Like Runcorn, Worsley is another place I would never think to go but for the canals. Also, like Runcorn, it is on a branch of the Bridgewater Canal although in this instance it ultimately leads somewhere – to Leigh and a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
Despite its proximity to Manchester’s extensive motorways and the industrial centre of Trafford Park, Worsley is significantly more prosperous than Runcorn; it is almost prettified. The approach by canal requires a high level crossing of the Manchester Ship Canal, achieved by the remarkable Barton Swing Aqueduct – a waterborne route designed to swing open for the passage of ships beneath. I don’t know if the aqueduct is still able to swing nor if it is ever necessary – large shipping into Manchester ceased many years ago. I last passed this way in 1980 when the bridge was still manned:
The canal is at Worsley’s centre, overlooked by the magnificent Packet House – this grade 2 listed building, and the Boat Steps directly in front of it, date back to 1760 and the half-timbering was added in c.1850 by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere. You would have purchased your ticket for the ‘packet boat’ at the Packet House and boarded at the Boat Steps.
To the right of the Packet House is the entrance to the Delph, a forty six mile underground canal system which intersected with coal mines to the north. It was built on four different levels and connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts. There is a neat symmetry to this engineering marvel. The underground waterways provided a connection from the mines to the surface, transporting coal on narrow thin-ribbed boats nicknamed starvationers. The canals provided an effective drainage system for the waterlogged pits and the water from the pits helped feed the canal. The bright orange of the system around Worsley provides ongoing evidence that the supply system remains in place. The Delph and its tunnels are my idea of hell – the creepy 2926 yard Harecastle Tunnel is as subterranean as I am prepared to get. The final image shows an inspector legging a starvationer in the 1960s (I assume the water levels have risen since the tunnels were last used commercially, that or working conditions were even worse than I imagined).