By Nick Coleman
In an earlier article for OLV regarding the Sankey (or St Helens) Canal, England’s first, we gave the history of this waterway with some photographs of the Earlestown/Newton section as it existed in 1968, together with some pictures showing the same locations today. But what state is the canal in now? What is its future and what plans, if any, are there for restoration works? Well sections in water still exist, many of them very pleasant spots, attractive wildlife corridors used by anglers, walkers and cyclists and where children are taken to feed the ducks and swans. Equally some sections were used for landfill rubbish in the 1970s and in parts all evidence of the waterway has disappeared completely. At other locations the canal is completely choked with reeds and has become one long reedbed.
One remainder, however, which does fortunately still exist, is the complete towpath route from Spike Island at Widnes to central St Helens, together with short branches off to Blackbrook and other St Helens locations and which is a public right of way. This can be walked or cycled, a distance of around 16 miles from Widnes to central St Helens.
Unlike most of the country’s other canals which are the responsibility of The Canal And River Trust (formerly British Waterways), the Sankey is the responsibility of the three local authorities through which it passes, St Helens, Warrington and Halton (another exception is the Bridgewater Canal from Runcorn to Manchester, with a branch off to Leigh, which is privately owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, which is in turn owned by Salford Quays based developer Peel Group).
Here we give you a tour and photographic essay along the canal from Widnes to St Helens via Warrington, Winwick, Newton, Earlestown and Haydock. We hope you find it interesting.
Today there are marinas with boats moored along short stretches of the canal at Spike Island, Widnes and Fiddler’s Ferry, Warrington. There are functioning locks at both locations giving access to and from the River Mersey but the canal itself is no longer navigable between these two points, a distance of around 3 1/2 miles. The locks at Widnes are badly in need of repair to function properly and some mud dredging is also required. A grant of £32,250 has however now been obtained to carry out the necessary work.
There is a section still in water from Spike Island almost as far as Fiddler’s Ferry power station but then the waterway is choked with reeds up to the Fiddler’s Ferry marina. There are also fixed bridges and a short length dammed off for a culvert, which prevent navigation. With no major roads crossed however this is the easiest and most convenient section for restoration and that indeed is where works are currently scheduled with what is known as the Sankey Interlocks or Linking the Locks project. The aim (with lottery funding) is to restore this section to navigation over the next three years via a joint project between Halton and Warrington Councils and the charitable organization the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (SCARS).
As a part of the Linking the Locks project the contractor for the new Mersey Gateway bridge has agreed to replace the fixed bridge to Spike Island with a swing bridge, like that at Carter House, and the task will be given to their apprentices as a suitable project.
Railways once crossed here and it’s difficult to imagine today Spike Island as a hive of industrial activity covered in railway sidings whilst Gossage’s soap works, second only to Port Sunlight, occupied a vast area along the canal bank here. Adjacent to Spike Island is Catalyst, the museum of the chemical industry, which became such an important aspect of the development of Widnes and Runcorn whilst the building itself once formed a part of the soap factory.
At Fiddler’s Ferry, the first sailing club was established in 1904 and some houseboats are said to have appeared here in the 1930s. A long gone railway station on the track which runs parallel to the canal, opened in 1853 by the St Helens Canal and Railway Company, brought visitors from Warrington for a day out, with picnics, or refreshment at the Ferry Tavern, the last passengers arriving and departing in 1965.
It should however be noted that the towpath of part of the route from Spike Island to Fiddler’s Ferry is currently closed between Spike Island and Carter House bridge, where a track into Widnes crosses the canal, whilst construction work takes place on the new Mersey Gateway bridge. This will be another road link between Widnes and Runcorn crossing the Sankey Canal, River Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal. A signposted and rather unattractive diversion is currently in place. Carter House bridge itself had to be replaced in 2009 and the fixed structure was replaced by a fully functioning swing bridge in anticipation of the waterway’s reopening.
Between the canal and the River Mersey is the Widnes Warth Nature Reserve with its saltmarsh and mudflats which attracts wildlife, particularly migrating wading birds, with reed buntings and summer migrant warblers in the reedbeds. There is a walkway constructed over a portion of the saltmarsh and two viewing screens with several illustrated noticeboards giving the history of the area and descriptions of the wildlife.
Tied in with the Linking The Locks project is funding of £654,000 from the Coastal Communities Fund which will include a new lifting bridge over the canal providing road access to the Riverside Industrial Estate and boatyards situated between the canal and the river at Fiddler’s Ferry. The fixed bridge providing this link collapsed under the weight of an HGV last year and a temporary structure was installed prior to replacement by a proper electrically operated lifting bridge, work on which is due to commence later this year. This funding will also contribute to 12 apprenticeships at the small businesses on the industrial estate.
Between Fiddler’s Ferry marina and Sankey Bridges, Warrington, a distance of just over 1 1/2 miles, the canal is in water and will be the next section for restoration needing only the replacement of several fixed bridges carrying footpaths and tracks over the waterway with swing bridges and a culvert diversion. A navigable route with boat trips from Widnes to Warrington is therefore a distinct possibility and stated aim of the relevant authorities.
Unfortunately an unattractive steel fence has been erected along this section because of an apparently unstable canal bank. The story goes that a fisherman slipped into the water and successfully sued Warrington Council. As a result the Council put up the fence to prevent fishing at a reputed cost of £60,000. The towpath here from Sankey Bridges to Spike Island also forms a part of the Trans Pennine Trail, a long distance cycle/walking route from Southport to Hull and most of this section has been recently resurfaced and is now in good all weather condition.
It is, however, at Sankey Bridges where major problems arise in restoring the canal to use. Firstly there is the railway line from Warrington to Widnes which is currently used by coal trains delivering to Fiddler’s Ferry power station. There was once a railway station here, part of the platform still being visible and the line originally crossed the canal using a long gone swing bridge.
Then after a short distance is the old Liverpool Road from Warrington via Prescot where there was once a bascule (lifting) bridge. There is also a swing bridge over the canal here, adjacent to the road and although somewhat overgrown and disused it is still operational and was used for emergencies if the bascule bridge was under repair or maintenance. Then, one of the biggest obstructions in the whole length of the canal, the main dual carriageway road from Warrington to Liverpool.
One of the most attractive and certainly most used sections of the towpath route today runs from Sankey Bridges 1 1/2 miles to Bewsey Lock. There are attractive grass verges and mature trees lining the route of the canal and the first section of the waterway is noted for its flowering water lilies in summer.
After a short distance the towpath crosses the canal via a footbridge followed by a second footbridge crossing the dual carriageway. There are pairs of swans which breed here annually, mallard ducks, coots and moorhens and it is unusual not to see a heron.
The walls of Bewsey lock still exist but the gates are long gone. A bridge crosses the canal behind the lock where the waterway currently ends and going in the direction of Winwick there is a channel on the left, once used to carry excess water as an overflow from the canal.
There are tracks along both sides of the route of the canal from Bewsey lock bridge. On one side Bewsey Meadows have attractive wildflowers whilst on the other side are woodlands and further wildflower meadows. The route of the canal is still visible and occasionally takes some floodwater.
As the towpath route continues beneath Cromwell Avenue the original canal bed is now the Sankey Brook which was diverted here when the next section of the canal going towards Winwick was used for landfill rubbish and the Cromwell Avenue area was developed. This locality with the Dallam housing estate was much subject to flooding in the past and there was a complex network of waterways, channels and sluices between here and Hulme lock, Winwick, with the Sankey Brook originally passing beneath the towpath.
Beyond Cromwell Avenue, approaching Winwick, the route of the filled in canal again becomes visible and the remains of the walls of Hulme lock can be seen together with the outline of the walls of the adjacent lock keeper’s cottage which have been excavated by SCARS volunteers
On the left, Winwick dry dock where boats were repaired has been preserved whilst the buildings on the right, today residential property and industrial workshops, were originally canal workshops and the date 1841 can be seen in the end wall.
Existence of the canal then disappears again as the track passes beneath the M62 motorway past the car scrapyard only to reappear at Winwick lock where the decayed remains of the lock gates and lock wall can be clearly seen together with the overflow channel which bypassed the lock.
Following the railway where the branch to Earlestown leaves the West Coast mainline all evidence of the canal again disappears until the towpath route passes beneath the road bridge from Winwick to Burtonwood when the route of the filled in canal again becomes visible with the top of the canal wall still apparent in places. The road bridge was built in the 1950s and replaced a swing bridge over the canal and level crossing over the railway. The towpath track here has just been resurfaced with tarmac as far as Newton Brook which is the boundary between the Warrington and St Helens authorities.
The stream presumably once passed beneath the canal but following the infilling of the Winwick section the canal was chopped in two here and the brook crosses via an open culvert. On the left is an overflow where excess water from the canal would flow into Newton Brook which joins the Sankey Brook a few yards further on. Any chances of this infilled section being restored must be fairly remote currently with the amount of work and costs involved.
The next section, still in water starts here, going towards Newton and Earlestown and is another very attractive location and one of the most scenic locations along the whole canal. If really lucky you may catch a glimpse of turquoise as a kingfisher flashes past.
Trees line both sides of the canal which is a pleasant oasis of calm close to a densely populated location. Some future work, for which St Helens Council has funding, is necessary here however as parts of the stonework banks of the canal are collapsing into the water. The council engaged consultants to come up with repair solutions and that adopted will consist of stone filled gabions (baskets) to support the walls.
Once this work is completed, the towpath track here, which can get quite muddy in winter and after heavy rain can then be resurfaced. The easiest access point is down the track off Bradley Road, near to Newton hospital and there is plenty of parking space close by Bradley bridge. Continuing across the bridge and crossing the towpath, leaving the canal, the track crosses the Sankey Brook via a footbridge leading up to Bradley Old Hall, Hall Lane and Gipsy Wood. Hall Lane is now closed to vehicles and going down the Lane to another footbridge over the brook and returning via the canal makes a pleasant circular walk.
The canal then exists as far as Bradley lock when it was again used for landfill rubbish. There is now dense vegetation on the left as far as the Nine Arches railway viaduct whereas years ago this area was quite open (see the photographs from 1968 in our previous article). This was the most historic of all the locations alongst the route where England’s first canal, opened in 1757 was crossed by the word’s first railway viaduct built in 1828 to 1830.
As we said previously, the last commercial use of the canal, taking raw sugar from Liverpool docks to the Sankey Sugar works ceased in 1959 and the canal was officially abandoned to navigation in 1963. Today it would be recognized as a heritage and wildlife asset and source of leisure activities but attitudes then were rather different. The world’s first railway viaduct crossing the country’s first canal and the canal’s gone!
The canal here at the area known as the Dingle was polluted, used as a dumping ground and there was actually a campaign to get it filled in from residents who claimed it was a danger to children and was reducing their house values. The Newton & Golborne News of 1971 had a major article on the topic on its front page with numerous complaints to the council (Newton & Earlestown had its own council in those days), to the local MP, Fred Lee (we had our own MP then too) and the then owners of the canal, British Waterways. Equally though the writer knows people who lived in that locality as children, now in their 70s and 80s, who talk of the great fun they had as kids when they would go swimming in the canal in hot weather!
Quotes from the paper include “Many householders are bitter about the future of the town’s newest housing estate, they know that the first phase of a giant £750,000 main drainage scheme for the town may eventually solve sewerage problems but say that the land at the Dingle has not been cleared up by the firm of contractors who carried out the job”. Other comments include “mothers who will not let their children play outdoors in case they stray in the direction of the canal” (remember the days when children actually ventured outside to play on their own and were allowed to do so by their parents, before the days of computers and video games?).
The paper stated the water was only about 18 inches deep but mud and dumped rubbish was a serious problem. A Mrs Hilda Woods of Hillside Avenue described the area “As an absolute tip and terror playground for youngsters …..for the rates we pay we are surely entitled to more than this”. Mrs Kathleen Tilley also of Hillside Avenue said ”the smell coming from the canal in summer makes living conditions shocking….everyone wants the canal filled in it serves no useful purpose”.
Not everyone agreed however and according to the paper “Mr Glyn Jones is one father who does not want to see the canal filled in, he thinks it serves as a barrier to an even greater problem – Sankey Brook 12 feet deep and surrounded with mud”. There was probably some truth in this – the Sankey Brook in those days was always referred to locally as “The Stinking Brook” and was appallingly polluted with effluent discharged into it by several of St Helens’s chemical industries: very different to its current state today. Mr Jones said “I have lived around here most of my life and used to swim in the canal. I suppose a child could drown but it would be better to fall in the canal than the brook, anyone who fell in there would stand no chance. What I would like to see is the area tidied up and the vandalism halted. The canal is choked by rubbish people have dumped and any attempt to landscape the area, tidy it up, is destroyed immediately by the vandals”.
The paper goes on to quote the council’s surveyor Mr John Gibson as saying any disturbance left by the contractors would be rectified whilst the town clerk (who would no doubt today be described as the council’s Chief Executive) Mr Jack Roberts said they were aware of the situation and had written to British Waterways. At a meeting of the council they agreed “to investigate the possibility of making the area safer”.
As we know the end result was to use the canal for landfill rubbish. As far as can be ascertained cleaning up the waterway and converting it into the pleasant linear park we have today elsewhere along the canal was never officially considered. One wonders what those who were so concerned about safety would think about the vast new waterside developments that have taken place alongside other canals and rivers, not least the Manchester Ship Canal at Warrington where the canal side by Latchford Locks is lined with new flats and terraced houses whilst Warrington Wharf is now covered in blocks of flats surrounded by water on three sides!
At the Dingle and the bottom of Emett’s Brow (or “Brew” as it is known locally), the area of concern in the newspaper article, the remains of Newton Common lock, can just about be identified. This was lost completely but was unearthed and excavated, and the outline restored, by SCARS volunteers some years ago but has now got very overgrown again and is scarcely visible today. George Stephenson lived in a cottage here whilst he was building the Liverpool to Manchester railway but that’s another bit of history also long since gone. It is here that the most recent history of the canal ends as the section onwards to St Helens was disused after 1931 and fell into decay.
Between the Nine Arches and Common lock there are believed to be several buried “Mersey Flats” abandoned when the canal was closed and later filled in. These were the barges used on the canal and were flat-bottomed so they could rest on the River Mersey mudflats at low tide. Typically they could accommodate around 60 tons of coal and were considerably larger and wider than the traditional canal narrowboat which only appeared later on other waterways.
There is a short attractive section from the bottom of Common Road (Penkford Bridge) used by anglers, full of water lilies, but then the canal disappears again and the route is covered with vegetation until one reaches Broad Oak Basin where barges were loaded with coal from Broad Oak collieries and the canal reappears. The remains of more Mersey Flats were identified here in the late 1970s when the linear park was being established and they were left buried as the best way of preserving them until such time as funds ever become available for their restoration.
Before we leave the Newton-le-Willows section of the Sankey Canal to move towards Haydock and Blackbrook it’s important to recognise the work done in the early 1970′s by a group of local people and the efforts of a local councillor who campaigned for sections of the Newton canal to be protected from the landfill scheme. Without those efforts, at that time, the canal and the amenity enjoyed by many local people would not exist today. At the time this was driven by the desire of a new fishing club however the retained areas of canal ultimately achieved benefits far beyond angling. Historically sections of the canal now remain in an iconic location by the Nine Arches viaduct local walkers, ramblers have a visual amenity and the waterway is now a haven for wildlife enhancing the biodiversity of the Sankey Valley Park.
Eddie Marcroft the secretary of Newton Angle’s recounts the work from that era.
Around 1969/70 a few of the town’s keen anglers got together and approached the then mayor of Newton le Willows Urban District Council, Councillor Robert Knight with a view to taking the two sections out of the proposed canal landfill as there wasn’t anywhere in our locality for fishing for local anglers. They were the Late Cyril Pardoe, Fred Garner, Walter Mullin, Harold Blinston, Brian Halliwell, Eddie Jolly, Ron Hassall and the two surviving members Ivor Brown and Eddie Marcroft apologies to anyone I have missed off it was a long time ago.
Councillor Knight fully understood what we wanted to achieve for our town at that time and agreed if the volunteers would clean up the canal and rubbish from the banking he would liaise with the local authorities to get the two sections removed from the landfill scheme. The team worked hard over many months and achieved the groundwork required. Councillor Knight was true to his word he got two canal sections removed from the landfill scheme and in 1974 Newton le Willows Anglers Association was inaugurated and now control the fishing on over 20 fisheries with a membership of exceeding 800.
The short section of canal upwards of Penkford Bridge though did get filled in and was left to grow to scrubland, at this time it was on the St Helens Angling Association permit, the landfill subsided and the section began to fill up with water as the old canal bed was still in place. the land belonged to St Helens MBC, they approached the St Helens Angling Association and asked if they wanted to clean this section out but they declined ,so Newton le Willows Angling Association undertook the capital programme of re-establishing the water course including re-planting reed beds and lilly beds, and undertaking a fish stocking program to make this section what it is today a very good mixed fishery and a beautiful waterway.
It is also worth mentioning the Sankey brook, the Sankey brook largely follows the course of the Sankey Canal from Sankey Bridges where it enters the Mersey and almost to St Helens. Once one of the most grossly polluted watercourses in the united kingdom earning it the local nickname of the “stinking brook”. However in 1985 the Mersey basin cleanup campaign began and the Sankey Brook slowly came back to life, today it’s a clean oxygenated river back to its natural state. Newton le Willows Angling Association control one and a half miles downstream from Penkford Bridge and have been working on the cleaning up and improvement’s in water quality for some years now and have introduced 4,000 mixed fish in 2014 and many more in previous years and with the help of the Environment Agency due to make further stock introduction again in 2015.
Leaving the Newton section towards Haydock and Blackbrook
One sight not to be missed however, just before here is the Havannah flashes. Very attractive meres formed by mining subsidence from the Havannah collieries (sometimes described as the Parr collieries) one could be in the middle of the countryside miles from anywhere. The first pit opened in 1863 and the last closed in the 1930s.
Just beyond Broad Oak Basin a footbridge crosses the canal which reappears with a path along both sides and although quite narrow with dense vegetation along the banks, the canal bed still carries water which is diverted here into the adjacent Sankey Brook. Taking either side of the canal the next point of interest is the “old double lock”.
The “old double lock” was the first double, stepped, or tiered lock anywhere and was necessary as the change in height was too much for a single lock. The walls of the lock are clearly visible but the gates are long gone and replaced by a weir. Turning right the waterway is still intact but much overgrown up to the main road between Haydock and St Helens at Blackbrook.
Crossing the road one comes to the Stanley Bank Visitor Centre managed by St Helens Council rangers which often has relevant displays and organizes walks and similar activities whilst SCARS gives talks and holds open days from time to time. There was a basin just beyond here where coal would be loaded into canal boats from the nearby Pewfall colliery.
The basin has recently been cleaned up along with the canal in an attempt to prevent flooding following heavy rain (the basin was cleaned up as a part of a major Heritage Lottery funded project which improved paths, restored river banking, funded restoration of heritage features and interpretive artworks).
Recent archaeological work here has identified the remains of Stanley Iron Mill, dating from around the 1773, which also used the canal for the transport of materials. The Slitting Mill was linked to Carr Forges by a small contour canal, the remains of which are still visible. Stanley Bank Meadow SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) is adjacent to the Mill. There is a path from here which goes to Carr Mill dam and is a pleasant walk through mature woodland alongside the stream which takes the water from the dam’s spillway and which was originally used to keep the canal’s water level topped up. Note the aroma of the wild garlic which lines part of the path in late spring!
Going in the St Helens direction from the old double lock all evidence of the canal has gone completely and the former towpath route goes along a tarmac’d path across grassland alongside a sports ground with the Sankey Brook on the left until one reaches Boardman’s Lane. Crossing Boardman’s Lane another tarred path leads to the A58, the main road into St Helens from Haydock. Carefully crossing the A58, one finds the canal again, albeit much choked with reeds and, in late summer, vast densities of the dreaded Himalayan Balsam, which is found more or less along the whole length of the canal. With its pink flowers and exploding seed pods this has now joined Japanese Knotweed as one of the greatest menaces of the UK’s plant world, now illegal to plant and completely obliterating native species, particularly along waterways.
With grassland on the left the towpath and reed filled canal then weaves its way past houses and industrial units until a straight section appears with the “Burgy Banks” along the right side. These grass covered banks consist of heaps of waste material from the glass finishing and polishing industries. The canal then divides with the Gerard’s Bridge branch footpath going over a footbridge, following the Burgy Banks as far as College Street where this branch of the canal ends in a short section across the road, the industries it used to serve long gone.
The more interesting route, ending up in central St Helens, is the left branch where the “new double locks” are clearly evident. Unlike the ”old double locks” at Blackbrook, built around 1756/7, this section is more recent and the “new double locks” date from around 1770. They were restored and rebuilt some years ago in a joint project between SCARS and St Helens Council.
Subject to a few short breaks and road and rail crossings the canal is now in water up to the end. There’s a clear section up to Standish Street, followed by a break to cross the road, then a straight section up to the next break at Corporation Street. There’s then a gap in the waterway until one has crossed Parr Street when it reappears.
One problem which soured relations between SCARS and the Council some five or so years ago was the construction of a new low level service road bridge at Lyons Yard by the new Chamber of Commerce offices. The planning and execution of this project was controversial with claims that due processes, including the blocking of a public right of way (the towpath), had not been correctly followed. The dispute was followed in national waterways press and local papers and following a storm in the Council chamber, SCARS’ officers met with the Council leader and the result was a unanimous Council resolution supporting the full restoration of the waterway.
In their Core Strategy (15 year plan) the Council has stated “The St Helens Canal forms a central feature in the town and Ravenhead and Sankey Valley Greenways”. This plan also talks of “enhancing the existing waterway of the St Helens Canal”. The Sankey Valley Park has been identified as an important traffic free link for walkers and cyclists between St Helens, Warrington and Widnes.
After Parr Street the next canal crossing is the remains of the defunct St Helens to Runcorn Gap Railway which was started in 1830 (before Widnes existed and the locality was known as “Runcorn Gap”). Originally a swing bridge was used for the railway, long ago replaced with a solid infill after the canal was closed.
Close to the end of the canal, the waterway was known as “The”Hotties” as the water was heated due to the discharge of hot water from the nearby glass works. Then, finally we reach the present end of the canal, in the town centre by the former Tesco store, now called Range.
Our industrial heritage, our first canal, the world’s first railway viaduct, boatyards, marinas, wildlife, wildflower meadows, and mature woodlands: explore it at your leisure and see what you can discover close to your doorstep!
The Sankey Canal closed in 1963 following the ending of the traffic to the Sankey Sugar works in 1959. It’s over 50 years since the last navigation sailed down Britain’s oldest canal.
That is about to change.
The Linking the Locks project will make sailing, rowing, kayaking and similar activities between Spike Island and Fiddler’s Ferry a reality over the next few years whilst maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity of the area.
After that there is a medium term vision to extend navigability further to Sankey Bridges and then into the Sankey Valley Park potentially as far as Bewsey. Significant capital cost will be necessary if the railway line and Liverpool Road are to be crossed. However there were bridges before in this area and there is no logistical reason why there couldn’t be again.
Extending beyond this re-installing the de-watered lengths towards St Helens town centre would involve further strategic investment of considerable sums
Certainly it would be a historic reincarnation if the existing section in water at Newton and Earlestown could be extended beyond Bradley Lock so that boats could be seen once again beneath Stephenson’s famous viaduct.
With only one major road to be crossed this section of the canal could then be extended to join the existing watered section beyond Penkford bridge and then continue to the old double lock at Blackbrook.
Certainly repairs today to the bank side of the canal by the local authorities are done with navigation in mind and are designed on this basis throughout the canal’s length. That demonstrates there is a recognition of the possibility by the three councils.
However it must be said that making the canal fully navigable from Widnes to St Helens from our position in 2014 is not something to be expected other than long term aspiration visioning.
But the imminent navigation prospect at Widnes into Warrington is certainly something to be celebrated. Whether this is ever extended remains to be seen.
For more information about the future development of the Sankey Canal see the “Linking the Locks” movie below.
For more informaton about Britains oldest canal please find the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (SCARS) website HERE
For a beautifully and professionally filmed production developed by pupils at Penketh High School along with SCARS including interviews with Halton council executives over the “Linking the Locks” project concerning the short to medium term future of the canal and the authorities long term vision HERE