Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Back on the Straight and Narrow is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Macclesfield, Ashton, Peak Forest and Shropshire Union Canals in the sixth of "Jim's Jottings". Published in Waterways World December 1998
Back on the Straight and Narrow
We set off from Piccadilly Village, Manchester, at 6 a.m. to go up the 18 locks of the Ashton Canal and arrived at the top lock at 10.40 a.m. These locks, or perhaps more accurately the people around them, have a bad reputation and at one time British Waterways provided an escort for boats coming this way. This service is no longer provided so we made an early start as a precaution and had no trouble, except for a thick jacket which I had to disentangle from the propeller. This canal is part of the Cheshire Ring so is fairly well used and we met several hire boats coming down the locks as we neared the top. After turning onto the Peak Forest Canal at Dukinfield Junction there are good moorings by the park. Having spent over three months on broad waterways we were now back on the narrow canals.
The journey from Dukinfield to Marple Junction, where the Peak Forest joins the Macclesfield Canal, takes about 6 1/2 hours and includes two short tunnels, the impressive Marple Aqueduct and the Marple flight of 16 locks. Deferring the pleasures of the Macclesfield Canal we continued on, 7 miles, to the end of the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge. This trip up the Goyt Valley is a scenic delight. There are no locks on this section although there are a few swing and lift bridges to work. At Whaley Bridge we moored close to the River Goyt, which at Marple was at the bottom of the steep valley while here it is only a few feet below the level of the canal.
Although Whaley Bridge appears to be the terminus of the canal it is in fact on a half-mile branch. The original main line of the canal turned left just before this branch and continued three-quarters of a mile to Buxworth (or Bugsworth) Basins. Only a few hundred yards of this route is now navigable but the towpath provides a pleasant and interesting walk to Buxworth. After passing under a modern road bridge we pass some pretty canal side cottages before reaching the basins which were almost dry. There was much evidence of current restoration work and the extent of the wharves and tram-roads here gave us an idea of the former activity and importance of this small place. The Navigation pub provides refreshment after exploring the basins and tramways but even if you are not looking for food or drink it is worth a visit for its historic photographs inside. They even sell books about the tramway and canal.
The Peak Forest is a shallow canal and moorings are not always easy to find. Even on the visitor moorings at Marple we found that the back of the boat was a long way from the shore so we moved past the junction onto the Macclesfield Canal and found the moorings much better. I was pleased to see that BW were dredging this end of the canal, when we came three years ago we scraped along the bottom in several places. The Macclesfield too is shallow and its bridge holes narrow, however, like the Peak Forest, its scenery is great. The hills at Bosley are particularly attractive as we descend the 12 locks here. The only other lock on this 26 mile canal is the stop lock at Hall Green, where we join the Hall Green Branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal. Although this branch is a continuation of the Macclesfield canal, under another name, the change in engineering standards is noticeable. The bridges and aqueduct (crossing the Trent & Mersey Main Line) on this 1 1/2-mile branch are uniform with other Trent & Mersey structures and the bridge holes are much wider than those of the Macclesfield.
After the Macclesfield Canal we headed north up the Trent & Mersey, making the most of the deeper water and the many duplicated narrow locks on this section which improve the chances of finding a lock set in ones favour. At Middlewich we turned left on to the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union. This ten-mile branch, connecting the Trent & Mersey with the Shropshire Union at Barbridge Junction, must be one of the busiest canals in the country and queuing for locks is almost guaranteed. Once on the Shropshire Union our route was south to Wolverhampton.
Telford built the 39 miles between Nantwich and Autherley Junction as the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal at the end of the canal age. The canal has a character all of its own due to the extensive use of straight embankments and cuttings, a technique shunned by the early canal builders because of the problems of earth slippages but used extensively in later railway construction. Although the canal is often straight it is never boring. In the space of 12 miles we have 27 locks, in four flights, leaving just one lock at Wheaton Aston in the remaining 25 miles. There are delightfully wooded cuttings including Woodseaves Cutting a narrow channel cut through the rock, which has its own unusual collection of lush ferns and creepers. Good views are obtained from many of the embankments and there are plenty of towns, villages and places of interest to visit along the banks. It was good to see that the old Cadbury's Wharf at Knighton, which was empty and neglected, now houses a number of historic boats in good condition. On a more mundane note the garage by the bridge at Wheaton Aston still offers what must surely be the cheapest diesel on the waterways (12.9 pence per litre).
Once through the stop lock at Autherley Junction we turned away from the Wolverhampton 21 and the heavily locked route through Birmingham in favour of fewer locks and a more rural voyage north up the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal then on to the Trent & Mersey, Coventry and Oxford canals. Having already done 1,392 miles and 915 locks this year we felt we should pamper ourselves.
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