Most of a decade ago I took a three day minibreak to walk the Manchester Ship Canal. Almost everyone I told about the trip seemed confused by my motives, and Darren, my walking companion, said that most of his friends presumed we were doing it for charity.
We weren’t. We were walking between two large British cities in order to explore our country’s industrial heritage, both its rise and its decline, and to take a hipsterishly unique holiday from our hipsterishly low-paid jobs.
We met at Manchester Piccadilly just after noon on a Monday in mid-November, arriving from different parts of the country. We made our hellos, bought some water and headed west into the city. We walked along famous Canal Street, then dropped down to the towpath alongside the Rochdale Canal where we skirted Victorian warehouses, modern skyscrapers and some recently-constructed houses.
Soon, the buildings started to recede and we arrived in what appeared to be a wasteground between Manchester and Salford. This area, criss-crossed by the evidence of disappeared railway tracks and crumbling factory buildings, turned out to be an island.
Men fished beneath concrete flyovers and piles of rubbish indicated that eating, drinking and probably sleeping happened there. I couldn’t tell if the detritus had been left by homeless people seeking shelter or youths having an unsupervised party. This level of grime, so close to the modern city, was odd, but set the tone for the forthcoming journey.
Darren and I clambered up an embankment and entered Salford, the small, industrial city now home to incongruous studios for the BBC and ITV. These big, new buildings are located in an old port district, at the tail end of the Manchester Ship Canal. They loom over an area almost void of people – the modern edifices shine, but their doors do not open or close with regularity.
We wove over bridges straddling the loading docks of a 19th-century harbour and through empty car park after empty car park. We left MediaCityUK, where many of the UK’s most popular television shows are produced, and immediately encountered a sewage works.
The size of the complex was almost as impressive as its smell, the facility clearly being where the majority of Manchester’s human waste is processed. I clambered onto the grass verge to peer through the fence, but there was nothing further to observe by proximity. We wandered on, through a small industrial estate and into Eccles. Sadly, we found nowhere selling the eponymous cake.
Our path veered towards the Manchester Ship Canal, the man-made, river-sized waterway we were to walk parallel to for the rest of the day. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, too late to be as useful as it was expensive, the Ship Canal was constructed to provide Manchester with direct sea access. Unfortunately, railways had risen in importance and speed as the canal was dug, and even at the start, the produce of Manchester’s many factories could reach Liverpool and the open sea was quicker and cheaper by rail. To be financially viable, the canal would have required constant use for many decades; this didn’t happen.
And so, the canal is not just an impressive and dispiriting testament to the dissolution of British industry, to the country’s industrial decline over the 20th century. It is also a harrowing example of the British inability to look to the future, of the country’s innate and damaging conservatism.
Continuing our journey, Darren and I walked beside the giant canal, its dirty water eddying below us. By the side of a motorway slip road we saw a sign warning local residents of sewage in the canal, explaining that the volume of waste within the region’s Victorian sewers is so high that human waste has begun to overflow. I cannot decide if the presence of human shit within it adds or detracts from the canal’s symbolic resonance.
Walking on, we passed a giant lock, the same as in a regular canal but ten times the size. We passed a small airfield surrounded by ruined buildings. We passed areas cleared for construction that had never been built on, we passed factories pumping out smoke and noise, and then, as the sun set, we passed fields growing what appeared to be potatoes. Eventually we arrived in Warrington, where we had a budget hotel room booked for the night. We ate an awful meal in the downstairs restaurant, being too tired after our seventeen-mile walk to go elsewhere. We went to sleep early. There wasn’t much else to do.
The morning we awoke to was cold, and we dressed and checked out as quickly as possible, hoping in vain to finish the second day’s walk before darkness. We reached the centre of Warrington and found a large cemetery, boasting at its gate that it held the grave of George “I’m leaning on the lamppost at the corner of the street” Formby, the banjo/ukulele (banjolele?) playing singer from the 1940s.
As both Darren and I are curious and somewhat morbid men, we entered the cemetery through its wrought iron gates and tried to find George. Gravestones and statues cast long shadows through the early morning mist, and a few paces into this silent field of tall Victorian tombs, the Gothic atmosphere started to scare me.
Eager to leave, I claimed I didn’t want to see George Formby’s grave as much as I wanted breakfast, and Darren believed me. We abandoned the search for the rotting musician and went into Warrington town centre. I breathed a sigh of relief and a mental note to stop reading The Walking Dead.
A small cafe served us a huge amount of food for a tiny price; we gobbled it down and left. We exited Warrington through its industrial district, then spent an hour walking along a straight road flanked by factories. Many businesses here were part of the aluminium trade: recycling as well as smelting from ore. As I once worked within the metals industry – as a proof-reader for an online trade directory, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds – I knew that the extraction of aluminium requires large amounts of electricity, so was half-expecting the next structure we encountered.
A short distance into the countryside to the west of Warrington is the imposing Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. Eight huge chimneys loomed on the horizon and grew as we approached, most of them pumping out white smoke that rose into the clouds and disappeared. We first glimpsed the power station an hour before we reached it, a towering hulk of concrete able to convert matter dug from the ground into the energy demanded by the aluminium smelters, light bulbs and iPads of the North East. I took out my phone and tried to photograph the towers and their acrid breath, but before I could find a good angle, a security guard ran over and demanded I stop.
All that was visible was the shell of a chimney and the cars parked at its base. I doubt anything within my sightline was secret, and believe the guard was trying to exert power only because he felt he should. His employers were at no risk of industrial espionage from a couple of mud-spattered, coffee-stained and weary – Darren was even limping – hipsters, but this man’s role dictated that he had to approach us as if we were a threat. “No one does walk these roads recreationally, that’s why we’re doing it,” we responded to his questions. He wouldn’t let us walk away until he’d seen all the recent photos on both of our phones. Even after he’d done that, he watched us suspiciously, stood outside his little hut, until we passed a curve in the road.
Once out of sight, we took as many photos as we wanted of the hulking industrial tubes.
The hours that followed were surprisingly bucolic. We strolled through small villages, past farms and large houses, somehow gaining in altitude as we neared the coast. In a town called Widnes, we decided to change our route and visit Liverpool John Lennon Airport and enter the city from the south.
We arrived at Liverpool’s extremities in the early afternoon. Suddenly, Darren and I passed from dry farmland into a housing estate, where we witnessed almost stereotypical evidence of Liverpool’s reported poverty: shopping trolleys scattered outside houses, the remains of a fire on a grass verge, empty beer and cider cans, fag ends, aggressive dogs, peeling paint and dried excrement.
The estate receded as we hurried along the road, the airport runway behind a high fence and bramble-covered dyke to our left. We were hungry, but once at the airport’s sole terminal could only buy an insipid lunch. The highlight of our time there was Darren managing to get us a discount on some Starbucks coffee. We didn’t stay for long.
Liverpool from the Mersey, 2015. Image: Getty.
Although I hadn’t been to Liverpool before, its edges felt familiar: petrol stations, supermarkets, warehouses, chain hotels, retail parks, factories, traffic lights, car parks: the essential ephemera of a city’s extremities. We walked through these clogged and car-filled streets, wide because they were built where nothing else existed. Darren’s limp had increased in severity and our pace was slowing. Soon, we passed back into a residential district, and the rest of our journey was bordered by housing, not all of it occupied.
The rows of terraces we saw often had crumbling brickwork, smashed windows and graffiti. The dog turds I’d earlier noticed continued to be a problem, and there was more litter on the floor. I don’t like being faced with negative stereotypes in real life, but, alas, Liverpool did appear run down and dirty. The roads we strolled down were less clean than the industrial estates we’d walked through in the morning; the sign warning about sewage in the Manchester Ship Canal cleaner than the signs welcoming visitors to Liverpool.
The streets felt emptier than they should have been – the November evening wasn’t particularly cold, and we were approaching the city centre after five. Old buildings surrounded us on every street – brick warehouses a century old, rusted machinery beside railway tracks, houses with wood-covered windows, cracked paving slabs and-
I don’t know why I’m doing this, describing Liverpool as a wasteland. Because it wasn’t, once we reached the centre – there we found lots of vibrant and modern bars, shops and restaurants, but many of these neighboured vacant shopfronts.
To compare Liverpool to Manchester, back then in the early years of the Coalition government, there was a clear difference in recent investment. Whilst parts of Manchester sparkled, glass buildings gleam and money seems to fall off the polished steel, this wasn’t the case in Liverpool. Things were dirtier, and the inconsistent cleanliness of a handful of manicured streets (and the Albert Dock) emphasises, rather than hides, this problem.
The issue, for me, isn’t the dirt itself, but the attitude displayed towards it. Liverpool sweeps litter under the metaphorical rug, more literally moving it into the spots outsiders are unlikely to see. Though the square close to Lime Street Station containing the library and the rather good Walker Art Museum is beautiful and striking, when one walks a few streets away the mirage disappears. A little more dirt in the pretty places and a little bit less in the others would be more honest.
Please don’t misinterpret me: I had a lovely time in Liverpool. We stayed there overnight and didn’t leave until the following evening. We drank in a great cocktail bar (Berry & Rye, Berry Street), enjoyed good food (pick for fellow vegetarians: The Egg Cafe, Newington), visited some varied museums (the International Slavery Museum shouldn’t be avoided, the Museum of Liverpool may as well be) and found a great second-hand bookshop (Henry Bohn Books). We saw famous and impressive places (the Cavern Club, the Royal Liver Building), but also noticed a lot of evidence of cracks patched over rather than repaired.
There were many things I liked about Liverpool – its dirt felt more authentic than Manchester’s gloss – but in many ways it reminded me of the part of the country I grew up in: the West Midlands. There we have the same – grime, councils unwilling to clean it, buildings that once provided the livelihood for hundreds now roofless and overgrown with weeds. Opposite the single platform of my end-of-the-line, hometown station (Redditch) is an unused warehouse. Every window, in “first thing you see getting off the train” splendour, has been broken for decades, probably by teenagers who have since grown into adults who lack local industry to employ them. (Nb: this has recently been demolished.)
Obviously, it’s different. Liverpool’s slow decline is tied more tightly to the nation’s decline after the loss of the Empire, whereas it was merely the passage of time that diminished (not quite destroyed) the area I grew up in.
Walking through Liverpool was like getting the train from Redditch into central Birmingham: everything gets cleaner and more populated as one moves forward, everything on the edges forgotten, or at various stages in the process of being forgotten.
Liverpool is a charming city, its people are friendly and it has a lot to offer the casual tourist. That it faces the same fate as a mid-sized, satellite town in the Midlands seems unjust. But where would the money needed to revive Liverpool come from, now it no longer arrives by sea?
Industrial decline is something that can be easily seen in the UK, near to the heart of every town and city. Heavy industry (and colonialism) was what made the country prosperous – and now it is gone, the lack of enterprises that offer steady mass employment is causing resentment and conservatism. Liverpool, once one of the world’s richest cities, shouldn’t be dying. But, to an outsider, it really feels like it is.
In films and in novels, I like decline, I like tragedy. I like seeing things fall apart. But Liverpool is a city, not a character, and it is unable to hide either its charms or its mistreatment. There is nothing uplifting in seeing its decline.
Go to Liverpool, I urge you. Spend some money, pick up some litter. It may be on its knees, but it’s not yet dead.