Well, it’s our river, isn’t it? For all its association with Liverpool, and its iconic tales and songs, over half of the River Mersey’s 70-mile length sits within the boundaries of Greater Manchester.
It was back in 1983, after the Toxteth Riots, that Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State, looked at the river and decided something had to be done. It was considered one of the most polluted rivers in Europe, and he instigated the successful, 20-year regeneration programme. Today it is one of the cleanest rivers in England.
The source of the river is the confluence of the Rivers Goyt and Tame in the centre of Stockport. From here you can walk the banks of the river until it flows into the Manchester Ship Canal at Irlam. So why not grab the kids and the dog and take a stroll from Vale Road in Heaton Mersey to Ford Lane in Didsbury? There’s an abundance of history and wildlife along the way.
Architecturally, the whole area around Vale Road has changed little since the 19th century, and the cobbled street still winds steeply, past the old cottages, and down to the river. Here the remnants of Samuel Oldknow’s mill, and the weir which fed the mill race, are still visible. He was a cloth manufacturer and established a bleaching, printing and dyeing works there in 1785. It was instrumental in transforming Heaton Mersey from a rural, agricultural hamlet into a bustling Victorian village with a brickworks and upper bleach works specialising in dyeing and printing.
A mile past the site of Oldknow’s mill, the river passes the playing fields of Parrs Wood School and flows under Cheadle Bridge on Manchester Road. This carved sandstone bridge, constructed in 1861, was once the sole crossing point of the Mersey, linking Didsbury to Cheadle Village. A short distance later you come to Kingsway Road Bridge. It was named after King George V, opened in 1939, and was one of the earliest purpose-built roads for motor vehicles and trams. However, it was not extended across the river until 1959.
Strolling on towards Didsbury you reach the edges of the river’s floodplain. Here Fletcher Moss Gardens are well worth a visit. This 21-acre park has retained many of its original features, such as the rock and heather gardens, and the orchid houses situated in the Parsonage Gardens which are opposite Fletcher Moss. A nature trail winds down from the river, and you can rest at the Alpine Tea Room which serves tea, cakes and ice cream on most days of the year. The gardens are named after Alderman Fletcher Moss, who donated the park to the city of Manchester in 1919. His legacy remains today and the wildflower meadow, next to the river bank, is a natural home to many species of plants and insects.
A little further along the banks, you reach Simon’s Bridge at the end of Ford Lane. An entirely iron structure, the building of the bridge was funded in 1901 by Henry Simon, a Prussian who was born in Silesia in 1835. Despite arriving penniless in Manchester in 1860, within seven years, he had established himself as a consultant engineer with offices in the city centre. In his lifetime he designed a rolling flour mill plant for McDougall Brothers and revolutionised the development of coke through the use of ‘beehive ovens’. Immersing himself in the life of the city, he was a co-founder of the Halle Concerts Society and also Withington Girls’ School. Eager to help the community, he provided the monies for the bridge so that the church could access Poor’s Field which provided rent to pay for blankets and clothes.
The crossing here also has a grim history. Before the bridge, there was a ford here. Charles Stuart’s army was ambushed by locals as they were retreating north to Scotland in 1745. A line of trees and mounds visible on the northern bank marks the graves of the unfortunate Scots.
A short stroll down Ford Lane will bring you to the centre of Didsbury with its shops, restaurants and cafés. Hop on the Metrolink or the 42 Bus to get back to The Heatons, or just retrace your steps. Keep an eye out for herons, otters, ducks, geese, and even a family of mink, who have made this stretch of the river their home.