Thursday, 30 October 2014

Straight and Crooked Thinking

The Tyrley locks, carved into solid rock
This was the title of an old philosophy book I read as a student and promptly forgot about in the alcoholic fug of student life, until the title came back to me when reflecting on our passage along the Shroppie.
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
Later on, chaps like Thomas Telford were made of sterner stuff. Or to be fairer, had started to get a better grasp of canal building techniques. Tommy Telford was a no nonsense sort of chap who didn't believe in submitting to the lay of the land. No, he was determined to bully the land until it lay down and submitted to him.
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
The Shroppie is the archetypal Telford canal. It runs arrow-straight for many miles, arranges its rises and falls in convenient lock flights which can be tackled at pace and deals with other variations in gradient by bashing through them in cuttings or teetering across them on sometimes high and long embankments.
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
It's not a place to stop, especially on a windy day and not the best place to meet another boat – which of course means we did, right at one of the few bridgeholes where we managed with a bit of banging and scraping to squeeze past each other.
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
Telford's straight-line approach could make the Shroppie a boring canal to pleasure cruise along but the scenery is always a treat, the canalside farms with their cattle and sheep and the Shropshire hills away in the middle distance, and all with the backdrop of autumn's orange and yellow colours. For a narrow canal it's built to a grand scale, too – wide and deep. Even the bridges are grand, too: tall, stately arches that let you sail through without worrying that a moment's inattention will have the chimney swiped off!
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.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, I must introduce you to my husband and you can rail together against stupid pies that are not really pies at all! He'll be so pleased to find another supporter of proper pies, with pastry in all the right places!

    Enjoying your posts as always