Spotlight on the Canals – the Trent & Mersey Canal
Stunning views over the Cheshire Plain, mighty canal structures, the charming Potteries and mile-upon-mile of peaceful countryside.
The 90-mile long Trent & Mersey Canal, begins close to the River Mersey near Runcorn and finishes at its junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire.
It evolved as a direct result of the development of the pottery industry in North Staffordshire, where the local clay had enabled pottery to be manufactured since Elizabethan times.
In 1765 Josiah Wedgewood, the top producer of pottery, put forward the idea of building a canal to link the Potteries with the River Mersey. Engineered by the canal-building genius James Brindley, it was the country’s first long distance canal.
Opening in 1777, the effect of the canal was instant and phenomenal – transport costs were quartered and the whole area expanded. As well as pottery, industries prospering from it included the brewing industry at Burton on Trent, salt at Middlewich, Northwich and Sandbach, and coal mining in North Staffordshire.
Today the canal takes narrowboat holiday-makers through some of the best scenes that our waterways have to offer, using mighty feats of canal engineering, including the Anderton Boat Lift, the 2,647-metre long Harecastle Tunnel and the flight of 31 locks between Middlewich and Kidsgrove known as ‘Heartbreak Hill’, which raise the canal up from the Cheshire Plains.
Best for beginners
On a short break from our canal boat hire base at Great Haywood near Stafford in Staffordshire, boaters can head north along the Trent & Mersey Canal to the old market town of Stone, travelling for five hours and passing through four locks.
Once home to the headquarters of the canal company, Stone is now the food and drink capital of Staffordshire, with regular markets, a diverse choice of cuisine and an exciting calendar of events, including the Stone Festival held in June and the Food & Drink Festival in October.
Along the way, the route passes the village of Weston, with its beautiful village pub on the green, The Woolpack run by Marston’s.
Next, canal boat holiday-makers can enjoy views of the imposing Sandon Hall, its 400 acres of rolling parkland, and Grade II* listed Pitt’s Column, erected in 1806 by the first Earl of Harrowby in memory of the great Prime Minister Pitt the Younger.
The canal then passes along the outskirts of Burston, where the family-run micro-brewery Greyhound pub is well worth the short walk to.
On arriving in Stone, there are visitor moorings at Westbridge Park, opposite the Swan pub, and a little further along past the Star pub on the left.
On a week’s break, canal boat holiday-makers can continue north from Stone along the Trent & Mersey Canal to Stoke-on-Trent, first travelling through Meaford Locks, and past the canalside ‘Plume of Feathers’ pub at Barlaston, which the actor Neil Morrissey re-opened two years.
Another good place to stop along the way is just before Trentham Lock to explore the World of Wedgwood, with a factory tour, afternoon tea in the Wedgewood tea room, woodland walks and award winning museum housing a UNESCO protected collection of huge historic and cultural significance.
Just under five miles later, after travelling through the Stoke flights of five locks, the canal reaches its junction with the Caldon Canal at Etruria, in Stoke-on-Trent. Here boaters can stop to visit the Etruria Industrial Museum, Spode Visitor Centre, Ski Centre and the Waterworld indoor aqua park, before turning to travel back to Great Haywood.
This journey to Stoke and back travels a total of 36 miles, passing through 36 locks, and takes around 18 hours of cruising time.
Best for experienced boaters
On a week, 10-day or two-week break from Great Haywood, more experience boaters can tackle the stunning Four Counties Ring – travelling through Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands, covering 114 miles and 94 locks, and taking around 55 cruising hours.
To travel the ring in an anti-clockwise direction, boaters continue north along the Trent & Mersey Canal from Stoke-on-Trent, passing through the mighty one-and-three-quarter-mile long Harecastle Tunnel, re-emerging at Kidsgrove, and Harding’s Wood Junction, where the Macclesfield Canal meets the Trent & Mersey.
And it’s here that boaters travelling north meet the summit of ‘Heartbreak Hill’ – the series of 31 locks which between Middlewich and Kidsgrove, raise the canal 280ft up from the Cheshire Plains.
The Red Bull flight of six locks are the first to be dealt with, followed by the two Church Locks, one Halls Lock and then three Lawton Locks at Lawton Gate.
The next village is Rode Heath with its Royal Oak pub and Rode Hall, one of Cheshire’s most exquisite country houses, which is open to the public on Wednesdays and bank holidays in the summer months.
The South Cheshire Way crosses the canal at Lower Thurlwood Lock, one of a flight of three, then it’s the two Pierpoint Locks, and then there are two more at Hassall Green, just before the canal passes beneath the M6 motorway.
At Wheelock, where there’s a choice of pubs, including the recently refurbished canalside Cheshire Cheese, there are eight locks to negotiate. It’s worth taking a break here, as from Wheelock, it’s a mile-long walk into the historic town of Sandbach, with regular markets, a Waitrose supermarket and plenty of places to eat and drink, including the Saxon Grill Restaurant at the Crown, next to the Saxon Crosses on the cobbled square in the town centre.
There’s a three-mile break from locks as the canal winds round Ettiley Heath and the Sandbach Flashes, a group of 14 wetlands designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Four miles and another four locks on, the canal reaches the historic market town Middlewich, famous for its salt industry which dates back to medieval times. Here the Four Counties Ring route leaves the Trent & Mersey Canal, heading to Barbridge along the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal.
At this point, boaters on a 10-day or two-week holiday, could take a 20-mile, eight-lock round-trip detour continuing north along the Trent & Mersey Canal, past the Lion Salt Work’s Museum at Marston, to visit the Anderton Boat Lift.
This incredible feat of Victorian engineering designed by Edwin Clark, perches on the banks of the River Weaver Navigation like a giant three-story-high spider. Using two huge water tanks with watertight sealable doors, it raises boats 50ft between the Weaver Navigation and the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Once back at Middlewich and onto the Middlewich Branch, this quiet waterway travels peacefully through the Cheshire countryside, with just four locks along its 10-mile length. Along the way, the Badger Inn at Church Minshull, a short walk from the canal, is a popular place to stop for refreshment.
After travelling for a further two miles to Barbridge Junction, with its marina and Olde Barbridge Inn, to continue travelling anti-clockwise around the Ring, boaters next head south down the Shropshire Union Canal to its junction with the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Autherley.
It’s worth noting that our Bunbury base is just three miles away from Barbridge, with boating facilities and the friendly Dysart Arms at Tarporley nearby for refreshment. So canal boat holiday-makers hiring from our Bunbury base can pick up the Four Counties Ring here, a journey which would involve a total of 56 locks and could be completed in 58 hours.
Along the way, heading south down the Shroppie, the route passes over the Nantwich Aqueduct on the outskirts of Nantwich, home to the stunning timber framed Elizabethan mansion house, Churche’s Mansion.
Two rural miles later, there are two locks at Hack Green, close to the Secret Hack Green Nuclear Bunker, once one of the nation’s most secret defence sites, and now a fascinating museum.
Three miles on at Audlem, boaters pass the Shroppie Fly pub and Audlem Mill, selling canal gifts, crafts and the locally made Snugbury’s Jersey Ice Cream.
Then the Audlem flight of 15 locks takes the canal 93ft downhill to a lock-free mile, before another flight of five locks at Adderley.
Boaters next travel through Betton Cutting, past Brownhills Wood before reaching the historic market town of Market Drayton, home of the gingerbread man.
Next there are five locks at Tyrley, then the canal is lock free for 17 miles, passing through a series of cuttings, embankments and villages with excellent pubs.
Places of note along this 17-mile level stretch include Goldstone Wharf with its Wharf Tavern pub, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust’s Loynton Moss Nature Reserve at Grub Street, the Old Wharf Tearoom at Norbury Junction, the Royal Oak at Gnosnall, and the Hartley Arms and Mottey Meadows Nature Reserve at Wheaton Ashton.
There’s just one lock at Wheaton, then the route is lock-free again for eight miles, passing the Bridge pub at Brewood, going under the M54 motorway and running close to Pendeford Mill Nature Reserve, before meeting Autherley Junction Stop Lock and the southern end of the Shroppie.
To complete the Four Counties Ring, boaters then travel north up the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal back to Great Haywood, passing the National Trust’s magnificent Shugborough Estate, with riverside gardens dotted with fascinating monuments and follies, one rumoured to offer a clue to finding the Holy Grail.