The Trent and Mersey Canal

Following a late change to the programme, when we gathered in the Swan Hotel on Tuesday 9th May we were treated to a tour of our local waterway by the Trent and Mersey Canal Society. Geoff Williamson, the Chairman of this inspired project, happens to live in our City and came along to explain to us what was envisaged, how much has been achieved and what still remains to be done.

He began by sharing with us the philosophy behind the notion of a "footpath meander" from Shardlow in Derbyshire to Kidsgrove in Staffordshire, supported by boaters, archaeologists and local history enthusiasts. We were then shown a fascinating collection of slides illustrating the places and events which form the history of this 93 mile long route; that was initiated in 1776 and completed a year later by workers using the most rudimentary tools and strong horses. The feat is all the more remarkable when we realise that James Brindley, who conceived the idea of this waterway, was not a civil engineer but a millwright at Leek Mill. His main supporter was Josiah Wedgwood who had done the 'grand tour' in Europe and recognised the significance of the continental water transport system compared to the fairly rough carts being pulled along even rougher roads in this country - particularly when loaded with breakable ceramic tiles.

The idea was brilliant; yet even in the early 1770s it met with considerable opposition. Landowners and industrialists had to be won over and there were many protesters - just as we have seen recently when the notion of a Birmingham Northern Relief Road was floated in our own back yard.

Nothing changes when we look back at our local history. Shardlow developed as an inland port where barges from the river Trent loaded up the canal boats and carried produce brought from Hull and Liverpool. The public house called the Malt Shovel was at the heart of this transhipment business. Fortunately the old mill buildings were saved from those who sought to build car parks and shopping malls. The old clock warehouse was preserved, along with others, and still provides a popular and well used bar/restaurant complex there.

At Swarkstone there is a lock keepers cottage and a double width lock constructed to help with the carriage of brewery items. One slide recorded the reality of boat life amid the ice of the later 18th and 19th century. We were shown the Dove Aqueduct, opened in the early 1770s, now with World War II concrete alongside it; and the Horningblow Basin wharfside crane - where a hard hat and dodgy ropes were pictured side by side as it was being acquired for re-errection at Fradley Junction. Bond End canal at Shobnall has a dry dock, workshops, picnic benches and boats for hire.

Tolls were levied by the canal company 'per ton mile' and a collection of the necessary mileposts was recovered from a 'grave' near Dallow Lock at Burton-on-Trent where they had been buried for security reasons during the last war. Thirty seven mileposts were missing but have now been re-cast with a sponsorship scheme that includes a small plaque on the new milestone.

Both the canal and the River Trent run across the water meadows at Wychnor; and at Fradley the Coventry Canal joins the Trent and Mersey. At Armitage near the Plum Pudding public house there is a tunnel under the road. The old low bridge here has been replaced replaced and the subsidence, previously caused by the extraction of coal at Lea Hall colliery, has now ceased.

In the early 1900s a Sunday School outing took place on board a horse drawn boat at Rugeley - a place which, at that time, was not a favourite stopping place for boats. Nowadays, since canalside refurbishment, 7,000 boats stop there every year to go shopping at Safeways! At Colwich there are lovely canal-side gardens to enjoy and at Great Haywood lock, near to the Shugborough Estate, there is the Lock House restaurant and an old iron bridge spanning the canal junction. At Stone we can find the Star Inn, the first canalside public house to be opened on the route, using a building which had originally served as the turnpike house on the road from Stone to Stafford. A hire fleet operates from this site which still has three dry-docks. During the conversion work; wooden pitch-lined guttering was found and replaced; and the original horse tunnel still exists.

Further along the route there is a flight of five locks approaching Stoke-on-Trent; but following alterations for the A500 the rather dismal 1960s scene now has high walls on either side and is equally ugly with 1990s graffiti. A modern lock cottage was built at Stoke when the lock was re-located some fifteen years ago. At Etruria the water from Rudyard Lake joins the system after flowing down the Caldon Canal. Further north the old corrugated iron buildings of the Shelton Ironworks have now been taken down but a bottle kiln remains - albeit surrounded by rubbish.

The engineering feat that began in 1766 and was completed in 1777 needed a tunnel to cross beneath Harecastle Hill. This tunnel, which emerges 1-3/4 miles further north at Kidsgrove, was once the longest in the world - but had been dug using the most basic tools. Many years later, following subsidence, Thomas Telford build a second tunnel alongside the first and it is this tunnel that is still used today. Iron Oxide filtering through the sandstone at this point colours the water to a rusty orange hue but in spite of this both fish and aquatic plants flourish. Anglers have been moved to protest about boats disturbing 'their' stretches of water; but fortunately these disputes are less fierce than in earlier years.

Geoff explained that the commercial use of canals has given way to recreational development and grants have been used to make the waterways attractive and safe for public use. For example at Hopwas 1.6 million has recently been spent on repair work. Financial self-sufficiency is now the goal of British Waterways; by managing their income from licence and mooring fees, rent from property and fishing club rights. Expenditure now includes elements of many conservation and environmental schemes which will surely delight the increasing number of boaters, cyclists, walkers and other visitors to the towpaths and refreshment outlets of the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Brenda Towlson
May 2000