This blog describes the first part of a walk from Ducie Street Basin to Portland Basin in Ashton Under Lyne, the junction with the Peal Forest Canal. In 1960, my cousin and I walked from Hollinwood to Manchester along the Ashton Canal. The surroundings of the Canal at that time were very different to those of today. In 1960 it was a scene of abandonment and dereliction – but rather interesting, all the same! In the intervening years I made a resolution that one day I would repeat the walk to see how much the Canal had changed and 60 years later I fulfilled that promise.

Today, It is much easier to join the Canal towpath; back in the 1960s access to canal towpaths in urban areas was often very restricted and if you actually managed to get onto the towpath it could just as difficult to leave it again. At times, when walking along the towpath on lonely stretches of the Canal you did sometimes wish that you had the option of a quick escape route back to civilization.

canal with redbrick buildings and bridge
Store Street Aqueduct/Piccadilly Village (L) Whittles Croft Wharf, 2017 (R) (J. Redfern)

The first port of call on this recent journey was Whittles Croft Wharf, which retains some original ambiance although the pretty pedestrian bridge across the canal arm would look more at home in a Garden Centre.

The red brick buildings of Piccadilly Village now line the canal between Store Street aqueduct and Great Ancoats Street and the two short canal arms have become ‘features’ in the residential development.

In 1964, the Store Street aqueduct channel started leaking so it was dammed off at each end with a connecting water pipe was laid in the trough, This put and end to any attempt at through navigation. The Marple aqueduct on the Peak Forest Canal suffered a similar indignity before its eventual restoration.

DSCN1152 vesta Street Basin
Vesta Street Basin 2017 (J. Redfern)

After we pass under Great Ancoats Street we come to Lock 1 and the Vesta Street basin. When I visited the basin in 1985 the lock-keepers house was still inhabited and clearly well kept, with yellow curtains and potted plants in the windows but it must have been very eerie at night (and perhaps a little unsafe) as there were no other dwellings nearby. It’s still a charming setting, which the proliferation of modern buildings around it haven’t spoiled. However, empty beer bottles and other detritus scattered on the towpath suggest that even now, a night visit should be avoided!

Canal and buildings, before renovation
Vesta St Basin, 1985 (J. Redfern)

The Islington branch canal in its heyday, served a wide variety of businesses, including a flint glass works. One of the Canal traffics described, was the transport of cullet (broken glass). The branch leaves the basin under a humpbacked bridge although now only the about half of this once extensive branch remains.

If you look carefully at the rear bridge parapet you can see the lower part of the door frames and the window sills of the house that once spanned the branch; I have seen this referred to as a toll house, which seems quite plausible at this strategic location.

Man stands in front of bridge wall, cobbles.
The remains of the Toll House front wall, doors and windows in 2017 (J.Redfern / Ian Hunter)

The Corporation Arm and wharf (also known as the Manure Wharf) was on the East side of the basin. It was filled in many years ago but its location is easy to spot by studying the differences in the brickwork and copings of the canal bank.

Manure from the Corporation stables was brought from collecting points across the city to the Corporation Yard at the wharf and from there it was forwarded to the Beswick Sanitary Works for processing but was also distributed to farmers along the canal route. Manure and Night Soil (the mixture from privies, collected by night soil men in the days before water closets) were prized as soil fertilizers.

A regular Night Soil traffic certainly operated on the Manchester Bolton and Bury Canal and it is likely that there was a similar traffic on the Ashton Canal. Manning the tiller on the Night Soil boat would not have been a job for the faint-hearted.

The Lower Ancoats Arm connected with the canal between locks 2 and 3 and it has been excavated and extended for use as pleasure craft moorings. The Upper Ancoats Arm joined above lock 3 but the actual junction is quite hard to spot. Once again, a careful examination of the canal edge copings is called for.

Ancoats Hospital, which overlooked locks 2 and 3, was demolished along with most of the mills and factories which once lined the canal. These canal-side buildings formed gloomy canyon from Lock 3 all the way up to the Beswick locks, numbers 4 and 5.

Lock 3 and The Grand Canyon of Ancoats, 1985 (L) Lock 3 and Ancoats Basin 2017 (R)(J.Redfern)