The things people leave behind

Heritage is not just about old buildings, it’s about the things people used to do in the past. Where they lived, how they lived and what they used to get up to in their spare time. And what the people around Elton Reservoir got up to has been a revelation to the Canal & River Trust.

Elton reservoir, credit to the Canal and River TrustWe knew the locals had used the area for work, rest and play since it was built in 1842, although we hadn’t realised just how much the place was loved. Bury is where Chloe grew up, so it was close to her heart and she knew where to go to find out more. The reservoir was built to supply water for the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal when local mill owners feared the River Irwell could not meet their needs. However, it has been used for boating for more than 100 years.

When we visited the site before, we’d noticed the initials carved on the stone copings along the whole length of the head wall. There were hundreds of monograms, some dated, some encircled with a heart – obviously a popular courting spot! Chloe took chalk rubbings of most of them, and though faded in places, they build up a picture of a place where people loved to meet, laugh and love. There’s even the name ‘Elvis Presley’, although we’re not absolutely convinced that one is genuine!

There are marks dating back at least to the early 1900s, and though we might consider this graffiti today, the earlier engravings are detailed and show real care. Chloe visited the local libraries and designed questionnaires, she talked to local people and contacted local newspapers to build a picture of just how important the reservoir is and was to the local community. It became obvious that whilst not everyone knows about this hidden gem now, it used to be a regular social destination and hub of excitement.

Autumn by the canal, credit to the Canal and River TrustSo much so that when, in 1904, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, who owned the site, tried to stop local people using and enjoying their favourite place by barricading the embankment, they took action. Eight men put their names forward and took down the barriers.

After several court appearances, they finally won their case against the Company and established the principle of Rights of Way, a judgement that is still true today. Known as The Great Trespass, it set the legal precedent and helped the cause of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout nearly 30 years later.

Today, you may not be making history by walking along our canals and rivers, but you can certainly discover it. Setting foot onto one of our towpaths is akin to stepping into a living museum where you can touch all of the exhibits. The Canal & River Trust loves to welcome walkers to our nation-wide network of canals and rivers. Our towpaths offer endless miles of level, traffic-free walking in the best natural surroundings amidst real history, heritage and wildlife.

Get 2014 off to a cracking start by discovering the joys of walking along our canals and rivers. Check out the Canal and River Trust's events diary for details of guided walks near you or simply head for the towpaths and wander.

The Canal and River Trust is the new charity entrusted with the care of 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales. Follow them on twitter via @CanalRiverTrust.