A life on the ocean waves is not something that you would normally associate with Lancashire’s newest city.

Yet tucked away just beyond Preston’s city centre is a sprawling, picturesque former dockland where you’ll find a stunning marina, boats and gorgeous maritime scenes. To the uninitiated, stumbling across this glinting oasis nestled amid the hustle and bustle of a city can be a tad surreal.

When I first came across the former maritime dock nestled on the northern bank of the River Ribble, it was as a new mum on a sunny spring afternoon more than a decade ago. I may have been sleep deprived, but I was bowled over by the prettiness and peace of the gorgeous nautical scene nestled just over 2km west of the town centre.

I find a very different scenario when I return this week. The icy November wind and downpours lash anyone who ventures out dockside. But a wintry sunshine soon lights up the 40 acre, freshwater basin, sliding gracefully over the masts of dozens of boats moored there.

Preston Docks once held the accolade of being Europe’s largest inland dock, with its trading port a large dock in its own right at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Officially opening in 1892, after years of ships unloading at man made piers and wharves, it was named after Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who laid the foundation stone in 1885.

It came about when, with the huge might of the likes of Liverpool nearby, Preston’s local business leaders wanted a slice of maritime success for their growing town, so the Port of Preston Authority came into being and the dock basins were created. But to be able to accept large, commercial vessels, the River Ribble had to be dredged from the dock right out to the open sea at Lytham.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

Scenes from around the Beach Hut Cafe at Preston Marina

And the proposal proved controversial, when it was first mooted, sparking a local opposition group called the ‘Party of Caution’ to be set up, with the motto, “If you going to build a dock, you oughta’ build it where there is some water!” Undeterred, authorities forged ahead and in 1882 Preston Corporation bought the Dock Navigation Company and the railway in order to develop Preston as a major port.

This saw the river channel diverted and deepened, and the Albert Edward Dock of 40 acres opened in 1892; the railway was extended to serve the docks, yards and warehouses, with one and a half miles of quays, and 28 miles of railway track at its peak, running freight trains on the line owned by Preston Corporation. The loads were moved by the dock railway system and its eight steam locomotives, which marshalled wagons into up to 12 trains each day which were hauled up the branch line via Preston station.

Day trippers would sail out from Preston Docks before the First World War, according to some historians, while after the Second World War ferries would sail to Northern Ireland. Preston Dock also played a part in general wartime cargo and strategic operations in both wars.

In its heyday in the the swinging sixties, Preston Docks was handling huge numbers of ferry and container traffic, with cotton and wood pulp among the most important cargoes. This was along with national and international cargoes like timber, china clay, fruit wheat, horses, cattle, coal, fishmeal and fertilisers.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

The Christmas lights on boats at Preston Marina last year

Yet the wheel of fortune proved fickle. Trade dwindled in the seventies, due to strikes, economic setbacks and larger ships going elsewhere, so the port was officially closed in 1981, with the loss of 350 jobs.

But all was not lost – as the former bustling Preston docklands would soon get a new lease of life. Local businessman and yachtsman Chris Miller and associates set up the ‘Riverside Development Consortium,’ and Preston Marine Services Limited was born in 1986.

This saw mooring buoys placed in the basin and boats housed ashore in the only remaining dock building. A shop, cafe and offices were soon built by a new swing bridge.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

A quayside buoy at Preston Marina

Like many old docklands around the country, Preston’’s rose from the ashes of closure to become a thriving shopping area and residential community, with apartments and housing overlooking the stunning dock. The area now boasts leisure and retail ventures like restaurants, pubs, shops, an Odeon Cinema and karting, to name but a few.

Suzanne Cameron, director of Preston Marine Services, and daughter of Chris Miller, tells me that the marina and the beach hut are all part of the family business, with over 130 boats berthed at Preston. Meanwhile, the marina is now home to a licensed coffee shop, the Beach Hut Coffee Bar, and provides a base for offshore and inland boat owners.

As a ‘home mooring’ for cruising the UK canal system, Preston Marina has links to the Lancaster Canal, via the new Ribble Link’ canal between Lancaster Canal and the national network, or the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Suzanne, now at the helm with her brother Steven, and their brother Chris, a sailing instructor, is visibly passionate about all things nautical.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

Preston Marina, pictured last summer

She tells me: “We have a mixture of offshore boats, sailing motor boats and we do have some canal boats. The two canals are the Leeds and Liverpool and the Lancaster canal, although you do have to navigate the river and the river is very tidal.”

Although inland, Preston Marina is something of a haven in the winter for those who sail away to the likes of Scotland and Wales in balmier times, returning to berth in Preston in winter. She adds: “Preston Marina is 15 miles from the sea – but it’s a great place to store your boats and we have got a lot of boats; we have a lot of people that sail away for the summer that go to Scotland , the Isle of Man, Wales then they will bring the boats home for the winter so Preston is the home port.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

Scenes around Preston Docks

Family holidays were ‘all about sailing’ for the three siblings when they were growing up, she says, adding: “Our family holidays were all about sailing and Scotland.” Her dad, Chris Miller, was ‘instrumental’ in founding the Marina, and she began working at the Marina building when it opened in 1990.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing in times gone by, as one of her great grandfathers, J.C. Hamilton, was among those who opposed the idea of Preston Dock back in the day when it was first mooted. Suzanne adds: “My great grandfathers were J.C. Hamilton and Chris Miller and J.C. Hamilton was in the ‘Party of Caution’ in the Victorian era who were not sure that the dock was a good idea when they were going to build it. Chris Miller, my other great grandfather, was into haulage and thought it would be a very good idea.”

Back in the here and now, Preston Marina now has a boatyard, a training school with its own Royal Yachting Association instructors, boat sales and a chandlery selling things to ‘keep a boat ship shape.’ ‘Preston Dragons,’ a not for profit boat racing group, racing ‘canoe like boats that seat 20 people’ has grown to over 60 members, and is now recruiting a junior team.

Suzanne adds: “Our Dragon Boat Club is thriving. We travel all around the country, take part in national events. We are flying the flag for Preston.”

Lockdown saw Preston Marina’s fully licensed coffee shop expand, now selling treats like stone baked pizzas and home made scones, to name but a few, and there are festive plans afoot for a Christmas lights switch on on the boats on December 1, with prizes on offer for the best lit lit flat opposite to include a free pizza meal for four and drinks.

“Hopefully next year there will be a lot more sailing on the water – there will be learn to sail courses next year; we’ve bought two sailing boats so you can learn how to sail in Preston. We are keen to keep the link with the sea – that’s something quite unique, that we do still have a link with the sea.”

Among those enjoying the fresh air quayside are Ailsa and David Emery, of Fulwood. Aisla tells me: ”We like this area – we come down when we come for a coffee and walk around; my daughter is a dragon and does boat racing; it’s a relaxing place to walk and a nice place to be.”

David sees it as ‘an asset to Preston,’ adding: “We do like the Marina; it is not exactly the south of France but it is lovely.”

Similarly, husband and wife duo Carol and Roger, of Kirkham, are out walking their dog, Alfie. Roger tells me: “I think this particular area is lovely – I remember it when I was when it was docks. It was a busy dock back in the day; it was amazing.

“We had five or six decent sized vessels from all over the world, places like Russia, mainly Ireland. My cousin came from the Isle of Man to berth here once.”

Jeanette Brown, busily serving up hot food behind the counter of the Green Frog, a popular catering business at the dock, tells me: “A lot of people do come to us as there are a lot of offices around here so people come for their breaks..

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

Preston Dragons, earlier this year

“It’s a nice little walk around especially in the summer, and people do charity walks around in the summer – they’re doing a Santa dash next month.”

The Green Frog has been quayside since 1989, she says, ‘here before McDonalds’. Its popularity is plain to see, with people queuing up for coffees and hot food. Jeanette adds: “I like the area – I walk around it quite often.

“It’s just nice to walk around to get some exercise and to get some fresh air; I take my little girl around – she’s just started school.”

Future development in the pipeline includes outline planning permission for 40 apartments at Maritime Way granted to Austringer Capital Ltd, while the existing Trident Centre building on Portway is being demolished to make way for new buildings.. Meanwhile, a 64 bedroom, three storey care home and apartments for those with learning disabilities is to replace the former derelict Baffito’s restaurant overlooking the docks, after the site was sold earlier this year to care home developer and operator, Simply UK, for a price in excess of £1.6m.

The gorgeous maritime haven in the heart of Lancashire's newest city

A boat at Preston Marina

Labour Preston City Councillor James Hull, of Ashton ward, said the area was a ‘very loved area, used for running, walking and boating,’ adding: “One of the wonderful things about the docks is the RIbble Steam Railway and Museum, and the docks is one of the most loved areas in Preston. It’s accessible to people from all over the town; people are drawn to them, and anything that’s good for the docks is good for Preston because it’s one of the jewels in the crown that we have.

“It was a working dock in 81, and later it even had the Manxman, a night club on the docks, which was a ferry that used to go to the Isle of Man, that then moored in Preston dock as a club. and that was quite a happening place in the 80s as a floating nightclub. then they had developments and converted some of the old warehouses on the south side of the docklands into residential areas.

“But back in the day, they used to have these massive ships, bringing mainly bananas from Africa. And it’s very well maintained environmentally now for birds and swans that nest there.”

As the sunshine breaks through, I venture further out towards around the marina. The Guild Wheel, a 21-mile walking and cycling route, passes by the docks, while the dock itself has a walking route of around a mile and a half on the pathway around its basin..

Tree lined quays and pavements surround the marina, while the whole area pays tribute to its nautical heritage through street names like ‘Watery Lane,’ ‘Navigation Way’ and ‘Mariners Way’. Meanwhile, a replica lighthouse perched over a nearby Morrisons, and heavy duty, quayside buoys keep solemn vigil over the glinting waters.

As dusk falls on a chilling November afternoon, lights start to shine in the bumpy skyline of fashionable apartment blocks on the other side of the waters. A forest of boat masts sits silently on the glittering water, in a scene almost reminiscent of Amsterdam.

You’re never far from the sea in England, so they say: Preston Marina is something of a twinkling testimony to that.

Neil Dobbie, Land Director at Simply UK said earlier this year on the care home: “The development of our state of the art care home is well under way together with the supporting extra care apartments. It will be operated by Morar Living, our sister brand, and will bring the highest quality environment and facilities for our residents.

“We believe the Marina location provides an excellent living environment for them and we look forward to welcoming our first residents in the spring of 2023.”

Preston City Council Cabinet Member for Planning and Regulation, Councillor David Borrow, told Lancs Live: “When I was first elected to Preston Council in 1987, Preston Dock was in the early stages of redevelopment. Since then, we have seen a mix of residential, commercial, retail and leisure schemes which have transformed the former dock. Now over thirty years on, it’s exciting to see new schemes coming forward to ensure Riversway remains a great place to live, shop, work and have fun.”

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