Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Wedgwood Service is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Trent & Mersey Canal from Shardlow to Preston Brook.First published in Canal & Riverboat October 2002.
The Wedgwood Service
Josiah Wedgwood was appointed royal potter shortly after the opening of the Bridgewater Canal. His technical advances in pottery had lead to Queen Charlotte's approval of his new cream ware. Wedgwood also recognised the technical advances in transport and saw canals as the ideal method of transporting his delicate wares to the markets of the world. He was a leader in the promotion of the Trent & Mersey Canal, which would serve his Potteries in Stoke on Trent, although we must not forget that the Duke of Bridgewater and Brindley also played major roles in its creation. Wedgwood's efforts were of immense benefit to the Trent & Mersey Canal and the navigation well repaid the service over the next two hundred years, carrying raw materials and finished products for Wedgwood factories.
The route from the Trent to the Mersey starts at Derwent Mouth where the unnavigable River Derwent, entering from the north, meets the River Trent flowing in from the south and turning east. The west arm of this watery crossroads is the beginning of the canal. The Trent & Mersey Canal is 93 miles long and has 76 locks between here and Preston Brook, where it meets the Bridgewater Canal. Derwent Lock is the first, and like the other five locks between here and Burton upon Trent it is a wide lock.
A mile on is Shardlow, a canal village that grew up because of its position at a point where the River Trent and the canal are close together. Here you can see many of warehouses, wharves, merchants' houses and inns that were established to enable the transhipping of goods between the river and the cut. Tom Rolt came this way on Cressy in 1939 and admired the warehouses, which must still be much as they were then. He referred to the village as "Singing Shardlow" due to the full-blooded choruses he enjoyed in The Canal Tavern.
The wide Aston Lock No 3 and Weston Lock No 4, which follow Shardlow Lock, are named after their respective Derbyshire villages. Although this is a one way trip we pass through both Weston and Aston locks again. The narrow Weston Lock No 24 and Aston Lock No 26 are over forty miles away, in Staffordshire. It's a lovely rural cruise all the way to Burton upon Trent, passing Swarkestone Lock with the junction above that once gave access to the Derby Canal, now abandoned. This is followed by Stenson Lock and marina, and the village of Willington, with moorings and pubs.
At Burton we encounter the first of many narrow locks - Dallow Lane No 7. If I stop in the town I moor by Shobnall Marina, about half a mile after the lock. Locks continue at fairly regular intervals and by the time we reach Alrewas Lock, No 12, we have covered 24 miles of the canal. Just before the lock is a short section where the River Trent forms part of the navigation, normally this is not a problem but there can be fast flows at times. Alrewas is certainly worth a visit, having some fine cottages, many with magnificent gardens, an interesting church, shops and pubs.
From Alrewas the locks increase. Five locks take us up to Fradley Junction and there are two more after the junction, all in two miles. Brindley's Grand Cross was a scheme to link the four major rivers of England. The Trent & Mersey Canal links two and here at Fradley is the link to the Thames, through the Coventry and Oxford Canals. On the towpath facing the junction is a row of buildings that have long served the canal, the most prominent being the Swan Inn. A mile past Fradley Woodend Lock, No 20, marks the start of a ten mile pound, starting with woods and fields until the village of Handsacre.
Handsacre is soon followed by Armitage, where bathroom ceramics are produced beside the canal. Also at Armitage is a narrow rocky section of canal that was, until 1971, the 130 yard Armitage Tunnel. We head towards the massive power station cooling towers that mark the town of Rugeley. By bridge No 66 there are moorings which are handy for Safeway's supermarket and the town centre. As we come out of the town the canal turns right and crosses Brindley's great aqueduct over the River Trent before making its way up the valley and through Colwich Lock.
As we approach Great Haywood we pass under an unnumbered and unused iron bridge which was built by the Anson family to take them to the local church from their home at Shugborough Hall. There was already a route from the hall to the village across the medieval Essex Bridge but this is a packhorse bridge and not wide enough for a carriage, hence the iron bridge. Essex Bridge can be reached from Great Haywood Lock and leads to Shugborough Hall, which is a National Trust property and also houses, the Museum of Staffordshire Life. At Great Haywood Junction we meet the final arm of Brindley's Grand Cross, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, which was fully opened in 1772, five years before the Trent & Mersey. A graceful brick roving bridge takes the towpath over the junction and just through this bridge is an Anglo-Welsh hire base. Less than a mile north, we come to Hoo Mill Lock then we travel through more rural landscape, with the unnavigable River Trent on our left, to Weston Lock, No 24, and the second village of Weston-upon-Trent that we have passed on this journey.
Just over 9 miles, and 4 locks, after leaving Great Haywood is Stone, with a good selection of shops in the town centre, including a new Safeway supermarket. In the middle of the town we pass what is probably the oldest canal hire base in the country, namely The Canal Cruising Company which has been run by the Wyatt family for over 50 years. It was from here that the IWA founders, Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt, hired the Ailsa Craig that was to take them on their historic voyage through Standedge Tunnel, on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, in 1948.
Another mile brings us to the compact flight of four locks at Meaford. Barlaston village is a couple of miles further on and is the last village before the suburbs of Stoke-on-Trent encroach upon the canal. Oldroad Bridge, No 104 is the place to stop if you want to visit the Wedgwood Factory that has been producing its wares on this site since 1940, although the company started in 1759 when Josiah Wedgwood founded his factory in Burslem.
Buildings soon close in around us as we enter Stoke-upon-Trent. Five locks take us up to the summit level, the first unpleasantly situated with the lock mooring under a railway bridge. Things do improve and as we approach the top lock we pass Etruria Industrial Museum at the Junction with the Caldon Canal. The museum is based in a Victorian bone mill, which ground both bone and flint for use in the pottery industry. There is also a working blacksmith's shop here.
The top lock brings us out onto Etruria Junction where the delightful Caldon Canal turns back and passes the other side of the Industrial Museum, on the start of its seventeen-mile journey to Froghall. We continue on the main line through Stoke where Stoke on Trent Marina offers the usual boating facilities and is also a base for Black Prince hire boats. The urban surroundings continue until a mile or so before Harecastle Tunnel. There is only one-way working through this 1¾-mile tunnel and the entrances are controlled by Tunnel Keepers at each end. At this end of the tunnel a brick box with doors has been built around the entrance so that this end of the tunnel can be sealed off. When boats are in the tunnel a large fan then forces air through to the north end. At either end of the tunnel a smaller tunnel entrance can be seen which is the first tunnel started by Brindley. The tunnel we use today was built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1827. It had a towpath all the way through but, like the original tunnel, it suffered from subsidence and the towpath was removed in the 1970s. Once out of the tunnel we can see the orange waters of the canal, caused by iron in the water. This can be seen at both ends of the tunnel but the colour is usually stronger at the northern end.
Just after the tunnel there is a mooring, this is near to the local shops and Tesco supermarket. Hardings Wood Junction follows and here the Hall Green Branch, on the left, runs parallel to the main line then turns right to join the Macclesfield Canal at Hall Green. Two locks further down the main line we pass under the aqueduct carrying the branch. From the junction the canal descends through 26 locks in under seven miles to Wheelock. There are some single locks but most of the locks are in flights and the majority are paired so that you have a choice of locks to use. Some good countryside is to be seen on the way as we pass through, or perhaps stop at, the villages of Rode Heath and Hassall Green.
Between Wheelock and Middlewich Junction there only five locks in six miles although for some of the way the road and industry intrude upon the scene. At Middlewich the Shropshire Union Middlewich Branch joins the Trent & Mersey. On the roving bridge across the branch a stone is inscribed "Wardle Canal 1829". In 1826 when the Ellesmere & Chester Canal Company wanted to build a branch to Middlewich it was prevented from joining the Trent & Mersey by a clause in the Chester Canal Act which forbade them building nearer than 100 yards from the Trent & Mersey. To overcome this problem the Trent & Mersey Canal Company built the 110-yard Wardle Green Branch including Wardle Lock. There are three Middlewich narrow locks with hire boat bases at the top and bottom (Middlewich Narrowboats and Andersen Boats) before we come to the Middlewich Big Lock, our first wide lock for sixty miles and the penultimate lock on our journey.
The fifteen mile pound between Middlewich and Dutton Stop Lock is full of interest. The navigation crosses the little River Dane and makes its way up the valley passing through several wide lakes, or flashes, caused by subsidence due to salt workings. Near Northwich the canal passes through a chemical works with many pipe bridges overhead. Deep in the old salt working area are the villages of Wincham and Marston, where the old Lion Salt Works is open to the public. Open fields give way to woods as we approach Marbury Country Park before passing Anderton Marina, an Alvechurch Boat Centres hire base.
Anderton is more famously the home of the newly restored Anderton Boat Lift, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, which carries boats 50 feet vertically between the Trent & Mersey and the River Weaver. Two short tunnels follow in the next two miles - Barnton (572 yards) and Saltersford (424 yards) - both are narrow and have bends which make it difficult, or impossible, to see through. The entrances being on bends do not help the situation. We now get more views of the River Weaver in the valley below and at Acton Bridge is the Black Prince Holidays hire base.
Dutton Stop Lock has a rather strange design, having narrow gates and a much wider chamber. Shortly after the stop lock is the entrance to the 1239 yard Preston Brook Tunnel, which like others on the canal is for one-way traffic only. Signs at the entrance indicate when you can enter - on the hour for northbound boats and on the half-hour for southbound craft. Once through the tunnel we enter the waters of the Bridgewater Canal and so leave this great canal that cuts across England with its eight junctions with other waterways. In the eighteenth century it was the start of the waterways network, today it remains an essential part of so many cruising routes and is a superb canal in its own right.
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