Posted 23rd Sep 2015
Explore England by water with the handy Great Waterways Journeys handbook in tow. We've got an extract from this beautiful new book that guides you through 19 characterful and picturesque routes by boat, foot or bike, learning about our industrial heritage and how cities grew and thrived as you go, all the while passing through idyllic countryside
Trent & Mersey Canal
Following the success of the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester, its engineer James Brindley planned to build a network of canals to connect the rivers Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames. Originally known as the Grand Trunk Canal, the Trent & Mersey Canal was financed by Josiah Wedgwood and other pottery owners in Stoke-on-Trent. These potters were keen to bring in raw materials more efficiently, and safely transport their delicate finished produce that had until then been carried by packhorses on rutted roads. The 17-mile-long northern section between Preston Brook and Middlewich was also designed as a broad canal for the use of salt barges.
Construction of the 93-mile-long Trent & Mersey Canal began in 1766 but tunnelling problems at Harecastle delayed the opening until 1777, by which time Brindley had died and therefore never saw the completion of his dream navigation. Today, the Trent & Mersey Canal is one of England’s most popular cruising waterways.
The journey begins at the Wardle Canal, which at 155 feet is the shortest canal in Britain. It connects Wardle Lock (at the end of the Shropshire Union’s Middlewich Arm) to the junction, and was built by the Trent Navigation Company as a controlling link between them and the Shropshire Union. A worn plaque on the bridge states ‘Wardle Canal 1829’.
Middlewich was founded by the Romans, who named it Salinae because of its salt deposits. The suffix ‘wich’ has Old English origins and again refers to salt towns, such as Northwich and Nantwich. Salt is still manufactured in the town but on a much smaller scale than 100 years ago, when the canal was lined by salt works with forests of smoking chimneys.
Leaving the junction you turn left, passing a number of boatyards to reach three narrow-gauge locks. The next lock, aptly called Middlewich Big Lock, was built as a wide lock to enable salt barges working between Middlewich and Preston Brook to pass. The attendant pub is also known as The Big Lock Pub and Restaurant and is particularly busy during the folk and boat festival that takes place every summer by the canal in the town. Croxton Aqueduct crosses the River Dane just outside Middlewich. It was damaged by flooding in the 1930s and rebuilt with a very narrow channel, so there is only room for one boat to cross at a time.
After the aqueduct, the canal follows the River Dane Valley. This delightful three-mile-long section of woodland and flashes caused by mining subsidence is a paradise for waterfowl. Some of the lagoons were used as a dumping ground for abandoned canal boats, but in recent years most of them have been raised and removed. Nevertheless, boaters are warned not to stray into these areas as the odd sunken vessel may still lurk beneath the waters.
A boatyard by Bridge 182 marks the end of the lovely Dane Valley section and heralds an industrial area on the outskirts of Northwich.
The Lion Salt Works at Marston was the last factory in Britain to use the open-pan process to evaporate brine. It closed in 1986 and later re-opened as a working salt museum. Marston’s fame for its salt mines was highlighted by a visit from the Tsar of Russia in 1844, when he was guest of honour at a banquet hosted by the Royal Society in the caverns 300 feet below the surface. The canal, which played a major role in transporting salt from Marston, suffered a collapse through subsidence at the beginning of the 20th century and a new section of canal had to be cut.
The 200-acre Marbury Country Park near Marston is also worth visiting. Access to the park’s visitor centre is from the canal by Bridge 196. After this comes Anderton Marina, with all boating facilities and a restaurant. The marina is followed by the famous Anderton Boat Lift.
Great Waterways Journeys by Derek Pratt, published by Bloomsbury, is available to buy online here, and from all good book shops, RRP £16.99.