WALKS – MANCHESTER – THE RIVER IRK VALLEY.
On Sunday 19th July 2007, I went on a walk with the River Irk Project people and a Blue Badge tour guide, which took an impressive 50 walkers on a tour of the Irk Valley Way, to show us the area today, in contrast to its often less delightful history.
The walk began at Manchester’s Victoria Railways Station. Designed in 1840 by George Stephenson, the building remains one of the most impressive works of Victorian architecture in the city.
Though changed in many ways to take on many more trains (since the closure of her nearby sister, Exchange Station) and the modern introduction of Te Metrolink tram system that runs through her, there is still much that Stephenson would recognise. The original signage indicating the towns which trains went to still adorn the entrance way, and there are two distinctive and moving war memorials on the station. The first commemorates station staffs that were known to have been called away to fight in WW1. The second, easily missed, is on the edge of the Corporation Street entrance, and reminds us movingly that many conscripts left the station here on troop trains, bound for the battlefields of Europe, never to return.
The station once boasted one of the biggest engines sheds in the world, at 700 feet wide, from side to side, but that has now gone.
The River Irk itself flows under the station, on its route to join the Irwell River on the Manchester and Salford border.
CORPORATION STREET/ MILLER STREET
The headquarters of the Co-Operative movement has been based here for over a century, and a statue to one of its founders, Robert Owen is located on Corporation Street, opposite the Railway Station. The walk took us past the statue, and the Co-Op’s landmark glass skyscraper offices, towards Miller Street, and its Municipal car park.
ANGEL MEADOW/ SAINTS MICHAEL’S FLAGS.
Turning from Miller Street into Aspin Street, you will see the entranceway to the Angel Meadow district quite easily. Head up the steps into the park area which has been extensively renovated through the work of the Irk Valley Project, (who were understandably keen to show their magnificent achievement).
I wrote of Angel Meadow in my family history page ANGEL MEADOW. On the visits made around the time I wrote that page about ten years ago, the grounds of the former church of St. Michael’s was an overgrown playing field with its overturned tombstones being used as a football pitch. (Photos of this can be seen on the display boards that skirt the development site now). Most of the gravestones were stolen away in and around the year 2000.
The Irk Valley workers have done well with their 2003 Millennium Commission Grant. Solar Lighting illuminates the beautifully landscaped park after dark, and boards situated around the paths show the history and importance of the site to its many visitors.
The name Angel Meadow is deeply misleading, as the area was one of closely packed back-to-back slum housing for poor workers migrating into the city at the height of the Industrial revolution.
In 1811 there were 11,000 people in the area. By 1863, there were 65,000.
Much of the area was a graveyard for people who were too poor to afford a proper funeral. It served as a deep pit into which bodies were dumped without prayer or ceremony. With cholera add typhoid rife due to the slum housing, the pit was soon too full to accommodate more bodies. Renovators are wary of digging too deep into the ground in case some of the diseases are still contagious, though this seems unlikely now.
The grave markers visible to the naked eye, which now lie flat and serve as paving slabs, were actually for the more wealthy parishioners of St. Michaels, who were able to look down on the poor even in death.
Frederick Engels wrote in some detail of Angel Meadow as showing a degree of squalor typical of the deprivations faced by the working Classes in his studies of the conditions faced by the poor. - The Conditions Of The Working Classes In England (1844)
The parkland is actually the ground of the Church, described by many (unfairly) as the worst looking church in Britain, though it was a favourite subject for the artist L.S. Lowry. At one time the church could accommodate 1,000 of the faithful at once, but as the slums cleared, and trade declined, the congregation numbers slumped. The church was demolished in 1935.
Close by is the Charter Street Ragged School, now an education centre and museum, where local philanthropists offered a basic free education to the poor children of the district. Winston Churchill visited the School in 1906.
Another important name associated with the church is that of Rev. Mercer, a minister who was a founder member of what is now the Royal Society For the Prevention Of Cruelty To Children (The RSPCC).
You can also see the Angel Steps, a set of stairs representing the angels who guard over the souls of the many children buried under the Meadow.
Leave St. Michael’s on the Mount Street side, and you pass by the old Tobacco factory, which is now a set of expensive flats. Turn left, towards Collyhurst Road, but stay close to the wall of the Meadow itself. You may spot two holes in the wall from which water once poured from wellsprings. One once offered free drinking water. The other was a place to wash coins, which were a common source of cholera germs. Soup kitchens were once frequently found here, provided by religious charity groups, serving the needs of the poor.
Walk under the viaduct, towards the river itself, and follow it upstream. You can now see the expensive yuppie Urban Splash apartments, which are named after the three famous Manchester Suffragette Pankhurst sisters, Sylvia, Christabel, and Emmeline. You are now close to the location of another long since demolished church, St. Catherine’s.
THE RIVER IRK
The river itself is impressive; though small, it rushes past with some force, due to being heavily culverted (which often causes it to flood). The name irk itself means ‘Raging Bull’ and represents the river’s savage unpredictability.
Though much of the area around the river is now derelict and looks like natural wilderness, it was until recently, a heavily developed area of terraced housing and industry. Many mills serving the cotton industry used to float their goods down the river (though it was never open to navigation for boats).
The river was once so polluted that it was completely devoid of life, though now fish are often seen in the water again.
You pass over a small road, under which the Moston Brook can be heard rushing into the Irk. From this vantage point you will see the most unexpected sight of the walk – A submarine. The sub is a statue, of an upended Submarine that seems to be growing beside a local paint factory. The HMG firm responsible did design paints for use by the Royal Navy in painting submarines during the war, and the strange statue represents their work.
The walk now takes you into Sandhills Park, via the cobbled and slippery path at George Street. This lovely looking open field was once heavily industrialized. The name comes from the mining hereof-local sandstone (a slab of which still rests a few yards from the path). Collyhurst Sandstone was once much sought after, and it was used in the building of St. Anne’s Church (In St. Anne’s Square in the City centre), and for the Cathedral (though little sandstone remains in the building today).
Engels wrote that it was impossible to walk through Sandhills without emerging soaked in grime and he described with some revulsion the sight of people using privies, which had no doors on to give them any modesty.
The area was once full of tanneries and dye works serving the wool and cotton industries. Now it virtually a nature preserves. Some walkers were quick to point out the sight of nearby sparrow hawks.
We followed the steeping path out of Sandhills to St. Malachi’s Gate, an old school gateway in wrought iron, which has been modified by local children to colourfully represent local industry and change in the area.
There is a war memorial opposite the gate, but we stayed on the left hand side of the road until we passed the Eggington Street and St. Malachi’s Schools and down some steps towards a designated picnic area.
The final leg of the three-mile modest walk took us into Queen’s Park, which was designed by Joshua Major and opened in 1846. It is one of the finest municipal parks in Britain.
The main Hall, which houses some fabulous art treasures, is closed for renovation work, and the statue of local dialect poet Ben Brierley has been removed for repair, leaving only its plinth behind. (His gravies in the cemetery that backs onto the park).
There is still a great deal to see though, including a giant wooden squirrel.
The walkers were invited to the park-keeper’s hut for refreshments and leaflets. We were then given a fantastic surprise. We knew that a bus had been laid on to take us back to Victoria, but we had not expected it to be an old London double decker, with an open platform to the rear, which was lent to the walk organizers by the local Queen’s Park transport Museum. We travelled back in luxury and style, at the close of a terrific day, which had proved rich in both education and exercise.
THE IRK VALLEY http://www.irkvalley.info/about.html
Maps - THE RIVER IRK start – Victoria Station http://www.pagemost.com/Manchester-Victoria-Station-Greater-Manchester End – Queen’s Park, Blackely, http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&source=hp&ie=UTF-8&q=queen's+park+manchester&fb=1&gl=uk&hq=Queen's+Park&hnear=Queen's+Park&cid=12822017111238350523&li=lmd
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