Chat Moss, the Bridgewater Canal and the Industrial Revolution
Chat Moss has an almost mythical character yet is very much a living landscape. Its mythical roots come from its origins 10,000 years ago during the Ice Age. Daniel Defoe’s description of the area as frightful in 1724 during his tour of Britain contributed to this sense of a land beyond civilisation. He could not imagine what nature meant by the production of such a waste land.
The Manchester to Liverpool railway line crossed Chat Moss in the early 19th century, commencing the Railway Mania. The northern border of the Moss is marked by the Bridgewater Canal which ushered in the age of Canal Mania years before the Railways took over.
If you open John Aikin’s Description of the country for Thirty to Forty Miles around Manchester (1795) you very quickly encounter a map of the northwest of England and a striking feature of that map is the number of canals on that map. The engineering wonders that were created with the canals generated fantastic images that Aikin evokes as,
the extraordinary sight, never before beheld in this country, of one vessel, sailing over the top of another; and those who had at first ridiculed the attempt, as equivalent to building a castle in the air, were obliged to join in admiration of the wonderful abilities of the engineer (p.114).
This was at Barton upon Irwell where James Brindley built the first aqueduct for the Bridgewater Canal across the River Irwell, on the eastern edge of Chat Moss. It enabled Brindley to plot a better route to Runcorn and the Mersey avoiding the original idea of taking the canal across Chat Moss.
Northwest England has a significant landscape heritage of peat bogs and Chat Moss is a key recovering element of that landscape. Little Woolden Moss is part of Chat Moss; it is now owned and is being restored by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. If you look north across Little Woolden Moss on a clear day you can see an apparently uninterrupted greenscape leading up Winter Hill part of the West Pennines. Chat Moss is a lowland peat moss and much of the West Pennines is upland peat moss.
These mosslands began to form about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age when peat began to be laid down on marine, estuarine or fluvial deposits adjacent to estuaries, on river floodplains, or on the site of shallow glacial lakes. These wet, waterlogged areas were originally colonised by reeds and rushes. When this plant material died it could not be fully broken down and this led to the formation of fen peat. Then bog mosses (Sphagnum mosses) began to colonise and changed the underlying peat from fen to bog peat. As the peat accumulated, the surface of the bog was elevated above the surrounding land, forming a dome, hence often these are known as raised bogs.
Chat Moss has a rich industrial heritage also, it was used historically as a waste disposal site for Manchester. The waste was a mixture of organic and mineral wastes, ranging from manures to steelworks waste. Chat Moss was purchased by the Manchester Corporation in 1895 for use as a waste disposal site to alleviate growing waste generation by the city population, but also to reclaim the peat for agricultural purposes. During drainage, the waste from Manchester was incorporated into the moss to reduce loss of soil volume as the peat dried out. The earliest waste used was nightsoil, which was mainly ashes mixed with the contents of privies.
Since the mid-19th century, the area of lowland raised bog in the UK has fallen by 94% from 95,000 ha to 6,000 ha. Chat Moss has in that period been industrially mined for peat for fuel and as an agricultural and garden product. This extraction of moss only ended on Little Woolden Moss in 2017 but fortunately that area is now being actively restored as a peat moss by the wildlife trust.
If you are interested in learning more about Chat Moss then contact Bridgewater Green Badge Guide – David Barnes Tel: 07961 535163 email:firstname.lastname@example.org