CRUISE GUIDE: STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
We follow the ‘canal of two halves’ the northern Stratford Canal as it skirts the fringes of Birmingham, then the southern Stratford descending through the Warwickshire countryside to Stratford
Shakespeare’s legacy beckons on a fascinating trail along a canal of two halves
Shakespeare or Bust was a BBC play broadcast in January 1973. Written by Peter Terson, it told the story of three Yorkshire miners who hired a boat for a holiday on the Stratford Canal. None of the men had any previous boating experience but somehow managed to reach Stratford-upon-on Avon. Now, over 40 years later, there may be few Yorkshire miners but the canal is still hosting today’s boaters heading for the same destination.
In football parlance, the Stratford could be described as a ‘canal of two halves’. The 26-mile long canal splits into two equal sections both geographically and historically. The southern section was built later than its northern neighbour and is different in character with distinctive barrel-roofed lock cottages, split bridges and the longest aqueduct in England. It also fared worse when traffic declined, falling into dereliction by the 1950s. Its return to navigation was a cause celebre for the restoration movement (see news story, page 79). Reopened by the Queen Mother in 1964 after years of hard work by volunteers including prison
labourers, it was operated by the National Trust until British Waterways took it over in 1988.
Meanwhile the northern section stayed open, being used as an alternative route into central Birmingham for working boats. Even so, its future looked doomed when in 1947 the canal’s owners the Great Western Railway replaced a swing bridge near Kings Norton with a ‘temporary’ fixed low level bridge that obstructed navigation. Along came Inland Waterways Association pioneer Tom Rolt who exercised his right of navigation, forcing the railway company to raise the bridge allowing him to pass through with his boat. The canal has stayed open ever since.
Our journey to Stratford begins at Kings Norton Junction on the southern
‘The canal winds eastward on a mostly green course – so much so that it’s difficult to believe you’re passing through southern Birmingham suburbs’
fringe of greater Birmingham, where the canal leaves the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. Before leaving Kings Norton it might be worth a look around nearby Kings Norton Park with its Old Grammar School and 13th century church. Very soon the canal passes through a stop lock with guillotine gates built to prevent water loss into its neighbouring canal, but now left with both gates raised. This is followed by the aforementioned swing bridge, now also permanently in the open position.
Next comes Brandwood Tunnel, the only one on the canal, complete with a bust of Shakespeare on the portal keystone, but with no towpath so walkers will need to find their way via footpaths and roads over the top.
After the tunnel the canal winds eastwards on a mostly green course – so much so that it’s difficult to believe that you’re passing through southern Birmingham suburbs with the city centre only a few miles to the north.
At Warstock, the canal bends to the south arriving at the electrically powered Shirley Drawbridge which is conveniently situated next to a pub. After passing new waterside housing the canal enters an attractive wooded section and Birmingham’s suburbia is left behind.
Earlswood Motor Yacht Club has its headquarters and moorings on a feeder channel from Earlswood Reservoir, where three lakes accommodate nature reserves, sailing and angling. At Warings Green there is a popular cider house pub, a boatyard and a renowned bakery with a cafe near Bridge 20. The canal passes beneath the noisy M42 motorway to reach Hockley Heath, which has a waterside pub and a boatyard on a diminutive canal arm that was once a coal wharf.
Two hydraulically operated lift bridges bring the canal down to Lapworth Top Lock which is attractively situated in open countryside. Boaters wishing to visit Packwood House (see inset) should stop at Bridge 31 and follow the lane northwards for about half a mile. The first four locks are well spread out but afterwards they come thick and fast with nine more locks close together running all the way down the hillside. There is a short gap after Lock 14 with a convenient pub and canal shop before completing the descent to Kingswood Junction.
Kingswood Junction marks the point where the southern section of canal begins. It is a very interesting place to
stop. There is a maintenance yard with an attractive group of old workshops and a picnic area set in lovely woodland. Also at Kingswood is a short Y-shaped arm known as the Lapworth Link which connects the Stratford Canal to the Grand Union, the two branches of the ‘Y’ providing two connections to the Stratford Canal, one above and one below Lock 21. Boaters heading for the southern section should keep to the right-hand side at both junctions and continue down the locks. Immediately you will notice the character of the canal has changed, with the split bridges (to allow a towrope to pass through) and unusual barrel-roofed lock cottages so typical of the South Stratford.
Locks appear at regular intervals but are now more spaced out. The only interruption to the peaceful landscape is the M40 motorway by Lapworth Bottom Lock. The motorway has long gone by the time you reach Lowsonford, which has a waterside pub with a large garden. Lowsonford Lock has a pretty barrelroofed lock cottage with unspoilt original appearance. In 2015, this was the temporary location for an incongruous new statue by Antony Gormley of a man standing next to the lock. The statue was removed during the summer of 2016.
Some of the barrel-roofed lock cottages on the south Stratford have had new extensions built which may have improved accommodation for the owners, but at the cost of altering their original exterior appearance. Examples of these changes can be seen at Preston Bagot where there are three locks and a pub with restaurant on the main road beyond the bottom lock.
The next two miles are lock-free as the canal passes through beautiful remote countryside topped with wooded hills. At Wootton Wawen there is a boat yard with hire fleet, a large pub and an iron-trough aqueduct over the main road.
Check out the Yew Tree Farm Shopping Village where 16 barn conversions include the Farm Shop and Cowshed Cafe. All this is just a short walk from the canal.
More open countryside follows in the next mile and a half, with just one isolated lock and a new marina before reaching the impressive Edstone (or Bearley) Aqueduct. This is the longest canal aqueduct in England, and spans a small river, two railway tracks and a road. Its dropped towpath, level with the bottom of the canal, gives walkers a fish’s eye view of passing boats looming above them.
After the excitement of the aqueduct the next length passes through remote countryside with no locks and only two
footbridges crossing the canal. This ends at the charmingly named Featherbed Lane Bridge where it’s just a short walk to the village of Wilmcote. You can also visit Mary Arden’s Farm (see inset).
The 11 locks at Wilmcote are all beautifully situated with fine views over Stratford and the distant Malvern Hills. Once through the bottom lock the canal enters the town of Stratford by the ‘back door’. At first it looks like any other midlands town with industrial estates and housing with no hint of the delights to come. There are three more locks before the canal passes beneath a low bridge and enters Bancroft Basin.
What a transformation: suddenly you find you are in one of Britain’s premier tourist centres. Over to the left is the Gower Memorial with sculptures of Shakespearian characters such as Hamlet, Lady Macbeth and Falstaff huddled around the base. High above them is the Bard himself looking out over Bancroft Basin with its moored boats and colourful flower gardens. Bancroft Basin now has a floating information centre with a gift shop, meeting room and various displays about the waterways. Thousands of visitors from all over the world can take a passenger trip boat from the basin to see Stratford’s delights from the water. If mooring is difficult in the basin then pass through the canal’s final lock into the River Avon where mooring should be easier.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the bank of the River Avon is very close to
Bancroft Basin. The original theatre which opened in 1879 was burned down in 1926 and rebuilt in 1932. This was redeveloped and reopened by the Queen in 2011. Also while you’re in Stratford, don’t miss Shakespeare’s Birthplace (see inset), as well as Shakespeare’s New Place in Chapel Street, his family home in his later years, which also includes an exhibition and a garden. This was the house where he died in 1616, and you can see his grave in the beautiful Holy Trinity Church, splendidly situated on the banks of the River Avon.
Passing Waring’s Green, on the northern Stratford near Earlswood
The unusual guillotine stop-lock
Secluded length at Earlswood
Brandwood, the canal’s only tunnel
Liftbridges like this one at Shirley are a feature of the northern Stratford
Characteristic barrel-roofed cottage at Lowsonford
Liftbridge near Hockley Heath
Bancroft Basin in the heart of Stratford