The Shropshire Union Canal
The Shropshire Union Canal runs from the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port down through some of the most underpopulated areas of England to the edge of urban Wolverhampton, about sixty miles in all and taking a fairly leisurely four days to cruise. There’s the Roman city of Chester and half timbered market towns to explore, long vistas across open farmlands towards mid Wales and Cheshire and Staffordshire from the high canal embankments to see, and flights of locks that are easy to work!
The northern end of the Shroppie (as it is known by its many admirers) is at Ellesmere Port overlooking the broad River Mersey which was a transhipment port from canal to sea-going ships. The old docks now house The National Waterways Museum which has a unique collection of ex working boats and waterways exhibitions. The start of the journey south is fairly urban but it soon opens out, despite the noise of roads and the M56 you are soon surrounded by Cheshire farmland.
The jewel in the Shropshire Union crown must be the city of Chester, entered up the daunting Northgate locks wide staircase, although there are good moorings below in Tower wharf, or above below the city walls. Chester was a Roman fortress and port and has many Roman ruins, as well as an almost complete set of medieval city walls which tower above the canal and the unique “rows”, half timbered shops on two levels overlooking the streets which date back to the middle ages. Chester has many visitors year round, with museums, fine cathedral, good hotels, town-crier and street theatre, but it still manages to feel friendly and small scale.
The Shropshire Union Canal was formed by the ‘union’ of a number of canals, this length from Ellesmere Port through Chester to Nantwich, the Chester Canal, was built to broad barge standards with wide locks and bridges.
The flat Cheshire plain is relieved by another wide staircase at Bunbury with its stables still intact and then Beeston Castle which overlooks the canal from atop a high lump of extinct volcano. The New Cut is the boaters name for the Middlewich Arm which connects the Shropshire Union at Barbridge Junction to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, an important link in the Four Counties Ring. Soon after the Llangollen Canal heads off west towards the Welsh Marches at Hurleston Junction.
Nantwich is a pretty medieval market town which also has old half-timbered black and white buildings and a fine aqueduct. After Nantwich the locks are narrow and most are bunched together in flights, at Audlem, Adderley and Tyrley. This made for quicker working by the boat people because locks could be easily prepared in advance of the boats. Audlem village is well worth a visit.
The canal from Nantwich down to Autherley Junction, the narrow Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, was one of the last built (1835) and borrowed from the latest railway building methods, taking a direct line cross country, on embankments and through cuttings. These were massive undertakings, Shelmore embankment took six years to build and Woodseaves Cutting is 100 feet deep. There are some fine high bridges! The sides of the cuttings are so steep in places that sunlight rarely penetrates and landslips are common. Despite this plants and mosses cling to every available slope. Little wonder the boatpeople did not like to moor overnight in these gloomy cuttings! Norbury Junction was the entry to the Shrewsbury canal, one of the abandoned Shropshire branches.
Along this length of the Shroppie the scenery is often quite dramatic, with sweeping views from the long high embankments westwards towards the Berwyn Hills and the strangely shaped ridge called The Wrekin, and then from the depths of the atmospheric heavily wooded deep cuttings, a number of which were reputed by the old boat people to be haunted! These days this is also UFO territory! Strange visions are also likely if you have had a few pints of real ale in the Anchor Inn at High Offley, an old boatmens pub that has survived almost unchanged.
People and buildings seem very few and far even when less than ten miles from Wolverhampton. Eventually the suburbs arrive as you reach the stop lock at Autherley Junction where the Shropshire Union meets the Staffs and Worcs canal. Just half a mile away is Alderley Junction where the Wolverhampton 21 locks climb up to the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
The Shropshire Union became a successful long distance canal, cutting days off journey times for the north west to the midlands. But even it couldn’t resist rail and road transport and most traffic was lost by the mid 20th century. It is now of course a very popular cruising canal.