Our walk combines two of engineer James Brindley’s most well-known canals with an obscure oncenavigable backwater – plus three aqueducts, a packhorse bridge, and a grisly tale...
Rugeley’s waterways claims to fame include an important aqueduct and a flight of steps with an associated grisly tale of murder; however we’ll start our walk at the rather less exciting but more easily accessible Bridge 67: on Station Road, a ten-minute walk southwest from Rugeley Trent Valley Station, and half a mile north of the town centre.
Follow the towpath of the Trent & Mersey Canal north westwards, with the canal on your left and the River Trent approaching from your right.
After three quarters of a mile, the canal swings sharply right: note the flight of steps climbing upwards from the opposite bank. These (well, their predecessors) are the ‘Bloody Steps’ where in 1839, 37-year-old Christine Collins, travelling as a passenger on a boat, was murdered by three boatmen. Two were hanged, one transported, and more recently the event was the inspiration for the Inspector Morse story The Wench is Dead.
Hurrying on, the sharp turn leads onto Brindley Bank Aqueduct which spans the Trent: even without the giveaway name, to the aficionado of canal heritage this sturdy brick structure with its series of low arches is characteristic of James Brindley and the earlier canal engineers.
Rugeley has now been left behind, but the A51 bypass and the busy West Coast Main Line railway make their presence felt for a short time. They soon recede as the canal resumes its north westerly course, never far from the river. A couple of miles of gently meandering waterway running through quiet countryside to Colwich.
If you’re walking the route on a busy summer weekend, you may well be thankful that you’re travelling on foot, as you could find yourself overtaking a line of boats moored waiting for Colwich Lock, as this is a busy length of canal. At the next bridge, Little Haywood is away to your right just a few minutes’ walk away.
Another mile of quiet countryside with the river close on your left leads to Great Haywood. From the bridge over the lock tail, take a detour westwards a few yards to Essex Bridge, an ancient 14-arch packhorse bridge across the river.
If you’ve got longer to spare, this is the way to Shugborough Hall, a National Trust property with a museum in the adjacent stables, a heritage farm and extensive parklands. Alternatively, walk a few yards the opposite way from the lock and you’re in Great Haywood with pub, shop, and (for those for whom four and a half miles walking is plenty), a bus back to Rugeley every couple of hours.
Back on the towpath, a short walk northwards leads to Great Haywood Junction, where three of the arms of Brindley’s ‘Grand Cross’ of canals met. Turn left here, pausing to admire the fine junction bridge (with parapets built to allow boat horses to cross without their towropes snagging), and enter the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, crossing the Trent immediately on another typical Brindley aqueduct.
The next length of canal is anything but typical, as the canal rounds a bend and unexpectedly broadens out to not far short of 100 yards wide.
Look across from the towpath and in the distance you should spot a clue to the reason for this: the impressive Tixall Gatehouse, now a Landmark Trust holiday home. This once watched over the gates of Tixall Hall, whose owners insisted on the canal being widened out into an ornamental lake to improve their view.
Narrowing back down to normal canal size, the canal passes Tixall Lock and crosses yet another James Brindley aqueduct, this time across the River Sow. Turning to run westwards, the canal is sandwiched between the Sow and the railway for two miles as it approaches Baswich village.
Don’t miss a footpath heading off on your right just after Bridge 101 (if you reach the railway, you’ve gone too far), because this is where we turn off onto our third waterway. The Staffs & Worcs Canal once had a short arm which linked to the River Sow, which was canalised for a mile to give access to Stafford.
It closed as long ago as the 1920s, but you can still walk the route of the towpath – and the Stafford Riverway Link project aims to reopen it to boats.
You’ll see signs of their work to uncover the remains of the junction basin and recreate the garden of the former lock cottage, as you leave the Staffs & Worcs behind and head for a footbridge over the Sow’s tributary, the Penk. Another footbridge crosses a small ditch, and leads to the Sow, where you turn left to follow the river towards Stafford.
‘River’ might seem something of an exaggeration, as it’s more of a small meandering stream which would need some serious desilting to make it navigable again, but as it approaches the town between watermeadows and sports fields it starts to look more like a navigable waterway, a series of bridges all being of ample size for boats.
The final couple of hundred yards of river leading into the town centre are built-up, the riverside path serving as a walkway between shops and offices, and coming to an end at Bridge Street. This was where navigation usually ended, but a few boats carried on a little further to a mill. If you turn right onto Bridge Street, then left into Mill Bank, you’ll see the preserved remains of the old watermill wheels in a park on your left. Bear left by the zebra crossing just beyond there to walk through the park to the railway station, for hourly trains back to Rugeley.
Colwich Lock on the Trent & Mersey Canal
Brindley Bank Aqueduct spans the Trent Great Haywood Junction’s fine towpath bridge
We recommend the Ordnance Survey’s Explorer map 244 Cannock Chase & Chasewater to accompany this walk. ©Crown copyright 2017 Ordnance Survey. Media 014/17
This was once the junction for Stafford
Tixall Lock on the Staffs & Worcs
The riverside path enters Stafford
Journey’s end at Stafford’s Bridge Street
The formerly navigable River Sow