I have come, embarrassingly late, to the discovery of Wappenshall junction. This is where the ‘new’ line of the Newport branch of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal joined the old line of the Shrewsbury canal in 1835, all shortly to become part of the Shropshire Union conglomeration.
The new canal was only thought about in the 1820s whereas the old canal had been carrying coal from Lillishall and Donnington to Shrewsbury since 1796, a sharp reminder that the canal system that we now tend to regard as one historic whole was actually a chain of developments, at a time of technological change. These two canals were probably as different then as the new Severn Bridges are to the original M1of the 1960s, spanning a time from small five ton tub boats to the imminent arrival of the railways. What miraculously survives at Wappenshall is an architectural statement of that transition, a sculptural memory in brick and stone.
The remains fall into three categories, – two brick warehouses, one corrugated iron extension garage/warehouse and the gem – for me – of the stone turnover bridge over the entrance to the Newport branch. We can guess that the bridge came first as part of the planned connection and as it is clearly a first cousin to others on the S.U. main line, particularly those at Nantwich and High Onn, the design surely coming from the same engineer. Was that Thomas Telford, master mason and chief canal engineer at the time? Like the masterpiece at High Onn this bridge serves a double purpose, for the dedicated horse towpath track shares the masonry arch with a cart width accommodation road alongside. Both bridges are built on the skew to further test the mettle of the masons with sweeping curved balustrade walls dipping to ground level so as not to snag the towline from boat to horse. It seems to me to be a splendid work of practical beauty, a blend of utility and craftsmanship from a time when grace was still regarded as a desirable part of a major commercial enterprise. Quality of life was important as well as profit.
The two brick warehouses are fine examples too although perhaps less elevated in their aspirations. They were built very soon after the new canal was opened, or even before according to some references, but they agree that they were both built and operated by the Duke of Sutherland’s estate rather than the canal company. The smaller is the more friendly, sitting beside its own filled-in basin, just two stories high with small projecting wings at either end flanking the central access doors with their accompanying cranes. The larger one is more austere, three stories high squatting on brick arches over its own ground floor basin that is itself another connecting link between the two canals. Both these fine buildings are unfortunately dramatically compromised by the addition of the third building of the complex, a large green painted semi-circular Nissan hut type building tacked on to the main warehouse. Rather like a small aircraft hangar it completely dominates the access yard and the view for anyone approaching from the road. Probably dating from the 1960s it was added when the wharf area was being operated as a coal yard by a haulage firm, B.J.Waters Ltd. but this huge shed is of course now rapidly becoming historic in its own right. It is possibly the reason that the whole area stayed commercially viable for so long, and survives today. It is certainly architecturally striking, like it or loath it, but it is perhaps a dilemma for restoration.
Yes, for restoration and development plans are now underway and much clearance work has taken place recently to the huge benefit of people like me nosing about this remarkable place. The whole site was bought by the local council in 2009 and is now leased to the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Trust whose eventual ambition is to re-open the whole canal from Shrewsbury to Norbury Junction. (Find out more at www.sncanal.org.uk ) In the meantime they have undertaken numerous clearance work parties, and have ambitious plans for an education and interpretation centre in the warehouses, and an office for themselves. Big signs proclaim the Wrekin and Telford local authority involvement but one wonders how much help they will actually offer in these straightened times. But do go and see it soon if you possibly can, and while you are in the area visit the Longdon-on-Tern iron aqueduct too, now well signposted with its own dedicated little lay-by on the B5063.