The River Mersey for its whole natural course marks the boundary between Lancashire to the north and Cheshire to the south. The river is 68 miles long, beginning in Stockport, Cheshire, and discharging in Liverpool Bay in the Irish Sea.
The Mersey is formed from three tributaries: the River Etherow, the River Goyt, and the River Tame. The modern accepted start of the Mersey is at the meeting of the Tame and Goyt, in central Stockport. However, older definitions, and many older maps, place its start a few miles up the Goyt; for example the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica states "It is formed by the junction of the Goyt and the Etherow a short distance below Marple in Cheshire on the first-named stream." The 1784 John Stockdale map shows the River Mersey extending to Mottram, and forming the boundary between Cheshire and Derbyshire.
Stockport to Warrington
From Stockport, the Mersey flows through Didsbury, Northenden, Stretford, Urmston and Flixton, then at Irlam it flows into the Manchester Ship Canal, which is the canalised River Irwell to this point. The natural course of the Mersey has been obliterated by the Canal past Hollins Green to Rixton although the old river bed can be seen outside Irlam and also at Warburton in Cheshire. At Rixton the River Bollin enters the Canal from the south and the Mersey leaves the Canal to the north, meandering through Woolston, where the Ship Canal Company's dredgings have formed a nature reserve (Woolston Eyes), and Warrington. In Warrington the Mersey is a broad and noble river, cutting through the town and dividing the town centre from its Cheshire suburbs. It is tidal from Howley Weir in Warrington, although high spring tides often top the weir. A small bypass around Howley Weir, Howley Lock, was created before the ship canal existed, but is now redundant. The lock can still be seen to this day.
West of Warrington the river widens, and then narrows as it passes through Runcorn Gap between the towns of Runcorn and Widnes. The Manchester Ship Canal also lies in the Gap, along the southern bank of the river.
The Runcorn Gap is bridged by the Silver Jubilee Bridge and Runcorn Railway Bridge, while a project known as Mersey Gateway to build a new road bridge over the Mersey east of the existing bridges is currently under consideration, and has received some government support.
From the Runcorn Gap, the river widens into a large estuary, which is three miles wide at its widest point near Ellesmere Port. The course of the river then heads north, with Liverpool to the east and the Wirral Peninsula to the west. The Manchester Ship Canal continues along the Cheshire bank of the river as far as Eastham Locks, where it enters the river. The eastern part of this estuary is much affected by silting and has broad snadbanks and tidal flats. These wetlands are of importance to wildlife, and are listed as a Ramsar site.
The estuary then narrows to flow between Liverpool and Birkenhead, where it is constricted to a width of ¾ mile, between Albert Dock in Liverpool and the Woodside ferry terminal in Birkenhead. The river then continues into Liverpool Bay on the Irish Sea, after a total course of 68 miles.
The Mersey estuary is also the home of Seaforth Dock, a Freeport on the Liverpool side of the river, where the river meets Liverpool Bay. The dock construction began in the 1960s opening in 1971. The dock deals with around 500,000 containers, 1,236,000 tons of oil, over 2.5 million tons of grain and animal feed, 452,000 tons of wood per year and with 25% of all container traffic between the United Kingdom and the United States making the port one of the most successful in the world. It is known world over as the "Atlantic Gateway". Liverpool was the first the United Kingdom port with radar assisted operations.
On the Liverpool side of the estuary Liverpool Docks stretch for over 7½ miles. This is the largest enclosed interconnected dock system in the world. American author Herman Melville described Liverpool Docks as being comparable to the pyramids in the vast scale of the construction. The docks were built out into the river bed. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board owned a granite quarry in Scotland to source the stone for the quays, so much was used in the construction.
With a 13-foot neap tide to a 33-foot spring tide, the River Mersey has the highest tidal range in Britain after the River Severn. The bottleneck in the river estuary forces water to flow faster creating a deep channel at the narrows.
Very high spring tides often generate a tidal bore starting at Hale penetrating as far upstream as Warrington.
Ferries and tunnels
Two road tunnels run under the Mersey from Liverpool. The older Queensway Tunnel opened in 1934 connecting the city to Birkenhead, and the Kingsway Tunnel opened in 1971 to connect with Wallasey. A third crossing is the Mersey Railway Tunnel dating back to 1886, which now forms a part of the Merseyrail commuter rail network. Initially a part of the Mersey Railway, the Mersey Railway Tunnel was the first deep-level urban railway in the world, and was first electrified in 1903.
The Mersey Ferry runs between the Pier Head at Liverpool, and the Wirral terminals at Seacombe, Wallasey and Woodside, Birkenhead.
Lowest bridge over the mersety is at Halton where the Silver Jubilee Bridge spans the stream. A little higher up the river, the Transporter Bridge crosses the river. Before the bridge the Runcorn ferry crossed the Mersey here, which is the subject of one of Stanley Holloway's famous comic monologues, with the ferryman's repeated and uncompromising assertion of the fare:
Per tuppence per person per trip!
Name of the river
Old English Mæres-ea means "border river", possibly the border between Mercia and Northumbria.
Since the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, large commercial vessels do not normally navigate the estuary further upstream than Garston on the North Bank, or the locks into the Ship Canal at Eastham. Deep-water channels are maintained to both. Until the early 20th century, commercial traffic bound for further upstream was mainly carried in large flat-bottomed sailing barges known as Mersey Flats. These could carry cargo as far inland as Howley Wharf in Warrington and (by way of the Sankey Canal) to St Helens. Motor barges continued to deliver to riverside factories at Warrington until at least the 1970s, but nowadays only pleasure craft and yachts use the upper estuary and the tidal river, with a number of sailing clubs based at this point in the river. On most high tides, seagoing yachts with their masts raised can navigate as far upstream as Fiddlers Ferry, about 3 miles downstream of Warrington, where there is a small marina accessed by way of a river lock. Although river craft can continue as far upstream as Howley Weir, there are no landing nor mooring facilities. Portable craft can penetrate as far as Woolston. The barrier to further navigation here is a legal one in that the Mersey then shares its course with the Manchester Ship Canal for some miles upstream.
In popular culture
The river is used in popular songs and writing as a byword for recalling Liverpool. It is internationally famous thanks to the music of the 1960s known as "Merseybeat" and the "Mersey Sound" and its strong association with Liverpool. The Mersey itself was popularized in the Merseybeat song Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry & The Pacemakers, which was released in 1965 and featured a music video in which the group performed their song on a boat crossing the river between Birkenhead and Liverpool.
The group later recorded a follow-up, Mersey Lullaby, that is part of the 2007 children's CD/book Blue Moo: Jukebox Hits from Way Back Never, by Sandra Boynton. The band Frankie Goes to Hollywood also recorded "Ferry Cross the Mersey".
On their 2001 release "Bang! The Greatest Hits," Frankie Goes To Hollywood included a B-side track named "Ferry Cross the Mersey."
Paul McCartney's 2007 song That Was Me, from his album Memory Almost Full mentions merseybeating with the band. Mersey Paradise by The Stone Roses has the river in its title. Some versions of the popular folk ballad The Leaving of Liverpool also mention the river.
Moving upstream, tributaries of the Mersey include:
- River Gowy
- Hornsmill Brook
- River Weaver
- Ram's Brook
- Sankey Brook
- Padgate Brook
- Morris Brook
- Spittle Brook
- Thelwall Brook
- Fishington Brook
- River Bollin
- Marsh Brook
- Red Brook
- Glaze Brook/River Glaze
- River Irwell
- Old Eea Brook
- Stromford Brook
- Chorlton Brook
- Barrow Brook
- Gatley Brook
- Micker Brook
- River Tame
- River Goyt
- John Stockdale, 1794, Map of the Environs of Mottram-in-Longdendale
- "Mersey Gateway". Halton Borough Council. http://www.merseycrossing.co.uk. Retrieved 2008-04-02.
- http://www.merseyreporter.com/history/historic/dockseaforth/index.shtml Local Newspaper history page.
- Mills, A D (1998). A dictionary of English place-names. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 240. ISBN 0-19-280074-4.