Not having the time or money to travel the world, or even the country, in search of adventure, I decided to see what
I could find on my own doorstep.What started out as taking boat trips down the Mersey for fun soon turned into a
mission to investigate all the holes in the three miles of riverbank meandering through the town, most of which are
mill-related. At that point, I didn't realise just how many holes there were. I have named some places for my own
identification, some were named by others. I tried to be historically accurate but many tunnels are unmapped so I
had to surmise their provenance. Here are some of them...
Stockport is built on and around three rivers – the Tame and the Goyt join in the town centre to form the Mersey.
This plentiful water supply has been used for centuries: by corn mills from the 12th to 18th century then, with the
boom in the textile industry, by silk; woollen and cotton mills. This resulted in tunnels being excavated under the
town to divert and control the tempestuous rivers. Most of Stockport's mills were connected to the river in this way
and so didn’t always have to be situated on the banks.
The Goyt and the Mersey run through a sandstone gorge which means many of their features cannot be seen from
the streets above. The construction of the Merseyway road in 1930 and the shopping centre in the 1960s covered
some of Stockport's underground places, but there are still a few caves and tunnels open for exploration.
On a hot, dry day the river is a tranquil paradise, on rainy days a thundering torrent, the level rising by 2 metres or more.
Mostly I found abundant wildlife: foxes; rats; kingfishers; dippers; herons; cormorants; grey wagtails; sand martins; bats;
crayfish; gudgeons and pike.
I also found evidence of people, modern and old. First, I headed up to Tiviot Dale - named by the Jacobites after
Teviot in Scotland. Prince Charles Stuart is said to have stayed in the town in 1745. Despite efforts to stop his army,
“the bridge at Stockport having been broken down, Charles passed the river with water up to his middle”. The River
Tame (whose name comes the Anglo Saxon word for dark water, owing to its peaty colour) flows past Meadow Mill
and was also used by Hope Mill, now demolished, at Portwood.
Heavy rain often causes the soft, sandy riverbank to collapse. One of these collapses revealed a hole leading into
a rectangular concrete pipe. It was a small sewer with a low entrance which opened into a round chamber with a
balcony and ladder to a grid. When I saw the yellow paint, I half expected a Cave Clan tag, but it was just a couple
of rudimentary drawings, c. 20th or 21st century.
Stepping carefully along a slippery, circular, spider-filled concrete pipe to the second chamber,
the 'fresh' scent gave a clue as to what lay ahead. On my last visit there was a lot of work going
on and the chamber was no longer underground.
Downstream the Tame meets the Goyt under the motorway. The curved wall was part of
the old railway viaduct for the Tiviot Dale line. I crossed the river and headed upstream.
Part of the Ancient Corn Mill Tunnels, this large water tunnel was built by Peter Marsland in the early
1800s. Where the earth above was shallow, it was half cut into the sandstone then covered with a brick
arch. It is about two metres wide, and two metres tall – at least 2/3 of which is flooded with sticky silt.
In most places it's too thick to sail, too sloppy to walk. It's definitely a wetsuit or waders job.
The entrance dropped to a T junction and neither direction looked appealing. First, we waded to the right
where it looked like there was dry land ahead. There wasn't. We slithered along, resigned to getting very
messy indeed. It was kind of like swimming but harder. Spidery roots sparkled in our torchlight. Wriggling
through them, the airspace got smaller and smaller until we could go no further. You can see the remains
of a sluice gate on this side. This lovely photo is by Horus, who kindly let me go first through the swamp.
Back to the entrance (a foot high hole through which you slide down into the tunnel) we inflated
the dinghy for the other side. As we got ready, we heard voices outside “Look, there's a tunnel
down there!” It's in a popular park and close to the footpath. We heard several men chatting about
it then saw a pair of boots above us. I lay down inside the entrance and said “Hello!” just as a head
appeared. We laughed as he jumped back in shock and exclaimed “There's someone down there!”
They chatted to us but couldn't be persuaded to come in and take a look, apart from one lad who
briefly braved the darkness and yelled into the abyss.
The left side started promisingly. This side is all weathered sandstone, with the occasional crack
from natural faults. It reminded me of a fairground boat ride. We got some way before it started
to get sludgier. Then we smelled rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide) and decided it was time to make
a quick exit. This is caused by rotting vegetation and lack of ventilation. We packed up and sailed
leisurely downstream to wash the silt off.
The three brick-arched caves underneath St Mary's Way were used to house French prisoners during
the Napoleonic wars, where they were put to work making nails. In 1797, families lived in sandstone
caves in the town centre. “The Pickford family gave their name to the Brow which had anciently been
called Bear Hole Brow from the housing of the wretched creatures used for baiting being housed in a
cave there.” Most are now covered by modern buildings but a few remain along the South bank.
This wouldn't have been a difficult climb if it wasn't so slippery. We used an electron ladder and safety
line tied to the roadside railings above and then walked around, waded the shallows and climbed up.
On reflection, we could have just climbed down and stayed dry but, hey, I dig the journey.
There were markings carved in the rock, and holes which could have held bars across the entrance.
The effort to get in far outweighed the reward as it's only a couple of metres deep, but at least my
curiosity was satisfied.
In summer the banks are densely packed with foliage. I crept through a lush, green jungle to find
this secret place. I think these buildings may be the remains of East Bank or Carrington Bridge Mills.
Now they lie hidden, accessible only from the riverbank.
Another part of the Ancient Corn Mill Tunnels, this brought water from Stringer's Weir in Vernon
Park to Jesse Howard's mill on Newbridge Lane. It would have been about 2 metres high but was
backfilled with rubble however, thanks to some explorers, part of it can be seen again.
The end is sealed with a large concrete block and what looks like a supporting beam.
This area was the site of the Mill Dam, a reservoir for the corn mills, which diverted the Goyt
across the area where Asda and Sainsburys now stand. Around the area are holes like these.
To access Millgate Beach, we sailed from Carrington Bridge. This is my favourite stretch of the river.
Its high, mossy sandstone walls hide the traffic and streets above. Apart from a short rapids run it's
slow-flowing and peaceful, the only sounds birdsong and paddlesplash. Relaxing, drifting past Vernon
Mill, the gas works... except this time we got a puncture. “I can hear hissing... paddle faster!”