It’s not what you might imagine from looking at a ‘north-up’ map but the top end of the Shroppie (Shropshire Union Canal) is at its southern end; all its locks descend throughout its 56 ½ miles heading north to Ellesmere Port.
As novice boaters back in the mid-70s, Susan and I explored this doyen of canals in our small cruiser. Little did we realise, at that time, that this was the ultimate narrow canal. Forget James Brindley’s endless meanders, clinging to the contours; instead, travel straight from A to B, passing through cavernous cuttings and gliding along the tops of embankments. It’s a canal designed to maintain the longest possible level pounds and then, when change of level becomes unavoidable, it incorporates a flight of locks with short separating pounds for speedy working. That was what Thomas Telford achieved with what is now known as the Shropshire Union Canal (SU). It’s a narrow canal from Autherley to Nantwich where it links with a broad canal of quite different character, passing through Chester to Ellesmere Port before finally locking down into the even broader Manchester Ship Canal.
The southern end of this Telford masterpiece was ideal cruising for an inexperienced crew while cutting their canal teeth. We were able to enjoy the long un-interrupted lengths of rural magic. We lingered whenever we wished and just soaked up more of this exclusive linear park environment. We let our minds imagine the lives of the original commercial navigators who probably never had the luxury of lingering anywhere. In the 70s boating was also much more economical than now and was still unspoiled by the current plethora of signage, bidding us, ‘welcome to this’ or warning of a, ‘48 hour limit on that’. But those days have passed; we live in the ‘here and now’ and our recent car-hopping visits have confirmed that the SU is still a wonderful experience for anyone who seeks out this north/south artery – an M6 of the mid-19th century.
It is just out of this Branch’s geographical area but logic dictates a mention of the junction of the SU with the much earlier Staffs and Worcester (S&W) at Autherley. Adjacent to the majestic roving bridge is a lock with only a minor change of water level but, conversely, a huge importance in terms of water usage. The SU is lower than the S&W and so a stop lock was necessary to contain the loss of water from the S&W. Different canals had different owners who jealously guarded their principal liquid assets.
The boundary of our Shrewsbury District & North Wales Branch is at Pendeford where a wide urban bridge is often the focus for a lunchtime stroll by workers from the factory on the site of the former Wolverhampton aerodrome.
A couple of bridges further north sees the M54 (M6/A5 link) zooming over and then the canal ambience then becomes really rural through the Chillington Estate (seat of the Gifford family). Bridge 10, Avenue Bridge, is one of the grandest on any UK canal; high, wide and boasting extensive and elegant balustrades curving away on both sides. It was the main drive to the Hall and visitors arriving in their horse-drawn coach would have had absolutely no inkling that such a lowly but important commercial artery lay deep in the cutting way below, and out of sight, those crossing this expensive bridge.
The village of Brewood (pronounced Brood) is first heralded by the silhouette of the church on the skyline and makes a useful stop for topping up supplies or eating, and drinking, out.
The still busy A5, former trunk road to Holyhead, is forced to dip beneath the short cast iron Stretton Aqueduct near the canal’s water supply at Belvide reservoir. Moving northwards and into the woods and out again at Wheaton Aston for a rare change of level.
Wheaton Aston is the only lock between Autherley and just south of Market Drayton. It heralds arrival in the village with the well known canal-side garage – a Mecca for diesel buyers – which at last boasts a proper landing stage.
At Gnosall the small but informative notice board listing facilities reminds me of the enormous Port du Plaissance boards at all town moorings on French canals. The only facility one young couple wanted was the serenity of the grassy towpath and the interest of a a few ducks paddling around in search of food.
Norbury isn’t a ‘junction’ these days although plans are afoot to restore the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal which could offer to option to cruise west to Shrewsbury. Norbury does however offer a variety of facilities and makes a natural break point.
To be continued northwards ...
Autherley Junction, Staffs & Worcester Canal
Roving bridge entrance to the Shropshire Union Canal
Stop lock just beyond Bridge 1 at Autherly
Avenue Bridge from below
Avenue Bridge from driveway level
heading south on the SU
the straight and narrow route northwards through the rural environment of the top end of the Shroppie