The historic 15 mile Sankey Valley follows the course of England’s oldest canal since the Industrial Revolution, linking St. Helens with Warrington through to Widnes. Sankey Valley Park is a public park occupying part of the Sankey Valley.
Information provided by Warrington Borough Council
Additional information, photos and captions Copyright © Gordon I Gandy
Running through the park is the historic Sankey Canal. Opened in 1757, it was the country’s first true canal of the Industrial Revolution, The canal was originally used to carry coal from St Helens to Liverpool and in later years to carry sugar from Liverpool to Sankey Sugar Works at Earlestown. It pioneered the canal age, with the first art of the Bridgewater Canal opening in 1761.
The Act authorising the Sankey Brook Navigation, as the Sankey Canal was originally known, was passed in 1755. The engineer was Henry Berry who was the Liverpool’s Second Dock Engineer. The canal was built for the Mersey flats, the sailing craft of the local rivers – the Mersey, Irwell and Weaver – and the Lancashire and North Wales coasts. To allow for the masts, all the roads in the canal’s path had to be carried over swing bridges.
Sankey Valley Park was created between St Helens and Spike Island at Widnes (close to Runcorn-Widnes Bridge), via north and west Warrington (Winwick, Callands, Dallam, Bewsey, Sankey and Fiddlers Ferry). It opened on 25 July 1982 and forms part of the larger Mersey Forest and Trans Pennine Trail. The area around Callands was once woodland and formed part of the royal hunting forest of Henry I. Today the local authorities of Warrington, St Helens and Halton, along with the Helens and Halton, along with the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, are developing the Sankey Canal Trail as a 15-mile (24 km) greenway, whilst working towards the restoration of a navigation route.
Sankey Valley Park at the A57 Liverpool Road entrance. The Sankey Brook flows the other side of the trees on the right.
One of the green spaces at Callands where new housing was built from the late 1970s onwards alongside the Sankey canal. the estate is named after Callands Farm in the west of the district.
So come on a journey through the Warrington section of Sankey Valley from north
to south and west, not forgetting the Sankey Canal page for more history.
The area around Winwick Maintenance Yard.
The canal flowed through the section that is now filled in and covered with grass
The maintenance yard was a hive of activity from 1841 when it was built. Boats were repaired and other repair jobs were completed.
Across the canal the dry dock was also used. Boats a lock gate was opened and the footbridge was opened. Once the boat was in the dry dock a culvert at the side was opened and the water drained from the dock so work repairs could be done on the vessels.
Further along there was another lock to allow the boats to continue north. The filled-in remains can be seen on the opposite side of the M62 motorway.
The maintenance yard workshop, built in 1841
and still in use today for another business
Walking south we approach Dallam, passing the former Hulme Lock.
When the railways came, the canals went into a long decline and the Sankey Canal was officially closed in 1963. Today the local authorities of Warrington, St. Helens and Halton, along with the Sankey Canal Restoration Society (SCARS), are developing the Sankey Canal Trail as a 15-mile greenway, along with Hulme Lock, situated immediately south of the M62. The area around the lock was completely infilled in 1974.
SCARS, in partnership with the Ranger Service, have partially excavated the lock chamber; refurbished the dry dock and uncovered the foundations of the lock keepers cottage. The whole Hulme Lock site is being developed as a heritage feature, with regular workdays taking place.
Click to link to the SCARS website. Also check out On The Waterfront for more on the history of the canal.
You can see the remains of the lock and lockkeeper’s cottage
The route of the canal (centre, right) with the path to the lockkeeper’s cottage on the left
Remains of the cottage
The name Dallam means ‘valley meadow’
Stanners Pool is named after Dave Stanner, a Dallam resident who is no longer with us. It is stocked with a variety of fish, including rudd, bream, carp, gudgeon and perch. In my senior school days in the second half of the 1970s, the canal banks formed part of our cross-country route from Bewsey Lock to what is now the A574 Cromwell Avenue near Callands, doubling back through Callands Farm fields and Bewsey Woods.
It was all farmland in those days. Our games master always offered 2p to anybody who could beat him back to the school gym. Nobody got paid!
We had a shorter cross-country route around Bewsey Woods and this came to my advantage. It was a well-known fact at school that I was not a sporty kind of person (C- “far too timid, must try harder” was on one of my school reports!)
So Sir must have been very surprised to find me asking to go on the cross-country run every lesson. What he didn’t know was that I used to run out of school and off into the woods on the short route. Except my short route was even shorter than the official short route! As soon as I got out of site of the playing fields I used to stop in the woods for an hour before going back to school. He never did find out!
Start the manual slideshow to read about the different types of fish in Stanner’s Pool.
At the opposite end of Dallam, the Sankey Canal is seen here looking from the Callands side. The building on the left is the former St Mark;s Church in Dallam, now used by Oasis fellowship. It was at this point that the Sankey Canal turned southeast towards Sankey Bridges.
The name Bewsey comes from ‘beau see’ meaning beautiful site.
Close to Bewsey Woods and Callands at Westbrook is Gulliver’s World Theme park, which opened in 1989. Bewsey Woods is managed by The Woodland Trust. On my school cross-country skives we were often accompanied by a dog through the woods. One friend said the dog would never get lost – he knows these woods like the back of his paw!
An array of wildlife can be found in the park. Diurnal creatures include squirrels, swans, butterflies and woodland birds.
Nocturnal inhabitants include foxes, owls, mice, hedgehogs and bats. More rarely seen species such as stoats and weasels, treecreepers, kingfishers, water voles and reed bunting have all been spotted in the park.
Bewsey Bridge at the bottom of Lodge Lane and crossed by many Americans on their way back to RAF Burtonwood during World War Two.
The walls of Bewsey Lock are still in place today, although the lock gates are not, but the last set to be built did survived into the 1970s. As Sankey Valley Park was developed in the early 1980s the bridge was included in the pathways and in 2007 a new bridge was put in place to replace the old one (see my photo, below). The northern section of the old canal bed between Bewsey and Callands is normally dry and can be crossed on foot, but is prone to flooding. You can read the noticeboard alongside the lock which tells the story of the history and workings of the lock.
The area leading up to Bewsey Lock from the south.
Bewsey Old Hall
Bewsey (Old) Hall was the home to the lords of the manor of Warrington from the 13th century to the 17th.
Prior to the Hall being built, a monastic grange existed on the site. A hall was first built on the site by William Fitz Almeric le Boteler.
The current hall is a three-storey, mostly Jacobean building. It has distinctive chimneys and stone mullion windows, which are most likely the work of Sir Thomas Ireland and date back to around 1600. Sir Thomas was knighted at Bewsey by King James I in 1617.
Later additions to the Hall include a farmhouse and kitchen, dating from the 18th century and 19th century with earlier foundations. The original 14th century moat only partly holds water today.
During archaeological excavations in the 1980s many artefacts were found, including a medieval leather shoe, pottery, coins and a seal die from the 14th century carrying the impression of a rabbit.
The building has now been converted into private apartments
Lady Isabella’s statue in the maze close to the hall.
Sadly the maze is locked up and unavailable to the public today.
In late spring, orchids can be found in the meadow, whilst a wealth of butterflies visit during the summer.
Most of the mature woodlands within the valley are owned by the Woodland Trust who safeguard woods within the landscape, protect habitats for the benefit of wildlife and encourage public access and enjoyment. The woods are particularly picturesque around spring, when an assortment of wild flowers can be seen, and during the autumn leaf falls.
A variety of water plants, animals and birds can be seen in or around the park’s many ponds, Sankey Brook, the Wetland Nature Reserve or in the canal itself.
Burtonwood Air Base
Earlier I mentioned RAF Burtonwood.
Burtonwood Air Base opened in 1940, just in time to supply Spitfires for the Battle of Britain, and was probably the largest military base in Europe during the war.
With 18 miles of surface roadway and a peak of 18,063 personnel, this huge site had a massive impact on Warrington as a whole.
The Gate 4 entrance to the Base was situated near Bewsey Old Hall, adjacent to the black and white cottage. The concrete base of the guard house, a small section of airbase fencing and a remnant of the camp road, complete with ‘cats eyes’ can still be seen at this point.
The road to RAF Burtonwood, now closed to vehicles. North of this point is Gulliver’s World theme park.
The Old Hall district of Warrington is named after the hall. Over recent years many attempts have been made to create other uses for the ancient hall, including a youth centre and, more controversially, a hotel.
The current building is about 400 years old. The cottage, Bewsey Hall Lodge, is a private dwelling. In the early 21st century the hall was turned into luxury apartments.
Whitecross and Great Sankey
As we walk south and under the railway viaduct of the former Cheshire Lines Railway (now used by East Midlands Railway and Northern Trains), we approach the area above between Whitecross and Great Sankey.
On the Whitecross side you can visit the Wetland Nature Reserve, three quarters of a mile from Bewsey Old Hall, over the footbridge near Whitecross Community Centre. A noticeboard gives details of the kinds of creatures living in the park, as seen in the photos below.
And now two popular play areas which are sadly no longer in the park. The ship and the spider’s web. They were located on the western bank of the canal between Whitecross and the A57 road.
Some information taken from or based on the noticeboard at Sankey Bridges (shown here for reference), which was produced by Warrington Borough Council Ranger Service in conjunction with the Sankey Canal Restoration Society – 2003. With acknowledgment to https://wmag.culturewarrington.org/ for guidance on the use of text.
The area around Sankey Bridges has seen many changes during the industrial revolution. The construction of the Sankey Canal marked the beginning of a period of transformation.
Commercial industries relating to the canal, housing and social provision for the workers all developed making the area lively and prosperous.
Private wharves, a coal yard and a public house called the “Revolution Sloop” existed in the area in 1756, the year before the Sankey Canal was opened.
A boat yard and dry dock followed. Originally belonging to the Clare family the yard started building “Mersey flats” in 1807 and continued for most of the century.
The Mersey White Lead company started out on 21 February 1889.
Grace’s Guide has the following listing on their website:
Mersey White Lead Company limited. Leadworks, Sankey Bridges, Warrington, Lancashire. Telephone: Warrington 30258. Telegrams : Lead, Warrington. Passenger station: Warrington, 1 mile. Goods station: Private siding, Sankey Bridges. — White lead, dry and ground in oil, and ready mixed paints.
The building still stands on Liverpool Road close to where the original road bridge allowed for the passing of boats.
A Mersey flat is a type of doubled-ended barge with rounded bilges, carvel build and fully decked. Traditionally, the hull was built of oak and the deck was pitch pine.
Some had a single mast, with a fore-and-aft rig, while some had an additional mizzen mast.
Despite having a flat bottom and curved sides, they were quite stable. They were common from the 1730s to 1890s.
The Warrington Guardian tells us that Clare and Ridgway’s Eustace Carey jigger flat was still being used as a barge up until 1965 before beaching off Spike Island and that the company was in business for 120 years.
The Sankey Viaduct where the Liverpool and Manchester Railway crosses the Sankey Canal at a height of 70 ft (21.3 m), allowing sailing craft called Mersey Flats to pass underneath.
Source: This scan/photograph from the Stapleton Collection, via the Bridgeman Art Library (STC 122455) and Artfinder.com. The work is in the public domain due to being out of copyright.
The advent of the railways marked significant change for the fortunes of the canal. By the 1830s canal dividends were falling. In 1845 the St Helens Canal and Railway Company was formed to amalgamate the commercial interests of both the canal and the railway.
The area became more complex with houses, factories, storage yards, watercourses, locks, bridges, road crossings, railway lines and the station all crammed in. Looking back at the wonder photos from the those days I imagine it being a great place to be with lots of activity to keep younger minds interested, especially seeing a boat being launched or a train blowing off steam as it passes through the area.
The Sankey Bridges boatyard had a spell of financial difficulties about 1848. However, in 1855 their fortunes began to improve and the order book was full until at least 1881. Today the boatyard is the site of the builder’s merchants and the BMX track is on top of the dry dock.
Originally the canal ended at Sankey Bridges with boats locking out into the Sankey Brook and then downstream to the Mersey. However, there were difficulties and delays due to tides and the winding nature of the brook.
An extension of the canal was authorised in 1762 up to Fiddler’s Ferry to alleviate these problems, although Sankey Lock continued in use until at least 1830 with boats attempting to jump queues at Fiddler’s Ferry. No trace of Sankey Lock remains today.
A BMX track now stands on the site of Clare and Ridgeway’s dry dock.
Looking south with the dry dock on the left of the fence and across the
canal the boatyard was where the builder’s merchants is today across the canal.
In the early days canal traffic had priority over both road and rail traffic. It was custom to leave all the bridges open so boats could sail through uninterrupted. If a road crossing was required the bridge would be swung over. The railway bridge was controlled by a signal box on the bank at the end of the station platform and red warning lights shone to remind the train to stop.
On a foggy night in November 1858 the locomotive “Actaoen” ran into the canal at Sankey Bridges. The engine was required to return the same night but nobody remembered to tell the station master whom, after the passage of the train, swung the bridge to allow canal traffic to pass during the night, and retired to bed as usual. On returning the driver missed the danger signal in the fog and the engine plunged into the canal. It took several days to haul it out of the water.
The remains of Sankey Bridges station west of the canal.
The nearer bridge was the relief swing bridge provided to allow passage along the main Liverpool-Warrington A57 when the main bridge over the canal was out of action. The concrete plinth beyond
it is the present bridge, superseding the bascule lifting bridge installed in 1915, which replaced the original wooden swing bridge as traffic weights increased. Information via David Long in Wikipedia.
There was some concern about deterioration of the lock gates and brickwork caused by the pollution from chemical plants of St Helens. In 1881 lock walls were collapsing and a maintenance dredger was brought in 1881 and tried out at Sankey Bridges the keep the canal useable. In 1913 the last boat was built at Sankey Bridges with repair facilities being maintained until after World War One. The hand operated swing bridge for road traffic was replaced in 1915 by an electrically worked bascule bridge. In 1930 the bridge was strengthened and in 1972 was replaced by a fixed bridge. The recent works in this area were funded by the former North West Development Agency, which was abolished on 31 March 2012. Their Land Reclamation Scheme aims to reclaim derelict and underused old industrial land creating parkland, woodland and nature reserves.
Fiddler’s Ferry power station and the Sankey Canal. The power station opened in 1971 and was decommissioned on 31 March 2020 and will be demolished in the coming years.
For the remainder of this section I will share images from my journey along the Sankey Valley.
I will start with these images of Fiddler’s Ferry Yacht Haven.
The final set of photos are in no particular order. Maybe have some fun trying to work out where in Warrington along Sankey Valley they were taken (apart from the flowers and plants, etc – even I wouldn’t know where I took them unless I went back to the files!).