Merseyside’s towpath to the past: a 20-mile walk along the Industrial Revolution’s first canal
16.11.2023 - 17:51
/ River Mersey
I hadn’t planned my walk along the Sankey Canal to coincide with the axing of HS2 but it happened like that. It was a sunny day. I had been promising myself a hike along the towpath for ages. I grew up in the area and it holds a special place in my affections. As I wandered it struck me that this under-explored waterway was arguably the UK’s first significant development in infrastructure since the Romans built roads. It was built in two years.
The Sankey Canal connects St Helens with the River Mersey. It was opened in 1757 and subsequently extended to Widnes. Large sailing barges called Mersey flats moved coal from Lancashire to the Cheshire salt-brining towns and to Liverpool. The first canal of the Industrial Revolution built in Great Britain (Northern Ireland’s Newry Canal was earlier), its construction was only permitted because engineer Henry Berry and financier John Ashton duped parliament and other investors into believing it was a “navigation” – a widening of the existing Sankey Brook. But it is a true cut, and prompted the Duke of Bridgewater – the “father of British inland navigation” – to build his own waterway.
Several spurs were built to reach local collieries. I started at one, at Blackbrook, just outside St Helens. There I met Colin Greenall, the chair of the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (Scars), who gave me a handy historical walking guide. Colin, who is 79, remembers seeing cargo vessels on the canal when he was a boy.
“It must have been about 1956. I remember being out trainspotting at Winwick and seeing boats going up towards Earlestown with sugar. Then everything changed to road transport and the last boats stopped in 1959.”
He says the society’s chief aim is to create a nature corridor in what is a densely populated and economically deprived area. “We hope we can keep the southern section in water [ie navigable] and develop the rest as a leisure space. But in the long term, there’s nothing to prevent the canal being fully reopened. Even where it’s filled in, nothing has been built along its course.”
Scars is keen to recruit more volunteers and fundraises to support conservation work along the waterway. It hopes one day to create a fully working canal for leisure crafts.
Then, I was off on my walk; I had 15 miles at least in front of me, but it was going to be flat – the Sankey is not a “summit-level canal” linking valleys. I made a faltering start. From Blackbrook to Earlestown, it’s only three or so miles, but I took a few wrong turns where tangled vegetation appeared to block the path, and ended up on the road. I don’t mind pounding the pavements; I did a lot of roadside walking as a teenager. As it happened, this first section passed near the village of Burtonwood, where I