Hello again people and pooches. Joe the Cocker here reporting on a walk from Spike Island in Widnes to Bewsey Lock in Warrington, along the St. Helens Canal, and back again! The canal, also known as the Sankey Canal, ran for 15 miles from Widnes to St. Helens. It was constructed in 1757 and was the first canal in England in the industrial era, predating the Bridgewater Canal by a few years. The reason for the Bridgewater claiming to be the first canal was because the Sankey Canal was originally supposed to be a river navigation of Sankey Brook. The Bridgewater was constructed as a walled canal and therefore claimed to be the first. The Sankey Brook Navigation was never constructed as the brook was deemed to be too shallow and meandering so, a walled canal was built along side the brook. So, the Sankey Canal was the first canal to be constructed in England in the Industrial Age. Mersey Flat barges ran along the canal so, the canal was wide with swing bridges. The canal was abandoned in 1963 but, still carried cargo up to the 1950’s.
We decided to park in the Spike Island car park to begin our walk from the locks that used to enter into the River Mersey. This area was incredibly busy in its heyday being the terminus of the St. Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway as well as the entrance to the River Mersey from the Sankey Canal. Nowadays, it is a landscaped area on the old Gossages Soapworks site, with the Catalyst Museum dominating the skyline. The canal is wide at Spike Island where boats are moored alongside each other. The Boat Club is next to the carpark where we left our car. Many swans and geese populate the canal and the area is popular with young families feeding the birds.
We headed off along the towpath on the opposite side of the canal to Spike Island. Our intention was to walk for about an hour, then turn back, making it approximately a seven mile walk. The end of the ‘wet’ section of the canal is in Bewsey, around 7.5 miles from our starting point. The remainder of the canal, toward St. Helens is in short sections with most of the original route being filled in. This would have been a pleasant stroll on a flat canal towpath with the aim of completing the route to Bewsey on another occasion. Things don’t always go to plan!
The day was overcast initially, with the odd burst of sunshine. We had the wind on our backs and a shower or two were forecast for later in the day. It was a good day for a walk and the under-paw conditions were good. There were a few puddles dotted along the towpath that always attract me to wade through and to take the odd slurp from.
As we crossed Woodend Bridge, on the site of the former railway bridge, we left Spike Island behind and headed along the towpath of the canal alongside the River Mersey. I had to stay on my lead as there were quite a few cyclists on the trail as the route was shared with the Trans Pennine Trail, a long distance cycle route and footpath. My lead extends so I could still have a sniff around the hedgerows and bushes. We passed under the large expanse of the Mersey Gateway Bridge, with the sprawling Mersey marshes on our right. We soon arrived at Carter House Swingbridge which has replaced the old fixed wooden bridge.
As we walked along the towpath, we came across a series of steel and wood walkways and viewpoints that overlook the marshland. Information boards tell you a little about the history of the area and the wildlife that can be seen. The views across the river toward Runcorn, the three bridges spanning the Mersey and to Halton Village deserved a few minutes halt to admire. From the viewpoint, overlooking Widnes Warth saltmarsh, you can see skylarks, meadow pipits and a variety of seabirds. The brackish waters in this tidal zone provide a habitat for many grasses and wildflowers.
Further along the path we came to the Future Flower, a 14 metre tall sculpture illuminated by the windpowered turbines attached beneath the petals. The artwork represents the regeneration of the area from industrial dereliction.
From a further viewpoint you can see many landmarks across the river including Daresbury Labs, Norton Water Tower, Wigg Island and Halton Castle. My human insisted on stopping at every information point to read about the area. All I wanted to do was keep moving so that I could sniff out any new finds along the way. We eventually moved on in the direction of Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.
Before we reached the power station, we passed the site of the former Johnsons Lane swingbridge, which is nowadays an open drain. At this point the canal has not been cleared of vegetation and is silted up and densely filled with reeds and grasses. Looming over us on our left was the eight huge cooling towers, the central stack and the buildings of the power station. The site has recently closed and is due to be demolished due to coal fired electricity production being deemed uneconomical.
Soon we came to Marsh House Bridge, which is a fairly recent construction, replacing the swingbridge here that collapsed under the weight of a lorry in 2013. It has been designed to allow water traffic to pass through if the section of canal that we had just passed is eventually cleared to allow passage to Spike Island.
The next section of the canal is wider, allowing boats to moor in the area. One boat in particular appears to have been there for some time and is becoming one with nature! The surface of the water is coated in algae with channels formed by swimming ducks and their following young. On our right was the Fidlers Ferry Lock, which was once the entrance to the River Mersey. Until 1833 this was the end of the Sankey Canal until the extension to Spike Island was built.
The marina houses boats that enter the Mersey via another lock that was restored in the 1980’s. We passed the boatyard and yacht club then took a slight detour from the canal to pass the Ferry Tavern, formerly the Ferry Inn. The pub was being readied for visitors wanting a Sunday lunch and a pint. The outdoor tables provide a good view over the river and across to Runcorn. Built in 1762 to replace an earlier inn it is on the site of the river ferry crossing point.
The pub was supposed to be our turning point and where we should have headed back toward Spike Island. Instead, my dad suggested that we carry on toward Warrington, for a short while. We entered into Sankey Valley Park at this point along a recently resurfaced towpath. The walking was easy as we headed east with the canal on our left. After a short section of disused road walking, we reached the area known as Sankey Bridges.
At Sankey Bridges, several crossings of the canal have been constructed, including road crossings, footbridges and a level crossing over the railway line. My dad was fascinated by a man ‘magnet fishing’ in the canal. The man was throwing a large magnet attached to a rope into the canal and then dragging it out to see what he had ‘fished’ out. Apparently, a shotgun and a sword are recent finds in the canal in this region.
After crossing the railway line, we sat in a small area of parkland by a BMX track, while we ate a snack and drank water. My human looked at the map and instead of turning back toward the car he decided to continue along the line of the canal as far as Bewsey Lock. We walked through the short stretch of parkland along the side of the canal until we crossed the very busy dual carriageway of the A57. On crossing the road, we walked along the popular stretch of the Sankey Valley Greenway that led to Bewsey Old Hall. We chose to not visit the Old Hall but , to just take a photograph of Bewsey Hall Lodge, saving the main hall for another day. We passed under the Seven Arches railway viaduct that was constructed in 1873 to carry the Liverpool to Manchester railway.
The path took us to Bewsey Lock and pond which is the current end of the ‘in water’ section of the Sankey Canal. We crossed the swingbridge spanning the lock and at this point my human suggested that we had walked far enough. We had hiked for almost 7.5 mile so, our short walk for the day would end up being a 15 miler by the time we returned to the car. We walked back toward the A57 along the wooded footpath between the canal and Sankey Brook. It was much quieter on that side of the canal with a rougher footpath but away from the more frequented areas. I had a good run off-lead along this stretch of the walk but, it was back on the lead at the road crossing.
We retraced our steps from Sankey Bridges along the next five miles or so to the car. There were a lot fewer people to share the towpath with on our return so I was allowed to run free for long periods. The weather was warmer but the wind in our faces cooled us down as we headed toward Widnes.
It turned into a longer walk than we had planned but we had enjoyed ourselves. The weather had been kind to us with none of the rain expected materialising so, we jumped into the car and a short time later, we were home and ready for a rest. Till next time!