This article, accompanied by photos from my archive, was featured in the Manchester Evening News in late March 2015.
The Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Amazon, the Irwell. It doesn’t sound quite right but today at least the river that flows through “regional centre”, as it’s officially called, is cleaner and more attractive than it has ever been over the past couple of centuries.
The Irwell rises to the north east of Bacup in Lancashire, and meanders south through Bury turning west, then east and on to the city centre where it forms the boundary between the City of Manchester and the City of Salford. Just half a mile further on, the River Irwell becomes the Manchester Ship Canal. The Mersey flows into the canal near Irlam to the west of Manchester.
Like many rivers, the origin of the name is not certain, but I’ve read that the name Irwell has Germanic roots – ‘irre’ meaning crazy or meandering and ‘welle’ wave or stream. Some learners of English have a problem pronouncing it, making the first syllable rhyme with ‘ear’. But it should be ‘er’, as in dirty, a good word to describe how the Irwell used to be.
During the Industrial Revolution, the Irwell became murky, badly polluted and lifeless due to the poisons and waste that were emptied into the river. In the centre of the town the squalid buildings and factories faced away from the river. In the 19th century, a local resident saved over 50 people from drowning. He is commemorated in the name of a city centre pub on the Salford of the Irwell – the Mark Addy.
It’s important to note that sailing ships used the River Irwell long before the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894. That’s why there’s a sailing ship in the City of Manchester’a coat of arms. The three stripes represent the three rivers that help to define the shape of the city – the Medlock, the Irk and the Irwell.
In the late 19th century the Manchester Ship Canal transformed the Irwell and the Mersey into a deep channel, allowing ocean-going ships to make their way from the mouth of the Mersey near Liverpool to the Manchester Docks around 35 miles inland. The Docks – actually located in Salford – were once one of the busiest ports in the UK.
Upstream, flooding used to be a problem but in the post war years, the situation improved thanks to the construction of flood defences including raised banks. Near Strangeways, close to the city centre, a sharp elbow in the river was straightened out. The project was called the Anaconda Cut. It’s one of the most remarkable but least known engineering achievements in northern England.
In recent years, the river has been cleaned up, newly built hotels and apartments now face onto the river and three new footbridges link both both sides. There’s a walkway, part of it on the Salford side and part of it on the Manchester side. It wasn’t possible to create quays on both sides of the river, as in Dublin or Paris, but the look of the river is much improved.
Now we can take visitors to the Irwell rather than keeping them away from it. The river is now photogenic in a way it never used to be. There are interesting views up the river towards the Cathedral or down towards the the Ship Canal. A tour boat has operated in the summer months between the city centre and Salford Quays but unfortunately few boats use the river, unlike the Thames in London.
At least there are plenty of fish, geese and other wildlife on the Irwell and they can be seen right in the heart of the city.
We may never be able to use the adjectives ‘magnificent’, ‘spellbinding’ or ‘romantic’ about the River Irwell, but at least we can say that it’s ‘presentable’!