The Manchester Ship Canal never actually reaches Manchester. The tamed sea, brought inland to salve the ceaseless ambition of that city’s men, ends quietly in Salford. And, despite being called the Manchester Docks, it was Salford, without fuss, that brought wealth in through its port.

And perhaps the most significant contribution to Manchester’s future in the 21st Century, MediaCityUK, is also in Salford. It’s not that Salford is without ambition, it just would appear to be more measured in its thinking.

On one sun rich morning in early Autumn I arrive behind the newly constructed Alchemist Bar, glistering gold and ready to make fools of us all with its excellent cocktails.  A few yards beyond sits Steve Cadwell, owner of Manchester Water Taxis. He sees me heading towards him and waves. I’d met him previously on the Bridgewater Canal, another waterway that had steadily brought innovation and wealth to Manchester via Salford.

He’s resting on a ‘Waxi’, a yellow boat that has the pleasant shape of a toy that would bring hours of fun to a child playing in a paddling pool. He shakes my hand firmly before inviting me on board, his voice as calm as a summer lake.

The seats, enough for 12 passengers, are a satisfying white leather and I relax easily into one. Steve settles too, his eyes sharp as the outline of the high rise towers just across Dock 9. He remembers when Salford Quays was simply wasteland, and has witnessed MediaCityUK grow out of the ground.

“It’s redrawn the landscape, some of the top BBC and ITV executives in the country are here now.” he says. “I worked in London for a number of years, in media, and the place was full of Northerners. Now we’re all bringing our skills back here.”

“Was one of your skills being a sailor?” I ask.

“No!” he laughs, “This is my first time on water and my skippers would say that it shows. The reason I’m doing this is because I saw that the congestion into town was just awful, and thought that there had to be a better way.”

The aim is to take commuters in and out of Manchester from MediaCityUK on a regular service, using the neglected River Irwell.

“We’re faster than any other form of transport. We can be in the city centre in 20 minutes, and it’s cheaper than Metrolink. I do have dark moments though, worrying if it will succeed. We have to get bums on seats. People love the idea but they need to get out of their cars and onto our boats.”

He turns his head and looks out of the window.

“It has changed my relationship with the city.” he continues, “I’ve learned a lot about the history and I feel as if I have a more intimate connection with Manchester and Salford now. It’s a very different way of travelling. And commuters are a chatty bunch. One texts her mates to tell them she’s passing and they come out onto their balconies and wave like she’s on the QE2.”

And with passengers commuting peacefully it allows time to think. As well as people, the Waxi will be ferrying ideas between the two cities. Developers have already built  boarding points, as they can see the potential.

I step from the craft and Les, the driver, chugs off into the distance, the ripples from the quiet engine lapping below and spreading ever further away. Working out of Salford, Steve, is another catalyst gently bringing change to Manchester, a city that is as restless as a winter sea.


Words and Photography Simon Buckley