Rochdale Canal: Navigation Street to Hulme Hall Lane

Rochdale Canal: Navigation Street to Hulme Hall Lane


If I was planning my walks in a methodical fashion, I’d have started at the beginning. Canals, after all, have very clear starting points, and the Rochdale’s is Castlefield Basin. I write that and then go and check something. Yep, wrong way round. Castlefield might be my beginning and the bit of the Rochdale I know but, in reality, it’s the end. The canal actually starts in Sowerby, climbing to its summit on the Pennines, 600 feet above sea level, before dropping back down, via 56 locks, to the junction in Manchester with the Bridgewater Canal. I keep getting stuff wrong at the moment, which is fine because it means I’m LEARNING!

I made another, fairly significant, error on the day of the walk. My plan is to walk along the Ashton Canal as my son is heading out towards Ancoats to (finally) make a start on his A level geography project, and I’m going to carry on from there. G’s questionnaire is to do with how Ancoats and New Islington have shifted from cradle of the industrial revolution to regenerated hipster paradise. The balance between these two states – converted mills and Urban Splash developments interlined with shabby backstreets and social housing – makes it a fascinating area to explore. I first came across the Ashton Canal when Gabe and I used to go to FabLab in the Chips building (I’m not sure if it makes the confusion less or more that FabLab has since merged with MadLab. Both are awesome concepts, anyway), so I have a rough sense of where I’m going. When I hit the towpath I just start walking along the canal without checking I’m on the ‘right’ one.

The Rochdale, having tunnelled underneath Oxford Road and Piccadilly, curves slightly outwards like the top tine of a tuning fork before skirting along the edges of Ancoats. The Ashton begins in parallel before curving the other way to enclose New Islington (a millennium village project which we’ll be coming back to, not just on this walk, but later in my research.)

I’m on the ‘wrong’ tine, something I won’t realise for a good mile. (It doesn’t actually matter. In fact, it works out really well. I don’t like walking back the same way I’ve come, and a quick check on my phone shows that I can leave the Rochdale where it goes past the Etihad Stadium, and pick up the Ashton for the return leg. I’ll even get to spot-check in on the River Medlock at the halfway point). This post will cover the outward journey, anyway. All clear? Let’s go.

Water is often used to mark boundaries. The River Irwell, for instance, shows where Manchester ends and Salford begins. Here, the canal seems to divide two communities. On the left bank are the brand new townhouses of Lower Vickers Street. A quick search shows that properties on the street sold for £244,000. On the right bank, there’s Holland Street, where a terraced house sold in 2003 for £17,000 and most are currently valued in the region of £95,000. I can’t help wondering which residents – right or left – frequent Olive’s Organics, an evolved mini market selling both organic and ‘conventional’ vegetables alongside cold-pressed juices and a holistic herbal counter.

The sense of a patchwork regeneration continues. Victoria Mill, built for cotton but derelict since it closed in the ’60s, is made up of two symmetrical blocks separated by what was once the engine house. One half was restored the ’90s and now houses apartments, offices and a health centre. The other half is still waiting, with blackened and gap-toothed patience.

The remainder of this stretch, as far as the next bridge where I’ll climb back up to the road, has scrubland on the far side and brownfield sites waiting for something to happen next to me on the towpath. A pair of runners go by, getting just out of eyesight before turning to sprint back. There are a couple of lads on bikes, who pass with that hint of a defensive sneer, expectant of hassle. When I smile, they grin cheerfully back before skidding off. A freezer is wedged into the top of a lock and some graffiti, which I first read as ‘Jesus’, turns out to be a tag by Jeff. The letters are carefully formed, like a primary school handwriting exercise. Is that a ’21’ underneath? A significant birthday celebration? Probably not. Jeff sounds like an older person’s name.

A measure that’s often used to indicate the health of canals and waterways is the presence of fish, and in 2017 the MEN went as far as claiming that Manchester was turning into a paradise for perch and pike. What strikes me here, though, is the absence of anything much else. Fair enough, it’s midday on New Year’s Eve so maybe not the peak time for people to be out and about, but the weather’s not bad. It’s also really peaceful, the water calm and rubbish-free, the towpath smoothly surfaced and clean. But there’s no-one here. No boats, no fishermen, barely any foot traffic. The lack of boats, particularly, is something I notice in Manchester. Where I moor, in rural Lancashire, there are boats strung out wherever you walk along the canal. I’ll be returning later to New Islington, where a marina was developed at the same time as the Urban Splash development, and there are boats at Castlefield, also a regenerated area, and down towards Deansgate Locks. You don’t get many moving through the city, though, and a boating friend once told me of a police escort sticking around as she made her way up the Rochdale 9 (the locks leading away from Manchester) to make sure she got through with no trouble. New developments may end up making the canal feel safer, but with gentrification already pushing house prices in the city ever higher, it’s perhaps odd that boats aren’t used more as alternative city centre accommodation, as in London or Birmingham. I’ve heard rumours about liveaboard boats (which tend to be shabby round the edges, roofs that was fixed by the roofing companies near me and was stacked with firewood along with useful bits of junk) being pushed out of sight around newly-refurbished canal-side developments. Yes, the canal adds to the ambience of the area, but the promotional pictures tend to feature one or two beautifully shiny boats for background colour rather than a community of independent non-conformists. It’s a question I’m keen to follow up on.

Before I leave the Rochdale, for now at least, I turn for another look back. It’s an interesting picture. The canal and the towpath head back to the city, passing the industrial heritage of Victoria Mill before converging at a point far away, where Deansgate Square is marked by a new skyscraper, currently the tallest building in Manchester. Past, present and future, joined by water. It’s very Manchester.




1 Comment

  1. Martine Bailey
    28 Jan 2019

    As a former Mancunian I really enjoyed this ramble. I love that you are recording what is happening now. Looking forward to more.

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