Duration: 10 - 14 Nights
TOTAL LOCKS: 94
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 6.5 HOURS OVER 14 NIGHTS, OR 4.5 HOURS OVER 10 NIGHTS (61 HOURS IN TOTAL)
A cruise with something for everyone through the counties of Shropshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands. This route can be done by experienced and energetic crews in just 7 nights or take 10 to 14 nights if you’d like more time for sightseeing and relaxing.
Nantwich itself is a charming town, and if you have time you might like to follow the local Sculpture Trail, the most notable exhibit being the Nantwich Wooden Horse. The horse was constructed out of lock gates and stands next to the towpath. Other sculptures are dotted along the towpath around the marina, including one of a dog – see if you can spot it!
Setting off in a northerly direction, you’ve got about half an hour of lock-free cruising before arriving at Hurleston Junction, where the Llangollen Canal splits off to the left. The Llangollen brings water from the River Dee to Hurleston Reservoir, at a rate of about 12 million gallons a day.
Continue past the junction and you soon reach the town of Barbridge where the Barbridge Inn is canalside near Bremilows Bridge No.100.
Immediately after the bridge, turn right to join the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. These 10 miles of largely unspoilt and tranquil countryside join the Shropshire Union Canal to the Trent & Mersey Canal. Many of the bridges and other structures are original and Grade II listed.
The first lock on this stretch of canal is Cholmondeston Lock, immediately followed by the huge ‘Venetian Marina’. You’ll find Dee’s Venetian Tea Rooms here if you fancy a break (open 10am till 4pm every day except Mondays and Tuesdays).
The next place of note is Church Minshull, a very pretty village with access via a gateway between Bridges 14 and 15. Before this though, you cross the Weaver Aqueduct, where you may be able to see the River Weaver beneath you.
At the end of the Middlewich Branch, pass through Wardle Lock and join the shortest canal in the UK at only 47 metres long! The Wardle Canal was originally built in 1829 so that the Trent & Mersey Canal authorities could control passage between the Trent & Mersey and Shropshire Union Canals, but you can now cruise straight through and then turn right onto the Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich. There are moorings at the Kings Lock where the Kings Lock Inn is nearby and you can also follow the Roman Town Trail exploring the history of the town back to 150AD. The Trail starts at the library if you’d like to try it.
It’s now time to head towards Staffordshire, the second county on your odyssey through the Four Counties. The navigation starts to rise slowly from the Cheshire plains and there are 26 locks spread out over a 7-mile stretch of canal between Wheelock and Hardings Wood. Little wonder this section is nicknamed ‘Heartbreak Hill’. Don’t worry though, the canal passes through the villages of Wheelock, Hassall Green and Rode Heath, all with pubs close by where you can seek refreshment!
Arriving in Kidsgrove you are officially in Staffordshire, home of the Potteries. Kidsgrove is a former coal mining village which quickly expanded due to the building of the canals and opportunities for transporting coal, iron and manufactured goods throughout Staffordshire and Cheshire. There was an initial problem, in the fact that Harecastle Hill stood in between Kidsgrove and Stoke on Trent with all its factories. The solution was the Harecastle Tunnel, designed by James Brindley and started in 1770. It took 7 years to complete and was 2630 metres long. As the tunnel had no towpath, and boats were horse-drawn at the time, boaters had to lie on the roof of their boat and use their legs to tread the boat slowly through the tunnel (leading to the term ‘legging it’ which is still in use today). Getting through the tunnel in this way took 3 hours. And what happened to the horses? They were led over the hill via ‘Boathorse Road’.
In the early 19th century, a second, larger tunnel was built incorporating a towpath so that horses could tow the boats through and drastically shorten the transit time. This second tunnel is the one that you will be going through, due to the fact that the original one collapsed due to subsidence and was closed in 1914. The tunnel is one-way and so has to be manned in order to avoid collisions! Sometimes you need to book a passage through the tunnel beforehand, so check for opening times on the Canal & River Trust website: canalrivertrust.org.uk/notices.
Emerging from the gloom, you are now on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent, once the heart of pottery production. You can still see some of the big ‘bottle’ kilns. If you moor near Bridge 119 you can visit the Royal Doulton Shop and ‘potter’ to your heart’s content! If you fancy a visit to Alton Towers Theme Park there are buses going there from the city centre.
After Bridge No.17, the Caldon Canal which goes to Froghall is a turning to the left, but your journey takes you straight on through the Stoke Flight of locks, leaving the city centre behind and soon passing Stoke City Football Club on the left. At Barlaston more pottery history awaits and you can walk to the World of Wedgwood tourist attraction with demonstrations, tea rooms, a factory tour and of course a gift shop.
Continue on your journey and rejoin peaceful countryside, before arriving at the canalside town of Stone. As you approach Bridge 94 look out for a weatherworn sculpture of a woman on the banks. The statue is called ‘Christina’ after an unfortunate lady who booked a passage on a packet boat from Stoke in 1839, only to be assaulted and thrown overboard by some of the crew. Stone is a busy and pleasant town with pubs, shops and handsome canal buildings.
Easy cruising awaits, with just 2 locks on a 5 hour stretch of countryside, only interrupted by the pretty village of Weston upon Trent. Reaching Great Haywood Junction, you need to turn right onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, locally known as ‘The Shroppie’. You’ll soon arrive at Tixall Wide, a lovely place where the canal was widened into almost a lake. The Wide is home to families of kingfishers, so look out for one!
At Baswich, if you are up to some exercise, a public footpath leads to Stafford (1.5 miles away), where you can visit The Ancient High House. The house was built at the end of the 16th century and is the largest surviving timber framed town house in England – it’s now a museum and is open every day except Sunday and Monday. Also at Stafford is Stafford Castle, a 900 year old Norman Castle with a visitor centre and various events.
After passing through the villages of Acton Trussell and Penkridge, you’ll find yourself at Gailey Lock and Wharf, an attractive boatyard where you can get fuel and a pump out if you need them.
A couple of hours of lock-free cruising follows, before arriving at the Anchor Inn at Cross Green. There are good moorings just before the pub if you decide to stop here.
Continue south towards Autherley Junction. After about an hour you will reach a narrow cutting, once known as ‘Pendeford Rockin’. This is a 600ft section of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal that was hewn out of hard sandstone. To reduce the amount of work needed, it was only made wide enough for one boat to pass through, except for a couple of passing places. Proceed with caution!
The Shropshire Union canal, or The Shroppie, starts at Autherley Junction (turn sharp right) on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. As soon as you turn you are confronted with your first lock, so if there is a boat coming out you may have to do some manouevring!
Autherley is very attractive and full of canal history and it is worth giving yourself some time to look around.
The next place of interest you reach is the town of Brewood (pronounced ‘Brood’, which is an old Roman Fort with buildings going back to the 14th century. There are good visitor moorings and pub next to the canal, as well a tempting old fashioned sweet shop!
A very short distance from there is a cast iron aqueduct, the Stretton Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the A5 and was built in 1832 out of cast iron.
The Wheaton Aston lock brings you to some very pretty moorings at the village of Wheaton Aston. Another canalside pub features here, of course!
Once past Wheaton Aston you are treated to a long section of wide and almost straight canal with views over gently rolling countryside – lovely and relaxing.
You will pass through Cowley Tunnel, which doesn’t look much like a tunnel at all, more like a natural phenomenon of the rock face. Apparently it was originally planned to be much longer, but after the first 74 metres the ground was unstable so they stopped and opened the tunnel out into a wide cutting instead. It’s quite atmospheric, with greenery and trees surrounding you around and above the rock.
The next stretch of the canal is dotted with lots of cute private moorings with their own sheds/outhouses. You’ll then reach the village of Gnosall which has good moorings and water points.
Onwards from Gnosall you find yourself heading towards Norbury Junction, but just before you get there you cruise over the mile-long Shelmore Embankment, which was the cause of much grief and expense to the canal builders in the 19th century. Contractors had to move huge amounts of earth to build the embankment, but every time they tried to complete it, the bank slipped and collapsed. By 1834 it was the only unfinished section of the whole canal, and by the time it was finally finished in 1835, Thomas Telford, who had designed it, had passed away. It remained quite unstable for a long time and there are flood gates at either end in case of a breach. Don’t be nervous about crossing it though, it’s now lined with mature trees and their roots help to stabilise it.
Norbury Junction used to be where the Shrewsbury & Newport Canal joined the Shropshire Union with Shrewsbury, but now there is just a small section left with a dry dock at the end. Norbury is a busy little junction though, with a hire fleet, private moorings, chandlery, gift shop, boat sales, tearooms, and of course a pub going by the name of the Junction Inn (what else)?
Just before the locks that lead down to Market Drayton, you pass through the beautiful Woodseaves Cutting, a very deep rock cutting which was made entirely by men without any powered machinery.
Market Drayton is a traditional old market town, with several timber-framed buildings. One of its claims to fame is being the home of gingerbread so you may want to hunt some down! If you call at the Tourist Information Centre there is a town trail to follow which takes in the old marketplace, pubs, church and Tudor houses.
After departing Market Drayton there is a quiet 3-mile section before the next set of 5 locks at Adderley. These are a good “warm up” for the 15 lock Audlem Flight’ which lowers the canal by over 90ft. Both sets of locks are set in beautiful settings with fantastic views. Luckily there are a couple of pubs near the bottom of the flight so a well-earned drink can be enjoyed.
Further along from Audlem are the Hack Green Locks, where the Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker is just a short walk from the canal. The bunker was built in the Second World War as a radar station and thereafter was secretly appointed to act as a Regional Government HQ in the event of a nuclear attack. Left abandoned in 1966, it has now been reopened as a tourist attraction with war rooms to walk through, a NAAFI canteen and a shop.
After the 2 Hack Green locks, cruise lock free back to Nantwich to finish your adventure and hand back your temporary floating home.
Max: 4 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People