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The charity making life better by water

Why Anderton Boat Lift is in my blood

Jason Watts, our attractions operations manager at Cheshire’s iconic Anderton Boat Lift, has this historic site running through his veins.

Three generations of his family have lived and worked in the shadow of this incredible structure, and he knows more than most just how vital it is to the local community. Yet sadly, without essential maintenance, this Wonder of the Waterways could soon be no more than a rusting relic. We spoke to Jason to learn more about his family stories from the past and the lift’s current plight.

Anderton Boat Lift

Jason has been working at the Anderton Boat Lift in one guise or another for more than 20 years, but his ties to this amazing steel structure go back much further. Jason’s maternal grandparents were part of proud working boat families, and both his grandma, Alice, and grandad, Reg, were born on boats just a stone’s throw from the lift. Alice at the bottom basin at Anderton, Reg a little further along the River Weaver at Weston Point Docks.

His mother too, would grow up on a working narrowboat, as the family continued to carry cargo along the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal until she was eight years old. Casting off in the early hours, they would transport clay, flint and coal to the Staffordshire potteries, before loading the boat up with salt and finished pottery for the return trip.

Jason Watts, in the control room of Anderton Boat Lift

In 1963, after a brief stint on the Grand Union Canal, shipping goods between Birmingham and London, Reg landed a job with the newly formed British Waterways, as part of the maintenance team. At 11 years old, it was the first time Jason’s mother had ever lived in a house.

“The family’s been in and around Anderton Boat Lift for quite a few years,” says Jason. “I think every one of us has been connected to it in one shape or form. My grandad used to come through and deliver cargo, my dad was a team leader with British Waterways on the Trent & Mersey Canal, and now me. The boat lift is a massive part of Northwich’s history, and such an iconic structure for the town, for Cheshire and for the waterways as a whole.”

Anderton Boat Lift is powerful enough to carry two narrowboats or a single barge

The working boats that Jason’s grandparents grew up on were part of a thriving local industry in salt mining and pottery making. These twin trades drove industrialisation in the North West, and by the mid-18th century, local merchants were campaigning for the construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal. They got their wish. The canal was finished in 1777, and by the turn of the century, the Anderton Basin was created, complete with salt chutes and cranes for transporting materials across the small strip of land that separates the canal from the River Weaver.

By the middle of the 19th century, business was booming, and before long, plans were being drawn up for an ambitious project to permanently link the two bodies of water. Pioneering engineers, Edward Leader Williams and Edwin Clark were drafted in, and Anderton Boat Lift was born. The lift continued to carry boats between the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal into the 1980s, but by then, commercial traffic had slowed to a crawl. In 1983, after serious corrosion was discovered throughout the structure, Anderton Boat Lift was finally put out of commission.

The lift reopened to considerable fanfare

After two decades, efforts began to restore Cheshire’s famous “cathedral of the canals”, and in 2003, the boat lift was officially reopened, with then Prince of Wales, King Charles III, cutting the ribbon. In the years since its revival, a flourishing tourist trade has sprung up around Northwich’s beloved boat lift, with thousands of people flocking to the site every year. Yet, without a major overhaul, this towering Wonder of the Waterways could soon lay dormant.

“The boat lift is a huge draw for visitors,” says Jason, “and a big part of that is because it’s a working structure. It’s not antiquated, it’s not been left to rot, it’s a main connection to the artery of the River Weaver and a focal point within the community. If the lift were to close, we’d go back to where we were in the 80s and 90s, with just a handful of boats using the waterway, and the river would become a relatively derelict backwater.”

To prevent this from happening and save this incredible piece of living history, we’re kickstarting a huge fundraising effort over the next 12 months. With your support, we hope to keep Anderton Boat Lift alive and operational for years to come, so future generations can marvel at this engineering masterpiece, just as Jason’s grandparents did, all those years ago.

Last Edited: 31 January 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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