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. The canal is deep, straight and wide and cruising can be pleasant and speedy!

From Preston Brook Tunnel, where it meets the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Bridgewater Canal splits, going left to the terminus at Runcorn where once it descended locks to the River Mersey. To the right the canal heads across pleasant farmland past Norton Priory and the outskirts of Warrington, diving under the M6 high above on the Thelwall viaduct and passing affluent Cheshire villages like Lymn. Approaching the Manchester suburbs it cuts through industrial areas which the canal itself stimulated, but even here the towpath is improved and promoted as being ‘In Brindley’s Footsteps’.

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.

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).

The Duke of Bridgewater owned several canals inside his coalmine in Worsley, had seen canals in France and knew of improvements to the Weaver and Sankey Brook. What was new was his intention to build an canal across a valley and carry canal water over river water. Most existing canals followed, often made use of, an existing river.

Barton 'Tank' across the Manchester Ship Canal.

Key Facts

Broad canal, branches to: Trent and Mersey at Preston Brook, Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Leigh, Manchester Ship Canal at Pomona Lock & Runcorn & Western Canal at Hollins Ferry. 40 miles, 0 locks, 2 days easy cruising

The Duke spent his personal fortune and then ran up about £20 million of personal debts on his canal. But immediately it opened it halved the price of coal in Manchester and then joined two fast growing centres of the industrial revolution. Money to repay his debts came from an income estimated at between £4 million and £6 million a year. He proved that canals were more reliable than rivers and they easily took business from pack horses and carts. Within a few short years there was no shortage of funds to build more canals, canal mania was in full swing!

Canal Ring

The Bridgewater Canal forms part of the Cheshire Ring, with the Ashton & Peak Forest CanalsMacclesfield Canal and Trent & Mersey Canal.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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