Sometimes it’s important to slow down. Taking life at a slower pace, even for a few hours, really awakens the senses. Travelling on the canal is a great way to do this. How often do we move at 3 miles per hour? If we do it’s likely we’re walking in a town or city and most of us will be watching for traffic, listening to music or have a mobile phone clamped to our ears.
Norbury Junction lies on the Shropshire Union Canal. It’s a hamlet within 20 minutes of Stafford and the M6 – arguably the busiest stretch of motorway in Europe – but you’d never know it. We hired a boat for the day and set off north towards Market Drayton. This section of canal runs from Wolverhampton north to Chester, but with lunch and unscheduled stops to fit in we managed a return journey of around 14 miles.
The countryside is stunning. As you leave ancient Norbury with it’s sloping fields of crops and canalside cottages you head into the deep cuttings. The Midlands word for canals is, in fact, cut. Poor navvies had to hack the canal through this peaty soil and sandstone and somehow trap the banks with saplings or planks to prevent landslides. Often they failed. The air becomes cooler here. Sunlight can only break through in thin shafts. It’s peaty and damp like a forgotten shed or the onset of autumn. There are emerald fronds of bracken and the sandstone is slick with moss. The bridges begin to tower over the cut. All around and above is the rich, peaty reserve of Loynton Moss.
I’d say close your eyes, but I did and almost ran aground. Further along we passed the old Cadbury’s factory at Knighton. There is still a mooring. Did Cadbury’s run a canal distribution service for Dairy Milk and chocolate fingers to their factory in Bournville? Beyond Knighton the hedgerows and trees open out and the canopy splits. There are hilltop villages toward Shropshire and Cheshire, spires and whitewashed cottages visible in flashes of sunlight. We head into Shropshire and past wharfs and moorings. Wood is stockpiled for stoves. A man is stacking ropes. There are narrowboats from Walsall, Manchester, Birmingham and London.
We pass perhaps one boat each mile. There’s a nod or a wave. Most are friendly, but there are a few who begrudge beginners the chance to explore the waterways. It seems churlish – we all had to learn once. But it doesn’t spoil the day. The crops are a haze of gold. A heron perches on the bridge. A sparrowhawk hovers. Dragonflies skitter on the surface and, from time to time, there is the lazy plop of a perch or carp. It seems hard to imagine these waterways were the M6 of their day. We are truly blessed to have them and enjoy such peace and solitude. It’s hard to believe we’re 30 minutes drive from three million people. It’s a side of the Midlands people don’t see or appreciate. The next boaters we speak to are Canadians. They adore this landscape. We take it for granted.