The Cut – A Manchester Ship Canal Odyssey

Up the M56 towards Ellesmere Port onto the M53, up the Wirral towards Wallasey and the Seacombe ferry terminal. That’s when it strikes me; that this journey is itself as interesting as the one I was about to embark upon. Skirting the Mersey, passing the industrial basin of the giant chlorine and chemical plants, passing the mosque like domes and minarets of the oil refineries, past the plastic retail ‘outlet village’ and the flatpack  Vauxhall car plant, past the long neglected hinterland estates of Birkenhead and into Wallasey itself, along roads of derelict concrete, rusting iron and broken brick, past greasy spoon cafes and phoney Irish pubs, rusting submarines and gigantic obsolete docks, the contrast between both shores of the Mersey could not be starker.
Across the river Liverpool’s new vulgar topography is taking shape, a city centre of high rise, so-called ‘luxury’ apartments, up-market hotels, leisure citadels and corporate headquarters that look like all modern cities tend to look like these days. Liverpool’s attempt to be as banal and functional, as pious and self-congratulatory as any other puffed-up metropolis. A consumerist wasteland of malls and pleasure domes and sundry other places to spend your ‘free time’. Free time? How can time be liberated? Wage slaves, beneficial chattels of the state, spenders, consumers, ‘contributers’ and therefore ciphers of the stasis between one order and another. The industrial and post-industrial landscape being carved right here, right now in real time, in our time.
The only thing that we can predict about the future is its unpredictability. Like that meaningless insurance company slogan ‘because change happenz!’ Change happens! The world spins. Day follows night. People die. Babies are born. Old certainties wither away, new threats arrive at the door. Deserts spread, forests burn, valleys flood, ice melts; change happens!
And ‘Because Change Happenz’ I feel the need to record some smallscale, personal change of my own.  So this was the idea; to travel down the Manchester Ship Canal on a Mersey Ferries Cruise and dredge up my own memories of being tied to that channel, of living in a town that depended on it, that was more or less created BECAUSE of it. 

‘The Cut’
That’s what we’ve always called it; ‘The Cut’ because it WAS cut, a thirty six mile artery that sliced through Cheshire in an act of provincial pique played out by 19th Century (never Victorian) English city states as self-regarding, greedy and virile as any Renaissance republic or principality.  By by-passing the Port of Liverpool, Manchester’s inland docks could import and export goods without being taxed by their Lancastrian neighbours and keep more of the profits of that textile revolution in their own deep pockets. 

Construction began on 11th November 1887 and the canal was officially opened by Queen Victoria six and a half years later. It came through Runcorn, where I live, where I’ve always lived. The old photos in pubs and houses show its construction, showed the ‘wild west’ doss houses that provided for the thousands of navvies who excavated that cut, who carved out that channel with their hands and their sweat and sometimes with their lives. The Irish and the English and the Scots and the Welsh, the men who stayed put and settled down in places along that route, places like Runcorn.
The family names remain still; my own family; the Thorntons and the Hughes’s, the Nolans and Jones’s. English, Irish, Welsh, Methodist, Catholic, Socialist. The canal has provided us with work,  provided us with economic security and social structure. My dad the docker, my uncles the tug pilots, deckhands, engineers and crane operators. Up and down the cut they went, towing the ships, loading and unloading the chemicals and raw materials for the giant ICI Castner Kelner and Rocksavage chlorine plants and the raw subterranean salt from Northwich way that was mounded up in huge piles at Weston Salt Union.
Hard men, hard work, hard lives. And me, soft handed trying to make sense of this desolate landscape now that the docks and the boatyards and the tugs and the cranes are largely idle, now that boats no longer travel the thirty six miles at a snail’s pace to unload their cargoes in Salford, a preposterous concept in this day and age of road and rail and plane, of cyber-space and world wide webs. 


The very fact that I’m about to take a leisure cruise along this route tells its own story and that’s fair enough. I’m no sentimentalist, no romantic for those times. Not when the days of unregulated health and safety left young men dead of various respiratory diseases caused by chemical leaks and other pollutants, not when men were crushed and crippled by unsafe loads, not when the very air we breath, that my children breath contributes to some of the highest cancer rates in the country. That heavy industrial age was a curse and it shackled families to some bogus work ethic that told them that work was good for the soul, that work was inherently virtuous, that idleness was a sin (unless, ofcourse, idleness was something you inherited from land theft and the fruits of economic slavery). As the infamous death camp motto said ‘Work Will Set You Free’ but it won’t and it never has, work will control you, work will eat you up and destroy you. Even that icon of 19th century socialism, John Ruskin, never questioned the value of work for the soul;

‘Life without industry is guilt’ he said, ‘and industry without art is brutality.’       
Industry without art is all around as I get out of the car by Seacombe ferry terminal; a wilderness of industrial towers, barbed wire, tower blocks, low rise slums, an un-regenerated reminder of what the city opposite is trying to fool itself it has freed itself from, if only within a one mile radius of its shiny, vain yet self-deluded centre. It’s still a pretty spectacular waterfront though. The broad estuary’s leaden grey waves separating the peninsula from the future, reminding it of its past.   Inside the terminal, I join the long queue of mostly elderly fellow passengers, the final cruise of this wet, washed out summer of 2007. At least today, it’s dry and begins sunny. Not bad conditions for the first day of October. I find a place outside on one of the wooden benches and get out my pad, which itself causes a few suspicious looks from my shipmates. I’m confused as we set off, expecting the ferry to travel downstream but at Birkenhead’s Woodside terminal, instead of going down river we instead take a circuitous course crossing the Mersey to skirt along the Liverpool waterfront before returning to the Wirral shore. 
I make notes and two years later, attempt to make sense of them; all I can really remember now is the early sun giving way to a dull, numbing cold, the familiar Proustian smell of the canal itself, the smell of my youth, that oily, cancerous stench that collected in our nostrils as we swam on warm summer days from ferry hut over to the Gantry wall that separated the cut from the Mersey, waiting for tugs to pass so we could surf on the backwash waves, heads bobbing up and down  like skinny, white seals. The same cut my dad had swam in under the shadow of the old transporter bridge before he too became a merchant seaman at fifteen, then a tugboat deckhand, then a docker, till he was made redundant in the mid-80s, as Thatcherism bit hard. ‘Made redundant’ is a telling phrase. Being unemployed means being nothing. The only thing he was good for, was work. Without work there is nothing, no use, no purpose to life. And the trade unions that he supported during those strike ridden days of the 70s bought into that, still buy into it today. ‘Full employment’ being their mantra, their ultimate aim, their panacea for all social ills. Without work, we are nothing, without work, we will wither and die, without work we are a strain on the economy and a pain in the arse. Work will set us free. Life without industry is guilt.  

It was a day that began at home and went full circle, from Runcorn to Wallasey from Wallasey to Salford, from Salford back to Wallasey, from Wallasey back home. Car, boat, coach, car. It was exhausting and in a way memorable. Memorable because of the things I expected to feel and because of the things I did and didn’t feel. Nostalgic, yes, at times, especially when we passed through my home town, which is still by far the most spectacular part of the journey, but also resigned and apathetic not angry or resentful. How can you get too worked up about travelling along a canal? The notes I made attempt to convey both the natural and the mechanical, the historical and the philosophical and they make little sense in isolation. What follows is an edited version of those notes that maybe make no sense yet at least provide a flavour of the day and of the past, present and future of the canal and the people who continue to live beside it.     

 1 Mersey – Seacombe to Eastham 
Eight oystercatchers fly past in procession
calling a shrill benediction.
An omen?  
Other  mythical birds; cormorants?
 Liver? Mythical birds for a mythical city
Merseyside Fire and Rescue dinghy; three men and one woman in a boat.
You cant rescue this place, this river, this city.
Mersey; the ancient marker
Pre-Celtic, pre-Roman
Pre-Saxon, Pre-Norman
Ice channel
Cut by water
Viking Belfast ferry (Bari).
Art deco tunnel ventilation
Funnels out dead air
The fumes and noise of the day.
Pious red brick edifices
The town hall with its back to the river
 Snubbing aul Pool, whoremaster.
The ghost of Cammel Lairds
Twelve quays-  roll on/roll off
Roll on/roll off
Roll off/roll on
Five sailings a day
Freight from Birkenhead to Dublin
Ancient routes
Rooted in trade
Cormorant fly-by; a premonition?
World heritage?
Slave heritage?
Albert dock
Stanley dock
Kings and brutalisers
Insurance against losses
Imperial measurements
Measure me my tithe
Cubist shit brown building
Here comes the Sun (Alliance)
Peel holdings 1986
Privatise the past
Pave the way for a new dawn
Peel back the paper
Turn the page
Tomorrow belongs to us!
Kingsway tunnel 
Six faced clock
Castle tower 1824
Tick tock
Tick tock
Time is money and
Time is on our side
What time is love? 

 Blue derricks  of ‘Freeport’
Marxism and old jokes
Karl or Groucho
We’ve heard it all before
Free for whom?
Free for all!
Buoys Will Be Buoys
Buoys Keep Swinging
Buoys Always Work It Out
1974 invents ‘Merseyside
Olde Cheshire
Olde Lancashire
New boundaries
New bonds
1330 Edward III charter
Monks of Birkenhead
Charge to  cross Mersey
Who pays the ferryman?
Tithe and tide
Wait for Nor-mans
Landing gangways lying idle
‘Shell  refinery
The shell of old expectations
Fossil fuels for fossil fools
 underground pipes
 to Stanlow and to Rotterdam
This could be anywhere at all
Eastham docks
Queen Vic herself salutes
Lord Egerton cuts the first sod
The first sod
Lord Edgie
His name immortalized in a hundred pubs
FMC factory 
sandstone banks,
 black gravel boatyards
dredgers/landfill/ give ways
 leisure  v commercial traffic
Easyjet flies overhead
Lands at Speke aka JLA 
John Lennon airport
Speke ill of the dead
Above us only trite corporate slogans
New modes
New money
Seeagulls follow us
ClydeVes (Bergen) pass green to green
Eastham park sightseers wave
Hello sailors!
We wave back
Hello landlubbers
The novelty of tourist cruisers
Waves on waves 
Suez model
26 feet deep
Eastham locks
MSC (Manchester Ship Canal) Tugs greet us:
and Viking
Dredger Vigour
Dredge up the silt
Dredge up the past
Gates open
Water meets water
Were in!   
2 Manchester Ship Canal Eastham to Runcorn Gap
Nariva – orange oil tanker no smoking
Sluice gates about 10ft higher on ship canal side
Canal rises 60 ft in total
over 36 miles
through 5 sets of locks
Archimedes would approve
As water rises brick by brick
 mud brown eddies
The stink of my youth
Lock keepers hut like a kids drawing
A monopoly house
Behind tugs, metallic castles
Nests of grey silver oil tanks
Eastham blockade
Farmers blockade
Oil is power
Oil is the key
Control oil & control the world
Gulls squawk as water level rises
Siren sounds for gates to open ends abruptly as if killed/shot
Gates open we rise
Take onboard MSC pilot to guide us
Stella Virgo (TBS liner)
CarmetTugCo Ltd
Dads,  uncles, cousins,
Tug men, dock men, ex-men
Scattered now
Free from water
Foundering on dry land
Westminster Dredging Co vessel
Coal conveyor belts
Columbian gold
Coal n coke
Black n white
Exports for a leisure land economy
To fiddlers ferry power station
Miners strike
Electricity is power, electricity is the key
Control electricity and control the world!

Sailors leave their marks at ye olde nick wharf
Cyrillic hieroglyphs
Turkish graffiti
Mersey marshes
Milady container vessel (Gibraltar)
Ellesmere Port 
Boat museum
Holiday Inn
Prettify the past
A day out for all the family
Outlet Village
Inlet town
Rusting containers
blue wash portakabins
Rows and rows of gas cylinders
Cooling towers
Roped off wooden wharfs
Scrap cars
Shell refinery

Kristin Knutsen (Haugesund, Norway)
Nordic Copenhagen (Singapore)
River Gowy flows under canal to join Mersey
Reed marshes
Monks abbey at Stan LAW (now Stanlow)
Miles of pipes, cylinders
discharge of petrol
low flash point oils
Gas legacy @Limasol 
 Plane takes off
cows graze on marsh
Follow us with curious glances
The observers and the observed
Like pilgrims, like penitents
Waiting to be fed or flogged
Crows chase off heron
Ince B plant
There is a light that never goes out
Burning the midnight oil
A torch to light your life by
Helsby hill/Frodsham hill
Helsby Grammar School
Hated homestead
Country runs
Cunt re-runs
Plastic public school pretence
You can make it
But on our terms
Using our language
Class distinctions
Class depictions
The giveaway; spelling our as are
Gulls darting in front of boat
More herons
Moorhens clumsily flying
Cows lie
A storm or a rumour?
An old wives tale
Red sky at night  

Rusted burned out hatchback car
Frodsham marshes
Sheep and cows graze
On re-claimed land
Re-claimed from nature
Stamped ownership Vale Royal
Grosvenors and Cholmondeleys
(thats Grove-ner and Chum-ley squire!)
Carved up and creamed off
Pumping house debris into landfill
Four  swans break into flight
A blessing?
Past hay barns
bails packed tightly
7 high and 34 deep 

Bend into Weston docks
Ferry boats for farm workers to feed stock
Nile and Tigris technology
River Weaver confluence 
Castner Kelner ICI plant
Glorious machine
Chlorine cannibal
Manhattan Moloch
Demanding sacrifice
Feed me Seymour!
Feed me
Inside me, I am human
In my pipes
In my bones
I eat and shit
But never sleep
Feed me!
Feed me!
For I am never full.
Cormorants fly infront of pipelines
 pea green
 powder blue
all colour coded
Mix and match
Weston Point Docks
The recycling plant and the sheds
Recycling my childhood
The shed where my dad showered
And we waited on benches
Surrounded by pornography
The soap and steam
The sweat and stench of hard labour
Salt union
True grit
For winter roads
Stops the world sliding
Into chaos
Crystal topaz (orange boat) Luxembourg
Flock of geese
Crane unloads potash from boat into truck
Runcorn docks
British Waterways v MSC
MSC Dainty/Dawn tugs
Bridgewater House
Riverside College
Perpetually in crisis
Where my daughter studies
Young girls wave at windows
I feel the urge to wave back
Yet that feels wrong
Even if one of them is MY kin
My fellow shipmates wouldnt know that

Turns into corner of bridge
New apartments attempt to disguise
Dukesfield, that Victorian slum
Slum of my youth
Cawdor Street 
Steep stairs, steep streets 
Soot and dogshit
The smell of Granox factory
Smelting bones
Melting dead beasts
It spits us out too
Heres your heraldry on the railway bridge
City Of London
City Of Liverpool
The shields of protection
We pledge allegiance
In iron and blood
Where Ethelfreda once had her fort
Under the Runcorn bridge
Grandads Guinness Book Of records
Second largest single span in the world
Spanning old county lines
Lancashire once
Saxon once
Celtic once
Align yourself
Define yourself
By what youre not
Not what youve got
Ferry hut
Where we ran to touch the logs
One, two, three
Can you get to four?
As the ships drew the water out
Sucked it under its hull
Then back out – would we make it?
Back to the shit and the sand?
The Dev lads wading in the Mersey mud
Black from head to foot
Save for their white arses
As they moon to daytrippers
A fight with Tommo in undies only
The Widnes lads stoning us
As we swim in the oily summer night
No ferry now
The wall cutting his trade off
Now a sanctuary for geese and ducks
Swans too
Signs of re-generation
The water becoming cleaner
Clean enough for ducks
Clean enough for geese and swans
This is progress of a kind
Past The Deck, new riverside apartments
Build on the old tug yard
Beuna Vista
The chimneys and towers stretch up
Like church spires blowing smoke
Up Gods holy, hairy arse

3 Runcorn to Salford Docks
To be honest the rest of the voyage is an anti-climax. I’ve seen what I wanted to see and the remainder of the journey becomes a slow trek though a landscape at odds with itself. Through numerous swing bridges and locks, past industrial estates and new-build residential estates, past golf courses, factories and fields, under aquaducts, railway  and motorway bridges, through old aristocracy and industrialist fiefdoms, canal becoming river, river becoming canal once again.
Onto New Salford, with its ‘Lowry’ themed shopping malls and its shiny galleries and abstract museums celebrating war and empire, celebrating the economic ‘miracle’ that paid for all this; that built these canals and docks and town halls and mansions, the Neo-Gothic pretence, the sandstone energy, the mercantile greed, the men who are memorialized in marble and oil and stone. These men of industry supported by men of violence, the generals and the politicians and the Kings and Queens who legitimised slavery and bloodshed and theft and called it ‘progress’ and hid behind religion and morality and democracy. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Here today, New Salford, like New Liverpool is newly cleansed, fit for tourists and the middle classes, fit even for the BBC, soon to relocate, to represent ‘the north’ to pretend to be inclusive and save money for the tax payer. Salford stripped to the bone, stripped of its history and its people, the slow inevitable colonization by people who read the Guardian’s ‘Let’s Move To’ column…
‘On the plus side, lots of new restaurants and galleries
On the downside close to run-down sink estates’ 

We get off the ferry and get on the bus that takes us back along the M62, through Liverpool’s empty Edge Lane slums, metal grilled windows  painted with twee Beatles and scouse pride murals so as not to scare off anyone visiting for next year’s Capital Of Culture celebrations. The theme park Disneyfication of culture, or what calls itself ‘culture’ now well into its swing.
‘Yeah yeah yeah’
Through the Mersey tunnel and back to Seacombe. I get in my car and drive back home in the dark, past the factories, glowing hotly in the cold, dead air. On the approach to Runcorn, as ICI comes into view as the M56 passes over the Weaver as it joins the same ship canal I’ve just travelled the length of, it is undeniably beautiful. Rocksavage is illuminated by thousands of lights as it processes the stuff of the earth into things to be used by the people of the earth. It shines and it shits and it shits as it shines and despite everything, this is home and home is where the heart attack is!
Phil Thornton   

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