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Barton road Corn Mill & Aqueduct & lock on River Irwell from Chetham Library's 1773 Mullineux Collection

Bringing life back to the Irwell


The Irwell was once the epitome of the dirty old river, rolling through an industrial heartland,  stinking and fetid, an open sewer clogged with effluent and waste from mills, bleach works and factories.

In 1862, on seeing the river the Scottish geologist Hugh Miller was overcome with horror, writing that the Irwell was: “considerably less a river than a flood of liquid manure, in which all life dies, whether animal or vegetable, and which resembles nothing in nature, except, perhaps, the stream thrown out in eruption by some mud-volcano.”

“Pollution wiped out all fish and plant life,” says Matthew Schofield of the Irwell Rivers Trust.

“There was nothing left.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that efforts to clean up the river began to make a difference – the sighting of a few sticklebacks made the Manchester Evening News in the 1980s. The redevelopment of Salford Quays – the Irwell empties into Manchester Ship Canal here – also led to improvements in the water quality, with new waste water treatment facilities built further upstream.

"The surprising thing with Manchester is that the nature down there isn’t reading the book."

Now wildlife has returned. “The surprising thing with Manchester is that the nature down there isn’t reading the book,” continues Schofield. “You can see kingfishers in the heart of Manchester and they’ll be sitting on a piece of pipework sticking out from a wall… that’s their tree branch, they don’t recognise it as being anything different. They’re thriving.”
But while the quality of the water may have improved, and the city’s avian residents are happy to call the river home, the Irwell’s human neighbours have been slow to re-embrace the river that played such a crucial role in the region’s economic development.


Over the years there have been several grandiose plans to transform the Irwell into a major waterfront destination befitting the North of England’s biggest city. The latest, the Irwell River Park, brings together Trafford, Salford and Manchester councils around a plan to develop an 8 km stretch of the river, stretching from Salford University in the north, to  Media City in the south.

The Park is setting out to make much better use of the longest urban waterfront of any UK city, and reconnect some of the 100,000 people who live adjacent to the river to the fantastic natural ‘playground’ on their doorsteps.

Developers have been encouraged to open up the riverside and embrace the river – so far over £660 million has been invested - with the trio of local authorities using limited pots of public money to fill the gaps between the developments.

In the past, says Darrell Wilson, an urban design associate at architects BDP, lots of developments simply turned their back on the river. “There are several examples where the development goes right up against the water and you’ve no walkways and big blank facades and it’s quite intimidating and inaccessible,” he says. “You end up with isolated silos of river corridor that you can’t access.”

BDP have worked on a number of ideas designed to reinvigorate the river, explains Wilson.

“We saw the network of waterways in Manchester as being potentially one of the longest waterways in the UK.

“But the whole  point of the river is to be an artery of the city… it’s all about pumping the blood round again.”

Blockages, dead-ends and off-putting high walls and barbed wire fences are being removed,  and there’s now new, secure and continuous access along the river, which has created a much safer and more attractive place for people to spend time.

Schofield agrees that developers are now seeing the river as an asset not a carbuncle to be hidden away. “The fact that so many of the world’s great cities have a river running through them is certainly something that’s playing on developers’ minds,” he says. “There’s a lot of development along the watercourse which is now looking towards the river and using the river as an asset that properties face towards and enjoy.”

“Great cities have great rivers and we were under-utilising the Irwell.”

Soap Works at the old Palmolive Colgate factory is a shining example of what can be achieved, with the building transformed into high quality office accommodation, with a big accent on sustainability. Elsewhere at Chapel Wharf, Salford Council have worked with Bruntwood to create new access to the Irwell as part of the bigger Riverside development.

And there is also a clutch of new public spaces, such as Trafford’s popular Promenade Park and the Spinningfields Bridge, high quality public realm which have helped to re-animate the areas and inspire confidence in developers and local residents alike.

There are plans to launch water taxis along the river too, possibly by the end of the year,  which will connect Media City with the city centre, as well as some of the key landmark destinations along the river such as the Lowry Hotel.

Bridging the gap

An international design competition to build a new pedestrian bridge over the river has also been launched, to  connect the Crescent in Salford with the Meadows, seven hectares of green space cocooned in one of the river’s many meanders. Despite being one of the largest urban green spaces in the city centre, it’s inaccessibility means it is un-used but as the new northern anchor to the River Park, could the bridge finally deliver the city’s own Central Park?

Slowly but surely the Irwell is coming back to life.  “Great cities have great rivers and we were under-utilising the Irwell,”  says Schofield. “There’s a long way to go to bring the river up to the standards of other local rivers such as the Ribble, but the future looks good. The river is enjoying something of a restoration revolution at the moment.”

* Main image of Barton road Corn Mill & Aqueduct & lock on River Irwell from Chetham Library's 1773 Mullineux Collection


Restoration Revolution: The River Irwell