Walk The Main Line to Mersey Vale

A wildlife-rich stroll along old railways to the riverside path back to base

Walk is about 1¾ miles, largely on tarred or compacted-surface paths and tracks and mostly level. Wear stout shoes or trainers. Not suitable for wheelchairs due to a few narrow and rough stretches of path and one set of steps. Buggies should be OK with a bit of effort!

Start/End: Entrance to Burnage Rugby Football Club, Battersea Road SK4 3EA.  Visitors to Mersey Vale Nature Park have free use of the club’s car park. It has refreshment and toilet facilities; check opening times.  NB  Parking may be very restricted on match days, Sundays car-boot days and on certain days over the winter period.

From the car park entrance turn left up the fenced path; then left again in 50 paces through the metal barrier where the boundary fence turns left. Trace this woodland path through remnants of once far greater woods that survived here until the middle of the last century. At the far end you’ll climb steps to meet a wider track coming up from the left; here turn right up to and through the nearby barrier into Green Pastures estate.

Walk ahead 100m to the barrier leading off the left-bend; use this and turn right along the well-surfaced track (signed cycle route 55). This is the trackbed of the former main line between Manchester Central and London St Pancras. Cross straight over Meltham Road and remain with the old line. You’ll presently reach a road (Green Pastures again) where the old railway fails at the barrier. This is essentially the site of the former Heaton Mersey Railway Station which operated between 1880 and 1961 (there are interesting old photos inside The Griffin pub and at Stockport Image Archive).

Slip left, then go right down Station Road, with the green parkland of Heaton Mersey Bowl on your left. This is the site of the old bleachworks tenterfield where cloth was pegged out to ‘cure’, strung and stretched out on tenterhooks. At the bend and junction in 200m, cross carefully and walk ahead a few yards along Craig Road. At the road hump take the path to the right, up-steps onto the old railway embankment, along which turn left into Mersey Vale Nature Park. It can get a little muddy in places along here; your reward is a lovely stroll along a woodland corridor which has grown up since the tracks were lifted in 1970.

Redwing. Photo credit John Harding, BTO

Redwing. Photo credit John Harding, BTO

It’s a great area for birdwatching – look out for spring bullfinches and long tailed tits and listen out for summer chiffchaffs, whitethroats and the melodic blackcaps amongst myriad species here. It’s also a good area in autumn for blackberries!  In winter fieldfares and redwings feast on the hawthorn and blackthorn berries.

The embankment curves gently towards the site of the old bridge across the Mersey, eventually leaving the corridor of trees. There’s an ornate iron fence guarding the end of the line now; the line once continued on a high bridge across the river through Cheadle Heath to Hazel Grove, thence Derby and London. The line of hills forming the horizon ahead is the edge of Macclesfield Forest and the ridge of Cheshire’s highest hill at Shining Tor (559m/1834ft).

Just before this iron fencing, turn left down the path and walk ahead (don’t drop to your right) with another old railway embankment (the old line to Stockport Tiviot Dale) sweeping in from your left.  In between, in the hollow below the vast pylon, is a pond that is usually good for frogspawn/tadpoles, bright with spring marsh marigolds and the haunt of herons. There’s often a kestrel hovering in the area, too.

Your path comes close to the embankment at a stand of cherry and apple trees – magnificent in spring. This area was once part of the Heaton Mersey Motive Power Depot, a hugely busy ‘shed’ for steam engines; here were repair facilities, coaling wharfs, water towers, coal depots and a huge turntable. Abandoned in May 1968, all now ghostly memories, slumbering beneath the recently planted orchard which is becoming established here.

At the path that crosses at the mature apple trees (and the gradually rotting sculptures of gigantic apples) turn right and walk to the cross-track by old millstones. Go straight over to approach the nearby M60 motorway.  Just before it, turn right through the barrier stile, drop the few paces to the riverside path that emerges from below the motorway bridge and turn right. Remain now on this surfaced track heading downstream, which is part of the Trans Pennine Trail, a long distance recreational route linking (essentially) Liverpool to Hull. You’ll presently pass below the ornate iron fence you reached earlier.

Stay with the riverside route and maybe pop up onto the embankment to see what waterbirds are currently here – expect mallards, moorhens, herons, even goosanders in winter!  Look for buzzards overhead, increasingly common in Cheshire. One interloper you might see and hear is a parakeet or two. These exotic green parrots have established a firm presence in the Mersey Valley hereabouts. There’s often a sizeable roost of them in trees on the riverside pastures below Didsbury church. They’re regularly heard and seen in Heaton Mersey, both here beside the Mersey and on the Common. Keep your ears cocked for their harsh calls!


Weir below the old bleachworks

You’ll eventually pass through a barrier onto a tarred lane serving stables and a cattery. Keep ahead to the railings on your left above the weir. This was the spot where the Mersey’s waters were diverted (in part!) to serve the needs of a vast bleaching and calico printworks built in the 1780’s for the Oldknow family, major players in the Georgian expansion of industry in greater Stockport. The works later became 5-storey cotton spinning mills and a considerable weaving shed with some 650 looms. The buildings survived until the late 1980’s; its vast chimney was a renowned local landmark. The newer part of the industrial estate now stands on the site­­. Hard, today, to imagine the frenetic activity, hissing of steam and general cacophony of the huge bleach works complex of 70 years ago.

Slip ahead-left through the barrier to regain the tarred track, upgraded in 2015 as part of improvements to the Trans Pennine Trail. The tall trees beside the canoe-launch steps are regularly home to treecreepers, tiny birds that can walk both up and down the trunk. Spend a little time here and you may just spot one; you might even catch the flash of a kingfisher streaking above the water, too.

At the far end of the industrial units you’ve a choice. You may fork right on the lesser path and you’ll enter the Mersey Vale Nature Park wildflower meadows, complete with dipping pond, created adjacent to the derelict mill goit, along which the water used in the bleachworks returned to the river. At the very far end of the grassy area, look for the fenced path on the right back to the rugby club car park.

Otherwise; simply remain with the riverside track all the way through to reach the green fencing surrounding the rugby club, immediately below the island by the canoe-launch steps. Along the way the felled area of sycamores is great for ramsons (wild garlic), a late-spring blanket of white, and also for bluebells, red campion and honesty amongst many other wildflowers. The rapids above the island can be great for a variety of water birds. Turn sharply back-right the few paces to find the fenced path, left, beside the industrial unit, leading back to the rugby club car park entrance.

© Footpad 9/2015

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