Saturday, 14 August 2010

Peak Forest Canal Whaley Bridge - Bugsworth Basin

Pride of the Peak
A favourite haunt of mine when I lived in this part of the country was the towpath walk along the Peak Forest Canal.  This arm of the canal system reached right into the western edges of the Peak District until it was no longer practical to build a canal any further on account of the terrain.  From here horse drawn tramways would take over, allowing precious limestone and other mined materials to be shipped into Manchester and other industrial cities to be used as building materials and feed various industrial processes.  The canal closed in the 1920s for this use but is largely now used as a leisure canal with plenty of boat traffic still able to use it.  More information can be found at along with a nice photo gallery of the remaining part of the canal.
Whaley Bridge
Although I had walked along many different sections of the tow path I had never before walked along the short stretch from Whaley Bridge, or local town for the duration of our stay, to Bugsworth Basin.  These two places on the canal were extremely important for both had canal basins that were used as the transfer points for materials from rail to canal barge.  In the case of the basin at Whaley Bridge the canal basin formed an integral part of the trans-Pennine canal system since it was connected to the East Midlands canal system via the curious Cromford and High Peak Railway Line (
Green Bridge
The two canal basins are actually quite close together (only about a mile or so) and I thought that it would be a trail full of interest for my children.  My oldest daughter in particular is lapping up history as well as nature and I was certain that the walk would fulfill both sets of interests.  It’s a walk that’s much shorter than any that I normally include on here, being little more than a stroll, but it was notable for being the first that I have included the whole family on, and eventually I hope to explore the whole transport corridor that crossed the Peaks, including the rest of the canal and the tramway. 
Bugsworth Basin
We started at Whaley Bridge and wandered past the brightly coloured canal boats moored along the short arm of the canal that serves the basin.  The girls were fascinated by their decoration and took the opportunity to shout hello to one or two passing boats.
Bugsworth Basin
Otherwise it was running, running, running to explore what was round the corner.  We soon reached the junction with the main channel of the canal and had to cross via a fairly flimsy looking footbridge.  The left hand turn of the channel continues towards Marple and Ashton-Under-Lyne, meeting with the Macclesfield Canal a few miles away and would have represented the main outlet for goods travelling from Whaley Bridge.  The remaining part of the walk to Bugsworth Canal Basin was a feast of sights and points of interest for the children.  We saw more canal boats that seemed to be lived in on a more or less permanent basis (albeit moored temporarily) with all manner of decoration on them including gardens in some cases.  Sadly not all the boats were in very good condition and although the idea of travelling around by waterway really appeals to me, the hassle and expense of maintaining one of these boats would be a major obstacle for me.  Towpath walking is probably just as enjoyable!  Shortly after turning onto the Bugsworth Arm we passed underneath the A6, which apparently would have subsumed the canal entirely if road planners had got their way when the Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley by-pass was built.  It was this threat that finally encouraged local people to preserve Bugsworth Basin for everyone to enjoy.
Domestic Bliss
The next bridge was rather different and fascinated my daughter; it was a pipeline bridge that was covered in clematis, slowly inching its way across the canal and getting bushier and bushier.  I suppose for now it looks quite attractive but eventually someone will have to prune it before it gets out of hand!  Just past here were the canal workers' cottages, which look like very desirable residences these days, with a ready made cycle path outside to Whaley Bridge station if you wanted to commute somewhere else for work.  We also passed a smallholding with a couple of very curious geese intent on making sure we didn’t come any closer.  The pig behind didn’t seem to care too much about us; it was too busy making a lot of noise as it rooted around in the mud.  Eventually we arrived at the gauging station where the boats were checked to ensure they were not overloaded.  This was characterised by a narrowing of the channel, where the water level was measured to work out the toll payable for its journey.  The boat would have a set of plates fitted to it, which would then be measured for their height above the water and compared with previously calibrated measurements from known weights.  In this way the toll-keeper would know how much money to collect the money for using the canal.
Back to Whaley Bridge
We then entered the amazing world of Bugsworth Basin and could immediately see how much work had been done to restore the old place.  Derelict for many decades the whole basin has recently been restored and can now be used by boats again.  Nowadays it forms an attractive place to moor rather than be a loading point for goods so is a lot quieter than it once would have been.  We had a good look around and showed the girls the model of what it would once have looked like when in its heyday.  All that remains of the ongoing tramway from here is the stone sleepers (no wood in those days!).  It is perfectly possibly though to imagine how the place would once have looked, although thankfully now we do not have to endure the smoke of the lime kilns or the din of the crushing plants.  As an industrial complex the set up isn’t so far removed from the loading station at Eurotunnel in Folkestone (on a much smaller scale of course).
Former Wharf
By now the children were getting pretty tired and so we headed back to Whaley Bridge.  It is possible to walk along the trackbed of the Peak Forest tramway, which would have brought the limestone from quarries another 10 miles further into the Peak District.  This would have to wait for another day though as it would have been a further four miles to walk to the end of the available section and back.  I decided that I would take a closer look at Whaley Bridge canal basin instead by walking ahead and arranging to meet the rest of the family at Tesco (right by the end of the canal in Whaley Bridge).
Cromford and High Peak Line

Whaley Bridge basin was a lot smaller and less busy than Bugsworth and acted as the transfer point for goods between the Cromford and High Peak Railway that snaked its way across the limestone plateau of the Peak District and connected the canal systems of the East Midlands and the North West.  I first became interested in this railway when I was a kid and read a book about industrial archaeology, which heavily featured the railway and canal basins because they are remarkably well-preserved.  The wharf building at Whaley Bridge is in great condition and looks like it is used as a canal barge workshop these days (although the doors were completely shut).  Despite being in the town centre the first part of the old railway can also be traced past the car park and across a bridge that spans the River Goyt.  Remarkably the old bridge still has tracks embedded in the paving and the narrowness of the bridge can be appreciated.  The Cromford Railway was characterised by steep inclines to gain height over the limestone plateau and the first of these is just beyond the bridge.  It must have been a fascinating sight watching trucks being hauled up and down these slopes.  Unusually the one at Whaley Bridge was apparently hauled by a horse-powered engine right up until closure in 1952.  From here the railway would once have threaded its way along the Goyt Valley, gaining height on several more inclined planes before getting to the summit of Ladmanlow, about eight miles south of this point.  Some time I will take a look at what remains of the line, which is complete for much of its length.  However, today this teaser for a future visit was all I had time for.
Whaley Bridge Incline

This was definitely an appetiser for a look at what is a fascinating insight into our industrial past that’s even older than most closed railways I have walked along.  The rest of the canal and associated tramways beckon for a future visit!

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