The Rochdale Canal runs through Middleton from it's start at Sowerby Bridge in Calderdale all the way through to the centre of Manchester and is 33 miles long. It has a total of 92 locks which is more than any other canal in the UK, to tackle the many naturally occurring rises and falls of the area rising to 600ft at it's peak. The engineers didn't trust the pioneering use of tunnels underneath the hills preferring to slice through some that obstructed it's path. The canal was built as a link to neighbouring canal networks, coalfields, mills and ports and was opened in 1804 after 10 years in the making at a cost of £ 600,000 of investors' money. It climbs 350 feet through 36 locks in just 14 miles from its start, then falls 435 feet through another 56 locks on the rest of its journey into Manchester.
At its peak of popularity around 1845, the arrival of the railway began a steady decline of use. In the 1920's it was hit even harder by the introduction of motorised vehicles and its reservoirs were sold off to water authorities. Usage became next to nothing as as the new alternative options of transport rendered the canal system impractical in comparison and the last through journey took place in 1939. In the 1950's navigation through most parts of the canal were prohibited and development of both roads and buildings physically blocked its path, in particular the construction of the M62 at Castleton which sliced it in two in the 1960's. This seemed to be no big deal at the time as the canals were considered pretty useless by now having had their day.
With vertually no maintenance or funding available, the canal fell into a state of major dis-repair only of use to anglers and walkers enjoying the now un-disturbed and thriving wildlife of the abandoned areas now becoming overgrown. The Rochdale Canal Society wanted to see improvements in the 1970's but interest in the restoration of the canal by government or other parties was almost non-existent, considered impractical and the huge cost estimated at 10 million would be better spent elsewhere. It just wasn't worth it for the benefit of the occasional canal boat enthusiast wishing to holiday on the canal like they could in other areas. Though it would be nice it was hardly a priority, however The Rochdale Canal Trust was established in 1974 and various resources used to make a start but it was going to be a mammoth task considering by now, the M62 cut through the canal 4 times in Rochdale alone and a whole supermarket blocked it at Failsworth. Lottery funding was granted in the 1990's which was a huge boost to the efforts which had been so slow up until then. Ownership then passed to The British Waterways who then became responsible for finishing the project.
This involved further restoration of the timber locks, new sections of canal and bridges being built or altered, whole roads diverted, legalities involving compulsory purchase of land and even the diversion of a major gas mains here in Middleton. It's a shame that land and road developers didn't think ahead and realise or care more about the consequences of their actions of putting things where it seemed convenient for them to do so to at the time, or there wasn't some sort of canal protection rules in place preventing them doing so. On top of all this and throughout was a massive clean up operation to clear tonnes of debris and mud that had accumulated over the years of neglect. The canal was practically navigable again by 2002 and Middleton has its own lovely stretch with pleasant views and wilderness combined with development along the way. The stretch is easily walkable for most people of all ages.
Middleton's stretch starts alt="" beyond the Ship Inn at Slattocks near to where an old lock house stands. You can enjoy refreshment sat out back of both the Hopwood Arms and the Ship with its views of farmland with its animals over the way as well as a variety of birds on the water. You can walk down from here under the Rochdale Rd bridge and continue the stretch with more pleasant scenery up to the back of the Boarshaw Estate, a popular fishing spot. This leads further on to bypass the ancient Scowcroft Farm and onto another pleasant lock area with countryside views and seating areas before hitting the Oldham Road Junction. Passing under here leads to a more built up but still pleasant walk passing the Junction area. Here I recently saw a heron perched over the canal no doubt looking for fish, the first time I had ever seen one for real with its beady eyes and almost prehistoric shape. This is the final legge before emerging at Foxdenton Lane which is crossed before getting back on the towpath that continues into Failsworth. Here the bridge forms part of the road which is raised by a mechanism allowing boats to pass underneath and where road traffic just has to be patient for 5 minutes until the bridge is lowered back in place allowing them to continue their journey. I saw this happen just once one Summers morning on my way to work which was nearby.
The Middleton stretch is still popular with anglers, dog walkers and horse riders and the towpath serves as a great undisturbed cycle path. It is a great walk on a nice day for anyone of any age where children can feed the many ducks, geese and swans along the way, The occasional canal boat can be seen passing through, often traditionally painted which puts one in mind of a romantic idyll of times past and quaint old-fashionedness. To witness these though still quite rare somehow makes it feel that all that work and money spent had to be worth it and the efforts of all involved should be recognised and appreciated.
The canal is a unique place to be, where like nowhere else in Middleton do complete passing strangers feel compelled to to say hello or even just smile, and in my opinion that makes it a very special place.
Written by the editor. July 2008