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!”
Last edited by Alley; July 11th, 2012 at 22:37.
Reason: fixed links
We reached the beach unscathed and patched the hole. Then I tied myself to a tree, belayed
the boat so it didn't go over Millgate Weir and delegated investigation. It turned out to be blocked.
Its position indicates that it is the Mill Sluice, a once open, now culverted stream which connects to
Mill Dam. It looks similar to Park Chase, pictured below.
I peered into this drain and thought I could see the end open out...
So, what else to do but wait for a dry day and crawl in. It was a bit of a squeeze but it did open
out to give me just enough space to take pictures. This is looking up.
I checked on the street and there's no sign of a grid so I guess it was covered over when the bridge
was widened or the road re-surfaced. It may have connected to Faulder's Mill (demolished) as this
room stands on the land above with what looks like a water tank or boiler. There was coal underneath
and a strong smell of oil.
Part way up the vertical shaft is the exit to this tunnel. The brick part would have been added
before Park Bridge was built over it, in 1857. It's dry inside, the damp patch indicates that the
river has flooded in to that point but it seems nothing has recently flowed out.
And just a metre below it is this one, securely bricked up. This sandstone tunnel originates from any time
between the 13th and 18th centuries and most likely goes to Mill Dam. Though I would have loved to
remove those bricks and crawl into somewhere unseen for hundreds of years, two things stopped me:
on the far side could be sewage or the watery contents of Mill Dam, which I would release into the river,
possibly drowning myself in the process; also I would release the river into whatever lay beyond. I knew
that backflow from old tunnels still floods some local basements and couldn't risk it.
The oldest standing bridge in Stockport, a listed structure built around 1800. “Two semi-elliptical arches
with plain voussoirs alternately raised, springing from a central pier with triangular cutwaters”.
This marks the end of the Goyt as the Tame joins from the right and they become the Mersey. After heavy
rain lots of debris gets washed up to the side of this bridge. I found weathered pieces of a J H Cuff stone
beer bottle; a Keiller marmalade pot dated 1862 and a stone bottle with Whaley Bridge written on it,
which is a town on the Goyt south of Stockport. I wondered if these bottles had spent a hundred and fifty
years travelling the 12 miles downstream from Whaley Bridge.
“I was offered to go on an adventure one morning. 6am rolled by and we rolled on, downwards to the
canal of death, under the bridge of enormity and over the waterfall of demise. It was excellent.” Michael H
The Mersey now flows under the town centre, through a concrete tunnel built in the 1930s. In 2007 it was
fitted with an electric gantry for maintenance work. Both sides of the tunnel can be explored, from different
access points. You can see the remains of Lancashire Bridge, rebuilt in 1891, on the South bank. North Bank
– 3 ways to get there; South Bank – 4 ways (though the council have recently done a good job of making
one of those routes so much more complicated). Don't fall in
The banks under here were once home to Adlington Square Mills and a hat works. I did the 400m through trip a few
times. It's extremely dark even with the brightest of torches. Bats and the occasional pigeon flutter about. Unknown
hazards lurk in the water, waiting to sabotage passing inflatables. The gentle slooping sound of paddle on water soon
becomes drowned out by the noisy, rhythmic hum of the shopping centre air-conditioning and the rush of water from
drains. The simple concrete design fittingly resembles the hull of a boat or the belly of Jonah's whale.
When I mentioned this trip to people I was twice asked 'Have you seen the whirlpool?' I'm not sure if there
is one and I got lucky, or it's just a myth to deter adventurers. I lean towards the latter, though it's possible
there is some turbulence from the Tin Brook and other outlets. The river is deep under here and if you fall in
it's not possible to get on the high concrete walls. Apparently a Polish man swam through here, just after the
war, for a bet, only to be arrested at the other side. For me, the exit was always a welcome sight.
The Tin Brook is a culverted stream which runs under the town centre emptying into the river underneath
Merseyway. It was used to supply water to, amongst other places, Mr Thomas Ross' Weaving and Spinning
Factory in Adlington Square and had at that time (1822) a fall of twenty feet which turned his water wheel.
The name comes from the tinmen who had workshops on the banks of the brook.
Stalagmites and stalactites
For once a tunnel I could actually stand up in (occasionally). It's mostly stoopy, with a few crawls. There's
a distinct smell of sewage... and beer. Under Robinsons brewery a frothy, milky liquid drips from a broken pipe.
Congregating around manholes were many huge spiders with bodies like blackcurrants.
The manholes are numbered but not in sequential order.
This is as far as we went. The tunnel lowered to less than a metre high. We heard loud rushing
of water. I think it would be the twenty feet drop, as the brook flows down a steep hill and we
had so far only been on a gentle incline. The little marks above the water line are fresh rat footprints.
They were probably watching me take this shot.
You can sail on from Merseyway, keeping to the left to avoid shopping trolleys, then to the right to
avoid trees. First left, just under the bus station are two entrances. The brick arched one would be
a tail race (water flowing out of a mill). It still had water flowing out and was very low so I didn't go inside.
The other would be a head race and runs roughly parallel to the river, with the same direction of flow.
I named it for Binn's Mill which stood on the site of the bus station above.
The river flows into here most of the year, leaving it sludgy and soft underfoot. I think
it would be nearly 2 metres high without the silt. I had to move fast to avoid sinking.
As I rounded a corner I emerged into a small 'cavern'. I'm not sure
why this is here, possibly it’s where tunnels dug from both ends met.
And there the tunnel ended. I could hear traffic on a road grid though,
so maybe there's another way to the other side...
The next portage point is under Hollywood Bridge, after a small weir which I successfully
negotiated 2 out of 3 times. Generally, weirs should be avoided. This is before that,
under Chestergate Bridge. I had often wondered what lay inside that window.
Last edited by Alley; July 11th, 2012 at 22:59.
Reason: fixed links
*It is a listed water wheel house, built in 1805, the only wheel house left in Stockport and
its oldest standing industrial structure. Changes in the brickwork can be seen, the arch was
once much higher. The wooden walkway is a later addition.
This was taken mid summer, it's unusual for the river to be this low. I have known the water
cover the rocks to my right. So, that tunnel looked interesting...
I'm not certain this is a river diversion, like previous tunnels, though given its proximity to two mills
it may have been used to return water to the river. If, however, it continues up the hill in a straight
line it could connect to a well which now lies under a garden in Chatham Street. The area is called
Spring Bank and several springs had taps from which people would collect their daily water. Only
the first few metres of Sandstorm are brick-lined...
... then it's rough cut sandstone. This confirms it pre-dates Chestergate bridge, opened in 1858.
The trench in the middle held small gudgeons, washed in at high water and left behind when the river subsided.
Further in you can see the same kind of tool marks as the air raid shelters, smoothed by flowing water.
The horizontal lines are the natural, swirling rock layers. The tunnel gets smaller here (a low crawl) as
the silt rises. I reached this point, heard loud water flow and was crawling through a small amount of
sewage. I had observed the tunnel from outside in different weather conditions and knew the outflow
level wouldn't get above a few inches so I carried on. It was intersected by a main sewer, partly
shielded by a concrete wall almost to the top, which I guess sometimes spills over a little.
This is looking up to a grid in King Street West. Cars bump-bumped over it noisily. It was hot work
crawling and photographing in such a tight space and the cool air was refreshing.
The Rat Hole
Over on the North bank is this place I called the Rat Hole (for the hundreds of tiny footprints in the sand).
The Rat Hole had a trickle of dirty water which filled the ground outside so I dug a trench to drain it before going in.
At first I thought it was the same as Sandstorm, then realised it was egg-shaped and brick as far as I could see.
This dated it to some time after 1840, which is when Bazalgette introduced the design to the London sewer system.
Stockport's sewers were dug from 1850 -1900.
After a shuffle/crawl of about 30 metres there's a modern inspection chamber under a road grid with
two pipes to the side, a brown stone one about 30cm wide and a concrete one just a little too small to
crawl comfortably, or safely (which leads to the East under Great Egerton Street). I think the X marks
are a map of the system.
Further downstream, I got out on the South bank under Hollywood Bridge. There is a sign on the beach
here to warn canoeists to get out. The weir beyond Heron Island was too high to sail. With no debris I felt
sure my dinghy would be fine to ride the weir, but the river bed is changeable and it would only take
catching on something to tip you out of the boat and into the undercurrent. I crossed to the North bank
and sat on the portage point by the Pyramid. This area is called Kings Valley, ambitiously named after the
Giza pyramids on the banks of the Nile. Originally it was planned to build five pyramids here, but only one
was completed. Opposite was this intriguing man-made hole in the rock.
Access from below, even at low water, would be tricky with it being so close to the weir, so it had to be
from above. I headed up Brinksway.
With permission from the yard owner I kitted up; tied my rope and ladder to a sturdy tree and went
over the edge. A small audience watched with mild curiosity until I was out of sight... or possibly longer.
I radioed up that I had arrived safely. This was not a cave, but a cut and cover tunnel.
I had been told it connected to Brinksway air raid shelters and the location makes that feasible. A line could
be drawn from here straight to one of Brinksway's entrances. However, it's quite a bit lower and is not
marked on the 1940 plans of the shelter, and also appears to be older. The back of the tunnel is bricked up,
with loosely filled gaps at the sides. Looking at the teetering stone slab in the roof, I decided not to poke
around in here although, if the roof was supported, I think further investigation could be interesting.
So far, so many dead ends. None of the water tunnels I had seen still had a standing mill above them
and I really wanted to know what happened once the water got inside. However, there was one intact
mill which had some promising holes on the riverbank.
This one is a tail race. The roof was stepped flagstones on metal supports, the floor sloping flagstones.
Two pipes empty into it.
This one is a head race with the remains of a sluice gate.
The engine room. Stairs to nowhere and a beautiful double arched entrance: