Sunday 12 February 2023
On a couple of winter walks, I find that the canals and railways of yesteryear still provide fantastic places for us to use in 2023.
These are our waters.
The boater, navigating
veins that have pumped
through this network
for a quarter of a century,
veins that fed an industrial revolution
Canals, from the 18th century, the transport backbone of Britain’s flourishing industrial economy, have an enthusiastic following. For some, they are a living monument to science and technology and the engineers who overcame geographical obstacles using bridges, tunnels, and locks. For others, an equally evocative social history as, from the mid 1800s boatmen’s families chose to live on their narrow boats and the canals became a way of life. And for many, just a lovely place to wander.
Who doesn’t remember the iconic scenes of Birmingham’s canals in Peaky Blinders? Well the north west has them too. (In fact, some of the Peaky canal scenes were actually filmed in Manchester!) But I digress, Let me tell you of a recent walk along the Bridgewater canal.
This stretch of water represents the first entirely artificial canal in Britain, its construction mainly financed by Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater, to haul coal from his mines to the growing industrial city of Manchester. And today, what makes it such a special walk is that sense of history. Yes, drop down onto the towpath and, whilst there has been some regeneration to promote the area as a leisure destination for walkers and cyclists, it is the same canal. The same meandering waterway that boats travelled as early as the 1700s.
It is peaceful and still today and, whilst it may stretch10km in length (30 km after its extension to Liverpool in 1776), evokes a sense of never-ending calmness. Moving at the pace of nature but moving with purpose nonetheless. For canals can still take us on a journey; the landscape changing from residential areas to beautiful woodland and country side as they link towns and cities. Today – that’s a cafe in Boothstown for a welcome coffee, before wending our way back via the network of bridges, pathways and tunnels.
Another day another walk, and nestled in the city centre, near Piccadilly station, we discover Depot Mayfield, a multi-use space for arts, music, industry and culture built on the site of Manchester’s historic former railway station. It is quirky, creative and very cool!
And so to the railways…
These are our waters.
The railway man saw them as a threat
and wedded together steel and waters,
only later to leave them tired and disused
while they told their grand stories of a new age
and left the waters in the shadows.
The age of steam and the rise of the railways was indeed to take over from the canals. Very much like their watery predecessors, the tracks and stations of our rail network, continue to showcase groundbreaking technology and the many impressive structures that transformed Victorian Britain.
In my fanciful heart however, rail travel is also synonymous with adventure and freedom, the chance to ‘see the world’, and expand horizons. Trains took the ‘Railway Children‘ to their new life and and formed the back drop to David Lean’s classic romance ‘A Brief Encounter‘. The Flying Scotsman, the celebrity of the LNER line, was to reduce journey times between London and Scotland to 8 hours and become a household name. Like many, I strapped a rucksack onto my back in the mid 80s and , clutching a railcard, set out to travel Europe and interrailing trips remain rites of independence passage for young people. today And … well let’s stop before I find myself talking about Michael Portillo!
Instead, I’ll return to Depot Mayfield. Opened in 1910, Mayfield was constructed as a four-platform relief station adjacent to Piccadilly to alleviate overcrowding. In 1960, the station was closed to passengers and, in 1986, it was permanently closed to all services and gained its ‘depot’ title from its having use as a Royal Mail parcels depot. Move forward to today and the outside area has be regenerated with places to sit, to muse and to play. It is all designed to reflect the industrial heritage of the site and is just a terrific space for the city. On our visit, the indoor area is closed but houses many vibrant and popular new eateries and cultural venues. Perfect for my home town; modern forward looking, whilst a celebration of our proud tradition as an industrial heartland.
So, I know I am biased, but how amazing are our industrial cities? The symbiosis of the new, the vibrant modern culture with a rich and dynamic history. There is always something new to find. Greats of the Industrial Revolution become great places to explore today, you just sometimes need to take the time to look with a fresh pair of eyes …