On the day I say a final farewell to Manchester, I discover a little of its magic. There is a place I have a mind to visit before I leave for the last time, but I don’t quite know what I will find there. I cross the old swing bridge that curves over the canal. It is battered, busy with traffic and with only a stripe of path for pedestrians the journey feels precarious, but when I make it to the other side, I travel into a forgotten world.
A footpath curves left and upwards, lined by trees, sagging railings and dusted by fallen leaves. I can already see a large house at the head of it, flanked by a black lamp-post whose lamp has long since gone. The house is long abandoned. Boarded, rubbish-strewn, daubed in graffiti. Someone has scrawled ‘dead inside’ on a rusted door. But the gilded autumn light softens it, so that the house seems to say, I may be derelict, but I have some magic left for those who care to look.
I crunch through the leaves, past the dereliction, and my eyes are shocked when I turn the corner. A red gazebo, with elegant fretwork, crowned in a black pointed roof. It stands vivid against the abandonment, the graffiti visible through its arches. Gazebo and house are guarded by a large tree, leafless and crawling with ivy. Behind, the canal is wide and still, reflecting the russets of autumn. The autumn leaves dust the area around house and gazebo like precious scraps of litter.
I walk up a cobbled path to the viewing point and the reason I am here. The Barton Swing Acqueduct is the first and only one of its kind in the world. This battered iron structure carries one canal above another and swings open to allow bigger vessels to traverse the ship canal below. It’s uniqueness is that it does this while full of water, with gates at either side of canal and bridge, to dam the flow. This rusting structure, with flaking paint and rotting wood doesn’t look anything special, but it is. I squeeze through chains coated in oil to gaze along the acqueduct, the reflection of its girders a filigree on the water. This place is a patchwork of magic: the arcane structures of human engineering against a blaze of autumn trees, the enchantment of dereliction and forgetting. It has a down-at-heel magic, but magic all the same.
I have had cause this year to reflect on place and belonging. To re-visit places I once lived, places I spent time. And to visit new landscapes that I found less welcoming than I had hoped. I have had cause to reflect on the settling process – what causes us to uproot and move somewhere else – and what it means to settle into a landscape. I lived in this city twenty years ago. I grew into myself here, met my wife here, but I never enjoyed living here. Now our last connection is being broken. My mother in law is moving north, to be closer to us. Now it is she who will be settling, with all the excitement and trepidation that brings. For us, there will no longer be any need to return, no emotional tie. And so we say farewell.
Later, I walk the path on the lower canal. A small stretch of land lit up by autumn colours and thronged by Canada Geese. The last time I was here, for my father-in-law’s funeral, this path heralded the first day of winter, steaming and vaporous. The last time I was here, I saw my first wild parakeets. Today the atmosphere is muted. The geese honk softly and a robin trills from a hidden spot in the trees. Black headed gulls perch where they can and a cormorant takes off on its low flight above the water. The memorial tree I found on my last visit is still here, its adornments a little frayed, but still the most vibrant tree on the path.
There is something meditative about hurtling along a motorway, as a passenger, as the sun sets and you move into darkness. The light is already fading as we set off, though it is only early afternoon. The hills are misty violet in the distance, the moors shades of sand and russet, green and grey. Wild and open, leading to rugged hills and broad sky. This part of the journey is always poignant and a little sinister, because it is on these moors that the Moors Murderers killed and buried their victims. I can’t look at them without remembering that, yet there are passages where the hills cradle the roadside in a sturdy embrace and bridges soar between them. As the light seeps away, the colours of the landscape become more vivid, before fading to grey and black. Strings of gold and silver lights stream towards us as we follow a trail of rubies home.
Belonging to a place is important to me. Belonging in the sense of seeing the layers in the landscape and the sense of time passing. And even in those places where I don’t belong, I seek out touch-points: spaces that speak to me as if they were for me alone. We all experience places differently. Our past, our present and our hopes for the future tell us how to speak to a place and how to leave it. I leave this city with the memory of brooding moors and reflections in still water, the rustle of trodden leaves and the call of geese. I have re-visited those touch-points already discovered and found the possibility of one that was simply waiting to be found.