Nothing quite prepares you for the entrance into the Castlefield Canal Basin.
But we were on a waterway which in its time was one of the most important and busiest waterways
The Duke’s Canal or the Bridgewater was built in the 1760s so that the Duke could transfer coal from his mines in Worsley directly into the heart of the city.
It was a great success and showed the way for many other canal entrepreneurs and led to the “Age of the Canal” a much overused title for the period but perhaps an accurate one, for in the 40 or so years after Bridgewater coal was landed in Manchester the country was crisscrossed with a canal network.
It would have begun with its building for while most of the work was done by the professional “navigators” those hard working hard living men who cut and constructed the canal, there was still some work for our own casual farm labourers.
And I guess one or two would have moved on with the navvies.
These were early days in the construction of the canals and later the railways and I doubt that the reputation the navvies were to make for themselves was much in evidence in the 1760s as they did the Duke’s bidding.
All of which was a darned sight different when just under 90 years later the navvies were back driving the railway line across the same route which would connect Stretford to the city. By now communities across the country had grown to be more than a little apprehensive of the presence of the railway navigator with their temporary camps and the stories of their riotous lives.
But this is a little away from our walk along the canal. Today it can be a relatively solitary journey but back in the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century the place would have been alive.
There were the regular journeys of boats taking fruit and vegetables from the farms of Chorlton and Stretford three times a week to catch the Manchester Markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings which proved so successful that the Company had to send the food boats at night and offer farmer’s seats on the packet boats. And on the return trip they brought back the night soil which our farmers spread on the land.
Then there were the twice daily package boats from Stretford along the canal which transported passengers in comfort and speed. A ticket for the front room cost 6d [2½p] and the back room 4d [1½p]. This was travelling in style.
These packet boats were fitted with large deck cabins surrounded by windows which allowed the passengers to sit “under cover and see the country” glide by at the rate of six miles an hour, made possible by two or sometimes three horses which pulled the packet. And if that was not style enough the lead horse was guided by a horseman in full company livery.
You can get a sense of how busy it could have been during high summer when the tourists and canal enthusiasts moor up, but this is not a working water way anymore. On a warm Saturday night there might be the sound of good conversation, the clink of wine glasses and the odd snatch of the radio, but not the sound of everything from coal to fine bone china being unloaded, or the babble of different regional accents swapping stories of their trips to Manchester.