Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Spectacular Shroppie is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Shropshire Uniion from Autherley Junction to Ellesmere Port. First published in Canal & Riverboat July 2002.
The Spectacular Shroppie
This month we will be travelling from Autherley Junction up a canal that was never built. The Shropshire Union Canal main line from here to Ellesmere Port was never planned or built as a single waterway and the name only came into use in 1846 when several existing canals were amalgamated at a time when railways were seen as the future of transport. The first section, to Nantwich, was built by Thomas Telford as the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal and was opened for only eleven years before becoming part of the Shropshire Union.
At Autherley Junction this comparatively recent canal branches off from the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, one of the oldest canals of the industrial revolution, having been opened in 1772, over sixty years earlier. The stop lock here remains as a reminder of how canal companies jealously guarded their water supplies. After the stop lock is the Water Travel hire base, followed in the next mile by the last remnants of the outskirts of Wolverhampton and by the Wolverhampton Boat Club. The next couple of miles have both narrow rocky cuts and wide waters before the navigation assumes its more typical straight channel with cuttings and embankments. By the time the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal was built engineers had acquired more than two generations of experience in the construction of such earthworks and therefore felt confident in constructing this type of navigation. Not that it was all plain sailing, several collapses occurred during building and afterwards.
Our first cutting is tree lined, like most of the others we will meet, giving the illusion of passing through a thick wood, although the trees in reality only just edge the canal. The high ornamental Avenue Bridge, part of the park of Chillington Hall, is a mile from the village of Brewood (pronounced "Brood"). There are good moorings here and the village has a good selection of small shops, a couple of restaurants and some pubs, including the Bridge Inn by the canal and our favourite, the Admiral Rodney, just past the church. To the north of Brewood Countrywide Cruisers have a hire base and later we cross over the Roman Watling Street on Stretton Aqueduct.
At Wheaton Aston there is a single lock, a waterside pub, moorings and by the bridge is a garage which has become legendary throughout the waterways network by offering the cheapest diesel anywhere. From here the waterway avoids any settlements for the next five miles alternating cuttings and embankments, a canal building technique that meant the spoil from cuttings could be used for embankments. The short, 81 yard, Cowley Tunnel brings us out into Gnosall Village, which has two canal side pubs and plenty of visitor moorings.
North of Gnosall the mile long Shelmore Embankment was the last part of the canal to be finished and due to problems with the construction took over five years to build. The embankment ends at Norbury Junction, where the Newport Branch once joined the main line and gave access to the Shrewsbury Canal and other connecting navigations. All that remains of this route is a short arm that is used as moorings for the Anglo Welsh hire base here.
After Norbury we come to the long Grub Street Cutting which ends near Anchor Bridge, next to the Anchor pub. Shebdon Embankment, with Shebdon Wharf, aqueduct and the Wharf pub follow before we get to Knighton where Cadburys once produced chocolate crumb, a partially processed chocolate that was taken to their Bourneville factory by canal. A little over three miles on is Goldstone Wharf and the Wharf Tavern with towpath moorings which are the last before the long and narrow Woodseaves Cutting. This cutting is very deep and rocky and seems to have its own microclimate producing a lush covering of green plants that give it an exotic feel. It is still subject to landslips from time to time but in most places it is wide enough for two boats to pass with care.
We have travelled 25 miles with only one lock (other than the stop lock at Autherley) but things are about to change because we are now at the top of the five Tyrley Locks. All these locks are in attractive surroundings but the top one, because of the bridge and the surrounding buildings, and bottom one, because of its sylvan setting, are particularly so. The bridge below the locks, like many others on the canal, has heavy iron bridge guards that protected the stonework from the rubbing of ropes. In one of the guards the ropes, or more correctly the dirt and sand trapped on the ropes, have worn deep grooves. The guard is now painted a uniform black but in the heyday of the canals these grooves would have shone like silver from the constant friction of the towlines. Another mile and we have arrived at the town of Market Drayton, about 11 hours cruising time from the start of our journey. A market has been held in the town for over 700 years although few buildings today pre-date 1651, the year of Market Drayton's great fire. One that did is the parish church of St Mary. The youthful Clive of India is said to have climbed the tower of this church, having been born in the town as Robert Clive in 1725. This historic town also boasts some modern shopping facilities and has the only large supermarket on our journey before Nantwich.
Three miles from Market Drayton there is another flight of five locks at Adderley, but these are just the hors d'oeuvres, the main course is the fifteen Audlem Locks a mile further on. Locks 1 to 12 bring us down to Audlem Village. Here there are moorings and a water point both above and below Lock 13. By the lock is the picturesque Shroppie Fly pub, which often appears in photographs, and occasionally even on television. Next to the pub is a good canal shop. The village is close by offering more shops and pubs and at the bottom of the locks is the base of the Day Star Theatre Company who travel the waterways in their narrowboat The Angry Bull. We are now just six miles from the end of the old Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal and there are only the two Hack Green Locks before Nantwich.
Nantwich is another historic town that was largely destroyed by fire, in 1583, but has many fine Tudor buildings that were erected as part of the re-building after the fire - one has an inscription of gratitude to Elizabeth I for her assistance to the town at this time. There are moorings near the aqueduct that are a good starting point for the walk into this charming town. A little way north of the aqueduct is Nantwich Junction Bridge, which marks the point where Telford's new canal met the much older Chester Canal, opened in 1779. On the left is the short branch to Nantwich Basin, the original terminus of the Chester Canal, which was built as a broad beam navigation from here to the river Dee at Chester. The basin is now the Nantwich Canal Centre with all boatyard services and at the junction is the Simolda hire fleet base.
We are now approaching a very well used stretch of canal where in less than two miles we have two important junctions. First on the left we come to Hurleston Junction, the entrance to the ever popular Llangollen Canal, then Barbridge Junction where the Shropshire Union Middlewich Branch leaves on the right. This branch to the Trent & Mersey at Middlewich is particularly important as it forms part of the Four Counties Ring and offers boaters coming from the north access to the Shropshire Union canals. Resisting the temptations offered by these alternative routes we keep straight on towards Chester.
At Bunbury we come to our first wide locks, a staircase of two. Below the locks is Anglo Welsh Hire base and in less than half a mile we come to Tilstone Lock. Beside this lock is the first of the distinctive round buildings that were used as lengthsmen's huts on the Chester Canal. This is another attractive lock, especially in spring when the lock-side trees are in blossom.
At Beeston there are two locks, Beeston Stone Lock and Beeston Iron Lock, built in 1828 of massive iron plates because of problems caused by the shifting ground. Below the lock is the Charles Harden boatyard and narrowboat hire and just up the road is the Beeston Castle Hotel. The real Beeston Castle, high on a rocky outcrop, can be seen for miles around. The castle was built in 1225 by Ranulf, the sixth Earl of Chester but was seized by King Henry III in 1237 and remained in royal hands until the Civil War. It is open to the public and can be reached from the next lock (Wharton) by a footpath or from Bates Mill Bridge by a lane. The moorings here also have the advantage of being near the Shady Oak pub.
The rural scenery remains until Crows Nest Bridge, where some industry intrudes, then we cross a couple of miles of rather bleak countryside that is not improved by the need to slow down for a seemingly endless row of moored boats. After this we come to some more cheerful looking housing around Egg Bridge. Five locks spread over a 1½ miles descend into Chester through a typical industrial townscape. By contrast the centre of Chester is more cheering. There are moorings by Cow Lane Bridge which are close to the town centre and the Tesco's supermarket. There are also moorings through the bridge, under the city walls, which may be quieter in the evenings. If you would like to moor further away from the centre you can go through the three Northgate Staircase Locks down to Tower Wharf.
Chester is certainly not to be missed. Try a walk round the city walls, which will take you down to the River Dee. Also the medieval shops in the Rows and the cathedral are worth a visit. Beside Tower Wharf is an arm containing three locks that go down to the River Dee. This is where the Chester Canal ended but the Shropshire Union main line goes on to Ellesmere Port, following the old Ellesmere Canal section that was opened in 1795. This is one of the two parts of the Ellesmere Canal that were built, the other is what is now called the Llangollen Canal, but the middle section from Trevor to Chester was never completed.
Many people don't bother to cruise the last eight miles of the canal to Ellesmere Port but I think it is well worth doing. As we get out of the city we pass through pleasant rural scenery and about four miles down, at Caughall Bridge, there are moorings for the nearby Chester Zoo. The last couple of miles are dominated by industry, particularly petrochemicals but it is all worthwhile when you arrive at Ellesmere Port. This is the home of the Boat Museum, a magnificent collection of waterways artefacts displayed in a range of historic buildings either side of the three locks that lead down to the lower basins and the Manchester Ship Canal. At the top of the locks there are moorings and extensive views over the museum site, the ship canal, the River Mersey and in the distance we can see Liverpool. Whatever you do don't miss the Boat Museum. It is extensive with exhibits inside and out all shown in interesting and informative displays. Only the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester Docks can seriously rival it as the top waterway museum.
The whole journey of 66½ miles and 43 locks from Autherley has taken us under 31 hours cruising time, through some lovely parts of Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. There have been plenty of places of interest, a lot of peaceful cruising and three canals in one - what more could you ask.
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