Preston Dock – some history, useless information and curiosities

This week’s Monday walk, which I did just two days ago, features a wander round Preston Dock (now known as Preston Marina) in the Riversway area of the city. Although I’ve been there many times over the last twenty years or so (sometimes to visit a camping store which was near there and sometimes while en route to somewhere else) I was never aware of its history and the various things connected to it until I read about it recently on a couple of other blogs – it sounded interesting so I decided to check it out.
Although Preston, on the River Ribble, is about 16 miles from the coast boats were travelling to and from the city for hundreds of years, and as ships gradually got larger steps were taken in the 19th century to make the river more navigable. In 1825 the New Quays (later named Victoria Quays) were constructed but with the river being tidal boats could only get in and out of them at certain times. The answer to the problem was to build a large dock basin with a set of locks to control the water level, and construction finally began in 1884. Four million cubic yards of soil was dug out of a 40-acre site, creating a dock basin 40ft deep, 3,000ft long and 600ft wide – it took a month to fill it before it could be used for the first time and was the largest single dock in Europe.
The dock was officially opened in 1892 by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert Edward (the future King Edward Vll) and was named after him, and the SS Lady Louise, chartered by E H Booth & Company (now known as Booth’s supermarkets) was the first ship to unload its freight there. Only four ships used the dock in its first year but by the turn of the century that number had risen to 170 ; the main imports were timber, china clay, coal, oil, petrol, bananas, wheat and Irish cattle. In 1936 new dock offices opened nearby ; they were built in an Art Deco style with a central clock tower and double front entrance doors with very elaborate handles in the shape of ship prows which feature the Preston lamb from the city’s coat-of-arms – these are still in place today and are well worth a close look. In 1938 the dock railway was added to the site and parts of this still exist today.
During WW2 the dock was taken over by the military and used as a marshalling post, then just after the war the first ever roll on, roll off ferry service was introduced using the SS Cedric, a former tank landing ship, and sailing to and from Larne in Northern Ireland. Trade increased throughout the 1950s and by the 1960s the port was at its peak, but by the 1970s it was starting to flounder. Nearly half of the income generated was being spent on dredging the river to allow increasingly bigger ships through ; trade began to fall away with the city losing many of its imports and the Larne ferry stopped running. The port became uneconomical and the dock was finally closed in 1981 with a great number of job losses, but a major redevelopment of the area started in 1982.
After dealing with the polluted water and land a new road infrastructure was put in place and over the next several years a huge amount of work was done. The lock gates were repositioned to stop flooding from storms, a boatyard with chandlery facilities was constructed and a canal was dug to connect the Ribble to the Lancaster Canal. The original railway line which ran on the north side of the dock was removed and a new line was laid on the south side between the river and the dock basin. A swing bridge was installed over the dock entrance for the passage of vehicles, trains, pedestrians and boats, and a new Dock Control Centre was built close to it, although industrial railway traffic eventually ceased in 1995, with the line subsequently being operated for leisure by the Ribble Steam Railway Company. Many modern homes have been built on the strip of land between the river and the dock with the old Shed No.3 being converted into Victoria Mansions apartments, while the other side of the basin features many retail and leisure developments with Homebase, Morrison’s, Halford’s and Pets At Home now being just a few of the stores along that side. A pleasant promenade runs round three sides of the dock with the swing bridge making the fourth side, and the basin itself is now home to a 350-berth marina.
Parking in the free car park overlooking the water my walk began a little way back on one of the approach roads to the dock. At the junction with the main road is the first of two boat buoys, technically known as a Nelson Safe Water Mooring and Landfall buoy. Back in 1896 these were moored in the estuary where the Ribble meets the Irish Sea off the coast of Lytham ; each had lights powered by acetylene gas and a bell which was activated by the movement of waves, but in 1931 they were fitted with compressed carbon dioxide apparatus which enabled the bells to ring even in calm foggy weather.
Second on my list of things to photograph  was the lighthouse overlooking the dock and situated outside the Morrison’s store. There seems to be very little information about it, with some sources saying it was built many years ago to guide ships into the dock and others saying it was only built in 1986 during the dock regeneration and the building of the supermarket. I’m sure I remember that at one time, not many years ago, it was a stand-alone structure but now it’s joined onto the supermarket by a small extension which houses a ‘barista bar’ – it’s also very difficult to photograph without getting cars and trolley shelters in the shot.
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Boat buoy at Riversway/Pedders Way junction
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Dock lighthouse outside Morrisons
Walking along the promenade past DFS, Halfords and Pets At Home I was delighted to see a splash of colour against a brick wall – it was some type of prickly shrubbery with red and orangey-yellow berries. It certainly brightened up an otherwise very grey day and was worth taking a photo of. At the end of the promenade was The Ribble Pilot, a modern pub/restaurant with a clock tower which, although the clock itself was probably stopped, was still worth a shot.
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The Ribble Pilot
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The roads around the dock area aren’t really made with pedestrians in mind and the traffic was almost constant, so taking my life and that of the dogs in my hands I managed to negotiate a road and a roundabout and made my way to the next junction and some more things to photograph. Right on the corner was the second boat buoy and across the road was the old dock office building with its double doors ; fortunately the junction had traffic lights so crossing it was fairly easy, and when I saw the handles on the doors I knew it was worth going to look. Obviously made of brass they were certainly very unique, though judging from the residue of brass polish stuck in various places they must be a nightmare to clean.
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Boat buoy at Watery Lane/Port Way junction
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The old dock office building
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The ship prow showing the horses underneath
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Sideways view showing the Preston lamb – the Lamb of St. Wilfrid, Patron Saint of Preston – at the top of the prow. The letters P.P. mean Princeps Pacis – Prince of Peace
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I think it looks more like a young foal but it’s definitely a lamb
Back across the road I returned to the end of the dock and made my way round to the residential side ; a distance along I came to a sign pointing between two apartment blocks to the Riverside Walk so I decided to check that out. Through a small estate of modern houses I crossed the access road and a level crossing over the railway line, which brought me down a grass bank and onto a wide tarmac path running between there and the river ; it was a pity it was such a grey day as it would have been a really pleasant walk along there in the sunshine.
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The riverside walk
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The River Ribble through the trees
Eventually the path turned to the right and I came to another crossing point over the rail line and at one end of the swing bridge. On the right hand corner was the huge 100 ton crane built in 1958 to remove the loch gates from the water for refurbishment on dry land. Made of Greenheart timber and Iroko planking the gates weigh 98 tons each – large floatation devices were fixed to each side, enabling them to be floated out of their fittings and brought to the crane for lifting. The crane is still used today but only for lifting and lowering larger boats.
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The road and rail line across the end of the dock – the swing bridge is bordered by the blue railings and is operated about 350 times each year
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The original loch gates, installed when the dock was first built
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The crane, now used for lifting boats
At the far side of the swing bridge, tucked in a corner and just before I turned back onto the promenade, I came across a seat made from a large cog wheel ; there was nothing to say what the wheel was originally from but it was certainly a good use of it. Back on the promenade I passed a few small modern 2-storey blocks of offices and came to a collection of three repainted buoys set back in a corner, then passed the marina with its many boats moored up before finally ending up back at the van.
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An innovative use of a large cog wheel
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Looking across to the residential side
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By the time I’d finished my wanderings I was ready for a brew so leaving the dogs in the van I went to get a takeaway coffee from the Green Frog catering van at the end of the car park. I’d just got back to my own van when it started to rain so it looked like I’d done my walk just at the right time ; it had stopped again by the time I’d finished my coffee but with nowhere else to go to I drove straight back home. It had been an interesting walk but a shame it was such a dull grey day as I would have liked to explore more along the riverside, however I can always go back another time on a nice sunny day.
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18 thoughts on “Preston Dock – some history, useless information and curiosities

  1. Brilliant stuff, our country is full of such architecture, industry, history which we often forget about in our quest to snap The Colosseum or The Louvre, or Empire State Building! 👍👍

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    1. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you like the post 🙂 When I was a kid we never had holidays abroad like my friends and their families did, my mum would always say “We haven’t seen enough of this country yet” and she was right. Even though, as an adult, I’ve enjoyed many holidays in Italy I still like to seek out new places and interesting things in this country – the UK has so much to offer for those who want to find it.

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      1. I grew up in The Lake District and never went out of Britain until I was 36 years old. My wife was from Kathmandu and we were married as students in our 20s but still didn’t go abroad. Since retirement though we have literally travelled the world except for South America and Australia/Pacific. We started a project 18 months ago called Tour Of England, doing it in one week chunks spread out!

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        1. I like the Lake District but haven’t been up that way for ages. I never went out of Britain until I turned 40 and even since then I’ve only ever been to Italy and South Africa. Your Tour Of England project sounds interesting – it’s something I’d like to do but unfortunately I haven’t got to retirement yet! 😦

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  2. I find water ways and old water related paraphernalia really interesting – thanks for the photos and walk 🙂

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    1. I love water and boats, especially harbours and canals, they make great subjects for photography and very often have some interesting history behind them. I’ve been to Preston Dock many times but never realised until recently just how historically interesting it is 🙂

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  3. Very interesting history of Preston. I never knew the town had a Patron Saint or a symbolic lamb. It took me a little while to spot the lamb on the door handles which are very unusual to say the least. Shame about the weather for your walk but you managed to dodge the rain.

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    1. I didn’t know about the Preston lamb either until recently – I’ve just amended the post and added a not-very-good close-up of the one on the door handle. I thought I was going to be lucky with the weather – it was dull here though when I got to the far side of the moors I drove into sunshine but unfortunately it didn’t spread to Preston 😦 Yesterday was very much the same but so far this morning it’s lovely and sunny.

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    1. I’m glad you liked the walk. I love Art Deco buildings and would like to see inside that one but no doubt by now it’s been turned into modern office units, though thankfully the original door handles are still intact.

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  4. Yay! I found you and have really enjoyed reading this. You’ve taken some great photos Eunice and I especially love the lighthouse. I’ll be reading some of your previous posts when I get the opportunity. X

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  5. I’m glad you found me Jules, I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it 🙂 I love local history, and though Preston isn’t exactly local it’s only 17 miles away so it sort of counts, and when I found out about the door handles I just had to go and see them for myself 🙂

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  6. The door handles are certainly very unique, it’s amazing to think they’ve been there for over 80 years. I wonder just how many people have walked past that building without knowing about them or seeing them? Preston dock/marina is worth a visit on a nice day, as well as the stores I’ve mentioned there’s a McDonalds, Homebase and Mothercare, and in the corner near the residential part is a restaurant and Odeon cinema. I’m looking forward to going back in spring and exploring a bit more of the area between the dock and the river 🙂

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