GREETINGS FROM THE MANCHESTER SHIP CANAL CRUISE, which I took on Sunday from Salford Quays to the Pier Head Liverpool. I expected it to be fairly interesting, but thought that perhaps the six hours would drag. In fact it was one of the best day trips I've ever been on, and the time flew. I'm now a fully-converted Ship Canal fan, ready to sign up to the website and buy the T-shirt.
It was a fascinating journey through north west England's industrial heartland, and many rural stretches in between, following the old Lancshire and Cheshire border, taking us past factories, fields, houses, rivers, wharves, chemical works, and out into the wide open spaces of the Mersey estuary.
But it was also a journey through time, passing through locks and under bridges mostly unchanged since they were built over 100 years ago, as well as the two motorway viaducts built in our own era. We had a chance to marvel at the engineering expertise and sheer audacity of our city forefathers for conceiving, financing, building and in 1894 finally opening the Manchester Ship Canal, bringing ocean-going ships - and consequent trade and prosperity - right into the heart of the city. We can barely imagine the hardship endured by the army of navvies who dug the canal, unaided by mechanical diggers and unprotected by hard hats.
I remember my first visit to the Manchester Ship Canal in 1966 when I was 8 years old. My mother took me to see the Royal Navy submarine "Grampus", which was on a visit to the Docks. We walked down Trafford Wharf and queued up to see the inside of the sub. I remember the narrow hatches, steep metal steps, the claustrophobic interior, the smell of fuel oil, the bunks, the girlie pics on the wall... Two records were in the air at the time - "The Green Green Grass of Home" by Tom Jones and "The Last Waltz" by Engelbert Humperdinck. Another weepie that springs to mind, this one with a maritime theme, was the Joe Meek-produced "They Called the Wind Maria." After dark, I loved the sight of ships in the Docks, the reflections of the porthole lights in the water - I'd already been on plenty of ships travelling to and from Ireland. I wondered why we couldn't take the ship all the way from Manchester to Dublin, saving the steam train journey from Victoria Station to distant Holyhead.
THIRTY-THREE YEARS LATER, the Docks have gone, transformed into the futuristic glass and steel waterworld of Salford Quays. But some ships are still there, including a Royal Navy vessel, the wooden-hulled minesweeper HMS Bronington. It's moored on Trafford Wharf, close to where "Grampus" tied up, and just near the offices of Peel Holdings, owners of the Ship Canal and the Trafford Centre. Further down Trafford Wharf you'll still catch sight of funnels, masts and superstructures at a yard which refurbishes smaller vessels, and on certain weekdays and weekends through the summer months, you'll see the red and black funnel and friendly oval contours of the Mersey Ferries MS Mountwood, which was to take us on our 41 and a half mile trip from Salford Quays to the Pier Head. The vessel departed at 9.30 am carrying a full complement of day trippers from Liverpool, Manchester and other parts of the UK and beyond.
Soon, I'll be posting a virtual tour of our trip along the Canal, with the best of the 150 photos I took and comments on each of the photos. Here I've summarised the main sights on the cruise, using information given by Merseyside-based Blue Badge tour guide Brian King, who sat on the bridge and gave us an excellent running commentary over the tannoy.
BRIDGES old and new are a major point of interest along the Canal. The very first is also the newest - the footbridge from Trafford Park to Salford Quays completed this year but not yet open, linking the Imperial War Museum site and the Lowry Centre. It's a lift bridge, like the Centenary Bridge, opened in 1994, further down the canal.
Two motorway bridges cross the canal - Barton Bridge carrying the M60 (formerly M63) and the Thelwall viaduct near Warrington which carries the M6. The high level railway bridges are a sombre, but visually arresting symbol of late 19th century civil engineering - sadly two of them are no longer in use.
| The succession of swing bridges are a graceful
sight, as they turn through 90 degrees to allow ships to pass. The Meccano-like
high level road bridges are another example of late Victorian bridge-building.
One of the most remarkable structures is the one carrying the Bridgewater
Canal - a metal replacement for an earlier stone bridge over the former
River Irwell. Near the bottom end of the Canal, Runcorn Bridge, similar
to Sydney Harbour Bridge but smaller, replaced the old transporter bridge.
INDUSTRY IS MUCH IN EVIDENCE right along the canal - the food manufacturing plant at Trafford Park, the chemical works at Carrington and Runcorn, the massive oil refinery at Stanlow, as well as scrapyards, ship repair yards, old harbours and disused wharves. An interesting feature beyond Warrington to the south the concrete tower of Daresbury Laboratories, the sub atomic particle research facility opened in 1962, and currently facing an uncertain future (a friend of mine works there - see the website: http://www.diamond.freewire.co.uk).
Further down to the north, across the Mersey, is the outline of the gargantuan Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. The Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port is an interesting place to visit, though we'll have to leave it till another day as our boat doesn't dock anywhere along the route.
LOCKS PUNCTUATE THE JOURNEY from Manchester to the sea, allowing pause for thought as the vessel drops from higher to lower water levels. The process takes about 20 minutes or so at each of the five locks. A team of Ship Canal lock-keepers accompanies us by car, driving from lock to lock, opening and closing the sluices and lock gates.
The locks are a powerful design feature of the Canal, with their ultra-modern equipment and fittings - well, at least by the standards if 1894 - for handling ocean-going vessels. As the water level drops, the wet brick wall of the lock rises a couple of feet away from the edge of the deck - passengers are advised to take care not to get their hands caught.
At Irlam locks, stark, grey clouds hung over us, and a heavy downpour pelted the deck and quayside with raindrops, darkening the scene almost to night, and causing some of the quayside lights to come on. As I stood out in the rain, for a split-second I imagined I was transported to days gone by, and standing on the bridge of merchant vessel soon to embark on its trip across the ocean.
SHIPS ARE NOT AS FREQUENT as they used to be, but it's important to note that the lower sections of the canal are in regular use by oil tankers going to and from the Stanlow oil refinery. Larger tankers also use the Queen Elizabeth Dock, constructed in the 1950's next to the Ship Canal entrance.
Further up the Canal, we passed the WS Severn, a dredging vessel I photographed earlier this year at Irlam. We also saw several oil tankers, and passed the Wicklow ..., which carries maize from Bordeaux to the Cerestar food processing plant at Salford Quays. The crew waved at us as we passed, surpised perhaps at the sight of a boatload of tourists on the normally workaday canal.
THIS BRINGS ME TO A CENTRAL ISSUE OF THE SHIP CANAL CRUISE, and a reason
perhaps why more people don't come on it. Mention "cruise"
and people think of the Med, Florida or the Danube - the idea of going
for a cruise along the murky old Manchester Ship Canal would seem less
than attractive. But the fact is that, though less regal than the upper
reaches of the Thames and, with fewer fairy tale castles than the Rhine,
the Manchester Ship Canal in fact offers a fascinating and ever changing
environment, with lots of things to see.
Industrial plants - even the scrap yards - are just as important and visually interesting as hillside vineyards, and those railway bridges are in my opinion, just as impressive as medieval castles. As for regal connections, Prince Charles was captain of HMS Bronington, and if Peel Holdings, owners of the Ship Canal, had been successful in their recent bid, the Royal Yacht would have found its final home moored on the Ship Canal near the Trafford Centre.
Much of what you see on the Manchester Ship Canal is industrial heritage - and as we pass the marker into the 21st century, people are finding the factories and railway bridges of 19th and 20th centuries increasingly as interesting as the palaces and castles of the 18th and before. But there's another thing you'll see which you might not expect...
NATURE IS EVERYWHERE to be seen along the canal, particularly bird life. Nearly 20 species of birds have been spotted during this summer, we were told. Along the canal we saw ducks, swans, canada geese and herons, proof that the water is getting cleaner, though it may be some time yet before we see shoals of dolphins and flying fish accompanying our passage.
In the rural areas of the cruise, you'll see tree-covered hills and green fields with herds of cows. And on the Mersey estuary, the outer bank of the canal forms a long, narrow island, occupied only by sheep. They're inaccessible to unwelcome human visitors such as sheep rustlers, and can only be brought on and off by the farmer, using a "sheep ferry".
THE FINAL LOCK IS AT EASTHAM, on the Wirral, taking us out onto the wide River Mersey, for the final six miles to the Pier Head. There are one or two ships around, but not many. To our left, we see Cammel Laird Ship Yards, but as our tour guide tells us, they're not actually not Cammel Laird but are now owned by another company. Ships are only repaired, not built here, or anywhere else on the Mersey.
Time to lament, perhaps, the passing of Liverpool's maritime importance, until we realise that actually, Liverpool is one of the most successful ports in the United Kingdom. Most of the activity takes place in the northern docks, accessible to the giant-sized container ships that comprise today's merchant fleet. They arrive on the high tide, are unloaded and loaded by a small team of dockers, and leave 24 hours later on the next high tide. It was containerisation and the economies of scale which, in the 1960's and 70's, made the Ship Canal obsolete as a major artery for trade.
| IT'S NOW NEARLY 3.30pm, and as we approach
the familiar and majestic sight of Liverpool's Pier Head, I'm glad to
have had the privilege of sailing right the way from the heart of Greater
Manchester to the heart of Merseyside, and hope to repeat the journey
in the other direction next year.
If you're interested in going on the Manchester Ship Canal Cruise, - and I recommend it as a five star attraction - contact Mersey Ferries on 0151 330 1453. Cruises go from Liverpool to Salford Quays, and back the next day, and run from May to September. You can book and pay for your ticket over the phone. Summer 1999 price was £22, including bus back to your point of departure.
THE SECOND RUNWAY is, it's said, the contemporary equivalent to the Manchester Ship Canal, bringing trade, tourists and, we're assured, economic prosperity to the Manchester conurbation. The so-called eco-warriors, or environmental protesters, will tell you that the second runway is unnecessary and a cause of pollution. Whatever about that, the last of them are this week being removed from a site near Quarry Bank Mill, just outside the perimeter fence, where trees will have to be cut back in order to comply with aviation safety regulations.
The protesters are refusing to come out in order to cause the maximum inconvenience and cost to the developers, thereby furthering the cause of environmental protection. The man charged with enforcing the eviction order, Randall Hibbert, Under-Sheriff of Cheshire, told BBC Northwest Tonight that even though plants would have to be damaged to ensure their safe removal from the site, the protesters were still refusing to come out voluntarily. I wonder what the Ship Canal engineers would have done if there had been environmental protesters in the 1890's. Here's a photo (above right) I took over two years ago now.
AN AIRTOURS BOEING 757 en route from Glasgow to Tenerife had to divert to Manchester after the captain reported engine problems. It was a normal landing until the plane came to a halt, and the undercarriage brakes seized. The runway was blocked, closing the airport for nearly two hours. There have been quite a few incidents at Manchester Airport recently involving undercarriage problems. Not so long ago, I photographed this Airtours Airbus being towed back to the Terminal after suffering some type of mechanical failure after landing.
THE AIRPORT GOT ANOTHER BOOST THIS WEEK with the announcement of the go-ahead for new support facilities. They'll be built inside the existing perimeter, and will certainly increase traffic in and out of the Airport. Transport links are to be developed, including the construction of another Metrolink line.
TALKING OF METROLINK, an appeal is currently being made to central government for funds to enable the construction, in one single "big bang" expansion, of new Metrolink lines to Ashton, Oldham, the Airport and now Stockport.
The new Metrolink line to Eccles is nearing completion - it runs across Salford Quays, over bridges and along quaysides where not so long ago, ships were unloaded. In the near future, theatre-goers and art lovers will be disembarking from trams at a new Metrolink station to be built near the Lowry Centre.
Personally I hope that soon, regular water buses, just like on the River Thames, will be bringing people from Manchester City Centre, from the Trafford Centre, and maybe as far away as Liverpool. Keep visiting Eyewitness in Manchester and I'll keep you posted.
THE WEATHER been cold and wet all through this week, with rain yesterday and rain and storms today. Temperatures are beginning to fall from the 16 degrees celsius, 61 fahrenheit we had a couple of days ago.
I'll finish with this beautifully grey and dismal image of Irlam locks, taken during a downpour during the trip last Sunday.
THIS UPDATE POSTED THURSDAY 30 SEPTEMBER 1999 11pm BST
For more information about the Manchester Ship Canal Cruise, see the official Mersey Ferries website at www.merseyferries.co.uk