Uplifting experience as 'Eiffel Tower of waterways' reopens

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The Independent Online

The Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering that once hoisted narrow boats 50 feet from the river Weaver to the Trent & Mersey canal and known as the "Cathedral of the Canals", reopened yesterday after a £3.3m lottery grant topped off years of fundraising.

There is no longer much call for the barges lugging coal, clay and Northwich's famous salt that kept the lift busy 130 years ago, so the 280-ton pleasure boat Edwin Clark – watched by 300 guests while a band played "Rule Britannia" – provided its first gainful employment since 1983, when it was deemed structurally unsafe and shut.

The lift's £7m recreation, also financed by the Waterways Trust, English Heritage, local authorities and the Anderton Boat Lift Trust, is the latest chapter in the renaissance of the canal system: the network's longest tunnel has been reopened after 50 years, in Huddersfield, west Yorkshire. The Falkirk Wheel, a new boat lift linking the Forth & Clyde and Union canals in Scotland, is also to be opened in May.

The Anderton lift was introduced in Northwich in 1875 because the Weaver Navigation Trustees wanted to cut out the cost and effort of transferring cargoes between the waterways but had no room for a system of locks.

The result, created by the engineer Edward Williams, who also designed the Manchester ship canal, and his colleague Edwin Clark used a system of hydraulics. Boats pulled into two 70ft-long floating tanks, which were perfectly counterbalanced when at rest, one by the canal, the other by the river. A small amount of water was drained from the lower tank to make it lighter than the upper, which would then descend with the minimum use of energy. The toll was a shilling, plus one penny for every ton of cargo.

Hydraulics of a computer-operated kind are restored to the 21st-century version, though – to the regret of traditionalists – they were forged in Germany and machined in the Netherlands.

Martin Bell, the former MP of Cheshire's Tatton constituency and president of the Boat Lift Trust, led the plaudits yesterday. He said: "I see this as the Eiffel Tower of the waterways, a wonderful monument to the Victorians. When others asked why, the Victorians asked why not."

The lift will cost £90,000 a year to maintain and staff but British Waterways predicts that the local economy will benefit by more than £1m a year. From today, boaters will pay £20 one-way and £30 return to have their craft transported and the trip will cut up to four days off a diversion via the Manchester ship canal.

For daytrippers, it is being marketed as a Victorian "white-knuckle ride" to match anything the Alton Towers theme park, 20 miles away, can offer.