I’m lacking in time discovering that the walking is taking longer than I anticipated, stopping taking pictures lining up the old with the current, talking to people. What follows ends in notes for writing up in a fuller sense later, leaving behind the urban cities and towns of the West Midlands to walk on to The Shroppie.
I started off yesterday with well wishes, and earnest Good Lucks from the man at the Station Hotel, he’s looking after my bags until Gemma comes to pick them up later. I’m still in the centre of a town, large tescos for supplies, still knowing I’m not far from home. There are trains and buses I could easily get. Back to where I left off at the aquduct and I’m greeted 26 fishermen, evenly spaced, galoshes,concentated faces, tattoed arms. A competition? Some smile, most are focused on the fish. 3 cats take sunday strolls along the tow path, further up more casual fishing with generations of old men and young boys, mimicking Grandfather’s stance. Or playing on their phones, while he watches for the fish. Wide smiles from all, hearty good mornings in Black Country accents, far away from Birmingham now, a different accent. Gospel church music tipping over as I take a picture of Tipton station bridge. The sun is shining and Sunday air moves slowly.
Following the footsteps of a man who smiles and nods, big dog careering around on his lead, the first of many dogs to lick my hand today. I still know I’m in a urban area, cans of carling litter the ground and are opened up in lunchtime appraisal. Sitting on steps, gazing into the midlands escape to water. Sports direct bags floating next to ducks, kids with prams, Sunday strolling. A man blackberry picking reaching up to highest berries (safe from spraying dogs), I check I’m going on the right way towards the Cosely Tunnel? ‘You can’t miss it?’ I am perfectly capable of getting lost on a canal. 329 metres, another straightening by Telford of Brindley’s winding cuts. He wanted to build a deep cut, right through the centre of a hill, challenges that he loved, but a tunnel was the better option.
No lights to line the walls, myth surrounds this tunnel of a woman, The White Lady, haunting the water. You can find wobbled mobile phone videos on YouTube of teenagers calling her name. Our continued fascination to wake the dead, the unhappy, in confirmation of other existence, we forget the human stories behind these hauntings, of desperation and lack of help. Infanticide, a media favourite, an act of of no understanding, a ready headline. 1901, a Cosely woman drowning her two young children in the water in the dark of the tunnel. Committed to an asylum, her desperation lines these walls confined now to a spirit atavar, monster, no explanation of her own. We prefer the haunting, rather than the haunted. I walk in the darkness to the sound of a father and child talking and making noises echoing off the walls, two cyclists approach, mentioning my bravery in walking in the dark.
I’m walking into Wolverhampton, industrial estates rise up either side, some disused, corrugated Iron warehouses, and I am approaching the old site of The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company. The place, this pilgrimage (of sorts) really starts. I work out where the factory may have been from old maps pulled and printed out. There are sites where work takes place no longer, abandoned as they are, a 10 ton Babcock and Wilcox crane, towers over head, beautiful in it’s rusting slide into deprivation and disrepair. Blackened by fire, or lack of care or use, it’s controls still visible, awaiting instruction. Abandoned. It spearheads the scene behind of warehouses crouching over once used, now silted basins of the canal. Its post apocalyptic. A scene you couldn’t build. Imagine after the dust has settled. Quite where once was noise. Of men, and horses, machinery and industry. Now distant traffic, occasional bird, the vibration of a motor on a far away boat.
A nod to the man standing on the bridge, his spot I can see, as I am disturbing his own private view. The want to be alone encasing him about his tracksuit and wide eyes, small smile, that says that I am safe along side him, private as he is the trouble is his own, gazing at these lumbering old giants. Place of peace. His look to the horizon as many do on the outer edges of this island. Shoreline of the inland water way.
The Shubbery Basin, The Shubbery Iron Works, an association with The Wolverhampton Corrugated Company, a place they used as a factory. And then from records that I know went to Oxygen. British Oxygen Company. The dealing of air. And now the site of Propane Gas. Bottles in blue and red, stacked and racked, through mesh fencing. As far as the eye can see. No sign of work. It is a Sunday. Into the centre of Wolverhampton city. A place that no longer stands where whispers fell through the factory ranks of a move ‘down north’ back then in the 1900’s, from this place, with its would have been cloud blackened smog skies.
The flight of 21 locks and a kindly companion. [Updated later]
I have an opportunity to use my BW key which opens up toilets along the canal (later, outside the Urban spread this proves to be invaluable). Walking into the boat yard at Wolverhampton, I explain who I am and what I am doing to a man in a CRT jumper. He offers me a lift to the bottom of the Wolverhampton 21 locks. This, I think, would be cheating. He talks darkly of druggies and the drinkers at locks 4 & 5 and accompanies me, windlass in hand, down the locks. Just in January this year, vandals opened the locks and drained out the water, which seems to me, to be a lot of effort for an incredibly pointless act. A slow burning act of vandalism, not broken glass, or fire. Water rushing out. Hours and hours, it took, to re-water the canal. Paul, my companion tells me of his life and application to work on the canals, his passion for model railways, apology pre-facing. But I love a model railway. Down, down the 21 locks, no drinkers or drugs in site. Perhaps it’s because it’s Sunday. Down to take pictures of the bottom locks in comparison with the archive picture. Paul walks me over the way to join a short stretch up to Autherly Junction, warns of the young men fishing, and as a women walking.
Autherly Junction and the outer Hebredian author.
Around the corner and I see the first time a sign for The Shropshire Union, this place that I had traced at the opening for the walk, the 66.5 miles to begin, under the bridge and around a corner, and the difference is palpable. Widening out into country spaces, wide canal, immediately, it seems away from the city, although those 21 locks are less than a mile or so behind. Junction as a word sweeps up ideas of business and complications, cross overs and changes. And there are cottages to the side, unchanged seemingly. That the air has become fresher. The light brighter. Immediately more friendly from the reserved and suspicious nods that traversed the waterways in the cities. I stop for a moment and talk to a softly spoken Outer Hebridean author, with a twinkle in his eye, who comes from the Island that makes Harris Tweed, that doesn’t cost as much as you’ll pay in all these shops down here. He likes the peace and quiet, from the unpopulated Island to his holiday on the boat with his partner, also an author, Children’s. They briefly speak in Gallic to each other, welsh sounds on some turns, Scandinavian on others. He’s never visited Wolverhampton, Birmingham. More than 3 cars and he starts to get anxious. His pace of speaking, telling stories, flows as gentle as the canal itself. And I have somewhere to go, to Brewood, a village of pubs further down the cut.
The change continues, from being flanked by warehouses, aware of the city and town either side, pavemented, or mudded ruts, to flat fields, grassy toll path lack of foot travel not wearing away to mud. Motorway bridges, graffitied up bid a wave goodbye to Wolverhampton. And so I wonder at the boots that walked this track, 100 and more years before me. Hooves. Certainly. The cloud of the black country hovering behind them, but the canal lined with boats and busy doing, more than dog walkers, joggers and fishers. And for a while I see no one. Trees rising up tall from the banks reaching to touch each other tips, hugging over the water. This is the Shroppie I had been promised. Green cathedral. Interspersed with grand bridges, I start to smell the lords of old, grassed over bridges with a holy, ancient feel. Not in a godly way. Just something sacred. Perhaps, it’s being alone. Or the combination of engineering and nature that creates this space. On the edge of the wind you can hear the motorway, reassuring in its modernity of weekend travel and somewhere on the opposite scale of Sunday ritual bells ring from the place that is my destination for today. Wide canal built to fit wide barges, heavy in industry all the way to the North. And really I am starting at the wrong end of The Shroppie, the new end, most recent-The Birmingham and Liverpool line. The most expensive waterways built, and I’ll see why further on in the week, with engineering still proving it’s feat up and against the railways. The change walked by feet from urban warning, suburban drifting to country quiet in two hours or so. And arriving in breathtaking aloneness at Giffords Cross Bridge. A scramble up the bank to grassed over, moss laden architecture. And I want to explore, into the woods and take the paths, invitingly, but my phone signal is weak, a friend waiting to greet me at the other end. I’ll break my course from the canal. Giffords Cross Bridge; bridge so called, because of the Lord, the sir of Chillington Hall, pursuing an escaped wild panther (we are talking the 1500’s, when wild cats were all the rage) saw the black cat, haunches raised, ears back, paws in pace slow, as it eyed a women and child, ready to pounce. So the story goes. And the Sir John Gifford, raised a cross bow to his sight and struck the cat as he started to spring upon his prey. The Gifford Family crest contains Panther head, and the motto (in french) “Take Breath, pull hard”. Trees widening out, as the suns starts to prepare to lay low ,fields, and signs of civilisation, and the church spire where the bells must have rung from. Boats in moorings and talk from canal side pubs in Sunday day to evening drinking. A stop, half a pint at The Bridge Inn.