The Shelby Narrowboat company is based at Aqueduct marina on the Middlewich arm of the Shropshire union canal, we consider this to be one of the best locations in the country for narrowboat holiday hire, as it offers so many routes. If you try and picture a rugby goal post, we are bang in the middle, left is the Shropshire union and its branches, right is the Trent and Mersey with its links to many other canal networks. From the short break holidays to taking on the two-week Cheshire and four counties rings, one thing is for certain, from the moment you leave the marina you will be overwhelmed with the natural beauty of the Cheshire countryside and yourself becoming part of the steeped history of our great British canal story.
The Shropshire Union Canal
The Shropshire Union Canal runs from the edge of urban Wolverhampton through some of the most underpopulated areas of England to the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port, about sixty miles in all and taking a fairly leisurely four days to cruise.
Along the Shroppie (as it is known by its many admirers) the scenery is often quite dramatic, with sweeping views across to the Welsh Marches and the strangely shaped ridge called “The Wrekin” from the long embankments and with the atmospheric heavily wooded deep cuttings, several 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 “6X” in the Anchor Inn at High Offley, an old boatman’s pub that has survived almost unchanged.
Market Drayton and Nantwich are medieval market towns which still have some of the old half-timbered black and white buildings. However, the jewel in the Shropshire Union crown must be Chester, a Roman fortress and port which has many Roman ruins, as well as an almost complete set of medieval city walls which tower above the canal and the unique “rows”, shops on two levels overlooking the street 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 northern end of the canal is at Ellesmere Port which was a transshipment 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 ‘New Cut’ is the boaters name for the Middlewich Arm which connects the Shropshire Union north of Nantwich to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, an important link in the Four Counties Ring. The canal was one of the last built 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 landslips were common, and sunlight rarely penetrates. Despite this plants and mosses cling to every available slope. Little wonder the boatpeople of yesteryear did not like to moor overnight in these cuttings! (Not the case today). Nearly all the locks are bunched together in “flights”. This made for quicker working by the boat people because locks could be easily prepared in advance of the boats. People and buildings seem very few and far between yet you are little more than twenty miles from the heavily populated cities of Wolverhampton and Birmingham. There are long vistas across open farmlands towards mid Wales and across to Cheshire and Staffordshire from the high canal embankments.
Trent & Mersey Canal & 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 James 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.
Shardlow, near the River Trent, is one of England’s best preserved canal towns. Try the Swan pub at Fradley Junction which has an excellent view of the junction. 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.
Josiah Wedgwood was involved in getting the canal built and the Wedgwood factory and museum are canalside just south of Stoke on Trent. Middlewich and Northwich are salt towns dating back to Roman times.
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!
The Caldon Canal
leaves the T&M mainline at Etruria, just north of Stoke on Trent, and 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.
The Uttoxeter Canal
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. Cruising the River Weaver has been made easier with the 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.
The Trent & Mersey canal map
The double locks on Heartbreak Hill in Cheshire were added in the 1830’s by Thomas Telford to reduce queues, though a few are now unworkable and some have been 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 real working boat people they were just the Cheshire Locks!
Lock 66 at the bottom of heartbreak hill
The Alderton boat lift
The Four Counties Ring
The Four Counties Ring is probably the most popular circular canal routes, particularly for hire boat holidays because it can be covered in one, fairly busy, week. And there’s so much else to see just off the 4 Counties Ring by taking a few detours.
• The Trent & Mersey Canal starting from the old canal town of Middlewich lifts you off the Cheshire Plain up the 31 locks boaters call ‘Heartbreak Hill’ into Staffordshire. Then comes Harecastle Tunnel, a long, dark and wet experience not to be missed, before emerging into the daylight of the Staffordshire Potteries. Then downhill through pleasant countryside to turn off at Great Heywood.
• The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal soon enters Tixall Wide, a pleasant the lake-like place to moor before the canal crosses the wide open heathlands of Cannock Chase, filled with wildlife but also the roar of the M6 traffic. On the outskirts of Wolverhampton there’s a tricky narrow section with passing places just before reaching Autherly Junction.
• The Shropshire Union Canal heads north into some of the least populated areas of England, along long straight stretches of canal in deep cuttings and upon high embankments, on its way back towards the Cheshire plain. From Barbridge the Middlewich Branch completes the circular route.
• Leave the Ring and find lots more to see. For instance explore the fascinating Caldon Canal and Churnet Valley for a few days, continue up to Chester and the National Waterways Museum, take the Anderton Lift down to enjoy a cruise along the River Weaver or head into the Welsh Hills up the stunning Llangollen Canal.
The Four Counties - Junctions Locks and Lengths
Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich, 49 locks, 36 miles to …
Staffs & Worcs Canal at Great Heywood, 12 locks, 21 miles to …
Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley, 29 locks, 42 miles to …
Middlewich Branch (‘New Cut’) at Barbridge Junction, 4 locks, 10 miles to Middlewich.
The Cheshire Ring
The Cheshire Ring is a popular circular canal route, especially for hire boat holidays since it can be cruised in one week. Take two and take your time or do a bit more exploring.
• The Rochdale Canal leaves Castlefields in central Manchester heading for the Pennine Hils but the Cheshire Ring only takes the first couple of miles down the Rochdale Nine wide locks through the lively cafes and bars of the gay village and then below the city streets to Ducie Street Junction.
• The Ashton Canal climbs out of urban industrial east Manchester through the area which was regenerated after the Commonwealth Games came to Manchester in 2002.
• The Peak Forest Canal continues the climb into the Pennines, now through increasingly pleasant surroundings of the wooded Goyt Valley. Whalley Bridge is worth a detour.
• The Macclesfield Canal turns south and rides the edge of the Pennine hillsides through attractive and well presented stone towns & villages overlooking the Cheshire Plain.
• The Trent and Mersey Canal is reached via an unusual ‘fly-over’ junction at Hardings Wood then heads north through the salt towns of Middlewich and Northwich where the subsidence it caused can still be seen.
• The Bridgewater Canal runs parallel with the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal into Manchester on a single level, wide and deep and no locks for a welcome change!
The Cheshire Ring - Junctions Locks and Lengths
Ashton Canal – Ducie St. Junction, 18 locks, 6 miles to …
Peak Forest Canal – Dukinfield Junction, 16 locks, 8 miles to …
Macclesfield Canal – Marple Junction, 13 locks, 28 miles to …
Trent and Mersey Canal – Hardings Wood Junction, 31 locks, 23 miles to …
Bridgewater Canal – Preston Brook Junction, 0 locks, 23 miles to …
Rochdale Canal – Castlefields, 9 locks, 1.5 miles to Ducie St. Junction
The Llangollen Canal
The Llangollen Canal leaves the Shropshire Union Canal just north of Nantwich in rural Cheshire and climbs through deserted Shropshire farmlands to cross the border into Wales near Chirk. It then cuts through increasingly hilly countryside to finish alongside the River Dee tumbling out of Snowdonia, just above Llangollen. It is 41 miles long and takes at least three days to cruise (one-way), more when busy.
The Llangollen Canal, or just The Welsh as it is known to enthusiasts, is arguably the most beautiful canal in Britain, certainly it’s the most popular. The scenery varies from isolated sheep pastures to ancient peat mosses, from tree lined lakes to the foothills of Snowdonia.
Towns along the way include medieval Whitchurch with its half timbered buildings, the interesting market town of Ellesmere set in its own “Lake District”, the fortified border town of Chirk with its National Trust Castle and beautiful gardens and Llangollen itself, sat astride the River Dee, an ancient gateway to Wales beneath the ruins of Castel Dinas Bran. In Llangollen you can enjoy a horse drawn boat trip to the end of the canal, which isn’t accessible by canal boats, or ride behind steam trains to Corwen on the Llangollen Railway.
The Llangollen Canal is very popular and this can mean some peak time queing at locks, especially New Marton and the Grindley Brook staircase, though the lock keepers and volunteers at Grindley Brook usually manage to keep boats moving through in a sensible way. The marina moorings at Llangollen have made it easier to moor up and spend time exploring the town. Generally the top end of the canal is busiest midweek, at many other times the canal can be as tranquil as any other! And if you find there are too many boats around you why not just moor up for a few hours, relax and enjoy the stunning scenery? The Llangollen Canal has three major engineering feats, two old, one modern.
The ‘pioneering masterpiece of engineering’ by which the early civil engineers crossed the difficult landscape between Chirk and Llangollen has resulted in the 18 kilometre length being awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 2009.
The aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte were built by the engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop and were among the first to use cast iron troughs to contain the canal. Unfortunately the huge engineering costs of this section with its aqueducts and tunnels and the delays to construction meant the canal never reached either of its intended destinations, Chester and Shrewsbury!
The Llangollen Canal Map