Free things to do in Manchester: The Irwell Sculpture Trail
Since lockdown, and even before, walking and hiking have exploded across the UK, as people seek to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, leave the car behind and show off on Instagram. The march is huge, and it only gets bigger.
One of the best things about it is that it’s completely free, and with the likes of Peak District, Lake District, Saddleworth Moors and many more around Manchester – most are only a short drive away. train or bus.
One of these walks is the Irwell Sculpture Trailwhich is in fact the largest in the UK, stretching from Bacup to Salford Quays, following the River Irwell on its journey to the Ship Canal and ultimately – Davy Jones’ Locker.
The course is huge 33 miles, so unless you’re Forrest Gump, you won’t be doing all of this all at once. Luckily for all of us, the folks behind the Trail have split it up – so you can enjoy different sections on different days.
The trail is characterized and adorned with over 70 works by artists of local, national and international renown, and it also serves as a link to many of the area’s cultural attractions, from galleries and museums to the famous East Lancashire Railway.
The trail has been divided into small “groups” which are perfect for exploring for a few hours or up to a full day.
For example, there is ‘The Sentinel’ at the starting point Bacup – an intriguing stone wall monolith by artist Jane Dunn, then the next sculpture is just across town – ‘The birds’– signaling the entrance to Bacup and referring to its rich industrial history.
Compare this with the endpoint – Salford Docks – where you will find 9 sculptures scattered around, ideal for a leisurely stroll on a sunny day or for walking the dog.
The docks have some distinctly odd (but nonetheless impressive) offerings, including “Factory Girls” which look like huge chess pieces and celebrate the female workers of Metropolitan Vickers, once the largest factory in Western Europe and located just up the road in Trafford Park.
“Casual” was created with former Salford Dock workers and their families, each metal structure depicting a union card and arranged in separate groups to highlight the divide between those working and those not working.
One of my favorites is “Erie’s Rest” by ceramicist Beverley Gee and shaped to represent the ebb and flow of the Manchester Ship Canal. Beverley was inspired by the stories of an ancestor who claimed to have walked both on the floor of the canal during its constructions and on the surface of the canal when it froze.
There are over 70 sculptures to discover, and the best way to do this is to consult the official visitor guide to the Irwell Sculpture Trail, which you can view and download below…
PDF visitor’s guide