How the Leeds- Liverpool Canal transformed Burscough
- Credit: Pics; John Cocks
Burscough wouldn’t be what it is today without the canal and more than two centuries after it arrived, it is still providing employment. Martin Pilkington reports.
There is more to Burscough than just the Leeds Liverpool Canal, but 200 years after that waterway was completed (and 242 since it reached the town itself) it remains a vibrant part of the town’s character, fabric and scenery.
‘The place owes if not its existence, then its size to the canal,’ says Janet Lawson of the Burscough Heritage Group. ‘The original settlement was just a few houses in an agricultural area. Then in 1774 the canal arrived and the building of houses and shops began to take off, as can be seen still in the canal houses on Crabtree and New Lane.’
According to Mike Clarke, author of a history of the Leeds Liverpool, Burscough’s canal boom-time came about a century after the link with Liverpool was established. ‘From the 1850s onwards the general trade boats were operated by men rather than families,’ he says. ‘So that was when Burscough developed rapidly in size as a town – you could make enough money to have a boat and your own house as well.’
Plenty of other architectural reminders witness the way the Leeds Liverpool once dominated activity in the town, as Mike explains. ‘There were large stables for the company’s horses, and a big veterinary hospital on the wharf at Burscough, which is now shops and businesses. At the hospital they would treat horses for problems like raw shoulders from their harnesses wearing.
‘Grain for Ainscough’s Mill in the town, now flats, was an important cargo for the boats. And the Crabtree Lane Mission that was moved to New Lane is the last canal boat mission in Britain still in use as a place of worship.’
The mission is not the only Burscough building linked to the canal that fulfils its original purpose – you can whet your whistle still at pubs like the Old Packet House. Co-owner Gavin Williams says: ‘We’ve reverted to the original name of the place as we want to refer back to the canal’s golden days and the packet boats that ferried passengers between Burscough and Liverpool.’
Nowadays too the canal brings trade. ‘We get plenty of people mooring nearby and popping in for a pint,’ he says. ‘And we’re thinking about buying our own boat to use as a floating function room.’ One of the pub’s rooms almost qualifies as a canal museum, decorated with boating memorabilia.
Employment in the town no longer relies on the waterway, though it still contributes. There’s a recently established boat-builder, and a chandler’s shop to serve passing leisure craft.
One important item stocked there is made locally – Ivan Hicks and a colleague make the rope fenders that mitigate the errors of less skilful helmsmen. ‘We started as a hobby about six years ago,’ says Ivan. ‘It’s an old craft but we try to use recycled products. The rope is made from recycled plastic, and the core is made from material that uses chewed up car tyres, so we’re making traditional fenders with modern green materials.’
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As regards the canal, the names of Burscough and H&R Ainscough are almost inseparable. Ainscough’s Mill, built in 1855, stands right by the canal, and once had its own railway siding too. The company had a fleet of boats to carry grain to the mill and flour from it, and was still having them built as late as 1949.
Derek Bent is chairman of a charity – the H&R Ainscough Barge Restoration Project – set up to get two of those boats back in working order. ‘I started the project in 1996, when I acquired two Ainscough boats, Viktoria built in 1934, and Ambush built in 1933,’ he says. ‘Viktoria was in a bad state and Ambush was in a bit better condition but still needed quite a bit of work on it.’
Ambush now does a short run delivering coal every three weeks, but more funds are needed to bring Viktoria back to her best.
On October 22 the town and village of Burscough celebrated 200 years of the Leeds Liverpool and its impact on the settlement when a flotilla motoring between its namesake cities arrived at the Wharf. Local councillor Cynthia Dereli explains that town and village anomaly. ‘We have an identity crisis – the southern end is known as Burscough town, between the bridges is known as Burscough village, and we try to be known as both at once!’
But she says that crisis doesn’t extend to its character. ‘A strength of Burscough is its community spirit, so many people doing great things for the community. It’s just a lovely place to be.’