Saturday, 17 December 2011

Three litres of sloe gin, or a tale of two blackthorn bushes

This sloe gin started life in late-summer 2011 as ripe sloes gathered from two blackthorn bushes: one on the banks of the Ashton Canal, Ancoats and one by the River Sett between New Mills and Hayfield in the Peak District.

The Ashton Canal winds its way from central Manchester to the market town of Ashton-under-Lyne, six miles to the east. It's a remarkable journey that takes walkers, cyclists, boats and geese past the boom and bust regeneration of inner-city Manchester (half rebuilt and reinvented as New Islington, half still rubble and spaces left by ruined mills and factories); alongside Manchester City Football Club's glittering stadium and the slightly less glamorous Eastlands retail park (highlight – ASDA); near the shabby Victorian elegance of Philips Park, Manchester's first public park, leading to reclaimed nature reserve Clayton Vale and the Medlock Valley; and next to Fairfield Moravian Settlement, an island of tranquil cobblestones and Georgian cottages surrounded by suburban Tameside with its canal-side sports pitches and pensioners playing waterside p├ętanque.

We are lucky to have this urban oasis running through the city: the canal would have been closed in the 1960s if the local council had its way. When road transport became widespread, canals went out of fashion. They grew obsolete and expensive to maintain – and it took volunteers across the country long and laborious hours to restore Britain's canal network. These campaigners reimagined a new use for the inland waterways as sites of leisure and tourism – for boating holidays and afternoon walks – rather than toil – horses and boats still hauled coal and other goods along canals, including the Ashton, well into the twentieth century, the purpose for which they had been built centuries before. At Ashton-under-Lyne, the Ashton Canal hits the Portland Basin (home to the Wooden Canal Boat Society and Portland Basin Museum), where canal adventurers head south east onto the Peak Forest Canal to continue their journey through the Cheshire towns of Hyde and Marple and then on to New Mills (a place defined by its spectacular geography; the town rises up into the hills as the rivers Sett and Goyt descend into sunken Torrs below) and Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire, where the canal comes to an end.

The second blackthorn bush was encountered along the Sett Valley Trail between New Mills and Hayfield on a rainy yet peaceful bank holiday weekend walk. Hayfield is a picturesque rural village overlooked by the Peak District National Park's highest point, Kinder Scout – a landmark visible back in the city, from Ancoats, where this story starts. In April 1932, Kinder was the scene of one of Britain's most famous protests. Several hundred ramblers from Manchester and the surrounding region, including folk singer Ewan MacColl, led a mass trespass up Kinder Scout to protest that what had previously been common land had been taken over by private interests. It's them we must thank for our rights to roam over Britain's countryside today, something we can take for granted: the ability to explore and reach out from the crowded cities around us, to wander at our leisure.

2012 will be the 80th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass. Find out more at or visit Salford's Working Class Movement Library, which holds material related to the protest.

The Golden Age of Canals, an excellent BBC4 programme about the formation of the Inland Waterways, mass activism to save canals and their changing uses, will be repeated on Monday at 7pm.

1 comment:

Chrissy Brand said...

What a fasincating post- the sloe gin will be good at Christmas. Am enjoying walking the Trent & Mersey in Cheshire at weekends at the moment when weather and time allow- we'll try and do the Ashton next year ;-) That BBC4 programme you mentioned is lovely- both touching and inspiring.

Chrissy at Manchester: a photo a day at Mancunian Wave