The Shropshire Union Canal: Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel and enduring legacy

Thomas Telford's great legacy is the Shropshire Union Canal, a feat of engineering and a delight to walk beside. Fiona Reynolds took a stroll along it.

The great canal-building age of Britain left a legacy we all enjoy. We trundle happily along these quiet waterways by narrowboat, foot or bicycle, scarcely appreciating their tempestuous history and miraculous survival.

My walk (a nice long one) is along the Shropshire Union Canal, which stretches from the industrial West Midlands to the River Dee. Everything is idyllic — sunshine, mounds of hawthorn blossom, flowering webs of cow parsley, sitting swans and bundles of newly hatched ducklings, skidding giddily on the water’s surface — but only as I walk do I appreciate the complexity of the canal’s construction and its chequered history.

I start at Wolverhampton station, a confused mass of buildings and roads above the calm, deep water of the canal. I’ll finish at Shebdon on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border, where my daughter lives and where, after 21 miles, I think I’ll be done.

It takes a while to navigate from the station to the canalside, skirting roundabouts and negotiating a vast main road, but, once there, I enter another world of charming canal cottages, beautiful brick setts marked with the scrape of horses’ hooves, and an elegant flight of 21 locks down to Aldersley Junction, where the Birmingham Canal meets the Staffordshire & Worcestershire. It’s an extraordinary feeling, walking below huge railway arches and modern roads, gazing at the backs of factory buildings, yet surrounded by wildlife and detached from the hustle of the city. It’s beautiful.

At Aldersley, I walk the short distance to Autherley Junction, where the Shropshire Union Canal branches west with a big sign saying ‘Chester’. I’m out of the city almost immediately and into the fresh green, gold and blossom-flecked world that will characterise my day. The canal is now wider, with trees arching above old stone bridges, numbered from Autherley.

Narrowboat passing under a bridge on the Shropshire Union Canal at Goldstone Wharf, north Shropshire.

I make progress astonishingly quickly. I’m soon past Codsall and under the M54 (a horrid modern bridge). Mostly, I’m alone, with only an occasional narrowboat for company, but, at intervals, there are mooring sites and, at Brewood, a pub that brings people to the canal. Pressing on, I cross the A5 on an elevated aqueduct with impressive pillars, designed in 1832 by the great engineer Thomas Telford, who had more than a hand in both the canal and the A5.

The canal had a convoluted history, with the Ellesmere end finished in the 1790s to great commercial success. However, by the time the rest was ready to be built, in the 1830s, railways were already threatening its viability. Telford cleverly engineered it so that, for great stretches, it needed no locks, driving like a railway through cuttings and on embankments. It was difficult to construct, with landslips causing repeated problems, and Telford did not live to see it open.

Within 10 years, competition forced a plan to convert much of the canal into a railway, but, somehow, it survived, carrying coal, iron, timber, milk and grain in and out of the West Midlands, vying with the railways until the First World War brought business crashing to a halt. Commercial traffic ceased, the canal deteriorated, and its future was only secured when it was finally classified as a cruising waterway in 1968.

North of the A5 is a long stretch past Wheaton Aston (providing a welcome pub stop) to Gnosall Heath. I count the bridges and iron milestones that mark my progress towards Nantwich. I know my destination isn’t far beyond Norbury Junction and it’s this stretch, from Norbury to Shebdon, where the most spectacular evidence of Telford’s ingenuity can be seen. The canal veers from being high on a vast embankment to plunging deep into a cutting with a fantastic double-height bridge (no 39).

When I reach Shebdon I’m tired, but exhilarated by the beauty of the day and the achievement of long-distance walking. Thank goodness for those with the foresight to hang on to our canals when their original purpose fell away; we almost don’t deserve the joy they bring.

Fiona Reynolds is the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ and chair of the Royal Agricultural University governing council