Canal boats traditionally travel at 4 miles per hour, which roughly equates to the speed of a brisk walking pace, and this significantly determines how the waterway is experienced. It allows us time to observe, whilst travelling, in a way often lost to us in the modern era. It’s also a constant thread back to our ancestors, who also would have journeyed along the Bridgewater Canal with the same measured progress.
Over the four seasons of the year, I’ll be capturing Salford’s original canal through a series of photographs, films and writing. I’ll examine the Bridgewater Canal in Salford over a 4 mile stretch as it is now, observing the clues from its past and the reality and relevance of its presence in our lives today. Each season will be assigned a different mile.
The second section of my project exploring the Bridgewater Canal in Salford brought me to the area around Worsley, where the canal, because of iron ore seeping out from the mines, is famous for being the colour of a bad fake tan.
When Queen Victoria came to visit in 1851 there was an unsuccessful attempt to dye the water blue, to try and disguise the pollution, perhaps denying the purpose for the canal’s very existence.
If you come to Worsley today, it’s a garden suburb, with the nearby motorway bridge speeding commuters to away to their labours, and this makes it almost impossible to imagine the area as an industrial powerhouse. In modern times the village has become, for people living in inner Salford, somewhere to escape to, whereas, for their mining ancestors it may well have been somewhere to escape from.
The banks of the canal here are now lined by luxury housing. The gentrification started in 1903 when the Earl Of Ellesmere saw the chance to move operations further afield so he could build houses for more profit.
As you glide along the water, you can see, by the cars, that the new industries of Manchester and Salford are far more rewarding for the current inhabitants of this area than for their predecessors. The houseboats, that rest gently in front of the new estates, have had names such as Steadfast and Lord Layabout proudly painted on their outsides, suggesting a chosen lifestyle in complete contrast to the barges used for industry.
I wonder, watching people leave their glossy front doors to travel to work, what names they would paint on their exterior walls…
1. BOOTHSTOWN, FEBRUARY
The first part of my project along the Bridgewater Canal was spent in the mile around the marina at Boothstown. Within a lifetime this area has changed from a place of coal fuelled industry to one of relaxation. Until as late as the 1960s, mums, gathering cotton sheets off the line to avoid the soot as steam engines passed, felt it to be a place of danger for their children, and would have struggled to imagine the family pub, mock tudor houses and gently bobbing leisure craft that now exist.
I began my exploration at a small, humped bridge on Moss House Lane, marked by a sign that labelled it weak. On a winter’s morning, the water below was criss-crossed by reflected vapour trails, and I was forever within earshot of the M60. This was transportation in absolute contrast to that conceived by James Brindley back in 1761, and the disconnect between then and now could not have been clearer, as jets flew over a channel cut by men unable to even conceive of power tools.
As a man walked past, with his barking, black dog, it occurred to me that one constant shared by us and our striving ancestors is walking pace, which also set the speed of the barges. There is something about striding along in this natural rhythm that provokes thought, allowing us to reconsider our surroundings. For me, this meant discovering clues to a myriad mysteries that may not even exist, but that fired the imagination. Abandoned shoes and gloves, old brick structures sticking up amongst the trees, paths that seemed without purpose, all brought this ancient structure to life.
I was beguiled by the silver birch which, in the gentle, early morning light, stood out like white, paper straws. The birdsong was buoyant, reminding me of being at a foreign market, listening to the cacophony of a beautifully incomprehensible language. The strange acoustics brought me sounds such as a creaking telegraph pole that sounded like a rusted, swinging door. The landscape reminded me of that painted by classical painters, and I fondly assumed that I was witnessing a scene that had existed since the waterway’s creation.
However, when I talked with local historians, Royston and Elaine, I discovered quite how disconnected the contemporary landscape is from that of the 18th Century, when it was 10ft higher and actually bare of trees. And so, beneath the feet of the walkers and joggers, or the wheels of the cyclists, the ground is still ceaselessly evolving.
As February neared its end, I took a trip with Hester aboard Queenie, one of the local hire boats, away from the marina and towards Worsley. We moved in tandem with those accompanying us along the towpath. This was a glorious way to spend a morning, far away from office life. Gliding along, it was impossible not to feel reconnected to a time before rush hour.