Trent & Mersey Canal and Caldon Canal
The Trent and Mersey Canal begins, as you would expect, within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finishes in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire. It is just over ninety miles long and takes about six days to cruise.
The Trent and Mersey is one of the earliest canals, built by Brindley, with much of historical interest, passing through some pleasant countryside. It struggles from the Cheshire plains up thirty one locks, often called Heartbreak Hill, to cut beneath Harecastle Hill in a spooky and watery tunnel one and three quarter miles long. It passes through the industry of the Staffordshire Potteries out into rural Staffordshire and then Derbyshire.
The double locks on Heartbreak Hill in Cheshire were added in the 1830’s to reduce queues, though many are now unworkable and some filled in. The locks got their name not because there are so many, but because they are rarely close enough together to walk and work easily. To boat people they were just the Cheshire Locks!
The canal is known for its tunnels, at Harecastle, Barnton, Saltersford and Preston Brook. Saltersford has a kink because tunnelling started at different points and didn’t quite meet in the middle! Preston Brook has a large central chamber where a collapse was repaired, and cruising through the pitch dark confines of Harecastle tunnel is an experience nobody forgets!
Middlewich and Northwich are salt towns dating back to Roman times, you can see the effects of subsidence in the canalside ‘flashes’. Just north of Stoke on Trent at the junction with the Caldon Canal is the Etruria Flintworks Museum. South of the city the Wedgwood factory and museum are canalside. Josiah Wedgwood was involved in getting the canal built and pottery was a major canal traffic.
Stone has some interesting old canal buildings. Shrugborough Hall dates from the 17th century and is surrounded by a landscaped park, the Gatehouse is the size of many mansions! An English Civil war battle was fought just to the north at Hopton Heath. Try the Swan pub at Fradley Junction which has an excellent view of the junction with the Coventry Canal. Shardlow, near the River Trent, is one of England’s best preserved canal towns, and is home to the Shardlow Heritage Centre.
The Caldon Canal
Leaving the T&M mainline at Etruria, just north of Stoke on Trent the Caldon meanders into the Staffordshire countryside, running for a short distance along the River Churnet. It has some extremely attractive stretches and the isolated Consall Forge and Black Lion Pub must be visited, plus the restored steam Churnet Railway. The canal currently finishes at Froghall Wharf which can be reached by some boats through the very low Froghall Tunnel. The Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust have restored what was the first lock at Froghall on the Uttoxeter Canal which was closed in the nineteenth century and a railway built over it. The railway subsequently closed and part of it is now reopened as the Churnet Valley Railway. There are hopes that eventually both the railway and canal can reach Uttoxeter again, running through the Churnet Valley. See Uttoxeter Canal Restoration.
The River Weaver
Cruising has been made easier with the 2002 reopening of the Anderton Boat Lift. Previously access required a voyage down the Manchester Ship Canal. Upstream from the Lift the Weaver can be followed through the centre of Northwich to Winsford Flashes. Downstream in goes through pretty countryside to join the Ship Canal below Frodsham. Although the locks are large and the river once carried heavy traffic the coasters which came up to Northwich finished a few years ago, and there is currently no commercial traffic on the River. The Anderton Boat Lift has two large watertight tanks which can each take two full length narrowboats. The tanks are raised by hydraulic rams which raise the water filled tanks and boats from the river to the canal fifty feet above. The tanks have watertight doors at each end to let the boats in and out. Corrosion of the structure, due to the high salt content of the environment in this salt producing area, closed the lift for many years. However full restoration brought the lift back in service in 2002.