Canals 6: Manchester Ship Canal – Manchester to Salford Quays

I didn’t know how well this walk would go – the Manchester Ship Canal doesn’t really have a towpath. I guess they just couldn’t get horses big enough to pull the boats on this stretch of water…

By 1957 all the supersized horses had died out.

There are paths along the initial stretch of the canal, where the River Irwell ends and the Ship Canal starts, which run all the way to Salford Quays, but they’re regularly closed off to allow property developers to do their thing. Is this a regular occurrence countrywide, or is it just Manchester? It seems that developers can just close off roads and walkways at will, often just to park their vans up, hardly ever for any perceivable good reason? Maybe it’s just another example of how the property developers own Manchester City Council.

Anyway, I give it a go, and do what I can to defeat the attempts to keep me out. Looking at old maps of the area, there is a path along here with the caption “Towing path“, although the map I was looking at is from 1849, almost 50 years before the ship canal was dug, so this must have been a towing path for the navigable River Irwell.

I think the point where the river ends and the ship canal starts is defined by the confluence of the River Medlock and the Irwell. It’s more of an official thing I guess, because apart from seeing the Medlock joining, there is nothing else significant about this point, the water flows smoothly from one to the other with no care as to whether it is a river or a canal…

The River Medlock joins the Irwell to become the Ship Canal

The river flows left to right in the picture above, and so I set off to the right. This area used to be congested with warehouses, iron foundries, rubber factories, and the railway lines of the Cheshire Lines Railway. Only the railway remains, passing over its grand arches…

I pass under Woden Street footbridge. There used to be a ford across the river at this point, before the river was made navigable and therefore much deeper, called Woden’s Ford. It was named after Woden’s Den

Tradition supposes it to have been the den or woody habitation of the priest or priests of Woden, the much esteemed war deity of the idol Saxons.

Thomas Barret writing about the site in ‘The Ancient Parish Church of Manchester

The banks which once buzzed to the sound of factories and foundries now buzz to the sound of young people drawn into the city, housed in the many new apartment blocks built to fuel the scramble for modern urban dwelling. This is just an observation, not a criticism. Those factories and the surrounding streets also buzzed with the flies and disease of human adversity, there’s no romanticism in suffering.

The path for some reason is covered in a layer of sand, which gets quite deep in places. I don’t know where this has come from, or if it was deliberately put here. It’s quite nice actually, makes it feel a bit like a beach!

I reach the first attempt by developers to make the citizens as miserable as possible, but it’s a pretty poor attempt, foiled easily already by people before me.

Developers’ pathetic attempt at preventing Manchester people walking around their own city.

The apartment buildings dwindle quickly as the walking distance to the city centre increases, and I reach the area known as Pomona, once the site of a huge palace, and recreational destination for the people of Manchester. I’ve written about this in a previous blog when I was walking the Bridgewater canal, which is just a hundred yards or so to my left (south east) across the canal.

Pomona, from the ship canal towpath

A hundred yards or so past the previous blockade, another attempt is also easily thwarted simply by climbing over all the shit they’ve left in an attempt to block the path…

There’s a lot of graffiti on the walls along here, and much of it is quite good.

…and for the less urbanly inclined, a couple of nicely tended gardens too…

Even the massive iron mooring points are brightly decorated…

An old crane sits with nothing left to lift.

You really get a sense of the scale of the ship canal at this point, again overlooking Pomona…

Pomona, from the ship canal
The view looking back along the canal towards the city centre

Another attempt at blocking my progress is swiftly defeated…

A new small paved area is reached through grand gateposts, who knows why?

It’s at this point along the canal that some of the main Manchester Docks and wharves were situated. These were the only docks in the city of Manchester – there are many more further downstream in the City of Salford. Unfortunately some of them have been filled in, and some reduced in size significantly. These two maps, one from 1932 and the other from today show the change. The docks closed in the 1970s. No 1 dock is now just a slight indent in the canal, No 2 dock is just a stub, No 3 dock is still there, and contains the short branch which connects the Bridgewater canal to the ship canal, and No 4 dock has been completely infilled. I don’t know why this has been done, because it’s not like this land has been used for anything else since.

The remains of No 2 dock, occupied by a sunbathing cormorant!
No 3 dock is now just part of a short branch through a lock to the Bridgewater canal

Opposite the old docks is a boarding point for boats.

For a short period of time a water taxi used to ply its trade between Media City in Salford Quays and Manchester city centre. It was a great idea, but unfortunately the lack of development and slow pace of expansion along here meant that it couldn’t make a profit and eventually closed.

The water taxi

Development on the other side of the canal, south west of Pomona is starting to pick up. There will be some spectacular balconies in these apartment blocks…

The old Colgate-Palmolive factory has now been converted into swanky new offices for TalkTalk. It’s nice they didn’t demolish the building.

Pomona tram stop sits aloft on the opposite side of the canal.

I’ve ranted on before about black buildings in Manchester. That they may look great in architects’ drawings, but under a Mancunian grey sky they just add to the depression. However, these new office blocks I think actually look OK…

Hello Mrs Goose, sat on your eggs?

The tramline crosses the canal on a new bridge.

The path passes underneath Trafford Road and an impressive swing bridge, unfortunately no longer able to swing open.

Unfortunately this bridge no longer moves, so this is the furthest upstream that ships can now go. Small boats can still pass underneath it though.

Now we’re getting into Salford Quays proper, where an explosion in the number of apartment blocks has been going on for a few years. This is a good thing. Thirty years ago this area was desolate, and now it is being enjoyed again.

Ian Brown once said that “Manchester has everything, except a beach!”. He was wrong…

This little “beach” was once the mooring location of the Salford Docks Fireboat.

A series of concrete blocks in the canal is all that is left here of the Detroit Bridge – a railway swing-bridge that once crossed the canal here. The bridge has now been moved into No 9. Dock, which we’ll meet soon! One of the old concrete islands has been tastefully converted into a garden!

A large old boat has been abandoned here for some reason.

Rounding the corner we arrive officially in what is now called Salford Quays, and which was once Salford docks. It’s funny how the developers change the names of places. I used to live very near Cardiff Docks many years ago. When I moved to Cardiff they were just derelict docks, but then the developers moved in and suddenly it was Cardiff Bay! I guess is sells more apartments!

This used to be Salford Dock No. 6. Now it’s home to smart homes and house boats…

To an initial view, the houses along the north side of the dock are lovely, and the landscaping is really pretty…

…but the whole place just seems soulless to me. It’s very quiet here at the moment due to the virus lockdown, but to be honest it’s always like this around here. There’s just no….. life! Where I live in the city centre, very near the Northern Quarter, it’s quite rundown and dirty, but it’s always buzzing with life and I love it for that. Salford Quays is always advertised as city living, but in reality it’s just another suburbia.

Across the water is what we (City fans) refer to as “The Swamp”.

Now we’re getting into the heart of Salford Quays. In the picture below, the tall cream buildings are apartment blocks, the grey low building in between is the Lowry Outlet Mall, behind which is hidden the Lowry gallery. The angular building to the left of the bridge is the Imperial War Museum North, the copper coloured one is a swanky office block, and the yellow one left of that is the Rank Hovis flour mill.

What was once No. 7 dock is now a watersports centre, with its own lock and lift-bridge…

A pleasant tree-lined avenue now lines the wharf of the old No. 8 dock…

The path passes underneath the new footbridge, the Lowry Millenium Bridge. This is a vertical lift bridge, the deck of which can lift up 18 metres in 3 minutes to let big ships through…

…which brings us to Media City, where the BBC, ITV and many support companies have based themselves, sat on the edge of what was once No. 9 dock, the biggest of the old Salford Docks, on what was once a huge Timber Yard. When the BBC moved many of its departments to Salford form London, many of the BBC staff were very upset about it, and a lot of their managers refused to move. At the time it made me laugh – like we really needed those overpaid luvvies to come north anyway! The BBC probably save a packet by losing those pathetic London-blinkered people and employing grounded northerners in their place anyway!

This old dock is now split in two, with a new road crossing it half way across its length. Deeper into the old dock a huge swing bridge has been placed to allow pedestrians to cross the dock. This is Detroit Bridge, but it wasn’t in this location originally – we have already seen where it used to sit.

In its former life, this was a twin-track railway bridge, one of a number spanning the ship canal. A single-track rail swing bridge at its original site was first built in 1895, but replaced in 1942 by this twin-track version. With the decline of docks the bridge became redundant and in 1988 it was floated to its current location. More information about it can be found on this bridge-fanatic’s site!

Further down the canal is another, beautiful modern footbridge…

Apparently this is an “asymmetric harp-style cable-stay bridge, swinging on a pivot located below the mast”. See here on the bridge enthusiast’s site for details!

Beyond this bridge there are a couple more apartment blocks. On the opposite side of the canal are some old derelict docks. These were dry docks, with lock gates on the front. Once the gates were closed the water was pumped out and any ship within would come to rest on a cradle, where it could be worked on. The lock gates are long gone, but the docks are still present.

Unfortunately that’s as far as you can go along the ship canal, at least in Manchester & Salford. Just out of reach are the Mode Wheel Locks, the last set of locks for ships coming into Manchester, which you can just see in this last picture.

So with that, all I could do was turn around and walk all the way back into Manchester!

This walk was completed on 18th April 2020. It is about 2¾ miles long. Here’s the map:

5 thoughts on “Canals 6: Manchester Ship Canal – Manchester to Salford Quays

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who ‘trespasses’ in places that have been blocked off 🙂 Cute little dog on the 4th graffiti photo and I like the look of the boat boarding point with its fancy canopy. I went on the Coronation Street tour a couple of years ago, never been to Salford Quays before and I thought the area round MediaCity looked quite interesting so it’s a place I intend going back to soon 🙂

    1. I guess the builders would say “health & safety”, but in practice, none whatsoever. The first one there was nothing at there, the second one the builders had used the space to dump a load of their shit there, but there was plenty of room on the land they were building on, and at the third all the paving slabs were missing, leaving the sand beneath them, but still more level than any beach I’ve walked on. Just excuses!

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