A Sign for Pool Quay

Pool Quay, Pub signs, Montgomery canal, Powis Arms, River Severn, Welshpool, Severn Trow

By a happy coincidence of interests I was recently asked to paint a pub sign. I have always been interested in the subject and find it a deeply satisfying tradition if strangely odd and strangely British, a leftover from the days before street numbering. I like the concept of pictorial signs, introducing some extra art into the everyday business of living, and I like pubs and drinking beer generally so what could be better? Well, if it was on the Montgomery Canal and could be used to remind ourselves of some local waterway history too. Hah, what a nice job to have!

The Powis Arms is an ancient pub at Pool Quay near Welshpool, the surviving one of two that used to serve a once thriving rural and industrial community of mills, farms, warehouses and many more small cottages than there are today. It was the river quay for the market town of Welshpool, the highest navigable point on the River Severn for barges and small trows trading on the river through Shrewsbury and Ironbridge right down to Gloucester and Bristol. In the eighteenth century any navigation was better than none (and a lot better than the roads) but it has to be admitted that the Severn above Shrewsbury was not actually a very good navigation. It was never improved for boats, never had a proper towing path, was impeded with weirs and eel traps and was at the constant mercy of drought and flood. In practice it was only really navigable with craft carrying a useful payload from October to May when there was a bit of winter fresh still running and it must have been fantastically hard work for the bow-hauling gangs to drag any loaded barge up against that current. But such is the inherent efficiency of water transport that it was still seen to be worth the effort.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Montgomery Canal had arrived at Pool Quay with a link through Llanymynech to the Ellesmere Canal and the rest of the system. By 1819 the canal was finally completed through to Newtown and enjoyed relative prosperity for the next century. We can assume that the new canal link must have affected the river trade for the two navigations are only a hundred yards apart here but the big traffics remained separate-- limestone and coal on the canal and timber on the Severn. The river traffic dwindled away as the century progressed, hastened no doubt by the coming of the railway in 1860 and the last through traffic is thought to have been aboard the Llandrinio boat Mary Ann around 1870. But the village and the pub survived, although rural depopulation and the closing of the local industries took their toll. The canal closed to traffic in 1936 and the railway went in 1965 and Pool Quay reverted to being a quiet hamlet alongside an increasingly important road. The pub went fairly quiet too as the landlord approached retirement and just a small bar remained open to serve the locals.

But a local farmer and his wife took it over last year and major improvements are underway. It was felt that a new sign by the road could improve the image and the trade and I was approached to do a design. Strictly speaking the Powis Arms should have the heraldic arms of the Powis family on its signboard but because it was known locally simply as ‘the quay’ we decided to use that name for both the lettering and the image. We’ll have a canal boat on one side and a river barge on the other, said I, to celebrate the old port’s importance. Fine, they said, narrow boats are well documented but what were the Upper Severn barges like? That is a more difficult question, for the traffic had almost ended before photography became common and my only reference was a grainy picture of a bigger square rigged barge at Ironbridge in the 1880s. So for the sign I have invented a sort of generalised river barge with vaguely trow-like elements and hope that history and more research will prove me right or wrong. (come on – it’s only a picture and it can be painted again in a few years time…!) In the meantime try the pub, a perfect staging post for a long exploratory walk along the canal towpath or the Offa’s Dyke footpath along the beautiful Severn valley.

©Tony Lewery,
The Brow,
Mayday 2008


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