Saturday, 22 May 2010

Life on Mars - 1973 on the Rochdale Canal

The "Rochdale Arch" - entrance to Dale Street Basin - or "car park" as it had become by 1973
In 1973 the canal scene in Manchester was very different from the way it is today. Although there were still the last vestiges of commercial traffic on the Bridgewater Canal, the Ashton and Peak Forest were both unnavigable and most of the Rochdale had been abandoned twenty years previously. In theory, the nine locks that provided a link between the Bridgewater and Ashton Canals through central Manchester were open, but in practice it was all but impossible to take a boat through them. The Peak Forest Canal Society undertook some basic restoration work on the "nine" but it was with a view to providing a connection to the soon-to-be-reopened Ashton and Peak Forest Canals than with any thought of eventual re-opening of the cross-Pennine route.
Although living near Manchester at the time I had very little interest in these waterways - and to my eternal shame I only spent one weekend working on the "nine" with the PFCS.
I did, however, manage at least one walk along the Manchester section of the Rochdale Canal sometime in 1973.
This was the scene above Dukes Lock (No. 92 and the very end of the Rochdale Canal)
Despite the dereliction, one brave soul was attempting to operate a restaurant boat on the canal - although as a static attraction rather than a cruising restaurant. I seem to recall that the PFCS working party were treated to lunch here on the occasion I worked with them and very good it was too.
At the top of the "nine" is the junction with the Ashton Canal, then still unnavigable and looking very different from how it does today.
The abandoned section of the canal then passed through Ancoats, along a section which the City Council had partly filled in. It was intended as a shallow "linear water park", but in practice quickly became a linear rubbish dump as the local population continued their age-old habit of disposing of unwanted items in the canal despite it now being six inches rather than six feet deep.
The Council was obviously very proud of its work, although  Buggsey's artistry doesn't have quite the same appeal as the better-known Banksy!
The locks on this section were "cascaded" rather than filled-in, which at least made it a bit easier when the restoration work began.
This treatment continued all the way to the Manchester city boundary. This view, taken in Newton Heath, does, I suppose, give some idea of what was behind the thinking of the time, given that in 1973 nobody in their right mind would ever have thought that boats would ever again cross the Pennines via this route (note the "Selnec" bus in the background - in 1973 the orange and white livery was considered revolutionary!). But it was never going to work and within months the shallowed sections looked worse than ever. Part of the rationale behind the scheme was safety, although of course even six-inches of water can drown someone in the circumstances are right - or wrong!
In 1973 and for quite some time afterwards, I never thought I'd see both the Rochdale and the Huddersfield Narrow Canals open thoughout - and I certainly wouldn't have believed that thirty years later I'd have navigated both of them - in a very strenuous seven days on a hire boat from Sowerby Bridge.

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