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