Cathedral of the canals

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Jacqueline Yallop visits one of the UK's few working boat lifts.

ON THE MAP

Anderton Boat LiftLift Lane, Anderton, Northwich, Cheshire CW9 6FW Tel: 01606 786777www.andertonboatlift.co.uk.

Across the River Weaver, the Winnington chemical works spews steam and gases into the air. On the quay, concrete blocks wait to be loaded on to lorries. In the heart of rural Cheshire it's a reminder that this is an area built on industry. Rising above it all is the prow of the Anderton Boat Lift, which juts out into the river like the skeleton of a giant sea liner.

Built in 1875 to create a link between the river and the Trent and Mersey Canal - more than 15 metres above - the "Cathedral of the Canals", as it became known, was the first boat lift in the world. It opened up the route between the Cheshire salt industries, the Midlands potteries and the port of Liverpool, and became a transport hub, before falling into disrepair as canal traffic declined.

In 1982, badly corroded by pollution, it closed down. Twenty years later, after a pound;7 million renovation project, it reopened. A purpose-built visitor centre alongside the river now gives schools a taste of life on the waterways, as well as an insight into this much-loved local landmark.

"Visits are based around simple questions, like 'what's the difference between a river and a canal?'" says Elizabeth Johnson, co-ordinator for WOW, an education partnership between British Waterways, which runs the site, the Inland Waterways Association and the Waterways Trust.

"The idea of water transport is quite new to most children, so we encourage them to imagine how busy the canals and rivers were, and how important the lift was," she explains.

Activities at Anderton tend to be aimed at key stage 2 pupils. Children tackle everything from geography and history to explanations of the science behind the lift and ideas for literacy projects. There's also a popular maths trail, but the highlight for any visit is riding the lift in a glass-roofed boat. "Children just love it. They can see the machinery working around them," says Elizabeth Johnson.

Year 6 students visiting from nearby Comberbach Primary School agree. "The best bit is definitely the boat ride, going down dead slowly with the water gushing round," says pupil Alastair Cheshire. "You can see how it works and you know it's unique."

The control room, originally housed in a wooden hut perched on top of the lift, is now integrated into the visitor centre. Visitors can watch the complete operation on monitors and talk to the lift operators. Next door, an interactive exhibition translates the statistics into more accessible terms. The lift, for example, is as tall as six giraffes, as heavy as 50 cars and as long as 65 penguins lying end to end.

A timeline sets Anderton in the context of economic and trade developments since pre-history, and there's the chance to show off newly acquired language. "The cradles for the boats are called caissons," explains Year 6 pupil Georgina Barron.

Resources can be downloaded free from the WOW website. They explore a range of curriculum ideas, including studies of the site's wildlife. There are plenty of viewing areas, some of which are indoors, and a marquee that can be used for workshops and teaching sessions. But the boat lift is the star of the show. "Visitors are taken aback by the scale and sense of power," says Fiona MacDonald, Anderton's marketing officer. "Seeing it in action is a memorable experience - a glimpse of the past."

Admission for groups of 12 or more costs pound;3.25 per child and pound;4.75 for adults. Refreshments and hire of the marquee costs pound;30 a day. For resources and details of events visit www.wow4water.net

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