The Trent and Mersey Canal from the River Trent in Nottingham
to the River Mersey at Preston Brook

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The reason for the construction of this canal in the first place was the need to link the Midlands by water with the ports of Liverpool on the west coast and Hull on the east coast.  The route was designed to cut through the centre of England via such manufacturing towns as Stoke on Trent and the Potteries.  Not surprisingly the china manufacturer Joseph Wedgewood was one of the chief instigators of the canal. He saw the obvious economic benefits of cheap and rapid transport of his delicate wares to the ports for export and relatively cheap transport for huge amounts of china clay and other bulky raw materials between the ports and his factories in the Potteries towns.

The canal continued to be successful right up until 1914 and the start of the Great War. Nowadays hardly any freight is carried on the canal, but it is a main link between so many of the other canals that are used for pleasure boating. As such, it continues to enjoy large amounts of boating and cruising traffic between the great lock on the River Trent at Long Eaton in Nottingham and the end of the canal near the River Weaver in Cheshire.  Two notable constructions of the canal age should be mentioned: these are the Harecastle Tunnel near Stoke on Trent and the Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich. More of these later.

You enter the Trent and Mersey canal proper at Trent Lock, which is on the Sawley Cut of the River Trent, near the junction with the Erewash Canal. The nearest settlement of any note is the village of Sawley, whose mediaeval church is stunning. There is a marina here with all the usual facilities, and a pub called The Steamboat Inn.

   

Above: The River Trent at Trent Lock - photo by Alan Murray Rust and reproduced by kind permission.

Above: The Canal at Sawley - photo by Tony Jacobs and reproduced by kind permission

The canal goes almost due west for several miles passing settlements like Shardlow and Aston.  Shardlow deserves a special mention.  I first visited here in 1990, and it is a proper canal town. It is in a prime state of preservation, with examples of large scale canal architecture, old pubs and houses, and a boatbuilding yard. All of it grew up as a direct result of the building of the canal. If you get the time do plan to stop here and visit the town, and include the Clock Warehouse in your visit. It has a large central arch for boats to enter and unload, and was restored in 1979 as a canal centre. There are several cruiser firms operating from Shardlow, like Valley Cruises, Dobson's boatyard and Shardlow Marina, and some nice old canalside pubs like The Navigation, The New Inn and the Malt Shovel.

 

Above: Shardlow - The Clock Warehouse - photo by MartinClark and reproduced by kind permission

When you can tear yourself away from Shardlow the next village is Weston on Trent - a misnomer actually as it is NOT on the River Trent at all, but on the canal. It has a canalside pub called the Plough. (However, the River Trent can still be seen to the south of the canal). Beyond Weston the countryside surrounds you with steep wooded hills until you reach Swarkestone.  This little village has a unique 5-arched bridge across the River Trent from where an elevated roadway - or causeway - carries the road over the surrounding marshy ground to the next village of Stanton. This was actually the most southerly point  reached in 1744 by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his band of Scottish followers, the Jacobites,when they marched on England and attempted to overthrow the hated English and King George II. 

You come across Barrow on Trent another little village not actually on the canal then you approach Stenson Lock, where there is a large marina, with all the usual facilities.  Following this you pass Findern, bounded by the large and not very attractive Willington power station. The canal skirts the village of Willington, which has good moorings plus three pubs all very close together, and all near Bridge No. 23.

 

Above: Swarkestone Bridge across the River Trent - photo by Jerry  Evans and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The canal at Stenson Bridge - photo by Phil Myott and reproduced by kind permission

You are now travelling in a south westerly direction towards the large town of Burton upon Trent.  This is famous for the production of beer above all else. You can go on brewery trips round the Bass Beer Factory or visit the Heritage Brewing Museum. You will get a lovely whiff of the smell of malt and hops near the Marstons and Bass factories. The brewing industry was started by the monks (believe it or not) at Burton Abbey when they discovered that they could make good beer from the town's water supply, which has a high gypsum content. The town is an industrial one and has shops selling all supplies. There are boatyards here and - as you might expect - several pubs!

After Burton on Trent the scenery around you returns to green fields but you are conscious of the noise from the nearby A38. You may like to consider an overnight stop at the next village of Branston, as it has the last canalside pub for many miles - the pub is The Bridge I have moored up at this pub and it is a great place.

The next section of the canal is relatively quiet, with not a lot of signs of human habitation, just open fields and one or two settlements miles away from the canal. It is not until you reach Fradley Junction that things begin to "happen" again.  You pass the village of Alrewas, ( I believe it is pronounced "Ol-ree-wuss") which is peaceful and pretty with lots of old houses and a 14th century Church complete with an old "leper window", through which lepers in mediaeval times could watch the services inside the Church.  This seems strange and cruel to us, but lepers were -of course - forbidden entry inside the churches in those times, because people thought that they would catch leprosy from inhaling their breath.....  I should mention that there is a weir here which can be dangerous in times of flood, and boaters should keep clear of this and steer over towards the towpath side of the canal.

 

Above: The Swan Inn at Fradley Junction - photo by Maurice Pullin and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The Trent and Mersey Canal at Alrewas, showing the Church.  Photo by Jerry Evans and reproduced by kind permission

Past Alwewas you will start the descent of the Fradley locks until you reach Fradley Junction itself, with the Coventry Canal branching off south towards Coventry and Birmingham. There is a BWB yard here and lots of boatyards and moorings, and marinas with a full selection of supplies. Here there is a great pub with moorings called The Swan - again I have visited this in the past - and it will be a hard decision not to stop here for the night.  Do buy all your supplies for the next section of your journey, as this will be your last opportunity for many miles.......

After Fradley Junction the canal turns to a north-westerly direction and you travel again through many miles of open countryside, without much evidence of human habitation.  You eventually pass the villages of Handsacre and Kings Bromley - and a canalside pub called The Crown at Bridge 58. Next come the village of Armitage and the little town of Rugeley, which has an unlovely power station, but good moorings within walking distance of the centre of the town centre and lots of shops for your supplies.

 

Above: The canal at Rugeley - photo by Patrick Mackie and reproduced by kind permission. You can see the regeneration here.

From Rugeley it is a short distance to the point at which the canal passes through Cannock Chase, an area of outstanding natural beauty, complete with forest, heathland and herds of fallow deer. The countryside around the canal here is delightful, with vistas over the Chase, and through the grounds of stately homes, like Bishton Hall on your right as you travel north. Soon you reach the grounds of one of the grandest of the lot, Shugborough Hall. This is owned by the National Trust but leased to Staffordshire County Council, and has been the subject of massive renovations and repairs. You can easily visit it from the canal at Bridge 73. It was owned by the famous family of sailors the Ansons,  the Earls of Lichfield, and was originally built in 1693, but has been altered to keep up with the prevailing fashions in 1760 and again in the 19th century. Patrick Earl of Lichfield the society photographer sold it to pay for death duties in the 1960ies, and it is open to the public most days.


Just after Shugborough you reach the famous Great Haywood junction, where the Trent and Mersey meets the Staffs and Worcester Canal, running south via Wolverhampton Great Haywood is not a particularly pretty canal settlement (unlike -  say - Stoke Bruerne or Braunston) but it does have the necessary shops, and makes a pleasant place to moor. There are of course lots of pubs here, the Fox and Hounds, and the Red Lion. Also Anglo Welsh Holidays have a base here.

Above: Shugborough Hall - photo by Angella Streluk and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The signpost at the junction of the Staffs and Worcester and Trent and Mersey Canals at Great Haywood - photo by Row 17 and reproduced by kind permission.

Leaving Great Haywood you are continuing to travel in a north westerly direction, through Weston, Salt and Sandon, as you follow the valley of the River Trent. There are peaceful meadows and a long stretch of the canal without any locks to add to your excitement. Weston has two pubs near the canal and worth a visit: the Saracen's Head and the Woolpack.  Weston also has shops for supplies. After Burston you reach Aston with a lock - the first one for ages - and then you come across the busy little town of Stone, which has some great moorings and nice old canalside pubs. There are also four locks here in quick succession, and they are DEEP!  Pubs of note are The Rising Sun and The Star, which are both right by the canal and offer moorings.  The boatyards situated here are Canal Cruising Co. and Staffordshire Narrowboats, each with full facilities.

From Stone it is a short journey to Barlaston, and you quickly become aware that you are approaching one of the great conurbations of England, the towns that make up Stoke on Trent and The Potteries. You actually pass the Wedgwood factory - the Wedgwood Group is one of the largest china and earthenware manufacturers in the world today, and their products are exported all over the world. The main reason for the existence of the Trent and Mersey canal was to transport the raw materials and the finished wares down to the ports at Liverpool and Hull. The Visitor Centre at Wedgwood is open every day and is well worth a visit, especially as you can do this in such a short walk from the canal at Bridge 104.

At Barlaston there is another old canalside pub, the Plume of Feathers. The next length of the canal is industrial, and it passes factories and warehouses, brick furnaces of old and buildings of more recent times.  The Spode china factory is near the canal and you pass through four more locks before reaching the canal junction with the Caldon Canal, which branches off to the east. At the junction there is a statue of James Brindley the engineer who designed and built the Trent and Mersey canal.

 

Above: The Canal at Stone - photo by Roger Kidd and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Harecastle Tunnel north portal - photo by Maurice Pullin and reproduced by kind permission

The canal now reaches one of the great feats of engineering on the whole canal system - Harecastle Tunnel, which is 2,926 feet long.  Actually there were at one time three tunnels through the great hill north of Stoke on Trent. James Brindley saw that he could not avoid passing through the sandstone ridge here, and that a tunnel would have to be dug.  Nothing like this had ever been attempted before, and engineering of this scale was a magnificent feat of the time. Brindley's tunnel was very narrow and did not have a towpath so the narrowboats had to be propelled through the tunnel by "leggers".  Men lay on planks attached to the boats and literally walked their way through the tunnel by stretching out their legs and walking sideways on the stone walls of the tunnel.  Backbreaking work - and in the meantime the towing horse would have to be unhitched and led up and across the Harecastle Hill to the other end of the tunnel.

Above: Leggers "walking" a narrowboat through a tunnel - photo by Blisworth Images and reproduced by kind permission

Brindley's tunnel was a bottleneck, and in 1822 Thomas Telford, who had built the famous Llangollen Arm of the Shropshire Union, was asked to try and come up with a solution.  He built the second tunnel, which was completed in 1827, together with a towpath, and the original Brindley tunnel became one-way.  This considerably improved the situation, until disaster struck once again and due to mining subsidence Brindley's tunnel began to sink and had to be abandoned. Thus the tunnel used today is the Telford one.  Much later the railways wanted to pass this way, and a third tunnel was built to carry the line between Stoke and Kidsgrove.  This too suffered from subsidence, and was abandoned and the railway line re-routed around the hill.  The tunnel has its problems for boaters and must be treated with respect. You must follow the instructions given on the BWB boards at each end of the tunnel.  A one-way system is in operation and the Tunnel Keeper's instructions should also be noted.

As you exit the tunnel travelling north you descend through the town of Kidsgrove . You pass  Harding's Wood junction and Red Bull aqueduct, where the Macclesfield Canal branches off again to your right as you travel north. The industrial scene that has been with you since Barlaston south of Stoke on Trent is now giving way to pleasant open countryside once again.

You are beginning the long descent from the top level at Harecastle to the Cheshire Plain, down through a series of locks which used to be known as Heartbreak Hill. The locks come in pairs of narrow locks, situated side by side, but not all of them are useable side by side, because of the absence  of some of the side pounds. You pass Church Lawton and Rode Heath, and then come to the little settlement of Hassall Green which has shops and pubs and all the supplies you could need. It also has the M6 motorway thundering overhead, so this is not a particularly good place for an overnight stop.

After leaving Hassall Green you continue through Cheshire countryside with lots of locks to keep you busy as you descend the Wheelock flight. Locally, brine extraction to make salt has resulted in severe subsidence and this has caused lots of problems for the maintenance of the Trent and Mersey canal. You pass the little settlement of Wheelock and near to the town of Sandbach which is a pleasant old market town with lots of period houses and a large church, St. Mary's. Canalside pubs here are The Cheshire Cheese and The Commercial. Also the Nags Head, a pub built in the typical local style of "black and white" is near Bridge 154. These buildings have a timber framework painted black, with wattle and daub infills painted in white and they are located all over the Cheshire plain area.  

You continue to descend locks with a busy main road alongside you, and the scenery becomes more industrial again as you approach Middlewich. Here a branch of the Shropshire Union branches off towards Church Minshull and Barbridge Junction.

 

Above: "Heartbreak Hill"  - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Middlewich - the canal and moorings. Photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind pemrission

Middlewich has been here since Roman times, and salt extraction has been the continuing industry of the times. Salt was necessary for the preservation of meat and fish in the days before fridges and freezers, and was therefore highly prized and very expensive. Middlewich grew, with lots of old houses and St Michael's Church as testimony to the wealth of the town. It has Anderson Boats and Middlewich Narrowboats here and all the supplies you could need, as well as some canalside pubs like The Big Lock and The Kings Lock.

Once you leave Middlewich you cross a very narrow aqueduct at Croxton and then navigate across some pretty countryside with lots of different views as the canal meanders almost like a natual river following the course of the River Dane.  This is typical of a James Brindley canal! He never built locks if he could avoid it by making a canal go several miles along the natural contours rather than straight up and down! You will pass the grounds of two mini-stately homes, Bostock Hall and Whatcroft Hall, before the canal approaches the town of Northwich . This again used to be the centre of the salt industry. Also river boats, narrowboats and barges were constructed here and shipped off down the River Weaver via the Anderton Boat Lift - more of this later in the para below. Most of this trade has ceased as well. There are moorings here if you want to reach the town centre for supplies. Once you leave Northwich you continue through nondescript scenery in which the ICI chemical works are only too visible.

You pass through the grounds of Marbury Country Park, which is an oasis of green among the industrial scene, and you then approach another of those engineering wonders of the canal age - the great Anderton Boat Lift.  This is an amazing and enormous structure which was built in 1875 by Edwin Clarke. The Anderton Lift was designed to connect the Trent and Mersey Canal with the River Weaver far below.  The lift consists of two water filled tanks which counter-balance each other. They have counter-weights and now work with electricity - but originally they were steam powered. They have been the subject of an intense restoration project, and you can now go on a boat trip which combines a session on the canal with a trip up or down the boat lift. There is a superb Visitor Centre with full facilities for children and a restaurant. Many people make a day out of a visit here. Visit www.andertonboatlift.co.uk for full details and times of entry.

 

Above: The Anderton Boat Lift - photo by the Anderton Boat Lift Trust and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The southern end of the tunnel at Preston Brook - photo by Johnny Essex and reproduced by kind permission

After leaving Anderton you will have to traverse Barnton and Saltersford Tunnels, reaching a rural stretch of the canal once more high up above the valley of the River Weaver.

The canal continues to Dutton, where there is another tunnel called Preston Brook.  Preston Brook Marina is located here. This is effectively the end of the Trent and Mersey Canal, because when you emerge at the north portal of Preston Brook Tunnel you are in the Bridgewater Canal.

I hope that you will enjoy your journey along the Trent and Mersey Canal. It is not as spectacularly beautiful as some of our other canals, but it is filled with interest and has its share of Canal Age wonders such as the Harecastle Tunnel and the Anderton Boat Lift.  It is also mportant as a "connecting" canal - from it you can access so many of the other canals on the network.  Enjoy!

Great Haywood Marina- www.greathaywoodmarina.co.uk

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