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

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY DEREK PRATT

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

Lap­worth Locks

Ban­croft Basin in the heart of Strat­ford

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