Heritage Boatyard

The Story Of The Heritage Boatyard And 5 Days That Shook Stalybridge


How it all started.

It was as long ago as 1994 that the idea of a Heritage Boatyard emerged. During the 6 years spent rebuilding Forget me Not  in the corner of Ashton Canal Carriers boatyard at Guide Bridge the numbers of other wooden canal boats surviving had steadily diminished. At the same time the Wooden Canal Boat Society’s fleet had steadily grown as craft were offered as an alternative to destruction. Our little, under resourced, band of woodpeckers had become the last chance saloon for wooden narrow boats.


As Forget me Not  splashed down into the Ashton Canal thoughts were already turning towards the problem of getting the rest of the fleet restored and maintained in the long term. Over the years work on wooden boats had tended to be done in unwanted, underused corners of the canal network. Now that the commercial pressures on every bit of waterside land were increasing, such relaxed spaces were becoming in short supply. The obvious solution was to find a place that could be declared free of commercial pressures so that the important but unremunerative  work of conserving the floating heritage could continue. The problem was, finding somewhere.


I don’t really know why I went to the meeting at the Council offices. It was something about the voluntary sector contribution to something European to do with regeneration and was chaired by Tameside’s Chief Executive. I sat in bewilderment for most of the meeting as more knowledgeable people bandied inscrutable acronyms. During a brief silence I was suddenly moved to speak, along the lines of “I don’t know what we can do but we do have the second biggest collection of historic wooden canal boats looking for a home”. “ Bring them to Portland Basin” said the Chief Exec “I’ll get someone to work with you”.


I was stunned. I had always regarded councils as bodies to be avoided as much as possible. Their chief roles had always seemed to be the imposition of bureaucratic hurdles and levying of inexplicable charges. Now I had the boss of one wanting to help in my obsession of bringing knackered old wooden boats back to a useful life.


Sure enough, before the week was out, a council officer was in touch wanting to know how she could help. The main priority, she was told, was to find a site for a Heritage Boatyard, and so the search began.


It was actually a fairly inauspicious time as government policies had forced the sale of surplus council land. Some sites were suggested, and quite a lot of planning went into one plot before we were ushered away as serious developers got interested. Years passed, but eventually we settled on what had initially seemed a rather un-promising patch of land in Stalybridge. The main problem was that it was over 2 metres above canal level and contained the foundations of a railway viaduct.


By the time a lease was agreed and we were able to move in it was October 1999.  The following year a Landfill Tax grant was obtained from Greening Greater Manchester. This enabled a proper boundary wall to be built, which, most important, had 2 metre deep foundations to form a retaining wall when the site was excavated down to canal level.

Disapointments and dogged determination.

Another promise of funding was made by an organisation that planned a rolling programme of waterside regeneration grants beginning in 2000. This was going to be the big one, paying for the necessary excavation as well as building a visitor centre.  Our site was down for the 2003/4 tranche of projects, so we settled down to sorting out our tools etc, trying to stop the boats from leaking and developing the recycling project. As 2003 approached, concern developed regarding the lack of noise from the funder. Enquiry produced the disappointing news that they had run out of money, and so would not be able to help us.


It seemed important to keep the project alive by doing something on site, and so began a remarkable period when volunteers began digging out by hand. It’s amazing how much a few eager diggers with picks and shovels can excavate. As the ground was dug away it was riddled to separate soil from hardcore, both commodities that had ready markets locally.


Meanwhile various blind alleys were pursued regarding funding. It was obvious that it would not all get dug out by hand in any reasonable time, and yet the project just seemed to keep missing funder’s criteria. As one person from an agency to help raise money for voluntary groups helpfully explained “ you’re just not sexy”.

Progress at last.

It’s funny how things happen. In 2006 someone came along with information on a funding  programme that could be helpful to get “Hazel” restored. This boat, the last full length Runcorn wooden header narrow boat afloat, is now in her 90s and restoration is getting urgent. She will be used to provide time on the waterways for people recovering from depression and other stress related conditions. This is in line with our policy of using ‘heritage’ boats to serve today’s community rather than as mere museum exhibits.


After the forms were filled in and sent off, someone asked the awkward question, er, where are we actually going to restore this boat? In fact there were several options, but the favourite one was to try to get enough money to dig out just enough boatyard to slip a boat on. An Awards for All application was made for just under the upper limit of £10,000. The timing should have worked out just right. We would hear about the excavation funding in August, and just have time to get the digging done before having to start work on Hazel in November.


Mice, men and wooden boats have much in common in the ganging agley department.  August, September and October passed with no news from Awards for All, except that there were delays. As it happened, we didn’t get the Hazel funding, so there was no panic. In fact, something more wonderful happened. A local estate agent rang up, out of the blue, to offer us the use of a huge town centre shop  for free. This meant that most of our effort had to go into running the shop, but it roughly quadrupled our income. This gave a great opportunity in December 2006, when the funding finally came through. It meant that we could supplement the lottery money with our own funds to get more of the yard dug out. As we had a year to spend the money there would be scope to make it go further by concentrating on economy rather than speed.


In a nearby lorry yard lay an ancient Hymac excavator. The owner happened to be interested in historic transport and agreed to let us use the machine on very favourable terms. An arrangement was made with an excavation and haulage company, James O Shea & Sons, that they would give us a rock bottom rate for disposing of the spoil, provided that they could shift the muck at their convenience rather than ours.


The excavator’s owner fettled his machine and bought some extra buckets for it. In the early days of 2007 the venerable digger lumbered on to the site and started to carry on where the pick and shovel people had left off. Soon a great mound of stone and clay was heaped up and the call went out for lorries. So began a pattern of work as the machine dug a hole, built a mountain of spoil, then negotiations regarding the availability of O Shea’s lorries and our volunteer digger driver would eventually lead to the reduction of the pile.


As the machine dug its way across the boatyard site it became necessary to clear more space by moving equipment down into the excavated area. This included three containers full of tools and stores. Luckily someone had donated two large girders, which we were able to use as skids to slide the big boxes down under control from above.


The Old Testament style deluge of summer 2007 had its effect on the work. Suddenly, instead of us waiting for lorries to load, they were queuing up for our old digger. Most of the construction sites had been closed because of the mud, as were some tips. The down side of this phenomenon was that the lorries were leaving half empty. The water content had increased the weight of the spoil.


With the first container moved, the Hymac started to reveal an old brick well with a cast iron pipe in it and stonework that appeared to be the foundations of an old building, predating the 1884 railway viaduct whose piers were gradually being revealed. Under the second container we started to dig through old stone walls. I contacted the Stalybridge Historical Society to see if they were interested in our discoveries.


Our archeological finds turned out to be the foundations of a bobbin mill that was built sometime between 1845 and 1850.  The proprietor, one Jonathan Mills, lived on Knowl Street until his death in1866.  The business apparently carried on, now operated by Sydney Moorhouse, though whether it was still making bobbins is unclear. In 1877 it was listed as being offices and stables.  I suspect that the bobbin making  business was dealt a mortal blow by the cotton famine in the 1860’s, caused by the blockade of slavery states during the American civil war. The last mention of the building came in 1883 when it was described as being empty. This was presumably awaiting demolition for the railway construction.


As the excavation carried on, with the hymac excavator digging itself into a smaller and smaller corner by the gate, the plan of the old bobbin mill started to reveal itself.  The hexagonal bunker that we had dug through was probably the base of a chimney.  Next to this was a substantial stone end wall forming one side of what had appeared to be a tunnel.  This was an opening in the side wall for the cast iron pipe that led from the well, presumably providing feed water to the mill engine.  Inside this there appears to have been a narrow cellar and a brick pit full of ash and later floored over.  Two substantial stone engine beds came next, each pierced by a wrought iron bar and sitting firmly on a solid brick plinth.  The floor of the mill area was topped with a layer of rammed lime to make a crude concrete surface.  We had already dug through this layer right across the yard over to the canal wall, but had had no idea what it was.


The excavation activities of the Hymac were now being hampered by the last container remaining at the top level.  It’s position did not lend it to easy sliding down girders as we had done with the other two. The solution lay with a 35 ton HIAB belonging to another friendly road haulage company. . This lorry mounted crane would be able to lift the container provided it didn’t have to reach too far.  The safe working load of any crane decreases rapidly as the distance between the crane and its load increases.  Unfortunately the HIAB wasn’t available on the date that we wanted.  The job would have to be done a couple of days early.  This gave only a morning to prepare a hole that the container could be safely dropped into.  Murphy’s law now came into play.  The old stone and brick steam engine beds of the bobbin mill chose this day to reveal themselves.  Though the old digger struggled manfully to break through the masonry, by the time the HIAB arrived there wasn’t really a level area prepared. The container had to be deposited at an undignified angle on top of battered brick and stone.



Soon the Hymac had exposed the viaduct pillars completely and became stranded in a tiny area of high ground near the gate.  Unable to tackle the tough brickwork of the London & North Western Railway, it loaded the last of the spoil heap into lorries and then parked up to await the arrival of it’s younger sibling.






It’s funny the way that events in life always seem to cascade together rather than spacing themselves out evenly.  Back in about July we were approached by Granada Studios. They wanted to launch another car into the basin, as a follow-up to the one featured in Coronation Street a few years ago.  I spent a couple of hours with a man from Granada sounding the basin with a stick to see if it was deep enough.  All went quiet and I began to think that it wasn’t going to happen.  Towards the end of September we were given the dates – 2nd and 3rd October.


At about the same time Paul O’Shea came to have a look at the boatyard to assess the remaining work and give us an estimate for his company to complete the job.  Inevitably, he wanted to start on 2ndOctober. By putting this off for a day it was possible to get things set up for filming on the Tuesday morning, before starting the final phase of excavation on the Wednesday.


For those who don’t watch Coronation Street, the scenario was that young David Platt was so traumatised by being driven into the canal several years ago by his mother’s homicidal maniac of a partner, that he’s been a deceptive, disruptive, sneaky little pain in the anatomy ever since.  Since falling out with his sister he’s decided to sabotage her marriage and, on her wedding day, decides to fake suicide in his car, an appeasement gift from his long suffering mother, at the exact same spot as the family received its previous dunking.


The day started early as I moved boats around Portland Basin to get them distributed as required for the filming. As is usual on film sets there was lots of waiting about and keeping out of the way whilst numerous takes were made of each shot.  Eventually, sometime in the afternoon, the moment arrived that everyone had been waiting for.  A huge crowd had by now gathered and had to be kept out of shot.


Driven by David Platt’s stunt double, the car, a fiesta, had to rush down Portland Street, in through the wharf gates and hit the prepared ramp at 40 mph.  There were actually two parallel ramps, one for each wheel, which were not wide. The margin for error was minimal.


I watched from under the footbridge.  By loudspeaker the gathered crowds were asked to keep quiet, turn off mobile ‘phones and refrain from flash photography.  From my viewpoint I could see nothing of the approach but heard the car revving up and tearing down Portland Street.  Suddenly it flew from the Wharf and created a huge splash in the middle of the basin.  Someone behind me was unable to stifle an exclamation, but he was quickly hushed by others.  I managed, more by luck that judgement, to get a photo of the flying car.


The order was that everyone was to stay silent for 3 minutes after the car sank, then, if the driver had not emerged, divers were to go in and rescue him.  Everyone held their breath as bubbles erupting at the surface were all that showed the location of the car.  The location manager broke the silence when the time was up, shouting “Ok….go in and get him”.  The divers started towards the car but at that moment the stunt man surfaced to a great cheer and applause from the multitude.


When the excitement had died down and the car recovered I moved boats back from the towpath side for the night. On Wednesday morning at 6 O clock when the day begins I had to move Southam over to the towpath again so that she would be in exactly the same position as before for the day’s filming. This was to comprise boring footage of the errant lad’s distraught mother wailing on the wharf. I had no intention of getting involved in all that so, with the boat secured, pumps checked and cat fed, I set off towards Stalybridge.


Then began 5 Days That Shook Stalybridge!


Armed with an aerosol yellow line marker I enjoyed myself spraying various indications to the excavator driver of the outlines of the excavation. At about 9 AM John Haynes, the structural engineer, arrived to check on what we were about to do. His particular brief was to ensure that the works would not cause undermining of adjacent structures. He left satisfied that we were proceeding responsibly and I began pottering about the site, doing things like rescuing rocks that looked nice, whilst awaiting the arrival of O Shea’s big machine.


10 AM was the anticipated arrival time, but rarely in the real world do things go by the clock. The morning passed by with no sign of the fabulous digger. A dilemma began to develop. My stomach was convinced that it was dinner time, but I knew that if I went to the butty shop the machine would arrive to find no-one on site. Every heavy lorry that rumbled up Knowl St, and there were many of them, drew my attention, but they always turned out to be bound for the scrapyards or paper mills. At about 1PM I looked up and noticed a slowly moving excavator arm showing above the boundary wall. It’s movement ceased and I ran out of the gate to meet two men climbing out of the cab of  an incredibly long low-loader. Its burden was an orange painted Japanese excavator, in which I was initially disappointed.


After the traveller’s tales of the huge and vastly potent machine that was coming to complete our job, this one just looked like a sleeker version of the one that we already had. It was more like an iron ballerina than the Big Daddy that I’d expected.


Neil the digger driver started up the machine, neatly turned it and drove it off the side of the low loader and in through the gateway. He was keen to get started. I suggested that he begin by breaking up the abutment of the canal bridge, the largest single piece of masonry on the site. I was unsure whether this would be possible as the breaker attachment had not yet arrived. Neil agreed, saying that he probably wouldn’t need the breaker, and proceeded to demonstrate that excavation machinery had evolved considerably in the 30+ years since the Hymac was manufactured.


I was used to the old machine’s slow, clanking, reptilian movements. By contrast, Neil’s Hitachi was indeed as smooth and poised in its movements as a ballerina, though vicious as a tyrannosaurus, it had claws and muscle as well as elegance. It ripped into the sandstone blocks from which the structure was built and soon it was piling up brick and stone ready to be taken away for crushing and re-use as hardcore. When there was a good hole dug in the middle of the abutment it started to carefully pick out the facing stones, which I’d asked to keep for future use on the site.


A lorry arrived with the breaker. This item is like a huge version of the pneumatic drills that are used in roadworks, though operated by hydraulic oil rather than compressed air. It is able to smash its way through the hardest brick and stone. Neil tried to connect it up, but found that the pipe connections were siezed up and he would not be able to use it until he had some replacements the next day. He carried on smashing through the stonework, which broke away neatly almost exactly where Mr Haynes had specified. Occasionally, for a change, Neil had a go at breaking the brick viaduct piers in the middle of the yard. These were made of sterner stuff and the digging bucket just bounced off them in a cloud of brick dust.


As I was locking up the yard, one of our volunteers , who lives a few doors away, came over to look at the progress. He told me that some of his neighbours were concerned about possible damage to their houses when the breaker was used. It seems that when the main part of the viaduct was demolished, about 15 years previously, the vibration caused a lot of problems, including walls falling down.


On Thursdays I earn my living as a gardener. Such is the scale of my impecunity nowadays that I can’t afford to miss a day’s work. Chris Duxbury our digger driver, agreed to cover for me and I returned on Friday morning to find a completely transformed scene. The viaduct piers were gone, metamorphosed into a huge heap of hardcore. The facing stones from the bridge abutment were neatly stacked in a corner.  Two containers had been lifted from their previous higgledy piggledy positions and placed side by side on a levelled area with their backs close to the concrete retaining wall that protects the buildings of the adjacent industrial estate. One more, next to the canal, remained to be moved to its final position. At times on Thursday both ancient and modern diggers had been active together as Chris and Neil co-operated to move the project forward. All of the adjacent houses were still standing. In fact that the actual vibration only lasted about 20 minutes and caused no collateral damage.


On the stroke of nine the machine was started and it went to work. I realised that some of the big flat stones that had come out of the bridge abutment could be useful in surfacing the slipway, so Neil started to pick these out and place them on the stone pile by the gate, When lorries arrived they were loaded in no time. The new machine was able to change buckets at an incredible speed compared to its older sister. If the Hymac has been digging, then needs to use a bigger bucket to load a lorry, the changeover is a slow process involving spanners, sledgehammers and careful lining up of various holes. The Hitachi simply drops off one bucket, nudges the other into line with its arm, then picks it up with a hydraulic clasp. This is all achieved as the lorry backs in without Neil having to leave his comfortable cab.


Moving the engineering container had opened up access to the old bobbin mill engine beds and the abutment of the former railway bridge over Knowl St. There was a long break between lorries so Neil and his iron ballerina changed buckets and ripped into this, rapidly adding it to the hardcore pile. When the bottom of the engine beds came out they revealed a substantial wooden cross. This must have been used for getting the level way back in the 1840s. It’s still in remarkably good condition.


The clearing of this area meant that I could start on the long slow process of clearing the waters edge of the timber and equipment that we had placed there to keep it out of the way of earlier phases of the excavation. It all had to be moved to the back of the site to allow the final phase of work by the waters edge to be completed.


Neil picked up the grading bucket and danced his machine down the slope of spoil to scrape out a level area in the clay. When this was ready, the ballerina  held out her arm and carefully lifted the stores container a few inches off its blocks. Chris and I gently swung it round to face the other way to be placed on the prepared ground.  The machine then quickly scuttled up the slope, picked up the loading bucket and began loading yet another lorry which had just backed in.



Chris started the Hymac. We needed to clear a lot of ground space to allow the job to be completed. Beams, girders, bits of old lock gate, the soil riddling machine etc were one by one lifted on top of the two containers that had achieved their final positions. With this done, all that remained to be moved was the stacks of timber  right on the waters edge. This was to be my job for the weekend


By the end of the day the hardcore pile had shrunk considerably. We were all amazed by the amount of spoil that we had shifted off site on that Friday.


Monday morning dawned bright and early. At about 6 AM I arrived to carry on my still uncompleted task of moving wood . The Hymac was parked out of the way on the site of the old engine beds, so I stacked wood around it like camouflage. The task was still not complete by 9 AM when Neil arrived and started his machine. Soon lorries were coming and going and I had to break off my wood shifting every now and then to sign tickets for the drivers. By dinnertime the wood was gone, and so it seemed was most of the hardcore. The dominant colour was now the yellowy-brown clay that had been deposited in the last ice age.


As we waited for the first lorry of the day I asked Neil to scrape the end of the slip that was now clear down to near water level. This added to the mounting pile of clay to be disposed of. Unlike the hardcore this cannot be recycled and has to go to the tip at greater cost to us. More clay was added to the piles as he started to form the ramp down from the road to the slip , so that lorries were now backing down a gradient. I was impressed by Neil’s ability to keep finding lorryloads of hardcore in a  sea of clay, but eventually it ran out and soon the piles of clay started to diminish too. Returning lorries now started to bring crushed brick. This began to be spread on the cleared slip area, more clay going out from the pile in the same lorry.


Early in the afternoon Chris arrived to take over from me so that I could return to Ashton to pack up our market stall. In the evening I returned to have a look. The iron ballerina was gone, the slipway was level throughout, just above water level and linked to the gates by a ramped roadway. The containers were lined up neatly side by side and all the working areas were surfaced with crushed brick. There’s still a lot to do, but, at last, after all the planning and scheming and dreaming and seemingly endless hard work , Stalybridge has a heritage boatyard.

Without the Stamford St shop we wouldn’t have had enough money to do the whole job. The Awards for All grant was only enough to do a fairly minimal job, just enough to get a boat out of the water but with the containers still stuck on the higher level. Because we had an income from the shop it was not a problem that the cost went over the £9661 of the grant. The best estimate that we’ve had for excavating the whole site has been £28,000 plus VAT. Because we were able to take our time, use an old machine and work around the availability of our volunteers and O Shea’s lorries, the total cost only came to about £17,500 including VAT.


Like most things that are worth doing, plenty of self appointed experts said that we’d never get the boatyard excavated. Now that wooden boats have a place specifically intended for them, it’s time to get stuck into some more impossible tasks, like restoring Hazel and creating permanent workshops and a visitor centre. Everything is connected to the long term vision of bringing important heritage boats back from the brink of decomposition to once more serve a useful purpose in the community.

3 thoughts on “Heritage Boatyard

  1. Hi ~ Can you tell me if you have a drawing of a wooden canal boat showing the various components? If not, can you please tell me the name of the member running along both sides of the boat at its widest point to act as a buffer when it comes into contact with a jetty? Thanks.

    • Have a look at “The Complete Book of Canal and river Navigations” by Edward Paget Tomlinson, get it from your library as it’s expensive. I’m not sure of the part you mean. Guard Irons protect the boat at bow and stern but not the full length. There is a double thickness of planking at the gunwales, the inner plank is called the lining plank.

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