Canals 1. Rochdale Canal: Castlefield to Ancoats

A new adventure

This Coronavirus lockdown means that I’m not going to be able to get to the coast for a very long time. My blog has already been diverted to a diary of what it’s like to have the COVID-19 disease (not very nice, in case you don’t want to read that blog), but now that I have mostly recovered from it and I’m allowed out again, I felt that I needed another ‘project’.

The main reason for my decision to walk around the coast was because of a need to clear my head and think about things following the break up of my marriage. It was also a deep admiration for others that have been doing it, and whose blogs I have been following, particularly my new friends Ruth and Jon. Anyway, the need to clear my head still exists, it’s still full of ridiculous ideas and notions and so I still feel the need to get out there.

Of course there are now rules in Britain about what you can and can’t do. We can’t go driving to the coast for a day out. We can’t go out in groups of more than two (not a problem since there’s only one of me). We are allowed to have an hour of exercise a day though, as long as we stick to social isolation rules (at least six feet apart) and go locally. I live right in the centre of Manchester, in Ancoats, in a one bedroom apartment. I do have a balcony which is very nice, but it’s not a fantastic location for a walk – you get a bit dizzy after the twelfth lap…. about 48 seconds.

I asked a few of the other coastal walkers a few weeks back what they intended to do once they’d finished the entire UK coastline. One guy is actually now on his second lap – crazy. A couple of others were intending to do all the islands. I can understand that – there’s a certain completeness to that which chimes with me, but it doesn’t really call me. I’ve been thinking about sticking by the water but going inland. Most rivers you can’t walk along, but every canal you can. Actually, can you? I wonder about the Manchester Ship Canal, I’ll have to check that out.

Anyway, the good news for me is that there are a lot of canals around Manchester. It’s not quite Venice, or Birmingham, but it’s a much more attractive city (than Birmingham), and I can understand the language a lot better (than Birmingham).

I reckon as a quick guess I can get in at least 40 miles or so of canal walking within 5 miles of my flat. There’s the Rochdale Canal which flows just 50 yards from my apartment, the Ashton canal which is only a couple of hundred yards away, then the Bridgewater canal which starts in Castlefield, just a mile away, and the Manchester Ship Canal and Bolton & Bury canal. Then only slightly further away the Leeds & Liverpool, Macclesfield, Peak Forest. If I start in Manchester City centre I can do those while the full lockdown is on, then traverse further if I’m allowed. I want to get back to the coast as soon as I’m allowed to do that, but in the meantime I’m going to start my canal adventure.

Rules / guidance

In my coastal walk I have rules/guidance. When it comes to walking around the coast you need rules, because there are situations where you’re not quite sure what to do… whether to include narrow peninsulas, how close to the coast do you go on busy roads and dangerous cliffs, etc.

With canals it’s a bit easier, generally you just follow the towpath. I’m not going to be strict about that though. Sometimes, especially in Manchester, the towpath goes under long bridges where the detritus of human misery has accumulated for too long. The homeless crisis in Manchester is bad. Really bad. It’s not that I’m afraid of anyone, it’s just that I don’t want to walk through the areas where they’ve been, and what they’ve left.

The first stage

So, Castlefield to Ancoats. From the basin where Manchester’s canals converge, at the site of where the Romans founded the town, to the cradle of Cottonopolis, the first industrial suburb. This is a deeply historic journey, and I’ll include a little, though not too much of that.

Castlefield has no Roman ruins. A reconstruction of what the Roman fort may have looked like has been built near the basin. It’s not very interesting. The Romans left in 410AD, and the village declined and was abandoned. Manchester as a little village grew up around the confluence of the rivers Irk and Irwell, a mile or so to the north east, around what is now the cathedral and Shudehill. However, the first really significant history which made Manchester what it is today was in 1758 when the Duke of Bridgewater employed James Brindley to construct the first canal in Britain, to transport coal from the Duke’s mines at Worsley to Manchester. The success of this venture, which halved the price of coal, was enormous and prompted the construction of the Rochdale Canal, which I’ll be following today. The Rochdale was opened in 1804 and made Castlefield the hub of the canal network in the north west.

The walk from my flat in Ancoats to Castlefield takes about 25 minutes. It was 1:20pm on a Friday afternoon, when normally Manchester would be heaving. Here are pictures of Portland Street, Princess Street and Oxford Road, three of the busiest roads in central Manchester.

Portland Street, Manchester
1:30pm on Friday 3rd April, 2020.
Princess Street, Manchester
1:30pm on Friday 3rd April, 2020.
Oxford Road, Manchester.
1:30pm on Friday 3rd April, 2020.

Rather than start at Castlefield basin, I decided to walk a few hundred yards along the Bridgewater canal spur from Castlefield basin to Knott Mill, the current site of Deansgate railway station. Here’s the start point:

Notice the huge red sandstone wall on the left. Sandstone the main bedrock of the region. On the right is Castlefield Chapel, a Grade II listed building opened in 1858 as a congregational chapel. During the 1980s, Pete Waterman converted it into a recording studio, where many of the Stock Aitken & Waterman hits were recorded, including the classic Never Gonna Give You Up ?. It is now occupied by a legal firm.

The two tunnels in the centre originally went under Grocers Warehouse, a five-storey warehouse with two shipping holes cut back into the sandstone cliff face. It was constructed at the beginning of the 19th Century and was probably the first warehouse in Britain where barges could be unloaded within the building. The warehouse itself was demolished in 1960, that depressing period of architectural and historical vandalism under which the grand old town of Manchester suffered more than anything the Luftwaffe had ever achieved ?. Finally in that picture, the unimaginative glass rectangle of the Beetham Tower disdainfully overlooks the grandeur of the more historical behemoths below.

So this is where I start this short walk. It really is quite pretty around here these days.

The tranquility of the picture above betrays the massive building programme to the left of that picture. Four huge residential towers have been constructed, consigning the ugly Beetham Tower to second place in the race to dominate Manchester’s skyline, in their marginally more interesting way.

Around this first bend in the canal the weeping willows drip their tears into the waters below, and onto the pristine lawn of Well Pharmacy’s head office building, which used to be Merchant’s Warehouse.

A footbridge crosses the entrance to the wharf of Middle Warehouse, now the home to Hits Radio, (previously Key 103 and before that Piccadilly Radio), with its massive arched frontage and two tunnels for barges to dock inside the warehouse.

At the centre of the much larger footbridge over Castlefield Basin you find yourself in the very hub of this cradle of industrial water transport, with the docks of Potato Wharf now separated by office blocks, and the main Bridgewater Canal arm diverting off to the west.

Potato Wharf, through the railway and tram bridges
The Bridgewater Canal

On the other side of the footbridge, and heading eastwards, is the start of the Rochdale Canal.

This canal starts almost immediately with a lock, Lock 92, and a lovely lock-keeper’s cottage.

I’m quickly reminded that Manchester is still a centre of industry as a diesel freight train rumbles over the bridge above me, behind the quaint cottage. The industry has changed of course – containers from China Shipping, CMA-CGM, and Maersk are dragged through the city centre these days, rather than coal trucks and the output from the cotton mills.

A hundred yards later on I pass a building that has always intrigued me. Five storeys high with each storey no bigger than a small room. It seems it was originally part of a larger building, a timber wharf or a sawmill. Quite why this tiny part has survived remains a mystery. It has been empty and derelict ever since I came to Manchester 23 years ago.

The building on my right, the old J S Bass Warehouse, which sits opposite the remains of the old sawmill, can be seen to be standing on the red sandstone bedrock of this area.

The canal then passes under the Gaythorn Tunnel, where I choose to take the overland route over Deansgate to the area of Knott Mill. This area of Manchester used to be called Gaythorn, a name that now remains only for this tunnel. Even the name Knott Mill is only remembered as it is imprinted on the front of what is now called “Deansgate” Railway station.

Deansgate-Castlefield tram station is reached by a modern flight of stairs up a fantastic living wall.

In this area recently a photographer was caught out in a rainstorm and took one of the most iconic Manchester based photographs of recent times…

Adolfe Valette – York Street

It has an “Adolf Valette” quality to it, an artist who was greatly skilled in portraying the wet and smoky scenes of Manchester (see left).

The picture was actually taken on an iPhone by Simon Buckley – it’s quite a story, you can read it here!

I was out last night and due to meet a colleague to do some filming but the weather forecast was hopelessly wrong. It was supposed to be sunny,” he said. “I set off to meet him around Castlefield and got off the tram and suddenly there was a deluge. I stood under the covers and was watching people scurry past with their umbrellas. It’s very visually beautiful watching people in the rain.

“I looked to my left and saw the buildings were all silhouetted and quite monochrome. I looked at the weather and thought: ‘Just do it.’

“I ran to the bridge and just got instantly soaked. I stood there and managed to take about five frames before my iPhone packed up on me. It was too wet to make the screen work.

A plaque at the exit of Gaythorn tunnel commemorates its reconstruction in 1902. It was originally built in 1794 when the canal was first dug.

The Gaythorn tunnel exits out into the area now called Deansgate Locks, where a boardwalk and footbridges front a range of bars and restaurants, an area I’ve apparently spent several enjoyable evenings. At least I assume so, considering how few memories I have of them ?.

Underneath the next bridge, Albion Street, there is a very basic plaque saying “Knott Mill Iron Works, 1843”. This was the site of a huge iron-works, W & J Galloway and sons, manufacturers of steam engines and boilers. Formed in 1835, it eventually closed in 1932. William Galloway was born in Scotland, but like many of his engineering countrymen around those times he moved to England to seek his fortune, eventually coming to Manchester. The Knott Mill Works were the location where William Galloway’s friend Henry Bessemer performed his experiments which led to his eponymous steel making process.

Just the other side of the bridge is a strange building, with modern collonnades, and supports made to look like dragons with chains hanging from them. This building, Albion Wharf, was originally built in 1868 but only the attractive facade remains, the building behind which we see here is from 1991. I guess this ironwork is purely decorative.

On my right are the new Hacienda apartments, built on the site of the famous Hacienda night club, which was demolished in 2002. The canal facing side has a brief history of the club cut out of the steel hoardings.

Just past this point is an innocuous arrow scratched into one of the coping stones…

This marks the location of a wooden hatch in the bottom of the canal which allows the canal waters to be drained into the culverted River Tib, flowing 15 feet beneath the canal bed. Not many people know about the River Tib, but it is one of Manchester’s original rivers, rising a mile or so away and flowing underneath Tib Street (which many people do know), under the centre of Manchester, under Primark, under the Rochdale Canal, eventually emptying into the River Medlock, which itself is culverted at this confluence. A forgotten river. This great video with the wonderful Martin Zero shows the Rochdale Canal being emptied into the Tib for maintenance recently. I really recommend Martin’s videos about Manchester, they’re fantastic!

A footbridge at this point allows me to cross over the canal and explore the short branch to the Bridgewater Hall. This narrow branch passes under Great Bridgewater Street…

…and leads to a beautiful pool formed from the old canal basin. Now home to floating beds of plants and a wonderful fountain. My photos of it didn’t really do it justice, so I’ve stolen this one from the promotional material!…

Retracing my steps back to the Rochdale canal, I continue my journey eastwards past this delightful little goose house…

…and towards Oxford Street, one of Manchester’s major arterial roads to the south. Just before the tunnel under Oxford Street is an area where floating beds of flowers have been created. A group of geese have made their home here, and even have four beautiful little goslings to look after.

The frontage of the stunning St James Buildings on Oxford Street are in the Edwardian Baroque style (apparently). It was built in 1912 as the headquarters of the Calico Printers Association Ltd.

St James Buildings, viewed from the Rochdale Canal
St James Buildings – internal staircase

Like many of these extravagant buildings, the facade and interior is everything, the back is often quite plain.

Back of St James Buildings

Many of the buildings along Whitworth Street, which parallels the canal are huge statements of wealth and influence. The red brick and terracotta Refuge Assurance Building, the sandstone and terracotta Bridgewater House, India House, Asia House. Many of these buildings were warehouses, not head offices, and they were built in the most extravagant styles. I love this area of Manchester, and I get fleeting glimpses of it from the much more austere canalside.

At this point a functional concrete footbridge passes over the canal. This connected an old power station on the north side of the canal with Whitworth Street to the south. Access to the bridge from the south was via a small stair tower located in Atwood Street, which has the initials “MCED” (Manchester Corporation Electricity Department). A webpage with more details can be found here.

Behind the bridge you can see the brick walls of what remains of Bloom Street Power Station. This used to supply power to most of central Manchester, and had two canal arms to offload coal. It was the first generating station in the UK to use the excess steam to heat the nearby buildings, a technique now know as Combined Heat and Power (CHP). The huge octagonal chimney is still there, although is much shorter than it used to be. There are some fantastic pictures of it taken by a couple of guys who surreptitiously climbed it a few years back!

The canal passes under Princess Street, and emerges into Canal Street, Manchester’s Gay Village.

I’ve spent many a night along here as well with some of my gay friends. Manchester is probably one of the most LGBT friendly cities in the world, something I’m personally very proud of. Normally there would be throngs of strange and interesting people sitting outside the bars having a quiet drink in the afternoon sunshine. Of course it’s completely deserted now.

Across the other side of the canal, in Sackville Park, is a memorial to all the people who have died from AIDS.

Also in that park is a statue of Alan Turing, sat on a park bench eating an apple. Of course he is now famous, but I remember growing up, as an electronics student being very aware of what he did, but no-one else had ever heard of him. He worked much of his life in Manchester after the war, and also has one of the major arterial roads named after him. One of Britain’s most brilliant minds, only so recently appreciated, and so recently given an apology for the terrible way he was treated by the state.

Lock 89 just after Chorlton Street is overlooked by the old lock-keeper’s house, which straddles the canal, showing how valuable space was in central Manchester even in those early times.

The canal then passes under Minshull Street Bridge, and past the law courts.

At this point I had decided to pass over the tunnel under Aytoun Street to avoid the previously mentioned detritus, but it turns out that it’s all locked off at the moment anyway, for whatever reason.

The canal passes underground for quite some distance here, eventually exiting in a dark and dingy concrete maze underneath the office block at 111 Piccadilly.

There is a wonderful piece of street art on Ducie street next to the canal here, called “The Doodle on Ducie Street”. The creation was led by New York graffiti artist Joel Bergner in 2018 to launch the International Arts and Homelessness Summit & Festival to celebrate the role of the arts in tackling homelessness around the world.

The canal then enters Piccadilly basin, passing under Dale Street and the surprisingly meagre original offices of the Rochdale Canal Company (the white building).

I pass Dale Street Warehouse, built in 1806 and now the oldest surviving warehouse in Manchester City Centre.

The canal opens up a little here into a large basin, where the Ashton canal branches off from the Rochdale under Ducie Street.

A new hotel has been built on Ducie Street here, the Dakota. It looks fantastic in the architects drawings – look at this:

Most of all, look at that dramatic clear purple summer sky, and how the black building imposes itself upon that landscape. Fantastic!

Except Manchester doesn’t have purple summer skies. We hardly have summers at all really. Mostly, that black hulk of a building is a dismal dark shadow against the dismal grey skies that we’re used to. There are now quite a few black brick buildings in Manchester. And every one of those the architect’s drawings show them against blue skies.

University Buildings, Upper Brook St
**** off architect

I just wish these architects would f*** off back to their pretty little cottages in the Chilterns and leave it to the people of Manchester to decide what we’d like to be faced with day in day out. There are nice modern buildings in Manchester. Some are built with white bricks. White is OK. Coloured glass is nice too, there’s a few of them too. Grey steel panels and black bricks might look good in California, but against a grey sky they look shit. Really shit. Rant over!

The canal continues eastwards, past Jackson’s warehouse, which is now residential apartments, and has its own canal basin. This space seems so under-developed, and I always wonder when I pass it why the residents haven’t done something to improve it. Just imagine it with flowers overflowing in planters, water lilies in the wharf, and maybe even a rowing boat!

The canal then passes Brownsfield Mill, which is currently being converted into apartments. This building was originally a cotton mill, but was then split out and rented out to various businesses. Humphrey Verdon Roe, who had started a company making webbing, had a small factory there. His younger brother Alliott Verdon Roe was fascinated by aeroplanes, and made his own in 1907. In 1910 Humphrey decided to invest in his younger brother and formed a company A V Roe Aircraft Company, which became “Avro”, and traded out of Brownsfield Mill.

Of course Avro was the manufacturer of the Lancaster bomber, that most iconic of second world war aeroplanes, which perhaps went a long way to Britain winning the war, although ironically Roe himself was a support of Edward Mosley and the British Union of Fascists before the war.

The canal passes underneath Great Ancoats Street, and emerges into the district of Ancoats, my home.

This is the true home of Cottonopolis, where many of the mills were situated, the mills that transformed this small Lancashire town into the metropolis it is today. The mill in the picture above, where I own a flat, is Old Sedgwick Mill, built in 1818 with an iron frame and brick construction, the first fire-proof mill in the world, and the tallest iron-framed building in the world in its time.

Inside my apartment. Note the cast iron beams, pillars, and curved brick ceiling fire-proof construction.

The walls on the second floor where my flat is are one metre thick, and the ceilings are brick arches between huge iron girders, laid over with concrete floors. No wood was used in its construction, and even though there were several fires in its history, none destroyed it like so many earlier mills.

Many of the engineers who built these mills, John Kennedy, William Fairbairn, Adam and George Murray, were born in Scotland and came down to Lancashire to make their fortunes, just like the Galloways mentioned earlier.

This drawing from 1820 shows the same mill. Not many people must have a 200 year old picture of their house!

The history of Ancoats is fascinating. It was the cradle of the industrial revolution, and is often described as the first industrial suburb. The mills were interspersed with back to back terraced housing for the mill workers.

And so this brings me to the end of this short walk. A lot of history in a very short distance. I love living in this city, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. I grew up in the countryside, in Cornwall, but never feel an urge to go back there. Maybe one day, who knows, but for now my heart is in this old town.

This walk was completed on 3rd April 2020. It is about 1.75 miles long. Here’s a map:

12 thoughts on “Canals 1. Rochdale Canal: Castlefield to Ancoats

  1. Glad you’re better Paul and can get out walking again even if you can’t stray too far from home just now. This is a very interesting post and is giving me some inspiration for the future – my canal walks are usually countryside ones but I may very well be tempted to explore some of the Manchester sections. I love the little goose house, it’s very cute 🙂

  2. Brilliant write up full of interest and thanks for the links. That canal fanatic was terrific, will search out more from him.
    The cannals are an integral part of Manchester’s history. Look forward to your next foray.

  3. Absolutely brilliant read and well illustrated too, thank you. I’m looking forward to the next one when my phone tells me it’s arrived. All the best and stay safe, John

  4. I was amazed when you said that was only 1.75 miles! So much packed in. We are near the Firth and Clyde Canal which I thought would be perfect for walking in these circumstances, but it’s actually very hard to maintain social distancing. It’s quite busy and some of the cyclists and joggers are not very considerate. Anyway, I’m glad you’re recovered and have found a new project.

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