Hello again people and pooches. Joe the Cocker here. Here in Runcorn, we are in lockdown still, as is the rest of the country. So, blogs of long walks in the hills and mountains have had to be put on hold. Instead, me and my human have been walking around our local area. Fortunately, we have a lot to see and a varied history for my human to entertain himself. Personally, as a Cocker Spaniel, I am happy to run, sniff stuff and generally mess about. My human says that if they gave out degrees to dogs for messing about then I would be a professor!
We decided to walk around the significant locations in a few different sessions. So, some days we would combine the location hunting with runs around parks and open spaces, for me.
A popular crossing point by ferry was from Fidler’s Ferry (now called Fiddler’s Ferry) on the Widnes side of the river. We walked there along the towpath of the Sankey Canal. It was good for me to run around except for when my human panicked because I was too close to the canal.
Small boats carried passengers for over 800 years from a landing stage near to the Ferry Tavern. The inn has been on this site for many years before the current building was constructed in 1762. People used to cross the river from here to watch prize fights and other illegal sports in the early 1900’s.
There is actually a piece of history being made in the next week or two in Runcorn, and in Widnes. The Silver Jubilee Bridge is to be re-opened to traffic after its major repair and paint job. The road bridge closed in October 2017 as the Mersey Gateway Bridge opened. The history of crossing the River Mersey between Runcorn and Widnes dates back to well before the Norman Conquest. But a ferry service was not made permanent until 1178. The Runcorn Gap, the narrow point of the Mersey between Runcorn and Widnes is the narrowest point on the river upstream from Liverpool. So, the two towns grew at this point and a need to cross from one side to the other became more important.
There have been a few ferrying points in the area, with some being more reliable and successful than others. With the area being tidal, with strong currents, the crossing has always been fraught with danger. The original ferry, introduced by John FitzRichard, 6th Baron of Halton, and operated by Richard de Mora (Moore), departed Runcorn from the bottom of Mersey Road, at Boat House Pool and crossed to Woodend (Spike Island), in Widnes. The timings of the crossing were totally dependant on the tides as at low tide, massive sandbanks appeared, making travel impossible. This ferry ran from this position for over 600 years.
With the current restrictions in place, we walked from the door to our next destination. So, over the Silver Jubilee Bridge we went and walked along the side of the River Mersey, past Pickerings Pasture and ahead toward Hale village. My dad, the human half of this partnership, likes to sing as we walk. This time I expected him to sing ‘Ferry, Cross the Mersey’ but, instead he destroyed ‘The River’ by The Boss. Thankfully, I could run away from him and pretend that I was sniffing out critters in the hedgerows.
Roughly one mile from the Silver Jubilee Bridge there is a junction with an old road, Within Way. The most dangerous crossing of the river took place at a point west of the Runcorn gap this point. The crossing, known as Hale Ford to Weston Point, was completed during low tide by foot! The first records of this crossing exist from the 15th century. At just under a mile, on sandbanks, the timing was crucial. A ferry also crossed at this point for hundreds of years. The crossing started at the end of Within Way and ended close to the site of Christ Church in Weston Point. It is documented that in 1423 John Walley attempted the crossing on horseback, with two other horses laden with fish. Only the two packhorses arrived safely in Weston Point with John never to be seen again. The following day, John’s horse was found and declared ‘Dower of the Sea’. This meant that the lord of the manor could claim anything washed up on his lands.
Hale Ford was used during the Civil War by Prince Rupert, when he was about to attack Liverpool. Parliamentary soldiers ran to its defense with some attempting to cross the river. They were captured and the attempted attack foiled. The ford was later used by Royalist soldiers. At the end of the Civil War, the ford fell from favour but was still used until the late 19th century. It ceased to be used at all when the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed with its large retaining wall proving to be too large an obstacle to cross.
The need for a more reliable method of crossing the Mersey at Runcorn Gap became a priority in the mid 19th century, as the industrialisation of the area grew. A railway bridge was proposed to cross the gap and in 1868 it was constructed and opened, with freight traffic passing over it the next year. The cast iron structure was, when it was built, the longest of its type in the world. It is known as the Ethelfleda Bridge, after the Lady of Mercia who formed a burgh on the Runcorn side of the river to repel the Viking invasion. Castle Rock, the site of the fortress was destroyed when the bridge was constructed.
It is also known as the Britannia Bridge after the shield on the middle of the bridge. For almost a century there was a wooden footway on the eastern side of the bridge. It cost one penny per person to walk across the footway from one town to the other. The height above the water was determined by the height of sailing ships that would pass under it, initially on the river and later on the Manchester Ship Canal. This meant that a significant incline was needed on both railway approaches to the bridge. The footpath closed in 1965 after the Silver Jubilee Bridge was constructed with a footpath alongside the road crossing.
At the turn of the century plans were drawn up for a road traffic crossing of Runcorn Gap to run parallel with the railway bridge. The revolutionary design was for a Transporter bridge. It was completed and opened in 1905 being Britain’s first, and the world’s largest transporter bridge. The reason for choosing the design was because of the need for tall ships to pass along the Manchester Ship Canal which had recently been completed. The advantage of this type of design was that when a tall ship was on the canal, the transporter could stop and wait for it to pass. The bottom of the transporter car was constructed to travel at 12 feet above high tide and only 4.5 feet above the canal wall.
On a good day, weather permitting, the journey took 2.5 minutes. The transporter car was designed to carry four 2-horse farm trucks and up to 300 passengers. The approaches to the Transporter Bridge are still in place on either side of the river with the Grade II Listed powerhouse, still standing in Widnes. It was truly a remarkable structure but by the time of it’s replacement in the early 1960’s, it was unable to cope with the ever-increasing demand for a road crossing. It was demolished shortly after the Silver Jubilee Bridge opened.
We have walked over the next bridge on so many occasions and in all weathers. The Silver Jubilee Bridge, with its iconic green arch, was opened in 1961 and was initially known as the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. The crossing took six years to build and enabled Runcorn to be passed through rather than be a cul-de-sac. This enabled the building of the New Town and the trebling of business at the Runcorn docks. It wasn’t long before it was realised that a two-lane bridge would not be sufficient to carry the amount of traffic that needed to cross the bridge. The roadway was changed to a three-lane highway and later, a four-lane road. The lane widening was completed in 1977 and the bridge given its current name, the Silver Jubilee Bridge with it being Queen Elizabeth II silver jubilee.
On one occasion we walked over the bridge when hand-painting was in progress under the arch of the bridge, by men dangling from the scaffolding. Painting of the bridge is a continuous process and always in the light green colour that it was originally painted in. However, it has had a complete paint job over the last 3.5 years since its closure. It will be a toll bridge when it reopens to bring it in line with the Mersey Gateway Bridge. The bridge will be a single lane in each direction, with a cycle lane, when it reopens. At the turn of the century, it was obvious that another bridge would be needed to cope with the ever-increasing traffic congestion. So, plans were drawn up for another bridge in the area.
The Mersey Gateway Bridge was constructed and opened in 2017. This six-lane 60 mph bridge has considerably alleviated the congestion problems in the area. It doesn’t allow cycles or pedestrians who will have to use the Silver Jubilee Bridge. The bridge passes from the Astmoor area of Runcorn to adjacent to Spike Island in Widnes. It is a spectacular sight and is illuminated by different coloured lights that shine on the three stanchions. At a cost of £600 million and 1.4 miles long it certainly dominates the view from both sides of the Mersey.
So, as we said earlier, the Silver Jubilee Bridge is about to re-open to traffic. It would have been good for me and my human if the Mersey Gateway Bridge had a footway. We could have walked a nice circular journey over the two road bridges. Ah well, thanks for reading. Till next time!
Thank you to Alan Forward for planting the seed for this blog 👍👍👍