CRUISE GUIDE: COVENTRY CANAL
It cooled down when the coal trade went quiet, yet the Coventry now offers a rural pleasure
Built as part of a grand scheme to connect the country’s rivers, for most of its life it was a heavy coal-carrier, but today the Coventry Canal is an important link in the cruising network
The Coventry Canal was an integral part of engineer James Brindley’s plan to link the River Trent with the Thames at Oxford. But it was coal from the mines along its route that made the canal prosperous, and it remained a working waterway right up to the mid-1960s. Indeed, as late as 1958, a British Waterways publication stated that it was carrying around 120,000 tons of coal annually, mostly south to the London area.
The mines have since closed, but traces can still be seen, such as the entries to their loading basins. However, despite its industrial past, much of the Coventry Canal now presents a green and pastoral aspect to the visiting boater, and for the most part a gentle cruise, with only 13 locks, 11 of them are grouped together at Atherstone.
Although the Coventry Canal stretches 38 miles, it actually incorporates a five-mile stretch of the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which joins it at Fazeley Junction. The reason for this is that in 1782, when construction of the section between Coventry and Fazeley was complete, the canal company ran out of
money and was unable to proceed any further. The owners of the Birmingham & Fazeley and Trent & Mersey canals stepped in and finished the remaining 11 miles between Fazeley and Fradley.
Eventually the Coventry Canal Company took over the Trent & Mersey’s part between Fradley and Whittington Brook, but the rest remained as the Birmingham & Fazeley.
We begin at Fradley Junction where the Coventry Canal leaves the Trent & Mersey Canal opposite the renowned 200-year old Swan Inn, once a popular stopping place for the working boatmen.
Fradley Junction also has two cafés, a shop, a canal information centre and Fradley Pool, with its many nature trails.
Leaving the junction, the canal passes an industrial centre built on the site of an old airfield, before taking a twisting southerly course to Streethay Wharf. Here you can take a bus to visit the cathedral city of Lichfield, only two miles away.
At Huddlesford, a waterside pub called The Plough is near to the former junction with the Wyrley & Essington Canal. The first section is used by the Lichfield Cruising Club for moorings, but after that
it is derelict. It once formed a vital connection between the Black Country canals and the Coventry Canal but was abandoned in 1954 and filled in at several places. There is a vigorous campaign to restore the abandoned lengths (under the name Lichfield Canal), led by the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust.
Next comes Whittington village, which has a waterside pub and is a pleasant place to stop for a while. Look out for the boundary stone that divided the Coventry and the Birmingham & Fazeley canals.
The canal is now following the River Tame valley, and the next section at Hopwas Hays Wood is probably the prettiest on its entire length.
This lovely stretch of waterway has the river on one side and a forest on the other. Exploration of Hopwas Hays Wood needs some care, though, as part of it is used as a firing range, but notices are posted when this is in progress. Hopwas village has two pubs facing each other across the water, which makes it an excellent place to linger awhile.
A further two miles of rural cruising brings you to Fazeley Junction, where the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal begins its journey to central Birmingham. There is a handsome junction house, and the Canal & River Trust has its offices and yard at Peels Wharf next to the junction.
Soon after leaving Fazeley, the canal crosses the River Tame on a large aqueduct. This is closely followed by two locks at Glascote, above which is a large boatyard with a dry dock set in its own basin.
Here you are very near the centre of Tamworth, which is a short walk from the bridge above the locks. While you are there visit the Norman castle (see inset).
The Samuel Barlow pub, named after a famous fleet of canal carriers, overlooks the canal next to Alvecote Marina at
Amington, beyond which there are more ancient ruins to visit at Alvecote Priory (see inset).
After Alvecote comes Pooley Fields Nature Reserve, created by mining subsidence, where spoil heaps from Pooley Hall Colliery have been grassed over. The canal passes through a wooded cutting by Pooley Hall manor house and then enters Polesworth. The M42 motorway is the only interruption to a very pleasant section of waterway.
Coal mining, quarrying and potteries made Polesworth a prosperous town during the 19th century. The canal played its part in transporting this produce, especially coal, which in the 1960s was still being carried by water from Pooley Hall Colliery. The canal passes through the centre of the town, which is a good stopping place for shops, pubs and takeaways.
After Polesworth, the canal follows the Anker Valley along a three-mile stretch of open countryside before the Atherstone flight of 11 locks at Bradley Green. The first six locks are set in countryside, with the final five inside the town. Just above the top lock is Rothen’s coal yard, which still retains a feeling of yesteryear, when the yard was busy loading boats with coal to take to London and the south.
Atherstone has been a centre for hat making since the 17th century and once employed 3,000 people in its millinery factories. A special football match is played in the streets every Shrove Tuesday, when local shopkeepers wisely board up their windows for the day…
The canal continues on its southerly course to Hartshill where the maintenance yard features a superb collection of mid-19th century buildings. These were once the Coventry Canal Company’s workshops, and are occupied by the Canal & River Trust’s maintenance yard and offices. The centrepiece is an arched dock, topped by an elegant clock tower. Other notable structures include a stable block, a blacksmith’s shop and the manager’s house.
This is followed by an area that was once a hive of industry with a succession of slate quarries whose produce was carried away by boat. The quarries have closed now and their spoil heaps are now covered in grass and shrubs. This attractive section also has an excellent waterside pub.
At Nuneaton, the canal passes through a seemingly endless procession of housing with the occasional break for playing fields. The town has plenty of shops and pubs, but few of them are by the water.
In contrast, the Arbury Hall Estate on the outskirts of Nuneaton is surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens, and was the birthplace of Victorian novelist Mary Anne Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot.
The estate has been in the hands of the Newdigate family since 1586 and one of the more energetic owners was Sir Roger Newdigate. He inherited the estate in 1734 at the age of 14, and went on to build a system of small private canals connected by tramroads to carry coal and other produce along the Coventry Canal between 1764 and 1790.
The entire system was six miles long and had several locks, but closed after his death in 1806. Nearby Griff Hollows Canal was another private waterway, built to connect the Coventry Canal to the Griff
Colliery, just south of Nuneaton. This stayed in use until the mine closed in 1961, but its entrance can still be seen.
Next comes Marston Junction which marks the beginning of the Ashby Canal. This is followed by a boatyard after which the canal enters a long, straight cutting as it passes the town of Bedworth. At the end of the wooded cutting, you will see the entrance to the Newdigate Colliery Arm which closed in 1982. Most of the coal carried by boat from Newdigate and Griff Collieries went south, either to London or to the paper mills at Hemel Hempstead.
Our journey has now reached Hawkesbury, where the Coventry Canal meets the Oxford Canal. A splendid cast-iron junction bridge spans the junction, and there is an engine house that once supplied the Coventry Canal with water using a Newcomen steam engine. The junction became a meeting place for boating people waiting for orders to load from nearby collieries. They called the junction Sutton Stop after the Sutton family of 19th century lock-keepers. The Greyhound pub, once the haunt of working boatmen, is still in business opposite the elegant junction bridge and has been voted best pub in the Coventry area on several occasions.
The final five and a half miles to the canal’s terminus at Coventry is now called The Greenway. This section was once highly industrialised with famous companies like Daimler, Rover and Courtaulds all having waterside factories; sadly these have all moved elsewhere.
Now there is an art trail with sculptures, seats and murals and the canal is a refuge for wildlife as the city environs encroach. Housing developments and trading estates line the canal where waterside trees help to keep some of the length looking green.
At Longford, the Ricoh Arena home of Coventry City football club (and
also currently home for Wasps Rugby Club) is close by the waterway. Look for the elegant terrace which is Cash’s Hundred Houses or Cash’s Top Shops. The upper story of the building contained power-driven looms, and the weavers lived below the workshops. All they had to do is climb the stairs to go to work, in what must be the shortest commute in history. The Top Shops were built in 1857 and can be seen at Bridge 2 just a short distance from the canal basin. The terminus basin was opened in 1769 and expanded in 1788. It is situated to the north of Coventry city centre, just outside the city’s inner ring road, and well-placed for mooring up and exploring the city’s sights including the cathedral (see inset), statue of Lady Godiva and St Mary’s Guildhall with its collection of royal portraits, armour and one of the country’s most important tapestries dating from around 1500.
Today the canal basin is flanked by restored warehouses and new developments, with many of the warehouses now containing artists’ studios. Opposite the warehouses are a row of buildings which include shops, studios and an excellent cafe. Between are the moorings with a statue of engineer James Brindley looking out towards the start of his canal: what would he have made of the scene today?
Turning onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley Junction
The canal skirts Whittington village
Passing the fine junction house at Fazeley
A pretty wooded length at Hopwas Hays
Cruising past Polesworth
The elegant clock tower at Harthill Depot
Atherstone Locks begin in the countryside
Cash’s Top Shops terrace with weaving lofts
...and busy with working boats in the 1960s
Hawkesbury Junction today...
James Brindley looks out over Coventry Basin
Eye-catching modern footbridge on the approach to Coventry