The Peak Forest and Ashton Canals between Central Manchester, Marple and Whaley Bridge Cheshire

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The history of the Ashton and Peak Forest Canals is unusual. Together they form part of what is known in canal boat circles as The Cheshire Ring, and they connect to the Macclesfield Canal at Marple Cheshire and the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester, and also the Trent and Mersey Canal. This enables intrepid canal boat holiday makers to complete a full circle of canals through some fascinating and varied countryside, and some fairly challenging urban settings as well. 

The Ashton Canal was built in 1792 to connect the textile producing town of Ashton under Lyme to Manchester.  It was very prosperous until the beginning of the railway age in 1830, but was threatened by the onset of competition from the railways. Despite this, it managed to make a profit for many years, but by the 1900's trade had dwindled. The canal was all but abandoned in 1962, because it was derelict and unnavigable.  The Peak Forest Canal connects to the Ashton canal at Ashton under Lyme and was built at the height of the "canal mania" period, primarily to enable limestone from Whaley Bridge in Cheshire to be transported down towards the Manchester region, and for coal to be brought up to the Whaley Bridge area from the coalfields around Manchester, not for canal boat holidays. They were not invented yet! By 1840 the Peak Forest canal was suffering badly from competition with the newer Trent and Mersey Canal, and of course from the railways.  Once again, as with the Ashton Canal,  this canal was allowed to fall into disrepair, although it was not as in as bad a state as the Ashton.  However, the Peak Forest Canal Society and the Inland Waterways Association launched campaigns pressing for restoration, and full navigation along the canal was finally completed by 1974.  Today it is a very popular short route, with lots of interest, beautiful scenery, and hard work with many locks, making it a challenge for those with a canal boat or taking a canal boat holiday.


Above: The Peak Forest Canal at Marple
Cheshire - photo by Peter Fuller and
reproduced by kind permission

Above: Whaley Bridge - the Upper Peak
Forest Canal starts here. Photo by
Dave Dunford and reproduced by
kind permission

The canal  starts at Whaley Bridge, and the first section is known as the "Upper Peak Forest Canal".  It is carved out of the sides of a mountain which overlooks the valley of the River Goyt, and the first section of the canal is lock-free.  It is also very shallow and - like the Llangollen Canal - you should take it slowly and gently especially around bends, to avoid meeting another canal boat head on!  The canal leaves Whaley Bridge and travels in a north westerly direction through outstanding countryside, with magnificent views of the mountains all around. The canal is higher than the railway in the valley, and passes villages and towns like Buxworth (where the limestone quarries were located - the original reason for the building of this stretch of the canal ).  

After Buxworth you navigate through Furness Vale, New Mills and Disley.  There is a marina at Furness Vale with most facilities, and a small wharf at New Mills with overnight moorings, water, pump out, etc. 
Buxworth has a great pub, The Navigation, which over looks the old canal basin, and another pub, the Beehive, is at New Mills by Bridge 28. Disley has shops and is quite a pretty little place, but it also has lots of traffic noise from the A6.


Above: The Peak Forest Canal at Furness
- photo by Dave Beavis and reproduced
by kind permission

Above: The Peak Forest Canal Buxworth arm - photo by Dave Dunsford and reproduced by kind permission.

Leaving Disley it is not long before you come across the approach to Marple, which marks the junction with the Macclesfield Canal. The canal is very shallow at this point and canal boaters are advised to be very careful.  Marple has some excellent pubs, as you might expect, such as the Ring o'Bells and The Navigation, by lock 13 of the flight.

At Marple, just after the junction, you now reach a famous flight of locks called the Marple Flight. There are 16 of them in all, and they will require a great deal of effort and hard work for all taking a canal boat holiday or journey. They drop the Peak Forest Canal down 215 feet towards Manchester.  They are in a superb setting with hills and mountains, woodland and the River Goyt far below you. You should be aware that there are no safe moorings within the flight of locks, and that you should leave plenty of time to get to either the bottom of the flight - or of course, the top of the flight - before darkness falls!!!


Above: The junction of the Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals at Marple - photo by Stephen Burton and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The flight of locks at Marple - photo by Phil Eptlett and reproduced by kind permission

When you finally reach the bottom of the Marple flight you will see the magnificent Marple Aqueduct, a huge arched structure which carries the canal 100' over the valley of the Goyt.  It was designed by Ben Outram, and is of architectural interest in that he used circular pierced "shoulders" above the arches ( to lessen the load borne by the stone arches) and different coloured stones to highlight the architectural design of the parapets and ledges.


Above: The aqueduct over the River Goyt - photo by Martin Clark and reproduced by kind permission

Once you have travelled over the Marple Aqueduct you reach a short tunnel at Hyde Bank Tunnel, and then you pass Romily, Bredbury and Woodley, all of which have basic supplies like bread and milk. You will also see the great conurbation of Greater Manchester, and the magnificent scenery that has surrounded you all this time will give way to houses and factories.

Once at Hyde the canal crosses some industrial wasteland, before you reach Dukinfield Junction, where there is the Portland Basin Heritage Centre, worth a visit. Dukinfield Junction is in Ashton under Lyne, which was a little village before the explosion of the cotton weaving industry resulted in a huge increase in the population. At this junction a very short section of the newly restored Huddersfield Narrow Canal is visible - it is only a short length, but it is the start of a major regeneration  project which should see the canal route over the Pennines to Huddersfield  fully restored and open once more.

After Dukinfield Junction the Peak Forest Canal "becomes" the Ashton Canal which branches off west through Manchester.  You will need a special British Waterways anti vandal key to lock and unlock the paddle gears on each of the locks you pass through.  Along the whole of its length the Ashton canal goes through densely built up areas.  The canal is actually an oasis of green and quiet in all this mass of urban housing estates and factories, and is well used by the locals for leisure activities. Railways run along this length of canal, and beyond Droylsden there are lots of locks for you to work on again - the first series of locks since you left the Marple Flight. Sadly you should not leave your canal boat unattended in the area. You should also be aware that people still throw rubbish and litter into the canal, and things can get entwined around your propeller. However, this is just one of the less enjoyable aspects of canal boat hire or owning your own narrowboat!


Above: The junction with the Ashton Canal at Portland Basin Dukinfield - photo by Nigel Homer and reproduced by kind permission


Above: The canal at Droylesden - photo by Keith Williamson and reproduced by kind permission

You descend steadily down through the locks towards the junction with the remnants of the Rochdale canal. Progress might be a bit slow for canal boaters because of the need to lock and unlock the paddle gear at each set of locks ( with your anti-vandal key.) At Paradise Wharf and Piccadilly village in the centre of Manchester the whole area has been redeveloped, rather like Brindley Place in Birmingham, and "gentrification" of the areas surrounding the canal is taking place as people realise the huge environmental asset they have right on their doorstep. You will see the point where the Rochdale Canal leaves the Ashton - once again the route for those in a canal boat that links Manchester with the Yorkshire woollen towns. Canal boat holiday makers can across the Pennines via Todmorden and Hebden Bridge to Huddersfield with the final section of the Rochdale canal joining up the Ashton Canal to form the link with the Bridgewater Canal (click here for separate section) at Ducie Street and Jutland Street Bridges. Then, west towards Waters Meeting .(See section on the Bridgewater Canal). Again you should be careful not to leave your canal boat unattended  during the day, or stay overnight along this stretch.

I hope this brief introduction to the Peak Forest and Ashton canals will inspire people to try the Cheshire Ring of canals for themselves. Canal boating friends of mine who completed this ring say that it was exhilarating and challenging - certainly worth all the effort expended.  The Cheshire Ring and these canals provide a different dimension to the usual sort of canal boat holiday and cruising.  Enjoy!