My Kind of Town: Manchester Ship Canal is an inspiring example of industrial investment and inventiveness
I can remember the day I realised with incredulity that Salford, 36 miles from the Irish Sea, had quays – it still amazes me today. Born in Salford, my father’s work took me to Merseyside before my first birthday, so my relatives are from places strung along the Manchester Ship Canal – Eccles, Warrington, Lymm, Runcorn, Liverpool –a linear infrastructure of generational memories connected by water. These are my kind of towns.
The Ship Canal was built in 1887-94 to by-pass the railways and give Manchester direct access to wider global trade. The eighth longest shipping canal in the world, it is just a little shorter than the Panama, and along its Roman road-like route you encounter symbols of nineteenth-century British industrial invention.
It is my emotional response to childhood memories, the special qualities of light and space, that draw me to this arrow of water”
I often return to the canal, most recently on a three-day photographic mission. The locks, sluices, bridges and the ships that still navigate the waterway remain an inspiring example of massive industrial investment and inventiveness. The magnificent grade II-listed Barton Swing Aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater Canal across the canal, is still the only swing aqueduct in the world. Historic photos show huge vessels passing through small villages, a clash of scale equivalent to modern-day cruise ships in Venice.
It is my emotional response to childhood memories, the special qualities of light and space, that draw me to this arrow of water. Manchester is a city of soft Collyhurst Sandstone, a city of heavy cloud and rain. Vertical shards of light pierce the thick sky, picking out edges, surfaces, chimneys and landmarks. It feels beautifully intense and alive, a condensed Lowry perspective of verticality. Cutting its way through the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside, the canal is crossed by iron bridges, many painted in a pastel blue that punches them out from overcast skies. Reflections in the carved locks create a dizzying depth to the landscape while brick bridges fly high above, casting sharp shadows across the canal banks below.
Towards its western termination, the canal is routed alongside the Mersey. The calm surface of the man-made channel contrasts with the windswept river as they come within touching distance beneath Runcorn Bridge. The light changes here – the industrial landscape is flatter as the horizon disappears into peripheral vision, with blinding horizontal light in that golden hour before sunset. To the west, the seaside path of New Brighton ends with a view of the splendid Three Graces, glowing orange in the last light as ships pass after long journeys across the globe. Turner drew this view in 1831, a singular horizontal line with few verticals in a sketch that still captures its feeling today. Making photographs and observing the canal reminds me why I became an architect. The journey from land to sea, from domestic enclosure to the infinite, coastal horizon, the experiential qualities of light and space are what I hold dear.
It is a wonderful national asset that creates wealth, has inherent beauty, and can connect communities, just as it has done for more than a century”
But for me the real attraction is the communities – not least my own family – that have lived, worked and played here. The towns along the canal suffered greatly in the 1970s with the advent of large container ships that Salford quays couldn’t accommodate, and the docks closed in 1982. The canal is still navigable for smaller cargo vessels, however, and you can take a trip as a tourist. If we want environmentally-friendly ways of moving goods, the Manchester Ship Canal could play a role in the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative. It is a wonderful national asset that creates wealth, has inherent beauty, and can connect communities, just as it has done for more than a century. I write this from Wing, in Rutland, sat in my wife’s family home, built in 1891 from the proceeds of a dye business that was located beside the Manchester Ship Canal as it joins the River Irwell. My wife’s great grandfather would have seen the canal being built, and I am sure he would have shared my amazement at this wonder of the modern world.