In the seond part of our guide, we follow the gentle descent of the eastern lengths to reach the Trent
In the second part of our two-part guide, the steep lock flights and the industrial Staffordshire Potteries are left behind as the canal follows a gentler rural route down the Trent Valley to Shardlow
We ended part one of this guide to the Trent & Mersey Canal just south east of Stone, at the exact mid-point of famous canal engineer James Brindley’s great 92-mile trunk route across the country. But as well as being precisely halfway between the Preston Brook and Shardlow (two villages both of great importance to the canals but equally littleknown away from them), it also marks a change in the canal’s character.
While the first part of the descent from the canal’s summit in the Staffordshire Potteries has been characterised by flights of locks – five at Etruria, four at Meaford, four more at Stone – the gradient now eases off as the canal follows the gentle fall of the broadening Trent Valley. There’s an odd lock at Aston, another at Sandon, a third at Weston, a fourth at Hoo Mill, each with two or three miles of gently meandering rural canal between them, sometimes accompanied by the London to Manchester railway line. The small village of Salt is notable for a curiously ornate bridge with multiple rings of brickwork radiating upwards and outwards from the arch (perhaps relating to it having been raised to match the later railway bridge alongside).
Great Haywood is another of those places that few non-canal folk will of heard of, but has been a key point on the canal system since the 1770s, because this is where the Trent & Mersey met another of the arms of Brindley’s ‘Grand Cross’ of waterways linking the country’s great
rivers. A fine towpath bridge (note how the parapet slopes right down to the ground on either side, preventing horse tow-ropes from snagging) spans the entrance to the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, whose 46 miles lead to the River Severn at Stourport.
As well as a useful canalside village with shops and pubs, Great Haywood is a canal boating centre today, with a boatyard at the junction and a marina a little way north. From Haywood Lock take the footpath east for the village, or west for the ancient packhorse bridge leading to Shugborough Park (see inset). At Little Haywood the canal is overshadowed by a busy main line railway junction, but there is another shop in the village, plus two pubs.
The canal’s gradual descent has slowed even
more, with no locks at all for almost ten miles. However a couple of navigation features keep up the interest as the canal continues to follow the Trent. A sharp right turn leads to the solidly-built Brindley Bank Aqueduct over the Trent, following which a sign marks the former site of The Bloody Steps. These took their name from the brutal 1839 murder by boatmen of Christina Collins, whose body was then carried up the steps to the Talbot Inn – historical events on which the Inspector Morse novel The Wench is Dead was based.
Rugeley is a useful town for supplies, with the town centre a short walk west of Bridge 67 (look out for the ruins of the ancient church on your way there), then the town is gradually left behind as the canal returns to countryside. Note the concrete and steel canal banks, indicating that they have had to be rebuilt (putting the canal on a slight embankment) following subsidence when this was a coal-mining area, and note also a standard Canal & River Trust tunnel sign – but no actual tunnel…
Instead there is a narrow, rocky cutting (too narrow to pass in, so watch out for boats approaching) which until the same mining subsidence brought about its
removal in 1971 was Armitage Tunnel. Incidentally this put the T&M in equal first place with the Worcester & Birmingham Canal for having the most tunnels on a single main line canal, with five each. (Note for nitpickers: I don’t count later amalgamations like the Grand Union system as a ‘single main line canal’!)
As well as an ex-tunnel, anyone who has paid any attention to the writing on the china while using the sanitary facilities will be aware of Armitage’s other claim to fame – and Armitage Shanks’ rather fine toilet works forms an impressive canalside structure.
Armitage merges into Handsacre with its canalside pub, and then the canal returns to quiet open countryside leading past a large marina to the end of the long pound at Wood End Lock. But don’t be misled by the word ‘quiet’ – firstly, this is a busy part of the canal system today, with queues for the lock not unknown in summer (so give yourself plenty of time); but secondly the peace looks set to be well and truly shattered in a few years’ time when the HS2 railway comes through. Despite efforts by the Inland Waterways Association and the Canal & River Trust which have greatly reduced its impact (four originally planned viaducts crossing the canal have been reduced to just one), it will still make itself felt.
A sharp left bend marks the southernmost point on the canal, as begins its journey north eastwards towards Shardlow and the junction with the Trent. Fradley brings a flurry of locks (also often busy, but with volunteer keepers helping to keep things moving) as well as another important junction (and once again, at a village whose name probably means nothing to most people not involved in canals). Here, opposite the famous Swan pub, the Coventry Canal begins the long journey via Hawkesbury Junction and the Oxford Canal to the Thames, making the fourth arm of Brindley’s Grand Cross.
The five Fradley Locks are followed by three more as the canal winds its way through Alrewas village to join the River Trent – but not for long. River and canal combine for a hundred yards or so, and then separate as the canal moves to the north side of the Trent, where it remains for the rest of the journey. A long series of towpath bridges and a series of side-weirs indicate that at times the river can be swollen by flood waters – don’t attempt this length unless the gauges at the locks on either side show that it is safe.
An uncharacteristically straight length follows a rather older transport route – the Roman Ryknild Street, now the busy A38 trunk road – for a couple of miles, punctuated by the pub and marina at Barton-under-Needwood, then they separate again. A series of shallow and well spaced out locks brings the canal into Burton-upon-Trent.
In case any boaters aren’t already aware
of what Burton is famous for, the town’s breweries have done their best to keep them informed, with their pipe bridges carrying adverts for Marston’s ales and for the Bass Museum of Brewing (see inset), and to be honest, the smell from the breweries is probably enough of a clue.
Shobnall Fields (scene of past IWA festivals) accompany the route through Burton, with the town’s shops a short walk away. A boatyard occupies what was once an arm of the canal leading to the Trent, which had historically been navigable up to this point – but whose upper reaches were bypassed by the new canal.
That snippet of waterways history still makes itself felt, as unlike the standard narrow locks for boats of around 72ft by 7ft that we’ve encountered so far, the length of canal from Burton onwards was built to 14ft beam so that it could take the old upper Trent barges. This means that beyond Burton all the locks and bridges are wide, and you’ll start to meet a few widebeam craft. Owners of such boats should note, however, that the old upper Trent barges had very low air draft at the sides, so many of the bridges will be very tight on the non-towpath side for some modern widebeams.
Another typically low and solid James Brindley aqueduct spans the River Dove on 11 spans (it seems that the river was actually widened out to make up for the restricted channel through each arch), then Willington village is followed by a large marina village created from former gravel workings. Stenson Lock is the first of the wide-beam chambers, and at 12ft 4in deep it’s a real contrast to the 3ft 6in fall of the last narrow lock, back in Burton.
Near Swarkestone a narrowing of the canal accompanied by an old hand-crane marks another former connection: when the Derby Canal was first built, it made a staggered crossing of the T&M and continued to meet the River Trent, this crane marking the site of the toll house at the junction. There is now little, if anything, to be seen of the link to the Trent, but a little further on the former canal can be seen coming in from Derby on the north side, the first few yards used for moorings, and the Derby & Sandiacre Canal Trust hopes to one day reopen it to
Derby and on to meet the Erewash Canal at Sandiacre.
Just south of the canal is Swarkestone Bridge over the Trent, and another historic landmark: some 30 years before the canal opened, this had marked the southernmost point reached by the advance guard of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite forces.
The final couple of miles of canal are typified by quiet scenery, with no main roads nearby and the peace only disturbed by the occasional freight train on a nearby non-passenger line. Weston Lock and Aston Lock (yes, they share names with two locks we passed near Stone – a cause of some confusion, surely?) lead to Shardlow.
Old canal warehouses, canalside pubs, bridges and a lock all combine to make this a classic canal village, and a fitting end to our long journey along one of our earliest long-distance canal trunk routes. But it isn’t quite the end. A final mile leads past a flood barrier (do not pass if the warning light shows red) and then via Derwent Mouth Lock to meet the Trent at a four-way junction: left is the unnavigable Derwent; right for a backwater leading to Shardlow Marina; straight on for the Trent and the great waterway crossroads of Trent Lock. Left for the Erewash; ahead for the Trent to Nottingham and on down the tideway to the north eastern waterway; right for the Soar, the Grand Union and the south east of England.
Picturesque surroundings at Bagnall Lock, Alrewas
At Great Haywood, a boat takes the turn onto the Staffs & Worcs Canal, leading to the Severn
The unusual design of Salt Bridge, raised when the adjacent railway was built
Alrewas Tunnel was opened out in 1971, leaving this narrow, rocky cutting
An attractive rural length of canal between Little Haywood and Rugeley
Passing Armitage Shanks’ canalside sanitary ware works
Fradley Junction, where the Coventry Canal branches off to the left
Just east of where the canal crosses the Trent - note towpath bridges for floodwater
A typical low, multi-arched James Brindley aqueduct crosses the River Dove
Historic former canal warehouse building in Shardlow village
Stenson Lock, the first of the broad locks on the eastern end of the canal
The eastern lengths near Weston-on-Trent pass undistrubed through quiet country
Shardlow is a canal village with many old buildings including the Malt Shovel Inn