Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Out on a Limb is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. First published in the Midland Scene supplement to Canal & Riverboat May 2003.
Out on a Limb
The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal forms one of the arms of Brindley's Grand Cross, his scheme to link together the rivers Trent, Mersey, Thames and Severn by canals that transverse the Midlands. When it opened in 1772 this route to the Severn was the first of the arms to be completed, the Trent & Mersey following in 1777 and the final route to the Thames not being completed until 1789 when Duke's Cut linked the Oxford Canal to the Thames.
Starting at Great Haywood, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal meets the Trent & Mersey Canal under a wide brick built roving bridge, our journey down this limb of the Grand Cross immediately takes us over the River Trent. This is the first of several massive aqueducts that Brindley built on the canal. In less than a mile we come to Tixall Wide, a place where the canal takes on the dimensions of a lake, probably an early example of a landowner demanding special landscaping features in return for dropping opposition to the navigation. If this was the first such arrangement it was certainly not the last as several wide sections and ornamental bridges on various canals will testify.
Leaving behind the impressive outline of Tixall gatehouse we make our way up through Tixall Lock, the first of 43 on the 46 miles of waterway. Another substantial aqueduct carries the canal across the River Sow as we head towards the village of Milford, hidden behind the railway line. For the next mile or so we follow the valley, the River Sow on our right, to a point near where the River Penk joins the Sow. Here the navigation bends left to follow the River Penk Valley to Penkridge. This pound is almost five miles long and passes Radford Bridge, which is the nearest point to Stafford town centre (about 1½ miles away) From here it is a mile to Deptmore Lock which ends the long pound.
The next village, Acton Trussell, should not be confused with Stackton Tressel, which was the fictional village where Hinge and Bracket lived in the television sitcom "Dear Ladies". There is a lot of new housing alongside the canal here and at the end of the village is the waterside Moat House hotel. At Park Gate Lock, No 40, is the Teddesley Boat Company hire base with a handy Midland Chandlers next door. Four locks from Acton Trussell, spread over three miles, brings us to the centre of Penkridge, an attractive little town with a good selection of small shops. There is more pastoral cruising beyond Penkridge, although the M6 runs alongside the canal for a half-mile or so. A steady succession of locks brings us to Gailey Lock, No 32, where the picturesque round toll keeper's watchtower is now a shop. Just above the lock is the boatyard of J D Boat Services which is also a Viking Afloat hire base.
It is now ten miles to the next lock, a stretch that also contains three canal junctions. The first two miles through pleasant farmland are marred by the chemical works that reach across the canal at Calf Heath. We then come to Hatherton Marina and the junction with the Hatherton branch of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. This once ran through to the Cannock Extension Canal that linked with the Wyrley and Essington Canal in the north of Birmingham. Although most of the Wyrley and Essington Canal is still navigable the last few miles that once linked to the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford Junction are closed. This valuable north of Birmingham route is now the subject of a high profile restoration campaign under the banner of the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust.
After four more miles of countryside we start to encounter the suburbs of Wolverhampton and enter a narrow rocky cutting only wide enough for one boat. This cutting is quite long so it has passing places at intervals. The canal widens as we approach Autherley Junction, on the right, where we can see the stop lock at the start of the Shropshire Union main line. Half a mile on is Aldersley Junction, on the left, where the Birmingham Canal Navigation main line meets the canal. When the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal (now part of the Shropshire Union main Line) opened in 1835 the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal lost a lot of its trade to the new route but this half a mile between these two junctions was still busy and the canal company charged exceptionally large tolls for transit between the junctions. The companies of the Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal thought these charges were unjustified and proposed a new Tettenhall & Autherley Canal and Aqueduct to cross above the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. The threat of this scheme was enough to force a reduction in the tolls. Compton Lock is two miles on and is the first of three locks that take us out of the last remnants of Wolverhampton.
The flight of locks at Bratch (Nos. 23, 24 and 25) six miles south of Wolverhampton is unique and the subject of much speculation. At first sight it looks like a staircase but closer inspection reveals that each lock has its own top and bottom gates, unlike a real staircase flight where the bottom gates of one lock are the top gates of the next. However, Bratch has the shortest pounds possible between locks, just a few feet to allow for the opening of the gate. As such short pounds would not normally be able to contain enough water to receive the contents of the lock above, or to provide the water to fill the lock below, there are side ponds beside the locks which extend the capacity of the short pounds by means of culverts under the towpath. No one knows why these locks were built this way. It has been suggested that they were originally built as a staircase and later converted to their present form. On the other hand this could be the way they were originally built. There is a lock keeper here whose office is in the octagonal tower that once was the toll office.
The single Bumblehole Lock and the expanding village of Wombourne follow Bratch. Botterham Locks are a staircase pair and beyond are two more locks that take us through Swindon, Staffordshire, a much smaller place than its Wiltshire namesake. When I first came past the village in 1963 there was an ironworks glowing gold with molten metal, now modern housing has replaced the canalside industry. The single narrow locks continue through a delightful mixture of fields and woods. Most of the locks have circular brick built by-weirs that are a feature unique to this canal. To the right is Smestow Brook, which in summer is thick with Himalayan Balsam with flowers whose colours range from white through to pink and deep purple, giving forth a peachy scent. These tall waterside plants have now spread throughout the country but around 1840, when these plants were introduced, the valley of this little brook became one of the first places in the country to be colonised.
We cross the River Stour on an aqueduct shortly before coming to Stourton Junction. This is the turn off for the Stourbridge Canal and leads to the Birmingham Canal Navigations. In the next two miles three more locks and the 25 yard Dunsley Tunnel bring us to the village of Kinver. This area is dominated by red sandstone rock, which the canal frequently cuts through and in Kinver there are examples of houses cut from the rock which were in use up until the 1930s. This is quite a large village with shops and pubs all a pleasant stroll from the lock. The next village is Cookley, where the canal passes under the main road in the 65-yard Cookley Tunnel carved from the sandstone rock. Debdale Lock follows and offers another example of rock hewing, this one a former horse stable with the doorway on the lockside.
The approaches to Kidderminster have recently been subject to many changes as new housing is being built on former industrial sites. There are moorings between Sainsbury's supermarket and the lock which are handy for shopping on the new retail park or in the town centre. This former carpet town is not the prettiest place on the canal although the huge church of St Mary & All Saints presents the best aspect of the town to the canal.
From Kidderminster it is only four miles to the end of the canal. Beside Caldwall Lock is a massive rock face, so close that it seems difficult to believe that a cottage once stood between this rock and the lock. Traces can still be seen of this building which was demolished about thirty years ago. The next lock is Falling Sands, the last before Stourport.
About two miles of open countryside bring us to the edge of Stourport on Severn, a town that was created by and for the Canal. The start and end points of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal were not of any great consequence - the objective was to link the Trent & Mersey Canal to the River Severn. At one end the tiny village of Great Haywood was chosen, at the other a point at the bottom of the Stour Valley, near the little village of Mitton. Great Haywood was just a junction on the canal system where narrowboats would turn one way or the other, unlike Stourport where goods would be transferred from canal boats to the larger vessels that plied the Severn. The digging of the first Stourport Basin started in 1768 and was finished in 1771, the year before the canal opened. Up until the early part of the nineteenth century there were only two basins, the large Upper Basin and the smaller Lower Basin linked together by a barge lock with another barge lock from the Lower Basin giving access to the Severn. Also around this time the Tontine hotel was built, the name referring to the joint annuity scheme, invented by Lorenzo Tonti in the 17th century, in which the surviving member inherits the whole investment. The macabre possibilities of such a tontine were explored in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Wrong Box. As traffic increased another set of upper and lower basins were built parallel to the original basins and connected by two sets of two rise staircase locks. The basins that we see today were not the only ones built there were two more basins to the east, the last and largest of which was filled in around 1949.
Today York Street Lock takes us into the crowded basins. If you want to moor in Stourport it is best to stop on the visitor moorings before York Street Lock. There are very few places to moor in the basins so the only other alternative is to moor on the Severn. The normal route through the basin for narrow beam craft is to turn right after York Lock and to proceed to the western upper basin where a left turn brings us to the narrow staircase locks that lead down to the Severn. After the first staircase pair of locks there is a basin followed by the next pair of locks with a dry dock beside them. The barge locks are still in use but are normally only operated for wide beam craft.
The whole journey from the Trent & Mersey Canal at Great Haywood to the River Severn is 46 miles and 45 locks, or 43 locks if you go via the two deep barge locks at Stourport rather than the four narrow locks that are normally used. After 230 years of constant use Brindley's canal is still looking magnificent and is carrying as many boats as it ever did. It is a "must do" waterway for any enthusiast whether you cruise the whole length in one trip or take a section at a time, perhaps as part of the Stourport or Four Counties rings.
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