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...
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