LINK­ING THE LOCKS

More than just the name of a restora­tion ini­tia­tive, Link­ing the Locks sums up a way for­ward for the Sankey Canal, with two re­stored locks sep­a­rated by just a few miles...

Canal Boat - - This Month - WORDS & PIC­TURES BY MARTIN LUDGATE

Why the name of this restora­tion ini­tia­tive sums up the a way for­ward for the Sankey Canal

First, a con­fes­sion. I’ve al­ways har­boured some rather un­fairly neg­a­tive feel­ings about the Sankey Canal, along with a hand­ful of other in­dus­trial north­ern restora­tions. It’s not that I don’t want them re­stored – quite the op­po­site – nor that I don’t be­lieve it can be done. It’s just a feel­ing that they’re ‘dif­fi­cult’ ones, with not much orig­i­nal canal sur­viv­ing, and a lot of new con­struc­tion needed.

So hav­ing al­ready ex­plored the en­tire Barns­ley Canal and Manch­ester, Bolton & Bury Canal and found this im­pres­sion to be grossly over-pes­simistic, re­cently it was the turn of the Sankey. And here, too, ex­plo­ration on foot or bike re­veals there’s a lot more canal left than might have been ex­pected for a canal run­ning through a pop­u­lous ex-in­dus­trial area.

So rather than sim­ply chron­i­cling the achieve­ments of the Sankey Canal Restora­tion So­ci­ety (SCARS) and its part­ners in saving the canal, I’ll take you on a tour, start­ing at Spike Is­land, Widnes, where it leaves the Mersey Es­tu­ary. And one of the most im­por­tant

‘achieve­ments’ is the fact that you can get on your bike or put your boots on and ex­plore the en­tire route to St He­lens, now opened up as a trail.

Spike Is­land was a cen­tre of the lo­cal chem­i­cal in­dus­try in what was once de­scribed as “the dirt­i­est, ugli­est and most de­press­ing town in Eng­land”. As that in­dus­try de­clined, it be­came a waste­land, but to­day it’s a pleas­ant park with the canal at its cen­tre. Re­opened with the sup­port of Hal­ton coun­cil, the en­trance lock from the Mersey opens into a short re­stored length with a boat club and use­ful non-tidal moor­ings.

This ends at a low-level foot­bridge, which was once a swing­bridge car­ry­ing the canal’s com­peti­tor the St He­lens & Run­corn Gap Rail­way. Look fur­ther east and you’ll see some larger bridge work un­der way: this is the Mersey Gate­way project, a new road bridge over the Mersey to sup­ple­ment the Run­corn to Widnes bridge. Rather than be­ing a threat to the canal, it’s ac­tu­ally help­ing it: once they’ve built the road bridge, ap­pren­tices work­ing for the con­trac­tors will re­in­state the swing­bridge car­ry­ing the foot­path over the canal.

Leav­ing the Widnes area, in­stead of head­ing north for St He­lens the canal bears east, par­al­lel to the Mersey. This is a clue that what we’re fol­low­ing isn’t the orig­i­nal canal, but an ex­ten­sion. As built (and it was a very early one, open­ing in 1757), the canal par­al­leled the Sankey Brook from St He­lens to where the brook meets the Mersey just south of Sankey Bridges, War­ring­ton. How­ever, it was ex­tended pro­gres­sively to Fi­dlers (or Fid­dlers – the spell­ing varies) Ferry and then to Spike Is­land, to im­prove ac­cess to the tidal river. We’re now fol­low­ing the sec­ond ex­ten­sion.

An­other bridge car­ry­ing a foot­path has al­ready been re­built as a work­ing swing­bridge. In fact, the first real

ob­struc­tion is two miles from Spike Is­land: a large con­crete land drain cuts across the canal. Even that isn’t the prob­lem it might ap­pear: it was built to drain a planned in­dus­trial es­tate never built, so its full ca­pac­ity is un­needed and re­duc­ing its size is an op­tion.

The canal con­tin­ues reed-filled but un­ob­structed (apart from the odd earth dam) past a large power sta­tion, its coal trains keep­ing us com­pany on the freight line that runs along­side the canal.

Ap­proach­ing Fi­dlers Ferry (the canal’s ter­mi­nus be­tween the open­ing of the first and sec­ond ex­ten­sions) we reach our first road cross­ing. This was a rather ba­sic low-level metal span giv­ing ac­cess to lo­cal in­dus­try: just how ba­sic be­came clear when a lorry fell through it a few years ago. This proved a bless­ing in dis­guise (al­beit the lorry driver prob­a­bly didn’t see it that way), in that it pro­vided the im­pe­tus to do some­thing about it. £300,000 from the Gov­ern­ment’s Coastal Com­mu­ni­ties Fund paid for a new deck suit­able for con­ver­sion to a lift­bridge.

And this brings us to Fi­dlers Ferry, where – like at Spike Is­land – the en­trance lock from the Mersey has been re­stored to nav­i­ga­tion. A length is run as a ma­rina and is home to an as­sort­ment of mainly seago­ing and es­tu­ar­ial craft.

As you can guess from its name, the ‘Link­ing the Locks’ project, the cur­rent fo­cus of canal restora­tion ef­forts, aims to deal with the ob­struc­tions that we’ve come across so far, re­con­nect­ing Spike Is­land and Fi­dlers Ferry locks. SCARS be­lieves that it’s em­i­nently achiev­able: yes, there will be dredg­ing (pos­si­bly of con­tam­i­nated silt) needed, but there are so­lu­tions to all the block­ages and a Lottery bid has been sub­mit­ted for clear­ing the reeds – and suit­able canal­side land has been found for re­place­ment reed-beds to keep the na­ture con­ser­va­tion in­ter­ests happy.

But there’s more. The Link­ing the Locks plans ex­tend east of Fi­dlers Ferry, too, to Sankey Bridges. Con­tin­u­ing our walk, we im­me­di­ately see the first se­ri­ous prob­lem: a road pro­vid­ing lo­cal ac­cess (in­clud­ing to the Ferry Tav­ern pub) will need re­plac­ing with a lifting span. But af­ter that, it’s more of what we’ve seen since the start of our jour­ney: a wide, largely un­ob­structed chan­nel, with just a couple of foot­bridge cross­ings – al­beit one of them is ac­com­pa­nied by a pipe cross­ing, whose ex­act use (if any) is un­known. We’ve left the power sta­tion be­hind now, and it’s a pleas­ant length with re­claimed heath and wood­land to the south of the canal. We’ve also gained a fence be­tween tow­path and canal – ap­par­ently an an­gler fell in the wa­ter, and that was the lo­cal author­ity’s an­swer to the prob­lem of banks that are crum­bling in places.

SCARS points out that re­open­ing from Spike Is­land through to Sankey Bridges will open five miles – over one third of the canal – link­ing pop­u­lated ar­eas to the Spike Is­land leisure re­source, pro­vid­ing suit­able sites for trail­boat ral­lies, en­cour­ag­ing vis­it­ing craft, and bring­ing in two lo­cal au­thor­i­ties: Hal­ton Bor­ough and War­ring­ton Bor­ough.

In the longer term, it would also be a spring­board for re­open­ing fur­ther north­wards, seen as the trick­ier lengths to re­store. So let’s con­tinue our walk north from Sankey Bridges – and im­me­di­ately we see what’s meant by ‘trick­ier’. First the freight rail­way that’s been fol­low­ing the canal crosses it with very lit­tle head­room, then so does the busy Old Liver­pool Road. Both were open­ing bridges orig­i­nally (as were most on the canal, which was built for masted sail­ing barges called Mersey flats); how­ever, that won’t be an op­tion to­day.

But cross the road and fol­low the canal north, and we en­ter a par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive length, with the re­stored canal

forming the cen­tre­piece of the pop­u­lar Sankey Val­ley Park for al­most two miles to Bewsey Lock – whose stone cham­ber sur­vives in de­cent con­di­tion.

The next sec­tion is harder to fol­low: SCARS ad­mits to hav­ing pur­sued some­thing of a ‘scat­ter­gun ap­proach’ to restora­tion in ear­lier years, work­ing wher­ever pos­si­ble rather than in a log­i­cal se­quence. The path con­tin­ues, but it isn’t al­ways clear where the canal ran, not helped by a flood scheme which has di­verted the Sankey Brook along part of the canal’s route.

This is fol­lowed by dry or in­filled but recog­nis­able lengths in­clud­ing Hulme and Win­wick Locks, plus a for­mer canal set­tle­ment at Win­wick Quay with re­stored dry­dock and sur­viv­ing wharf build­ing. But there then fol­lows a length where there’s lit­tle to in­di­cate the canal’s route other than the foot­path trail.

Don’t be put off, though: this is fol­lowed by a well re­stored, wa­tered length of well over a mile run­ning through at­trac­tive coun­try to the south west of New­ton-le-Wil­lows, in­clud­ing a re­in­stated swing­bridge and the re­mains of two more locks. An­other in­filled length is fol­lowed by a fur­ther part of the Sankey Val­ley Coun­try Park, two miles of what was once heavy in­dus­try, but is now woods and park­land. The canal’s con­di­tion varies from filled-in to clearly pre­served, with a for­mer basin vis­i­ble to one side, and it cul­mi­nates in Old Dou­ble Locks. Reck­oned to be the coun­try’s old­est stair­case, this has been partly cascaded but its ori­gins are ob­vi­ous.

Above the stair­case was the first of sev­eral junc­tions lead­ing to a num­ber of arms in the St He­lens area. Fol­low the Black­brook line to the right or bear left and take a se­ries of foot­paths by­pass­ing in­filled lengths to con­tinue to­wards the cen­tre of St He­lens, the canal chan­nel reap­pear­ing af­ter the A58 bridge.

An­other arm leads off north as the canal turns south to pass through New Dou­ble Locks (re­stored in the 1990s) and

en­ter the town cen­tre. Al­though there are road block­ages and other se­ri­ous ob­struc­tions, the canal is pre­served as a lo­cal amenity for much of the route to the town ter­mi­nus.

SCARS is un­der no il­lu­sions that it will be an easy job get­ting the canal back to St He­lens. But a walk along the Link­ing the Locks length is a great way of find­ing for your­self that there’s a very achiev­able first step – and a walk along the rest of the route will show you how much more there is wait­ing to be re­stored once that first step has been achieved.

Spike Is­land, once a chem­i­cal waste­land. Above: the first bridge and (in the back­ground) the Mersey Gate­way works which will help to get it re­stored

Re­stored en­trance lock at Fi­dlers Ferry

Re­stored swing­bridge near Spike Is­land

Mi­nor ob­struc­tion near Sankey Bridges

Well-pre­served cham­ber of Bradley Lock

Bewsey Lock awaits restora­tion

At­trac­tive Sankey Val­ley Park sec­tion

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