Day 7: Chester to Ellesmere Port.

The final day of the walk, I am well rested after a lovely stay with Jenny from the museum, in farm house just over the border in wales. I have a merry band of walkers with me for this last 8 miles; Derek, father of Charles who joined me for part of the first Birmingham leg and is a well travelled (Boat and Feet) expert on this stretch of the canal, Linda from the archives, Janet Ollier who is the promoter of the wonderful Goosetree Festival in Goosetree (which I am taking my show about the history of my flat in Birmingham to in October, bit of shameless promotion) and my very own Mum. We start off at Telfords Warehouse, a pub that stands on what looks like a smaller version of his Warehouse that burnt down in the 1970’s at Ellesmere Port. I have become blasé in the mere 8 miles of today not packing sandwiches or many snacks as I anticipate that we will get there by lunch time.  This isn’t really Telford’s stretch of the canal, though many people think it is, Derek tells me the plans were all signed up and drawn when Telford became part of the project in his early days, under the supervision of Jessop, this is where Tommy Telford cut his teeth. We see it has none of his straight lines to the point routes. It meanders a little across the country side.Taylorsboatyard  I line up Taylor’s boat yard from an old picture from the 1950’s. Later that day I hear stories of a film maker who filmed scenes there, the boat makers as traditional as ever. Much joy is had by the party when I unlock the toilets with my BW key.  We have gone about 100 meters.

It is a different pace of walking in a group to on my own, my Mum and Janet are up ahead planning a revolution, while Linda, Derek and I talk of histories passed, both personal and canal based. It starts raining early on, the worst rain I’ve had since beginning the walk, an unusual combination of too warm for a coat, but too wet without one. Very typical British weather. We just about spy the clock tower from The Countess of Chester Hospital, once the Asylum, Derek tells me it’s clearer later on in Autumn, when the leaves are sparse enough to see through the branches. It is Blackberry season but the best berries are on the other side of the water, reachable only by the boaters. To the right of us a golf course rises up in hills and holes, what lies beneath those landscaped curves and flags is alleged to be landfill, of an unknown variety, the original creator long since sold off the site. I think of glowing refuse underneath golf cart wheels, sludge that descends into the water and wildlife. Perhaps. Past the new crematorium, smoke rising, that looks like a beached whale.

Railway Bridge No 132 high brick arched where trains trundle over head. As it’s known locally 11 arch bridge, and then you notice those tall arches duplicating out away from the canal for support. Conversations are had of trains coming off tracks on foggy nights, mini chocolate brownies are handed out and my mum suggests I walk the last two miles in bare feet.

11 Arch BridgeThis is off the back of a conversation involving a historian who walks bare feet and my mum’s suggestion that those Wolverhampton Walkers would have worn through their boots, leather flapping off to reveal the soles of their feet. I suggest that they probably would have got those shoes cobbled along the way (Market Drayton, Nantwich) that the boots would have been made to last, to work, not for comfort. The possibility of clogs is mentioned.

 

Past the bridge, and to the right, just about if you tip you head and listen, you might be able to hear the roar of lions from Chester Zoo. Maybe. Talk of abandoned plans for extensions and a zoo wharf to widen out public appeal.

I hear about dialect of boat people ‘Bobby Dazler’ referring to the light on a boat in the dark of the tunnel. A right Bobby Dazler. And Gongoozling. Those who stand gawping on the canal tow path. Staring, mouth open, watching the workers on the waterways. It has been appropriated as the name of a hobby, watching the canals. Going a Gongoozling.  What I have been doing all this week. More origins in words of distances, furlongs from furrows measured from hooves.  As usual the signs in distance that accompany us vary differently to the miles on the canal planner I have or the distances measured on GPS. Signs saying we’ve 5 and half miles to go, but we’ve already walked a whole 3. Other signs saying something other, a peculiarity that feels, it seems quite precisely British in it’s corroboration of distances.  We hold up an old photograph to Caughall Bridge, where I have read somewhere of passenger package ships and lives lost.

Caughsill Bridge

It is, it seems a very unassuming bridge, low with no sense of danger. It is called I’m told ‘pretty bridge’ locally, a balcony in black and white railings. It is nice, but I have been witness to a lot of bridges in these last few days. Which has either made me a bridge expert or I fear I may have developed a bridge blindness. They begin to look the same. Some which lead to nowhere, were walked over once, if at least by troops of cows, and now no more, just grass and fauna. Some fenced off as part of famers lands, others climbable up to leading to dirt tracks and views which take in the canal walked and the canal to come. Some not originally built for the traffic they start to carry later on their lives are reinforced by new materials, sagging slightly in the middle taking the weight of tyres.

More signs in varying distances and then up ahead, a bridge that isn’t a bridge for human crossing, in white and yellow piping Derek tells me this is Pluto. Code name for Pipe Line Under The Ocean. A WW2 operation to travel oil to France not over sea but under it, so as to go undeterred by German bombings. A feat of engineering endeavored quickly. This part travels it from somewhere further up north of the country over canal out toward and under the ocean. Still, I think functioning.

Pluto

We stop at Bridge 136a for a small digression in lunch at The Bunbury Arms. Potentially the best chips I’ve eaten throughout my travelling in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. No really. I highly recommend them.

Taking our time as we have we tramp on through the flatlands of Cheshire. Old telegraph poles for telephone exchanges when wires were plugged to different code areas reached by manual operators. Nature has grown up over some of these reclaiming the wood as a place to creep up over it’s leaves. Making it a tree once more.

Telegraph Tree

A sign for Boat building, diesel and pump point hanging from a gas pipe bridge no longer in service, with a phone number no longer in use. No records of this boat station although the missing digit on the number since the added 1’s on house phones suggests, 10, 15 years before.

Boatbuilder

You can see the old moorings, as land makes way for vans used in large removal, mirroring the use of the water it stands next too. Bridges becoming squarer, new for roads, the sound of the motorway becoming louder, running adjacent to our water. Ellesmere Port the town separated from the canal that built it by the passage of the M53 that passes through it. Past egg cup bridge (have I got the local slang right? There’s a pipe with a metal filter in that looks like an egg cup. To me. And possibly others).

And then we stop along a place that looks like any other place along the canal and across the water, hidden by trees, and beyond the M53, I think, are the roads that housed the Wolverhampton Walkers. Built for them, like a smaller Port Sunlight, to start a new life close to the Mersey. Salt on the wind, somewhere, closer to the sea than they’d ever been in the landlocked black country. Walked along the water that’s controlled and manipulated by man. Not tidal. On the winds. Here onland we control the ebb and flowing up and down of water.

M53 Bridge

Underneath the concrete bridge that carries the motorway over head. Cavernous spaces,canvas for graffiti, concrete double arched, rumors of some closure of this arm of the canal. It’s not  much used the wateralong this stretch, it finishes in the museum. Busy in the boat rallies but it’s a destination stretch of water, you’d have to turn around and boat back down to Chester. Unless you braved the Mersey, as some have been known to do on narrow boat and barge, accompanied and sanctioned to sail in waters.

WolverhamptonCorrugatedIronCompnayBeyond the bridge we see the skelatol remains of the building on the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company. Iron red reflecting in the water. My feet have made the journey from the place it no longer stands all the way back in Wolverhampton to where it clings onto it’s remains here in Ellesmere Port. The remains of an old docking point for goods and services.  Under rusting railway bridge used to shuttle products and materials across from the works? Possibly. And there are photographs of the building in various states of use and disrepair, somewhere in the archives its slow and steady decent into the last of it remains in Iron structure.

The last bridge up in sight; 147 then 147a (the new addition for a slipway of the road). And I am nearly done. 90 miles, on my own feet from my front door to here.

I wonder at what point the Wolverhampton walkers stopped, unpacked, try to settle Ellesmere Duskin after days and nights on the tow path. It didn’t stop there, it was an act of transport, the cheapest kind, means to an end, not a end to make meaning. As I am doing now. I get a round of applause from the café, some pictures, tea and cake. Later that night I watch the brilliant Chalice Media’s Macbeth, a contemporary, moving interpretation, in the upper Island Warehouse, another story added to the floorboard’s of this building, and this place.

After miles and miles of water whose edge I can see the side of, the next day my Mum takes me to swim in Colwyn Bay. I submerge myself under salty cold, my limbs not walking, being held up by the water.

Colwyn Bay

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Day 6: Beeston to Chester (including a digital digression in captured images)

I wake to light shining in through port holes above my neat little bed in Amaryllis  (I couldn’t, or didn’t have the energy to quite work out how to turn it into a double bed, despite watching all those small spaces of George Clarks’s). I have set my alarm early to enjoy my pretence of being a boater for an extra hour or so. Having a shower that is better than two of the B&B’s I’ve stayed in, boiling the kettle on the gas stove, hanging out my mud sodden socks, sitting in the bright sunshine at the stern of the boat, drinking my tea from a ‘life in the slow lane’ mug. I wave to boaters tackling the Beeston locks early, keeping up appearances that this might be my boat. Someone says something about narrow sides, I breathe in and I nod as if I know. Yes, I’ve been a (static) boater for about 15 hours. I wish I had more time aboard her, the compact and clever neatness appealing, somehow, to my usual scattershot manner of tidying (popping a throw over things). Jenny from the museum comes to collect my stuff to take it on to Chester, as I happily play at boat host. I’ve not much of a plan today, a mere 11 miles, returning to familiar turf by the outskirts of Chester. As I start this morning I’ve walked 71 miles. Or more if Map My Walk is to believed. An app that GPS’s and calculates your distance, although, by comparing mile stones on the toll path to screen shots of distance on my phone, it seems to add just under a quarter of mile to every one you walk. It’s the equivalent of someone telling you you’ve got further than you have in order to make you feel better. It doesn’t. I no longer know my distances.

* A picture digression or what I’ve been thinking about while I’ve walked*

In a breakdown of technology (aside from delated words and lack of 3 or 4g) my phone charger is on it’s last legs so my battery is precious (no mapping my walk) and my time is limited. Careful choice on where to shoot in images I wish to carry with me.  I’m surprised how much I’ve used my phone on this journey, not in terms of contact, or a way to know where I am. On a canal. Probably The Shropshire Union. But as way in which to document as I go. Audio recording notes; conversations with myself, sound of water, the noise of my ankles deep in mud, my repeated congratulating of myself on picking up a stick. Typing out notes direct on my phone; things I’ve thought, people I’ve met, tangents that the act of walking can provide. Photograph’s, sometimes not reaching quick enough (or battery running low) for the professional camera pulling from my pocket instead my phone to mark a bridge, or a scene. In previous projects where I have done this kind of thing I used a notepad, a pen, a C90 dictaphone at some points, an old school film camera (as in non digital, I can’t even remember it’s analogue word) and a polaroid camera-a 10 or 12 year a go version of an instant picture. No filters, no retakes because the pose wasn’t right. And I was frugal with my images, careful in my shots because a 12 pack of polaroids would set you back twenty quid.

And now instant is in my pocket, a digital way to view, and delete. Snap as much as I can. Everything I carried in my art investigations of previous years now here in one device. I wonder what Tom Rolt might have made of all this technological advancement, everyone a documenter. With his notes and distain for some advancement, a longing for a simpler time. Nostalgia puts on it’s sepia tinted glasses and enjoys the pace.

Perhaps this makes us look less, capturing the images quickly to save and look at later. All though often we don’t, those pictures go into the roll of never being physical, floating around in a cloud to be looked at through a screen. By the end of this walk my phone will carry over 4,000 pictures, many more, duplicates or otherwise on a memory card in the camera. At some points along this walk I’ve frustrated myself by looking at everything through the digital frame. There were times I had to tell myself to stop trying to capture a moment, a scene and just enjoy it then. Now. The light just right, the breeze, the smell, the feel of stone, or wood, or iron. That pace. Life in the slow lane, as my mug said. That physical connection, finger prints, skin cells that have touched, footsteps that have walked, so back to the archive where this all began, the touch of the physical object, stored and passed through hands.

IMG_1927

And the pictures that I carry with me, the ones whose scenes I line up some 30, 40, 50 years later, I call them archive pictures, themselves fraudulent manifestations of an image scanned, saved and re-printed out. Simulacrum. But as they are physical and not viewed on screen, because they have been shot in black and white film, or washed out colour (real vintage, not a filter) when I show them to people they are handled with care and weight. Those photographs that were snapped, as documentation of a holiday, a canal survey, posed and paused workers. And when I show them, offer them to people to hold, sometimes I do not tell them they are not the originals.

WoodseavesIMG_2749IMG_2753

I try to stand where that photographer from 1959, or 1971, or 1899, might have stood. Tricky in some cases, as a lot of them seem to be taken from a boat. I lean as far as I can from the tow path to the centre of the cut.

IMG_2901 IMG_2899

I’ve written before that pictures do not give justice to some of the acts of engineering along this canal.  They didn’t in the pictures that I used to mark my route before I walked towards them, and they didn’t in the pictures that I took to place myself in front of them. And of course, to demonstrate what I am writing of, I’ve added images to this particular post.

                                        * This ends this digression (for now)* 

The canal widens out, meandering and full, more river than I’ve seen it through town and deep cut. Willow trees dangle fingers in the water.  I am told by a boater to watch out for a King Fisher, just around the corner.  Stags lazing on the hills. And then Beeston Castle rising up in the distance on it’s protected hill, built in 1220, nearly 800 years old and a little further along the canal you can see its face off with another castle, a fakery in gothic style a mere 170 years of age. It never really had to fight off invaders and their weapons, a country house for a lord. And now a hotel and spa.

I’ve begun to give up on that Kingfisher, when I see a bolt of blue darting through tall reeds. It’s out of sorts, electric blue in all this greenery,  almost unnatural. In all my years as part of The Young Ornithologists (YOC) I looked at them on posters and in pictures but never in the flesh. And I barley saw it now,  the speed it flew. I didn’t capture him on camera, I had no time. Just time to see briefly.  And I think of the Bluebird boat, water speed record, crashing and drowning on Lake Windermere (was it?). And I start to hear the traffic, somewhere on the wind, road bridges over head.

Flattened out with Beeston castle behind me I come I see a man combing hills with binoculars. Aware of the authority the camera gives to me, he smiles.

‘Buzzards, I’ve been looking to see one for 12 years, seen them up in the sky, you know far away but I’m always looking to see them closer up”

Long white haired, red bandana tied around his head, gold chain, etched skin. 12 years he’s been on the boat. Samuel Whispers, she’s called. 12 years looking for them buzzards. Originally from Berkshire, and thought if I can have as many friends there, I can have friends anywhere in the world. Travels between here and Tattenhall Marina. Scared himself last year, fell in Wardle lock and broke his hip. Hasn’t been able to do a lock since. Had a friend with him, mind. That was lucky. You know it, the lock and then one slip. He’ll get round to doing locks again, just needs to build his confidence up. He’s got all the time he can take. Talks of cold bloody winters when he first lived on a boat. Started in a November. And the prices, have gone up the moorings. All to do with London Moorings, the prices there. Can’t have discrimination. He tells me of boating along,  a king fisher, same fella, darting along in front, blue light to lead the way. He reckons, but, he can’t be sure, that because the boat is disturbing the fish, the Kingfisher flies ahead to make his catch. How do they see the fish? Amazing. From under the water. He can’t even see these buzzards. With his binoculars.

I am envious of that life. Off grid of sorts. Danger in them locks, friends that you need to look after you. I could talk to him for hours, but onwards.

A huge marina, Tattenhall opposite some sort of plant. Light industry of sort. A broken pie for brunch that I’ve had stored in my bag since Audlem and I am quick in pace. No trees to line the banks, low bushes now, a road now running adjacent, buildings, houses, rising up now again. Pawprints frozen in once wet concrete in a resurfacing under a bridge. And a jogger, first I’ve really seen, in outfit and iphone ears. I must be nearing civilisation, it feels. The first since Nantwich. Planning a stop at The Cheshire Cat PH (a Vintage Inn, their menu’s known well to me), but I come to Egg Bridge. A bridge I had been looking forward too. No, really that is written without irony. Despite carrying pictures of over 100 bridges.

There’s a  sign directing to me to Waverton village shop telling of delicious pastries and the like. Egg bridge in it’s origins built in 1770, rebuilt 167 years later in 1937 to hold the traffic as Waverton expanded. In a car park next to the canal a candy stripped portable barbers makes his trade. I buy a cheese and onion pasty from that village shop and return to sit by the canal as the ducks of Waverton quack in hunger towards me. I am saved by a bounding Labrador who scatters them like skittles, but still has a slacked jawed appreciation for my food. These are not the tentative ducks of mid shroppie who dive in domino formation to remove themselves from my path, these are ducks of confidence and entitlement that everything eaten on this path is their’s. A woman unloads a loaf of bread, pack of country webbed feet lions they devour it and roar for more. I leave them waddling to it. The jogger passes me back the other way. A nod. I’m slow paced to her pounding feet.

Past the pub where I would have had a duck free dinner. Lunch. Houses with moorings lining the other side of the canal, people out using the towpath as a passage, and just beyond Pepper Bridge the Earnest Butler Mill, the picture I have from the 1950’s showing the jutting out jetty that produce was lowered from down into the boats. Now this has been made into an architectural feature, long narrow windows that show, sitting rooms sitting over the canal. A tow path that is barley there for foliage in the fifties. Locks that I miss, that I can’t quite see the right position in. A little girl standing in 1959 watching a boater take her picture. A battered and leaning curved toll house. Further, closer to Chester, large houses, boat garages, another jogger doubling back on me. Coming into familiar territory in Chester. The Northgate locks where on the boating weekend in April, I worked these in my first attempt to understand the waterways. I’ve stopped to try to line up pictures when I get talking to a man wheeling his bike over the narrow bridge that crosses the locks. He know’s his stuff this man. We talk some more the history Chester, the history of the canals. Stories of his family moving from The Black Country to work at The Wolverhampton Iron Works. A chance meeting, at the end of a day, nearly the end of the week that circulates the stories that I am collecting.

Day 5: Audlem to Beeston Locks.

The lovely Reg and Liz have come to collect my series of bags from the B&B in Audlem and drop me back off by the canal (its only a short distance, but any amount of walking saved is good for me!), I’m staying on a Boat this evening by Beeston Locks, Amaryllis, offered to me by Timothy and his wife who live at the lock keepers cottage there.

I walk up and down the 21 locks at Audlem, taking pictures I didn’t quite manage the day before, Audlem busier than it was in the early evening yesterday. Boaters making their way down the locks, groups out for walks with their dogs. I stride out along this well looked after stretch of the canal, stopping briefly to talk to a man who is moored up in the Jack of Diamonds, out walking his elderly and some times (he tells me) cantankerous collie. He’s been on the boat 12 years, it was choice, after retiring , of France or Ireland or living on a boat. He chose a boat and hasn’t looked back since. Fell in the cut the first year, mind. Hasn’t fallen in since. He likes mooring up at Audlem, friendly and easy to get supplies. Gives me tips for where my archive photos might match up to the present day. Wishes me well on my way. Tells me to be careful, walking on my own. A recurring theme that is more often than not based on gender. I have noticed surprise in eyes from boaters in the more deserted parts of The Shropshire Union, based possibly on my being a woman. The large digital camera adding some sort of professional purpose to my wondering. And I am grateful for these assumptions in the authority the camera brings,  but I am a fraud behind the lens with my automatic setting and lack of understanding of the digital camera.

Further up I see a man walking, probably the first real proper walker that I’ve seen, I think, and there seems to be a code in caguals and back pack amongst those that are out for more than a stroll.  He started at 8.30 this morning a round route ending back up in Audlem. Never used to be a walker really, and then his wife died and needed something to do, to take up, and a friend of his, he used to be a climber, but injury, two knee replacements, and age has stopped the more extreme end of his outdoor activities, so this man joined his former climbing friend in trekking out. Now his friend is not so well but he carries on himself. Likes to get going early in the morning. He is unreactionary to my 90 miles trip, wishes me luck in getting to Beeston.

Past an dismantled railway line, trains thundering over head of canals reminding them of their speed. But this railway line never lasted the time and now ducks perch on bricks fallen from that felled bridge.

Gun shots and train still running somewhere in the distance, and I see a woman I’m sure with a sleeve of roses and castles Tattoos.  This is a well kept part of the Shropshire Union, signs along the way with history and detail. I’m starting to get an aching for water I can’t see the other side of. Not man made. Something I could swim in. Bridge numbers counting up, signs in distance from where I’m come from counting up. Some sense of achievement. I see a brown heritage sign for The Hidden Bunker, with a large arrow, which strikes me as amusing in my own internal way. But when I look for The secret bunker I really cannot see it. It is a museum, a dedication to a bunker that would have been the centre of regional goverment in the cold war era, had war broken out. I am desperate to visit this, but distraction from the canal leads to delays. I press on. Towards Nantwich where after grassy bank of Toll path evens out into pathed concrete, a welcome relief for my feet walking on the wonk (it turns out uneven grass walking is the most difficult part of canal tow path walking). And I can start to hear the sounds of a town, new houses being built, old houses as toll houses being done up. People out on walks with little dogs.  I walk over the Natnwich Aquaduct which travels the canal over road, a typical Thomas Telford structure in wrought iron and arches. Those waterways in this sky.

About halfway through the miles for today I stop at Nantwhich Marina, feeling part of the club as I wind my way around to cafe that sits by all the moored boats. A cheese toasty in honour of cheshire cheese shipped from here throughout the world. Boats covered in cloth to protect the cheese. Those fly boats, running horses to take the perishable goods. Boats and boats in shrouds of cloth. Famous cheshire cheese (which if I’m honest is a little bitter in taste and crumbly in texture for me, a big cheese fan). And then later in the 1920’s when The Shropshire Union finally sold its fleet, those working boats at rock bottom prices, so many wanting new ownership, you could walk from one side of the basin to the other.

Nantwich marks the beginning of walking along what was originally The Chester Canal, earliest part of The Shropshire Union, built in the 1770’s with no eminent engineer associated, a series of hirings and firings,  a way for Chester to try to claim it’s importance in business, salt and pottery this way rather than the weaver and the mersey. Lords and businessmen at heads. Built wide to accommodate the barges, they tried to encourage and generate business. To no avail. They were subject to collapses in their locks and disinterest in their route. It was saved only by by continued joining to other canals and promises of offshoots.

Hurleston Junction with a turn towards the Llangollen Canal, narrow through singular locks. I match up an archive picture from 1959 with the old toll house, at the junction that no longer exists. Taller trees grow, a couple sit on a bench in front of the iron railings the only clue that house was there. Even in 1959 its windows were boarded or bricked up, it’s end in sight. A cross strapped to iron railings ,in memory of Merlin the dog.  A wooden sign without the milage.  Birmingham, one way. Chester, the other. Where I’ve come from and where I’m going to and more besides. I chat a little to the couple, enjoying their sit down and watch, they are impressed with my walking from Birmingham, saying they’d done half a mile, and that’s quite enough for today. Though they’d like to walk further.  There is temptation to walk some of the Llangollen branch, break from my one way distance, but there is not time. And tonight I stay on a boat.

Back to uneven grass, when up ahead I spot a familiar figure. Wondering if I am having some sort of canal mirage, I see, I think Celia, the woman whose walk inspired me and whose research on the Wolverhampton Iron Company has informed me. And yes, it is her coming to accompany me. She managed to miss me at Nantwich (and I am, as has always been from day to day late running on my walking). With brief chats with people along the way, I didn’t realise how glad I would be of consistent company. The motion of walking encouraging a frankness and ease in talking about lives, futures and pasts in the rhythm to our footsteps. I am glad to listen to others stories as I spent so much time narrating my own head in these past days. Celia is not sure how long she’ll stay, expecting to have seen me sooner, and she has already walked from Beeston to here, so back all the way she has come.

To Barbridge Junction the turning point of the Middlewich Branch of the canal, and the joining point between The Ellesmere and Chester Canal company and The Birmingham and Liverpool branch to finally form The Shropshire Union. In archive pictures warehouse stretch over that no longer exist trying hard to place the picture without these long gone buildings to line up. The bench on which Celia sits beneath the Barbridge bridge used to be home to British Waterways Sign. Its a busy junction still, beeping boats as the corner is tight and no one wants to bump. A closed down pub opposite that used to be, by all accounts, allright. These would have been an epicentre of work and transport, potteries loaded from boat to boat. Those smooth running waters still a better option for precious pottery some time after roads were more in use. Cheese warehouse would stretch out along this route. I imagine the smell of curd and cream.

Celia continues with me, we stop for a cup of tea, beside the canal and a place where they sell cheese of all flavours. Refreshed we carry on, no turning back now, she tells me of making the trip with her and a friend, inexperienced where their tipped their boat Bunbury locks. Briefly we stop to talk to a group of people drinking tea outside their boat on the canal tow path.  Maureen, Peter and a man who is a photographer, he used to take pictures of people, New York, London, takes beautiful pictures of setting suns in the countryside now, but its the people he really likes. Maureen tells of travels along the tow path in her motorised scooter all the way to Birmingham QE hospital for an operation she needed, Peter along side her on the boat, two weeks, I think they said. They tell me of Kate Saffin, a writer, performer and boater. We are offered tea but I can see that we’ll never leave from chatting and hearing more unless we press on to the locks at Beeston.

Celia remembers walking this way for her five or more years before, but she walked the other way, and further than me coming back up the loop on the trent and mersey through The Potteries, walking through Beeston locks early one October morning and hearing the Stags rutting on the hills by the castle.

The shifting sands of this area meant the canal once took a route closer to The Lock Keepers cottage than it does now, a difficult part of the canal that would slip and collapse, the Stone lock earlier on journeying down to the Iron Lock, both built by Telford demonstrates his own journey in this short stretch from Stone to Iron. When I first visited here, Timothy warned of the depth of the Iron lock, smooth sided with no ladder to maker your way up it could be one of the most dangerous locks on the canals.

And so to bed, with a little help from Celia, and Timothy’s next door neighbour to get the gas working (An organ player and mathematician living in the beautiful thatched cottage there for 400 years or before, certainly before the canals) aboard Amaryllis. Spending time in the boat, listening to Radio 4 and eating a pie that I had bought along the canal the previous day. Cosy in the cabin to wake up on the water the next day. I could see me getting the boating bug.

Day 4: Knighton to Audlem

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.

NOTICE

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.

Day 3: Brewood to Knighton-Digital Breakdown

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.

Day 2: Dudley to Brewood 

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.

First Day: South Birmingham to Dudley Port

Day 1: South Birmingham to Dudley Port.

Please see @FranMillicanS #alongtheshroppie for pictures.
(I’m working with limited technology here & time, so grammar, spelling errors may be common!)

The Station Hotel, Dudley.

Saturday dawned rainy, very rainy and I’d woken at 4am unable to stop contemplating what I was about to do. The logistics, what I was carrying, the rain. Dripping outside. Delayed until it eased off I started the first leg of my journey with a blurry eyed best friend Pippa (who I’ve know since I was 3, grew up in Watford, is one of the reason’s I reside in Birmingham) her husband, Chris, (resplendent despite a hangover in tweed jacket) and their dog, Worcester (a springer, boarder collie mix, inexhaustible with a nose for trouble).

Both sunglassed following a social evening the night before the plan was to walk to about 2 miles to Brandwood tunnel, find the entrance on the other side and leave me too walk onto through Kings Norton to Birmingham.

This stretch of the Stratford Upon Avon is familiar to me, the place I tramp, when I need to walk out, past Lyon’s boatyard across the canal ,where there is often a nod and a wave, a small Jack rustle keeping guard, golf course to the right. Boats lining the mooring, Henry’s Cat, a giant of a narrow boat, dogs out (3 Vermerama, known to Worcester). It feels too familiar, as if I might turn around at Brandwood tunnel and continue my Saturday wrapped up in Pippa & Chris’s house. There’s no path through Brandwood tunnel (or the quarter miler as it is known locally) steps down to peak into the darkness, and hold up a picture from the Herbert Dunkley collection from the 1950’s of kids stood in shorts and scarves where I’m standing watching at the edge of the tunnel watching the narrow boat go under. Inscriptions on the tunnel, unreadable and worn away then, covered in moss now, an ode to Shakespeare. I’m thinking that this would have been part of the trips surrounding the re-generation of the Stratford Upon Avon, re navigable after years of disuse, and stand off that led to it’s clearing by prisoners, army and dedicated volunteers (see previous post). I imagine those children not having seen a canal boat pass through the tunnel in a long time, the photographer on board catching their stares, shouts for a lift through the tunnel, echos of the men as they engine through the dark. And before them in use for coal and industry it would have been footed by the men that worked it, as the horses went over and ahead, walking horizontally, backs on the top, pushing the boat along. Now, at the top of the steep steps, a band of cyclists stream past in squeaky breaks and smiling politeness. They just keep coming, probably on their way to Stratford. Pippa & Chris stand to the side, nodding and acknowledging. Pippa’s says there is so many it starts to feel like the wedding line up.

Over road and down to the canal again, Worcester and I investigating the other end of the Tunnel, a moss free Shakespeare Bust as another reminder that head that way and you’ll be boating to ‘his country’. Past disused warehouses in bright graffiti. Kings Norton Guillotine stop lock next, keeping the Worcester & Birmingham Canal 1 inch above the Stratford upon Avon. The couple and the Dog are still with me, Worcester scouting ahead, Pippa wondering how far they are going to go, Chris enjoying matching archive pictures to the present scenes, making his way through a bag of haribo. Kings Norton junction and they continue onwards with me, with promises of buses to be found at Selly Oak. We’re now walking on Worcester & Birmingham. Old Paper factory’s and wharf’s from 1900’s that no longer exist as they were, flat caps and bowlers, watch chain’s and gas lights. It straightens out again, wide canal, serving ruins of buildings, they may well become prime real estate with the coming of fast H2 service. Bounville stop, the station and a break to have a bit of that dark chocolate (I’d come prepared), Cadbury’s factory in the background, houses with jetty’s and small shed spaces provoke Chris into conversations of buying a canoe for him, his dog and his wife. I cannot see that dog staying still in a boat. There are a few boaters out, some holiday boaters in convoys and sailor hats, some more serious nods aware of urban surroundings. There is a difference in wariness of greeting along urban routes of canals then ease on the outskirts of the city.
Selly Oak, they exit, relief that there is a bus for easy access. They’ve done 6 miles with me, with hugs and luck they wave me on my way. Only another 84 miles to go. At Gas street I’m meeting Charles, son of one of the volunteers from the museum, he lives and works in Birmingham, but for a few miles I am alone.

Through the university, the tower a landmark in credibility. Student couples holding hands, wondering along the canal in to town, older more seasoned walkers stopping to pick off the best blackberries from the tops of bushes. No more graffitied warehouses, the canal opening up and pruned as it makes it’s way towards the city centre. Edgbatson tunnel railway running alongside canal, curved in redbrick. Familiar again from a cruise boat ride with my family some time last year (by little brother delighted by being on a boat and seeing a train) a dining experience tight turning back towards the city centre. Squashed in tables, wine, birthdays and special occasions. Stop to re-tie my laces. I’m about halfway to my destination.

Charles meets me along the canal, a welcome companion with traces of an Ellesmere Port Edge accent, but some Brum inflections from having lived here more then 20 years. And when James Brindley put pen to paper for the industrial new age of transport, those hands excavating cuts in cutting edge technology I’m sure he did not envisage the industry it has become. Hen Do boats moored up, rollered hair and smoking fags. Pink banners. Party boats drawing up alongside the bars. Charles points out a man in over coat and beard steering a party boat passed All Bar One or Slug and Lettuce or whichever bar it is-face set. Charles says he seen him with rowdy passengers later at night, his face impassive always exactly the same. I bet there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. Gas street basin keeping faded writing fashionable enough to show its history of industry. Tap and Spile and old drinking establishment I’ve only ended up in whiling away the small hours in late night karaoke.

Walking past the Sea Life Centre in the landlocked centre of the country, and onto The BCN, Brindley designed opened in 1772, some meandering around to ensure parts are served (although there is accusations of increasing toll). Brindley’s last complete canal, dieing 9 days after completion, these engineers working until they could no more.

Charles and I chatting through his growing up in Ellesmere Port, and the stories that were always told of the Workers of Wolverhampton walking. It seems they were told as true. Wondering what feels like home, Birmingham open armed adoptive home to so many migrants fiercely defending it’s honour. He talks of sailing on Earlswood lakes (see previous post) and on the mersey growing up. All the while we are walking under motorway, next to train line, past window shattered warehouses, rusting in complementary colours. Blocked up slipways that snake around old wharves. Passed Winston Green, those prisoners clearing the canal further down water. Opening out into greenery, as we head further towards Galton Bridge and under a Telford Aquaduct, splendid in it’s iron casting. Telford coming along after Brindley and straightening up his canals, taking hours and miles off journey’s. The walking provokes and ease of companionship, a different feel to walking alone.

Charles leaves me at Galton bridge, to walk back the four or so miles we have done, hands me over to another friend, Birmingham born and bred Gemma (although when initially meeting her at University with all the sensibility of a southerner heard her accent and assumed she was from Manchester so called her ‘Northern Gemma’).

We walk the last four miles in chatter of catching up and Gemma in surprise of enjoying walking (a dedicated car driver, this is a woman that drives or gets taxi’s, never public transport). She has an eye for placing the old pictures in the right scene. Galton Bridge, famous and high (at one point the highest in the country, so they say). The railway bridge covering it from one angle, holding up picture from 1974 and 1977, the tunnel being built, new on old. Old junctions and off loading places shaped like boats. Pudding Green junction (Gemma: I like pudding). And I’m only 15 miles from my home but already on my way, feet holding up. Trying to trace the picture of an 1899 explosion at Dudley Port from a postcard that resides in the archives (these tragedy’s publicised and told through postal pictures, the Instagram and Twitter of the day) emptying the canal of 6 miles of water, possibly caused by a leakage from a gun factory. I could be wrong. No one was killed, stories of a boat man having to jump as the rubble rose.

We finish at Coopers Aquaduct. I’ll admit a taxi to the hotel, The Station Hotel, where a wedding is in full swing, young bridesmaids in their dresses running high kicking around the dance floor, fitted shirts and waistcoats on young men and dinner for me and Gemma. A bath and an early night. 15 miles done, 75 to go. On the way. Tomorrow, Dudley to Brewood.

Francesca Millican-Slater
http://www.francescamillicanslater.co.uk

Tester Testing Walks

 

8.30 am, sandwicheIMG_1375s, milky bars, fruit and water packed, stepping out in shoes that I am asking to be nice to me. And my feet.  Left on the canal instead of the right I will turn ‘down north’ to Ellesmere in a few weeks time. Heading south along The Stratford upon Avon, a key canal,  whose waterways cleared the way for the regeneration movement of the Inland Waterways.  Stand off’s were had along this canal as broken bridges were replaced with immovable bridges built too low to fit a boat under. Blocked up and filled up with more than water, stand off’s were held, as proof was found that these waterways were still in use and the National Trust, volunteers, Winston Green prisoners, and the army (yes the army) moved to unblock this cut and make her new,  The Queen Mother cutting her ribbon on the canals new lease of life in 1964. The re-generation of this canal leading to the clearing of many others. A victory.

The first part of the route is familiar to me, well tramped by me from dog walking or walking alone, it doesn’t feel like an adventure yet. The canal stretching out, me knowing what is around certain corners, new builds next door, a bridge I didn’t realise was an aqueduct, just a place for kids to sit. Or bikes to skid past in deep ruts on the mud. Builders radio’s blasting out.

IMG_14002 miles or so along to The Drawbridge Pub in Shirley.  A flaming grill now, the kind of pub you can have a burger stuck
between two glazed doughnuts. A pub I walked to in a post Christmas daze, bumped into friends and had three pints too many, taxi home, not back along the waterway.  Called because of the drawbridge operated in sight of The Pub. Well known around the area, kids queuing to watch it raise in the summer. Canoeists skipping out the water to walk along side it if they haven’t the key to operate it.  Trying out taking an old image on to the current view, via an iPad.  Reflections of too many apple products bounce off the screen. A man in a beamer pulls over quickly to snap the bridge on his phone.

And off again into more uncharted, never really passed the point of the pub before. Quiet in the morning, by 9.30 am I’ve come across 3 cyclists, one jogger, still slumbering ducks, 6 or more canal boats, 3 moving the other way (Morning) and one man and his dog.  My feet slow to take in surroundings as I started out in London pace (a inbuilt compulsion I can’t seem to shake, despite having left that city 3  years ago). To get, somewhere, as quick as possible. Get to the destination. Then I remember, I’m here for the walk, the places between, not the destination. Well partly the destination. To turn around and walk back, canal on the left rather than on the right.

And there is much writing on walking as an art form, a therapy, a thinking space, oiling the cognition on the left and right brain. Flanuering, wondering lines across cities. Tramping.

To tramp (verb): ‘To walk with heavy footsteps’

Wikipedia tells me

‘The modern concept of the tramp emerges with the expansion of industrial towns in the early nineteenth century, with the consequent increase in migrant labor and pressure on housing’ 

Walking migrants, Navies and builders, walking to where there work was with no names on records or books written in their honour. A job to build and carve and tunnel from the plans of the engineers and the pockets of lords.  There’s little to find on walking for necessity as it tends to be those that walk for the sake of walking that find time to write of the benefits. Of which I whole heartedly agree. I’ve made up my necessity as an act of following footsteps, action to cause story and exchange. I’m not walking because I have no other choice of transport.

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Our first mode of transport, the feet, that we have become so accustomed to substituting for the wheel in different forms. It helps that I can’t drive. That I’d rather walk to understand my surroundings and place myself where I am rather than by exits and stop offs. It has become ‘only five miles’ that I can shrug off easily. I suprise myself how far I can get on my own two feet. No reliance. From the suburbs of south Birmingham, out into the stretches of Solihull and beyond where the houses and the surrounding lands increase in size and value.

I slow down, that canal way of life, as it talked and written about from Rolt to Pru and Tim. Perhaps it’s starting early morning to have walked so many steps, and that it feels so far away from starting off but also so close behind me. And as when I start swimming, with the rhythm of arms, with the rhythm of legs, I start to hear myself say,  perhaps I can go further, maybe I’ll make it all the way to Stratford.

IMG_1442And you can’t get lost on a canal, keep following the cut, which sometimes feels so deep or ingrained in green that anything could be on the other side, up the banks. And then all of a sudden it’s modern builds, and landscaped lawns, balconies that are dreamt of by renters. Dickens Heath, a new village built on an old site stretches out in beige stucco and swept pavement. I find places like this a little eery, built to be to perfect. Matching couples in blue and white boden stripes. It’s got none of the appeal of the work and the noise of an old dock or marina.

On and on, clouds of dust under water from the underlay of boats, mafia ducks swim in formation, One dead water rat bloated floating on the surface.Onto a marina that sits on the arm that feeds the water from lakes into the canal. A black country accent in welcome good morning. And I walk away from the canal on road to the lakes that feed the water.

Earlswood Lakes, man made in 1820’s to fIMG_1463or the purpose of the canal. They are still sailed upon, fished upon, walked around. But no swimming it would seem. What with blue algae, snapping turtles and otters. Still a man made beauty spot as it remained before.

Back to the canal and carry on. To Hockley Heath where building of the canal was halted for some years as the money ran out. A familiar story up and down the lengths of waterways in this country. The engineer Josiah Clowes, dieing before its completion.  I’m beginning to dread the idea of walking back the same way I have come, it’s not the distance,  my legs continue onwards, one foot in front of another,  it’s the familiarity in tracing steps. The things I’ve seen before. Although that is what I’m doing for the big walk, tracing my soon to be steps, virtually with old pictures and stories, so I know what I’ll be looking for. I’ve purposely left this one a bit open. A way to have an adventure when all I am  doing is walking along a well trodden path. Horse hauling boats of coal. Dog walkers, joggers. I’m navigating by bridges, numbers and strange names, no locks on this north stretch until further down near Lapworth in a whole series of steps.

IMG_1489I hear the M42 under sound of birdsong, a reminders of the world beyond the safety of the cut. Perhaps safety isn’t the right word, aloneness on the wind. The quiet of the cut.  So under curved brick bridges I have gone to turn a corner and see a modern bridge in concrete grey carrying that motorway. Trucks, lorries, cars flying past , reality of pace in goods and people carrying on making journeys through the centre, or just off centre of the country. 

IMG_1495And walk underneath below the tyres.  Reflects on dull water, and platform pier on opposite side.

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Stage set. I think, late at night for some other mystery or another. Or a very real performance from across the water, under the sound of the M42.  And what would Josiah Clowes make of the this construct over his canal, roads such as this now so inherent to us, then not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The transport after the transport that lead to the canals demise.

A solitary shoe floating past, lost from a boat or slipped off from the path. Plastic bags like jelly fish reminding me I am walking towards the sea. Well not really towards the sea, but any where is towards the sea when walking in the midlands. Island country.

I’m thinking more and more I’ll walk a little further then get a bus back through to Solihull and beyond. Right down to Lapworth, Kingswood locks where The Grand Union meets The Stratford Upon Avon. I get to Hockley Heath. Sandwiches in the rain. There’s a  Pub, cafe, bus stop, chippy. And carry on to Kingswood, not far I think,  not far. IMG_1525 (1)Past the series of locks that used to take takes, queues to come up or down. IMG_1569Rain drawing in, I shout across the canal to two ben in a boat yard ‘How far is Stratford?’  It’s another 15 miles. Not for today, I think. IMG_1545

Kingswood Junction

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Battery dieing on phone, hips aching, patience drawing thin. I attempt to get a train from Lapworth. I watch it leave the platform I am standing on. Not another for an hour, so back 3 miles or so the way I’ve come to Hockley Heath, a wait in the pub, and series of bus’s home through out of town business estates where not a soul can be seen.  Home, legs aching, feet unblistered.

Shotton Records

On a trail to find out more about The Wolverhampton Iron Company and the move to Ellesmere Port I go to visit Shotton Records based at the site for Tata Steel (Mentioned in an earlier post here ). I have also purchased a new pair of boots that I am still, with some anxiety, trying to break in. My plan is to do some research then walk back 8 miles along the river Dee. New boots on.

In a discrepancy between what a place looks like on a GPS map on an iPhone and actual terrain (the gap between them being something that I am finding more and more common as I walk more) I realise that strolling into Tata Steel is not really possible. Situated just a walk over the bridge that stretches over the river Dee, it’s pretty high on security. A clearly bemused security guard directs me vaguely along a path, which I soon realise is a disused railway, now cycling path, that goes all the way back to Chester. I phone the archives and crossing over a railway line (like looking down the barrel of a gun, awaiting the judder of a train) Dave swipes me in through a security gate.  He explains to me that it used to be a lot easier to get in, but someone came and nicked a roll of steel, I naively suggest that this seems quite a lot of effort for not very much money. Apparently it’s worth quite a lot.  He tells me a little of his family’s move from the black country following work in the Steel industry just as the workers of The Corrugated Iron Company.  I am welcomed in, and signed in, given my own little room with boxes of the ledgers of the minutes from the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company (WCIC).  These boots are already hurting and I’ve only walked across a bridge and a car park.

Through a door, I get glimpse of the archives themselves: 7 shelves, 40 ft high, 120,000 boxes, space for 20,000 more. The shelves running, dissapear to triangular points in the distance. Back of the warehouse. A fantasy of what an archive should look like. Pickers on rails to look up and down the shelves. Hard hats worn.  Day to day they mostly deal in insurance claims historic, and more recent. The details of steel workers stored in boxes.

Back in the room amongst the boxes that have been picked out for me,  6 music  happily for me overflowing from the room next door, I spend the day carefully looking through notes in the ledgers.  Squinting at prices spent on horses, boats, feed, transport, raking through handwriting to find the first mention, suggestion of a move from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port.  As I often find in the transcription of handwriting (so used have we become to printed written word) it is impenetrable at first, with moments of reading what you want to see and what you think you see. ..Until spider ink forms words in to focus and reveals itself as a magic eye picture you suddenly understand.  But think too much or look away and that ability can quickly vanish.

October 20th 1903. P Jones ‘the question of the availability of acquiring a site for new works at Ellesmere Port and it was agreed to call a special meeting shortly to discuss it

That first moment, or the first moment this suggestion of a move was documented (I am sure there were conversations between the members of this family based orginisation before being bought into the board room).  The roots of a move that changed the landscape of Ellesmere Port and the where some of the workers of Wolverhampton would begin to call home.

The workers are not discussed with in the meetings for the minutes, it is a business proposition as land is bought, and plans put in place, a cost effective way of moving the factory closer to coastal access. (I note with interest  the business the WCIC have in Australia; corrugated iron roofs of huts to house the gold hunters in the rushes for that metal. I imagine). The plans roll on, christmas packages mentioned for the workers, 1903, 1904, I see whispers on the factory floor of the plans afoot from Mr Joe and Mr Joseph. Worries as are as common these days of change, and choice,  to stay employed but move your roots and family. Somewhere else, a mass migration from the centre of the country, and who can know what work will survive if you stay, a safer option and guaranteed wage is to stay faithful to the factory. Where ever it may go. Those black country accents merging over the years with wirral vowels and the company itself taking the name of it’s new residency and eventually becoming The Mersey Iron Works, no longer The Wolverhampton. But Wolverhampton and the Black Country tell their history in names of Wolverham, Dudley Road and Sutton Way.

Place yourself in that, the  packing up your goods, your home, your family, walking to a new start. For work. How this country was built, founded and developed.   And at least these migrant workers the journey is short with a guarantee of work, home, security at the end of their travel. A new town built for them.

Celia Webber of The Ellesmere Port Local and Family History Society has recently written a comprehensive history of the WCIC as part of her publication ‘Cromwell Road Memories’ which should be available to purchase and can be contacted through the Museum Archives .)

Back to Shotton Archive

I spend a happy lunch (I packed rolls I’m pleased to say much to the relief of today’s co-workers, there’s no place to nip out too here) chatting a little bit more about the work that I do, what they do, and the history of the site of Steel. I’ve been welcomed in and feel proper at home amongst stories of music, and walks,  and how long they’ve worked here.

After lunch I get shown photographs of the old works, that I am on,  as it was.  From the early 1900’s WCIC became associated with this company as it was , John Summers and Sons and started a relationship which stretched right through the nationalisation and de-nationlisation of the Steel industry. Which is why some of the WCIC archive material is kept here. John Summers & Sons was once a huge site, I am shown pictures of houses, schools, crickets teams, and football teams, dinner dances, hospitals. Rolf (head of the archives) tells me it was once a site that encompassed 8 miles, to get around there was a fleet of 99 mini’s, number plates 1-99. The Directors was 99. I am seeing a whole town, community. Like a villains den in a James Bond film. But without the villainy.

Of course during the 80’s jobs were cut in the industry, and the site became smaller and smaller, but the archives becoming larger and larger. Pieces of paper essential to running of a business. Still now. I get asked if I want to go up in the picker. Yes. Yes, I do.  In a hard hat, searching for a record, we speed past marbled books and stacks of paper.

Coming down from my picker experience it starts raining. Hitting down on the corrugated iron roof of this huge warehouse. I have told everyone that I will be walking back to Chester that afternoon. They stick their head to ask if I’ve heard the rain. I may have new boots on but I have failed to bring my waterproof. I just have a denim jacket. Stone washed. With holes in. Prepared walker. They have really welcomed me here and I am offered a lift back to Chester.  It is still raining.  I am insist on walking despite this. I think the rains clearing. Although I can’t feel my toes in the new boots.

One of the men drily comments ‘Well she’s in training, for her 90 mile walk, you can tell by the shoes’ Looks at my boots ‘Brand new aren’t they?’ Looks at my denim jacket ‘Will you be listening to Dire Straits while you walk?’

They insist on dropping me off a little closer so it is 7 miles to chester. In my denim jacket and my boots that I can’t feel my toes in.

Back in The Canal…

It’s been quite a while since writing as I have been doing an entirely different project inspired by The Staffordshire Hoard as part of The Hoard Festival at The New Vic in Stoke.  I focused on Gold, what it meant to us in Anglo Saxon times, what it has always meant to us, and what it means to us now. So a similar treatment to how I’m looking at The Shroppie but with a precious metal instead of a waterway. I’ll be drinking from a gold mug that I procured as part of that project as I write this (not solid Gold). 

In the past two weeks I’ve been getting my head back into The Canals, not literally, as much as I have wanted to in the two days we did have a summer. This is when I remember what I’m doing; walking just under 90 miles, in 7 days, in a months time. I’ve planned my route, my stopping points, looking at places to stay, to stop and started tracing stories of The Shroppie through archive items in the museum. Bridges marking the The Shropshire Union from No 1, to No 147, that bridge at the museum is my starting point the opening to the canal, but will be my final bridge on the last day of the walk.  195 bridges in total including the Birmingham ones,  I pass 68 locks, some in collections of 15 steps,  6 tunnels (5 of them before reaching The Shroppie) 88 miles, 6 overnight stays (one on a boat) , a new pair of boots and a £17 pair of socks. I will potentially need more than one pair of £17 socks.

I’ll be walking through the industrial, graffitied paths of Birmingham and Wolverhampton out into Staffordshire, following chocolate crumb and dairy to the old Cadbury’s Wharf in Knighton. Peaceful as it reaches the country hiding its histories of busy waterways built for purpose.  Pubs still standing, almost un changed, others and old mills long gone,  confined to photos taken years after their heyday finery. Tales of Lords and pheasants, slipping pathways, panthers, scars in the landscape through the training of water trade. Tunnels made from branches, old ghosts and ales. Engineer arguments and companies accusations of aqua theft.

I’m tracing the route virtually at first with the help of an old guide book, a canal route planner, the archives and the internet. Other people tales who have already travelled where I’m walking. Its strange to see things virtually or see them how they were 30, 40, 50, 100, 200 years before I will see them in life. Or read their words before I write down what I see now.  Trying to imagine the quiet that I might hear while also seeing the past, gruff words, heavy shouts and work on these pathways we take for pleasure.

Here is my itinerary as it stands (and calling it that makes it real, this trip that seems unreal as I collect photo’s and snippets of old to keep me company along the way):

Itinerary: 
Saturday 12th: Birmingham-Dudley Port Junction (15 miles)
Sunday 13th: Dudley Port Junction-Brewood Wharf. (14 miles)
Monday 14th: Brewood Wharf-Knighton Wharf (Old Cadbury wharf-15 miles)
Tuesday 15th: Knighton-Audlem (Lovely locks -12 miles)
Wednesday 16th: Audlem-Beeston (13 miles)
Thursday 17th: Beeston to Chester (11 miles)
Friday 18th: Chester-Ellesmere Port-The Museum! (8 miles) THE END! (Drinks, fireworks, bunting etc..)

I am still looking for possible places to stay along the way, along or on the canal, or if you have a want to walk for a mile or two with me please get in touch franms@mac.com . We are organising a schedule with some parts more popular to walk than others. If you have a story of a place, or journey along these parts please also do get in touch.

I am being told of fallen toe nails, blisters and lack of mobile reception. An average of about 13 miles a day. I am strong, I am hardy. I tell myself- I am a walker. City walker mainly, always will prefer to tread the tarmac than public transport. Download an app to map my walk to my phone. That will help. I’d probably rather swim it. Find that easier, apart from Weils disease. And the boats. Dead dogs and dead eels.  But walking was a way of transportation, we worked with our feet. And walking is quicker than boat. Mostly. And at least I can’t get lost, it’s up north but down hill all the way to Ellesmere Port. And as one friend said ‘Walking is just putting one foot in front of the other’.