Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Peak Cruising is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Macclesfield and Peak Forest Canals. First published in Canal & Riverboat March 2003.
Our journey starts at Hardings Wood Junction, on the Trent & Mersey Canal, and takes us up to a point some 520 feet above sea level. There are only 13 locks to the summit level of our voyage, up Macclesfield Canal and on to the Peak Forest Canal and we pass through some tremendous scenery on the way.
Just north of Harecastle Tunnel the Trent & Mersey Hall Green Branch, just a mile and half long, forms the connection from Hardings Wood Junction to the start of the Macclesfield Canal at Hall Green Stop Lock. The Macclesfield Canal, opened in 1831, was one of the later navigations. Work on the Hall Green Branch was started in 1829, at the same time as Telford was building the second Harecastle Tunnel - which was needed when canal traffic became too heavy for Brindley's original tunnel.
The Hall Green Branch and the Trent & Mersey Main Line run parallel for a little way before the branch makes a sharp right turn to cross the main line on an aqueduct, the main line having now descend through two locks. Having risen a foot through the stop lock that marks the start of the Macclesfield Canal we can now look forward to nine miles of lock free cruising past the villages of Hall Green and Scholar Green and through some attractive Cheshire countryside. At bridge 86 a footpath leads to Little Moreton Hall, a magnificent Elizabethan timbered building that makes frequent appearances in photographs in books and on calendars. At one time it was possible to get from the towpath at bridge 86 onto the footpath but in recent years the yard or two of private land between the paths has been blocked to prevent us using this route. Now we must go to the road at bridge 85 walk up the road and find the footpath on the left that will bring us back to the footpath at bridge 86.
About midway along the long pound the canal passes the eastside of Congleton. There are moorings opposite Congleton Wharf, just before the canal crosses the road on an aqueduct. From here you can walk down to the town centre. There are also moorings a little further on by bridge 75. As we leave the town we cross an impressively high embankment giving views up the valley to a tall railway viaduct. To the right we can see the Cloud, a 1,125 feet high fell, which dominates the landscape for miles around. The navigation turns away from the Cloud as we come to the bottom of Bosley Locks. This flight of 12 narrow locks must be one of the best in the country. The flight is compact and easy to work and the views are superb. The turn between locks 11 and 12 can be a bit tricky - especially when two long boats are passing - but that is a small price to pay. At the top lock there are the usual BW facilities.
The canal makes its way through steep hills as we approach Oakgrove where we find the only swing bridge still operating on the canal. This is electrically operated by boaters using the BW facilities key. Less than four miles from Bosley Top Lock is the Town of Macclesfield, where on 6th October 1824 a meeting was held that was to lead to the building of the canal. This historic old town, with charters dating back to 1220, is set on a steep hillside. It has a long association with the silk industry, starting with the making of silk covered buttons in the 16th century. The first silk mill was built in 1756 and by 1790 silk was being manufactured on a large scale in the town and contributed much to the trade of the canal when it opened in 1831. Today the town still retains much of its old character although much of it is obscured by the modern shop fronts and new buildings that are to be seen on nearly every high street. The moorings near Buxton Road Bridge, number 37, are convenient for walking into the town.
A mile or so of more open scenery brings us to Bollington, where the old Adelphi and Clarence Mills have found a role as home for modern industry and commerce. After Bollington there are five more miles of rural views before we arrive at High Lane. On the way there are three pubs close to the canal nicely spaced so that we are never more than a mile from one. We also pass the Lyme View Marina at Allington and at Higher Poynton is the home of Braidbar Boats the well known boat fitting business based at Lord Vernon's Wharf. North Cheshire Cruising Club have their moorings in the High Lane Arm just two miles from the end of the canal. There are visitor moorings on the towpath by the club.
At Marple there are more BW facilities just before the junction with the Peak Forest Canal. We have come sixteen miles since our last lock and are finding this lock free cruising much to our taste so we turn right at the junction where another six and a half miles, without a lock, brings us to the end of the navigation at Whaley Bridge. The Upper Peak Forest Canal is a real delight with bucolic surroundings and glorious views over the River Goyt valley which it follows all the way to the terminus. There are four bridges to be worked, two swing and two lift. We pass the Anglo-Welsh base at New Mills and Furness Vale Marina a mile further on.
Shortly before Whaley Bridge we pass, on the left, what looks like a branch. It is in fact the main line of the canal to Buxworth and the route straight ahead is the half mile Whaley Bridge Branch. Whaley Bridge is an attractive little town with a charming little canal basin that rarely has much space available. Luckily there are usually plenty of mooring spaces along the arm.
The Peak Forest Canal is older than the Macclesfield having been opened in 1800 to provide a connection between Bugsworth (or Buxworth) and the Ashton Canal. Marple locks were not opened until 1804, the gap in the route being filled by a tramroad until then. Tramways played a big part in the operation of the canal as the terminal basin at Buxworth was the connection point for an extensive system of tramways used to carry limestone down from quarries in the hills above. In recent years the canal terminus at Buxworth has been restored but the last time I was there (2001) the navigation into the basins was dammed off due to problems with water leaking from them. However, it is a pleasant walk down to the basins, where visitors can get some idea of the scale of operations here a century ago. The stone blocks that supported the tramroad rails can still be seen running alongside some of the quays where stone was transhipped from tram wagons onto boats. The nearby Navigation Inn has pictures and information about the canal and tramways. They sold me a guide book as well as supplying some excellent food and drink.
Returning back along the Upper Peak Forest Canal to Marple our route continues down the 16 Marple Locks. As already mentioned these locks were the last part of the canal to be completed and by 1961 were the first part to become un-navigable, as vandals and neglect took their toll. This disastrous situation was compounded by the collapse of part of the Marple Aqueduct in 1962. The campaign to restore the Lower Peak Forest and the adjoining Ashton Canal took over ten years before the route was reinstated. It was on the 13th of May 1974 that the canals were officially reopened and the Cheshire Ring was navigable once again.
Before descending the locks you may like to look round the little town of Marple which can be reached from the road bridge below lock 13 (Lock 16 being the top lock). It has all the facilities to be expected of a small town including a pedestrianised shopping area. The locks themselves form a compact flight and take us down to the final 7 mile pound that runs to Dukinfield Junction. Below the locks we cross the River Goyt on the impressive Marple Aqueduct, almost 100 feet high. This was designed by Benjamin Outram, the engineer of the Peak Forest Canal until 1801, a man whose name is more often associated with building tramways than canals. Unfortunately the aqueduct crosses a heavily wooded valley which makes it difficult to get a picture, or even a clear view, of the whole of this three arched structure that is now a listed ancient monument.
The aqueduct is followed by the short (308 yards) Hyde Bank Tunnel after which the scenery becomes more suburban than rural. A mile and a half brings us to the shorter Woodley Tunnel (176yards). Although we are passing through the outskirts of Manchester we are still in a green corridor for much of the way as we follow the River Thame, which is to our left, and very little development has occurred between the river and canal. After passing under the M67 bridge we come to Warble Wharf, at Hyde, the home of Warble Narrowboats.
A lift bridge is harbinger of the canal end and past it is some open park land suitable for an overnight mooring before going further into Manchester. A wide stone bridge at Dukinfield Junction marks the end of the Peak Forest Canal. To the left the Ashton Canal leads to the centre of Manchester. This way is part of the Cheshire Ring which leads back to our starting point at Hardings Wood Junction, by way of the Rochdale, Bridgewater and Trent & Mersey Canals. The turn to the right was for many years a dead end but since 2001, with the re-opening of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, it has become the through route to Huddersfield and places beyond. In 2002, with the re-opening of the middle section of the Rochdale Canal it also become part of the South Pennine Ring. Of course you may not decide to go either way. You may have so enjoyed the magnificent Macclesfield and the Peak Forest perfection that you turn around and do it all again.
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