Canals 2. Rochdale and Ashton canals: Ancoats round trip

Due to the restrictions in place at the moment, rather than do all the Rochdale canal first then move on to the next canal, I have to keep as local to my flat as possible, so this walk never strays more than a mile and a half from home, and by walking a bit along a road I can include both the canals nearest my home.

Henry street looking south

I start from the door of my apartment building on Henry Street, where looking south down the cobbled street you can just see the old footbridge spanning the Rochdale canal. Most of the streets around here are cobbled – it was part of the regeneration of the area, which they now call Ancoats Urban Village.

It’s a really nice area to live, and we have a lovely square just 50 yards from my apartment – Cutting Room Square, where the Halle orchestra have their practice rooms in the the old St Peter’s church. It’s lit up at night with fairy lights in the trees as well, and surrounded by bars and restaurants (including the excellent Rudy’s Pizza), unfortunately all closed at the moment of course ?.

Cutting Room Square, Ancoats at night, with Halle St Peters at the back

There are a couple of slight disadvantages – our apartment service charge includes a supplement called the Estate Charge which goes to pay for all this, effectively a Council Tax surcharge! The other problem is the noise that the cars make on the cobbles. When you have your windows open in the summer the noise can be quite disturbing, although at the moment with the Coronavirus lockdown it’s thankfully pretty quiet around here. Ooh, I’ve just discovered an upside to the pandemic – there aren’t many so I guess I should enjoy them as much as possible!

I head down Henry Street and cross over the footbridge. This is the footbridge that’s in all the pictures that come up when you type “Ancoats Mills” in Google…

About 10 years ago
About 50 years ago
About 100 years ago

The steps on this footbridge are quite treacherous – each is a single huge block of limestone, but cut slightly different sizes, and they’re very steep, so you have to concentrate unless you want to risk ending in a crumpled pile at the bottom! Luckily Manchester City Council Health & Safety Dept has so far refrained from demolishing this historic landmark though.

Once over the bridge I turn left and head eastwards (upstream) of the Rochdale Canal. Canals do flow through the locks and overflows, so there is an upstream and downstream.

The Rochdale canal has quite a few locks – in fact it’s the only canal which crosses the Pennines that doesn’t go through a tunnel, so it needs plenty of them. When reading up about Castlefield in my last blog post I was reading that when they were building Castlefield Basin they decided to fill the Bridgewater canal from the Rochdale canal rather than the River Medlock, because the water was cleaner!

Imagine that, a canal cleaner than a river! The foulness and putrescence of Manchester in the early 1800s can only be imagined these days, but Friedrich Engels’ description goes some way to picture the horror, and I really recommend reading this excerpt from his essay “The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844“, which can be found here.

The Old Sedgwick Mill poses majestically from the opposite bank of the canal. This is one of the oldest mills remaining in Manchester, built in 1818 (my flat is on the 2nd floor a couple of windows to the right of the three open windows).

Old Sedgwick Mill (b.1818) with Royal Mill to the left (b.1912)

The slightly different building on the left is the Royal Mill, built relatively recently in 1912. It originally had the wonderful name “New Old Mill” because the built it new in the place of the previous “Old Mill” that had stood there since 1798. It was renamed to “Royal Mill” in 1942 when the King and Queen came to visit on a morale-boosting tour during the Second World War. The whole complex of McConnell and Kennedy Mills also includes New Sedgwick Mill and Paragon Mill (both built 1912), and also included Long Mill, which at 85 metres in length dominated Henry Street. Long Mill has now gone but it can be seen on the left in this old drawing.

For those who are interested in this stuff, a nice booklet describing the history of Ancoats can be found here. For those not interested, it can still be found there but you don’t have to click on the link ?.

Beyond the McConnell and Kennedy Mills lie the Murray’s Mills complex, comprising Murray Mill itself, Waulk Mill, and another Old Mill. Murray Mill was built in 1797 and is the world’s oldest surviving urban steam-powered cotton spinning factory.

Murray Mill (b. 1797 left) and Waulk Mill (b.1842 right)

It has just opened this year for residential use. It now has a nice courtyard within its four curtain walls, which was originally a canal basin, with access from the Rochdale canal through a tunnel (now blocked off) passing under Redhill Street. It’s a shame they didn’t keep the basin as a water feature, but I guess there are quite a lot of young families living here now and it would have been a safety concern with young children.

Murray Mill old canal basin
Murray Mill courtyard as it is now

Beyond the old mills on the right is New Islington Marina. I’m not going to walk through here today, but it is a lovely oasis of calmness in the city centre.

Looking towards New Islington marina from the Rochdale Canal
New Islington Marina

The canal continues eastwards where it passes under Redhill Street (which used to be called Union Street)

The towpath has its own quaint little cobbled tunnel, unfortunately a little worse for wear from the local talentless delinquents. I love good street art, but this is just terrible.

Much of Ancoats is now modern residential buildings, interspersed with the regenerated old mills and factories.

Nestled in a tiny area of scrubland is a little goose house. Not as decorative as the one pictured on my previous blog, but I guess the geese don’t care that much, bloody Philistines!

Looking back towards Manchester I can just see the Islington Square development. These are 23 homes, the design of which was selected by the future residents, and built for the Manchester Methodist Housing Group. My photo is quite poor, but if you follow this link there are much better pictures there, and the story of the place.

Much of the modern building in Manchester leaves a lot to be desired, it’s boring and shows so little initiative and character, but these houses are really nice. I was wondering a couple of years back why London gets all the great shaped buildings like the Gherkin and the Shard, and why Manchester’s are just rectangular blocks. Apparently it all comes down to the potential rental income. The interesting shapes are clearly more difficult and expensive to build, and so the developer must charge more in rent to cover the building costs. They can charge a lot more in London than they can in Manchester, it’s as simple as that.

Many companies want to place their headquarters in central London, where most of their staff can’t afford to live and so have to make morale-sapping multi-hour long commutes into work, which is perhaps why in London everyone is too miserable to talk to each other! Some companies and organisations have moved to the provinces of course, saving millions of pounds in the process, but I understand that many of the staff may get too scared when someone says “hello” to them in the street, perhaps thinking they’re about to get mugged. It must be so hard for Londoners when they encounter such strange human behaviour like that, but imagine how traumatised it can be for northerners when they go to London, as this Mash Report explains….

The route opens out into inner city suburban parkland. This is Miles Platting. In the mid 19th century this area was all terraced houses to house the local factory and mill workers, and shortly beyond the houses was open fields. Almost all of those old houses have now been demolished during slum clearances of the 1950s, and the area is now predominantly modern council housing.

Miles Platting

I pass an area of green land which has been fenced off ready for more development. Manchester City Council have a terrible reputation for getting rid of green land.

Another green space that the City Council are destroying

There are several patches of greenery around here which they have sold off to developers to build offices and residential blocks. Manchester had very few green areas in the first place, due to its rapid industrial expansion in the 19th century the land was all used by the entrepreneurs for factories and mills, unlike London where many parks were established during Victorian times. That’s part of the city’s history and can’t be changed, but to be building on the little green space that we have in 2020 is truly criminal.

I pass under Butler Street bridge. See how the bricks have been built at an angle to match the angle that the road passes over the canal. Lovely!

At lock 81 (the lock numbers start from the far end of the canal in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire) the canal opens out into a basin where a dye works stood in the mid 19th century. There were quite a few factories and mills around here back then, Victoria Mill, in the distance, is one of the only ones left standing.

Lock 81 and Victoria Mill

Victoria Mill is going through the same residential development as most of the mills back down in Ancoats, but being further out from the city centre the prices the developer can get for the apartments are much lower, and so the development is taking longer. It seems to have been in this state for years, but quite a few of the apartments are now occupied. I love that they’ve retained this crane mounted between the two wings of the building.

The impressive octagonal chimney of Victoria Mill can’t be seen very well from the canal side – here’s the whole mill from the front.

The chimney rises within a stair tower and at roof level there is a gallery of windows offering a 360 degree view of the area. There are more great pictures here.

It becomes quite peaceful and almost rural beyond the mill, although the noises from beyond the trees still betray the industrial nature of the area. This wooded area used to be occupied by dye and chemical factories up to at least the 1950s. There is still a big plastics factory beyond it.

The canal shortly reaches the major A6010 Hulme Hall Lane arterial road, and at this point, a mile and a quarter from the start, I follow the ramp up onto the main road, and head south towards the Ashton Canal. The area here is a mix of modern industrial, Victorian industrial, and terraced housing from the early 20th century.

Hulme Hall Lane

The road is quite ugly along here, but there are always little things that can brighten your day ?

After a few hundred yards I pass the old gasometers of what was once Manchester Corporation Bradford Road Gas Works (Bradford is this district of Manchester as well as being a city in West Yorkshire!).

I found this fantastic image of the construction of this gasometer. I love the horse!

Gasometer apartments, Kings Cross, London

Some people hate them, but I love these old gasometers. This one isn’t particularly ornate, but some of the older Victorian ones can be stunning. In London next to the railway line going into Euston you can see they’ve built apartments blocks inside the old gasometer ring.

Hulme Hall Lane becomes Alan Turing Way shortly after the old gasworks, and passes over the River Medlock. A lot of the river is culverted from this point as it heads into Manchester. We can just see a little of it here.

A view down into the River Medlock

Shortly after crossing the River Medlock, Alan Turing Way crosses the Ashton Canal, and so this is where I cross the road and head down to the canal.

The little cottage on the left is the head gardener’s house at the entrance to Philips Park. The park opened in 1846 as one of the world’s first municipal parks, intended for free use by the public to encourage a mixing of the classes. The formation and opening of the park was largely due to the commitment of Mark Philips, a local MP, who lobbied considerably for the creation of parks for the working people of the city. In 1844, following seven years of intense campaigning, the ‘Committee for Public Walks, Gardens and Playgrounds’ was set up. However, the fact that the park is 2 miles outside of the city centre demonstrates how Manchester grew, driven by industrialisation with very little consideration for the needs of the work-forces.

The round apartment building is called “The Drum”. On the right you can just see the lock keepers cottage for Lock No 1 of the Ashton Canal. Passing underneath Alan Turing Way and past lock 1…

…emerging from the other side we can see the Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City Football Club.

Although I’m not from Manchester, after moving here in 1997 I started following Manchester City, just as they got relegated to the third tier of English football. As a perennial follower of the underdog, there was no way that I was going to support Manchester United after arriving in the city, and having grown up supporting Plymouth Argyle I was quite accustomed to continual disappointment and depression, so no problems there! Of course over those 23 years – the last 10 of which I have had a season ticket – fortunes have changed rather spectacularly for Manchester City FC. However, my love for the underdog hasn’t inclined me to have any positive thoughts for the red side of Manchester these days – their recent mediocrity is entirely of their own doing, and most thoroughly deserved in my opinion! ?

The canal opens out, and I pass the Metrolink tram station which serves the Etihad Stadium. On match day, this is heaving with people, but of course in the current lock-down it is deserted. The trams are all still running though. I guess they are needed to transport key workers into the city centre.

Etihad Stadium Metrolink stop

The sun is starting to get lower in the sky now, and photographs looking westwards towards the city centre are losing their colour, but perhaps gaining a more pensive air…

The geese are busy feeding on what little remains of the grass lawns that they are tending so assiduously. These Canada geese make me laugh, they’re all paired off now, being in the breeding season, and although these two couldn’t care less about my presence, with many others I pass the male starts hissing at me, getting protective of his wife and potential brood. There are quite a few runners going past as well, but the geese don’t care less about them. Maybe it’s because I’m going slower, and giving them eye contact. I do love them though!

The canal passes under a low disused railway bridge, and rounds a corner near a second gasometer tower.

The canal passes over the river Medlock, which is down a drop the other side of the fence in the picture above, and enters a small green area of light woodland.

Don’t get me wrong, it looks nice but it’s no rural idyll! That woodland is full of the detritus of bored delinquent kids and is not somewhere for a romantic evening stroll!

A gas pipe remnant from the old gasworks crosses over the canal…

…and we enter an area of industrial devastation. Many of the factories that used to sit here are now gone, Waulk Cotton Mill, a glass factory, Star Boiler Works, Wellington Mill, India Mill, Phoenix Mill. Only Brunswick Mill and Beswick Street Mill remain…

Brunswick Mill
Beswick Street Mill

…along with the former Ancoats Engineering Works, but not for much longer by the look of it!

Ancoats Engineering Works (remains of!)

On the northern side of the canal, yet another small green space has been stolen from local people by Manchester City Council to build these monstrosities…

I guess because these spaces were once where factories and mills used to sit, the council can classify them as “brown field land”. But this is how it looked just a few months ago from Google Maps…

They may be within their rights legally, but they are morally bankrupt if they think this is the right thing to do to inner city communities ?.

As we get nearer the city centre, modern apartment blocks sit where mills and factories once stood.

Apartment block on the old site of Victoria Mill, once a cardboard box factory

I arrive at New Islington Green, another space that the city council has sold off to private developers, this time for an office block.

New Islington Green, with the old Vulcan Iron Works in the background

There are acres of disused brown field land around this area which could be used for offices. There are hundreds of empty office blocks in Manchester! The council is selling off all this green land simply for short term income, but once this land is built on it will be gone for the next 100 years. New Islington green was the site of a chemical works, iron works and cotton waste dumps a few decades ago until it was converted back to grassland. All that good work is now going to be destroyed for at least the next 100 years until the office block can be demolished.

There is a campaign to stop the council doing this, and I urge you to electronically sign their petition on the link, but in my opinion finance will always win out over living standards. The people that make these decisions, and the developers that make all the money, mostly live in large houses with gardens in the posh southern suburbs of Manchester or the leafy villages of north Cheshire ?. What do they care about green space in the city centre?

Just north of Great Ancoats street, the canal passes the old wall of Star Iron Works and Lock No. 2…

…and below that a small canal basin and the old lock-keeper’s cottage.

… and passes next to this new apartment block. I like this one, it’s an interesting shape.

Dipping underneath Great Ancoats Street I enter Piccadilly Village, which was built in the early 1990s on the derelict site of goods wharves and Phoenix Brass & Iron Works.

Many of the small wharves and canal equipment has been kept which creates a nice ambience .

One lovely thing this time of year is all the little goslings. There were six of them in this brood…

The canal passes high over Store Street Aqueduct, built in 1798. It was originally built to cross a stream, Shooters Brook, but that was later culverted and Store Street laid over the brook. When a lot of the council estate in Miles Platting was rebuilt in the 1980s the residents were asked by the council what they would like it to be called. One of the council’s suggestions was “Shooters Estate”! It just shows how out of touch the middle class upper echelons of the council can be, no-one really remembers Shooter’s Brook anymore (it’s been culverted for over a hundred years), but there are at least two connotations of the name Shooters Estate that are just a bit close to home for an inner-city council estate! It ended up being called the Cardroom Estate.

Store Street aqueduct, with the street far below

Building work is still going on in Manchester at pace. This is a new apartment building, Oxygen, which looks very impressive, and thankfully will be finished in light colour building materials!

We’re nearly at the end of the Ashton canal now. It arrives in this basin, with Piccadilly railway station in the distance (the white building to the left of the curved one)…

…then dips under Ducie street with the shops and apartments above…

…and emerges in Piccadilly Basin where it joins the Rochdale canal. This is the view of the basin from the Ashton canal side, the opposite side from the picture in my last blog.

The five minute walk back to my flat is the same journey described in my last blog so I won’t bore you with that!

This walk was on 7th April 2020, and is about 3.8 miles long. Here’s the map:

Oh, and here’s some pretty flowers as a postscript ?

5 thoughts on “Canals 2. Rochdale and Ashton canals: Ancoats round trip

  1. Another interesting walk Paul. I like the view at Lock 81 and the one at Miles Platting, followed the link to the Islington Square Development and wow! what fabulous unique houses – those and the New Islington marina are definitely places I must find and photograph myself 🙂

  2. Another incredible compression of history and architecture in a short distance. That diagonal brickwork is superb – I bet you couldn’t find anybody who could do that today. The Lancaster Canal has something similar with their skew bridges,

  3. Wow another blockbuster account. I’m linked out!
    Manchester has so much history, mostly industrial I have to say, and you are describong it well.
    I’m amazed at how some of the landscapes have changed in the short time since I walked those canals. The architecture, as you point out, goes from bad to good in diferent locations.
    The use of the canal basins and warehouses for residential properties is to be welcomed. Better to restore than new build in most situations. I never thought that the picturesque cobbles would create noise pollution.
    Love the “Northerner terrorist” clip. I’ve had the same response trying to say hello to people on the tube. Where I live if I’m in the front garden I can’t get on with my work for people stopping for a chat. Oh! I’d better get on with some gardening now.
    Keep it up, youv’e set a high standard.

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