The canal, which was built over 200 years ago, was still carrying tens of thousands of goods per year even up until the 1930s, before it was left to fall into disrepair in the following decades when the coal pits of east Manchester closed. That the canal is still open at all is thanks to hundreds of volunteers who came from all over the country to clear rubbish blocking the canal in the early 1970s, when the local council wanted to close it. However, after decades of disuse the canal is slowly being rediscovered and reawakened. Boarded up housing estates, mills covered in barbed wire and empty tower blocks contrast with the first signs of the redevelopment of the area – from the Sportcity complex built to house the 2002 Commonwealth Games to Will Alsop’s lurid canal side CHIPS building, three chip shaped blocks perched jauntily on top of one another offering apartments at the top and space for art exhibitions and businesses at the bottom, which was opened last year.
Sue and Al, a forty something couple from Northwich, go on a canal holiday every year and have been on waterways all over the UK. They’re making their way along the Ashton Canal at the end of a trip along the Cheshire Ring of canals which links the Ashton Canal to the Bridgewater, Macclesfield, Trent Mersey, Rochdale and Peak Forest Canals. Sue said: “We know the city centre quite well but we’re coming into Manchester from a whole different angle. I love the contrast between derelict old industrial buildings on their knees about to fall down and the shiny new apartments blocks next door as the area’s regenerated.”
The Ashton Canal passes the six miles from Ashton-Under-Lyne to Manchester city centre through what have, for decades, been some of the most deprived areas in Manchester; Openshaw, Clayton, Bradford and Beswick and Ancoats. Sue admitted: “The hire company told us trouble spots to look out for but everyone’s been fantastic. I can’t believe how many people use the canal. A group of school kids even helped us through a lock and they loved it.”
In 2001, Urban Splash was chosen to plan a whole new waterside community of low density, environmentally sustainable family housing to be built on the site of the notorious Cardroom Estate in Ancoats, which sits towards the city centre end of the Ashton Canal, and the area was rebranded New Islington. As well as renovating historic mills and the old Ancoats Hospital to attract new residents to the area (the population could rise tenfold, with the number of new properties planned far exceeding the houses being replaced), current tenants were consulted on the design of their new houses, built in collaboration with leading architects selected by competition. An annual summer festival would help established communities mingle with newcomers to the area.
This proposals for this community, with the canal as its centrepiece, were inspired by cities such as Amsterdam, and promised to incorporate facilities like new doctors surgeries, schools, a farmers market and – listed with great precision on the New Islington website – ‘the best fish and chip shop in Manchester, a poncey wine bar, a chic little Italian with red checked tablecloths and a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars’. A phrase was coined to describe this way of living – an ‘uburb’ – combining all the facilities of the suburbs with the urban lifestyle of the city centre. Richard Hatton, Director of Development for Urban Splash, explains: “The idea of New Islington is to be allowed to evolve rather than being subject to one grand master plan. There are quite a lot of different feelings within this area – there’s a bit of everything. The idea is that it’s family friendly. You’re never too far from shops but also never too far from park land. It’s earthy and it’s different from anywhere else in Manchester.”
Work was also started on new canals and a marina. Boat mooring profits will be used to maintain a new eco park called the Cotton Field complete with a beach, orchards, pine trees, a climbing wall and nesting boxes to encourage birds. In the long term, it’s hoped the new canals could even provide water for the surrounding buildings. The park was due to be open in summer 2007, but the credit crunch seems to have put everything back and there’s still no sign of waterside dining, a wine bar, fish and chip shop or farmers’ market either. However, Richard is confident: “Within a year or two there will be lots more boats, lots more colour and lots more life.”The tour company New Manchester Walks brings visitors to this still relatively underexplored yet fascinating part of the city on a walking tour called Watery Wastelands of Eastlands (soon to be renamed Grand Canals of the East). Green Badge guide Steve Bourne explains: “Almost everyone who visits the region doesn’t know what they’re missing here. This part of Manchester contains the world's early industrial beginnings, but it’s been hit by yet another recession in recent years. We’re just doing our bit to help put it back on the tourist trail again."
To call it a wasteland, though, doesn’t do justice to the deceptively wide array of activities the canal is already used for. Businesses still operate out of some of the remaining mills, from wholesale companies to environmental charities. Bass and drums drift over the canal, coming from rehearsal rooms in mills, and a couple are also home to networks of artists’ studios. A large volume of cyclists pass through to the Velodrome at Sportcity and, on match days, an army of fans in sky blue shirts march to city stadium. People also use the canal for its own sake, from jogging to just sitting day after day watching the world go by.
One sixteen year old from Gorton cycles to the same patch, just past the city centre, every weekend, where he sits and fishes for hours at a time, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. He admits: “It gets me out of the house. I like it because it’s quiet.” Another, an Ancoats resident, walks his dog along the canal for an hour every day.
Two twenty something cyclists from south Manchester have arrived at the Ashton Canal after following the Fallowfield loop to Debdale Park in Gorton, and are returning using the canal as an alternative route to city centre roads: "We like the ducks. There's not really an equivalent in south Manchester – there’s no water to cycle along. It’s a good facility but it could be improved and cleaned up – we haven’t seen one bin for people who are sitting drinking or having picnics."
Ironically, although canals initially foundered into disuse in the early decades of the twentieth century in the face of competition from rail and road transport, a new transport link could help see the area cleaned up and rediscovered, when the Metrolink extension into east Manchester opens in 2012 – running almost parallel to the Ashton Canal.
Read the article online (the title was changed, not my idea!) in issue 2 of Things Happen here or in free paper copies around the city:
Also features Creative waterways, Manchester Modernist Society, Sans façon, River Medlock, Contemporary Cartography. www.mmdc.org.uk