First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
John O’Dreams lay slumbering under the willows. Hills on the Water stretched out flat above her own reflection, and the crooked chimney atop Tranquillity puffed a lazy trail of coal smoke across the quiet waters of the Shropshire Union Canal. Downbeat names for hibernating narrowboats and their crews of water gypsies, moored up for winter at Norbury Junction.
What a fuss and a furore the canals caused as they burrowed across the face of England two hundred years ago. When Thomas Telford masterminded the route of the Shropshire Union canal to link up the port of Liverpool with the industrial Black Country, Lord Anson refused to let the newfangled thing through his estate at Norbury Park lest it frighten the pheasants. So the navvies mounded a gigantic embankment to bypass the place, a mile long and sixty feet up in the air.
The Great Bank gave us a fine grandstand view over the Staffordshire woods and fields as we followed the canal down to Gnosall Heath. Here the Stafford & Shrewsbury railway line cuts east-west across the route of the canal. We turned west along its trackbed, nowadays a landscaped cycle path in a tunnel of trees. Cleverly engineered bridges crossed the old line, their rustic stone buttresses supporting arches of brick skewed with an ingenious barley-sugar twist to take the road slantwise across the railway.
We passed Wilbrighton Hall standing tall and handsome on its ridge, and turned north into the mires and marshes of the Coley Brook. Every footfall produced a squelch and squirt of water as we trod the sedgy fields to the brink of Aqualate Mere.
This mile-long natural lake, hollowed by the retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago, is only waist-deep. Its encircling reedbeds shelter huge numbers of birds. We sat at a hide window and watched a great crested grebe bobbing on the water, then diving below with a wriggle and snaky bend of the neck. Nearby a tufted duck paddled itself round in circles as it preened, nibbling and prodding its back feathers into proper shape.
Beyond the mere the homeward path zigzagged and side-stepped across fields of winter wheat, aiming for the line of the Great Bank above the treetops. Up there a narrowboat passed slowly across the skyline, its skipper leaning back at the tiller, oblivious of us below or of anything else but water, trees and the blue sky above.
Start: Junction Inn, Norbury Junction, nr Newport, Staffs ST20 0PN (OS ref SJ 793229)
Getting there: Norbury Junction is signed from A519 Newcastle-Newport road between Sutton and Woodseaves.
Walk (8½ miles, easy, OS Explorers 243, 242): Right along canal towpath for 2¼ miles. At Bridge 35A (817205), right along railway cyclepath. In 2½ miles, left down steps (785186, ‘Outwoods, Moreton’); right under bridge; cross A518 at Coley Mill (781194). Bridleway north past east end of Aqualate Mere for ¾ mile to road (782207). Right; in 300m on right bend, left (785207, ‘bridleway’) on green lane north to Radmore Lane (785214). Right; in 350m cross Wood Brook (788214); in another 150m, left (stile, fingerpost) across fields (stiles, yellow arrows/YA). At end of 2nd field, take right-hand of 2 waymarked exits (791218); follow hedge on left for 650m to Norbury Road (794224, stile). Left; right under canal; road to Norbury Junction.
Conditions: wet, muddy fields near Aqualate Mere
Lunch: Junction Inn (01785-284288, norburyjunction.com) or Norbury Wharf tearoom (01785-784292), both at Norbury Junction.
Accommodation: Premier Inn, Newport, Staffs TF10 9BY (0333-321-1352)
Info: Telford VIC (01952-291723)