RISING at the confluence of Middle Brook and Deane Church Brook, the River Croal flows eastwards through Bolton, collecting Gilnow Brook and the larger River Tonge at Darcy Lever.

Most of the river is culverted through Bolton town centre, running under Knowsley Street; Market Place and Bridge Street.and before 1836 the river formed the boundary between the townships of Great and Little Bolton.

The river’s name is derived from the Old English croh and wella, the winding stream. It was possibly originally called the Middlebrook along its entire length as early references mention the Mikelbrok, (mycel and broc), the great stream but not the Croal. It meets the Irwell at Nob End, Kearsley after a total course of around ten miles.

One of the most stirking of our photographs comes from 1963 and the days when Willow Herb was rampant in Bolton town centre! Our picture shows it growing on the banks of the Croal while also showing the works of J.F.Turner (‘cutler, grinder, tool maker’) on Bridge Street.

A selection from November 1964 shows the very messy Croal Valley where you can see Burnden Park, on the left and, in the distance, Bolton Town Hall and Parish Church.

Our photograph from June 1966, pictures the River Croal flowing past the Market Hall and on its way under Knowsley Street. The whole site, of course, has now been completely re-developed as part of the Market Place shopping complex.

Controlling the Croal has been the main aim of successions of town planners and engineers tasked with building Bolton and as a result the prominence of the river has been obscured by subsequent development.

The river was channelised in the 19th century, and new bridges isolated the valley areas from the surrounding townscape. Development density was particularly high with living conditions amongst the worst in the town centre.

A photograph from September 1967 shows work beginning on the River Croal at Church Wharf, prior to the construction of the eastern limb of the town’s inner relief road.

By the 1980s, the partial culverting of the river under the Market Hall extension split the visible sections of the Croal into two. Clearance of much of the industrial and all the residential buildings had removed most of the urban structure in these areas, though both sites retain historic street frontage, as well as surviving industrial buildings and possibly areas of archaeological value. Today, large parts of the River Croal are culverted and canalised, with buildings constructed both up to the river edge and over the river itself.

A picture from October 1983 shows the weir lying between Spa Road and Queens Park with a photograph from May 1985 showing a giant excavator ‘paddling’ in the River Croal at Moses Gate. The digger was altering the river bed and reshaping the banks to make the placid river a more turbulent challenge for canoeists.

Sadly, today, in many places, the natural form of the river does not even exist, and it is recognised as a heavily modified waterbody by the Environment Agency rather than the once proud river it was.

But things, at long last, might be looking up for the River Croal. Residents are being quizzed on its future with Bolton Council looking to redevelop land close to the water around Queens Park and the town centre.

A new Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) has set out guidelines to shape the changes, with a public consultation on the proposals now open.

The £1.2bn redevelopment masterplan for Bolton town centre includes plans to build 900 new homes and create 700 new jobs on land near the river.

The SPD introduces measures to ensure any development will enhance the river environment, preserve local heritage and create a riverside route connecting Queens Park with the town centre.

The document covers the river from Queens Park in the west, through the town centre, under the Market Place shopping centre and through the Church Wharf area to the A666.

Bolton Council’s Executive Cabinet Member for Strategic Housing and Planning, Cllr Toby Hewitt, said: “This is another exciting phase in our plans to revitalise Bolton town centre, as set out in the £1.2bn regeneration masterplan.

“The River Croal is an underused asset and improving access will have a positive impact on the appearance of the town centre, the local environment and the wellbeing of residents.”

Perhaps it is time for the Croal to start flowing again...