Merseyside’s towpath to the past: a 20-mile walk along the Industrial Revolution’s first canal

I hadn’t planned my walk along the Sankey Canal to coincide with the axing of HS2 but it happened like that. It was a sunny day. I had been promising myself a hike along the towpath for ages. I grew up in the area and it holds a special place in my affections. As I wandered it struck me that this under-explored waterway was arguably the UK’s first significant development in infrastructure since the Romans built roads. It was built in two years.

Map Sankey

The Sankey Canal connects St Helens with the River Mersey. It was opened in 1757 and subsequently extended to Widnes. Large sailing barges called Mersey flats moved coal from Lancashire to the Cheshire salt-brining towns and to Liverpool. The first canal of the Industrial Revolution built in Great Britain (Northern Ireland’s Newry Canal was earlier), its construction was only permitted because engineer Henry Berry and financier John Ashton duped parliament and other investors into believing it was a “navigation” – a widening of the existing Sankey Brook. But it is a true cut, and prompted the Duke of Bridgewater – the “father of British inland navigation” – to build his own waterway.

Several spurs were built to reach local collieries. I started at one, at Blackbrook, just outside St Helens. There I met Colin Greenall, the chair of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (Scars), who gave me a handy historical walking guide. Colin, who is 79, remembers seeing cargo vessels on the canal when he was a boy.

“It must have been about 1956. I remember being out trainspotting at Winwick and seeing boats going up towards Earlestown with sugar. Then everything changed to road transport and the last boats stopped in 1959.”

He says the society’s chief aim is to create a nature corridor in what is a densely populated and economically deprived area. “We hope we can keep the southern section in water [ie navigable] and develop the rest as a leisure space. But in the long term, there’s nothing to prevent the canal being fully reopened. Even where it’s filled in, nothing has been built along its course.”

A heron on the Sankey Canal.
Birdlife – such as this heron – is flourishing along the Sankey Canal. Photograph: John Hopkins/Alamy

Scars is keen to recruit more volunteers and fundraises to support conservation work along the waterway. It hopes one day to create a fully working canal for leisure crafts.

Then, I was off on my walk; I had 15 miles at least in front of me, but it was going to be flat – the Sankey is not a “summit-level canal” linking valleys. I made a faltering start. From Blackbrook to Earlestown, it’s only three or so miles, but I took a few wrong turns where tangled vegetation appeared to block the path, and ended up on the road. I don’t mind pounding the pavements; I did a lot of roadside walking as a teenager. As it happened, this first section passed near the village of Burtonwood, where I was born and raised. Memories came as fast and intrusively as vehicles. That field, that light, that spirit; the ineffable markers of place. It felt a bit like “beating the bounds”, though I claim no ownership and only a partial sense of belonging.

An image of the Sankey viaduct from 1831.
An image of the Sankey viaduct from 1831. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Things turned rural and totally car-free as I approached the Sankey Viaduct, known hereabouts as “Nine Arches”. Local campaigner Barrie Pennington is leading a bid to secure Unesco world heritage site for this imposing Grade I-listed structure. Built by George Stephenson in 1830 for his epoch-making Liverpool and Manchester railway, it was, as a red plaque reminded me, the “earliest major railway viaduct in the world”. Another red plaque honours the memory of Berry and the canal. They should add a third for the navvies, masons and carpenters who did the hard graft. Nearby is Earlestown railway station, the oldest in operation, close to the site of the world’s first steam railway junction. The St Helens area is full of candidates for world firsts.

Passing farmers and miners must have gaped in awe at the viaduct’s soaring arches as it was built in the late 1820s. They are particularly impressive seen from directly below on the towpath. When it was opened it became a tourist attraction in its own right.

The Sankey Viaduct in Newton le Willows.
The Sankey Viaduct in Newton le Willows. Photograph: Andrew White/Alamy

The canal beyond the viaduct was at times quite beautiful, especially when the sun broke through and warmed the green-gold canopy. It was busy in a good way. I passed coarse fishers, cyclists, dog-walkers, four women on horseback. They were friendly, sometimes chatty; I like south Lancashire people. I suppose I feel at home among them and am biased, but they seem to me a healthy mix of urban and rustic, worldly and humble.

The chaotic, naturally rewilded canal has a lot of birdlife. I saw herons, shags and gulls, coots, hundreds of moorhens, grazing geese, adult swans accompanied by huge grey, moulting cygnets. Dense reed beds provide safety and nesting grounds. The brambles and holly bushes were alive with tits, wrens, robins, blackbirds.

Where the woods retreated, the towpath ran parallel to the west coast mainline – dead quiet due to an Aslef strike – before guiding me under the M62. I caught a glimpse of the Burtonwood logistics hub and its big blue Ikea – the UK’s first, opened in 1987. I also caught my first sight of Fiddlers Ferry power station, my ultimate destination, hazy in the distance.

The Fiddlers Ferry marina.
The Fiddlers Ferry marina. Photograph: Chris Moss/The Guardian

I dipped into the Scars guidebook. It pointed out geeky stuff – where locks, and bascule and swing bridges once stood, traces of old masonry, hidden engineering – but also highlighted surviving historical sites; development has razed most of them. Just after the motorway I came to a cluster of ruinous old buildings, once a bustling maintenance yard, with a pub, lime-kiln and nearby dry dock. A handsome brick building is dated 1841. On either side are a scrapyard and a car park with a sign advising that dogging is against the law.

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As I progressed south the signage was neater, the trail more clearly marked, and littering greatly reduced. Warrington is better off than St Helens. The park areas around the mainly Jacobean Bewsey Old Hall – which can trace its foundations to just after the Norman conquest – had well-tended lawns and new play areas; on the downside, the builders never leave Cheshire’s biggest conurbation alone, and new housing pressed in on all sides. Other towns have greenbelts; Warrington has a redbrick belt.

The canal path and park have been open to the public since 1982. A large information board declares that it is “Part of Mersey Forest, the largest of 12 community forests” in England. About 9m trees have been planted across this large area. When I sat down at a picnic bench to eat lunch, I was bombed by conkers falling from horse chestnut trees. I was within wagging distance of my old secondary school, which is named after the area, Great Sankey. Weirdly, not a single teacher ever mentioned the story of the canal and its role in kickstarting the Industrial Revolution; I’m not sure they namechecked the canal at all.

After a cheese barm (a bread roll local to these parts), I set off again. Much of the next section of towpath was long and linear, but the broad view changed from mellow low-plains bosky to clashing post-industrial and stridently vertical. For, on the far horizon were the eight awesome cooling towers at decommissioned coal-fired Fiddlers Ferry, one of the great landmarks of the north-west. I’m a macro person; I like big things in my landscapes, including human-made ones. Give me a power station over a petal any day.

The towers are scheduled for demolition, starting in early 2024. Flat places need drama; the power station will be missed.

Mersey Gateway Bridge.
Mersey Gateway Bridge. Photograph: Mark Helliwell/Alamy

With a few miles still to go, I decided not to have a pint at the inn. I continued walking, past the marina – dinghies, yachts, skiffs, but no barges – and was dreaming of the bus stop when, at a break in the woodland on my left, I was granted a sublime view of the Mersey, glinting at half-tide – with waders on the mudbanks and gulls offshore – and the two great bridges beyond: the old 1960s “Runcorn Bridge” (the Silver Jubilee Bridge) which I crossed en route to childhood holidays in north Wales; and the sweeping span of the Mersey Gateway, which has deservedly scooped many prestigious awards.

At 15 miles into the walk I crossed the canal at Carter House Swing Bridge and entered Widnes by way of an industrial estate. Completists can do a circuit of Spike Island, famous for its chemical plants and a 1990 Stone Roses gig. But I was done. Until June 1951, I would have jumped aboard the Ditton Dodger on the St Helens and Runcorn Gap railway. But I had to make do with the no 17 bus, which was a milkround service; not tedious at all, as I skirted my mum’s school, and the homes of my dad and late brother. As I said, beating the bounds – but of memory and life and love.

I was not done, though, in fact. From St Helens I walked the section of canal linking the town to Blackbrook. I clocked up 20 miles in the end – far too much for one day. If you want to see the canal, and enjoy it, and have the legs for a walk to a pub afterwards, Sankey Viaduct to Fiddlers Ferry is eight miles and a perfect day out.

But, actually, I wrote this not because I expect or even hope for a rush of psychogeography-minded tourists to the north-west and the canal I grew up near – but never knew about. I wrote it because I think everyone can, and perhaps should, take a short holiday where they come from or reside. Travel on the doorstep, at narrowboat speed – even when some of the water has gone – is the future, as well as the past.

The Scars map is at sankeycanal.co.uk/sankeymap and you can order the Towpath Guide here (£6). OS Explorer’s 275 and 276 cover the route

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