The Bridgewater Canal
The Bridgewater Canal is as flat as a pancake.The towpath moves along the edge of the Cheshire Plain, gently crosses the Bollin Valley and overlooks the River Mersey. Within Greater Manchester it passes through pleasant suburbs and crosses the waters of the River Irwell.
A short length passes through some industrial areas which the canal itself stimulated, but even here the towpath is being improved and promoted as being ‘In Brindley’s Footsteps’. The canal is deep, straight and wide and cruising can be pleasant and rapid!
The Leigh Branch connects to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Boothstown. Worsley, an unexpected village of half-timbered houses, green spaces and industrial relics, was the cradle of the modern canal system. By 1774 the Duke of Bridgewater brought coal to the surface by floating it out on the mines’ drainage system and sent it to Manchester in broad beam barges. Two exits from the underground canals of the coal mine can still be seen. Against the left hand cliff face lies a half sunk ‘starvationer’ (boats that carried coal out from the mine).
Castlefields in the centre of Manchester lies at the junction of the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal and the Rochdale Canal. There are restored wharves, fine warehouses and revitalised city centre open spaces, but most impressive are the Victorian cast iron railway viaducts which soar over the basins, most still used by local trains and Metrolink trams. The castle turrets on the far viaduct were an attempt to blend in with the historic nature of the site, controversial even in Victorian times because the railways and canals obliterated a Roman site.
Barton 'Tank' is a mechanical swing aqueduct built in the 1890's to cross the Manchester Ship Canal. The 'tank' can be swung to allow ships to pass on the Ship Canal. It replaced Brindley's stone aqueduct when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed.
Canals were nothing new to the Duke of Bridgewater. He owned several inside his mine in Worsley which had been carting coal to villages nearby for 350 years. He had seen Government financed canals in France (Canal Du Midi: opened 1681) and had been aware of improvements locally, to Weaver River (1732) and Sankey Brook (1757). What was new was his ambition to build an aboveground canal across a valley and carry canal water over river water. Engineering skills were based on knowledge gained from mills powered by wind or water and from quarrying stone or mining slate and coal. They were primitive by today’s standards but our motorway embankments rely on the experience gained when engineers built our railways... and many railway engineers learnt their trade on canals. The Duke’s agent, John Gilbert, was project manager and his engineer was the millwright James Brindley who had already surveyed a canal to extend the Trent upstream from Derby into the Potteries (1758).
Not only did they design the 600 foot long sandstone faced Barton Aqueduct spanning the Mersey and Irwell Navigation on three large arches but they achieved the construction of the first ten miles of a broad canal, including long embankments up to 40 feet high in less than two years.
Allowing for inflation, the Duke first spent his personal fortune and then ran up about £20 million of personal debts on his canal. He borrowed from whoever he could; even his tenants and landowners from whom he purchased land. City financiers were thin on the ground in 1760 and the ‘hair-brained scheme’ was such a novelty no one could tell if it was going to make money or not.
As it turned out the Duke’s canal was joining two fast growing centres of the industrial revolution. Canals were more reliable than rivers and they easily took business from pack horses and carts. Eventually money to repay his debts came from an income variously estimated (correcting for inflation) at between £4 million and £6 million a year. After he died his trustees bought the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, they tripled the carriage rates on both systems and, thereby, made the creation of railways worth the investment.