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The Manchester Ship Canal Cruise journey through the north west's industrial heartland

The Manchester Ship Canal Cruise a journey through the North West's industrial heartland. It may not be as picturesque as the Rhine or as exotic as the Yangtze, but it's a strangely fascinating journey with a nostalgic quality. Mersey Ferries operate the cruise during the summer months.

The Manchester Ship Canal Cruise is operated by Mersey Ferries using a celebrated "ferriy 'cross the Mersey", in this case a ferry up and parallel to the Mersey. You can take the cruise either from Salford Quays two miles west of Manchester city centre to the Pier Head in Liverpool, or vice versa. We'll travel from the Pier Head.

After giving in our tickets, we board the small ship that usually travels no further than Seacombe and Woodside, around half a mile across the Mersey. Today the vessel will travel some 35 miles inland, from the mouth of the Mersey within sight of the Pennines.

As the safety announcements come over the PA, the vessel moves away from the celebrated waterfront overlooked by Liverpool's celebrated trio of buildings. Then, a local tour guide takes over, giving a continuous and very well-informed commentary. Now we head in a south easterly direction up the Mersey.

Soon we pass the site of the famous Cammell Laird shipyards. In 2006 the words 'Birkenhead Ship Repair' overlook the choppy waters of the Mersey.

Next to it is the steeple of Birkenhead Priory, site of an ancient church. Today only a steeple and part of the walls of the 19th century church remain. There's a museum and visitors centre.

Before long we are entering Eastham Locks, gateway to the Manchester Ship Canal.

As the lock opens, our ship moves into the canal heading towards Ellesmere Port. Our ferry is dwarfed by the tankers moored along the canal on the right.

Soon we pass Ellesmere Port, with its boat museum.

The beauty of industry

The canal curves around to the left, taking us past Stanlow Oil Refinery. Hardly the Pyramids or Taj Mahal, but the Stanlow Manufacturing Complex is an impressive sight with its strangely-shaped towers, chimneys and paraphernalia of chemical production. It was an inspiration for songwriter Andy McCluskey as well as designer Peter Saville.

You'll see a number of tankers which serve Stanlow. This stretch of the Manchester Ship Canal is still very well used.

The canal skirts the southern bank of the Mersey Estuary, and takes a bend to the left at the River Weaver, continuing past Runcorn Chemical Works, another eye-catching sight, though not pretty by conventional standards.

This is a major theme of the Ship Canal Cruise: the strange beauty of industrial sites, both new and old.

There are however some picture post card views, and one of them is the Runcorn Widnes bridge, opened in 1962. It's of similar design to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and one of the most impressive in the UK.

The older railway bridge is just before it, and just after can be seen the remains of the remarkable transporter bridge, taken down in the early 60s after the Runcorn Bridge was completed.

Over to the left is Spike Island, home of the British chemical industry, though it is mostly a nature reserve now.

On the right are the old wharves of Runcorn and look out for a church seemingly caught in the middle.

The cooling towers, power hall and electricity pylons of Fiddlers Ferry power station dominate the scene to the north.

Now the canal continues in a straight line, cut through the rock by navvies in the late 19th century. The canal opened in 1894.

The canal passes under several railway bridges, each of which had to be built to allow trains to pass over the water, each an angle to the canal, playing tricks with perspective.

There is also as succession of swing bridges all of similar design. Each in turn they obediently swing to one side to allow the ship to pass.

Lancashire Cheshire boundary

We are now in the town of Warrington.

Many people will be unaware that it is historically in Lancashire. It used to be part of the Cheshire County Council area, but is now a unitary authority, squeezed in between the Merseyside subregion to the west, Greater Manchester to the north and east, and the Cheshire County Council area to the south.

The centuries-old Lancashire Cheshire county boundary passes along the line of the river Mersey, whose path meanders through the town centre.

The canal was built in a straight line to the south of Warrington, leaving sections of the Mersey isolated stretches of water. In the thirties, the Lancashire Cheshire boundary was realigned with the canal. Upheaval came in 1974 with local government reorganisation, but it's still important to remember that the original path of the Lancashire-Cheshire boundary continues to run along the Mersey, including the isolated sections in Warrington.

One of the most impressive sights is the view of several bridges along the straight line of the canal, ending at Latchford Locks, where the ship makes its second stop.

Once out of the lock it's full steam ahead - or should that be 'full diesel aheadl' - as we near the Thelwall Viaduct, carrying the M6 motorway.

Now we seem to have left industry behind, and there are fields and greenery on all sides.

Soon another railway bridge slips into view, it's Cadishead Bridge, sadly disused and neglected. For me, it's a fascinating and beautiful monument to 19th century industry, but for others it's just something to vandalise or spray graffiti on.

The canal curves a little to the left towards Irlam railway bridge. This bridge is well used and has benefited from major renovation. On the right is where the River Mersey flows into the canal. We are now leaving the Lancashire Cheshire boundary which continues on up the Mersey towards Stockport

Just beyond Irlam Bridge are Irlam Locks. As at Latchford, it's possible for pedestrians to cross here, but not traffic.

The canal continues in a very gentle curve to the right, now marking the boundary between the City of Salford and the Borough of Trafford.

Now we are approaching the Barton motorway bridge. The original bridge was constructed in the fifties and helped to usher in the motorway era. The motorway began as the M62, then it was redesignated the M63 and by 2000 it was the M60, Manchester's orbital motorway.

Time flies

It's a short distance to Barton where there are two swing bridges. One is a road bridge linking west Eccles with the west of Trafford Park and the Trafford Centre. The other swing bridge carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal. It can swing to one side whilst holding a canal boat and the water supporting it.

This spot was immortalised in a scene from the film A Taste of Honey, made in 1961.

At Eccles there is a lift bridge of recent construction linking the town with Trafford Park.

Now there is just one more lock to go and we are entering Salford Quays. In a few years, Media City will appear on the left. On the right is the sole remaining dock in the former Manchester Docks. It is occasionally used for ship maintenance. Up ahead on the Trafford or Stretford side is the Imperial War Museum, and on the Salford side, the Lowry, both linked by the Millennium footbridge.

Soon the ship has moored on the Salford side, in front of the Lowry galleria shopping centre, and just within sight of Manchester town hall clock tower, now dwarfed by the Hilton or Beetham tower. Our journey is at an end.

The cruise has taken around six hours, but how time flies when there are so many things to see, more than you'd expect on a journey through a mostly industrial region. Waiting near the ship is a bus which will take around 50 minutes to take passengers back along the M62 to Liverpool. Travel times have reduced, but there are some journeys still worth making time for, and the Manchester Ship Canal cruise is definitely one of them.

More info at www.mersey-ferries.co.uk.

Written from memory on the Norfolk Line ferry 'Maersk Dover' crossing the Channel, 21 August 2007. More previously unpublished photos from 2001 to be added.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-08-21

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