THE SHROPSHIRE UNION CANAL
Our March 2014 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Graham Dodd came to talk to us on 16th March about the 'Shropshire Union', an amalgam of several different canals constructed at the height of the industrial revolution. The engineers' dream was to link the rivers - Mersey, Dee, Severn and Trent - that had been the original means of water transport within the new industrial areas.
Some of the earliest canals had served the Shropshire coalfield. These had often been constructed in isolation, to carry coal, limestone and iron ore to the foundries or the river Severn. The hills were a problem, and devices known as 'inclined planes' were sometimes used to move the boats from one level to another. Other canals improved and extended the navigability of the rivers. Some, such as the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, were much more ambitious.
Graham showed us numerous slides of the locks, aqueducts, embankments and deep cuttings that made the network possible. The most spectacular is Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct across the river Dee, with its cast-iron trough and 19 arches. Graham explained that the plan was to take the canal from the north end of this aqueduct, all the way to Chester, but this never happened.
Passengers also could travel by canal - in boats travelling at 12 mph - for example from Newtown to Rednal Station, where railway connections were offered to Liverpool. Passengers were warned that the completion of their journey was not guaranteed, as railways were less reliable than canals! The relationship with the railways became closer when the Shropshire Union was taken over by the L&NWR. Although it was initially feared that the canals would be closed down, the railway company instead found the system a useful way of encroaching onto GWR territory. Some parts of the network were neglected, e.g. the Montgomeryshire Canal in the 1930s, but most of it has continued in use (for pleasure cruising rather than for trade) to the present day.
Graham showed us pictures of the canalside scenes that can still be enjoyed by boat owners, hirers and towpath walkers. Maesbury Marsh lift bridge, the quaint round buildings at Tilston Locks, the High Bridge near Norbury Junction, and Audlem Wharf (from where the Cheese Boats used to leave for Manchester and elsewhere). Some of the deep cuttings have an eerie atmosphere but are nevertheless picturesque. Ghost stories abound, such as the 'man monkey' who is said to have leapt onto a passing horse at High Bridge. There are also curiosities, such as the grey balance beams of Adderley Locks - said to have been the result of the Shropshire Union buying up stocks of battleship grey paint after World War 1!
Graham said the Shropshire Union had been built 'a generation too late' but nevertheless described it as 'the last victory of the canals over the railways'. He finished his talk by referring to recent restoration efforts - by volunteers and, latterly, the Canal & River Trust - and the construction of new marinas catering for a new generation of people with the money and the desire to enjoy the canals. The Shropshire Union, he said, has a bright future.