Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Top 100 Sites
This article The Stratford upon Avon Canal is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World July 2000.
The Stratford upon Avon Canal
The Stratford upon Avon Canal has a unique place in the revival of the countries waterways. The 1964 reopening of the southern part of the canal proved that canal restoration was both possible and desirable, assertions that had previously been strongly opposed by both officialdom and large sections of the public. The revitalised Stratford played an important part in the change of public opinion towards the waterways, but it was on the northern Stratford that the Inland Waterways Association mounted its first major campaigning cruise and it is here too that we start our journey down the canal.
At King's Norton the Stratford branches off from the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and a short distance from the junction we come to the disused stop lock with guillotine gates, used in the days when each of the individual canal companies jealously guarded their own water supplies. It was near here in 1947 that the aforementioned campaign cruise took place. At issue was Lifford Lane bridge, formerly a lift bridge but replaced with a low fixed bridge by the Great Western Railway, the owners of the canal. Tom Rolt was exercising his statutory right of navigation by taking his boat Cressy through the canal and obliging the GWR to jack up the bridge to let him pass. Robert Aickman ensured that there was maximum press coverage, resulting in a much-needed boost for the infant IWA. If you would like to know more about the fight to save the Stratford and many other waterways I can thoroughly recommend David Bolton's book Race Against Time.
After the guillotine lock and a swing bridge we come to the short (352 yards) Brandwood Tunnel. Soon we start to see less of the Birmingham suburbs and the last remnants of industry and start to see some more open countryside. In some respects the canal has been the victim of its own success. In the days of neglect, even up to the 1960's, very little housing was seen by the canal, now canal-side homes are in demand and many more are being built. In the Dickens Heath area a large estate of new houses are under construction on the bank. It seems a shame that open countryside is being lost to housing when Birmingham has so many brown field sites that are ripe for redevelopment.
The canal is now probably busier than it has ever been. Not only is it part of the Avon Ring but this northern section is also a popular route between Kingswood Junction and Birmingham City Centre, being a much easier route than the alternative Grand Union Main Line. The first ten miles, from King's Norton, have no locks, although there are three drawbridges to be worked, then we arrive at Lapworth where 19 locks take us down to Kingswood Junction. Between locks 14 and 15 there are convenient moorings for the village and the nearby Boot Inn, which has an excellent restaurant, although it's not cheap.
The trip from King's Norton to Kingswood takes about nine or ten hours cruising time and from here it is roughly another eleven or twelve hours cruising to Stratford. It is also the point that marks the start of the southern section of the canal. Between locks 19 and 21 is the start of the short arm that goes on to join the Grand Union. Lapworth Lock number 20 is on this arm. Keeping straight on through lock 21 we find another way through to the Grand Union which joins the arm below lock 20. Apparently the canal was originally built this way but the connection below lock 21 had been filled-in, until just a few years ago, due to another dispute between the canal companies over water.
Also below lock 21 we find the first of the barrel roof cottages that are a feature of the southern part of the waterway. It has been suggested that the cottages were built this way for cheapness and that the men who had constructed the canal tunnels could easily put up a cottage in this form. In truth no one knows who designed these unique structures or why this form was chosen. Another feature of the southern end of the canal is that the bottom ends of the locks have a single gate instead of a pair of gates. This may sound like an advantage, as you only have one gate to close rather than two, but the single gates are very heavy and most have only one gate paddle so are slow to empty. The locks also still bear the signs of the quick and cheap restoration, which was carried out over thirty-five years ago. Patches in the brick and stonework are clearly visible and many lock walls are constructed of concrete. There is even a lock that seems to have ended up two foot wider than the rest.
Split bridges also distinguish this end of the canal. These narrow bridges, about seven feet wide, have a slit though the centre that allowed the towrope of horse boats to pass through. Several of the original bridges can be seen although few have a useable slit, many having been filled or obstructed by bridge strengthening devices. There are also replacement bridges that are not split bridges although built in a similar style. Having mentioned some of the architecture and engineering that make this canal so special we turn our attention to the greatest attraction - the miles of tranquil countryside that provides an ever-changing rural vista.
Lapworth locks continue almost a mile past Kingswood junction and Lapworth Bottom Lock, No. 27, is just beyond the M40 Motorway Bridge. Four locks take us to Lowsonford where there are moorings opposite the old Fleur-de-Lys pub. The next two miles encompass another seven locks on the way to Preston Bagot. Above lock 34 we find the first and smallest of the iron trough aqueducts on the canal. These are unusual in that the towpath on the aqueduct is level with the bottom of the trough, rather than above the water level, so that boats tower above towpath walkers.
Following Preston Bagot there is a stretch of six miles with only one lock, six miles packed with interest. At Wootton Wawen the canal crosses above the road on an iron aqueduct. Nearby are the Navigation Inn and a combined farm shop and craft centre, which is well worth a visit. Further down the road, into the village, there is a general store and another pub.
Also at Wootton Wawen is Anglo-Welsh Narrowboats, the only hire base on the canal. Not that Anglo-Welsh are the only hire boats to make extensive use of the waterway many Alvechurch, Black Prince and Viking Boats, from the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, and Evesham and Bidford Boats, from the River Avon, are also to be seen. Very often these boats are doing the Avon Ring (The Worcester & Birmingham Canal, River Severn, River Avon and Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. 109 miles 132 locks), which takes about 58 hours cruising so if you are doing it in a week 9 hours cruising a day is required. If you have two weeks there are many more possibilities including combining the Avon and Stourport Rings, or the Avon and Warwickshire Rings. On my first trip on a hire boat to Stratford we started from the Dartline base at Stourport (long since closed) and went down the Severn, up the Avon and the Stratford Canal, into Birmingham, up to Fazeley and Fradley, along the Trent & Mersey to Great Haywood then back down the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. This took two weeks.
On our trip down the canal this April we were met by streams of hire boats coming up because they had been unable to get on to the Avon. The wet weather had caused the River levels to rise and many Avon based boats had to be left at Stratford. The Avon is prone to this type of problem so if you are planning to do the Avon Ring you may consider going in one of the (statistically) drier months.
From Wootton Wawen we travel just over a mile before we come to the lone Bearley Lock followed by the Bearley (or Edstone) Aqueduct, the longest and most impressive on the canal, which carries us 200 yards over the railway and road. Over two miles of attractive countryside brings us to Wilmcote where there is a long length of visitor moorings provided, and every yard of them is often needed as this is a very popular stopping place. Not only does this charming village have shops and two pubs but right next to the canal is Mary Arden's House, the home of Shakespeare's mother and a major stopping point on the Stratford tourist trail.
It is here too that we find more evidence of the Stratford Canal's role in the regeneration of or waterways. Robert Aickman first had his interest in waterways aroused when he decided to walk from Stratford to Mary Arden's house along the banks of the neglected canal, an interest that was later to prompt him to write to Tom Rolt and propose the setting up of the Inland Waterways Association. It was also here at Wilmcote that the need to rebuild a bridge lead to the county and borough councils proposing that the navigation should be abandoned, so saving on building costs. This in turn signaled the start of the fight to save the canal.
After passing the village we soon come to the start of the Wilmcote Flight of eleven locks. At various points we get views down the locks and across to the town. From here historic Stratford-upon-Avon looks like a very ordinary Midland town, and indeed this impression is not changed as the canal passes the industrial outskirts and proceeds to the top of the flight of four Stratford Locks. At the top of the locks is the base of Stratford Court Cruisers, a fast growing fleet of timeshare boats. The descent of the locks soon brings us into a residential area but it is only as we pass through the final bridge and emerge into Bancroft Basin that we can see any of the splendors of the Bard's home town. To our right is the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and at the opposite end of the basin we can see the barge lock and the River Avon beyond. All around gardens, boats and tourists make a colourful and bustling scene.
There were no mooring spaces in the basin so we turned and went back onto the canal where we were lucky enough to find a mooring spot by the Red Lion pub, just the other side of the bridge. This is my fifth visit to Stratford and I have never found a mooring space in the basin. Usually I moor on the Avon where there are very pleasant moorings by the park. You do need an Avon Licence to moor on the river so if you were not planning to cruise the Avon this is not an economic solution. On this trip mooring on the Avon was not an option as the river was closed. Lets hope the plans to install pontoons in the basin (see WW May 2000) will ease the problems of mooring here.
Some people don't like Stratford-upon-Avon. It's true that it's always busy and very tourist focused, but I like it. There is so much to see and do here, and what better way to arrive than by boat.
Return to the main Articles Listing page