Monday, October 8, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 2: Manchester Ship Canal

[Originally posted on]

The Manchester Ship Canal

After the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened for business in 1830, the cotton merchants of Manchester had an easy way to get the cotton to their mills from the ships that brought it from America, Egypt, and India. Before that, they had to send the loads on the long, slow canal journey up the treacherous Mersey to the Bridgewater Canal, on small narrowboats. But the railway had two problems: you had to pay the railway company, and you had to pay the docks. Liverpool's dock system was the first, and biggest, in the world, but Manchester didn't like paying them.

In 1894, they opened a solution: the Manchester Ship Canal, a wide, high-capacity direct waterway, 36 miles long, from Eastham Lock on the Wirral side of the Mersey, paralleling the dangerous, unpredictably silty Mersey, and avoiding the Liverpool docks altogether. The ocean-going vessels didn't need to be unloaded at all, until they got to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. A whole host of industry sprang up along the canal, including petroleum refining, chemical works, and automobile shipping.

Today, the cotton business is long gone, as are most of the other industrial uses, but Mersey Ferries runs a boat up and down the canal on one of the most interesting tours I've ever been on.

We started at Salford Quays in the morning. Salford is a separate municipal body from the Manchester, but the two cities are contiguous. The only difference you notice as you approach the Quays on the tram is the sudden appearance of loads of "Kill Gill" and "Glazer Out" graffiti put up by disaffected Manchester United fans who are unhappy that their precious football club is now owned by an American, Malcolm Glazer (Gill is the club's finance director). Soon we see the frightening hulk of Old Trafford, their glitzy stadium, on the far side of the quay, and queue up next to MV Royal Daffodil, one of the famous Ferries Cross the Mersey, pressed today into special duty on the canal here at Liverpool's great commercial rival.

The crowd here is quite different than we've seen elsewhere heretofore in England. They are older, mostly in their sixties, and I am not the only one clutching a fancy camera and pile of OS maps. Some are just out for a nice day on the water, but there are quite a few trainspottery types as well, nice, intelligent, attractive folks with a keen interest in industrial heritage, like me. The cruise is so popular they've had to put on extra sailings. I'm right at home here!

The canal is almost empty today, and most days. It is wholly owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, and is considered in its entirety to be an extension of Manchester docks. Special permission is required for entry, so you don't get many pleasure boats the way you do on the narrow canals operated by British Waterways. While the canal is not very important for shipping anymore, modern ships having long since outgrown it, it is still a working waterway and thus difficult for pleasure boats.

Almost immediately out of Salford, we begin passing major engineering landmarks. The Centenary Lift Bridge was built in 1995. After it is the famous pair of swing bridges at Barton: the Barton Swing Bridge, carrying the road, and the incredible Barton Swing Aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the MSC. This is a rotating trough that swings the water of the canal around a central pivot to allow ships to pass. It replaces an earlier fixed aqueduct by James Bridley that carried the Bridgewater over this stretch of the River Irwell. You can still see the remains of the earlier aqueduct's supports. The swinging trough carries 800 tons of water. Seeing this marvel was so exciting for Mrs. Fnarf that she was moved to say "yes, dear, that's nice" over her cup of tea. For my part, I was nearly hopping out of my shoes to finally see this beautiful work of Victorian ingenuity.

There are several other swing bridges along the route. It never ceases to amaze me how such a huge lump of metal can pivot so effortlessly around.

At Barton there is also the first of several locks on the canal, which drop us down towards sea level by the time we enter the Mersey at the far end. These are significantly larger and more complicated than the hand-operated ones you see on narrowboat canals.

In addition to industrial views, much of the canal passes through pleasant green English countryside. At first you can see remnants of the old brick and stone walls of Trafford Park, the estate of the original landowner here, whose holdings long predate the canal. Commentary was provided along the route, much of which was rather amusingly vague: "on your left you can see a great deal of greenery" and "as you can see the canal is very popular with a variety of birds; several kinds of birds are visible to your right". Still, I give the woman credit for being able to talk almost nonstop for six hours; that's an iron set of pipes for sure!

All along the canal you can see remnants of Britain's industrial past: docks and piers. At one point there is a huge metal recycling facility, with a mountain of rusting steel and iron being cut up and loaded into rail cars. Other spots feature vast tank farms holding petroleum or other chemicals. Ford had an early plant here. The American company Westinghouse had a huge plant here, making turbines and generators as Metropolitan Vickers. A large flour mill still operates on the north bank.

Many of the plant sites are closed or derelict now. There isn't nearly the intensity of heavy industry here as there once was; by the 1960s, the area was in steep decline. You can see some of these vast factory sites on Google Satellite.

See for instance, where the rash of red and blue dots at top center, just south of where the upper Mersey flows into the canal, is a zillion cars being shipped (zoom in to see them -- is your Nissan here?).

Or, where you can make out the church built in the middle of the Runcorn industrial estate, surrounded by miles of tarmac, for the use of the dockworkers.

At Runcorn is another engineering wonder: the Runcorn Railway Bridge, across the ship canal and the Mersey, built in 1868 by William Baker for the London and North Western Railway. Its beautiful wrought-iron box girder span was once the world's longest of its type. The road bridge next to it was built in 1961 and replaces a transporter bridge -- a movable section of roadway that was carried back and forth across the canal and river by cables. Sadly it is gone, but the light green arch of the newer bridge is impossibly graceful against the sky.

Widnes was once the center of Britain's chemical industry, and while that industry is mostly gone, its poisonous legacy remains. However, remediation of some of the sites of soap works, salt mines, and United Alkali has resulted in the reclamation of a surprisingly beautiful wildlife reserve area.

The Mersey at this point and beyond is a vast tidal mud flat, almost impossible to navigate, and separated from the ship canal by a simple wall. Locks at Runcorn are disused now. The River Weaver enters, and you pass scenes of sheep grazing on the grass of the tidal flats, and then you pass the mind-boggling works of Ellesmere Port. Most prominent are Shell Oil's Stanlow refinery, of 1,900 acres, a former ICI plant, and a large Vauxhall factory, still in operation though much reduced from its peak utilization. Stanlow seen from the canal is unlike anything visible from the roadway (or anyplace else): the tanks and color-coded pipelines seemingly go on forever.

At the end of the trip, coming up towards Birkenhead, we entered the Queen Elizabeth docks, having some company for a change -- a large merchant vessel coming the other way. Watching the captain put this craft into the lock, a few bare inches to spare on either side, was very impressive, especially if you're as poor a car parker as I am.

After we pass this last lock into the open Mersey, we circled past the booming construction site formerly known as "Liverpool". The view of the Anglican Cathedral, Britain's largest, has partly been wrecked by a vast new glass arena which looks like a pair of dragonfly wings. In the center of town there is a forest of cranes, and a number of new glass boxes have sprouted up just north of the Three Graces -- the famous trio of office buildings that have signaled the commercial power of this city for the past century or so: the Dock Offices, the Cunard Building, and the Royal Liver Insurance building with its brace of liver birds surveying the scene.

Liverpool is another chapter on another day; this afternoon we only had time to walk around the commercial center and grab a quick pint at Liverpool's oldest pub, Ye Hole in Ye Wall (and please don't pronounce "ye" as "yee" -- it's pronounced "the" -- that's not really a "y", it's a thorn, an old English letter no longer used except as here).

I did get to admire again my favorite Liverpool building, Oriel Chambers, built in 1864 by Peter Ellis. It is startlingly modern, looking more like a building from the 1920s in Chicago or New York, with a facade almost entirely of glass, with gorgeous oriel windows with the thinnest frames ever seen til then, of stone dressed to look like iron. It was hated at the time for its lack of Gothic or Classical ornamentation, and Ellis only ever received one other commission, but today it is strikingly beautiful in a completely modern way.

We took the bus back to Manchester, getting a fine view of the motorway, and ate a rather bizarre Indian (actually Pakistani or Bangladeshi, as most "Indian" restaurants in Britain are) meal, at a place with a wall-sized menu but only two dishes actually available -- chicken or lamb?

Next: Full English Breakfast

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