Having spent this morning typing up yesterday, a slip of the finger deleted the post & now I’m all set to go and walk again. Please check #walkingtheshroppie on Twitter for 140 character updates from yesterday. More updates to follow on kindly boaters, ghostly monkeys, beautiful bridges, raised embankments, and dog companions. And briefly getting stuck on the canal.
Day 3-Re-written from the warmth of my Flat in Brum
A day that I’ve been looking forward too, walking deep into the heart of The Shropshire Union through Staffordshire, likely alone for the most part, tales of haunted cuts and feats of engineering. I prepare with a trip to a Brewood bakery, where the woman cheerfully informs me that they’ve trained to cakes to wink at the customers. I’m 30 miles on foot way from home now, still able to get back home by transport if I needed to…this leg will take me past that point. Starting from the Bridge Inn where I left off the day previous. Past holiday homes, which look for ideal living, I watch out for the Belvide Reservoir built in the 1830’s to feed the canal, I was hoping to visit it, but thinking it might take me too far off the canal tow path. I have developed a magnetism to the water, unable to let me adventure even to its source. I am also on a time limit, the stopping and taking pictures, talking and writing notes adding time on to my tramping of the tow path. The reservoir is now a place for nature and its birds, man made for the industrial age it now makes an eco center for wildlife. Over the Stretton Aqueduct which crosses the ancient roman wattling road. Now the A5. You can see Telford’s name upon it. The aqueduct, not the A5.
Its quieter now, than yesterday, the beginning of the working week, no longer Sunday sailing time. I start at just after 10 and see one man and his son by 11. Boats chug past the other way, a nod, a wave. Reserved again. Ducks in morning yoga poses. One legged tree, flapping off in to the water by my approach. Disturbed by my feet.
A boat yard over the way, yellow crane and high rigged a long narrowboat, 70ft or more ‘The Longest Narrowboat Journey in The World’ red on green, the other end ‘Unspoilt by Progress’. A brief research into this boat reveals a journey from Black Country to the Black Sea, stories of a sinking in the Danube. A salty journey for this boat. The summery of a canal feeling; these cuts built for progress, halted in time by the tracks of trains now ideal in idyllic slower pace of life that offer unspoiling in the face of technological progression. This story of this journey from what I can find out ends in sinkings and ill advised continuation of journey.
Tall trees now as the banks rise up. And now I can’t hear cars, even in the distance, think I do at first, but it is that similar sound in natural waves, of wind in the leaves, hissing. 40 metres high or more. Green light, wide space.
I’ve packed a dairy milk, as my finishing point is the old Cadbury’s wharf in Knighton, where Chocolate Charlie would collect chocolate crumb.
Rumours and mixed up heresay line the banks of this stretch of the canal as well as facts of engineering and struggle to build up an embankment that would hold up the canal.
As I walk on past Tavern Bridge no 19, the Hartly Arms still seemingly unchanged by the black and white picture that I hold up to match the scenery, I watch out for a hole in the canal bank. Two stories seem to culminate around this area adding up to make an alleged spectre further down the route. An narrow boat carrying aluminium catching the moon’s glint and German’s Planes eye in WW2, bombs aiming for the cargo dropped into the field next door. Then another an airfield around this area training USA and RAF pilots..In 1944 a Thunderbolt fighter, failing engine, training exercise ran over the edge of the runway, careering into the canal and damaging the bank. Never yet quite repaired. I look for this break in the line of the bank, and see I think younger trees not fully grown, growing back opposite this hole, and see for a moment a fighter plane crashing through the green and quiet, metal into shallow water skidding over wings extended. Breaking the silence in this countryside. I have not seen any fellow walkers since the man and his son. No one was killed in this particular wartime accident, but rumours still pervade of a RAF Pilot haunting the close by Bridge at Little Onn, the story of the crash calling up a spirit for us best to recall the incident. Swapping side on some turn over bridge or another, as the horses would have done, to be walking into The Cowley Tunnel. The only tunnel on the Shropshire Union. One of Telfords big plans to burrow a tunnel of 630 metres long through the rock, was cut short in slipping and unsteady ground , shortened to 71 metres, a choice to develop a deep gauge with no roof.
It’s fringed in deep green, almost looking natural in the roughness of it’s incisions, watching boats disappear through it and out to the other end. I hold up a picture from 1956 so that Mrs Watts in smart skirt and sensible shoes may once more walk through the tunnel.
Just passed Gnosall I stop to talk to Gwyneth and Tony aboard Too Hoots, we’ve been playing catch up with walk pacing and boating for most of today, they offer me tea and a much needed toilet. Tell me how they’ve been boating now for nearly 6 weeks, started off in Audlem where they moor, up through London, visited Cassiobury Park in Watford where I grew up, my first experience of the canals. They talk of windmills in Buckinghamshire (the oldest one there is?), places I’ve never heard of. And travelling at their pace stopping off for adventures, places to see. And boating in London, down to the paddington basin, they were warned, but London’s as friendly as anywhere. CCTV always on the watch out too. They tell me of a man they met who was walking from Birmingham to Brighton. And back again. Bearded, with a rucksack of belongings, like Father Christmas but in smart jeans. Saying he used to sleep under the stars. The art of tramping, of walking, as it should be done. I should have bought a tent, I think. I tell them of the Ghost stories I’ve heard through Grub Street, and I am grateful of the company, they’ll be catching up with me again, I think as I, on foot, and they on water, make our way to Audlem. The next day’s stop. But I have Knighton to get too, The old Cadbury’s wharf. And appointment with a creature that sits atop a high bridge.
I’m looking out for the Shelmore Embankment, which I thought would be obvious in sight. A bank that held up the canal, the last part to be completed of the Birmingham to Liverpool. A slipping, constantly collapsing bank, like building hills from soft sand. 600 navies pilling up earth and it continues to slip, for 5 and half years, compacting earth on this thankless task, always stability problems, still sometimes even now. Flood gates in case of breach, so the water can be washed away. And Telford never saw it quite complete, dieing before it was opened in safety. A direct cut through the landscape, and all because Lord Anson in Norbury Park did not want to disturb his pheasants. So the story goes. But I can’t see this now 180 years later, just peaceful countryside drop down, perhaps, but these steep slopes are hidden by mature trees roots growing deep down into the man made banks to steadying the earth.
Norbury Junction, rain starts tip down. Still looking much the same as it does in the archive picture that I carry, and a community base of sorts, as it always was. Growing from the junction that used to wind its way to Shrewsbury. Stories of canals frozen solid, lines of boats trapped as far as the eye could see. The Junction Inn home of brawls and bar fights, now a nice country pub, serving families and couples, sheltering from the driving rain. This was the Southern headquarters of The Shropshire Union. Home to volunteers, a shop, a toilet, and a hub for boaters. I press on despite the inviting warmth of the done up Junction Inn. Rain, heavier as I head for the cut with 80 feet high sides.
A double culvert bridge up ahead in the rain falling so hard it’s as though the canal is chucking it up in the air. High Bridge no 39. Double arch to help support the high sides of the banks which push agains the brick. So it looks like an 8 as the bottom of the bridge reaches down to the canal. There is the top of a telegraph pole to extra strengthen the structure, seven arms leaning out, like a god of the canal. Or as rumours goes a crouching, long haired, large eyed creature that sits atop the bridge. Monkey like in pose, it jumps on the backs of horses, stares out fathers at tillers on family boating holidays. And disappears. The spirit of a drowned and wronged boatman, rags of his clothes cut way in the cut turned to fur and sludge. Hoping to frighten a fall into inky water. I hold my breath and wait for the creature. No so such haunting happens. And I wonder if this creature, and it’s story comes from the shadow of that telegraph pole at dusk, work tired stare, a shadow casting down. Rumours come to collectively create something which want to frighten us. The scene is set well by these deep cuts and ghosts write themselves on windy wet days. But what shortens the breath is the engineering of these bridges, the man made holding up of nature.
It opens out, the canal, and shallows down in shorter bridges. And I am joined by a friendly creature, a mix up of a dog, that looks like a tiny bear. His tag simply reads ‘I am not lost, this is my farm’, bounding as he came through a hedge. He begs at me and trots ahead, tail wagging, escorting me along his land. He smells like cows, but for a moment I enjoy his companionship as if he were my own. And then he’s still with me, a mile or more later. And still with me. Tail wagging. Catching me up when I walk on ahead. I beginning to worry that I’ll have to take him with me. Give him a bath (his strong odour stays on my hands). And still he is with me for another mile. Sniffing and exploring. I have no time for sentiment. There will be people waiting to collect me. In a car park somewhere. I walk quickly while he investigates something or other, turn a corner on the canal, and I have sadnees creeping guilt, lost him. And then I see him, stock still, tail wagging, looking at me from the distance. This is where his boundary must be. He watches me walk. I try not too look back.
I’d always imagined that Knighton Wharf where the old Cadbury’s factory was would be a wide and open plain that I’d recognise straight away. Pictures I have of pails of milk helter skeltering down a contraption. The rain is coming in once more and up ahead where I think is a bridge is a building hanging out on to the canal. Ominous, it feels, a perfect horror setting, no build required. In the distance the sound of machinery. Boats sinking under aching awning. I had imagined myself sitting on a dock eating a cadbury’s dairy milk. But my body is itching to get way from the building and the trees that block out the already clouded dull light. I can get off at the next bridge. But there’s no steps up and a sheer face that leads, not quite obvious to where. This was the place I hadn’t done my research properly, it would seem. I start to panic that I cannot get off the canal. I’m feeling the exhaustion now. Walk on to the next bridge. A half path of sorts and up I scramble to a bridge that no longer serves its function. Through a field. And into the car park of the social club of Knighton Foods the factory that has taken over the Cadbury wharf.