So ferry cross the Mersey
cause this land's the place I love
and here I'll stay
- 'Ferry Cross the Mersey' by Gerry and the Pacemakers
The River Mersey is one of the world's most famous waterways. It is only the 24th longest river in the United Kingdom, but its impact on the world underlies the commonly quoted theory that size isn't everything.
Its name comes from the Anglo Saxon for border river. For centuries this river formed the boundary between Cheshire and Lancashire. It has been suggested that before that it formed the border between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, but for long periods of time the Mercians ruled areas north of the river.
A Tale of Three Rivers
There were once three rivers. In fact they still exist today. Rising in the north, near the moors of Saddleworth, is the River Tame. It flows south through the Saddleworth villages, then through Stalybridge, Ashton, Hyde and Dukinfield, now part of the Tameside Metropolitan Borough. By its side for many miles of its journey are man-made imitations, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and Peak Forest Canal. These were once key components of the world's first industrial awakening.
From the centre, the River Etherow rises in the Peak District, near the long abandoned Woodhead Tunnels that linked the cities of Manchester and Sheffield by rail. It flows through Longdendale, forming a string of reservoirs that feed The Rainy City1 to their west. Skirting around the north of Glossop, it briefly forms the border between Derbyshire and Greater Manchester.
On Axe Edge Moor, in the High Peak, near the Cat and Fiddle pub, among the barren wilderness that forms this part of the Derbyshire–Cheshire border, the River Goyt is formed by the rains that fall on this high plateau. It heads north through the Goyt Valley and the Dale of Goyt. Shadowed by the Peak Forest Canal it passes towns such as Furness Vale and New Mills, where the evocative names recall the time when this was the manufacturing heart of an empire. The great stone buildings stand empty now, shadows of a long dead age.
Between Romiley and Marple, the Etherow joins the Goyt. Once this was the start of the Mersey, now it is just a strengthening of the Goyt which heads west towards Stockport.
There are probably more spectacular and more romantic starts to many of the world's great rivers. The Goyt roars in underneath a stone bridge somewhere behind a supermarket car park in Stockport Town Centre.
The Tame passes by a large patch of waste ground, where little remains of the Cheshire Lines Committee's once busy Stockport Tiviot Dale railway station. The Tame emerges on the south side of the M60 Orbital Motorway, and it is here that it meets the Goyt. Marked only by a piece of public art metalwork, the Mersey now starts its 70-mile journey to the sea at Liverpool Bay.
But as suddenly as it starts, it vanishes again, going underground as it is covered by a shopping centre and the A6 road that once linked Manchester to London.
The Mersey Valley along this stretch is overlooked by high urbanised ground on either side. Majestically linking Manchester to the north with Stockport and London beyond is the great brick viaduct. Bestriding the river and motorway over 100ft high, this landmark of the industrial age is the first of many that the river sees.
Long-extinct mills sit next to the river in the dark red stone canyon. The M60 then crosses over to the south side where it continues to follow the flat river valley around the south of the Greater Manchester conurbation. Remains of more long-abandoned railway lines are seen as the river runs south of the suburbs of Heaton Norris and Heaton Mersey. The Stockport, Timperley & Altincham Junction Railway2, ran east-west, heading east it ran along the north bank of the River into Tiviot Dale. The Midland Railway line crossed over this just on the north side of the river. It linked Heaton Mersey with Cheadle Heath to the south, forming a route from Manchester Central to the Peak District. While just traces of the bridges remain, both lines remain south of the river, linked by a curve. Now single tracked, it is used as a freight line.
While some of the weirs remain, there are few traces of the bleach works and other factories that lined the river.
The City of Manchester
The river leaves the Borough of Stockport and enters the City of Manchester. Here in the respectable suburb of East Didsbury, the residents of the houses that back onto the river are saved from madness by the miracle of double glazing. Forget any ideas of an idyllic river scene here as the great Mersey sees the three modes of transport that supplanted river transport as the premier way of getting around this Sceptred Isle. Three railways pass through here. Close to the river, the aforementioned freight line joins the old London and North Western line that still carries passengers from Stockport to Altringham on the south side of the river. Crossing them is the busy Styal line taking would-be jetsetters from Manchester to Manchester Airport. Looking to the south, one can see airliners seemingly hanging in the air as they approach the airport from far away climes. However, most of the noise comes from the more mundane road network. The dual-carriageway A34 takes motorists south out of the city heading towards Wilmslow and perhaps Stafford, Birmingham and Winchester beyond; it runs next to the railway. The roar of the motorway is difficult to get away from along the first few miles of the river. In fact there is not one, but two to contend with as the M56 splits away from the M60, providing a rapid link to the traffic jam on the A556 waiting to join the M6.
There are few houses near the river as it visits the three Didsburies, instead there is parkland, farmland and a plurality of golf courses. The river makes a brief visit south of the M60 as it passes through the village of Northenden, where the it passes over a great weir before passing back under the ring road. It is here it also crosses under the Palatine Road, the name of which recalls one of the functions that the river used to perform here. Before Greater Manchester was created, this road linked the two palatine counties3 of Lancashire and Cheshire on either side of the boundary formed by the river.
Past the impressive riverside dwellings of West Didsbury and under the Princess Parkway at its junction with the M60, the Mersey continues to be flanked on either side with leisure sites for the residents of the conurbation. Chorlton Water Park and Chorlton Ees are on the north side, with more golf courses and Sale Water Park to the south. The importance of the golf courses, fields and parks that sit astride the river along here becomes obvious if the Mersey floods. They sacrifice themselves to the floodwater to protect the homes and businesses beyond. For a while the river performs as a natural boundary, between the City of Manchester to the north and the Borough of Trafford to the south. Along here grey heron watch the water flow and tumble over small weirs.
As it reaches Chorlton Brook, the border heads north leaving the river flowing entirely within Trafford. After it passes the meadows of Stretford Ees, it encounters two forms of transport. The first is the old Manchester, South Junction and Altringham railway line that now plays host to the Metrolink tram system. Running parallel to the modern metal of the mass transit is the Bridgewater Canal, one of the first canals in the country and a competitor to the river in moving freight out of Manchester.
Just past these dissimilar twins, the river bids farewell to the M60 as it passes under it again, heading south, and then under the A56 Chester Road and the former A6144(M) motorway in disguise.
Tighter meanders are the name of the game now as the river squeezes between Flixton in the north and the industrial sprawl of Carrington. It is just to the west of this, by the outlying Salford suburb of Irlam, it meets the Manchester Ship canal, another staggering feat of British engineering and another episode of the one upmanship between Manchester and Liverpool. The Ship Canal comes in from the north. It once served the great docks of Manchester, Salford and Trafford Park, but now sees little commercial shipping as Liverpool's Freeport is the dock of choice for most modern ships, which are too large for the canal to handle. Once, this was where the River Irwell joined the Mersey, but its path has been obliterated by the great artificial waterway.
Passengers on the former Cheshire Lines railway, now the mainline between Manchester and Liverpool via Warrington, pass high over the ship canal not quite crossing the Mersey. Depending on the direction of their intercity journey, they can see the marriage or divorce of these two famous watercourses.
With the Ship Canal comes the City of Salford, with the now joined river and canal playing host to the boundary between the city of Salford and the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford.
As the Ship Canal, the Mersey runs between Cadishead to the north and Partington to the south. The Glaze Brook flows in from the north and with it comes Cheshire. Finally the old river becomes part of the Cheshire Border, like in days of old. In these days of boundary changes and unitary authorities, Cheshire, in the form of the Borough of Warrington, is actually on the north bank of the river.
The River Bollin, which flows in from the south, brings a parting of the ways. We say a farewell to Trafford and Greater Manchester as the Mersey dives fully into Cheshire. It also bids a brief adieu to the Ship Canal as, at Bollin Point, the Mersey heads off north-west, now having established itself on the north side of the canal.
Towering over the two comes the Thelwall Viaduct, carrying cars, lorries and coaches uninterrupted over the Thelwall Eyes, a nature reserve home to waterfowl. The 1963 structure carries the M6 28m (93ft) above the ship canal. A twin, which now carries the southbound carriageway, was opened in 1995. Often blighted with traffic jams, especially between 2002 and 2005 when all the bearings had to be replaced in the original bridge, the viaduct offers passengers a great view over the flat landscape of South Lancashire and the Cheshire plain.
Now, into the outskirts of the town of Warrington, the Mersey finally gains its wings, crossing the Woolston Weir and becoming tidal. For all those fascinated by the glimpses of old railways, we are crossed by another one, the line from Stockport to Liverpool Central via Warrington Bank Quay Low Level, which exists now in a truncated from, as a freight only line.
Slinking through Warrington, the Mersey loops south to where it is linked to the Ship Canal by the Runcorn and Latchform Canal; the west-bound branch of this is long since disused. Heading north again, we pass under the still very much in use West Coast Main Line Railway and past the disused transporter bridge. This structure, out of use since the mid 1960s, was built in 1915, the younger of a pair that originally stood on here. We pass by Bank Quay station, Warrington's station on the West Coast Main Line giving it access to trains to Preston, Crewe, Glasgow, London, Wigan, Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales and Chester. This is what used to be the High Level station; the Low Level station is long gone, no longer seeing passenger traffic.
Urging on towards the coast, Sankey Brook joins to the north. Further along the north bank we find the St Helen's Canal and the Stockport to Liverpool line, existing mainly now to supply the Fiddlers Ferry Power Station with its lifeblood, coal. Sixteen thousand tonnes of this are consumed by the 1971 power station, along with 195 million litres of the Mersey. With its eight cooling towers and a 200m high chimney, this generator of 1,989MW of electricity can be seen from the hills of the Peak District.
To the south there is marshland and sandbanks between the river and the Ship Canal that carry on now most of the way till the two come back together.
The St Helen's Canal joins at Spike Island, next to Widnes. The canal opened in 1757 and used to join the Mersey along with Sankey Brook. It was extended to the docks at Fidders Ferry then finally reaching Spike Island in the 1830s. It was also known as the Sankey Canal and was closed in the 1960s. Thanks to heavy industries, the water of the canal and the adjoining Sankey Brook contained huge levels of poisons like arsenic. Spike Island was a toxic site, the result of its chemical factories, railway lines and docks rusting and decaying. Grasslands and forests have been introduced to reclaim the land and, in 1991 Manchester band The Stone Roses played a concert here. At the Widnes end is the Catalyst Museum, the UK's only dedicated chemistry museum.
Well into the Borough of Halton, we have now reached Runcorn and the Runcorn Gap, the narrowest point between here and the Irish Sea. On the north side is Widnes, the town that grew out of the chemical industry and was the subject of such glowing opinions as 'the dirtiest, ugliest and most depressing town in England,' 'poisonous hell-town,' and Paul Simon's, 'If you know Widnes, then you'll understand how I was desperately trying to get back to London as quickly as possible.' To the south is Runcorn, another industrial town that has tried to fight off the decline since the industries have left and since Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps was cancelled. Through the Gap the Ship Canal is only separated from the river by a concrete wall. A transporter bridge once worked the river here, but is long gone. In its place are two bridges, the eastern one is the 1961 Silver Jubilee Road Bridge, a 1,082 feet (330 m) compression arch suspended-deck bridge that spans both the River Mersey and the Canal. It was built in this form because the neighbouring railway bridge causes too many oscillations for the road bridge to be a suspension bridge. The rail bridge carries the Liverpool branch of the West Coast Main Line. It was originally built in 1868 and the Ship Canal had to be built under it.
At night the Runcorn Gap is a spectacular sight for weary travellers who have finally negotiated the Runcorn expressway system to reach the last road bridge over the Mersey. The lights of the industries illuminate the darkness giving an emphatic response to the view that industry in Great Britain is dead.
The Mersey now rounds Weston Point under the view of Runcorn Hill. In a sorry state, these sad docks complete with half sunk boats are yet another sign of when this part of the country had seen better days. Weston Mersey Locks links the river with the Manchester Ship Canal, the Weaver Navigation and the River Weaver. As we head east again, the southern shore says goodbye to Halton and hello to the newly created Cheshire West and Chester Unitary Authority.
Cheshire West and Chester Unitary Authority
Along here are the Frodsham, Helsby and Ince marshes as well as more heavy industries. The villages of Helsby and Frodsham sit back beyond the Ship Canal, both backed by their own hills, providing viewpoints over the Mersey Estuary. This stretch, until the river turns north again, is the widest part of the Mersey. Many of the sands that appear on the maps as land are oft under the waves. From Weston Point onwards, the river becomes the Mersey Estuary.
The village of Hale is the last that we see of Cheshire on the north bank, as the City of Liverpool takes its place. Part of the county of Merseyside, it is the city, out of the three that the river runs through, most associated with the River Mersey. Speke, the suburb on the north bank and once home to George Harrison (Paul McCartney lived in Allerton), is one of the most deprived areas in the country. Between it and the river is its former airport, now Liverpool John Lennon Airport, which thanks to its courting of the low cost airline market saw its passenger numbers rise over 600% in the nine years to 2007.
Along the south we now pass the Stanlow Oil Refinery, providing the region's cars and lorries, instrumental in the decline of the river, with fuel. Ellesmere Port and its car plant are the last main sights before the Ship Canal finally merges back with the River as Eastham Docks. Just before here, Cheshire ceases to border the river, with Wirral Metropolitan Borough, another part of Merseyside, becoming the authority on the south side of the river until it reaches the open sea. The Wirral peninsula, once part of Cheshire, sits between the Mersey and the River Dee estuary, which is also the Welsh Border.
On the north bank we find the first of the great docks from which the City of Liverpool grew. The Port of Garston was built in 1853 by the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway Company and is still a major commercial port. It is separate from the main Liverpool docks.
The great conurbation of Merseyside is in evidence on both sides. As the river turns northwards in its final run towards the Irish Sea, the north bank is now the west bank. On here are Aigburth, Dingle and Toxteth. On the west side we have Port Sunlight, Rock Ferry and Tranmere. As we pass Toxteth we meet the first of the main Liverpool Docks, Herculaneum Dock, which linked together an Empire. The Sandstone cliffs above allowed volatile chemicals to be stored safely. It also contains a tunnel where the Liverpool Overhead Railway ran to its final destination in Dingle. Filled in since the 1980s, it has suffered the same fate as many of its 42 northern neighbours.
The city centre of Liverpool sits opposite the main part of Birkenhead. While the buildings of this shipbuilding centre are impressive on their own, they are overshadowed by the Great City across the water. The famous Albert Dock plays host to a collection of bars, galleries, restaurants and museums. An extension of the Leeds and Liverpool canal runs in front of the Three Graces, the Cunard Building, The Port of Liverpool Building and The Royal Liver Building. Legend says that the Liver Birds on the top of the latter will flap when a good woman passes by - they have been still for living memory.
The Pier Head is here too. While the bus station has vanished, this remains the last collection of cross river traffic. A road and rail tunnel run under the river close to here, with the Wallasey Tunnel just further north. As amazing as these engineering feats may be, especially the Rail Tunnel, which was constructed in 1886, they are dwarfed in fame terms by the Mersey Ferry. The ferries have run since the 12th Century and still run today. Now, supplanted by road and rail, they are a tourist must, giving passengers a tour of the more northern docks before stopping at Seacombe and Woodside and subjecting them to Gerry Marsden's 'Ferry Cross the Mersey' at every opportunity. The song, which was a top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1964, was remade with an array of celebrity scousers after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, reaching No 1 in the UK.
The Pier Head plays host to the new Liverpool Cruise Liner Terminal. Thanks to the details of the bid that produced the funding, the terminal does not have the immigration or baggage facilities to allow cruise liners to start and finish from the terminal, they can only visit. For cruises to start from Liverpool, they have to use Langton dock, a few miles north. As well as being difficult to reach, passengers are afforded memorable views of scrap yards and decaying docks. The lack of facilities does not affect the Isle of Man Steam Packet Ferries which run from the landing stage here.
On the Wirral side, the remaining docks do not lie on the river, instead they are on The Great Float, an inlet just north of central Birkenhead. The faded resort of New Brighton stands at the head of the Wirral Peninsula, marking the end of the Mersey.
On the Liverpool side, the docks and massive brick warehouses are ghosts of a once thriving port. Urban decay is rife in the streets leading back from the river with sad low rise structures and boarded up churches interspersed with the dock buildings. Into Sefton Metropolitan Borough, we come to Bootle and the Liverpool Freeport which is still an active container port.
Now the freshwater of the River Mersey mixes into the saltwater of the Irish Sea. Seventy miles, three cities, two motorways and countless railways from Stockport, we say goodbye.
The Mersey and the World
The river was a vital artery at the start of the industrial revolution as evidenced by remains of the old mills that still sit on its banks.
From the 19th Century, Liverpool became one of the major trading ports of the British Empire. The Mersey Estuary allowed ships easy access to the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Once the Manchester Ship Canal opened up, the industries of Manchester had access to the open sea via the Mersey. The docks in Salford and Manchester combined to become one of the busiest ports in the country. Trafford Park was built as the world's first industrial park, thanks to the Mersey. Heavy goods and clothing alike could be loaded onto great boats and taken out to sea without having to deal with the high fees of Liverpool.
Well into the second half of the 20th Century these docks were thriving. In the 1950s and 60s, sailors from the United States brought with them the latest rock'n'roll and R&B4 records. Kids in Liverpool readily lapped them up and started playing these songs in their own bands, breaking away from the English skiffle tradition. Countless bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Merseybeats, The Searchers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and, of course, The Beatles were labelled as Merseybeat bands and many went onto huge chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. Billy Fury was another pop idol who grew up on with these transatlantic sounds. He worked on the Mersey Ferries and a statue of him stands by the Pier Head, looking out over the river.
Flats and Bores
The tidal range of the Mersey is over 8m. This is the second greatest range in Britain. The range is so great that tidal bores can form on spring tides. Because of this range, normal boats found it difficult to navigate the river. Mersey Flats were, unsurprisingly, flat bottomed boats that hauled loads up and down the river and its connecting canals. First built in the 16th Century, they lasted well into the 20th.
The Fall and Rise of the River
Gradually, the docks have moved further north up the river and into Liverpool Bay as previous docks grew too small and they were too susceptible to silting up. Most commercial traffic has stopped using the Manchester Ship Canal. This does not mean the river's time as a working river has passed. Garston docks are still used and big ships pass the Liverpool river front.
The old docks may give off an atmosphere of better times behind them, but the docks are handing more tonnage than ever before. The Bootle and Seaforth docks still handle a large percentage of container traffic with North America, and they are directly connected to the West Coast Main Line by rail.
Heavy industry, untreated sewage and lots of ships led to the Mersey becoming one of the most polluted rivers in the world. By the 1980s a campaign was launched to help bring wildlife back to the river. In recent years salmon have returned to the river and both seals and otters have been spotted.
The Mersey Valley in south Manchester has become home to health walks. Aside from patches of sand, the walks along the banks are also easily accessible for bikes and wheelchairs. In Liverpool the area around the Pier Head has been transformed into an open public space, bisected by the Leeds Liverpool Canal. The regeneration is most evident in the collection of new build and conversion flats springing up along the river front. Along the final stretches of the river, wind turbines sweep giant circles, generating electricity from the severe wind off the Irish Sea.
British Hindus see the Mersey as the British version of the Ganges and perform their ceremonies there, although they draw the line at ritual bathing.
The Transpennine Trail runs along parts of the Mersey in Stockport and along the upper streaches of the River Etherow for all those hardy souls who want to walk or cycle from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.