We have reached day 9 of the Blogging from A-Z challenge, and today is letter “I”. I have chosen to share with you some memories and a bit of historical detail about the River Irk.
The River Irk forms the basis of lots of my childhood memories, usually the ones where I ended up wet, cold and laughing my head off.
The two main places I played in it or alongside it were along the stretch it ran through the old mill site (which is now a Sainsbury’s supermarket site), and further west where it ran through Blackley forest between Victoria Avenue and Blackley New Road. That part of the river was just on the other side of my primary school railings, and I was drawn to it long before I was allowed to play out on my own and go into the forest on my bike with my friends.
I never considered from where it came or where it was heading, I just knew my “patch” and loved being near the water whenever I could. I remember some very strange looking weeds and plants growing in it on the Middleton side of Victoria Avenue bridge which now I think about it were probably down to the amount of pollution in the river at the time. I’d heard about a chemical works further upstream, but at the time it never occurred to me to question why the water looked a funny colour or why the weeds grew to such huge sizes on that stretch.
My favourite part of the river was when it flowed through Blackley forest, on the other side of the railings from my primary school. (I wonder if the name “Bowker Vale” came from the vale the river cut as it went along?) It was one thing to watch it from the school playing field, but once I was old enough to go and ride my bike in the forest on my own, the river took on quite another delight for me. Building dams, trying to get across it on the stones and rocks on the river bed, climbing up trees and seeing how far over the water I could dangle before I got wet…oh the memories!
I’ve since done some research on the river and found that it isn’t really that long and runs for only around 10 miles or so from Royton, where it rises, to Manchester city centre where it empties into the River Irwell. I rises on Tandle Hill, and has several other streams and brooks that serve as its tributaries along its length including the Wince Brook which joins it in Middleton, the Moston Brook which joins it along Rochdale Road in a culvert, and the Boggoart Hole Clough Brook which is a little under a mile long.
The natural course of the river was changed a lot at the time of the Industrial Revolution to make room for the number of mill seats that sprang up along its length. It became massively polluted and down near the point where it joins the Irwell, Friedrich Engels noted at the height of the Industrial Revolution, that it appeared to be a stagnant pool of black foulness which was dangerous to health. It regularly overflowed its banks and helped spread cholera and other water-borne diseases in the cramped slums in that poor part of Manchester. In 1830, The New Gazetteer of Lancashire said that “the eels in this river were formerly remarkable for their fatness, which was attributed to the grease and oils expressed by the mills from the woollen cloths and mixed with the waters.” There are still industrial and chemical plants along the banks of the Irk but the river itself has undergone a substantial rejuvenation in recent years and is much cleaner than it used to be, and as far as I know, there are no eels living in it any more.
If you ever do get a chance to go and walk alongside the Irk, the stretch between Middleton and Blackley is a lovely place to be and it’s well worth taking a camera with you too. If you fancy a different section then my old stomping ground through Blackley forest is equally beautiful. Not bad for a post-industrial water course deep in the suburbs of Manchester.
To find out more about the River Irk, this article on Wikipedia will give you more information.