The Shropshire Union Canal from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port

known affectionately as "The Shroppie"!
Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Shropshire Union Canal is a relatively latecomer to the canal network.  Its route  runs from the large town of Wolverhampton in the Midlands, where it leaves the Staffs. and Worcester Canal at Autherley Junction, and  it heads north towards Cheshire, the River Mersey and Ellesmere Port.  It is one of the most scenic of all the canals, and is much loved by narrowboaters up and down the country who use it.  As a consequence, in summer it gets quite crowded!

The canal was one of last on the whole network to be built.  Many of the navigators who built it had previously worked on the newfangled railways, which were starting  to be constructed all over the country. The navigators  employed the techniques used for railway construction to create the high embankments and deep cuttings for the canal, so that it was much more "level" than earlier canals, and did not therefore need to traverse through loads of locks, which slowed up the progress of boats and their cargoes. 

Above: The Shropshire Union canal at Autherley Junction

Above: Autherley Lock at the junction with the Staffs and Worcester Canal - photo by D Jones and reproduced by kind permission 

Where locks were absolutely necessary the canal builders created flights of locks which were traversed more quickly. The canal was one of the most profitable for many years, but as the competition from the railways bit harder and harder less and less maintenance was done, and eventually in 1944 an Act was passed making the closure of the "Shroppie" official.  However, with the advent of narrowboating for pleasure the Shropshire canal was quickly re-discovered, and it is now one of the most popular of all the canals, with record numbers of boats using it.

Above: The canal at Breward - photo by Andrew Belton and reproduced by kind permission

The canal leaves the Staffs. and Worcester Canal at Autherley Junction, travelling almost due north, and skirts  Wolverhampton airfield before breaking out into the countryside. However, you do not get the chance to see much of the countryside here, because the canal sits in a deep wooded cutting, and it is not until just before you reach the village of Brewood  (pronounced Brew-ard and not - as you might think - "Bree-wood"!) that you find that you are now sitting on top of a viaduct, high above the surrounding countryside. Here you pass under a beautiful stone bridge called Avenue Bridge.

Above: Avenue Bridge near Breward on the Shroppie - photo by Andrew Belton and reproduced by kind permission

A little further along and you are in the Stretton Aqueduct which Thomas Telford constructed of cast iron and this seems to float above the main A5 trunk road going from the Midlands to Anglesea and Holyhead. 

After another long wooded cutting the canal reaches the delightful little village of Wheaton Aston, where you will find a nice old canalside pub called The Hartley Arms.  I have spent many a happy hour here watching the narrowboaters, as they proceed gracefully on their way through Wheaton Aston Lock.

Wheaton Aston also has a few basic supplies, but  - in common with much of this canal - you would be well advised to stock up on basics like bread and milk whenever you get the opportunity, because there are long stretches of the canal which are not near a village.

After Wheaton Aston the canal continues north past villages like Church Eaton and Gnosall (pronounced No-Sell in case you were wondering...) along a very long pound where you will have nothing much to do except to admire the surrounding countryside - that is , until you reach a deep cutting with almost vertical sides.  

Above: Wheaton Aston lock - photo by David Jones and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Cowley Tunnel - photo by David Morris and reproduced by kind permission

This takes you to the Cowley Tunnel - after which you again emerge in to rolling countryside and you are high upon an embankment known as the Shelmore Embankment. This was the biggest obstacle that Thomas Telford experienced,  and indeed he died long before the embankment was successfully completed.  It suffered several landslips, and workmen were killed, both during its construction and afterwards because of the landslips.

Just beyond the embankment you will see on the left the Shrewsbury and Newport Branch of the canal,  which goes off towards the modern town of Telford.  This is Norbury Junction.

Beyond the junction there is another long stretch (or "pound") without locks, when you can admire the quiet quntessentially English countryside. You pass through Grub Street cutting and can see two quaint old canalside pubs at Bridge 45 (Anchor Bridge) on the outskirts of Offley, and then The Wharf Inn just beyond Shebdon. 

Above: A typical signpost on the Shropshire Union canal - photo by David Jones and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The Shropshire Union canal at Grub Street cutting  - photo by Geoff Pick and reproduced by kind permission

In the distance you can clearly see the vast bulk of The Wrekin, a huge hill over 15 miles away. After you pass Goldstone Wharf - again with a great canalside pub at Bridge 55 - you glide into a VERY deep  dank and gloomy cutting at Woodseaves. How the old "navvies" who built this canal managed to construct such a gigantic cutting with the primitive tools that they had 150 years ago is beyond comprehension - no power tools, or JCB diggers for them, just brute strength and determination and pickaxes and shovels - and lots of courage....

Above: Tyrley Locks - photo by D Morris and reproduced by kind permission

Above: View of the Shropshire Union canal from Victoria Bridge Market Drayton - photo by Nick Calverley and reproduced by kind permission

At the north end of the cutting is the Tyrley Wharf, with a nice group of Victorian buildings finished in 1840.  Soon after this a set of locks let you descend gently towards the little market town of Market Drayton.

This is very attractive with lots of old buildings and a lovely mediaeval church,  but also with lots of traffic. There are boat yards here and all facilities for the boater.


Above: Market Drayton and the Shropshire Union Canal

Beyond Market Drayton you come to the Adderley Locks, and then the famous Audlem Flight of locks which will take you some hours to negotiate  - they will lower you down to the Cheshire Plain, with lots of views of dairy cattle and sheep along the way.

At Audlem again you can stock up on supplies and visit the canalside pub. The bottom of the flight of locks is marked by restored stable, once used for the horses that worked the canal.  Just beyond here is a very small aqueduct that carries the canal over the River Weaver.

The canal continues northwards, passing near the large town of Nantwich, which has a busy canal basin, and where the canal passes over the Nantwich-Chester road on a rather nice cast iron aqeduct.  Nantwich is a fine old town which was founded in Roman times and grew rich on the salt trade.  It was the centre of the whole of England's salt mining operations until the 19th century and has a lot of beautiful old Tudor buildings dating from 1583.   It also has a magnificent old Church with dates form the 14th century built in the local red sandstone.  The town is well worth a deviation from your days on the canal just to visit it.


 Above: Bottom lock at Audlem

Above: The canal at Nantwich Basin - photo by Roger Kidd and reproduced by kind permission

Back on your boat on the canal it is not long before you reach Hurleston Junction. At this point the famous Llangollen Canal branches off to the west, immediately ascending a flight of four locks, so that you are left in no doubt as to the fact that a journey up to Llangollen in the Welsh hills will entertain you with a LOT of very hard work!!!  I personally love the Llangollen Canal, even though it is such hard work to negotiate. See our later chapter on this famous canal for full details.

After leaving Hurleston Junction the Shroppie wends its way travelling north westerly towards Barbridge Junction, which is where the Middlewich branch of the canal turns off  to the north west and the towns of Middlewich and Northwich, both very important in canal terms.  This branch links with the great Trent and Mersey canal at Middlewich junction.  See separate entry for this section of the canal.

Above: The canal at Barbridge junction - photo by Nigel Williams and reproduced by kind permission

Above:The Iron Lock at Beeston - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

After Barbridge junction the Shroppie now commences an almost westerly course over the great Cheshire plain, past old villages called Calveley, Bunbury (with two staircase locks) and Beeston.  Calveley is a major producer of Cheshire cheese, and Beeston has an amazing lock which is made of cast iron flanged plates. Not surprisingly it is known as The Iron Lock!

You will quickly become aware of the London to Holyhead railway, which now joins the same route as the canal and you will see and hear several noisy trains, as they speed past en route to Holyhead.

Leaving Beeston the canal enters open countryside of the Cheshire plain and you can catch sight of the ruined Beeston Castle, followed by Peckforton Castle.  Beeston Castle was built by a former Earl of Chester in the 13th century in order to dominate the countryside around - the well in the courtyard is over 360 feet deep. The Shady Oak pub is by the canal near here at Bate's Mill Bridge.


The next settlement of note by the Shropshire Union is Christleton, a delightful village with a green and lots of old houses, just on the outskirts of the city of Chester. Christleton has moorings and a canalside pub called the Old Trooper.
   

Above: The Shropshire Union Canal at Christleton - photo by Paul Baxter and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The basin at Chester - photo by Paul Baxter and reproduced by kind permission


Leaving this behind it is not long before you enter the lovely city of Chester.  This is one of my all time personal favourite English cities to visit. The route of the canal takes you right through the centre of the city, which is of Roman origin, and is full of interest.  It retains its original city walls over two miles, and a lovely cathedral built of the local dark red sandstone and located in a square where the mediaeval mystery plays were performed. Buildings from the Middle Ages, the civil war period and the Victorian era all are contained within the city walls. The Rows are unique two tier mediaeval shopping streets found nowhere else in England. There are moorings for the boater, and of course several pubs and shops very close to the canal.

Once you tear yourself away from Chester the route of the canal continues northwards towards the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersea, and crosses the great plain of the Wirral.  The whole of this stretch is without locks. You pass Chester Zoo and head towards the spaghetti junction of motorways where the M 56 and M53 meet  - pity the people who live in the little village of Stoak, surrounded by all the rushing traffic.  The scene here is an industrial one with oil refineries and chemical works as you move ever northwards towards the Mersea.  The canal seems shunned and forgotten - and yet  ironically it is because of the canal that industry grew up in this area in the first place!  

Above: Chester: the canal  and lift bridge - photo by Martin Clark and reroduced by kind permission

Above: Narrowboats moored in Ellesmere Port basin


You enter Ellesmere Port , complete with its docks and warehouses designed by Thomas Telford when the Shropshire Union Canal was first constructed.  This was long before the gas works and oil refineries currently sited here  were even thought of.

Sadly, part of the Telford warehouses have been vandalised, but some of the remaining buildings from the Telford era have been converted to the Boat Museum, which tells the story of the canal age in an innovative way and which is not to be missed if you ae moored here.  Lots of canal boats are on display, including a unique tunnel tug, weedcutting boats and old horse drawn narrowboats, and a range of restored Victorian cottages.  This is about as far as you can go on the Shropshire Union, as you need special navigation lights and an anchor and cable and extra insurance cover to travel on the Manchester Ship Canal!

 I hope that you have enjoyed reading about this unique canal which retains the affection and loyalty of almost everyone who ventures on it, and that you will be encouraged to travel up and down the Shropshire Union for yourself.  Don't forget to try navigating the Llangollen Arm of the Shropshire Union - see the separate section on the Llangollen Canal.