|The Tyrley locks, carved into solid rock|
In the early days of narrow canals pioneers like Brindley took the easy option – not that digging a canal was ever patricularly easy of course – and wormed their canals along the contours of the countryside to create routes that minimised the number of locks and aqueducts that might be needed. Snag was that ten miles of crow flying distance might become twenty when meandering round some awkward lump of hill.
|The narrow, tree shrouded Woodseaves Cutting has a Tolkein-esque air|
He would place his ruler on the map, draw a straight line and decree this to be the route of his canal. There were no NIMBYs then to complain about it – just the occasional land owner who if he couldn't be bought off might get a grudging deviation.
|And the rule is - you always meet a boat where there's no room to pass|
Fortunately for Tommy T, the Shropshire countryside is relatively flat but even so the stretch southwards from Market Drayton towards Norbury displays some quite remarkable feats of civil engineering. And all done by gangs of blokes with shovels, wooden wheelbarrows, rickety timber scaffolding and horses and carts. Not a JCB or a Caterpillar earth mover in sight.
The cuttings are the most dramatic. The Tyrley Locks, just after Market Drayton, are carved into the middle of a dramatic man-made gorge through sandstone rock, stunningly beautiful in its autumn colours. After that comes the long, narrow, high sided and tree shrouded Woodseaves Cutting, like something dreamed up by Tolkein, steaming and dripping with condensation, the towpath a quagmire of mud. Tall trees lean out across the water, their roots impossibly clinging for grip into the clay coloured rockfaces. The soft rock is worn into strange holes and crevices – and is prone to crumbling and slipping into the water, as a warning notice at the start of the cutting points out.
|Tall Shroppie bridges arch across like architectural supermodels|
But if the cuttings provide the drama, it's the embankments that gave Telford his real headaches. Trees hide much of the view from them now but occasional glimpses reveal just how high some of them are above the surrounding land. Just how was so much material moved and shaped to form these vast banks? With a lot of difficulty, it seems. The huge Shelmore embankment was begun in 1830 and took over five years to complete after repeated slippages and collapses.
A brief break from this Gothic scenery came as we passed the old Cadbury's factory wharf at Knighton where chocolate crumb was shipped to the firm's works at Bournville in Birmingham. Dried milk is made there now and moves by lorry but the wharf is still a mooring spot for working boats.
|Big Woolwich 'Birmingham' moored at the old Cadbury Wharf|
As we near the end of the canal, waterside villages are appearing more frequently. We moored at Gnosall (pronounced knows-all) and enjoyed a fine pub grub dinner at the Navigation Inn. If you go there, be warned that the "20oz steak and onion pie" really is as big as it sounds – but damned good, too. A proper pie not one of those things with a flaky pastry hat.
Last night we were in Wheaton Aston where the canalside village garage sells red diesel and proper water pump grease for Listers – except they'd just sold out of the latter, dammit. Today we will go to Brewood (prounced brood) just a couple of miles on as we slow the pace and try to delay our departure from this fine canal.