Mak­ing trunk calls

Trav­el­ling on the TRENT & MERSEY (WEST) in the foot­steps of Brind­ley


The Trent & Mersey Canal, like the Bridge­wa­ter Canal which we cov­ered last month, was very much a pi­o­neer­ing route when it opened – but as you’ll dis­cover if you cruise from the Bridge­wa­ter onto the T&M at Pre­ston Brook, there’s quite a con­trast be­tween them.

While the Bridge­wa­ter was ini­tially a very lo­cal project, link­ing the Duke of Bridge­wa­ter’s mines to the nearby city of Manch­ester – and later to the River Mersey – which even­tu­ally be­came a key link in the north west’s net­work of canals, the Trent & Mersey Canal was conceived right from the out­set as one of the first great trunk routes. Dubbed the ‘Grand Trunk Canal’ by its en­gi­neer James Brind­ley, it would con­nect the Stafford­shire Pot­ter­ies in­dus­trial area to the coast, link two of the coun­try’s ma­jor rivers in a route stretch­ing right across the coun­try, and form part of a ‘Grand Cross’ con­nect­ing the Mersey, Sev­ern, Thames and Trent.

But for all that the con­cept was much grander, the con­struc­tion was rather less so. Com­pared with the broad-beam Bridge­wa­ter, with its gen­er­ally straight or gen­tly curv­ing course strid­ing boldly across the coun­try­side on em­bank­ments, the Trent & Mersey is much more of a char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘early’ canal, de­signed to take nar­row­boats of around 70ft by 7ft and with a more wind­ing route, even though it was built a few years later, open­ing through­out in 1777.

You might think of the Trent & Mersey Canal as start­ing at Pre­ston Brook Junc­tion, where the Manch­ester and Run­corn lines of the

Bridge­wa­ter meet, but in fact the first cou­ple of hun­dred yards south from the junc­tion are a branch of the Bridge­wa­ter, and the change of own­er­ship is just be­fore Pre­ston Brook Tun­nel. And this isn’t just a quirky piece of canal trivia – with the Bridge­wa­ter be­ing in dif­fer­ent own­er­ship (but sub­ject to re­cip­ro­cal ar­range­ments) it’s worth know­ing this for li­cens­ing pur­poses.

The tun­nel, one of four on the Trent & Mersey’s main line, is just too nar­row for nar­row­boats to pass each other (please don’t try!), and so it’s op­er­ated on an hourly timed entry sys­tem. South­bound craft may en­ter be­tween half past each hour and twenty to; north­bound craft be­tween the hour and ten past. If you end up with a bit of a wait, it’s easy to find your­self some read­ing mat­ter: I’m not just talk­ing about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sig­nage around the tun­nel en­trance – some­one lo­cal has thought­fully pro­vided a se­lec­tion of sec­ond­hand paperbacks (help your­self, free) in a small shel­tered set of shelves on the tow­path.

For those ex­plor­ing the canal on foot, there’s an easy-to-fol­low path over the top of the tun­nel which passes the Tun­nel Top Inn (cur­rently closed). The canal emerges to ar­rive very shortly at Dut­ton Stop Lock, which is a bit of an odd­ity. Firstly, it’s rare enough to find one of these very shal­low-rise locks, built near junc­tions to keep the dif­fer­ent canal com­pa­nies’ wa­ter sup­plies sep­a­rate, that’s still a work­ing lock: there are only four left on the net­work. Se­condly, it’s at the far end of the tun­nel from the ac­tual junc­tion. And

thirdly, it’s wider at one end than the other: it seems that it was built to take boats up to around 11ft beam, as was the canal as far as Mid­dlewich (de­spite what I said ear­lier about it be­ing a nar­row canal, sec­tions at both ends were built wider) – but the top end was later re­built to more like 9ft.

It leads out into very pleas­ant, quiet coun­try­side with the out­skirts of Run­corn left be­hind – but de­spite its peace­ful ap­pear­ance, this length has caused canal engi­neers some grief over the years. As you ad­mire the views over the Weaver val­ley (and look out for any boats pass­ing on the river), you may spot where a ma­jor breach in 2012 saw a sec­tion of em­bank­ment washed away down into the val­ley, and a six-month clo­sure for re­pairs. Back in the 18th cen­tury this wasn’t the eas­i­est of lengths to build, as can be seen from the need for two tun­nels in quick suc­ces­sion. Nei­ther tun­nel is par­tic­u­larly straight, and while the first and more crooked one, Sal­ters­ford, has timed entry like Pre­ston Brook, Barn­ton Tun­nel re­lies on boaters check­ing whether there is any­thing com­ing the other way.

The canal’s route along the steep Weaver Val­ley side may have made it tricky to build, but it pro­vided the site for a truly re­mark­able piece of canal en­gi­neer­ing. The An­der­ton Lift, Bri­tain’s only sur­viv­ing boat lift un­til the open­ing of the Falkirk Wheel in 2002, raises and low­ers boats ver­ti­cally by 50ft be­tween the canal and the Weaver. It’s a unique ex­pe­ri­ence and pro­vides ac­cess to an at­trac­tive but sadly un­der­used river for a few days’ cruis­ing, or for a shorter trip to North­wich, a town that’s re­ally start­ing to make more of its river­side.

A rather straight con­crete-lined length of canal in­di­cates where yet an­other gen­er­a­tion of canal engi­neers strug­gled with the ter­rain (and the salt-min­ing sub­si­dence mak­ing it worse): this is where a di­ver­sion had to be cre­ated in the 1950s to re­place a length which was show­ing signs of dis­ap­pear­ing down the val­ley side.

The canal­side Lion Salt Works mu­seum (see in­set) pro­vides more

ev­i­dence of this in­dus­try, as do a se­ries of ‘flashes’. These are lakes caused by flood­ing of sub­sided land, and the canal passes by or through sev­eral. Two have been turned into mari­nas, but don’t be tempted to stray too far away from the tow­path in the oth­ers – an idea of how shal­low they are may be gained from the heron we spot­ted in the mid­dle of one, ap­par­ently stand­ing on the bot­tom…

A canal­side in­dus­trial com­plex re­minds us that Cheshire isn’t just about black and white cat­tle and black and white houses, it’s home to a size­able chem­i­cal in­dus­try, with a whole se­ries of gantries, pipes and con­vey­ors span­ning the canal. But soon it’s left be­hind and the canal fol­lows the lit­tle River Dane, cross­ing it at Crox­ton Aqueduct. This cast iron struc­ture is the third one on the site, and its nar­row beam di­men­sions (un­like the broad beam orig­i­nal one) mean that it’s now the limit for craft wider than 7ft, which could once reach Mid­dlewich.

This leaves us with an anom­aly as you’ll see when you ar­rive in Mid­dlewich, where the first lock, the ‘Big Lock’ (ac­com­pa­nied by a pub of the same name) has a 14ft wide cham­ber which is no longer of any pur­pose (other than to al­low nar­row­boats to share at busy times.

For a canal which crosses the cen­tral water­shed of the coun­try, we’ve done sur­pris­ingly lit­tle climb­ing so far – this is the first lock since Dut­ton Stop Lock – but the canal town of Mid­dlewich marks where it all be­gins to change. The Big Lock is fol­lowed by a closely-spaced flight of three locks on a sharp bend through the town. A junc­tion marks where the Mid­dlewich Branch of the Shrop­shire Union joins – well, ac­tu­ally, tech­ni­cally the first few yards and lock are a branch of the Trent & Mersey (the ‘War­dle Canal’, beloved of wa­ter­ways pedants as the coun­try’s short­est canal). But rather more se­ri­ously, it doesn’t go any­where at the mo­ment, and will re­main out of ac­tion for the rest of this year while the breach just out­side the town is re­paired (al­though the rest of the route from the Shrop­shire Union end re­mains open).

Back on the T&M, the junc­tion is fol­lowed by King’s Lock and the start of a long straight length as the canal runs along­side a main road, along­side a se­ries of mod­ern salt­works build­ings.

Locks con­tinue the gen­tle climb as far as El­worth, then there’s an­other three mile rest as the canal skirts around the edge of Sand­bach town. Then the climb be­gins again, this time in earnest. They might not be a closely spaced flight, but there’s sel­dom much more than a half mile’s gap as the Cheshire Locks (some­times nick­named ‘Heart­break Hill’) climb up to­wards the hills which we start to spot in the dis­tance. One of

these is topped by Mow Cop Cas­tle – a folly, cre­ated to look like a ro­man­tic ruin to im­prove the view from a lo­cal stately home.

All bar two of the 26 locks lead­ing up to the sum­mit were du­pli­cated to cater for busy traf­fic: now in a num­ber of cases one cham­ber has been taken out of use (and their con­di­tion varies from look­ing like they could eas­ily be re­opened to com­pletely oblit­er­ated), but a fair num­ber of pairs are both still in use. Do note that in a few cases one lock is marked as be­ing lim­ited to 6ft 10in width.

Half hid­den in the un­der­growth by Lock 53 at Thurl­wood, where the miss­ing sec­ond lock cham­ber would have been, you may spot a con­crete beam with the date ‘1958’ cast into it. This is a rem­nant of the re­mark­able Thurl­wood Steel Lock, built in an at­tempt to com­bat sub­si­dence, with the guil­lo­tine gated struc­ture formed en­tirely from steel and ca­pa­ble of be­ing jacked up to com­pen­sate for fur­ther ground move­ment. But it was un­re­li­able, com­pli­cated and slow to op­er­ate, un­pop­u­lar with the re­main­ing work­ing boat crews, needed more main­te­nance, and in the mean­time the ad­ja­cent con­ven­tional lock re­mained op­er­a­ble. Few may have mourned its demise in 1988, but I can’t help feel­ing a twinge of re­gret that some­thing unlovely and unloved, but unique, was scrapped so late on.

The climb steep­ens again as 11 locks in two miles bring the canal to its sum­mit level. Just be­fore the last two pairs of locks, the Mac­cles­field Canal crosses on Pool Lock Aqueduct, be­fore swing­ing round and join­ing from the right above the top lock. Or rather, to be strictly ac­cu­rate, I should de­scribe it as “the short branch of the Trent & Mersey lead­ing to the Mac­cles­field Canal”, be­cause like in Mid­dlewich, the T&M com­pany built the first sec­tion as a branch of their own canal – per­haps it was their pol­icy to want to keep con­trol of the ac­tual phys­i­cal junc­tions?

We’re now in the use­ful town of Kids­grove, with plenty of shops and pubs, and a good place to stock up – es­pe­cially as you may have some time to wait for Hare­cas­tle Tun­nel.

At over a mile and a half, this is the long­est on the canal and was the long­est in the coun­try when it opened. In its early stages it was treated with de­ri­sion in some quar­ters – it’s name was an ab­so­lute gift, as de­trac­tors turned it into ‘Brind­ley’s Air Cas­tle’ – but soon they changed their tune and it was “the great Mr. Brind­ley, who han­dles rocks as eas­ily as you would plum-pies”, al­though sadly he died be­fore it was com­pleted.

It’s ac­tu­ally Thomas Telford’s sec­ond tun­nel which we use to­day – they op­er­ated in par­al­lel for many years, but then coal min­ing sub­si­dence made the orig­i­nal bore im­pass­able. It’s one-way traf­fic, un­der the con­trol of keep­ers at each end, and closed overnight. And as there are no ven­ti­la­tion shafts, fumes are kept un­der con­trol by ex­trac­tor fans at the south end, with doors closed across the tun­nel en­trance ex­cept when boats are en­ter­ing or leav­ing.

The south por­tal marks the start of the in­dus­trial area known tra­di­tion­ally as The Pot­ter­ies, some­times as the Five Towns (al­though there are ac­tu­ally six), and now form­ing the city of Stoke on Trent. Al­though its tra­di­tional in­dus­try has de­clined, you will still see plenty of the dis­tinc­tive bot­tle-kilns once used for fir­ing pots, and the water­side Mid­dle­port

Pottery is still in op­er­a­tion. It used to also be a coal min­ing and steel­mak­ing area, with the canal pass­ing through one of the build­ings of Shel­ton Bar Steel­works, but that has long gone.

The sum­mit level ends at Etruria, where the Cal­don Canal bears off left (and do make time to cruise this de­light­ful 17-mile cul-de-sac if you can) at the head of a flight of five deep locks. The ef­fects of sub­si­dence can clearly be seen in the signs of re­peated re­build­ing of the now ex­tremely deep top lock. The junc­tion is about the clos­est point to Han­ley, which is the Pot­ter­ies’ main shopping cen­tre.

The A500 dual car­riage­way and main line rail­way make them­selves felt, as the canal fol­lows an in­dus­trial area be­tween road and rail­way, be­fore fi­nally leav­ing the built up area be­hind. This is only a brief ru­ral in­ter­lude be­fore Tren­tham, be­yond which the canal fi­nally en­ters open coun­try again.

While the climb to the sum­mit was steep, the de­scent is gen­er­ally gen­tler. A sin­gle lock at Tren­tham marks the end of a four-mile level, and then an­other two-mile pound leads past the Wedgwood pottery works and mu­seum (see in­set) and Bar­las­ton vil­lage.

A four lock flight at Meaford is fol­lowed by a fur­ther four, as the canal de­scends through the self-styled Canal Town of Stone. There are boat­yards, boat­builders, dry docks, chan­dlery, the old­est-es­tab­lished canal hire fleet, and a canal­side pub which boasts a Guin­ness Book of Records entry for hav­ing the most dif­fer­ent floor lev­els. The town cen­tre is a short walk away, with use­ful shops.

You may have no­ticed the fine cast iron canal mile­posts, ei­ther orig­i­nals or re­place­ments in­stalled by the Trent & Mersey Canal So­ci­ety, all giv­ing dis­tances to Pre­ston Brook and Shard­low. Not far be­yond Stone is one which in­di­cates that these places are both ex­actly 46 miles away, so hav­ing reached the mid-point we’ll pause here and con­tinue next month.

Pre­ston Brook Tun­nel may look widre enough to pass in, but isn’t

The cu­ri­ous Dut­ton Stop Lock: wider at one end than the other

Pass­ing the Lion Salt Works mu­seum near North­wich

Above: Crox­ton Aqueduct, which lim­its the width of boats reach­ing Mid­dlewich Be­low left: Barn­ton Tun­nelBe­low: A ru­ral length of canal north of Crox­ton

Many of the Cheshire locks are du­pli­cated, like these two pairs at Whee­lock

Rumps Lock, near the start of the climb to Hare­cas­tle

Big Lock, 14ft wide but only ac­ces­si­ble by nar­row­boats

Above: Star Lock and the his­toric Star Inn in Stone

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