Stafford bound

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...

Canal Boat - - Restoration -

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

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