Canals 5. Bolton and Bury Canal: Manchester to Clifton

Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of Clifton either. Well, apart from the one in Bristol of course. Clifton is an area in the north of the City of Salford, most famous for being the site of the Pilkington tile factory, which you can still see from the M60 as you drive past.

This walk is going to be one of the trickiest so far. Not in the sense that it might involve changing a wheel on the motorway, or wading knee deep in cow shit like a previous walk of mine, but the route is going to be harder to pick out, even if the walking should be a lot…. hmmm, cleaner! ?

The thing is, the Bolton & Bury canal is disused. Completely disused. A lot of the UK canal system was refurbished around the time of the millenium, and even completely new canals were dug like the Ribble Link, the entrance to which I passed on my coastal walk from Tarleton to Preston, but the MB&B canal didn’t make the cut. The only section that has had any refurbishment is at the junction with the River Irwell, called the Middlewood Locks, where a 500 metre section has been restored, and some work on a new footbridge and restoration of locks at Nob End (yes, it’s really called that ?) near Bolton.

Although some of it is still “in water” as they call it (meaning it’s not completely dried up), the only section that would be navigable by boats is the Middlewood Locks part in Manchester, but it would make quite a short boating holiday. At the canal speed limit of 4 mph it would take you 7½ minutes to navigate the full length by boat, although the two locks would slow you down a bit. Saying that I’ve had holidays where I’ve enjoyed less than 7½ minutes of it…. ?

Anyway, here’s an overview of the route the whole canal takes…

I park up near the Middlewood Locks, and walk down to the canal’s junction with the River Irwell. This is all fenced off at the moment, but presented little challenge for someone with an urge for trespass like mine ?. A new railway bridge across the Irwell was built last year which allowed a new section of line, the Ordsall Chord, to finally connect Piccadilly and Victoria stations, 175 years after they were built. No hurry there, really!

Rust finish building, from my balcony

I love the shape of this bridge (sorry the photo’s not great), but did they have to leave it in rust colour? It’s the latest architect’s thing it seems. They’ve even made an apartment block near my flat in the same finish. I have to see this monstrosity every time I look out my window or sit on my balcony… but of course the architect doesn’t. They probably live in a thatched cottage somewhere and stare at the roses climbing round their front door while thinking to themselves how clever they are for “challenging people’s preconceptions of beauty”. Hmmm ?

Scaling the fence allowed me down to the water’s edge, where I finally got to the junction of the MB&B canal and the River Irwell. It’s not very spectacular to be honest, probably looks nicer when the buddleia is flowering!

The start of the Bolton & Bury canal where it joins the River Irwell

The canal immediately enters a tunnel under Trinity Way, and pops out the other end directly underneath the railway line. This used to be the Liverpool and Manchester Railway line from Liverpool Road station, which is now part of the Science and Industry Museum.

The B&B canal underneath the railway viaduct

It emerges from the under the railway straight into one of the deepest locks I’ve seen.

Beyond the lock is a tranquil canal basin, overlooked by the cranes rebuilding modern Manchester…

The canal passes through another tunnel under East Ordsall Lane, through another lock, and into a pleasant landscaped area presumably made by the developers of the Middleton Locks Apartment complex, where tulip-filled flower beds intermingle with young birch trees…

In the sunlight, the roots of the water weeds can be seen delving down into the deep for nutrients…

Just beyond is another basin, and the next tunnel passing under the railway line, which unfortunately is not open. So that’s as far as this section goes. Just 500 yards!

However, I’m not finished! Although the canal is mostly built over, until it resumes a few miles north near Pendlebury, I’m going to make an attempt to track down some of its remnants in between. The route pretty much follows the railway line north, so the bridges still exist, and the old canal route is a bit more obvious where it crosses under the bridges.

The other side of that tunnel comes out around Upper Wharf Street, although the only indication is the street name, and the bridge wall on Oldfield Road:

Yeah, not much to see there! Let’s move on a bit, a mile and a half north to Broughton Road…

…not much to see there either! A further mile north at Holland Street a footbridge crosses over the old canal and the railway line…

Right, that’s enough of that! Suffice to say, I don’t think the MB&B canal will ever be restored to its full original route – there’s just too much building gone on since it closed, and it would surely cost too much to recompense all those business owners. Another mile north, at Park House Bridge Road, the canal can still be found.

It’s pretty much grown over – certainly not navigable. Although there’s a little bit of water in it here, mostly it has become completely overgrown with vegetation and car tyres. A big patch of bullrushes has just gone to seed. There’s some blown onto the towpath, and I pick it up, it’s the softest thing I’ve ever felt.

From the garden of a nearby house, Elvis sings to me as I pass by. Annoying bugger ?

The local kids have a very strange taste in under-age alcohol round here ?…

The sickly feeling after downing the whole bottle of that should be enough to put them off alcohol for a while! When I was young I stuck to lager, vodka & orange, Thunderbolt and cider, never Baileys!… although after one friend’s party I had an experience with cider that means I still can’t drink apple juice to this day! ??

Just beyond the bottle of Baileys, there’s a graveyard right next to the canal, but this is the weirdest graveyard I’ve encountered, sandwiched amongst the suburban houses, with all the graves tightly packed together, and all mounted on concrete!

I guess it means you could always get to see your gran from your bedroom window ?

Here’s three pretty things spotted along here – a patch of bluebells, a white flowering cherry tree, and a peacock butterfly…

The canal opens up into a wider section, with the railway still running alongside.

I look down into the canal and see a heron just a few feet away from me. It’s as surprised as I am, panics, and flies over to the other side of the canal to continue its fishing in peace.

A patch of forget-me-nots always makes me happy…

…but not as happy as this bumble bee!

The canal narrows here for some reason, I’m not sure why. See the curved walls, I’m guessing that’s so any boat bumping into it gets pushed back out – a square cut wall could get damaged by a boat and damage the boat. I’m guessing here, any ideas?! It looks prettier that way too ?!

Shortly after the narrowing, a brick wall has been built across the canal, and a few dozen yards beyond the canal ends where once there was a small aqueduct over a narrow lane. The aqueduct is gone so the canal is empty here. Down at the level of the lane, there’s still a trace of the brick arch, but sadly nothing else left. The railway tunnel beyond is still there of course – otherwise the trains would plummet into the ditch!

Climbing back up to the canal level, a milestone tells me I’m 3¾ miles from the junction with the Irwell. Not 4, or even 3½ (there are milestones for those distances too), but 3¾! It seems profligate today to put milestones every quarter of a mile. At horse walking speed that’s a distance marker every 5 minutes! Did those old barge-masters really have such bad memories that they forgot how much further it was to go with a few minutes? It’s useful for me though, because my memory really is that bad ?!

A chainlink fence on my left separates the towpath from the overgrown route where the canal once flowed, and I get occasional glimpses of stones and ridges through the trees. A small hole in the fence attracts my attention, and my trespass-devil whispers in my ear, telling me to go exploring. Compliantly I squeeze through the gap and brush my way through the hawthorns (boy, are they spiky today) to the top of a mound, looking for any evidence of the old canal. Unfortunately there is very little. Perhaps this was once the bank…

I beat a retreat, and while climbing back through the hole in the fence encounter a couple walking the towpath. Feeling only mildly embarrassed, I explain that I was looking for the old canal, and end up chatting for ages about landmarks around Manchester. They tell me about Woden’s Den, an old cave variously believed to be a temple to Odin, a quarry and a Christian hermitage. It is near what is now called Woden Street in Salford, which coincidentally is the exact starting point for my next walk.

This area is really quite nice now. To my right grassland and young trees stretch the hundred yards or so over to the River Irwell, which is about to rejoin us for the journey over the next mile or so.

This area was once the site of Drinkwater Park Isolation Hospital, a hospital for smallpox – terrifying! The house was later deliberately destroyed by fire in a civil defence exercise in 1957, very strange.

Drinkwater Park Isolation Hospital (Irwell House)

It later became the site of the Magnesium Elektron Works factory. The successor to that company, MEL is still on a nearby site. The trees look healthy now, but those magnesium works took their toll. Back in 1948 a report on the area stated:

“Atmospheric pollution is so severe that no one species of tree is immune… Oak, Beech, Ash and some Horse Chestnuts in the Garden have been killed outright. Even common ivy appeared to be damaged by this pollution which emanates from nearby factories just to the west of the park.”

The Irwell gets closer and closer until it rejoins us, really quite majestic at this point.

Looking down onto the River Irwell

The canal and the river swing around to the left, and far above us, the old railway line of the L.M.S.R passes over both, on the magnificent Clifton Viaduct. The railway line was ripped up in 1966, but the Grade II listed viaduct remains.

Clifton Viaduct

Just beyond the viaduct lies the equally spectacular Clifton Aquaduct, built 50 years earlier than the viaduct in 1796, which takes the canal over the River Irwell far below.

Clifton Aquaduct from on top
Clifton Aquaduct from the side

The canal sweeps around to the west again before burrowing under the M60 motorway and heading north but this is as far as I’m going today. Of course, like all these canal walks, I now have to walk all the way back again. Boring ?.

This walk was made on 16th April 2020. The first section in Manchester is 500 yards long, and the second from where the canal exists again is about 2 miles long (and 2 miles back).

Here’s a map of the lower section, and the various points where I tried to spot the canal’s path:

…and the northern section from Park House Bridge Road:

5 thoughts on “Canals 5. Bolton and Bury Canal: Manchester to Clifton

  1. Your getting up towards my neck of the woods now Paul, I’ve often walked or cycled the towpath from Moses Gate country park to Clifton and back. Where the curved canal walls are was probably a passing place for boats as the canal was so narrow at that point.

    1. I’d like to get up there again soon to continue this one, it was nice?. I’ve since done the ship canal as far as possible, and was planning the River Irwell northwards, we’ll see ?☀️

  2. I used the word “exploration” in my last post. Can’t resist it. I always want to see round the next corner and if it means the odd trespass so be it. This post of your embodies all that. – good stuff.

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