The Underground Bridges of Rochdale
Exploring the culverted bridges that run underneath Rochdale with photographer Andrew Brooks.
A week before today's visit, Andrew Brooks and I were in the disused air traffic control tower at Manchester Airport gazing out at the new tower admirably and discussing how it lost out in the Building of the the Year Awards to a building neither of us were familiar with. Today we stand in that very building, Number One Riverside in Rochdale, waiting for a set of waders and head torches.
Once inside the building is quite lovely and unlike what you'd except for a municipal office building found out in the furthest stretches of the county. There's an obvious modernist influence at work with the white walls, wooden panels and the open plan layout and it's a hive of activity - the waiting area on the ground floor allows a view upwards onto the floors above laid out like cross sections, as if we're in an atrium of a beehive.
But back to those waders. We're not here today to explore Riverside but instead to gain access to the river, and more interestingly, the medieval bridges that are found underneath the town.
The River Roch is not exactly raging today, which makes donning waders and walking into an abyss of pitch black at one end of it is a little less daunting. The River Roch, from where the town gets it's name, is in fact a tributary of the city's River Irwell and runs from towards Todmorden until it hits the Irwell.
The river is visible by Riverside but the majority of it is culverted underneath the historic town centre and has been since the early 1900s (except for maintenance work in the 1990s when it was temporarily revealed again - a mind bogglingly expensive feat to then cover over again) This mass culverting of seven of the town's bridges resulted in the making of one of the widest bridges in the world, but now it's all about to change.
Rochdale Council are hoping to uncover three sections of the river, including the (estimated) 14th century bridge that we're visiting today. Rochdale itself is a pretty little town, the architecture is grand in places and quaint in others but all steeped in history, what strikes me about it is the views all around of the surrounding hills and countryside, and well, how it actually feels as if it's built over something else - which it is of course, the river. It feels wrong, there's something missing and that's part of the reasoning behind finally uncovering the river and bridges. As well as helping to prevent floods the council agree that Richdale is a town forged around its waterways and they hope to now reconnect Rochdale with its origins in this redevelopment of the public spaces of the town.
The plans now are estimated to cost around £3.5m with funds hopefully coming from various sources including the Environment Agency and Heritage Lottery Funding and activities are being planned around the new space.
The medieval bridge, the main feature of the new project, is dated from the early 14th century and as such is an incredibly rare surviving example of medieval engineering, and with its reveal the surrounding natural habitat of the river will be allowed to flourish again. To assist with the transformation of the river into a wildlife corridor plants will be introduced and the council hope that otters and rare bats will be encouraged to the river. Originally the river was culverted to prevent bad odours and disease from the dirty river of industry all around it but now the culvert has large collections of broken branches and litter gathering in bends of the river and is at risk of polluting itself again.
One of the culverted bridges is The Butts and when the mega-bridge was created from joining the six neighbouring bridges, with the intention of making space for tramways, locals renamed the area Big Butts. Under Big Butts there’s examples of some ingenious engineering in the form of gloriously egg shaped water outlets, and the structures remain solid and in a reasonably good condition for their age. One particular spot where we come to stop is pointed out as being the other side of a bank vault.
Architect firm BDP won the RIBA competition to redesign the site and better connect the two sides of the river. BDP plan to incorporate glass viewing platforms
Thanks to Rochdale Council for allowing us access to the River.
Andrew Brooks is a photographer, a digital artist and a film maker living in Manchester, his previous works include the Secret Cities exhibitions with Curated Place Please visit his site to see these images and more from the visit, in high resolution and in all their glory - exactly as they should be viewed.