Tony Wilson: Dampness is all

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Tony WilsonThe final part of our serialisation of Tony Wilson's contribution to the forthcoming book Mersey: The River That Changed The World, published in December.

I was born and spent my first five years above my Mum and Dad's tobacconist's shop on Salford's Regent Road. I look back to a Fifties heyday when Regent Road was one of the great shopping streets of the North. And why? It could hardly be unconnected with the fact that less than half a mile away, just down Trafford Road, were the magnificent gates of the docks of the Port of Manchester, the designated terminus for the equally magnificent Manchester Ship Canal, built by Manchester men to combat the hegemony and high taxes enjoyed by the Port of Liverpool at the far end of that River Mersey.

Without Liverpool Bay, there would, of course, have been no logical entrance for the great ships that went on to cross the fields around Warrington. Eastham, on the south side of Liverpool Bay, was indeed the entrance to Manchester, our Ostia. Salford, and in particular Cross Lane Corner where I was brought up, were the intentional and alternate universe to the great Port of Liverpool.

Those tall stately African seamen I sold snuff and cigarettes to; I was told they were "Lascars". Knowing now that real Lascars were in fact men of smaller stature recruited from East India, although the word had come to be used to describe any foreign or African seaman serving on British ships under "lascar" agreements.

Age five it was off to the country and a pleasant new detached house on an estate perched on the side of Strines Road in Marple. It was the simplest thing for us kids on the estate to climb over a low wooden fence and head off down the steep sided, fern layered hillside, crossing a stone and iron railway bridge over the Hayfield railway line and then down an even steeper slope, encouraged by the sound of fast running water below, down, down to the Goyt.

There, just across a mossy stone bridge over the Goyt, was a muddy forest full of wonders. Beneath the ferns and trees, the remnants of old stone buildings would lie, wet, lichen covered, mossy and inviting to a curious bunch of pre-teens; and then great tunnels and unfathomable constructions of the same millstone grit.

By the age of 10 I had discovered that these were the ruins left behind by Samuel Oldknow, a gentleman who had founded his mill and even an orphanage on the banks of the Goyt; kindness or exploitation? Who knows; though history treats him kindly; "He was the zealous promoter of every useful and benevolent measure calculated to aid the progress of general civilisation and local improvement."

I did my first piece of 'adult' work in my last year at primary school, doing a project on Oldknow and illustrating it with blurry black and white photos taken on my new Kodak Brownie 127.

Those ruins were our Chitchen Itza; just like the Mayan remains on the Yucatan, these cracked towers seemed to grow out of the jungle and at the same time seem to be at the very point of being sucked back into it. Maybe it's the natural origins of the locally quarried stone from which these temples – to industry – are built but they seemed then as much part of nature as part of man.

And of course these discoveries on the banks of the Goyt were my first real encounter with the Industrial Revolution. Dampness is all. But for Samuel Oldknow it was more than the dampness that helped the weaving; it was the power of that water coming down off the Pennines. He re-routed the Goyt to feed the 'Wellington Wheel', which drove his spindles through an underground shaft. The underground stone-lined tunnels, from millponds to drive wheels, were the stuff of adventure and dreams for young kids like us. And grist to the Victorian marketing boom, which renamed the biggest of the millponds as the "Roman Lakes" and later went from tourist attraction to fishing mecca.

My next step towards the sea, took me as surely to the port at the end of the line, as the Goyt, would rush on, merging with the Etherow just beyond Marple and then deep in the belly of Stockport, the Tame, going on to flow all the way to the sea. But it was only a short walk from the ruins of Samuel Oldknow's empire, to a friend's house on the banks of the Peak Forest Canal (of which, incidentally, our old boy Samuel was principal promoter and chairman of the committee which financed and directed its construction).

And how strange that my story begins in the hills below the moors, on the banks of the Goyt, with my first taste of an Industrial Revolution, and takes me downstream to the Irish Sea and to the two great progenitors of the Industry of Revolution that has shaped my life.

  • Mersey: the river that changed the world is published by Bluecoat Press on 6 December; sponsored by United Utilities and initiated by the Mersey Basin Campaign.

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