on the River Weaver!
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
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 above left.) 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.
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!
Tony Lewery, Preston Brook, Jan. ‘02
Below 2 photos taken in 1978, Gowanburn
on the right. All images © Tony Lewery.