SOUTH PENNINE RING – Manchester to Rochdale.

This was a 12 mile day full of interest with old mills coming at me thick and fast. The Metrolink tram took me to Piccadilly and I quickly found my way onto the canal basin where the Rochdale Canal emerges from the depths having already passed 9 locks since Castlefield. 3 years ago Sir High and I had braved these subterranean passageways on our Cheshire Ring jaunt.

Today my way was blocked by a locked gate meaning I had to retrace my steps and try again on the opposite side. The numbers on the bridges didn’t seem to tally with my map until I realised I was confusing lock numbers with bridges.  Not a good start, you shouldn’t get lost on a canal!

The Ancoats area of Manchester where the Rochdale Canal next passes through is known, tongue in cheek, as The New Islington because of all the new buildings many which utilise the old mills and warehouses in luxurious conversions. Marinas dot the developments. It is good to see this rather than dereliction, vandalism and demolition. The cranes are busy again with city centre living.

Some famous buildings are passed – Brownsfield Mill the old AVRO factory for aircraft manufacture;  the Royal  Mill a rebuilt 20th century cotton mill now under residential use, originally named New Old Mill a plaque commemorates a royal visit in 1942 and hence the name change;  the Beehive a former cotton mill connected with Sankey’s soap at a later date now earmarked for commercial use. There are many more. Names allude to the past – Cotton Fields, Coal Pits Lock etc.

But before long I’m back amongst average housing, urban sprawl and litter. The honking Canada Geese are everywhere fouling the towpath. Even the graffiti is not up to standard. But the sun is shining, there are few people about and I feel glad to be setting off on a new exploration.

To compensate there is the fine 19th century Victoria Mill canal side, a former cotton spinning mill. It was designed as a 6 storey double mill with a shared central chimney. Now office and residential use.

The next area is Newton Heath which had an industrious past associated with the canal – die works, bleach works, a tannery, rope works, glass works, brick works as well as the textile mills. A row of maisonettes is named after one of the young Man United players killed in the Munich air crash, 1958, I wonder if the other 7 are likewise nearby, I wish I’d looked.

I nip up a side street for a morning coffee with toast and jam in a basic cafe frequented by locals lingering over their fried breakfasts. Modest housing fronts onto the canal in contrast to the large Regent Mill whose brickwork is exquisite.It bears the names of Russell Hobbs and Remington and I believe they are still trading there.

Failsworth arrives with Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and KFC, the latter temporarily closed due to lack of chickens which has almost reached a national disaster according to some news outlets. The canal continue obliviously to pass the large Ivy Mill. This cotton mill was converted for aircraft assembly during WW2 and is now office space.A brief stretch of ‘countryside’ was passed through before the canal is squeezed under the M60 without a towpath, an elaborate foot bridge over the motorway reunited me on the other side heading for the Boat and Horses pub. A name recollecting the passage of hundreds of horse drawn cargo boats, it did not look inviting today having become a rotisserie and carvery for roadside travelers. The  nearby J.W. Lees Greengate brewery has produced real ale since 1828 and is still family run. I couldn’t pass through the area without sampling their product so at the next more modest canalside pub, Rose of Lancashire, I had a quick half. This inn opened in the early 1800’s as the canal was being developed and was a haunt of local radicals and reformers trying to influence parliament to improve the lot of the working class. The Peterloo Massacre 1819, in Manchester, was a defining moment in that struggle. The canal winds its way through the outskirts of Oldham with the railway a constant companion. This is the Manchester to Leeds engineered by George Stephenson and opened in 1841, I was to become well acquainted with its course in the next few days.  In the vicinity the railway crosses the canal on a beautiful cast iron bridge.

Over the River Irk, past the open spaces of Chadderton Park before more locks rise at Slattocks.

The next barrier is the M62 where the canal has been diverted under a culvert with an ingenious floating towpath. The original line is a boggy passage to the left. A lad was fishing for pike with a large lure which he expertly cast down the water. A previous fisherman told me that it was too cold for the fish, there was almost a layer of ice on the water.

The way into Castleton was enlivened by a cheery mural from a local primary school.

Just when you thought you’d had enough mills the massive Arrow appears. Cotton has given way to storage. I’m not sure how the canal goes under the M627 but I was diverted through retail parks to meet up with it for the last pleasant mile into Rochdale where I was accompanied by many dog walkers. Well the canal, despite its name, ironically doesn’t go into Rochdale but skirts the town at a discreet distance. Things have changed in Rochdale since the mills closed.

The train journey back on that line to Manchester Victoria only took 15mins.




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