This small place, tucked away on the edges of the Solway Firth, has been on my motorcycle radar for some time. At just over fifty miles from Hexham and on the coast, it is a comfortable riding distance on a good day and, today turned out to be just perfect – not much wind, no threat of rain and mild. Huge skies, a wide open estuary and a flat landscape makes it photogenic in an Ansel Adams sort of way.
It was only when I returned home that I started to look for more information on the place, not the logical way of doing things. Had I but known, it is right up my alley, having both canal and railway history. This from the Visit Cumbria website:
The village of Port Carlisle, originally known as Fishers Cross, was developed as a port in 1819 to handle goods for Carlisle using the canal link built in 1823. The canal was 11¼ mile long, and had 8 locks which were all built 18 feet wide.
From a wooden jetty, through the entrance sea lock and one other, the canal ran level for nearly six miles. Then followed six locks in one and a quarter miles, with a level stretch to Carlisle Basin.
Sailing boats made their way by the canal from Port Carlisle (about one mile from Bowness-on-Solway) to the heart of the City of Carlisle. Boats were towed to the City (taking one hour 40 minutes) enabling Carlisle to be reached within a day by sea from Liverpool. Barges collected the grain and produce destined for Carlisle’s biscuit and feed mills. The canal built specially for this purpose ended in the canal basin behind the present Carrs (McVities) biscuit factory in Carlisle.
There is even the remains of a railway viaduct at Bowness-on-Solway – I am going to have to return!
The delight of the Ashby Canal is not only that the Triumph Factory and Museum nestle on its banks at Hinckley but also, not much further north along the towpath, is the Battlefield Line Railway. A short stretch of rails that run north from Shenton to Shackerstone via Market Bosworth, more or less parallel with the canal. To the east and ten minutes walk from Shenton Station is Bosworth Field and its Heritage Centre – The Battle of Bosworth Field (or Battle of Bosworth) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that extended across England in the latter half of the 15th century. Fought on 22 August 1485, the battle was won by the Lancastrians. Their leader Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, by his victory became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty. His opponent, Richard III, the last king of the House of York, was killed in the battle. Historians consider Bosworth Field to mark the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, making it a defining moment of English and Welsh history – Wiki – Battle of Bosworth Field.
The day was dark and damp which was entirely in keeping with a steamy outing. My boyhood was spent hanging around once grand Victorian stations in search of trains and their numbers. In the immediate post-war period these underfunded filthy cathedrals were a second home – the engines, the rolling stock, the buildings, the drivers and the firemen were all soot-blackened. Rain, smog and the darkness were their perfect companions. This is what I remember, this is what I search for – judging by the volunteers of a certain age that run the Battlefield Railway, I am not alone:
Like Runcorn, Worsley is another place I would never think to go but for the canals. Also, like Runcorn, it is on a branch of the Bridgewater Canal although in this instance it ultimately leads somewhere – to Leigh and a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Despite its proximity to Manchester’s extensive motorways and the industrial centre of Trafford Park, Worsley is significantly more prosperous than Runcorn; it is almost prettified. The approach by canal requires a high level crossing of the Manchester Ship Canal, achieved by the remarkable Barton Swing Aqueduct – a waterborne route designed to swing open for the passage of ships beneath. I don’t know if the aqueduct is still able to swing nor if it is ever necessary – large shipping into Manchester ceased many years ago. I last passed this way in 1980 when the bridge was still manned:
… crossing the Manchester Ship Canal by water.
… the Barton Swing Aqueduct – a view of the Manchester Ship Canal and Barton Road Bridge
The canal is at Worsley’s centre, overlooked by the magnificent Packet House – this grade 2 listed building, and the Boat Steps directly in front of it, date back to 1760 and the half-timbering was added in c.1850 by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere. You would have purchased your ticket for the ‘packet boat’ at the Packet House and boarded at the Boat Steps.
To the right of the Packet House is the entrance to the Delph, a forty six mile underground canal system which intersected with coal mines to the north. It was built on four different levels and connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts. There is a neat symmetry to this engineering marvel. The underground waterways provided a connection from the mines to the surface, transporting coal on narrow thin-ribbed boats nicknamed starvationers. The canals provided an effective drainage system for the waterlogged pits and the water from the pits helped feed the canal. The bright orange of the system around Worsley provides ongoing evidence that the supply system remains in place. The Delph and its tunnels are my idea of hell – the creepy 2926 yard Harecastle Tunnel is as subterranean as I am prepared to get. The final image shows an inspector legging a starvationer in the 1960s (I assume the water levels have risen since the tunnels were last used commercially, that or working conditions were even worse than I imagined).
One of the benefits of travel on the English canals is that it takes you places you would never think to go, some by routes hardly ever used. Why else would you think to go to Runcorn. The branch that leaves the Bridgewater at Preston Brook once connected this stretch of inland water to the much grander Manchester Ship Canal but, no more. The locks that connected Runcorn’s Waterloo Basin with the Mersey and later, the Manchester Ship Canal have been filled in but their outlines remain and it is still possible to walk much of the route. The Unlock Runcorn website provides the full history and the hope that one day this route will return to navigation.
It is not the Bridgewater Canal that predominates in Runcorn, it is the bridges – the Runcorn Railway Bridge opened in 1868 (also known as the Ethelfleda Bridge) and the Silver Jubilee Road Bridge opened in July 1961. The bridges span both the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey at Runcorn Gap – I suspect most speed across without being aware of the town beneath. It isn’t pretty but it has its attractions:
… and elsewhere. The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions – Michael Lewis – The Big Short (2010). A quote out of context and some wishful thinking – it would good to imagine big bangs but I suspect none were involved. I assume Wallerscote Island soda ash plant was dismantled in a methodical, tidy whimper. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that these images were taken in June 2016, October 2016 and April 2017 respectively, the speed of destruction is remarkable. Faced with such a monstrosity, the first question that springs to mind is “where the hell do we start?”:
The transformation is so complete that, from some angles, this stretch of the Weaver is beginning to resemble the Canal du Midi 😉
And yet, carry on south along the Trent & Mersey Canal and another TATA site is a reminder that not all heavy industry has disappeared from the Northwich landscape:
I have driven by this single track line on many occasions but until last weekend I had never stopped. This has now been rectified; the plan had been to walk from Causey Arch to East Tanfield and back but then I was distracted by Twizell. In steam, sounding and smelling glorious, I was a schoolboy again – all I lacked, apart from age reversal, was a dark blue gabardine mac (with belt), grey shorts, school cap, hand knitted jumper, Clarks sandals, long grey socks (with red striped tops) pen, paper, Ian Allan Combine and a Kodak Brownie. Sadly, I left that all behind a ‘few’ years back but, you get the impression that some of those responsible for running this railway did not – good for them!
As a one time railway enthusiast I left this first visit disgracefully long, for this is no ordinary line – this is the oldest railway in the world. This extract is from their website:
From the mid 1600 onwards waggonways and the Tyneside coal industry became linked so closely that they were known throughout the rest of Britain as ‘Tyneside Roads’. A network of lines linked collieries on both sides of the Tyne to the river.
It is no coincidence that the North East was the area where waggonways took greatest hold, because canal building was impossible due to deep valleys and steep hills. What set the rail systems of Tyneside apart from all others was its use of the flanged wheel – a key element of the modern railway as we know it.
When the Tanfield Railway – or waggonway as it was known at the time – was built in 1725, it was a revelation. Its massive engineering was unlike anything else in its era, or even since the Roman Empire. It was a triumph of engineering over nature, a clear signal that a new industrial age was upon the world, and that railways would play a massive part.
First laid down more than a quarter of a century before the first railway officially sanctioned by government, over 75 years before the first steam locomotive and a whole 100 years earlier than the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the Tanfield Railway is the world’s oldest railway. We will be the first railway to celebrate our tri-centenary in 2025.
Years turn to days, hours turn to minutes, time rushes by. In May 2014, on a trip along the Macclesfield Canal to some old familiar places, I found myself at Bosley, inside the cottage that had once been home. It had been thirty two years since I last closed the front door and headed south, expecting never to return. Invited across the threshold by the kindly Phylis, it was an odd and unsettling experience.
Immediately I returned to Northumberland I wrote to the good lady including some old images of the cottage and a few memories of our time above the Cheshire Plain – on a clear day, from the main bedroom window, Jodrell Bank’s Lovell Telescope is visible nine miles due west, glistening and listening intently to the stars.
Sadly, I recently learned that Phylis had passed away and the cottage sold. My letter had been kept and given to the immediate neighbours who in turn passed it to the new owners, Jane and her partner. In turn, Jane emailed me wanting to know more about my time in her new home and so here we are. Words build bridges, words make connections.
I have struggled to understand what was so unsettling about sitting simply in those rooms again. Perhaps it was this – I was back where the future was unknown, back where there was still the possibility of different outcomes. I could have changed, I could have become someone else, instead I stayed the same …
… ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centred, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for, a wound that would never heal.
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
My ‘plausible excuse’ was alcohol. This was the late 1970s when pub culture thrived. Pubs provided a social centre, an easy means to connect with the locals. They were not restaurants with separate tables, they were a place to congregate at the bar, talk and drink. In a short space of time, me and my ‘walking companion’, Kerry the Irish Setter, had developed a wide circle of drinking companions. After her romp across the fields, a tug from the lead implored me in through the front door where Kerry had also developed a taste for beer. Invariably a weather beaten farmer would let her lick the top off his pint, not realising she had recently been partaking of her other passion – licking cowpats.
On good terms with Jim the landlord and his wife Mavis, the Queens Arms became a second home, it was just too convenient. When the snows came in January ’79 and stayed for weeks at a time, there were endless lock-ins and drinking to the small hours, safe in the knowledge that the law would not be making surprise calls.
The Queens Arms was a Boddingtons pub and in those far-off days the Cream of Manchester was produced at their independent brewery adjacent to Strangeways prison. A golden ale with a creamy head, it did not journey far. When the drays called, the Queens and the Knot Inn at Rushton Spencer, two miles further on, were as far south as the kegs travelled.
Inconveniently, John Boddington, one of the family board members, lived down the road near Rudyard Lake and would occasionally drop in to check up on this southern outpost. Forelocks were tugged, free ale supplied and overly polite conversation ensued. All was usually well.
The Queens was a tied house with no option to sell beers or lagers from any other brewery but Jim liked a bit of colour. Along the top shelf he proudly displayed a long line of cans featuring the Lager Lovelies, produced by Tennents. In those non-PC times it was acceptable to promote drink with buxom wenches, a different girl with every can you bought. John Boddington was a tall man and it wasn’t long before Janet, Jane, Heather, Pauline et al invaded his peripheral vision.
“That won’t do Jim, that won’t do at all”
They’re only for display John, purely decorative; I assure you, purely decorative; definitely not for sale”
It still won’t do Jim, it still won’t do”
Nothing more was said. That night we drank the lot, toasted Mr Boddington and for one night only, abandoned the Cream of Manchester.
If I had limited myself to the Queens it wouldn’t have been so bad but there was lunch time drinking too, at a time when many large employers provided access to bars on site and failing that, there was always the option of a healthy walk – to the nearest pub. Invariably, a quick one on the way home also never went amiss; it never occurred to me I might have a problem. Afterall, everyone I knew did the same, everyone I knew was a drinker. This went on for years and it is only when you stop that you realise where you have been.
Alcohol affects people differently. For me it bred restlessness and an unerring sense of discontent. Pauline, on the other hand, just turned nasty but that’s another story.
The Water Gipsies was my mum’s favourite film, or was it the musical – it was possibly both. Based on a 1930 novel by A. P. Herbert it was turned into a film in 1932 and a stage musical in 1955. I have vague memories of seeing the film repeated on the BBC in the 1950s – brightly lit and over-exposed in summery monochrome, it bore little resemblance to real life on the English waterways.
I was also very familiar with the musical soundtrack as this was one of the LPs that my parents bought when my sister was given her first record player. Other dubious parental acquisitions included Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Noel Coward at Las Vegas – no wonder the Christmas that With the Beatles arrived was like emerging from a long dark tunnel into the light.
I still remember some of the Water Gipsies tracks, ingrained like scars: Castles and Hearts and Roses, When I’m Washing Up and Clip-Clop:
Clip-clop, clip-clop goes the old grey mare She ain’t non-stop but she gets us there I walk with Beauty on the path In case she slips and takes a bath.
Subterranean Homesick Blues it is not.
(NB ‘Gipsies’ is the spelling for both the book and the film – I think it should be ‘Gypsies’)
In the late sixties, desperate to escape a dictatorial regime at home, I toyed with the idea of living on a narrowboat near Ye Olde No. 3 at Dunham Massey. Lacking the finance and any awareness of the practicalities it was an odd pipe dream which came back to me as we moored for water at the same location last week. In practice it was 1976 before I ventured onto the waterways, the same summer and the same canal as Timothy West and Prunella Scales started their life long watery journey. In a similar fashion I have been wedded to the cut ever since, so much so that I have a mental map of the English waterways which is at least as good as my grasp of the English motorway system – oddly, I can’t seem to overlay one on top of the other despite their regular proximity.
All of this is just an excuse to reproduce a series of images from our recent lazy trip along the Trent & Mersey and Bridgewater canals, from Anderton to just south of Altrincham – all very familiar territory with not a clip-clop to be heard:
… Oakmere entering Barnton Tunnel – 572 yards with a number of kinks
… entering Saltersford Tunnel
… approaching Preston Brook Tunnel
… on the Bridgewater Canal
… filling up at Ye Olde No. 3 – the Bridgewater, near Dunham Massey
… Moore Swing Bridge, across the Manchester Ship Canal
… into Preston Brook Tunnel
… very clean – pristine again at Anderton Marina after the trip along the Bridgewater
After a long wet winter, I have been grabbing sunshine and spending much less time at the keyboard. This can only be a good thing. My daily images on Blipfoto tell a story of warm weather and escape: on canals, on two wheels, on golf courses – some might say an unlikely combination but the stereotypical biker is a myth. We are all differently made but we ride for the same reasons.
My good lady recently bought me a digital subscription to Iron and Air, an American bike magazine which combines images and words verging on the poetic. In my usual compulsive manner, I am working my way through every back copy – this from Dave Karlotski, Season of the Bike, in Issue 1:
“At 30 miles an hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it’s as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me … “
Riding the arrow-straight Military Road that runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland you cross paths with heavily laden lumber lorries carrying timber south from the forests at Kielder. At 60mph they create a bow wave, an invisible wake of air that unsettles the bike at a combined speed in excess of 100mph. For a very brief moment in time the air turns warm and heavy with the scent of diesel – it is an oddly intimate and uplifting experience.
“Cars lie to us and tell us we’re safe, powerful and in control. The air-conditioning fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, “Sleep, sleep.” Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth: we are small and exposed and probably moving too fast for our own good, but that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.”
This post dedicated to Ian Bell, supplier of this Yamaha.
Trafford Park, Billingham, Wilton, Winnington and Blackley were all part of my father’s lexicon. Each of these places were synonymous with large scale chemical plants which dominated the local landscape. They may not have been pretty to look at but they had a certain grandeur and each represented massive industrial endeavor which generated wealth and employment on a large scale. All of the plants were owned and operated by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), the company my father worked for all his life.
Sir Denys Henderson, who died on May 21st this year aged 83, was an Aberdonian solicitor who rose to be chairman of ICI and presided over the de-merger which ended the company’s ascendancy as a great industrial conglomerate. I don’t think my dad would have held him in high regard – he was deeply saddened when the origins of his pension changed from Imperial Chemical Industries to meaningless AstraZeneca.
Sir Denys was possibly a gifted man but he was a lawyer well versed in winning an argument. In my experience, the problem with lawyers operating outside the legal profession is that the argument is their entire focus, never mind its financial, ethical or technical merits. With hindsight, it is evident that deconstructing ICI was not a noble endeavor nor a proud epitaph. The evidence is everywhere. Our recent canal trip, which started from Anderton, overlooks the original ICI Winnington and Wallerscote Island soda ash plants.
At Wallerscote, limestone from the Peak District arrived by train, brine was pumped up from beneath the Cheshire subsoil and the manufactured soda ash was exported on ships which came up the river Weaver via the the Mersey. At it’s peak, the site employed 6000 people and now it is being demolished, like so much that has fallen into the hands of TATA The plan is to replace it with 3000 homes. Given the ongoing demise of the local heavy industry, it begs the question, what will everyone be doing.