The Big Ditch...

Manchester's Ship Canal

An expanded version of the History Press (formally Tempus Publishing) Book by Cyril J Wood in eBook format


Chapter Two - Description of the Route of the Manchester Ship Canal


Before entry onto the Ship Canal is attempted, permission must be obtained from the Manchester Ship Canal Company.  For details of how to go about this and what preparations need to be made before cruising the Ship Canal, please refer to the chapter on Navigational Information.

The Manchester Ship Canal and adjoining waterways



Eastham Locks from the River Mersey at sunrise


The northern end of the Manchester Ship Canal is approached from the tidal River Mersey estuary at Eastham, upstream of the old Eastham Ferry landing stage (now demolished).  The river’s channel is regularly dredged and is deceptively deep at this point even though it is close to the banks of the river. Navigation of the River Mersey should only be attempted whilst accompanied by a River Mersey Pilot and permission from the Manchester Ship Canal Company must be obtained well in advance of when access to the canal is required.



The entrance locks at Eastham looking towards Liverpool.

The scaffolding structures are called “Dolphins” which are used to guide craft into the locks


On arrival at the canal, there are four entrance locks. On the left are the old barge locks used by the Mersey flats and other barges small enough to fit. Use of these locks meant that a large amount of water was not wasted by barges using the larger ship locks.  Adjacent to the disused barge locks are two sets of ship locks allowing passage to ships of larger dimensions.  These locks have intermediate gates so that smaller craft do not have to use the full length of the locks and in doing so, saving water.  The fourth set of locks on the right, slightly downstream from the Ship Canal entrance locks and, incidentally the largest, are not actually connected to the Ship Canal, but allow tankers access to the Queen Elizabeth II Oil Terminal adjacent to the canal. Also adjacent to the entrance locks are control sluices and the de-masting berths used for removing ship’s funnels and masts when they were too tall to fit beneath the fixed bridges on the canal.  Some later ships were constructed either to conform to the Ship Canal’s dimensions or were fitted with telescopic masts and funnels that made the de-masting berths redundant.  Tugs and “gig” boats (small craft used for bringing ropes ashore) still use this area as their berths whilst waiting for the ships that they are to guide along the canal. 


Map 1 - Eastham before 1953, prior to construction of the Queen Elizabeth 2 Oil Terminal


Map 2 - Eastham - Present Day


Eastham Locks looking towards Mount Manisty

After passing through the entrance locks, the canal follows the banks of the River Mersey, from which the canal is separated by a narrow strip of land known as Pool Hall Bay Embankment.  Before long, a small river passes beneath the canal in a “siphon” and runs across the mud flats exposed at low tide and into the river.  The siphon is a technique pioneered by James Brindley when improving the mine drainage at the Wet Earth Collieries near Bolton and also at Castlefield in Manchester where the River Medlock was diverted beneath the Bridgewater Canal’s basins.  This technique is used at many locations along the canal were a watercourse is required to cross the canal but not to physically connect with it.


Map 3 - Eastham to Mount Manisty


One of the navigation beacons that line the length of the canal. This particular example is marked "2" and is close to Mount Manisty

The outlet from Pool Hall Syphon

The rural setting of the canal’s surroundings start to change to a more industrial nature and it is not long before Mount Manisty is reached.  This is an artificial mound created by the waste from the canal’s construction and named after the engineer in charge of the construction of this section of the canal.  On the eastern bank can be seen the unloading berths for Bowater’s Paper Mills with the Vauxhall Motors’ Ellesmere Port plant behind it.  Mount Manisty is now a nature reserve and is home to many species of wildlife such as badgers, rabbits, hedgehogs and foxes, as is most of the embankment separating the canal from the River Mersey.


The view from on top of Mount Manisty looking towards Eastham with Pool Hall Syphon on the left

Mount Manisty Cutting


Map 4 - Mount Manisty to Ellesmere Port


“Solon” unloading at Ellesmere Port in 1993

Looking towards Mount Manisty from Ellesmere Port Docks

About a mile on from Bowater’s Wharf is the Ellesmere Port Container Terminal built in 1970 on the North Quay.  Roll-on-roll-off car ferries bring in foreign cars as well as taking British cars for export as well as container ships from all over the world. It is not uncommon to see Russian, Spanish and Japanese ships moored next to each other at the quay.  Adjacent to the container terminal is the entrance to the Shropshire Union Canal and its numerous basins.  Thomas Telford’s original lighthouse stands sentinel over the entrance locks and dates from 1828 when, prior to the construction of the Ship Canal, the canal ran straight into the Mersey Estuary.   Today it has the distinction of being the only lighthouse on the British inland waterways system.


Map 5 - Ellesmere Port to Stanlow


Telford’s Lighthouse before restoration… originally marking the entrance locks to the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port.

Since the construction of the MSC it has been one of the few lighthouses on the inland waterways system.

A more recent photograph after restoration

The lighthouse, Shropshire Union Canal entrance basins and housing development surrounding the Boat Museum today. 

The Boat Museum’s Lower Basin

Looking up the duplicated locks to the Upper Basin

There were extensive warehouses located here, the most famous being “Telford’s Warehouses” constructed to house clay for the potteries and other commodities not suitable for storage outside.  Their graceful arches spanned the basins until they were damaged by fire in May 1970 and had to be demolished.  Today the area is the home to the Boat Museum, one of the premier museums of canal and inland navigation history in the country. The Museum has a wide range of craft and exhibits on display ranging from Mersey Flats, a concrete barge, narrow boats, various historic canal craft and even a “starvationer” as used inside the Worsley Mines on the Bridgewater Canal.  There is a café and a large shop selling canalia, books, videos, etc.  The Museum is well worth a visit and can provide a special plaque for visitors arriving by boat… regardless of which canal they arrive on.  Arrangements can be made to moor in the Museum’s basins overnight and whilst visiting the museum. It is also one of the few “bolt holes” for small (by Ship Canal standards) craft traversing the Ship Canal.

A concrete barge that once travelled along the MSC to Liverpool preserved in the Boat Museum

Opposite the Boat Museum, the embankment separating the Ship Canal from the River Mersey gives way to a concrete dam which is the location that water was first admitted into this section of the canal and caused so many problems in the November of 1892.

The location where water was first admitted into the MSC in 1892


A barge rounding the bend at Ellesmere Port adjacent to the Boat Museum

The Boat Museum is followed by the Stanlow Oil Refinery and it’s tanker berths.  These berths constructed in 1922 and expanded in 1933 are located on Stanlow Island.  The island was once home to Stanlow Priory were Benedictine or “Black” monks lived until the priory was closed.  They relocated to Chester and established a Cathedral there in the twelfth century.  The reason for the closure of the priory was the encroachment of the river and the severe weather that constantly battered the buildings during the winter, conditions that were also prevalent during the construction of the canal.  Today, the remains of the priory buildings can still be traced in the undergrowth.  The only residents on the island are rabbits, hares, badgers, foxes and other wildlife.  The older buildings on the island still bare the camouflage that disguised them from the probing eyes of the Luftwaffe during World War Two. 


The private ferry at Stanlow Island connecting the island to the refinery in 1990


The Stanlow Island ferry landing stage looking towards Ince

It is only possible to reach Stanlow Island by ferryboat from the refinery opposite although, when researching and photographing the canal, I did walk from Eastham to Stanlow along the embankment that separates the canal from the river, a practice that is not encouraged by the Manchester Ship Canal or Shell UK who controls the oil berths at Stanlow. There are two berths located on the island plus a turning basin used when manoeuvring tankers in and out of the berths.  The Stanlow Island Ferry runs from one of the lay-byes on the canal, opposite the island.  Ships can moor in the lay-by to await access to the main oil berths on the island or load and unload if access to the main berths is not required. The hose handling rigs installed here rise and fall with the ships as their cargo is discharged or loaded.


The old beacon on Stanlow Island


A tidal refuge at Stanlow Island

On the southern side of the island, the River Gowy passes beneath the Ship Canal in a siphon. At one time, the point were the Gowy runs into the Mersey was used for mooring craft and a tide refuge can still be seen poking out of the mud. The River Gowy forms the southern geographical boundary of the Wirral Peninsula and the Ship Canal now enters Cheshire as it passes along the side of the oil refinery with its numerous berths and lay-bys.  The refinery is followed by Ince Power Station, which possesses unloading wharves.  At one time, the power station received fuel in the form of shale oil delivered via the Ship Canal and unloaded at the wharf.

Map 6 Stanlow to Ince

Ince Marshes

Approaching Frodsham Marshes doing slightly more than 4 mph on board Carmet Towing's mv "Venom"

The flat marshlands that follow Stanlow are the Ince and Frodsham marshes.  They indicate the edge of the Cheshire Plain, created after the Ice Age, when the glaciers melted and their waters ran to the sea forming the Mersey Basin in the process.  Due to the marshes being only slightly above sea level, they are criss-crossed by many drainage dykes or gutters, which come together and pass beneath the Ship Canal in a siphon before running into the Mersey at Frodsham Score.  The towns of Frodsham and Helsby can be seen in the distance huddling beneath the stone outcrops of the hills that protect them.  If Helsby Hill is viewed from the south, at a particular angle the profile of a Native American’s face can be seen in the rock-face.

Map 7 Ince to Frodsham Marshes

Looking towards Stanlow at Frodsham Marshes

Frodsham Marshes at this point contain sludge ponds where dredgings from the Ship Canal are deposited. The canal clings to the River Mersey’s banks as it starts a giant “s” bend lasting until Runcorn. The first sweeping curve towards Weston Point, before which, the River Weaver runs across the canal.  Soon the Ship Canal widens out as the entrance to the River Weaver is reached.  The water running down the River Weaver feeds into the Ship Canal and opposite the river’s mouth are situated sluices through which the river’s water empties into the River Mersey.  Care must be exercised due to the volume of water passing across the canal after periods of rain.  Shortly after the entrance to the River Weaver can be seen Weston Marsh Lock, the entrance lock to the Weaver Navigation.  This is a canal that bypasses the lower section of the River Weaver and the location was named “Salt Port” due to the primary substance that was loaded into ships at this point.  Today, it is the location of the giant Castner Kellner chemical plant.  At night, when illuminated, this complex is especially impressive.  The Weaver Navigation also gives access to the Trent and Mersey Canal via the restored Anderton Boat Lift and the disused Runcorn and Weston Canal that originally connected to Runcorn Docks and the Bridgewater Canal. Larger ships require help around this turn and were assisted by tugs to ensure that the combination of the tight turn, winds coming off the exposed River Mersey and water running out of the River Weaver was negotiated safely.

Weston Marsh Lock leading to the Weaver Navigation

Weston Marsh Lock with Castner Kellner chemical works in the background

Marker buoys marking the channel at Weaver Turn

A channel marker buoy in front of Weaver Sluices

Map 8 - Frodsham Marshes to Weston Point

Weston Point Power Station undergoing refurbishment in 2013

Weston Point Power Station in the 1930's showing the Runcorn and Weston Canal as well as the MSC and River Mersey

A little further on today Weston Point Turn is dominated by the Eddie Stobart Logistics Terminal and Warehouse

(Photograph - Eddie Stobart Logistics)

As the Ship Canal rounds the bend at Weston Point there are three waterways side by side… the River Mersey, the Manchester Ship Canal and the Runcorn and Weston Canal.  Just before Runcorn Docks are reached can be seen the disused Weston Mersey Lock which gave flats and barges access to the river at that point.  Shortly after this, the Runcorn and Weston canal reaches its truncated destination at what is now the giant Eddie Stobart Logistics Terminal, leaving the Mersey and the Ship Canal to their own devices.

A narrowboat's eye view of "Stolt Kestrel" loading at Runcorn Docks


A disused part of Runcorn Docks in 1987, now in-filled

Bridgewater House looking isolated and forlorn in 1987...

... and today the building is a college surrounded by business developments

Once around the bend at Weston Point, the canal passes the disused entrance locks that gave access from the Ship Canal to the Bridgewater Canal.  The locks, now sadly filled-in are watched over by Bridgewater House, an impressive mansion built by Francis Egerton for James Brindley and himself to live in whilst overseeing the construction of their canal.  The house dates from a period of time when a window tax was imposed.  Consequently, many of what appear to be windows are actually imitations painted onto the brickwork.  At one time, the house was the Port Division Office for the Manchester Ship Canal but is now a college. 



Two photographs taken either side of the Runcorn Bridge in 1986 


Map 9 - Weston Point

The Ship Canal and Mersey Estuary looking towards Eastham from Weston Point

The adjacent River Mersey now narrows considerably and, consequently first bridge crossings of river and the Ship Canal loom in the distance.  First, the Victoria Railway Bridge carrying the main railway line from Liverpool to London. This is quickly followed by the Runcorn-Widnes Suspension Bridge constructed in 1964 to replace the earlier Transporter Bridge opened in 1905, that occupied a location adjacent to today’s bridge.

A rare, poor quality photograph showing the three Runcorn/Widnes Bridges prior to the demolition of the Transporter Bridge in 1964, immediately after the completion of the suspension bridge

The small pier with the railings around it is all that remains on the Runcorn bank of the Runcorn/Widnes Transporter Bridge.

The span of the Runcorn Widnes Bridge is illustrated in this photograph. At one time it was the longest suspension bridge in Europe


Map 10 - Runcorn prior to the infilling of The Bridgewater Canal Locks


Map 11 - Runcorn - Present Day

After the suspension bridge is the disused Old Quay Lock, which used to give access to the upper reaches of the Mersey and Widnes Dock… the terminus of the Saint Helens Canal.  Adjacent to the lock was located the Manchester Ship Canal’s Old Quay workshops.  This was the headquarters of the canal’s Maintenance Department and home to the dredgers that could sometimes be seen removing silt from the Ship Canal’s bed. 

A barge moored in the disused Old Quay Lock

Spare lock gates stored opposite the Old Quay Workshops 

Two photographs in the vicinity of Old Quay Swing Bridge, Runcorn

The first of the canal’s swing bridges can now be seen in the distance. This is the Old Quay Swing Bridge. These bridges were designed by Edward Leader Williams and bear a striking similarity to those on the River Weaver.  This is not surprising really as Leader Williams was the engineer to that waterway before moving to the Ship Canal.

A Guinness tanker unloading “black velvet” into road tankers to be transported to the bottling/canning/distribution plant

On the marshlands just after the Old Quay Swing Bridge is the Hempstones Nature Reserve. This was the location of Wigg Wharf where Guinness, the rich Irish stout known as "Black Velvet" was imported from Ireland and distributed by road tankers. Previous to this it was the site of a World War One mustard gas factory and after the factory was demolished, the contaminated land was capped with concrete.  Building on this land is not allowed due to possible contamination.

This photograph illustrates the close proximity of the disused Runcorn and Latchford Canal on Hempstones Nature Reserve.

If the area is explored, the remains of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal can be seen. This was a canal opened in 1804 and was an extension to the old Mersey and Irwell Navigation.  It linked Runcorn to Woolston Cut without the risks and unpredictability of having to navigate the tidal river and was a more direct route cutting off many meanders in the Mersey.  The entrance lock from the Mersey has long since disappeared, although its location can still be seen in the mud flats.  Parts of the canal have been swallowed up by the construction of the MSC but there are still many isolated remains to be seen including some of the locks, one of which is located around a bend in the canal a short walk along its length. 


This aerial photograph combined with a computer generated illustration of the Mersey Gateway Bridge shows

the existing two bridges spanning Runcorn Gap and the MSC with the proposed new bridge in the background

In 2013 construction work commenced on the Mersey Gateway... the second high-level road bridge across the Mersey. This bridge will supplement the first as traffic volume has exceeded the levels that it was designed to carry. In the original plans for the new bridge had four suspension towers and a light railway deck suspended below the roadway for trams but the completed bridge only has three suspension towers and does not possess the light railway/tramway deck when it opened for traffic on the 24th October 2017.

A close-up computer generated image of how the new bridge might look. Note the light railway/tramway deck slung beneath the main carriageway

The completed bridge as seen from Fiddlers Ferry when it opened in October 2017


Map 12 - Hempstones Nature Reserve to Moore

The Mersey widens out after Runcorn Gap and then narrows again opposite to Fiddlers Ferry Power Station where it starts its characteristic meandering. The river continues its tidal meandering eastwards through the Crossfields Chemical plant at Bank Quay. Here is located a historic transporter bridge.

Crossfield's Transporter Bridge across the tidal River Mersey near Walton

Originally there were two transporter bridges here in addition to the Runcorn/Widnes Transporter Bridge. The first one was built in 1902 and carried railway trucks from one side of the river to the other and is now demolished. The second one, illustrated above was built in 1912, and bought by Warrington Council. It is now disused but is a listed structure, is complete and in good condition awaiting restoration at some point in the future. Unfortunately its location on private land is a hindrance to visitors who have to request permission from the land owners... Levers.


Map 13 - Moore to Walton

After passing numerous industrial estates on the edge of Runcorn, the Ship Canal now leaves (temporarily) the company of the Mersey and enters a cutting.  The Promenade Caravan Park is situated on the right-hand bank of the canal and soon Randle Sluices are reached.  Here, excess water is run-off from the Ship Canal into a nearby meander of the Mersey.  There is also a subway beneath the canal through which the Vyrnwy water pipeline passes.  Just past Moore Lane Lay-by is the Moore Lane Swing Bridge followed by Acton Grange Wharf previously used by Dupont UK and the Acton Grange Railway Viaduct. 

Acton Grange Railway Viaduct

Chester Road Swing Bridge

MSC in Winter looking towards Chester Road Swing Bridge

(Photograph - BBC)

The next canal crossing is Chester Road Swing Bridge where the A5060 Chester Road is carried over the canal.  This is followed by Warrington Wharf, Walton Cut and a sand berth.  The lock at Walton Cut gave access to the river diversion and the section of the Mersey that runs alongside the A5060 Chester Road, through to the centre of Warrington.  The next swing bridge is Northwich Road Swing Bridge, which carries the A49 London Road.  Adjacent to the bridge is the old Twenty Steps Lock where the Runcorn and Latchford Canal cut across yet another meandering section of the Mersey up to Woolston Cut and Woolston New Cut… canalised sections of the river, which made up part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation improvements during the 18th Century.


Entrance to Walton Lock and Warrington Wharf - now disused

On the eastern bank of the canal is Stockton Heath and Latchford High-Level Bridge (similar in design to Warburton High-Level Bridge further along the canal) soon span the canal.  This high-level bridge is one of the few fixed bridges on the canal.  The canal continues along a ruler-straight section in a deep cutting to Knutsford Road Swing Bridge where the A50 crosses the canal, followed by Latchford Railway Viaduct and Latchford Locks giving a rise of 42ft. 6ins.

Northwich Road Swing Bridge carries the A49 over the MSC at Stockton Heath

Immediately after Northwich Road Swing Bridge is the in-filled remains of Twenty Steps Lock... part of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal

One of two virtually identical high-level bridges carrying minor roads across the canal.

This example is Latchford High Level Road Bridge and the other is Warburton High Level Bridge near Lymm.


Map 14 - Stockton Heath to Latchford

Looking back towards Latchford Railway Viaduct from Latchford Locks


Map 15 - Latchford to Thelwall

These locks are the first to be encountered since the entrance locks at Eastham, twenty-one miles distant. They are duplicated locks with intermediate gates in each chamber to keep water wastage on the canal to a minimum. Adjacent to the locks, on the left hand bank was located the now demolished “New World” domestic appliance factory, famous for cookers and other domestic appliances.

A 2003 photograph of Latchford Locks shows the now demolished New World domestic appliance factory on the off-side of the canal

The Mersey meanders towards the canal on the left hand bank, but there is no actual connection until a little further on at Bollin Point. At Thelwall Ferry, a rowing boat is used to ferry pedestrians across the canal.  The ferry only operates at certain times of the day and an adjacent notice board gives details of the hours of operation.  On the western bank, a little way past the ferry, is situated the Woolston Deposit Grounds, one of the locations where dredgings from the Ship Canal are dumped.  These deposit grounds are created by disused meanders in the River Mersey that became isolated when Woolston New Cut was constructed.

The notice board at Thelwall Ferry

The rowing boat still in use as a ferry boat at Thelwall Ferry

An aerial view of Woolston Deposit Grounds showing the disused meanders in the River Mersey

A panoramic photograph showing the River Mersey running from the right to Woolston Weir in the centre

Thelwall High Level Bridge, better known as Thelwall Viaduct, carries the M6 Motorway not only over the Ship Canal but the River Mersey as well.  In recent years the viaduct has undergone considerable works as the expansion rollers supporting the roadway were found to be crumbling.  This necessitated replacement of all the rollers as well as other remedial work.  The approach embankments span the Bridgewater Canal, a disused railway and the A56 trunk road.  Statham Golf Course is on the right hand bank of the Ship Canal and contains isolated meanders of the Mersey within its grounds. 

Thelwall Viaduct carrying the M6 Motorway across the MSC

Rixton Junction at Bollin Point where the Butcher's Field Cut of the River Mersey leaves the MSC

The Butcher’s Field Cut of the River Mersey joins the Ship Canal on the left at Rixton Junction (also known as Bollin Point) where, on the opposite bank, the River Bollin also runs into the canal. The canal now bends to the right in the first proper bend since Runcorn.  Warburton High Level Bridge carries the B5159 across the canal and is a toll bridge connecting the A6144 to the A57.  A toll is charged for the passage of vehicles, not to cross the bridge over the Ship Canal but the remains of the original bridge that carried the road over the dry, infilled bed of the River Mersey and later the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.  Just after the bridge, a pipeline passes beneath the canal and a disused meander of the River Mersey, partly in water, joins the canal.  The original line of the river is visible for quite a way across adjacent the fields if viewed from Warburton High Level Bridge, and it is this original line of the river that was crossed by the toll bridge.  After another bend, the canal was crossed by Bob’s Ferry, now disused, which allowed a pedestrian connection between Partington and Cadishead.

Warburton High Level Bridge and approach embankments seen from the banks of the MSC

The view from Warburton High Level Bridge. The disused meander that lead to the original Warburton Toll Bridge can be seen in the distance


Map 16 - Thelwall to Warburton

Cadishead Viaduct takes a railway line across the Ship Canal.  Immediately after this is the Partington North and South Wharves, both of which serve the chemical and petro-chemical plants nearby.  After Irlam Wharf, on the right, is the Mersey Weir where the river runs into the canal. From its source in the hills above Stockport.  As is usual when a river runs into the canal, care must be exercised after rainfall due to the high volume of water running into the canal which can push craft towards the opposite bank.  Next to the weir is Irlam Railway Viaduct whose strength, after construction, was tested at the insistence of the railway company by driving ten railway locomotives onto it at the same time having a total weight of 750 tonnes.  The test was successful and no modifications had to be made to it.



Map 17 - Warburton to Partington

Partington Junction where the un-navigable River Mersey joins the MSC

Irlam Railway Viaduct

A lay-by precedes Irlam Locks, which give a rise of 16ft. and is followed by yet another lay-by.  The original course of the River Irwell is to the left of the locks.  After the locks, a long sweeping bend is punctuated by Hulme Bridge Ferry, Davyhulme Sludge Berths and Barton Locks, which give a rise of fifteen feet.  There are lay-byes situated before and after the locks.  Barton High Level Bridge originally carried the M60 across the canal but since the motorway’s absorption into the Outer Manchester Circular Motorway its designation has changed to the M602. Shortly after Barton High Level Bridge can be seen a control tower on an island in the centre of the canal. This is the location of Barton Road Bridge (B5211 - Barton/Redclyffe Road) and the famous Barton Swing Aqueduct (Bridgewater Canal).  Both bridges are controlled by an operator situated in the adjacent control tower. The tower was staffed twenty-four hours a day in years gone by when the Ship Canal was busier than it is now.  Today, staff are only present when necessary.


A collection of vessels passing through Irlam Locks


Map 18 - Partington to Irlam Locks 


Map 19 - Barton Locks

Barton Lift Bridge (A57) with Barton High-Level Viaduct in the background

An aerial view of Barton Road Bridge and Barton Swing Aqueduct. In this 1987 photograph the aqueduct is painted red and white.

The colour scheme didn’t last long and soon reverted to the more usual grey and white

Barton Aqueduct from Barton Road Bridge in busier times

MSC tug “Ulex” assists a cargo vessel past Barton Swing Aqueduct and Barton Road Bridge

The Swing Aqueduct replaced James Brindley’s original aqueduct, which originally carried the Bridgewater Canal across the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.  On construction of the Ship Canal, Brindley’s original structure was not demolished until the Swing Aqueduct was completed and open to traffic in order to maintain a continuous route for boats on the Bridgewater Canal, which was heavily used by commercial traffic at that time.  The line of the original aqueduct can still be traced, as can the smaller aqueduct over Barton Lane and the location of the approach embankments.



 Barton Swing Aqueduct swung to allow passage along the MSC


Over the years, the Swing Aqueduct itself hasn’t escaped modification.  At one time, in the late 1980’s, it was painted red and white instead of the usual grey colour.  At the time the repainting was done, the towpath that cantilevered over the water channel of the Bridgewater Canal was removed, as was the approach ramp on the Patricroft side.


Map 20 - Barton

Looking towards Trafford Park from Barton Aqueduct


Map 21 - Barton to Eccles

Cerestar Wharf adjacent to centenary Lift Bridge in Trafford Park

As the Ship Canal approaches the outskirts of Manchester, there are numerous wharves and landing stages, some of which are now disused.  One wharf that is still active is the Cerestar Wharf were various raw materials are unloaded and edible products loaded.   A short distance after Cerestar Wharf is the Centenary Lift Vertical Bridge.  This unusual bridge was opened in 1995 and has a span of forty three metres.  It was the first movable bridge to be built on the canal since 1895 and carries Centenary Way (A576) across the canal just before it bends to the right at Little Bolton.

The size of Centenary Lift Bridge in Trafford Park can be judged by the diminutive articulated lorry crossing it

The bridge was completed in 1994 and opened by HM Queen Elizabeth ll.

 It was the first new movable bridge built since the canal was opened in 1894, hence the name Centenary Lift Bridge


Map 22 - Eccles to Trafford Park

Around the bend from Centenary Lift Bridge are Weaste Wharf, Southern Oil Wharf and numerous factories signal the approach to Mode Wheel Locks, the last on the canal. These locks give a rise of thirteen feet and complete the 60.5 foot climb to Manchester Docks and the River Irwell summit level.

Exiting Mode Wheel locks looking towards Trafford Park


Map 23 - Trafford Park to Mode Wheel

Looking towards Mode Wheel Locks from Number Nine Dock prior to regeneration

Media City Footbridge as seen from the BBC Building in Media City

Immediately after the locks, on the right-hand bank are the dry and graving docks owned by Manchester Dry Docks Limited.  Here, ships have had repairs made as well as being the final resting place of many that have reached the end of their lives to be dismantled and scrapped. Media City is on the left hand bank of the canal. It was purpose built for Granada Television and the BBC to bring their production and other facilities into one area. Adjacent to Media City is Media City Swing Bridge opened in 2012. This footbridge gives access to the set of "Coronation Street" and other various studio facilities on the opposite bank of the canal.

Looking upstream towards the Millennium Footbridge from Media City

An aerial photograph of Salford Docks in their heyday...

...and the same location in the 1990s when Salford Quays was under construction

Media City under construction in 2009


Detroit Footbridge… the relocated Trafford Rail Swing Bridge between Huron and Erie Basins

A closer view across Detroit Footbridge


The Lowry Footbridge connects the Lowry Complex to the Imperial War Museum - North and Trafford Promenade

Lowry Footbridge illuminated at night



Welland Lock gives access to Mariner’s Canal, Ontario, Erie and Huron Basins



Mariner’s Canal connects Ontario Basin to Erie Basin



A nocturnal photograph of Mariner’s Canal



Narrowboats moored at Salford Quays


The MSC now reaches its ultimate destination of Manchester Docks. The once busy docks have now been redeveloped into business and housing complexes.  The first dock is now called the North Bay (previously Number Nine Dock) and its banks are dominated by the Lowry Art Gallery, Lowry Shopping Centre and Salford Quays.  Opposite is Trafford Wharf, the location of the Imperial War Museum – North.  The Millennium Lifting Footbridge spans the canal connecting Trafford Wharf to the Lowry Centre for pedestrians and marks the boundary separating the MSC from Manchester Docks. The bridge is a vertical lift bridge of similar design to the Centenary Bridge a little way downstream although, with commercial traffic no longer using this stretch of the canal it is rarely lifted.  Pleasure craft are not permitted to navigate below Lowry Footbridge without prior arrangements being made with the MSC Company and craft are allowed to moor at various locations above Lowry Footbridge. North Bay continues on to Huron and Erie Basins, the two basins being divided by the relocated Trafford Railway Swing Bridge relocated from further upstream and converted into a fixed footbridge.  A new canal, the Mariners’ Canal, connects to Ontario Basin, a continuation of Central Bay, the next bay along.  Central Bay is connected to Ontario Basin by the newly constructed Welland Canal and Lock.  Adjacent to the lock are moorings conveniently located for visiting the Lowry Centre and Imperial War Museum - North. Welland Lock connects to St Louis and St Peter Basins, access to which is currently strictly controlled, although it is planned to allow pleasure craft access through Welland Lock on the first weekend of the month during the summer period.  Located in the base of Welland Lock’s control tower is a sanitary station, water point and rubbish disposal, access to which is by the conventional BW key.


Map 24 - Manchester Docks as Originally Constructed


Huron Basin

Development in Erie Basin... once the location of Grain Elevator Number Two at the end of Number Nine Dock


Map 25 - Salford Quays - Present Day

(Manchester Docks After Regeneration)


Map 26 - Trafford Road Swing Bridge to Woden Street Footbridge pre-1986

The “Atlantic Fisher” moored at Trafford Wharf  in 1988 was one of the last ships of this size to use Manchester Docks before the area was redeveloped

An artist's impression of the proposed Clipper Quay Footbridge near Trafford Wharf

Two pleasure craft passing Trafford Road Swing Bridge in 1988 prior to the construction of the fixed bridge alongside the swing bridge

Notice board at the junction of Pomona Dock and the River Irwell - 2003


Map 27 - Trafford Road Bridges to Woden Street Footbridge - Present Day


The author’s narrowboat “Total Eclipse” in Pomona Lock, May 2003

After Central Bay are East Wharf North and South and the South Bay.  Immediately after South Bay was the original location of Trafford Railway Swing Bridge that is now located in North Bay.  An unusually shaped basin on the left was where the bridge swung away from the bank of the canal and some of the supports can still be seen as can the pivot island on the right which is now built upon and is part of the Wharfside Promenade.  Trafford Fixed and Swing Bridges follow.  The swing bridge was once the largest bridge of this type in England. The next crossing, around a right hand bend is the Manchester Metrolink Bridge below Pomona Dock, taking the City’s tram system into the heart of the redeveloped docks area and beyond.  The dock on the right is Pomona Number Three Dock and is the location of a proposed marina complex.  At the far end of the dock is Pomona Lock, which connects with the Bridgewater Canal.  This lock was constructed in 1995 to replace Hulme Lock, about a mile further upstream.  The sites of Pomona Number Two and One Docks can be seen but have been in-filled.  The area is ready for redevelopment, although at the time of writing building work has not yet commenced. A little way past the location of the in-filled Pomona Docks is Woden Street Footbridge.  The footbridge marks the boundary between Manchester Docks and the River Irwell.  Before the docks were de-commercialised, it also was the lower limit of navigation for leisure craft. Care must be exercised if there has been prolonged period of rainfall as the Irwell is narrow further upstream and passage of rainwater through the narrow section can be hazardous to navigation.  It is prudent to make for Pomona Dock in these circumstances and await passage of Pomona Lock onto the safety of the Bridgewater Canal.


 Image ?? - Landscape

The promenade alongside the River Irwell looking towards Woden Street Footbridge


Nestling beneath the railway arches is the disused Hulme Lock, once the connection between the Bridgewater Canal and what is now the River Irwell. To the left of Hulme Lock entrance, hidden behind warehouses and factories, the River Medlock joins the Irwell after its subterranean journey beneath Potato Wharf and Castlefield Basins.  James Brindley constructed a siphon to convey the Medlock from Deansgate, beneath the basins and wharves that he had built, to emerge a few hundred metres from the junction with the Irwell.  Along the way, a subterranean chamber housed a water wheel, which powered winches to lift cargo from the canal level up to Deansgate.  An overflow weir was also constructed at Potato Wharf in the shape of a giant cloverleaf.  Over the years, successive developments have eaten away at the weir and only a small portion of it remains today.



The River Medlock emerging from its subterranean journey beneath the Castlefield Basin Complex

The entrance to the River Irwell from the disused Hulme Lock. The River Medlock also joins the river to the left of the lock

Housing development above Hulme Lock looking towards Regent Road Bridge


Hulme Lock to the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal Junction

A twin-arched road bridge, Regent Road Bridge, carries Regent Road across the river.  This is followed by the new Manchester Inner City Ring Road Bridge.   Shortly after the next two bridges, which both carry railway lines, the entrance basin to the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal can be seen on the left hand bank.  When excavations were taking place for the new Ring Road, work was held up where the Ring Road crosses the in-filled line of Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal whilst industrial archaeologists inspected the site.  The Ring Road is carried across the line of the canal on bridges allowing full navigational height and width due to the proposed restoration of the canal. The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal has many interesting features including the Prestolees Aqueduct over the River Irwell and the Wet Earth Colliery where James Brindley constructed drainage soughs for the mines and carried them beneath the Irwell in a siphon similar to that used for the Medlock at Castlefield and later used extensively on the MSC. Returning to the River Irwell, a twin-arched road bridge and two railway viaducts (one of which is the original Liverpool and Manchester Railway Viaduct), also with two arches, lie in close proximity to each other a little way upstream from the Ring Road Bridge.


The entrance to the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal prior to restoration...

... and the same location after restoration leading to...

... Middlewood Locks and basin complex prior to redevelopment


Manchester and Salford Junction Canal to the Lowry Hotel

Immediately up-stream from the three twin-arched bridges, adjacent to the Granada Television Studios, is another canal junction.  This was the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal.  This canal was built to break the Bridgewater Canal’s monopoly on craft movements (and tolls) at the junction of the Rochdale and Bridgewater Canals and between the two canals at Castlefield and the River Irwell at Hulme Lock.  Little of the canal can be seen as it ran mostly in tunnels beneath the city, although part of it still remains beneath Granada Television Studios and the original terminus with the Rochdale Canal can still be traced.  The part beneath Granada Television Studios was used as an air raid shelter during World War Two and the remains contain part of a lock. To learn more about this forgotten canal go to the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal section of this website.

A short distance upstream is the entrance to the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal

Narrowboats moored on the River Irwell during the 1988 IWA National Rally

After Irwell Street Bridge the left-hand riverbank on this stretch makes for a convenient mooring place with access to the city centre. Albert Bridge is preceded by the Mark Addy public house.  The pub is named after a man who, as a seven-year-old boy, was instrumental in the rescuing of an oarsman on the river close to Albert Bridge. In later life, Mark Addy saved fifty people from drowning. It is ironical that, during this period the Irwell was renowned for being contaminated with sewage and chemicals. Mark Addy died of poisononing after swallowing river water during his fiftieth rescue. The pub that bears Mark Addy’s name also has moorings adjacent to it, serves excellent food and beers and makes a convenient place from which to explore the City.  A new footbridge connects the promenades on both sides of the river just below the Mark Addy public house. This is the Spinningfields Development that combines business accommodation with apartments overlooking the river.


Narrowboats moored outside the Mark Addy public house


Irwell Footbridge adjacent to the Mark Addy Public House


Looking downstream towards Albert Bridge

Albert Bridge is followed by Trinity or Calatrava Footbridge whose revolutionary suspension design connects the Lowry Hotel with the opposite bank. The river now enters a concrete canyon punctuated by bridges and the occasional disused landing stage… a throwback to when passenger boats ran from the city.  Large office blocks loom over the river as Blackfriars Bridge and After Victoria Bridges are negotiated. After Victoria Bridge, the river is close to Manchester Cathedral and only a few hundred metres of navigable river remain before the head of navigation is reached at Hunt's Bank.


Blackfriars Bridge with the Cathedral in the background


Lowry Hotel to Hunt’s Bank

(Limit of Navigation)

A narrowboat winding above Blackfriars Bridge

The disused landing stage adjacent to the Cathedral once gave access to the now sealed tunnels that run through the buried remains of “Old Manchester” and lead to the Cathedral’s vaults. Beneath Salford Bridge is Hunts Bank the head of navigation and the point at which it is time to turn around.  Shallow-drafted craft can, in theory, navigate further upstream as far as the weir at Shooter’s Bank but this is not recommended due to the unpredictable nature of the river and the presence of submerged obstacles.

Looking downstream at Hunt’s Bank… the limit of navigation, adjacent to the cathedral. Note the disused stairs to a long gone landing stage on the left.

The nearest bridge is Cathedral Approach Bridge after which is Victoria Bridge

The journey that started from the River Mersey Estuary at Eastham on the Wirral Peninsula, along the MSC, through the rolling Cheshire countryside and Manchester Docks to the limit of navigation on the River Irwell in the heart of Manchester is now complete. The journey has been on of many contrasts… from countryside to city centres and from marshlands to docklands. The MSC is a tribute to the Victorian entrepaneurs and engineers that had the vision, foresight and ingenuity to connect a city forty miles inland to the sea, creating Great Britain’s and one of the World’s largest inland ports in the process.



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 Chapter Three - Navigational Information 

Pleasure craft wishing to navigate the Manchester Ship Canal, Manchester Docks and the River Irwell can only do so by prior arrangement. For the latest information refer to the MSC's website at - When permission is granted it is usually to groups of pleasure craft cruising the canal in convoy, that comply with strict safety and equipment standards and possess certificates stating that they are seaworthy, possess radio communication equipment (fully charged mobile telephones are allowed). Pleasure craft such as narrow boats are sometimes required to “breast-up” (rope together) in case of engine failure and to aid stability in choppy water. The use of anchors is not allowed on the MSC even though they are required for a Certificate of Seaworthiness. All flames such as solid fuel stoves and pilot lights have to be extinguished when passing through Stanlow Oil Refinery.



The Author's narrowboat "Total Eclipse" entering the MSC at Ellesmere Port


(Photograph - James M Wood)


The Manchester Ship Canal is an extremely wide and deep commercial waterway. It is used by large coastal and (quite often… very large) sea-going ships that can create a large amount of wash even at low speeds. Sometimes, tugs accompany ships to help them manoeuvre around sharp bends on the canal. Even though leisure boating is timed to coincide with a lack of commercial traffic, care must be exercised at all times to prevent any disruption to the passage of any commercial craft encountered… after all; they are using the canal for business, and not for pleasure.


If a large craft is encountered, keep well away from the canal’s banks as the wash from the larger craft could deposit smaller craft onto the deeply shelving banks. Similarly, keep well away from the bow and stern of large vessel. Many modern ships feature submerged bows that protrude beneath the water line. They may also have bow-thrusters that can produce considerable turbulence when in operation.  Besides the obvious hazards created by the vessel’s propellers at the stern and their associated wash, it may have stern thrusters which, when used in conjunction with bow thrusters allow the vessel to move sideways. If there are small craft using the Ship Canal, larger craft usually wait until they have exited the section before proceeding.

Narrowboats in convoy passing through Stanlow on the MSC

(Photograph - James M Wood)

When pleasure craft are using the canal they have to navigate a pre-determined route and adhere to a timetable as directed by MSC personnel and are not permitted to deviate from this route or timetable.  There are very few locations along the canal’s length below Lowry Footbridge that are suitable for small craft to moor. It is, therefore essential, in the interests of safety that craft are in perfect operational condition so that there is no reason to moor along the canal unless at a pre-arranged location or under direction of the Manchester Ship Canal personnel.

Access to the Welland Lock and Canal is currently strictly controlled by Salford Council, although it is planned to allow pleasure craft access through Welland Lock on the first weekend of the month during the summer period for a trial period.  If this is well used the arrangements for use of Welland Lock and the Erie Canal may change.  Located in the base of Welland Lock’s control tower is a sanitary station and water point, access to which is with the conventional BW key.

Care must be exercised if there has been prolonged period of rainfall as many rivers empty into or share the Ship Canal’s course. Locations were extra vigilance is required is at the following locations... the junction with the River Weaver where the current of water crosses the MSC to Weaver Sluices, the junction with the River Bollin where it empties into the Ship Canal, Partington Junction where the un-navigable River Mersey empties into the MSC, Rixton Junction where the River Mersey leaves the Ship Canal and the entire navigable length of the River Irwell. The River Irwell is narrow upstream and the passage of rainwater through the narrow section can cause the river’s water level to rise significantly and dramatically in a very short period of time (I speak from personal experience).  This also causes an increase in the speed of the current. If there is prolonged rainfall and the river’s water level rises it is prudent to make for Pomona Dock and await passage of Pomona Lock onto the safety of the Bridgewater Canal. The large expanses of water contained within the Ship Canal, Manchester Docks and the River Irwell can be “choppy” when the weather is windy and are best avoided in these weather conditions.


The River Mersey joining the MSC at Partington Junction

The following is a list of wharves still in use along the length of the Ship Canal at the following locations

Queen Elizabeth ll Dock, Eastham Oil and petro-chemicals
Manisty Wharf, Ellesmere Port Bulk, semi-bulk & packaged cargoes
Ellesmere Port Docks Bulk, semi-bulk, project & heavy lift
Stanlow Oil Docks Oil for Shell UK’s refinery
Stanlow Lay-by Petro-chemical products, multi-user
Ince “B” Berth Certain petro-chemical products
Weston Point Docks (Eddie Stobart) Salt and chemical products
Runcorn Saltworks Bulk salt
Petro-chemical and other approved liquid products with storage facilities and connection to ICI Runcorn
Runcorn Docks Containers and bulk cargo
Old Quay Disused… formally the Guinness wharf
Walton Cut Disused Sand berth
Partington Containers and bulk cargo
Carrington Bulk chemicals, LPG and petrochemicals for Shell, Montell and Nova Chemicals
Trafford Park 1 Scrap metals and other bulk cargoes
Trafford Park 2 (Cerastar Wharf) Private wharf supplying maize and other food products directly to the adjacent mill
Trafford Park 3 Cement to Blue Circle plant
Trafford Park 4 Barge wharf for grain to Rank, Hovis, McDougall
Trafford Park 5 Petro-chemicals and other approved chemicals
Trafford Park 6 Dry-bulk, semi-bulk and general cargoes
Manchester Docks (old Manchester Dry-docks) Semi-bulk and general cargoes
Salford Quays Passenger craft (Mersey Ferries)


The maximum dimensions for craft using the Ship Canal are...

Eastham Locks Length 182.88mtrs (Large Locks)
    106.68mtrs (Intermediate Locks)
  Beam 24.38mtrs (Large Locks)
    15.24mtrs (Intermediate Locks)
Above Eastham Length 182.88mtrs (Large Locks)
    106.68 mtrs (Small Locks)
  Beam 19.81mtrs (Large Locks)
    13.71mtrs (Small Locks)
Draft Up to Ince Oil Berth 8.78 mtrs
  Up to Runcorn 8.07 mtrs
  Up to Mode Wheel 7.31  mtrs
  Above Mode Wheel 5.48 mtrs 
Air draft Eastham to Runcorn Unlimited
  Above Runcorn 21.33 mtrs


For further details and the latest navigational information contact...
The Manchester Ship Canal Company
Marine Operations Administration Buildings
Queen Elizabeth II Dock
Eastham Lock
CH62 0BB
Telephone 0151 327 1461
Fax 0151 327 6278
Port Security -  Eastham (Harbourmaster) 0151-327-2212


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The Manchester Ship Canal has changed in the last thirty years from a fully commercial waterway carrying freight over the whole of is length to a waterway where freight is still carried over the lower and middle reaches with limited commercial traffic as far as Trafford Park. Thirty years ago some occasional leisure traffic was tolerated by the Manchester Ship Canal Company whereas today Peel Holdings allow it with strict regulations and boat progress is strictly monitored. In addition to this the Mersey Ferries offer regular pleasure cruises in both directions from Liverpool Pier Head to Salford Quays or the other way around with a shuttle bus to return passengers to where they started from.

One icon passes another... the Mersey Ferry "Royal Iris" passing Barton Swing Aqueduct in 1987

However the MSC is traversed the scale of of engineering and construction cannot fail to impress enthusiasts who are interested in the canal and its history. After years of neglect it is exciting to see new developments and wharves being constructed along its length and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for this Victorian waterway in the coming years.

Housing development at Ellesmere Port adjacent to the Boat Museum

The contemporary photographs in this book are taken by myself and the archive images are from the Greater Manchester Records Office, Wirral Metropolitan College’s Carlett Park Library and the many friends and fellow canal enthusiasts who entrusted their valuable photographs to me for scanning, for which I am most grateful. The photographs that I took were taken on many types of cameras ranging from 5x4 large format, 6x9 and 6x6 medium format, 35mm negatives and transparencies as well as digital images. The technical quality of these photographs, especially those taken on large and medium format cannot be appreciated when reproduced in a book, eBook or website.

Many of the other navigable waterways and docks mentioned in "The Big Ditch - Manchester's Ship Canal"

are covered in the Author's latest work... "Mersey Connections - Navigable Waterways Connected to the River Mersey"


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or select another book below...


Click here for the latest entries or on the required section in the Contents below to follow links


So You Want To Go Canal Cruising?


 Book 1 - 1959 to 1982

 Book 2 - 1983 to 1999

 Book 3 - 2000 to 2005

 Book 4 - 2006 to 2007

 Book 5 - 2008 to 2009

 Book 6 - 2010

 Book 7 - 2011

 Book 8 - 2012

 Book 9 - 2013

 Book 10 - 2014
 Book 11 - 2015

 Book 12 - 2016
 Book 13 - 2017

 Book 14 - 2018

nb Squirrel
Canals on Screen
Canalscape Photography
Canalscape Gallery
Photography in One

The History of Lymm Cruising Club

The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal

Shroppie - The Shropshire Union Canal System (In Preparation)

The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal
Mersey Connections (Coming Soon)

Wonders of the Waterways

2011 Gardner Engine Rally Report

Foreign Forays - Canals of the World

Worsley Canal Heritage Walk

Castlefield Canal Heritage Walk

The Liverpool Docks Link

nb Total Eclipse

Don't Call it a Barge

Canis Canalus
Lymm Cruising Club Website

Footnote and Acknowledgements

Site Map
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Updated 23/03/2018