The smell is of rich manure; a pungent stench that drifts on the autumn breeze. The fields are reds and browns; clogging mud drawn into lines as far as the eye can see. The landscape is bare and, where there are no hedges or trees, the ploughed fields dip and curve like washing on a line. We park up on the gravel at the Junction pub. Hardy smokers are huddled in hooded tops sucking the life from a Rothmans or Benson beneath the pub’s canopy. Roast potatoes and sage rise from the pub’s kitchen. A narrowboat chugs into view, painted in pristine Wedgwood Blue. It’s cool and damp but a watery afternoon sun offers brightness and a little warmth. We clamber down steps to the Shropshire Union Canal, heading north for Loynton. A woman in a pink jogging suit clips the grass on the towpath with tiny shears. Woodsmoke rises from a stove. A man sits on deck in a peaked cord cap reading a paperback Western. He drinks milky coffee from a chipped mug. A fug of diesel hovers. Beyond the moorings the embankments begin to rise either side of the canal. The light fades and a lone moorhen skips across the water, rippling the surface. A thick mulch of leaves lie on the towpath. It has rained heavily and water sluices from the fields forming long shallow puddles. The embankments are steep and wooded. Beech and alder prevent the soils from slipping into the canal. Vine creeps and strangles trunks. Glowing emerald moss thrives. There are curling fronds of bracken and thick clumps of nettles. In the space of two-hundred yards nature has taken over with a carpet of dripping lush green.
The milepost points the way to Nantwich and onto Chester. The air here is rich and peaty like a pensioner’s potting shed. Birds tweet high in the branches. A magpie swoops. For a few precious minutes there are no cars, no trains, no mobile phones and no one rushing around. We could be back in the 1850s when this canal was cut from the landscape. A short green narrowboat drifts into view through Bridge 39 – this is the bridge reputedly haunted by the Monkey Man. The boat has ‘Toddy’ painted on the side. The skipper is shy and nods. I’ve seen him a week or two before passing Newhall Street locks in Birmingham city centre. What a great way to see the country! When I call out and he nods I see my breath is a white fog. It’s damp and chilly and feels dark and subterranean – the kind of environment and light that feels as if it’s late afternoon at lunchtime. Above Bridge 39 is Loynton Moss. I can recall reading Chicken Licken – my first book presented at playgroup in 1979. There is a line in it about the sky falling down. It feels like that here; strange, unworldly, not unlike Lud’s Church in its unusual atmosphere. We will visit Lud’s Church later.