Thursday, October 23, 2008

'Up South' towards Birmingham

From Middlewich southwards to Wolverhampton, the countryside climbs up out of the Cheshire plains but it is a slow rise, so we were a couple of miles south of Nantwich before we came to the first two locks on the 'main line' of the 'Shroppie'. Another 3 miles brought us to Audlem, where we stopped for the night and took a little longer to enjoy the village and the picturesque flight of 15 locks. Last time we came through here was as we travelled down south (rather more quickly!) in April last year. The trees were bare then; this time they were just beginning to turn to autumn colours.

As we went on south, we stayed with the seam of red sandstone rock which extends right up to Chester and down towards Stourport on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. Seeing this rock last year started us comparing the Shroppie with the 'Staffs. and Worcs.' Since then, of course, we have refreshed our memories of the Staffs. and Worcs. by going down to Stourport and back, and there certainly ARE some similarities. Here is 'Zindagi' approaching the bottom lock at Tyrley and you can see the sandstone on the right.

This canal was built by Thomas Telford and one of the things that we have discovered about him is that he preferred to go straight if he could! Not for him the winding, contour-hugging canals by Brindley and others so, when there was no need to do otherwise, he would build a long embankment or cut through a hill. Or rather he would plan the canal that way and his army of 'navigators' (navvies) would shift the vast amounts of rock and earth, mainly using hand tools. At least this red sandstone is fairly soft, but that takes nothing away from their amazing feats! The Shroppie looks very straight on the map, but the frequent change between high embankments and deep wooded cuttings makes it far from monotonous. Just try to imagine the work involved in sinking a cutting like this one through solid rock – and there are several of them!

There are also some lovely villages strung along the canal. At one time, some of them would have been much more centred on the goods being transported along the water, and the pubs would have been vital stopping points for the boat crews. Many of them still do a good trade with the present-day boating crews, usually either families on a hired boat or private owners like us, afloat for anything from a week to several years! The Boat Inn at Gnosall is beautifully situated next to a stone bridge. We didn't stop here, though we normally aim to eat out once a week. (If we stopped at every picturesque canalside pub, we would not only be a lot poorer, but would make even slower progress than we already do!)

Just one solitary lock between Tyrley and the end of the Shropshire Union at Autherley Junction, where the owners of the 'Staffs. and Worcs.' insisted that a stop lock was built to prevent the Shroppie stealing all their water. The water level difference is about six inches, if that!

As we came out from the Shroppie onto the Staffs and Worcs, we kept an eye open for a miniature narrowboat which we had seen last time. Not just a short narrowboat – there are plenty of those around – but smaller and narrower and in proportion. Must be difficult for a normal-size adult to stand up inside!

And then for the really steep climb up into Wolverhampton. 21 locks, raising us 132 feet in 2 miles, right into the centre of the city . . .

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