Hollinwood Branch Canal

Custodian of a unique group of canal features

The Hollinwood Branch left the main line of the Ashton Canal at Fairfield Junction, Droylsden, just above lock 18, and it proceeded in a northerly direction for about 2½ miles to Waterhouses. Here it climbed through four locks and the Fairbottom Branch commenced at the top of these. The Hollinwood Branch continued for about another 1¾ miles, climbing through another four locks in the process, to terminate at Hardman Fold Basin adjoining Drury Lane, Hollinwood. From this basin there was a private branch canal to Hollinwood Top Wharf, known as the Werneth Branch, which was about 800 yards long. The Werneth Colliery Company built this private branch and its purpose was to connect Old Lane Colliery at Werneth to the Ashton Canal via the Hollinwood Branch.

The Hollinwood Branch is now derelict but in the vicinity of Waterhouses and Daisy Nook it is still the custodian of the remains of a unique group of canal features that were situated between Waterhouses Bridge and Crime Bridge (both now demolished). The distance between these two bridges is only ¾ mile and the best way of illustrating these features is to portray a journey between them. Today, much of the area around Waterhouses lies within the Daisy Nook Country Park in the care of the National Trust.

Hollinwood Branch Canal, Features 1 to 18

Commencing at Waterhouses Bridge and travelling in the direction of Crime Bridge, the towpath is on the left-hand side of the canal. Boodle Wood is soon reached and this is where Waterhouses Tunnel was located.

Feature 1: Waterhouses Tunnel - At Boodle Wood a low ridge crosses the line of the canal and this obstacle was overcome by digging a tunnel through it. This tunnel was 66 yards long with a minimum width of 8 feet 1 inch and a minimum height above water level of 9 feet 1 inch and there was a towpath through it. This tunnel was officially known as Waterhouses Tunnel but over the years it gained three other names, Boodle, Dark and Long. The area was popular with merrymakers, especially at Easter time, and in order to reach Crime Lake they had to walk through the tunnel, which was considered both risky and daring. It was said to be ghostly because of eerie echoes that occurred inside it but, nevertheless, it afforded much amusement when visitors walked through it.

As a consequence of extensive coal mining in the neighbourhood, Waterhouses Tunnel had a history of subsidence problems and during the early 1920s it was opened out. Paradoxically, this was done shortly before the Hollinwood Branch closed owing to mining subsidence in other parts of the canal.

The line of the canal is now through a deep cutting where the tunnel once stood and Oakhill Farm Bridge crosses over it at the siteof its south portal.

On the approach to the tunnel, on the offside of the canal, there were once two boathouses but there is no trace of these now.

Just beyond Waterhouses Tunnel, the river Medlock is arrived at and the canal crosses the river on Waterhouses Aqueduct.

Feature 2: Waterhouses Aqueduct - This single-arched aqueduct is curved deeply inwards in plan, the walls are battered and there is a buttress on each abutment. The deep curvature of the walls form arches in plan and this enables the aqueduct to withstand both water pressure and earth pressure from the steep sides of the valley.

Ahead of the river Medlock the ground rises and here the canal climbs through the four Waterhouses Locks.

Feature 3: Waterhouses Locks - The bottom lock (lock 19) is isolated from the other three and beyond it the canal turns abruptly to the north west through an angle of some 70º. It then climbs through a staircase pair of locks (locks 20 and 21). The top gates of lock 20 were also the bottom gates of lock 21. These staircase locks were the only ones on the Western Canal owned by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company, namely, the Ashton, Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals. Boat people needed to exercise more care than usual when operating the staircase locks in case they flooded the towpath. The top lock (lock 22) is also worthy of note because horses requiring access to the Fairbottom Branch had to cross over it.

As previously mentioned, beyond the bottom lock the canal turns abruptly to the north west and on the outside of the bend the lower side pond is located.

Feature 4: Lower Side Pond - The lower side pond, known locally as a basin, is almost semi-circular in plan and its purpose was to store water that passed through the three locks above it.

Immediately above the staircase locks, on the offside of the canal, is the upper side pond.

Feature 5: Upper Side Pond - Located between locks 21 and 22, the upper side pond has long been known as 'Sammy's Basin'. In plan it is roughly the shape of a mushroom and it is much larger than the lower side pond. It stored water that passed through the top lock.

Sammy's Basin was named after Sammy Pearson, a water bailiff.

Between the two side ponds, the land slopes steeply upwards and the Fairbottom Branch runs across the top. At the top of the slope, by the side of the Fairbottom Branch, the next two features were located.

Feature 6: Lock-keeper's Cottage - This was a sizeable cottage where tolls were also collected.
Feature 7: Waterhouses Pump House - Waterhouses Pump House. This pump house was provided to pump water back up Waterhouses Locks. Every time a boat passed through the locks some 35,000 gallons of water was used and it took the engine about half an hour to pump it back again. Water discharged by the pump flowed above the pump-house yard in a timber chute before being discharged into the Fairbottom Branch.

The pump house was built with the intention of overcoming a constant water shortage above Waterhouses Locks, which included both the Hollinwood and Fairbottom Branches. The beam engine was built in 1812 and it should not be confused with the well-known Fairbottom Bobs, which was an earlier Newcomen type steam engine used to pump water from of a nearby coal mine.

Beside the head of lock 21, on the offside, there once stood a brick-built hut with a slate roof.

Feature 8: Hut - The purpose of this hut is unresolved but it is possible that it was used to hand out wages to passing boatmen.

Above Waterhouses top lock, the Fairbottom Branch leaves the Hollinwood Branch on the offside.

Feature 9: Waterhouses Junction - This is the junction where the Fairbottom Branch starts. This branch was just over a mile long and it terminated at Fenny Field near Bardsley, between Ashton and Oldham. This was once a busy branch, carrying large quantities of coal as well as some iron products from the ironworks of Samuel Lees at Park Bridge, Bardsley. Following Samuel's death, this works was successfully run by his widow, Hannah, and their sons.

Adjoining the junction, on the offside of the Fairbottom Branch, was the Wood Park Colliery Loading Stage. The colliery was operated by the Chamber Colliery Company and Wood Park Colliery Tramway connected it to the staithe to enable boats to be loaded with coal.

Feature 10: Loading Stage - Here the canal opened into a deep delta-shaped basin. A tramway swept down the hillside in a shallow arc from beside Crime Lane, to terminate at the loading stage (or staithe) on the north facing side of the delta. This tramway started at Wood Park Colliery, on the corner of Ashton Road and Coal Pit Lane, and it was used to carry coal down to the canal.
Feature 11: Towpath Crossing - Access to the towpath of the Fairbottom Branch Canal was via a footbridge across the tail of lock 22.

The next three features were just above the top lock on the towpath side.

Feature 12: Spillway - This was built to remove excess water from the canal in the event of a flash flood. Water would flow down the spillway to discharge into the river Medlock.
Feature 13: Spillway Towpath Bridge - This was the method of carrying the towpath across the wide entrance to the spillway. Stone plinths were laid across the spillway and the towpath was laid on top of them.
Feature 14: Culvert Outfall - This outfall is below the canal near the top lock. Above the small stone archway of the outfall, a tablet bears the date, '1864'.

Before the spillway started to descend the valley side proper there was a footbridge across it and below this there was a waterfall, marked on maps as a weir.

Feature 15: Accommodation Bridge - Just before the river there is a small stone-built accommodation bridge over the spillway, which is of typical canal design.

Proceeding a short distance along the canal a footbridge is reached.

Feature 16: Pinch Farm (or Occupation) Footbridge - This footbridge provided access to the farm from the offside of the canal.

In 2011 it was badly damaged by vandals and it was demolished by Oldham Borough Council in April 2016.

Continuing along the canal, a second noteworthy aqueduct is soon reached.

Feature 17: Iron Aqueduct - This aqueduct carries the canal over Crime Lane. It is curved inwards in plan and the stone walls are battered. However, unlike Waterhouses Aqueduct, the water is carried over Crime Lane in an iron trough. A stone tablet in the parapet on the towpath side bears the date, '1859'.

Ahead of the aqueduct there is a lake on the offside of the canal.

Feature 18: Crime Lake - This lake, which was unintentionally created as a result of building the canal. At this point a stream crossed the line of the proposed canal, which flowed through Park Clough before joining the river Medlock. In 1794 this was culverted to make way for the canal but subsequently a landslip occurred that impounded water flowing down the stream. Later, the offside of the canal collapsed and canal and lake became one. This became known as Crime Bank Reservoir but nowadays it is better known as Crime Lake.

The lake quickly became a popular spot for recreational purposes, especially for holding picnics, particularly at Easter time. A steamer brought passengers from Failsworth and Bardsley Bridge. Teahouses, pleasure booths and boathouses stood beside the lake and rowing boats could be hired by the hour. Less energetic visitors could take a trip around the lake on board a steamer. Merrymakers also visited the Hare and Hounds pub at nearby Littlemoss where the innkeeper, who also operated a trip boat, was nicknamed Harry Ha'pence because he charged ½d per boat trip. During the particularly severe winter of 1854 it was said that the lake was frozen over for 13 weeks and stalls were set up on the ice to cater for thousands of visitors.

Nothing now remains to remind one of all these activities. The teahouses, pleasure booths and boathouses have all gone and nowadays the lake is a tranquil haven for wildlife.

Crime Bridge lay just beyond the lake and this brings to an end the short journey along the Hollinwood Branch Canal through Waterhouses and Daisy Nook. Nevertheless, mention must be made of another notable aqueduct and this is Valley Aqueduct on the Fairbottom Branch. This stone-built, single-arched aqueduct is also deeply arched in plan with battered side walls to enable it to withstand water pressure.

In retrospect, it is quite remarkable that so many diverse features could have been packed into a ¾-mile length of canal. This must surely make a good case for the restoration of this part of Hollinwood Branch, as well as the Fairbottom Branch, ahead of the difficult task of restoring the rest of it, especially as most of this section now lies within the Daisy Nook Country Park.

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