The best birthday presents are inspired, and when my friend John and his family gave me a voucher for a Mersey Ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal for my seventieth birthday they made possible a long-held ambition that I’d never got round to fulfilling: https://www.merseyferries.co.uk/cruises/Manchester-Ship-Canal-Cruises/Pages/default.aspx.
The gift was enhanced by the fact that John agreed to join me. No-one knows better how to compile a Marks & Spencer picnic.
Booking a Ferry Cruise takes persistence: I lost count of how many times I was told, in an inimitable Scouse accent, that “it’s not on the system yet”.
Persistence pays. I booked us on a cruise up the canal to Manchester.
I was tipped off that the smart advice was to sail from Seacombe and arrive at the terminal good and early to bag a decent seat.
John was told the exact opposite, that the boat started from Pier Head.
My source was correct, and we took a taxi to Seacombe so far ahead of time that we were treated to complimentary coffee left over from the commuters’ sailings, so that we were in position to march down the gangway, like Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, and park ourselves on the upper deck, facing forward, with seat, a table and a window ahead.
We were advised to take a picnic because of the queues for food at the café-bars on each deck. In fact, we took it in turns to fetch hot drinks whenever the queue was manageable.
It’s a fascinating experience to sail up the trench that was dug thirty-six miles up the Mersey valley from Eastham Locks to Salford in the early 1890s, and even more memorable to meet an ocean-going ship coming the other way.
Rising through huge locks in a sizeable boat that doesn’t touch the sides is disconcerting. The Mersey ferries are around 150 feet long and have a beam forty feet or slightly more. The widest MSC locks are eighty feet wide.
One of the enjoyable features of the trip was the way in which, like other canals, the Ship Canal route stitches together places that aren’t directly connected by road and rail routes.
From the start of the canal at Eastham Locks, past Ellesmere Port, the refineries at Stanlow and the Runcorn Gap with its road and rail bridges, the Ship Canal clings to the river bank.
As it approaches Warrington it dives through the town in a dead straight line that continues under the M62 Thelwall Viaduct, then weaves it way towards Irlam and beneath the M60 at Barton.
Shortly after the M60 viaduct it passes the two 1894 swing-bridges at Barton, one for the road and the other the historic replacement for the even more historic James Brindley aqueduct (1791) that was sacrificed to make the Ship Canal possible.