THERE is something eerily fascinating about being close up to a huge container ship that has travelled across oceans.

A couple of hours into our journey along the famous Manchester Ship Canal, we moored up to let Veritas, a mighty cargo ship from half-way across the world, pass by. The deep roar of its horn filled the air as it headed through the canal locks.

Linking Manchester to the Irish Sea, the 35-mile Ship Canal follows the rivers Mersey and Irwell through Cheshire and Lancashire, through several sets of locks to the Manchester terminus. Landmarks along the route include the only swing aqueduct in the world and a new six-lane Mersey bridge, under construction.

I travelled along the ship canal with my friend and T&A colleague Helen Mead (who goes weak at the knees at the sight of a container ship). Our Mersey Ferries cruise, tracing 100 years of history in just one day, set off from Salford Quays, its chic complex of shiny buildings - incorporating Media City, the Lowry theatre and the Coronation Street set - reflected in the sunlit water. With indoor and outdoor seating, and a cafe bar, the boat was comfortable and spacious. Also enjoying the sunshine on the six-hour journey were people from as far as Canada and Norway. A commentary from our guide highlighted places of interest as we reached them.

By the late 19th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had fallen into disrepair and a ship canal was proposed to allow ocean-going vessels access to Manchester. It took six years, and £15 million, to build and by the time it was opened by Queen Victoria in 1894 it was the world’s largest river navigation canal, making Manchester Britain’s third busiest port - despite being 40 miles inland. Now privately owned, the canal continues to accommodate a range of vessels.

Soon into our journey we encountered Mode Wheel Locks, the first of five locks, dropping us about 60 feet. We passed Trafford Park, sold by the Trafford family in 1896 to become the world’s first industrial estate, still the largest in Europe. The estate’s original stone wall is visible. Today, of course, the Trafford name is synonymous with football and cricket grounds and a shopping mall.

Next we approached Barton Swing Aqueduct, one of the wonders of the waterway world, carrying the Bridgewater Canal. A family of swans followed the boat as we passed Salford City’s ground. The canal and its banks are rich with wildlife, and the cruise is ideal for bird-spotting. We spied various birds along the route, including several herons, standing motionless like garden statues at the water’s edge.

We headed for Irlam Locks, then Cadishead Viaduct, which carried the old Cheshire Railway, and glided beneath cars roaring across the Warburton High Level Bridge. We were in Cheshire countryside, “Cranford Country” said our guide, referring to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novellas.

Ahead, a stretch of the M6 flew across the Thelwall High Level Bridge, but on the water below, all was tranquil. Think of the Manchester Ship Canal and bleak, grey scenes of heavy industry may spring to mind, but most of the route is lush greenery and elegant country houses. Near Warrington is Promenade Park, a cluster of prefabs originally housing Polish refugees after the war, now ‘des res’ housing. Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland, was born in nearby Daresbury, eldest son of a country parson. We passed a little rowing boat tied to a post - an ancient Thelwall crossing right.

Through Latchford Locks, we reached Knutsford Road Swing Bridge, a showcase of inspired Victorian engineering. It was here where the Veritas passed; the bridge swinging open, letting the mighty ship through, was an incredible sight. Not for the first time, I marvelled at the audacious grandeur and inventiveness of the Victorians.

The canal’s industrial past, and present ripple together along the route. We passed a nature reserve on a former chemical works site, where mustard gas was made during the First World War, busy modern warehouses bearing Eddie Stobart signage - and ahead, a mass of scaffolding and cranes, building a bridge of the future. Peering through three generations of bridges gave us a fascinating glimpse of the construction of the six-lane Mersey Gateway Bridge, set for completion this autumn.

At Runcorn Docks, a listed church stood among warehouses and salt piles. The Weaver Sluices gave way to serene flat sands and, curving right, we passed lambs and ducks on grassy canal banks, skirting industrial sprawls and wind farms.

Suddenly we were in the Mersey, choppy like the sea, and Liverpool’s enormous Anglican cathedral rose like a ship in the distance. The city's impressive skyline grew nearer - it was an unforgettable way to approach it.

We had a couple of hours in Liverpool before a bus took us back to Manchester - enough time to check out Mathew Street, the Cavern Club and enjoy an ice-cream in the shadow of the Liver Building.

This was a wonderful journey through a slice of the North's industrial heritage and beautiful landscapes, through locks and under bridges, mostly unchanged since they were built over a century ago.

* Mersey Ferries Manchester Ship Canal cruises start at Salford Quays, or coming in the other direction at Seacombe, Wirral, or Liverpool terminals. A coach transfer takes passengers back to the point of departure. Tickets are £42.

* For more information on Mersey Ferries and current timetables visit or call (0151) 330 1444.