The original Rochdale Canal runs for 33 miles between Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, and Manchester. It begins at Castlefield, at “Dukes” Lock 92, as the name implies, crossed the hills to Rochdale, before it fell into disuse. Dukes Lock marks the end of the Bridgewater Canal, and the start of the Rochdale Canal, though it was named after the Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewaterwho had to pay for its construction as a condition of being allowed to connect his canal to the Rochdale system. It is number 92, as the last lock on the Bridgewater. A pretty lock -keepers cottage overlooks this lock, and the adjacent wine bar has borrowed the name. This once great canal is paradoxical – it was, until recently, a very short reach, covering just under 2 miles, with its 9 double chambered locks, and yet boats had to pay a sum of about �30 for the privilege until as recently as 2000 AD, and a Rochdale Canal Licence had to be purchased from the office nearby the top lock at Dale Street. However, extensive restoration has resulted in it being reopened to navigation as far as Littleborough since summer 2002. Further stretches are planned to be reopened in time – refer to the official website for current progress information at their website: www.penninewaterways.co.uk/rochdale. The Canal offers an alternative view to Manchester, rising as it does, mostly unseen by the bustling traffic above, and occasionally emerging into pleasant aspects where bystanders invariably stop to watch this ancient ritual enacted. Towards the top of the flight, the canal tunnels beneath a 20 storey office block, into a subterranean cavern where the canal cuts through the enormous concrete pillars which support the building overhead. The Rochdale Canal company was transferred across to the Waterways Trust in August 2000, and all running of the canal has been contracted out to British Waterways since then.
Left to Right: The Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Wigan Pier, The Rochdale making its way through Manchester’s Gay Village and railway bridges over the Rochdale Canal at Castlefield.
UPDATE The Rochdale Canal was re-opened to navigation along its entire length in July 2002 after extensive renovation over several years.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal is 127 miles long, with 91 locks, and is the single longest canal built by one company in the United Kingdom. It took well over 40 years to complete, after a great deal of disagreement about its route from Lancashire to Yorkshire. The company was established in 1770 and construction began at once, with John Longbotham as its engineer; later he was succeeded by Robert Whitworth, and after many delays due to the outbreak of war with France in 1792, it was finally completed in 1816. In 1820, a branch was opened to connect it to the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh. Owing to its huge double locks, and the large payloads its boats could carry, the company was very profitable, despite fierce competition from the blossoming railroad companies. In its heyday, the canal carried 50,000 tons of coal a year from the Lancashire coalfields to Liverpool, whence most was exported to America. Water, however, was constantly a problem, as double locks used great quantities of it, and in spite of the building of several feeder reservoirs along its length, it regularly had to be closed in periods of drought through water shortage. Navigation freight gradually declined, carriage having moved to the railways and to improved road freight haulage made possible by the opening of the motorways, and by the early 1960s, like many other canal companies, the trade was untenable. It closed in the hard winter of 1962-63, and was thereafter abandoned. Not until the rebirth of canal cruising in the late 1970s, this time as a leisure pursuit, was it possible to restore the canal to boat traffic. Nowadays, one of its most famous landmarks is the beautifully restored Wigan Pier, immortalised in George Orwell’s novel “The Road to Wigan Pier”.
The Ashton Canal
The Manchester & Ashton Canal was the first canal to reach Portland Basin, opening in 1796. It originally connected Manchester, (and thence the Bridgewater Canal) to the Huddersfield Canal. It was never the most prepossessing of canals, as it passed, and still does, through the industrial heartland of Victorian Manchester, with all of its factories and industrial spoilage, and through the housing estates of the poor unfortunates who worked in those factories. Yet there are things worth seeing on the stretch. It is another hard uphill slog, with locks all the way, over 30 to Ashton-under-Lyne, all padlocked against vandalism. Locking downhill from Ashton is rather more inspiring, as it offers panoramic views of Manchester city centre. A short walk from the canal at Fairfield is the Moravian Settlement, a secluded other-world settlement established by Protestants in the 15th century. Please note : boaters wishing to cruise the Ashton Canal will need special padlock keys. These can be purchased from British Waterways Offices at Ancoats, or from the lock house at Fairfield.
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