Duration: 7 Nights
TOTAL LOCKS: 92
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 9 HOURS (56 HOURS IN TOTAL)
Maps & Guides for this route: P4, N4, L10, E1 | Click here buy maps
An unforgettable cruise through the four counties of Staffordshire, Cheshire, Shropshire and West Midlands - this journey is a narrowboating adventure for those with a happy bug for travel. The tranquil route explores uplifting landscapes that unravel some of the nation's grandest stories of pottery, salt, engineering marvels and the awesome legacy of unsung navvies who built canals with mere spades and pickaxes no matter what obstacle England's landscape threw at them.
Heading north along the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal from Gailey Wharf you meet the journey's first lock. Travel onwards through Penkridge and once the canal has climbed through Deptmore Lock, there's a four-mile stretch without locks for your crew to get the kettle on and relax into their holiday. Between bridges 98 and 99, you could hop on a bus along the A34, to visit the county town of Stafford.
Near Great Haywood, there's a twist in the tale of this canal. In the 18th century Clifford Thomas occupied Tixall Hall, and when canal builders first arrived to dig an ugly water-motorway of his era, he was ferociously unimpressed. To avoid spoiling his view from his window, he insisted that the canal builders widened the water to disguise it as a little sweet lake. So as you pass through a short tree-lined stretch don't be surprised when the canal bursts open into the full drama of Tixall Wide. The meadow alongside the water is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to a variety of nesting birds, so it's a good mooring spot to linger.
Narrow normality soon resumes as the route crosses the River Trent on a small aqueduct and arrives at Great Haywood Junction. Here the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal ends where its water meets the Trent & Mersey Canal. Shugborough Hall peeps over the canal and calls out to you with panache that you can't ignore. The mansion dates back to 1693 and within its walls history lurks under every frill and doily. Shugborough Hall is now a National Trust property, but the estate was once the ancestral home of the Earls of Lichfield. The 5th Earl of Lichfield, Patrick Lichield, the photographer, was perhaps the most well-known.
Cruising northwards, the canal is heaving with stunning red brick bridges and fields where cows drink watchfully from the waterside. When the route reaches the canal town of Stone, the excitement of a canal that was born for pottery begins to build. Your next stop is the bottle-oven landscape of the region celebrated famously across the globe as 'The Potteries'. In the 1700s, when Josiah Wedgwood was creating his innovative pottery designs, much of his work was smashed or stolen on its clumsy packhorse route to market. To reach mass markets across the globe he needed canals to be built. With entrepreneurial vision he employed the great canal engineer James Brindley to build the Trent & Mersey Canal. And by 1777, his delicate pots could set off in a canal boat to safely, and swiftly, reach faraway places across the world. The Potteries exploded into mass production, and any boat cruising the Four Counties Ring today has to allow as much time as possible to explore the living heritage in Stoke-on-Trent. As well as the World of Wedgwood, there's the Etruria Industrial Museum & Heritage Centre and the area is buzzing with contemporary potteries such as Emma Bridgewater's too.
The Caldon Canal slips quietly away eastwards from Etruria Junction, and if you have time this detour is a gem for nature and heritage. The Ring continues north along the Trent & Mersey Canal and, putting thoughts of potter's clay behind, leads into new territory where people become intrigued by the sudden change in the colour of the canal water. Not unlike tomato soup, the rusty hue of the water is blamed on seepage of iron ore from the first tunnel at Harecastle engineered by Brindley in 1777. The second tunnel, sitting aside Brindley's, was built by Telford in 1827 and this is the route boaters still use today. Cruising through Harecastle Tunnel (2,926yds/2,675m long) is a marmite experience! Love it or hate it, it's an echoing adventure through almost 8000ft of dripping darkness! And to add to the excitement, or misery, it is said that the ghost of poor old Kit Crewbucket lurks somewhere within the tunnel. After being murdered, her headless corpse was dumped in the canal and 19th-century boatmen would prefer to make time-consuming detours rather than face their fears inside this haunted tunnel. Luckily there's always daylight at the other side and fresh thrills to pursue. Your crew will soon be preparing for the long scramble through ‘Heartbreak Hill’. The glorious views from the summit at Kidsgrove can heal any heart, but the hill lives up to its name with the workout required to wind through this heavy series of locks.
As the canal descends to the Cheshire Plains you arrive at Middlewich. The Romans who arrived at this spot long before you, discovered salt and called the town Salinea. Then when canals were built, boats carried the salt industry into a new era. If you have extra time, you can detour northwards from Middlewich to see the Anderton Boat Lift, one of the 7 Wonders of the Canals. If not, turn left onto the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal which travels to Barbridge Junction. Here you may be tempted to moor and explore the historic village, or detour right along the canal to Chester if there is time in the itinerary. The route of the Ring turns left from Barbridge Junction onto the Shropshire Union Canal, heading southwards to Hurlaston Junction. Welsh hills sing in the distance inviting you to detour westwards along the Llangollen Canal. If you have extra time, the canal that leaps over the border into Wales is a rewarding distraction. Carrying on southwards, your route passes through Nantwich and into sweeping countryside beyond to the 15 Audlem Locks followed closely by Adderley’s five locks.
The route soon meets the town of Market Drayton. A chance to explore its black and white timber frame architecture and decide if you accept the town's noble claim to be the home of gingerbread. With two bakeries in town the inevitable is expected. So, after you've nibbled the last crumb of your gingerbread man, you will be ready to cruise on towards the five Tyrley Locks. Now the route puts its feet up for a while with a 17-mile lock-free stretch as far as Wheaton Aston. Cuttings and embankments spice the route and wide-stretching views make a fresh and uplifting journey. From the water level, many of the bridges over the canal seem extraordinarily high since the canal cuttings created a dramatic landscape.
The countryside remains blissfully uninterrupted, with villages scattered here and there for interest. Your crew can enjoy a lazy lock-free eight mile pound until the lock at Autherley Junction which marks the end of the Shropshire Union Canal where it meets the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. So as you steer left you leave the fearlessly straight course of Telford's canal and re-join the charismatic winding route of Brindley's Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. The canal tests your tiller skills one last time as it squeezes through a narrow cutting called Pendeford Rockin’ before completing your Ring back to Gailey. Here, four counties in one holiday can now be added up in bundles of memories!
Max: 4 People
Max: 4 People
Max: 4 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People