GM Ringway Stage 1: Manchester to Sale Water Park

Published 23 May 2021

The statues were not the reason the GM Ringway starts in Albert Square. No, this major Manchester orbital walk starts here due to this building, Manchester Town Hall – undergoing major refurbishment work on my visit.

The 186 miles long GM Ringway is Greater Manchester’s very own orbital walking trail. It’s a perfect walk for someone who wants to explore more about the Greater Manchester area. And handily I do…

The clock tower of Manchester’s Town Hall chimed ten as I stood in the city’s Albert Square. Rain sploshed down on the smooth flagstones; the statues of Prince Albert and other dignitaries getting wet in the process. Albert stands tall and grand in his own memorial. One that has more than a slight resemblance to London’s memorial in Hyde Park, built seven years later.

Albert Square, City of Manchester. Start of the GM Ringway. There’s many statues here, none so big and bold as the monument to Prince Albert. Whose connections to the city of Manchester are, well, limited to say the least. If you’re thinking it looks rather like the one in London, note that the Manchester memorial came first…

He’s joined by other notable figures, all notably male. Bishop of Manchester James Fraser. Liberal statesman John Bright who was born a few miles away in Rochdale. Philanthropist Oliver Heywood who founded schools and hospital. And four time prime minister William Gladstone who has few real links with the city, and in whose statue, he seems to be hailing a taxi. He did visit the city several times. But then so did Margaret Thatcher, and I can’t imagine the city will be installing a monument to her any time soon.

Anyway, the true star of Albert Square is that town hall. A gothic masterpiece built in the Victorian era. At the time the city council declared that it be “equal if not superior, to any similar building in the country at any cost which may be reasonably required.” It opened in 1877, took nine years to build, and cost something like £120m in today’s prices. If that sounds a lot, the Scottish Parliament building, opened in 2004, cost £414m. Oh and it is firmly a town hall. It may be the civic heart of the City of Manchester. And Manchester may have been granted status in 1853. But it has a town hall.

William Ewart Gladstone. Like Prince Albert this Prime Minister had very limited links to the city. Indeed, he was born in Liverpool.

It’s an impressive building. Although one currently hidden behind wooden boardings as it undergoes a multi-year refurbishment. Heating, electrical systems, roof and windows are some of the things needing work. The hoardings declared it would be complete by 2024. Until then, the whole square feels a little redundant. A central focal point for the civic part of the city, that’s not currently in use.

Still, if you’re going to start an orbital walking trail of Greater Manchester within the city itself, then where else would you start? Piccadilly Gardens where there’s a busy bus station. And a known place for drug dealers? The Arndale Centre, the cathedral of consumerism? Or the town hall with its pomp and grandeur?

Although at this point I should point out something important. Some months after I first set off on the GM Ringway, the route was revised. Now it starts at St Peter’s Square, a short walk away from the town hall. St Peter’s Square is also an impressive public square. It features the city’s spectacular domed library, a branch of Wagamama and a statue of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst standing on a chair. Also there is a tram stop, meaning the trail has a public transport connection at the very start.

Of course we can argue whether a walk that circles the county of Greater Manchester should start in the city centre in the first place. I confess I didn’t really see the point. Indeed the whole reason the first stage of the Ringway pretty much only exists to wander a bit round the city, then head south to join the circle. It’s a similar tale for the final section, that has to go up from the south of the trail back to the city on a similar yet slightly different route.

Enough of the statues. It was time to walk on the GM Ringway to see the mighty Midland Hotel. Opened in 1903 it was owned by the Midland Railway, whose railway station was nearby…

My admiration on the gothic splendour of the town hall done, I set off on the Ringway. This was it. The first few steps of an 187 mile walking trail. Those who count such things may be interested to note that the GM Ringway comes in at 37 miles longer than it’s London equivalent, the LOOP. A fact that, when all is said and done, I found rather surprising.

Those first steps would take me past several other Mancunian landmarks. First up was the Midland Hotel, built by the Midland Railway next to its Manchester terminus. It opened its doors in 1903; the grand and imposing building at one time housed a thousand seat theatre. It was also coveted by someone who shared the two interests of architecture and genocide, Adolf Hitler. The Midland was lined up as a potential Nazi headquarters in Britain. Notably the area around the Town Hall was spared from bombing during World War II.

The Midland’s certainly an imposing and beautiful building. Although the overall ambiance of the place was spoiled by the decision to place speakers near the door in order to blast music onto the pavement. But it is next to another Manchester landmark.

Funnily enough, it’s the railway station the hotel was built next to.

And here it is, Manchester Central, the Midland Railway’s Manchester terminus, and now a conference centre.

Between 1880 and 1969, Manchester Central was one of Manchester’s main railway stations. It’s elegant single span roof covered nine platforms, and housed a mixture of intercity and local services. Most notable were the Midland Railway’s express services from St Pancras.

In the 1960s though, railway services were rationalised. Services were redirected to two of the city’s other major stations, Piccadilly and Oxford Road. Manchester Central quietly began to fall into decay and disrepair, waiting either for demolition, or for a new role in life.

That new life came in the 1980s when the local council converted the train shed into an exhibition centre. It’s a role most Mancunians will now know it for. Initially opening as GMEX, in 2007 it regained its former name. It’s position on the Manchester landscape was once again re-assured.

Something a bit more modern sits across the road. All full of sharp edges, big boxes, and glass pointy bits. The Bridgewater Hall is Manchester’s International Concert Venue and home to the acclaimed Hallé Orchestra. It’s name comes from Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who commissioned the building of the Bridgewater Canal through Manchester. Well, he had coal mines and wanted to get his produce distributed more easily. Although as it happens, the hall itself sits on its own basin on the Rochdale Canal.

High above the Comedy Store and the canal runs Manchester’s Metrolink system.

It was along the Rochdale Canal I now walked. Past offices and flats, and a series of bars under the railway arches that are now used by the city’s Metrolink tram system. Posters warned inebriated bar patrons not to “Drink and Drown”. A cheerful message to read on a gloomy Sunday morning as more rail began to fall again from the sky.

The canal led on to the Castlefield quay, where the old warehouses have been repurposed as flats, bars and radio studios. At one time you could peer into the studios for local radio station Key 103 from the quayside. Now the studios are hidden away. Invisible. And Key 103 is now known by the rather bland name of ‘The Hits’.

Trams trundled noisily on the viaduct overhead as the Ringway moved to the Bridgewater Canal’s towpath. And slowly but surely the buildings began to disappear. This was Pomona. Once a bustling set of docks. Now… nothing really. This was an undeveloped wasteland. The only life coming from the tram line and the occasional train on the adjacent Liverpool to Manchester railway line.

The thought occurred to me that I could have easily done the first few miles by Metrolink tram. Leapt on one at St Peter’s Square. Alighted again at Pomona. Saved me the “delight” of walking down a stretch of towpath that felt like a muggers paradise. There was graffiti aplenty. Lots of litter in the water. And overgrown scrubland on both sides of the canal. Abandoned. Unloved.

Inevitably there’s plans to redevelop this whole area. It’s close to the regenerated Salford Quays where offices and apartments have taken over. Pomona is planned to get a similar treatment. Instead of a watery wasteland, there will be flats as far as the eye can see. This would no doubt be a nice place one day. Just not yet.

There were no muggers though. Only joggers. I was the only person walking along not wearing lycra and headphones. It didn’t feel like a particularly nice place to run. But they kept on coming. Some solitary. Some in pairs. All getting their Sunday morning exercise.

Nice bridge but no idea why it’s called that.

It felt like an age, but the towpath came alongside Pomona tramstop, from where the Metrolink turns away from the canal as it heads to Salford Quays. If I’d been there a few months later, I wouldn’t have yet escaped the tram. A new spur off from Pomona would head off alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, which I’d also come alongside. The Ship Canal sits on the north of Pomona, the Bridgewater Canal on the south. The landmass of Pomona keeps them apart, perhaps for their own safety.

I crossed to the other side of the canal on a structure emblazoned with the name ‘Throstle Nest Bridge’. Throstle is an old word for a song thrush bird. Had there been a nest here when the bridge was built? I had no idea, and no way to find out. So on I continued, passing two women in hiking boots; the only other foolhardy souls I’d seen on foot on the towpath.

Up ahead was where the Ringway would leave the canal. And it would do so at a major landmark.

Now let me be upfront. I have absolutely no interest in football. None at all. Bores the pants off me. Some people – usually men – kick a ball up and down a pitch for a bit, occasionally trying to put it into a net. Maybe a couple of times they actually succeed. Everyone rejoices. Then it’s back to more kicking. All that for nearly two hours? What?

I am given to believe this is a popular place.

So the fact I was now coming up to Old Trafford football ground, meant very little to me. A big, grey stadium near a canal. Whoopy doo.

I half expected the place to be deserted. It wasn’t even lunchtime on a Sunday. Why would anyone be here? But that shows how little I know about foot-the-ball. Especially foot-the-ball for a team like Manchester United. It wasn’t packed, but there were more than a few people ambling around, checking out the sizeable gift shop, taking photographs next to the statues of footballing greats of yesteryear.

The Ringway goes straight in front of the stadium, before heading down a road full of cafes mostly geared up to selling fried food to large amounts of customers. Shop signs either featured photographs of footballers, or some sort of United link like the Red Devils Chip Shop, or the souvenir shop. You could even place a bet before the game in the local branch of Ladbrooks. Although rather incongruous in this mix was the nearby branch of Wetherspoons. And if that wasn’t for you, down the road a little was a M&S Food Hall, and a branch of Aldi, both situated in a boxy, out of town shopping complex.

I tried to imagine what it must be like to live round here. And shuddered at the thought. Of hoards of football fans taking over the area at regular intervals. Of having to have parking permits for your street to stop fans from parking there. Of the buses being stopped and the roads closed whilst the stadium emptied out. No, it didn’t appeal to me.

The small park next to Trafford Town Hall. Maybe a nice space to rest whilst walking the GM Ringway?

The Ringway moved away from the stadium, turned right at the Legends Fast Food Takeaway, past Subway, and then – for reasons lost of me – took a dog leg in order to walk alongside the edge of a Tesco Extra car park. It could have gone a more direct, but no. That car park had to be visited. As car parks went, it wasn’t bad, but I was perplexed as to why it was so important. Even when it drew alongside a small but nice park alongside Trafford Town Hall, I couldn’t work out why bother.

Was it, perhaps, the view of what was across the road? Maybe? For now I was at the other Old Trafford, home of Lancashire Cricket Club. The locals here must live in perpetual event mode. As soon as the football season is over, the cricket will be starting up. Still, at least cricket fans are a little less noisy. Oh and in case you’re wondering, I’ve no interest in cricket either.

This one for the cricket

Another Old Trafford followed. This one was a tram stop, fully equipped with holding pens to keep people at bay on match days. And then it was time to leave sport behind and head to (checks notes) a park with a (double checks notes) disc golf course. Instead of hitting a small ball with a chunk of metal trying to get it into a hole in the ground, you throw a Frisbee at a basket. It has par ratings and everything.

If this sounds your kind of thing, get ye to Longford Park in Stretford. It’s free to play! And don’t worry if you don’t have your own flying disc as you can hire one! There’s eighteen holes and everything!

No one was disc golfing on my visit. Most people were using the course to walk their dog.

What’s that, you say? How many people were playing? Well, err, I didn’t see anyone. But there were a lot of people walking their dogs on the course if that helps.

If you throw a disc, then a dog leaps up to catch it, then moves it, does that still count?

As is the case with many urban parks, Longford Park was land that once contained manor house. Longford House was built by John Rylands, owner of one of the largest textile companies in Britain. With some of his money he help part fund the Manchester Ship Canal, public baths, a library and a large hall in Stretford, not far from his abode. Rylands passed away in 1888, with Longford House remaining home to his widow, Enriqueta. It was on her death that Stretford Council purchased the house and the land, opening it up as a park in 1912. The house itself remained until 1995 until it was demolished, although the facade remains.

Tree lined path in Longford Park

The Ringway doesn’t go past the facade itself. Just the disc golf course, some playgrounds and a cafe that looked quite nice. I’d have popped in had I not popped to M&S for a sandwich after worshipping at the altar of Premier League football. So instead I sat on a bench on what looked like the old driveway, scoffed my lunch and tried to keep my pie away from all passing dogs.

On the other side of a busy A-road stood a driveway. The driveway led past a graffiti covered sign saying “NO GOLF” (nay, not even disc golf). There was a car park. Broken tarmac. A bit of litter. A simple building with a metal roof. This was Turn Moss.

About half of it consists of football pitches. But there’s also a community orchard, wildflower meadow, some woods, and an active friends group. Several people were wandering round with bin bags on a hunt for litter. They may have been doing too good a job given how little they seemed to be finding.

Most of Turn Moss is playing fields, with a border of woodland. But during the wetter months of the year, it also collects water.

It’s also a “flood zone 3”. A place where – at times of flood – water can be stored to keep it away from local properties. Hmm. Perhaps January hadn’t been the best time of the year to come here.

Most of the morning the Ringway had been on tarmac or dirt tracks. Now it needed to head over fields, into some woodlands over less developed terrain. Land that was just a little waterlogged and muddy.

Gingerly I made my way along to the soggy woodland looking for the lane I needed. In the distance a bicycle zoomed past, presumably on the very path I was looking for. But for all my endeavours I struggled to find it until I retraced my steps and walked through the even more waterlogged fields. At long last I found Hawthorn Lane; my achievement unlocked. My tree knowledge is extremely limited so I had no idea if the trunks on either side of the path were of the hawthorn variety. But I didn’t mind.

Hawthorn Lane begat Hawthorn Road and then it deposited me at the banks of the River Mersey. If anything, most people will connect this mighty river with Liverpool. But the Mersey is a creation of the suburbs of Greater Manchester. It’s in the nearby town of Stockport that the Rivers Goyt and Tame combine, get a new name, and then head along south of Manchester.

This river with its muddy footpath would be a feature of most of the rest of the day.

This happened at the River Mersey, a waterway mostly linked with Liverpool in the minds of most people. However this mighty waterway starts in Stockport, a few miles from Manchester. Formed by the combination of the Rivers Goyt and Tame, it starts off as a fairly wide river.

The Mersey is where the Ringway’s orbital section starts and ends. From here the Ringway would start to wind round the county in an anti-clockwise direction. Then, something like 170 miles later, it would come back to the Mersey a short distance from where I was standing. It would spend a little time with the river again, as if to say hello to an old friend. Then it would wave and make its way back to Albert Square by a different, but strangely similar route.

Shame it was just a painting

My time with the Mersey was – initially – short but sweet. After a few minutes, the route diverted down a different path to follow the smaller Chorlton Brook, before pottering off down a path to rejoin the path along the Mersey again. It was a little pointless, but pleasant enough, even in the mud.

Ahead of me, trams sped over a bridge to and from nearby Sale Water Park tramstop, the official ending point of the first stage of the Ringway.

I didn’t need to go to the tramstop itself though. I could have. Done the third of a kilometre walk from the Mersey to the stop and it’s large park and ride car park. But there was little point. I was going to continue on to do Stage 2, and that merely retraced its steps back to the Mersey. So instead I sat on a bench and munched an iced bun. As I did, it began to rain.

It had been a strange walk. A walk of contrasts. Going from a city centre full of statues, to a scenic waterway surrounded by grass and woods, via a football stadium? Yeah, it had been a little odd. Still, now the Ringway was now about to do its circle around this mighty metropolis. I was intrigued to see what I would find. Now, half way through my first day on it, it finally felt like the journey was truly about to begin.

Next time: off to Didsbury

A tram heads over the river to Sale Water Park tram stop.

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