Spotlight on the Canals – the Macclesfield Canal
Spectacular Pennine views, ‘snake’ bridges, impressive stone aqueducts, striking rock formations, Victorian mills and country pubs.
One of the last narrow canals to be built, and the first to be awarded Green Flag status, the beautiful tree-lined Macclesfield Canal runs for 28 miles from its junction with the Peak Forest Canal at Marple in Cheshire, to the Trent & Mersey Canal at Kidsgrove in Staffordshire.
Passing mostly through green and rural surroundings, the canal follows the natural contours of the land, passing along the side of the most westerly Pennine hills through High Lane, Higher Poynton, Bollington, Macclesfield and Congleton.
Approved by an Act of Parliament in 1826, the Macclesfield Canal was designed to provide a direct link between Manchester, the Potteries and the Midlands, reducing journey times. It also served cotton mills, quarries and coal mines around Macclesfield, Congleton and the Peak District.
The coming of the railways soon outcompeted the canal, but it was still used for some freight carriage until the 1960s, and as a local cruising club had already been using the waterway for many years, its leisure potential was already established, so it remained navigable.
With its spectacular views over the Cheshire Plain, the Macclesfield Canal provides the most elevated (the top level is 518 feet above sea level, one of the highest navigable levels in the country), and perhaps the most beautiful section of the Cheshire Ring. With just one flight of locks at Bosley, the Macclesfield Canal enjoys miles of lock-free cruising either side.
Narrowboat holiday-makers cruising gently along, soaking up the scenery and admiring the historic structures that line its route, including Victorian mills and warehouses, its original stone milestones and six ‘change’ or ‘snake’ bridges, where the towpath changes sides of the canal, allowing horses to move over without having to be untied from the boat.
Best for beginners
From our base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal near Tarporley in Cheshire, on a week’s break boaters can travel to Macclesfield and back, cruising for a total of 40 hours and travelling through 94 locks.
After travelling south two miles to Barbridge Junction, with its marina and Olde Barbridge Inn, canal boat holiday-makers should then head up the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal to join the Trent & Mersey at the historic market town of Middlewich.
This quiet waterway, with just four locks along its 10-mile length, travels peacefully through the Cheshire countryside. Along the route, the Badger Inn at Church Minshull, just a short walk from the canal, is a popular place to stop and there are also plenty of pubs and restaurants to enjoy at Middlewich.
From Middlewich, boaters should head south along the Trent & Mersey Canal to the Macclesfield Canal, a 12-mile journey which passes through 28 locks of the 31 which form ‘Heartbreak Hill’, raising the canal 280ft up from the Cheshire Plains.
Along the way, the route passes the Sandbach Flashes SSSI at Ettiley Heath, Wheelock with a choice of pubs, and Hassall Green with its Potters Barn working pottery.
The next village is Rode Heath with its Royal Oak pub and Rode Hall, one of Cheshire’s most exquisite country houses.
Hardings Wood Junction, where the Trent & Mersey meets the Macclesfield Canal, is unusual – an early canal’spaghetti junction’. The Macclesfield leaves the Trent & Mersey on the south side, then crosses it on Poole Aqueduct after the Trent & Mersey has fallen through two locks. The Macclesfield then crosses Red Bull Aqueduct to begin its journey to Marple.
It’s a busy area with Canal & River Trust moorings and plenty of pubs, including The Blue Bell and Red Bull Hotel.
Turning north up the Hall Green Branch of the Macclesfield Canal, after just over a mile, boaters reach Hall Green Stop Lock, not far from The Bleeding Wolf pub at Scholar Green, with a good reputation for home cooked food.
Travelling through glorious open countryside, a mile further along at Bridge No.87 the canal passes the family-run Rising Sun, where walkers can pick up the Gritstone Walking Trail, offering stunning views of the Cheshire Plain from its gritstone ridges.
Just under a mile later, from the towpath at Bridge 86, boaters can moor-up and pick up a footpath to the National Trust’s iconic moated Tudor Manor house, Little Moreton Hall. Or walk cross the canal at Bridge 86 and head to Mow Cop (Mow is pronounced as in cow) to see the striking ‘Old Man of Mow’ rock formation crowning the ridge of hills that run parallel to the canal.
Over the next two miles, as it approaches Congleton, the canal crosses two impressive stone aqueducts – the first at Watery Lane, close to the Horseshoe Inn, and second at Dog Lane, close to Congleton Wharf and the award-winning Beartown Tap pub.
There are shops close to Bridge 75, including a fish & chips shop, and two beautiful ‘snake bridges’ follow. A mile later at bridge 71, a footpath runs to the top of the Cloud, an impressive local fell.
Three miles later, the route reaches the foot of Bosley Locks, a flight of 12 deep locks which raise the canal level by 118ft to over 500ft above sea level. Once through the locks, the canal soon approaches the village of Gawsworth, home of the striking Gawsworth Hall Tudor Manor House, then Oakgrove in the foothills of the Pennines.
Just over two miles later, having passed the villages of Lyme Green and Sutton Lane Ends with is Church House Inn and Lamb Inn, the canal reaches Macclesfield.
The best place to moor to explore the town, once one of the leading silk producing centres, is south of Bridge 37, close to the Hovis Mill, birthplace of the famous flour. Here visitors will find cobbled streets, a medieval Market Place, the Silk Museum Heritage Centre, Silk Museum & Paradise Mill, and plenty of shops and pubs, including the canalside Puss in Boots and the beer-specialist Macc Bar.
As the canal continues north, reaching Bollington in just over two miles, the Middlewood Way is never far from the canal, following the course of the ‘Macclesfield, Bollington and Marple Railway’.
At Bollington, The Dog & Partridge and The Vale Inn are close to the impressive stone Bollington Aqueduct, and high on a hilltop to the south east of the town is the White Nancy monument, erected by the Gaskell family to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo.
The next stretch runs through beautifully quiet and unspoilt countryside, winding northwards along the summit level, crossing several valleys on embankments with impressive aqueducts.
At Four Lane Ends, the canalside Miners Arms offers excellent food and at Higher Poynton, The Boar’s Head offers traditional home-made food, real ale and fireside dining.
From the Boar’s Head, it’s a two-mile walk to the National Trust’s magnificent Italianate Palace, Lyme Park, famously featured in the BBC’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ as ‘Pemberley’, home of Mr Darcy. The Anson Engine Museum with a tearoom and shop, is also a short walk from the Boar’s Head.
After travelling over another massive embankment and aqueduct, the last three miles of the Macclesfield Canal passes through High Lane with a choice of pubs, as well as Hawk Green and Goyt Mill, before reaching its junction with the Peak Forest Canal at picturesque Marple.
Best for experienced boaters
On a longer holiday, the 97-mile, 92-lock Cheshire Ring is a popular circuit, taking in a complete range of canal scenery, including the spectacular views of the Pennines from the Macclesfield Canal, gentle rolling Cheshire countryside and the lively city centre of Manchester.
From the top of the Macclesfield Canal at Marple, boaters tackling the Cheshire Ring should continue north up the Peak Forest Canal, travelling eight miles, through 16 locks and two tunnels before reaching the Ashton Canal at Ashton-under-Lyne.
Along the way, boaters will go down the Marple lock flight, which drops the canal down by 214ft, and over the stunning three-arched Marple Aqueduct over the River Goyt, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. As Ashton is approached, the route becomes less rural, passing through industrial Hyde before reaching Dunkinfield Junction and Portland Basin, nicknamed the ‘weavers rest’, as so many weavers reputedly drowned themselves here during hard times.
The Cheshire Ring route then continues west along the Ashton Canal, passing through the densely built-up areas of Droylsden and then Manchester, before meeting the Rochdale Canal at Fairfield Junction and then on to the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, a total distance of eight miles, passing through 27 locks.
Along the way, the Beswick flight of four locks stands next to the Sportcity Stadium (home to Manchester City Football Club) and boaters can see Thomas Heathwick’s ‘B of the Bang’ sculpture, which marks the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
From Castlefield, the Bridgewater Canal travels south west to Lymm, covering 13 miles with no locks. Here, the town’s 17th century Cross is just yards from the canal in the centre of this attractive and hilly little town.
From Lymm to Preston Brook it’s another 10 miles with no locks, passing through Stockton Heath, where the 21-mile Delamere Way parallels the canal for a time as it journeys from Frodsham to Warrington, via Delamere Forest.
From Preston Brook Junction, where the Bridgewater meets the Trent & Mersey Canal, it’s a further seven miles to Anderton, with one lock and three tunnels, including the 1,239 yard Preston Brook Tunnel.
The Anderton Boat Lift, nicknamed ‘The Cathedral of the Canals’, perches up on the hill like some giant metal spider. This magnificent Victorian edifice, which reopened in 2002 after a massive £7million restoration project, lifts or lowers narrowboats 50ft between the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal in two huge water tanks.
There are 10 miles and four locks between Anderton and Middlewich Junction, where the route passes close to Marbury Country Park, then the Lion Salt Works at Marston before travelling through the historic town of Northwich, where the Rivers Weaver and Dane meet.
Once back at Middlewich the Cheshire Ring is complete and it’s another 12 miles and four locks, travelling down the Middlewich Branch and a short section of the Shropshire Union Canal, back to our narrowboat hire base at Bunbury. In total, travelling the Cheshire Ring from our Bunbury base takes 60 hours, passing through 102 locks, and from our Trevor base it takes 102 hours, passing through 140 locks.