Liverpool to Manchester ride
I’ve always been fascinated by watercourses, the web of rivers and streams that dissects the land, flowing endlessly towards the sea. I love the path that they cut, both natural and manmade; it’s fascinating to see how we built our societies around rivers as a source of life, of trade, and of transport, and how we’ve built our own version in the form of canals. I love how they connect, how they meander, how they are formed. Being beside a river brings instant calm; even in the midst of city and industry, water is peace.
Liverpool sits at the mouth of the River Mersey; the Mersey flows near my friend’s house in Manchester. Would it be possible to reach one from the other simply by following the water? I decided to find out.
In Liverpool, the Mersey is wide and surging. It flows into Liverpool Bay, the wind and the waves and the tide giving it a ferocious personality, the estuary separating the city from the Wirral. I began my journey at the docks, among the huge boats, the bold colours of their hulls reflected in the still water in complement to the deep red bricks of the old warehouse buildings on the walkways. It was an overcast day, the wind high, the rigging of the sail boats knocking in ghostly rhythm against their masts. I turned my back on the city and the sea and followed the water’s edge, inland; I had no idea where I was going aside from my vague notion of following the river, and this was part of the adventure. To have no plan, no knowledge of the route other than the start point and the end point, and hope that I would be able to find my way using these ancient forms of navigation.
It soon transpired that this was part of the Transpennine Trail, a Sustrans route that winds west to east from Southport to Hornsea. So I’d be guided by the blue signs that were dotted regularly along the way; not quite the wilderness trail that I was hoping for, but useful nonetheless.
The city turned into suburbs, then the suburbs petered out to countryside, and soon the riverside path had turned from concrete to gravel and I was riding along wide cycleways with tall grasses to each side. The river had been growing rather than shrinking as I’d travelled away from the bottleneck at Liverpool and the Wirral, the estuary reaching deep into the land, but it eventually gave way to winding river as the trail reached Widnes. I passed beneath the Widnes/Runcorn bridge, the huge steel bridge arched in the shape of a pirate’s hat. Upstream the river would become unnavigable for both boats and bikes, the banks overgrown and wild, the river bed shallow and rapids-interrupted. Here, man-made waterways would once have carried cargo further inland, and now they would carry me. Parallel to the Mersey on the opposite bank lay the Manchester Ship Canal; on my side was the St Helens canal, a ruler-straight cut alongside which the river meandered. I joined the towpath and was soon heading for the outskirts of Warrington, where great plumes of smoke rose from power station chimneys.
A squat structure appeared across the water, four steel girder-like legs holding up a flat, straight and short bridge. I stopped. The Warrington Transporter Bridge! One of the trio of transporter bridges in the UK, these ingenious structures constructed in the late 1800s where a high bridge was required to allow shipping to pass but where the approach ramp to reach such a height was impractical. I have used the two other such bridges in the UK, in Newport, South Wales and Middlesborough. This was disused, the industry that had once required the constant shuttling of goods across the water now gone.
The route criss-crossed the meandering Mersey, reaching the south side where the gargantuan Manchester Ship Canal cut deep between cities, wide, deep and long, the bridges passing high above, double in scale to every canal I’d seen before. Here I left the water and followed an old branch-line railway from Lymm to Altrincham through tunnels of trees and over tracks of roots. The place names became familiar, outskirts of the city where I was a student. Dunham Massey, Altrincham, Sale, Chorlton, all drawing me to West Didsbury where my journey would end.
I finally re-joined the Mersey at Chorlton Water Park, the gently rippling water just a few metres wide; a wholly different animal to that which it had been at the start. It snaked its way through manicured golf greens, civilised and calm, the banks smooth and well-kept. I followed it through the golf course then exited through a gate to re-join roads, where traffic and society replaced water. The Mersey continued its endless flow, back the way I had come, where it would become wider and faster, meandering through Warrington and Widnes, into Liverpool Bay and eventually the sea.
It had taken almost six hours to travel the 40-odd miles from city to city. I arrived starving and exhausted, but with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction – I had set out to do something and I had done it, with no more preparation than my (at times questionable) sense of direction. I had breathed great lungfuls of Lancashire air, seen the landscape change through industry and nature, felt the benefit that exercise has on my body, and arrived thoroughly deserving of my dinner. I had spent hours under the wide open sky, feeling with every pedal that I was getting to know my country more and more. I just wouldn’t have got that on the train.