How to Map a Canal

How to Map a Canal

You might have seen one of the canals in Manchester from the train. Maybe you’ve had a drink at a Castlefield bar, or stood and watched as the geese on the Irwell drift their way past the Lowry Hotel. Canal Street? Yeah, sure, but which canal?

One of the things about waterways in a city is that they keep disappearing: under roads, under whole buildings. The towpath is there for a bit, but then you have to climb up again, because of building works or because the path just disappears. It’s the other way round if you’re on the water. You make your way through, on your sunken, private route, with little thought of which road you’re near, or whether there’s a city landmark nearby. The way is measured by locks and bridges, by where you can pick up bread or how far you have to get before it’s safe to moor up for the night. (Hint: you probably want to make it past the Rochdale Nine Locks before dark.)

Disclosure: I’ve not boated the canals going through the city myself. We skirted the edges on our maiden voyage, coming along the Bridgewater Canal from Runcorn and crossing the Ship Canal at Barton, but then veered off to follow the Leeds & Liverpool into Lancashire. I have been walking them though, piecing together the bits I know and tracing the routes I don’t on various kinds of maps before going out to find where they are. Though working out how to a. map them and b. record where I’ve been isn’t as easy as it sounds…

On the left is a standard waterways map, showing the various canals. (If you click on the image, it should open on another page, making it big enough to see). You might notice there isn’t much other detail shown. On the right is a standard, printable tourist map of the city. On this one, you can see some of the waterways. The Irwell is there, doing its job of marking the boundary between Manchester and Salford, and you can see the fingers of Salford Quays, though they’re not named. (The thick blue line leading off to the left is the Manchester Ship Canal, by the way.) I’ve not managed to find a map of the city which shows, in detail, the canals and rivers and how they interact with the roads and trainlines. So I’ve started making my own. Here’s how it looks so far:


Yes, you’re right, it does need some work. But already it’s helping me to visualise where the different waterways are, in relation to each other and to Manchester. The hub that is Castlefield. The way they all, canal and river, radiate out across the ring road like spokes in a wheel.

As I walk, I take photos. Back home, I orient each the image by cross-referencing what I remember with what I can see on Google Maps. I have each route colour-coded in my pocket-sized A-Z, and transfer the section I walk onto an Ordnance Survey map. I use the side-by-side option of this website (make sure you have plenty of time to spare before you click the link: it’s an addictive resource!) to identify the routes of lost canals and, sometimes, those of existing ones. The OS Six Inch Series from 1888-1913 gives the canals equal footing with the roads and railways. I can follow the route on that map and see it tracked on one from today. It’s like taking a virtual walk with one foot in the now and the other in the past.

What I’d like to do is end up creating a new map, a record of my research in beautiful watercolour, on a piece of paper that takes up an entire wall. I’m not sure my skills are up to it but hey, I can dream, right?


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