Stockport to the Sea

I had been talking about walking the length of the Mersey for most of 2023. I grew up in Southport and after several stints in Liverpool, the Mersey loomed large in my cultural conscious. Living in Merseyside, the river became part of my identity, even though I had spent most of my life far closer to the river Ribble.

When I moved to Stockport, I was informed, after an embarrassingly long period of passing it on the bus, that Merseyway was not named after some historical shopping centre opening Mr or Mrs Mersey but was, now quite obviously, named after the river that ran beneath it.

The further realisation that the Mersey not only ran through Stockport but started in its very centre set off a childlike desire in me to walk its length, to follow it to the sea. Having vocalised this desire to no great avail, convincing no one else of its exciting potential for adventure and therefore thoroughly demotivating any solo attempt, I put it off to the new year.

The weekend following the celebrations, fattened and in good spirits, I pack my bags at Gear Share HQ and plan my meandering route.

I wake up at 2 am. Bleary eyed, I grab my gear and slip out onto the street. Half asleep and dressed for the hills, I must look out of place to those heading home on what must still feel, to them, like Friday night.

I walk through town, towards where the Goyt and the Tame become the Mersey. The river’s name means “Boundary River” in Old English. Its presence in this heavily urban area gives a deeper weight to that meaning, the ethereal sound of the river, its banks protecting it from light and sound make it feel like you’ve stepped out of the city into another world. 

Walking through the night is exhilarating; views you miss in the darkness are replaced by those formed by your mind. Unable to use my headlamp due to the thickening mist rising from the river, I grow accustomed to the dark and let shadows dance in my periphery.

The roads that bisect the river feel ever more distant as I stop to watch the lorries rumble past. There is so much that the river flows through, so much contact with the people surrounding it that it evokes an almost spiritual response and I see a glimpse of why ancient Brits worshiped rivers.

Snapped back from my reverie by the rumbling of a tram I note that I have been walking for five hours. Soon I would be leaving Manchester for what I imagine would be the pristine countryside beyond. 

 

I’m wrong. Having plotted my route as I always do, haphazardly and with only a fleeting notion of the landscape, I failed to realise that this would not be a countryside walk.

Years of human industry mark the banks of the Mersey; factories, warehouses, and the rising towers of a power station join us as the ever-widening river flows with me to the left. Merseyside is a region whose population exploded due to the trade from the sea, and it is somewhat strange to see the river that has supported so many people over the years, alone with these colossal buildings. 

As the winter sun tries to force its way through the fog, swans drift in and out of of sight on the opposite bank and I am struck once again by the importance that rivers have. They are pivotal to our existence, and I feel an intimate connection with the water I have followed from its source, although, with hindsight, I must admit that this might have been the beginning of exhaustion.

I walk though towns I half know, memories of people and places I have visited through the years play in my mind. In each mental scene the river has its part and I pick up these pieces, finally stitching them together.

I stop for lunch and set up my stove for what will be my only hot meal of the day; I find there are unsurprisingly no butty shops on the river, a personal affront. I sit and let my body relax into the ground as the water in the pot boils and my legs grow stiff.  

Once I have coaxed my legs out of their stupor I set off again. The fog clears and I manage to convince myself that the food has rejuvenated me. The search for this new energy is akin to a meditative exercise – it consumes my waning attention.

Due to my late-stage zen exhaustion, I completely miss the point at which the river widens. I have been diligently tramping on and turn to find the familiar silhouettes of The Wirral mustering on the far bank. I finally believe what I have been telling myself for the last 15 miles – this is the last stretch.

The sun sets and before long I am walking on streets I know, getting closer to the station. As I walk down the steps to the platform, I stop my watch’s tracker and see that I have walked 49.5 miles. Had my legs not thickened to concrete on the train journey back to Stockport, and had I not required a lift the half-a-mile from the station to where I live, I would have achieved the much more succinct achievement of 50 miles. Maybe next time. 

George Sutton
Author: George Sutton