On The Wildside

The Shropshire Union is well known for its Kingfishers.
The Shropshire Union is well known for its Kingfishers.

During late autumn I spent two very interesting weeks travelling the ‘Four Counties Ring’ a circular route on the canal system.

We travelled through four counties Shropshire, our starting point, Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midland before finding our way back into Shropshire. We commenced our journey from the moorings on the Shropshire Union Canal in open farming land and headed north east.

The Shropshire Union is well known for its Kingfishers and to see us off on our first day one was spotted.

The canal gently winds itself through farmland mostly arable and cattle. We saw numerous acres of ‘Elephant Grass’ a relatively new crop grown for biomass boilers. It is a very dense and tall grass, 10 feet or more.

There are still the remains of rural wharves built to serve the farming community – to collect the grain and deliver goods, coal and other commodities to the community. One such wharf still remaining in good order is at Shebden, owned by the Cadbury Company and houses two old wooden barges. The building itself on the canal side resembles the overhang on the railway platforms.

On Day 2 we tackled the 15 locks at Audlem and Hack Green. The approach to Audlem is down through majestic trees mainly of beech. The colours were golden lit by the autumn sunshine and quite spectacular.

Nantwich was our next port of call. A quaint historic town with fascinating, well maintained houses. The Market Square that day was holding its Farmer’s Market which was brisk with trade. The church stood solid at the far end of a small green. I discovered that Nantwich was part of a pilgrimage path ‘The Weavers Way’.

Back on to the canal we soon turned off on to the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union at Barbridge. We were now in very rural countryside and in the well-heeled country of Cheshire. All the hedges as far as the eye could see, were neatly trimmed and all gates in a good order. The cattle were no longer the black and white Friesians but much larger and rich brown or cream in colour.

There are very few locks on this branch and our route crossed the River Weaver and then followed its course before we reached Middlewich. There are many small settlements to be seen across the valley, Church Minshull being the largest.

Only three small roads traversed the canal and I walked the tow path in sunny weather but saw very few people – a rambling group and the odd dog walker.

We moored that night protected by hedges but with views across the valley. We could see where the River Weaver making a navigable route to Runcorn where it joins the famous Manchester Ship Canal. Our route, however, turned east away from the river to Middlewich.

Sunday morning saw us wandering into the town for supplies. The town was very dull after Nantwich and somewhat disappointing. We set off again and joined the Trent and Mersey Canal and were now travelling south east. We tackled the ‘Heart Break Hills’ locks, although not a flight, there are 21 locks to tackle before reaching Hardcastle Tunnel so a busy day.

We dipped under the M6 motorway near Sandbach and arrived at Kidsgrove on Monday ready to go through the infamous tunnel. We had booked our place to go through and the morning dawned frosty and bright. This was fascinating but somewhat daunting for me preferring hills to tunnels!

To be continued