I am gradually updating each day from The Canal Walk (there is more detail from Day 2 and Day 3 that I have added. I’ve opted at present to leave out pictures, knowing that I will get distracted in the picking and placing of them). Please see storify.com/FranMillicanS/walking-the-shroppie for images.
The day starts with an onslaught of rain, but it is only 12 miles today, an opportunity to take my time a little, walk through infamous Woodseaves cutting, explore Market Drayton on route. Staying in Forton, near Newport I take a taxi back to Knighton Wharf, knowing I will have to scramble down the bank to start where I left off. The taxi driver is bemused but unperturbed by my strange mission, dropping me off in a place where there is nothing but the Frozen Food Factory. He tells me of a time he went out walking through Cheshire and had to get his wife to collect him close to the end, so tired he was. I think he said it was 5 miles. I am smug in my walkers ways. I’m wished luck and return to tramping through a field and scrambling down a bank which is not as steep as I recall it from the slight panic of the previous day. Having returned to my notes, I know that creeping wharf that sat over the canal is The Cadbury’s Wharf (still expecting something lighter, less industrial despite it being a site for industry), I have this confirmed by a sign that sits in the shadows, 2 feet tall or so, pinned to the the corner of corrugated iron shelter wharf, paint peeling, green moss growing around, red frame of paint, barely visible in the dripping rain.
This wharf was used between 1911 and 1964 for the processing of locally collected milk products and shipment of chocolate crumb by canal to Cadbury’s Ltd, Bournville.
The Cadbury’s is written in the familiar font of it’s chocolate bars. The canal mud brown, boats in disrepair moored up waiting for shipments that they will no longer take, the sound of food being frozen and mens shouts from the working factory. And this wharf is left untouched, unchanged by progress, an acknowledgement of it’s small history, but not cared for or made shiny. The cupboard out the back, the loft that no one goes in, the drawer you should clear out. The canal, the wharf the probable reason why The Knighton Food site sits where it does. Dot and Andy, who picked me up yesterday talked to a young man who worked there, who didn’t even know this wharf existed. And progress, or change, or the inevitable has continued to happen to the company Cadbury’s as it’s stocks are sold, and brand bought out by the american company Kraft. May no longer be British milk in a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
I had bought one with me, a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, envisaging me eating it on the old wharf, reality never quite mirroring an artistic fantasy of place, despite google earth and research, I’m been seeing pictures from the 1950’s in my eyes. I unfortunately cannot find the said Dairy Milk in my bag and have to use a Cadbury’s Brunch bar as a substitute. It is raining persistently and inside my head Billy Joel sings about drinking Pina Colada and getting caught in the rain. I’m still fussing around in the rain taking pictures when I see Too Hoots coming up the canal-their surprised to see me, thinking I might have set off a little earlier to get to Audlem. They ask me if I’m walking through Woodseaves cut, Gwen knows that at some point last year the tow path was closed because it wasn’t safe to walk down. They say if they see me they’ll give me a lift, it may be unwalkable, or if not from them I should try and thumb a boat.
They carry on ahead, at a pace faster than mine as I continue with trepidation towards Woodseaves, 21.3 metres deep and just over a mile in distance, it was cut out of the ground at the behest of Thomas Telford to get the straightest route. Deeper than the earlier Grub street cutting where the Ghost monkey lives, it is said that the sides go up almost vertically. There is no getting off the canal once walking through Woodseaves. Navies hand digging away through rock, horses, wheel barrows, no motorised machinery, excavation. I pass through Cheswardine where the people of the village lay suspicions of poaching on the 100’s of navies working close to their quarters. Untrustworthy these wondering men who took the work where they could get it, sweating aching muscles during the day, drinking until they slept in the night.
I’ve passed no walkers walking this way, and I’m slightly concerned as to how bad the conditions might be. But this is a canal walk through Cheshire or Stafforshire (I’m unsure which county I am now in.). Not The Danube. The rain has eased off for the moment, I ask a boater tending his craft as I stop to take a picture.
‘Have you been through Woodseaves recently? Is it walkable?’
He exhales through his teeth, a shake of the head.
‘Bout six weeks ago, but its rained since’
He looks at my shoes.
‘Expect mud then?’ I say.
‘Ankle deep, at best’ He grins.
The bridges are growing taller, slowly as the sides of the canal rise up. But a wide path has been gravelled, grey stones encased in wire bolster the foot of the drops. Branches have been cut and piled up on the path and I think ahead, and pick up a large stick for support. Now this feels like an adventure. Despite it still simply being a walk along a tow path. One Boat going the other way, look at me strangely and check my feet. It is the last boat I see for the rest of Woodseaves.
The tow path narrows to puddles as a main path, worn cobbles, smooth from over flowing water of the canal looking like a more secure surface, but that much closer to the canal, and that much easier to fall in from. After experimenting with balancing on these wet and worn stones, I think the safety of the a deep puddle is a better option than a drop into the canal. I have a propensity to fall in water if I look at it for too long, and this alone, but for the birds and trees is not a place to do it. I cannot even hear the reassuring putter of an engine either way. Ankle deep in mud seems a better option, green algi or something floating on top, making these undisturbed puddles more like ponds, microcosms of life beginning as I cautiously ,at first, to splash my way through them. Stick in first to measure the depth of the puddle this soon becomes pointless as my feet couldn’t get much wetter. But I am enjoying this tramp. A let up from the constance of low bridges and water stretching out. Concentrating on my ground, taking my time. Deep green walls of vegetation stretch up either side, as these hand built bridges match their height. I cannot hear a motorway or car or sign of human at all. I’m in middle of this man made place, that nature has taken as it’s own. Tree’s growing up and out at right angles, roots twisting, plants that seems tropical, or Amazonian. This country with it’s hidden surprises, walking through it’s safe twee images of rolling hills and fields to two miles more or so into this dramatic change. Perhaps it is because I am alone. Perhaps because there is an element of danger, even if that danger is very simply put aside by not falling in the canal, but that magic returns in the canopy of trees, the idea of scale, height, not something I had associated with the waterways.
Pictures do not do justice to the bridges that were not built to walk over but to hold up the sides of this excavation. Their looming out of the green 20 or so meters tall, in copper coloured sandstone, marked with black through age, their height lengthening in reflection of the almost still canal. But it is still moving, drifting, slowly. And to think alone as I am now, this path would have sounded with hooves, and mens boots, no time for looking up at the greenery. On this route so familiar it was done in plodding method. Aside from the thundering of the fly boats, no slipping up of hooves. And watching still for this cut has always been unstable in the slipping of rock from high above. And those Wolverhampton Workers from the smog of The Black Country, how would the ground have been under their feet over 100 years ago, trees not as thick, younger, the sky more visible. But mud is still mud, perhaps the tow path in better repair, as it was trodden much more than it is now. Would those walking workers have been warned as I had of the conditions of this cut? Would have they hitched on boats more frequent than my journey now. Long skirts lifted to not drag in the mud. Children carried. Etched into that sandstone of the bridge the lines of ropes from horses pulling barges.
And before the boats, before the walking. The shout of men at work in foundations of these bridges. Excavating a channel, securing it’s water proof. Building bridges brick by brick as is still the way. I guess. No high vis and helmets. Cloth caps and shirt sleeves. Hands in callouses and dirt. Steam in sweat from horses backs in carts full of rubble. And now, just me with a stick to steady and an iphone. Photographing imprints left of this working water way. Returning to a sense of discovery, even though I had traced the bridges that were here through old pictures, and new stories online. Alone, it feels like exploration of a forgotten world. And then I hear a plane or a helicopter over head, back to this world, now.
There are tyre tracks in the tow path, a brave cyclist down this narrow way. My feet are caked in mud, and in being careful on my step has taken longer than a tramp along grassy banks that have become familiar. As I come through to Tyrley, blinking into human habitation, a boater chugs to enter through the cut and shouts
‘I bet you’re glad you’re through there!’
Red triangle signs warn of slipping rock. Diversions from the tow path strictly forbidden.
I travel down the steps of Tylrey lock, people now out for a stroll with their dogs or down the locks, the English countryside returned once more. I see a boat called Penny Lane, which lets up Billy Joel and starts the Beatles singing in my head instead.
I take a break a Market Drayton, a strange tangent for me, a pretty market town full of people and familiar landmarks from the trappings of urban life. Peacocks, the clothes shop, WH smith, a Kebab shop. I’m little overwhelmed by people, part of me still somewhere alone on the cut. And the pace of travel of foot I’m averaging 2.5 miles an hour (at best and that is an average), I am still surprised in the alterations of scenery and place I can go through in one day. Scone and tea, delays me a little as I hurry on to reach Audlem locks. I see Too Hoots moored up and look in, I’m glad to see them, as they me so they know I got through the Woodeseaves cut. I make jokes of falling in and missing girls. I’ve made pretty good progress, but I sadly turn down a cup of tea as I know I’m only half way through. Another 6 or so miles to go, and I need to make up for time spent wading through mud. Tony shows me a book about canal ghosts and I am heading for a 2nd haunting through Betton Woods (or where it was) the place of an MR James ghost story ‘A Neighbours Landmark’.
The canal has flattened out into familiar humpbacked bridges, the ruins of old railway bridges missing tops to carry the trains. Clouds are heavy above a blue strip of sky turning purple, as I head towards the place, I think, the ghost of Betton Woods walks. It is supposed that no one moors around this way because of that shrieking ghost. At first you hear a rustling, then a coldness in the air, and high pitch screaming that seems to pierce through you as if standing at your shoulder. In the story by MR James, and rumours I have read the woods no longer exists, was cut down in an attempt to chase away the frustrated spirit that screams in its own anguish. But there are woods on either side, some boats moored up, smoke puttering from some of them, distanced apart. There is a change in atmosphere, something in the air. But it could be the weather. The closeness of the trees, the time of day or a nod to some inevitable tiredness in the walking. A rustle to the left, an animal of some sort. I tell myself. And that change in atmosphere could be that the birds are no longer singing. As if they know. I am perfectly capable of telling myself stories to scare myself, half wanting the fear and excitement, cynicism, logic and a touch of disappointment usually winning over. No shrieks, no high pitched sounds. I strive to look where Betton wood might have, or still is. Perhaps it was only fiction that cut it down.
Towards the end of the day, which has been the shortest in distance so far, but the hardest in some other ways, I am aching to start to see the beginning of the 21 Audlem locks but the canal stretching on relentless and even. Not a soul seen since Market Drayton. There’s a plodding tiredness I cannot shake. This is somewhat lifted by mini farm shops in unmanned stalls along the canal, selling homemade biscuits, bacon, pork pies, and quiches. Honesty box to put in the right change. A trusting moment from another time. All though there is a sign noting you are being watched on camera. And I start going down the locks, seeing people at last, dog walkers, men on bikes, the water moving down. And Maryon, my helper and companion for an evening meal waiting by one of the bottom locks in her red boots.