Are you looking for a great way to spend a sunny British summer day (according to reliable sources those actually exist)? Then look no further than a cruise down Manchester Ship Canal! The canal flows between Liverpool and Manchester and Mersey Ferries run regular cruises in both directions. This is a historic route that is great for a North West day out for adults. I finally tried it and felt like I was cruising down the river of some exotic faraway land (the sun probably helped). Read on to find out how you book your Manchester Ship Canal tickets, the Manchester Ship Canal route and some tips for a great experience.
Manchester Ship Canal History
Towards the end of the 19th century Manchester was paying hefty charges to the Port of Liverpool to import and export goods. In true Mancunian spirit, they thought that was an outrage and proposed to build a canal that would circumvent the Port of Liverpool. This would give Manchester direct access to the sea and establish their own trading route.
After 3 attempts the plans were finally signed off. Manchester Ship Canal was one of the biggest construction projects in the world at the time. It took 6 years to build and established Manchester as the world’s third busiest port (despite the fact that Manchester doesn’t have a coastline!). However, the development of larger shipping boats meant that Manchester Ship Canal eventually became too small for significant commercial trade.
Nowadays, there are still commercial ships on the route but the tonnage is only a fraction of its heyday.
Manchester Ship Canal Route
You can travel the canal in both directions between Manchester and Liverpool, but let’s assume you’re on a Manchester cruise travelling to Liverpool. The ship canal cruise starts with a shuttle bus from the Imperial War Museum North to the docks.
The first locks you pass are Mode Wheel Locks in Salford that use sluices to control the Manchester Ship Canal depth. The height difference between the start and end of Manchester Ship Canal is approximately 60 feet (18m) so the water level is lowered at each lock. You then pass Barton where you’ll see the first swing bridge on your cruise. These funky bridges swing completely open to let boats pass and then swing back into place. Very cool. In addition, Barton has a swing aqueduct. It’s similar to a swing bridge but instead of a road Bridgewater Canal passes through the bridge. You’ll also go through a second set of locks at Barton followed by a third set of locks at Irlam.
River Mersey joins the canal not long after Irlam Locks. You’ll then travel on River Mersey all the way down to Rixton Junction where Manchester Ship Canal diverts from the river. After that it’s a fairly uneventful cruise passing several swing bridges and another set of locks at Latchford Locks. Shout out to Old Quay Swing Bridge that’s the only swing bridge that opens to the left. When you get to Mersey Gateway Bridge and Silver Jubilee Bridge you need to get that camera ready as the views are spectacular. From now on you’ll cruise alongside River Mersey until Eastham Ship Canal Entrance where you pass through a last set of locks before joining the river.
On the way to Eastham Ship Canal Entrance you’ll pass plenty of sheep (crucial information, no?) and also a lay by for huge oil carriers at Ellesmere Port. We met one on the canal and they are some pretty big ships. You then pass through the locks at Eastham and after that it’s a pretty straight ferry across the Mersey. The views are great as you approach the city so make sure you grab a seat at top deck.
Mersey Ferries Ship Canal Cruises
Mersey Ferries tickets and Dates
If you want to cruise down Manchester Ship Canal, you need to book your trip through Mersey Ferries. Between April and October they operate roughly 40 cruises between Liverpool and Manchester. To find cruise dates and book your Manchester Ship Canal tickets, head to Mersey Ferries’ website here. Prices are £42 per person at the time of writing. The cruises are really popular so make sure you book in advance. We booked ours about 2 months prior to the cruise date.
Cruise from Manchester to Liverpool
I travelled from Manchester to Liverpool, which includes a 1,5 hour stopover in Liverpool before a coach takes you back to Manchester. Unfortunately, our boat was delayed (a swing bridge broke down!) so we only had 20 minutes in Liverpool. The trip normally takes between 5 – 6 hours and you get dropped off next to Albert Dock. If you’re unfamiliar with Albert Dock, it’s a great area to explore in Liverpool. It’s home to some exciting experiences and museums such as Tate Liverpool and the Beatles Story. If you travel the canal in the opposite direction, read my suggestions on things to do in Manchester here.
Our boat was called Royal Iris of The Mersey and is the fourth vessel in a lineage of Irises (if that doesn’t make her sound royal I don’t what will). Fun fact, the third Iris was quite the celebrity; both Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers performed on board. She also carried the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on their Silver Jubilee. The current Iris is a movie star and was the background to famous film musical Ferry Cross The Mersey. A lineage of celebrities basically.
Mersey Ferries Ship Canal Cruise Experience
All in all, we thought Mersey Ferries’ cruise down Manchester Ship Canal was a great sunny day out. I imagine that a rainy day might make the experience slightly miserable as you’d have to cram into the sheltered parts of the boat. However, if you appreciate a tranquil day out then you’ll enjoy the Manchester Ship Canal cruise. It’s also a pretty child-free zone because of the length of the cruise. So if you’re looking for North West days out for adults, Manchester Ship Canal is ideal.
Throughout the tour there is a blue badge guide telling you the history of the places you pass, great if you’re a history buff. Even for us mere mortals, the guide was a nice touch and helped you appreciate the passing surroundings.
The main disadvantage for me is that the time in Liverpool is reduced if your boat is delayed. We had looked forward to having a Sunday roast in Liverpool before getting on the coach home. Instead we had to head straight for the bus and were starving by the time we got back to Manchester. It was a small minus to an overall good experience though.
Top tips for your Manchester Ship Canal Experience
- The instructions tell you to meet at the tank display by the Imperial War Museum for your shuttle bus pick up. If you see buses further up the car park, head over to them as they’re probably for Manchester Ship Canal. We only caught the last bus as no one came over to instruct us to head for the buses.
- Bring plenty of sun screen if it’s sunny. You can’t feel the heat because of the breeze but trust me, you’re probably burning like a potato crisp. I drenched myself in SPF50 repeatedly for the duration of the journey. The joys of pale Scandinavian skin.
- Likewise, bring layers with you even if it’s warm. When you start to cross River Mersey, the breeze is really chilly.
- During boarding, a lot of people headed to the back of the top deck and we easily grabbed a front seat. The views get better as you approach Liverpool but the front deck also gets a lot busier. It’s up to you whether you want to claim a seat at the front straight away, as you could miss out on photo opportunities if not.
- I think the sides of the boat were grossly underappreciated as they give you great views of the passing landscape. Bring binoculars if you’re into bird watching.
- Everyone waves at the boat so practice your royal wave in advance (channel the Queen on her Silver Jubilee).
- You can bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks. I suggest you take advantage of that, especially for drinks. It is possible to buy sandwiches and snacks on board, but a bottle of water was £1.30. Just saying.
- Bring your own food, but do try some of the ice cream from Northern Bloc on board. Especially if you’re like me and obsessed with trying new flavours. I went a bit safe with chocolate and sea salt, but they had strawberry and black pepper. Say whut?
To summarise, I strongly recommend Mersey Ferries’ cruises down Manchester Ship Canal if you’re looking for a chilled day out in the North West. You’ll learn about the history of the area and the pace is really relaxing. Also, they have black pepper ice cream so what are you waiting for?
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