Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014

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In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.





Walking the girdle (part 2)

18 12 2012
1. Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in turquoise)

Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in blue)

1. Strangeways Prison from the east side

1. Strangeways prison from the east side

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

Part 2 of my circular walk around inner Manchester and Salford begins at Strangeways prison. With its 234-ft high ventilation tower, Strangeways is an extraordinary inner-city landmark in Manchester, but one that is nevertheless barely visible from the city centre. Of course, the presence of a prison – and a notorious high-security prison at that – in any city is troublesome, signifying as it does aspects of our society that we’d rather remained hidden. Walking up close to Strangeways (1) - an enormous complex made up of Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1868 building and new additions built after the 1990 riots – one is immediately reminded, in the most graphic of terms, what a prison is for: its blank 30-ft high brick walls an overwhelming visual symbol (and spatial enforcing) of incarceration. Circling these monstrous walls I found a broken picture frame containing an iconic photograph of New York’s Grand Central Station (2), one that probably adorns the walls of thousands of rooms across the world. In this photograph, sunlight streams through the high windows of the station onto a crowd of passengers below – a visual symbol of the dreams of liberation that once attracted so many to America’s iconic metropolis. Was this photograph some remnant of protest to the prison, resting as it did at the base of its immense walls? Or perhaps it was flung out of a high window above, a sign of abandoned hope in the prison that still has the highest suicide rate of any in Britain? Or maybe just a discarded object come to rest in a random place?

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

With these unsettling questions I headed away from Strangeways and across the invisible border that separates the cities of Manchester and Salford. Whilst both cities were built on the same industry – textile production – that was fated to oblivion, there’s a stronger sense of melancholy in Manchester’s lesser-known twin. Almost immediately there are ruins, such as the Springfield Mill, built in 1845 (3); ruins that are materially very different from those in Manchester. Where the mills of Ancoats seem to be awaiting some form of restitution, those in Salford seem beyond repair – cracked and crumbling and surrounded by a mixture of weeds and waste. And, walking through Salford towards Broughton and the river Irwell, the road is flanked by piles of rubbish, as if the geography of ruin has extended from individual buildings to whole districts.

4. An abandoned mill and Strangeways Prison behind, from the Broughton bridge over the river Irwell

4. Abandoned mill and Strangeways prison behind, from the Broughton bridge on the river Irwell

On this bright, crystal-clear day, finding the river Irwell seemed like a revelation – like discovering the hidden heart of both cities – where the seemingly ever-present brick of Salford’s closed-in streets suddenly opens out to reveal new vistas – the towers of abandoned mills rising in aesthetic unity with those of Strangeways beyond (4). Yet, the path along the banks of the Irwell is empty, the monotonous low-rise housing of modern Salford hidden behind newly-planted rows of trees.

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

Heading across the zone between Manchester and Salford, there’s an even greater sense of opening out, but here created by the vast waste-grounds that used to contain some of the terminal docks that turned Manchester into Britain’s third largest port when the ship canal to Liverpool was opened in 1894 (5).Now, these former docks are, in contrast to those at Salford Quays, filled with large expanses of rank grass and the signs of fly-tipping, their organic messiness contrasting sharply with the cluster of shiny buildings that ornament Manchester’s skyline beyond.

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

7. A portal to another world?

7. A portal to another world?

Further east, I cross that invisible line back into Manchester, but here between two giant railway viaducts that divide the two cities – a genuinely unsettling and claustrophobic place made up of very dark caverns under the arches (6), some of which bear the visual marks of bottom-end habitation (filthy mattresses, empty bottles) and graffiti that suggests that others might be the entrances to an infernal place below (7).

8. New housing in Hulme

8. New housing in Hulme

The final stretch of the girdle heads across Hulme, its once dystopian housing-block ‘crescents’ of the 1960s now replaced by community-designed housing that marries individuality – an eccentric curve here and there – with the rather-more repetitive requirements of mass housing (8). A short step across Higher Cambridge Street completes the circle – the stark, almost brutalist brick of the university buildings softened to an almost lovely orange colour by the last rays of the winter sun (9).

9. The University of Manchester's Cornbrook building in Booth Street West

9. The University of Manchester’s Cornbrook House in Booth Street West








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