Monday, May 26, 2008

How you get there

Who knew Liverpool has a spaceport? It’s conveniently on the edge of the Mersey, looking out across to the Capital of Culture, nestling about halfway between the two tall towers that ventilate tunnels under the river. The art deco building looks like something out of Dan Dare, but there’s no rockets or spaceships or evil Treens on show. Just a Doctor Who exhibition.

We passed the spaceport on Saturday morning as we made our way to the building next door, the Seacombe ferry terminal. As a treat for my brother-in-law’s 30th birthday, we were off on a cruise down the Manchester ship canal – all 36 miles up to Salford.

Yes, it’s up – the five locks we went though lifted us a total of 17 metres. And since the working ships take precedence over a pleasure cruise like ours, there was a lot of hanging around to get into the canal in the first place. We spent more than an hour shunting around in front of the Eastham entrance waiting for the tide, as one such heavily laden ship in the lock needed the Mersey to be deeper.

When the sun peeked through the clouds, it was all very pleasant. But there was a general grey drear and biting gale from the east that meant our red faces owe us much to frostbite as to suntan. We resorted to whisky and crisps and canoodling to keep back the cold.

There was also plenty of waving to be done; the workers on the boats we passed and on the docks and quays, people even coming out of their canalside houses to wave as we went by. Perhaps that suggests the quietness of the route. My late grandmother could remember a trip down to Cornwall sometime in the 1920s, and people coming out their houses to gawp at the car going past. Perhaps it's also to do with the canal being a gentler, more amenable way of getting about than your usual 21st century haste.

The canal was opened in 1894 – the same year as Tower Bridge in London – and all along the route there’s evidence of the extraordinary Victorian engineering. The Dr had fun taking pictures of the various bridges: ones that swung apart to let the masts of ships through, or built up so high over the canal the mast could duck under them.

There was also a constant commentary: not always audible outside on deck, where the gale blew it all about. They turned up the volume, which only made it like shouting below deck. And a little off-putting when you went to the toilet, which had it’s own set of speakers. The lady speaking gave a broad, industrial history – including what industries line the canal today – but tactfully ignored any mention of how vehemently Liverpool opposed the canal in the first place. And maybe there was a bit too much pointing out of things we could already see: ducks and heron on the water, or yet another bridge.

(J. also objected to the idea that traffic on the M60 overhead would all be going to the Trafford Centre.)

The main industry today seemed to be things of power: coal for the coal-fired powerstation, or colour-coded pipes full of gas. And much was made of the canal’s green credentials. It had been neglected after the Second World War, and not just from the impact of bombing. The huge number of planes built in the war meant that airfreight was cheap in peacetime, and quicker than going by boat. But these days, the cost of petrol and environmental concerns mean that the canal is on the up.

In fact, there was plenty of economic joy on show. Liverpool’s Liver building and twin cathedrals are overshadowed by splendid new skyscrapers. It reminded me and the Dr of Sydney; the huge and sturdy Victorian buildings dwarfed by the shiny new tier. But maybe the modern architecture makes all cities look too much the same: this could have been Cardiff or Bristol or Canary Wharf too.

And at journey’s end there was Salford, with its Imperial War Museum and Lowry Centre, and the building site that will soon be the BBC. Again, it felt Canary Wharf and Cardiff, shiny and groovy with plenty of posh drinking and eating, but no different from too many other places. Were it not for the accents of the deferrying passengers, we could have been anywhere.

We trammed into town to join more of J.’s chums (including the Yemayan Ambassador from page 91 of The Pirate Loop) and had our second curry in two days. Made the last train back to Macclesfield, and were home for the last half-hour of Moonraker.

Journey back to London the next day took as long as the canal trip; there are no trains through Macclesfield this whole week – I assume they’ve closed the line at half-term because working commuters take precedence over paying customers merely using the train for fun. So we went via Reading (and beer with H. and J.), and enjoyed screaming children and a girl who wept into her mobile that the boy she’d dumped and told to go find someone else to snog had only gone and done that.

Blimey, we thought. How long ago that teenage stuff now seems. And like the canals and railways, we struggle against the laws of physics to fend off our decrepitude. It is back to the gym tomorrow…

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