The Run to Runcorn


It was our last permitted day of 7 on the Bridgewater canal, and although we could have continued straight on, onto the Trent and Mersey, we decided to turn right, under a rather unassuming bridge and follow the 5 mile route to Runcorn.

Turning towards Runcorn

You could be forgiven for thinking this was a side arm, but in fact it is the proximity to the Mersey that made Runcorn the significant and profitable end destination to this canal. We suspect very few boaters bother to explore this section if they are traversing north to south, it was very quiet and predominantly rural. We didn’t meet a single boat moving in either direction it’s entire length and back.

Pleasant passage on the bridgewater

Although the quality of the Towpath and the occassional village school meant we didn’t feel cut off from the world.

Merry mural on the school

It took less than 2 hours to reach the official visitor moorings outside the Brindley Theatre, from where we set off to explore this industrial town. Although Ethelfleda established a settlement here in 915 AD, to guard against marauding Vikings, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that Runcorn established itself as place of commercial value. And in 1964 it was designated a “new town” and it doubled in size. It’s not the prettiest of places by any means, but our focus was to see the Mersey crossings and the Manchester ship canal. We walked thought the concrete shopping centre and came across the beach.

Manchester Ship Canal

But this isn’t the sea, it’s actually the ship canal, with the Silver Jubilee bridge in the background. There’s an info board highlighting what can be seen from this view point.

You are here

So of course we wanted to get as close as possible to this awesome structure. For those of you that like facts and figures. Copied from wiki Construction began in 1956, The main arch is 361 yards (330 m) long and each side arch measures 83 yards (76 m). During its construction 720,000 rivets were used. Its height over the river bed is 285 feet (87 m) and the headroom over the ship canal is 80 feet (24 m). During its construction 5,900 tons of steel were used and 7,500 tons of concrete. The bridge requires constant repainting, with each coat using 6,000 imperial gallons (27,300 l) of paint. On the Runcorn side the approach viaducts are 359 yards (328 m) in length, and on the Widnes side 166 yards (152 m). The cost of constructing the bridge was £2,433,000.[18] At the time of its construction it had the third longest steel arch span in the world. It had the longest vehicular span in the country, but this record was held for only a few weeks until the Tamar Bridge was completed. By 2001 it was the 10th longest steel arch bridge, and at that time was just 8 inches (20 cm) short of having Europe’s largest span. It carries over 80000 vehicles a day, 10 times more than it was designed for.

Towering over Runcorn

and to our pleasure, (though not the locals) the bridge is currently closed to road traffic, whilst they upgrade it and add toll booths. We were still able to walk across.

Work in progress

We were only able to see clearly on the east side (towards Manchester) as we first crossed the ship canal, then the wide open mud flats of the Mersey at low tide, with the Fiddlers Ferry power station and industry of Merseyside on the north.

Views east from the silver Jubilee bridge

As we arrived into Widness in Merseyside, we saw the historic Mersey Pub, aka the Snig, where boatmen and women who had to brave rowing across the estuary, were served the local delicacy Snig pie…. made with locally caught eels

The Snig in Widness

When we were able to look West we saw the equally impressive railway bridge which runs parallel to the road bridge

The 19th century rail bridge

And in the distance, about 1.5km east, the Mersey Gateway bridge which opened in 2017

Looking towards the new Mersey Gateway

Having had our fill of bridges for the day we returned to Firecrest. I nipped into the convenient supermarket whilst Eric took Firecrest the remaining ¼ mile to the end of navigation and turning point.

Victoria arm, End or start of the Bridgewater canal

So we could return to Preston Brook and enter it’s tunnel through to the Trent and Mersey.

Preston Brook tunnel

Again as with most of the places we have visited on the Bridgewater canal, I would happily have stayed longer to explore more. But the Anderton boat lift awaits us on the next stage of our adventure.

Bridging the family gap.

Although Eric was born in Yorkshire, his family roots are around this area of Cheshire and, what was formerly, Lancashire. And this week has been very much centred on family, after earlier visits from Tim, Jane and Kevin we were now looking back in time to places where Eric’s predecessors had roamed the streets, and as it turned out also the canals.
We moored up at Stockton Heath which is nestled between the Bridgewater and the Manchester ship canal, with Warrington being on the north side of the MSC.

Lumb Brook aqueduct

We deferred to brother David, who has taken a lot of effort to collate the information about the family. Mum was born in Warrington, sadly her father, died in an industrial accident while she was still at school, but Gran kept the family together by taking a job in the Stockton Heath telephone exchange. Mum was never able to follow her own dream of training to become a teacher as she also took work in the telephone exchange. She used to tell us stories about scurrying to get to work before the swing bridge was opened to let the first boats of the day along the ship canal. She’d be half an hour late and in serious trouble if she got her timing wrong. Eric and I took the opportunity to walk across the bridge and remember her.

Stockon Heath bridge, designed by Edward Leader Williams, same man that designed the Barton Swing Aqueduct, crossed by mum and Gran in the 1930s and ’40s

Eric’s father was also born in Warrington, and he did get chance to complete his education, eventually gaining a doctorate in theology

The Rev Dr Harry, Dad


Although he knew he had a calling to become a Methodist minister, he followed his mentors advice and worked elsewhere before he trained for the ministry. Mum and Dad met and married at (now demolished and rebuilt) Bold street Methodist church in Warrington. I don’t know what it was like then but now Stockton Heath seems quite a trendy place and had the Bridgewater time restrictions allowed we would happily have explored further, we did see a blue plaque, but alas not commemorating Eric’s great achievement’s, it’s where George Formby lived.

We continued cruising through leafy Cheshire, through Daresbury which is where Dads grandparents Willie and Martha Jones had lived on a farm at Newton Bank around 1865 to 1890

Martha and Willie Jones, great grandparents

The weather was against us with strong winds, rain and poor mooring so we weren’t able to explore on foot. But we did go on to Preston Brook because that is where Willie had worked as a canal porter. Now the home of a rather uninspiring Midland chandlers

Midland Chandlers on the site of Dandys wharf with the M60 behind


The info board shows there were several wharfs here, where the Bridgewater shortly joins with the Trent and Mersey Canal or takes a sharp bend under a bridge and continues 5 miles to Runcorn.

From David’s investigations we suspect Willie worked at Norton Wharf just beyond the bend,

Approaching Norton Wharf heading towards Runcorn

which is now a canoe manufacturer and housing development.

I wonder what Willie would have made of this

When Eric and I first decided to move onto the water we had no idea of his great grandfathers past. Around 1890 Willie left the canals and moved to Warrington to become a white lead worker. I think that says something about the hardship of life on the canals that white lead was preferable to coal and cotton. It’s been a strangely surreal time walking the same footpaths and bridges that our family was 150 years ago.

Preston Brook Bridge and the cottages on Willies walk to work

I hope someone will read this in 150 years and feel the same sense of family pride that I do.

(Since my previous post David has sent more information about relatives working in Lymm, which I have added onto that page.)

Lovely Lymm

We had been told that the Bridgewater was a pretty canal, but nothing quite prepared us for lovely Lymm. It seems to be a thing on this canal that you turn a corner or go under a bridge and wham a stunning house on the bank. Lymm didn’t disappoint.

A very des res

It’s a chocolate box village and I hate to think how busy it would be in the “old normal”. We’d picked up Eric’s cousin Jane and her husband Kevin who live in this area for a short cruise and they acted as our tour guides.

Jane, Eric and Kevin

Lymm’s history is fascinating, yet small enough for the local heritage centre to be well worth a visit.
The central gathering point is a mediaeval cross built on a sandstone mound. It’s very similar to the red sandstone used to build Liverpool cathedral. Although I don’t recall seeing stocks outside the cathedral.

Lymm cross


Lymm was here long before the canal, it’s mentioned in the doomsday book. The turnpike road from Warrington to Stockport passed this way, but the industrial revolution and the canal brought many changes to this mainly agricultural community.

Not sure the working canal was quite this tranquil

In the early 1800s the women had a cottage industry as Fustian cutters. For those of you, like me, Fustian is a thick woven cotton/linen cloth that has a cut pile. Generally used for coarse working garments but also includes fine fabrics such as silk velvet. The woven fabric is brought from the mill to the cutters, it is dressed with a stiffener to enable the cutters to work their magic. It’s laid onto a long table where the cutters use special rods and knives to delicately cut the fibres.
The rise of the cotton mill industry demanded a huge workforce and many relocated to the towns to secure a steady, if meagre income, however Lymm being slightly further afield but on the canal route was able to transport cloth to and from Manchester and the cottage industry became the mainstay of Lymms victorian economy. Three story terrace cottages were built where the entire top floor was one long cutting room. Whole families worked as cutters including the men not just the women. The children were given laudanum and alcohol, sold for teething, to keep them passive until the were old enough to learn the trade, around 8 years old. Despite the work being intricate yet very poorly paid many of these families knew of nothing else, it was simply their way of life and was accepted.
However Lymm has other claims to fame, the Fustian industry had largely died out by the early 20th century as the process became mechanicalised. Wright’s of Lymm Ltd became a prominent employer making gold leaf until the 1980s. Wright’s gold leaf is what was used to decorate the gates to Buckingham palace. Not all of Lymm’s trade sparkled so. £30000 a year was made transporting nightsoil to be used as agricultural fertiliser.

Getting rid of rubbish must be one of Lymm’s current day assets as well. If you recall that big black binliner full of cardboard from our solar panel installation that had been sitting in the shower for the past week. Lymm has a dedicated boaters recycling bin. Oh the things that make me happy.

A welcome sight

We enjoyed a whole day in Lymm, Eric went off to visit Kevin’s workshkop. Sponsored by the Methodist church, Kevin runs the Chapel in the Fields project, providing a safe space for creativity and spirituality for the community.


He made us a lovely oak plaque for Firecrest. If we lived locally I’m sure it’s something we would both be actively involved in.

Firecrest

While Eric was being treated to the sights and smells of a woodworkshop I went off for a walk through the woods around Lymm Dam.

Lymm Dam, a pleasant 1.5 mile walk.

Since writing this post, we’ve discovered some more family history. Eric’s great grandfather, Thomas was born in Lymm, he was a labourer and moved to Warrington. Eric’s second great grandfather was Jabez Plinston(1826-1898), both he and his first wife were Fustian cutters. They were married in 1845, and had 2 children, sadly both died before their first birthday. Maria also died aged 26, Jabez remaried and a few generations later along came Eric.

The second leg, Bridgewater Mainline


We pushed on after doing the Barton Swing Aqueduct, as the Bridgewater, skirts through the suburbs, throught Salford past Trafford and the junction at Watersmeeting in Stretford. This is where we effectively leave the Stretford and Leigh branch and the merge onto the Main line. We could have turned left into central Manchester but we’ve had our fill of cities for a while.

Watersmeet of the Strettford and Leigh Branch with the Mainline

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect in this vicinity, it could have been a backwater strewn with barbed wire, litter and graffiti, but apart from watersmeet, it was a surprisingly pretty and interesting journey. Over the river Mersey on the Barfoot aqueduct, which seemed rather tame after the Barton, but just as essential to for our journey.

Barfoot Aqueduct over the Mersey

And although we didn’t try, I’m sure we could have moored up overnight without undue concern. We sailed through Sale, (sorry couldn’t help myself) past a mix of trendy revitalization taking advantage of the waterside. The large Linotype Works at Broadheath is currently being redeveloped although sadly most of its original grandeur has been lost. In its heyday over 10000 people worked here up until the 1960s, making typesetting machinery for the newspaper industry. The company also built 185 houses and recreational amenities for it’s employees along similar lines to what we saw last year in Saltaire.

We moored up just in proper countryside just beyond Altrincham. Not completely isolated because Tim was able to catch a train to join us for a cream tea hug for the first time in 6 months.

Homemade scones and strawberry jam, two of my favourite things

The Barton Swing Aqueduct

Reputed to be one of the 7 wonders of the canal navigation, the Barton Swing aqueduct deserves this accolade. It spans the Manchester ship canal and is still opened regularly. It is the only swing aqueduct in the world.

Looking down to the central island


It was in 1761 when James Brindley built the first navigable aqueduct in England. He created a 3 span brick and stone structure to take the Bridgewater canal over the River Irwell.

The original Barton Aqueduct


Over a hundred years later 1885 the Manchester ship canal company, bought the Bridgewater canal and in order to facilitate the passage of larger vessels into Manchester, realised they would have to demolish this structure and replace it with something taller or something moveable. Edward Leader Williams designed the Barton Swing Aqueduct, which was built by Andrew Handyside and Co 11 years later. It was a huge feat of Victorian civil engineering. The river Irwell had to be diverted during construction and, because of its proximity to the old bridge, they were unable to test that the swing would work until after it’s completion, when they were able to demolish it.

The old aqueduct just before it was demolished in 1893

Fortunately it all went to plan and on 1st January 1894 the new aqueduct was opened and is still in operation today.

Onto the Aqueduct

It is approximately 100m long 2m deep and 5.5m wide, weighs 1500 ton and carries 800 tons of water. It pivots 90°over a purpose built central island.

The views up and down the ship canal are amazing, looking East to central manchester’s city skyline

Looking towards Manchester


And west towards Mersyside and the M60, although this view is dominated in the foreground by the sister, swing road bridge and the central control tower.

Looking towards Merseyside, over the road bridge and towards the M60

Oh boy am I glad I am not responsible for opening and closing this particular swing, it’s a bit heavier than I’m used to. I enjoyed the crossing from the safety of the boat.

Hope it holds

It was originally swung by steam operated hydraulics until 1940 when that system was replaced by electric pumps. The central pivot system consists of a 8.2 m race plate embedded in granite blocks. Sixty-four tapered cast iron rollers sat on top of the race plate, held in position by a spider ring. On top of that an upper race plate supports the aqueduct and its circular gear rack. But its collosal weight caused these rollers to deform.
a hydraulic press was installed in the pivot to help reduce the pressure. When water was admitted it took up to half the weight, but it was still pushing the structure to its limits and by 1927 it had dropped by nearly 10cm
In 1928 the hollow iron rollers were replaced with steel and since then the bridge has dropped by only 2.4mm and the hydraulic press wasn’t needed any more. Sadly the current custodians aren’t paying much attention to the aesthetics and although it is in working order, it’s in need of more than a lick of paint.

Looking back towards Barton

The crossing only took us 5 minutes and I wanted to turn round and do it again.

And we’re on our way to Trafford now.

The original swing aqueduct was built with an elevated suspended towpath 2.5m above the water level. I wonder what the horses thought as they pulled their narrowboat cargo. I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to use it.

Don’t look down

I would have liked to have seen it being swung and although I believe it is opened twice a day, I couldn’t see any information about when.

Onto the Bridgewater canal

Welcome to the Bridgewater

Once you’ve picked up the weekly groceries from the canal side Aldi in Leigh, it’s under the bridge and straight onto the Bridgewater canal. Bye bye Leeds and Liverpool, it’s been home for almost a whole year as we set off from Leeds on 1st August 2019

Bye bye Leeds and Liverpool

The Bridgewater is a little different to other canals because it isn’t managed by CRT, but is still privately owned (currently by the same people that own the Manchester ship canal) Boats that are permenantly on the Bridgewater don’t need a CRT licence, cause they pay their own fee, however, there is a reciprocal agreement that CRT boats are allowed free passage for the period of 7 consecutive days. And they do keep a count (I believe that there is a new system of booking starting later this year) undeterred we set off on the floatiest of canals.

I think this sign at Boothstown is made up of knitted squares

The Bridgewater was one of the earliest commercial canals in England, when Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater realised he could transport the coal from his mines more quickly cheaply and efficiently than by road. The Packet house is a most pleasing sight as you come under the noisy bridges of the M60

Not so pretty

And under the old Worsley Bridge

Now that’s a pretty bridge

And wow, an 18th century black and white mock Tudor ticket office, for canal passengers. And whilst i was looking up it’s history, I noted it was for sale, £375,000, (insert shocked face emoji. ) Then we realised that it was only the narrow timbered section. Still, a home with a nice view. Even if the water is frequently stained orange from the mines residue of iron oxide

The Packet house Worsley

I would have like to have stopped here to explore this pretty village, Milton Keynes might have concrete cows but Worsley has brass ducks but we’d arranged to meet family so pushed on.

The Worsley ducks

It’s always reassuring to have a lighthouse guiding your way when you’re at sea but we weren’t aware of any dangers on the canal at Monton. Why a light house here? “Barnacle” Phil Austin, a canal enthusiast built it in the 1980s, just for fun.

The Monton Lighthouse, Salford

Some structures do serve a purpose though and the Barton Swing Aquaduct is known as one off the seven wonders of the canals. I’ll share more in my next post.

Approaching the Barton Swing aquaduct