Wrecks on the River Weaver!

River Weaver, Sutton Level locks, mersey flats, Gowanburn, Daresbury

The first seriously hard frosts of the winter hit the River Weaver in Cheshire over the Christmas period, shrivelling back the last of the old year’s greenery to reveal more of the bare bones of the navigation again.

As the leaves drop and the rushes die back the historic boat enthusiast has the chance to see the dignified remnants of many old working boat wrecks emerge into view once more at Sutton Level Locks, half a mile upriver from Frodsham swing bridge. These paired locks had double sets of gates to control the tidal flow up from the Mersey is well as the downhill water from the navigation level above it. After the building of the Manchester Ship Canal across the entrance to the Weaver, the lower water level became much more controlled and Sutton Locks became virtually redundant. They stood open both ways for most of the time, an awkward anachronistic constriction to traffic. In the 1950s a new deep cutting by-passed them altogether and the locks and their approach waterways became a boat graveyard, the last resting place for dozens of redundant carrying craft as canal and river traffic dwindled. Today the steadily diminishing remains have a romantic beauty as well as a poignant sadness for what we’ve lost.

Dredgings have now been dumped over many of the up- river wrecks and it is possible to walk out from the towpath to the island on the offside of the locks, created when the by-pass navigation was cut. Well, perhaps ‘walk’ is something of an exaggeration. One takes a bearing on the sun, and sets out in the general direction of the river, forcing a passage step by soggy step through the forest of eight foot high rushes that have colonised the mud. Bits of boat suddenly appear underfoot, a timberhead, some oak planking. A massive rudderpost confronts us, the helm of the Gowanburn still majestically upright in the reeds though her deck has collapsed down to ground level. (Rudderpost right.) Some scraping away of dead vegetation reveals her name still clear cut into the top plank of the hull. Into the open and on to the island, and the view back over the enclosed lagoon full of wrecks is still impressive, even as they rot progressively out of sight as the years pass. There are Mersey flats and Weaver barges, an old bottom-opening dredging hopper and lots of narrow boats, many of them the ‘water-cress beds’ of the Mersey-Weaver company, all old and leaky when they were taken over by British Waterways in the 1950s. And of course, the smaller lock still contains the recognisable remains of the Daresbury, the very last transom-sterned River Weaver sailing flat, with a hull that dates back to 1772. Yes, 1772! If there is ever a place that ought to be designated as a waterways heritage site, this is surely it.

As the modern intrepid explorer pushes through tough thorn bushes, constantly tripped by tangles of brambles and briars it is quite difficult to believe that this was a busy navigation so recently. It feels more like an Amazon expedition, rediscovering the massive remains of some ancient lost civilisation in the jungle rather than an English country walk in winter sunshine. However, there is still unsullied evidence here, still un-whitewashed by the heritage industry but do make the most of it. Romantic decay is transient, and if nature doesn’t take it away slowly some thrusting entrepreneur will suddenly turn it into a marina. Be warned!

2 photos below right taken in 1978, Gowanburn on the far right. All images Tony Lewery.
Tony Lewery, Preston Brook, Jan. ‘02

weaver barge
rudder post
mersey flat sutton level locks gowanburn


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