The river Irwell rises in the hills above Manchester northeast of Bacup. It flows for some 39 miles until it merges with the River Mersey at Irlam. Along the way it flows through Manchester forming a natural barrier between Manchester and its twin city of Salford. The Irwell was a navigable river in the early years of the city's development and at the end of Quay Street there was indeed a quay for unloading goods, that had come upsteam to the city.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Irwell’s lower reaches were a trading route that became part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. In the 19th century, the river’s course downstream of Manchester was permanently altered by the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal which opened in 1896. The canal turned Manchester and Salford into a major inland seaport and led to the development of Trafford Park which became the largest industrial estate in Europe.
In the second half of the 20th century a number of initiatives were implemented to improve water quality, restock it with fish and create a diverse environment for wildlife. Stretches of the river flowing through Manchester and Salford have attracted large-scale investment in business and residential developments, such as Salford Quays, and other parts have become important wildlife havens. The Irwell is used for recreational activities, such as pleasure cruising, rowing, racing, swimming and fishing.
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