Going slow on the Shropshire Union Canal

by David.Cawley

Hiring a narrow boat for a trip along Britain's canals is a lovely, leisurely way to holiday, and the Shropshire Union Canal is one of the best to go for - as long as you're not too superstitious...

"We are not amused,” reputedly grumbled Queen Victoria when passing through the locks of the just-opened Caledonian Canal in northern Scotland. Today, it’s quite the contrary. With a speed limit of a giddying 4mph, one of the quickest ways to slow down in Britain is to take temporary hold of a candy-striped tiller aboard one of Britain’s thousands of canal narrow boats. It’s fantastic fun, completely absorbing and, better yet, not difficult to do at all.

The Shroppie

If just hiring a boat isn’t enough, why not add an extra little frisson to the adventure by travelling along Britain’s most haunted canal? Built in the early 19th century, the Shropshire Union Canal, or “Shroppie”, winds 67 miles from Ellesmere Port near Liverpool through the historic splendour of Chester, across the verdant, gently rolling countryside of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire to its conclusion near Wolverhampton.

Many of its structures can be credited to the engineering genius of Sir Thomas Telford, and it comes with its fair share of locks and architectural curiosities. It's also part of the Cheshire Ring around northwest England, a circular cruise route that means it is possible, given enough time and fair wind, to head north, skirt the scenic beauty of the Pennines and venture into the heart of Manchester for some high-end culture or high-octane nightlife.

Spine-tingling experiences

When the mix of glorious countryside, fascinating architecture and urban things to do becomes too much, some may want to pursue the Shroppie’s more unworldly attractions. There are at least four ghosts associated with this canal, from the ghostly apparition of a Roman centurion, seen guarding the former entrance to the city of Chester, to the spirit of an American WWII pilot who crashed near the canal at Church Eaton in Staffordshire.

The best-known and perhaps most disturbing phantom is said to be "The Monkey Man", a former boatman who drowned by bridge 39, just outside Norbury, in the 19th century. Witnessed by a number of people over the past 100 years (most recently in 2002), the ghost has been described as a strange black creature with enormous eyes.

Betton Cutting, near Market Drayton, has always had a dark reputation among boating people - a shrieking spectre has been seen and heard here, as well as a more amicable apparition who is said to help push boats through Tyrley middle lock.

For a palpably spine-tingling experience of a different kind, one of the most unusual tourist attractions found anywhere in the UK sits close to the Shroppie's banks: Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. Built in the 1950s, this huge complex buried deep beneath the folds of the countryside was for military and local officials to run the country from in the event of a nuclear strike during the Cold War. Its vast warren of rooms, equipment and furnishings has been left virtually unchanged since it closed in 1966, creating an eerie atmosphere and giving an insight into just how close the West came to nuclear Armageddon.

Learning the ropes

Haunted or otherwise, locks are where most first-timers might get anxious. On most canals, these simple yet marvellous feats of engineering are unavoidable and can be intimidating. But after initial encounters, they soon become something to look forward to, and are great places to meet fellow boaters and walkers as you wait to pass through. Raising and lowering the paddles and pushing on the lock gates can also be a great way to compensate for doing very little else all day except unwind and admire the slowly passing vistas.

Boat-hire companies such as www.drifters.co.uk are well versed in teaching newbies the extremely simple fundamentals, along with the daily checks needed for a smooth inland voyage. After only half an hour’s tuition, first-time hirers are cheerfully let loose into the British landscape with up to 60 foot and 14 tons of narrow boat beneath them. Unlike their bygone working predecessors, narrow boats in the 21st century come fully equipped with all mod cons, right down to the garlic press. The most complicated thing to master on board will be the flat screen TV/DVD, while the oven, heating, shower and toilets offer no more challenges than those found at home. The fuel and water tanks are filled, and with wine, beer and food (bought by you in advance) cramming every available space in the galley, you're ready to discover the freedom of the open waterways.

Sociable side

This is a perfect way for a group of friends or family to spend some - albeit cosy – time together. It doesn’t take long for everyone on board to find their feet and soon the whole crew will want to get involved with the steering and lock-negotiating. Boats can moor just about anywhere along the canal banks and, better yet, most pubs have dedicated facilities for narrow boats. Indeed, stopping at these equivalents of motorway service stations for a drink and something to eat is a tradition going back for centuries. Many of the pubs have accommodation, providing some the chance to spend the night in the privacy of a room with its own real bed and private ensuite bathroom.

Two of the pub highlights on the Shropshire Union Canal are The Anchor at High Offley, which offers real ale in authentic, unpretentious surroundings to the many who pass by, and The Shroppie Fly in Audlem, which is popular with those looking for some fine wholesome food in picture-postcard village surroundings.

Then there are the canal folk themselves. It almost seems written into law that the people who live on, or spend most of their time around, these waters cannot be expected to pass anyone without some friendly greeting. In fact, nearly all boat owners will be more than happy to lend a hand or offer advice if they find you in some kind of canal conundrum.

Canal mania, it seems, is back, and stronger than ever. So pick a part of Britain that you fancy exploring, and it's more than likely that you'll find a canal there waiting to be discovered. Just look out for ghosts along the way... 


Hotels en route

Middlewich: Travelodge Middlewich

Chester: The Cheshire Cat

Useful contacts

National waterways information sites: www.waterscape.com;

Contact Drifters (a consortium of ‘award winning’ holidays) and quote 'Castle Wharf' for discounts on boat hire, www.drifters.co.uk (Tel: 0844 984 0322)



I’m a freelance travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers specialising in UK destination writing that contribute to guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles across the globe. Publications include, Thomas Cook, Britain Magazine, Heritage Magazine, Ryanair, Stars & Stripes, Compass Guides, Daily Mail online, MSN, WTG and 10Best.  My face for radio also occasionally  pays dividends – though not cash - when I’m asked into BBC and Independent radio studios to blather on all things travel.

With a degree in History and Archaeology that's actually been put to practical use, I also spend my spare time as a tour guide ‘harrying’ York and Yorkshire with overseas visitors taking them to places not often covered in mainstream travel itineraries.

As a card carrying, banner waving English northerner now living on the North Yorkshire border, I spend long days and nights ambling and poking my Roman nose into York’s ancient streets and hidden alleyways. When it’s time to rest my head I've been lucky enough to hit the city’s most expensive thread dense, chocolate topped hotel pillows as well as it’s more budget bolsters.

My York

Where I grab a beer: Sadly past the age where my drinking needs to be accompanied by pounding backbeats, The Three Legged Mare is one of my favourite places to head for those traditional pub pleasures of ambient noise made up of conversational murmurings accompanied and helped along by an intriguing choice of brews. Head to my York nightlife for some of my other suggestions.

Where I head for a warm drink: If the sun is out then it’s down to the small riverside terrace of La Place Verte for some seriously good D.I.Y Belgian hot chocolate. For coffee or tea infusions the calm and refinement of Grays Court is also hard to beat rain or shine.

My favourite dining spot: Another tough call amongst a vast buffet of good places to eat but the panache, quality and sheer joy of J Baker's Bistro Moderne  is currently hard to resist. A recent return to the elegant D.C.H was also a good reminder of what a fine place this is too.

Best place for people watching: Busy St Helen’s Square corrals local shoppers, tourists, city workers and a collection of street entertainers whose talents or otherwise bring the crowds to a temporary halt.

Most breathtaking view: Loins girded, I make the 275 step ascent to the top of York Minster for some literally breathtaking and blustery views across the city and Vale of York beyond.

My favourite stroll: Has to be around the wonderfully preserved York City Walls that corset the heart of York, where  its vistas offer a wonderful and ever-changing overview of York’s streets and rooftops. It takes me about an hour to do the loop and I find it best done early before the day trippers arrive or late in the day when they start to make their way back to the coach parks or train station. The New Walk along the Ouse is not too shabby either.

The best spot for peace and quiet: I head to the grassy and riverside spaces of Museum Gardens where close by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey I can sit and watch the river traffic chug by. Like strolling the walls the best time is first or last thing in the day. Rowntree Park, just outside the centre comes a close second.

Secret shopping: The popular Stonegate and Petergate areas have their charm and rewards but for a small collection of retro clothing and foodie rewards away from the crowds I head to the lesser trod Fossgate. More details of these and more can be found on my Shopping in York.

Don’t leave without...a plan to come back. There's way too much to see and do in one visit