Canals 3. Bridgewater Canal: Castlefield to Old Trafford

I start from the Castlefield basin again, where I was the other day at the start of my Rochdale Canal walk. In order to comply as best I can with the lockdown rules, I’m trying to keep my walks to a maximum of one hour. That means I need to drive rather than walk to Castlefield, which is just over a mile from my flat. It could be viewed that this is a bit pointless, but who am I to question and ignore the current rules when most other people are trying their best? I’m probably immune and not able to carry the virus now anyway, so maybe it doesn’t make any difference whatever I do.

Normally I must admit I’m not a great one for following rules, often seeing them as a personal affront. That attitude quite often doesn’t work out well for me, but I just can’t seem to shake it! But anyway, these rules are there to make it easier for our wonderful health workers, and so for them I will do whatever. I will comply with the spirit of the current rules.

So I park up at Potato Wharf, once a thriving industrial area, and now a new apartment complex, and walk a necessary round-about route to get to Castlefield Basin again. I pass the wonderful Cloverleaf Weir which drains excess water from the basin into the river Medlock, devised by the builder of the Bridgewater canal himself, James Brindley.

Cloverleaf Weir

Many people say the Bridgewater canal is the oldest canal in Britain opening in 1761, but that’s not true. The Sankey Canal between St Helens and the Mersey was opened four years before that, and the surveyor of the Sankey, Henry Berry, had previously surveyed for the Newry Canal which opened a full sixteen years earlier in 1741 (okay, Newry isn’t Britain, but it’s still the UK).

As I’m making my way I spot a police car and a couple of coppers milling round, and wonder whether they are challenging people wandering around Castlefield, so I head another direction and look like I’m busy – no need for trouble! ?

The waters from the weir drop into the River Medlock. It’s amazing to think the Medlock was a major Manchester river centuries ago, but the impact of the canal has relegated it to a mere stream for most of its course.

River Medlock at Castlefield

The coat of arms of the City of Manchester, and of Manchester City FC incorporate three blue stripes to represent the three rivers – the Irwell, The Irk, and the Medlock. Only the Irwell is still really worthy of the name “river”, the other two are barely more than streams. Even the Irwell is now just a feeder for the Manchester Ship Canal. Our city’s natural rivers have been emasculated to put the “brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur“!

I take a load of photographs around Castlefield Basin because it looks so good in this weather and with so few people around…

Here is the start of the Bridgewater canal from the basin:

The Bridgewater canal joining Castlefield basin

Strictly speaking, the start of the Bridgewater canal is a bit further back, the other side of the basin, but I walked that part in a previous blog. Looking behind me I see the four new towers of Deansgate Square. A lot of people in Manchester don’t like these towers, but I do. They’re not spectacular like some of the buildings in London (I’ve explained why that is in a previous blog), but they’re a little bit interesting, with the indented sides, and a lot nicer than the Hilton / Beetham Tower which is truly ugly.

Deansgate Square development
Ugly as sin., Beetham Tower

The Beetham Tower was the first really tall building in Manchester, and I think perhaps it gets a bit of an unjustifiably good press because of it. There is nothing aesthetically appealing about it. It’s just two cuboids, one plonked on the other. The fact that the sail is added at the top to ‘balance’ the look is just an admission by the architect that the whole thing looks shit in the first place!

Perhaps one reason it gets such good press is that the architects, Simpson-Haugh, are based in Manchester and the local media feel they have to support local firms. I don’t know, but I hate it. I viewed a flat in it a couple of years ago, on about the 35th floor. The views were fantastic of course, but the flat was tiny, and the balcony was indoors. You went through glass doors onto the balcony, which itself had glass walls, presumably for safety reasons. Pretty rubbish. I didn’t like it, although when we were waiting in reception I met Ian Brown, which was cool. Maybe he lives there.

Anyway, back to the canal! The canal follows the route of the railway, or I guess historically it’s actually the other way round. A couple of the old railway lines are now given over to the tram lines. The trams are all still running as regular as ever in the current lockdown. The wharf you can see through the arch is Potato Wharf.

A tram trundles its way over the viaduct towards Didsbury

There are so many small wharves with associated warehouses along this part of the canal. This one is called “New Wharf” and the warehouse “New Warehouse”. Some of these Victorian entrepreneurs had pathetically poor imaginations!

“New Wharf” leading to “New Warehouse”!

This foot-bridge may look Victorian, but was actually built in 1993…

It’s accompanied by a tiled mural of Uncle Fester. Who knows why!

Uncle Fester mural

The canal passes underneath the A57M, which is called Mancunian Way and replaced what was called Egerton Street before it. Just before the bridge is an old flour mill, now converted into apartments. You can still see the wharves that led under the building for loading and unloading barges.

The William Sutcliffe flour mill

On the other side of the Mancunian way, a canal branch leads off to the right to which drops down a couple of derelict locks and into the River Irwell.

Derelict lock leading to a basin
Remaining lock dropping down to the River Irwell

I enter an area of Manchester that has been hugely “gentrified” recently, with numerous apartment buildings…

There are clearly arguments for and against “gentrification”. On the one side, the destruction of long-term communities, people living in sub-standard housing, but very protective of where they grew up and their traditions. On the other side, the provision of living places and housing for the huge numbers of people who need somewhere to live. I guess it has always been the same argument since the beginning of time – it’s probably not a new thing. Here’s an example… near where I live there was a street called Sanitary Street.

Anita Street, Ancoats

These days it’s called Anita Street – a much prettier name, they just removed the “S” and “ry”. However, it’s history is much more closely related to its old name. When Ancoats was the centre of the cotton industry of the whole world, and the workers lived in terrible conditions, Manchester Corporation made the bold step of building a street of terraced houses that had the revolutionary idea of a WC for each individual house. At the bottom of the garden, naturally, for sanitary reasons, hence the name. In this picture at the end of the street is Victoria Square Dwellings (unofficially known as the Labourers’ Dwellings or colloquially as just ‘the Dwellings’), completed in 1894, and comprising 237 double tenements and 48 single. One of the first tenements in the UK. It is still used as supported housing for older people. It’s really nice there.

Right, getting back to what I was trying to say, at the time, some people may have seen this as an unwelcome development. People who were cleared out of the dingy damp cellars that they were living in at the time, close to the mills where they worked. Why wouldn’t they? But could anyone these days say that these progressive moves were a bad thing? So how is it different today?

One way it is different, certainly, is that the Government guidance for new developments states that a proportion of 20% should be devoted to affordable housing, what’s called Section 106 housing. This is cleary not welcomed by property developers. However, Manchester City Council have allowed developers so many exemptions, that recently out of 15,000 new homes, not a single one has been affordable under Section 106 rules. They’ve exempted the whole bloody lot. This is a terrible, almost criminal state of affairs. Development and regeneration in Manchester and other northern cities is certainly important, but at what cost? Hmmm. Those developers need to be held to account.

The railway lines cross the canal just past this area of modern regeneration…

Manchester has used the worker bee logo for many years, and it was incorporated into the city’s coat of arms way back in 1842. It has been on park benches and municipal bins for decades, but it wasn’t until the terrible terrorist attack at the MEN Arena on May 22nd, 2017 that it became such a profound symbol of remembrance and defiance.

After that atrocious attack against humanity, the people of Manchester rose up in an act of peace and sorrow that must have antagonized the extremists who plotted against us more than any military reprisals could ever do. In fact, such reprisals generally only serve to recruit more foot soldiers for their perverted causes.

The Oasis song Don’t Look Back In Anger, previously only the second single off their second album (after the much more famous Wonderwall, but clearly a much better song) became an anthem not of vengeance, but of peace and resilience, after a woman started singing it at the memorial in St Anne’s square to the 22 people who died in the attack. It was such a profound event, and will bring a tear to the eye of most if us.

Anyway, these days the bee symbol is unavoidable in the city. It is everywhere. In official council artworks, in the tattoos on people’s arms created in huge numbers after the attack to raise funds for the victims, to random street art all over the city. And here’s one more example, on the wall next to me on this walk, and it still brings a tear to my eye when I see it, remembering those poor innocent children horribly maimed by that perversion of ideas and evil people…..

Suddenly, the built up character of the area evaporates, and it seems I’m plunged into semi-countryside. This is Pomona.

Pomona island

Pomona is actually an island. A deserted and empty landscape squashed between the Bridgewater Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal. An area of grassland, deserted roadways, lost lamposts, and litter. The detritus of a lost and dead suburb…

Pomona desert

It wasn’t always like this. Once Pomona was the heart of a thriving and exciting holiday destination, where the oppressed factory workers of Manchester went to relax on their weekends. I won’t recount the history of the place here, as it is done much better by other people. But just compare that picture of desolation with this drawing from 1860….

Pomona in 1860

Pomona used to host a palace bigger than the Royal Albert Hall, wondrous botanical gardens, bowling greens, a hedge maze, and fairgrounds. All that was swept aside by the powers of avarice as Salford Docks spread outwards and the land became more valuable for storing and moving goods than inspiring visions and moving hearts….

Opened originally in 1845 by William and Joseph Beardsley Cornbrook, Strawberry Gardens was at the centre of the Manchester’s leisure time activities. Just south of the congested city centre, it was an idyllic escape. Due to the abundance of horticulture, the name was later changed to Pomona Gardens – after the Roman goddess of fruit. People could enjoy everything from a shooting gallery, a billiard room and flying swings to an archery ground, a bowling green and a hedge maze.

“Pomona’s success lay in its proximity to the city centre, and how it was promoted as the countryside without the need for a train journey,” said writer and tour guide Hayley Flynn.

“It had a variety of amusements that very much appealed to the Victorians.”

Blossoming interest in horticulture and flora meant that thousands flocked to Pomona – 100,000 in the first year – making it a focal point.

It seems Manchester has always had a wonderful talent for creating the most special places, ideas, and things. Unfortunately it also has an equally strong special talent for destroying those very same things. And it’s still happening to this day, as historic buildings and places are torn down to be replaced by faceless new office blocks.

I pass under the ancient Cornbrook Bridge, and wonder how the huge draught horses that used to tow the boats managed to squeeze through that tiny space – I had to stoop myself…

Cornbrook bridge

The canal then passes under the modern tram bridge. I quite like this bridge for some reason, it has an elegance to it…

Metrolink tram bridge

A short branch of the canal on the opposite side passes through Pomona Lock which drops down to the lower level of the Manchester Ship Canal, just a few yards away.

Lock to the Manchester Ship Canal

The Ship Canal is a truly impressive construction. Until you walk along its banks you don’t appreciate its vast dimensions. The picture below shows the size of modern ships that the 120 year old canal can still accomodate. I’ll do the Ship Canal in a later blog so won’t go into it too much now.

The Bridgewater canal, some 130 years older is still quite impressive in width at this point….

I shortly arrive at my destination for this short walk, at the pretty Throstle Nest Bridge in Old Trafford. Apparently, a throstle is a song thrush. Never knew that!

This walk was completed on Easter Sunday, 12th April 2020. It was about 2.6 miles in length, 1.3 miles there, and 1.3 miles back. Here’s a map…

10 thoughts on “Canals 3. Bridgewater Canal: Castlefield to Old Trafford

  1. Another interesting post Paul, especially the part about Pomona, I’ve never heard of it before. I like the bottom three photos of the Castlefield basin and agree with you about the Beetham Tower, that’s just one incredibly ugly monstrosity – whoever designed it should be shot, along with those who approved the design! Interesting too about where Anita Street got its name from – I came across it unexpectedly last year while roaming round Ancoats photographing street art and was surprised that such an attractive street was right in the middle of everything else.

  2. What an interesting walk. I often wondered about that area of wasteland you see from the tram as you approach Cornbrook. Now I know it was once a huge leisure complex called Pomona.

    1. Yeah, I’ve lived in Manchester 23 years, but didn’t know anything about it until a few years back when they opened the Didsbury tram line and I looked it up then. Amazing.

      How are you coping with lockdown Ruth? Hope all’s well?

  3. Wow! I thought I’d put a lot into 1.5 miles starting from home recently but you’ve well outdone me. Referring to your puzzlingly inappropriately named streets my daughter used to live in Chorley at Grime Street.

  4. At this rate of walking it would take you over 3 years continuos walking to complete your 5000 miles. Maybe a subtitle to your blog whilst these restrictions last…
    Sir Hugh and I walked across those bleak spaces of Pomona at the onset of dusk, hooded figures on bikes made us feel uneasy and quicken our step. The modern tram station, which was well lit, was a relief to reach. In his excitement at being safely delivered Sir threw himself to the ground in praise of his own Lord. We looked a sorry pair trudging into Picadilly.
    At one-time pleasure canal boats using these city centre canals virtually needed armed guards to protect them from the local youths. A canal boat enthusiast told me that. Coming into the city from leafy Cheshire was a shock to the system.
    Are there any plans to develop the area which could provide that much needed ‘affordable housing’ within walking/cycling distance of the city centre? I doubt it.
    I’m wondering where your next canal will lead you.

  5. Great blog and takes me back to my time working in Peter Street when this was my lunchtime run. Very interesting about Pomona which has always mystified me.

Leave a Reply