owing to the presence of Manchester’s main fibre optic cable running down the middle.

I turned and began walking back down the canal so I could catch a tram. A man beckoned me into a dark corner and I realised that by doubling back, I had inadvertently given a signal of interest. Embarrassed, I had to explain my error. It’s not my world and perhaps I had no place to be there. If you’re not on a boat, there’s only one other reason to be in the Undercroft, and I’d stepped into another community without learning the rules. It was all rather embarrassing.

And it’s a fairly awful place for it, but perhaps that’s where you have to go if you’ve been marginalised out of anywhere better. I pushed on.

Masked up, I caught the tram back. Two lads sat down across from me, unmasked, making eye contact, willing me to have something to say about it. One stuck his tongue out at me, and they both proceeded to perform pull-ups on the roof rails. As we passed the Imperial War Museum at Salford Quays, where the ships once came in from the great lakes, they noticed a tank parked among the otherwise empty and broad space outside the building.

“Fuck OFF!”

“Check That!”

“It’s a fucking tank”

“Why’s it there?”

“Don’t know.”

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 or through the button in the archive of my previous writing and everything is tremendously welcome, more so now than ever!

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