CRUISE GUIDE: COVEN­TRY CANAL

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

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

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