Lazing on a sunny afternoon...taking a trip down the tow-paths of the Shropshire Union canal.
The waterways of Britain provide the perfect playground for those wishing to kick back and relax in the summer sunshine. While the Norfolk Broads tend to steel the limelight, there are several hidden gems to be found in places some may consider to be a bit off the beaten track. The Shropshire Union Canal on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border is one of them.
A good place to set off on a walk is Norbury Junction; 15 miles and two locks (or 17 "lock-miles") from Autherley Junction and situated around Bridge 38 of the canal. In 1835, the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction canal (now the Shropshire Union canal) was joined to the Shropshire tub-boat system. Norbury Junction sits on the branch that joins the two and plays host to a coffee shop, pub, grocery, fishing shop and dry dock. The ambience is relaxed and jovial. Junction residents occupy permanently moored barges and happily chat away while hanging out laundry and watering the roof allotments on their barges.
The Junction Inn is an excellent place to sit and watch the world float by – especially in the summer time, when families make good use of the large beer garden. Situated on the canal bank, this rural pub provides a wide range of hot and cold pub grub, an extensive wine list and a wide selection of real ales (including their infamous "Coach House Junction Inn Bitter"). To walk off lunch, people tend to stroll along the well-maintained tow paths and if headed towards Audlem; Loynton Moss is the first port of call. Part of this heavily wooded 135 acre area is a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ which is protected Staffordshire Wildlife Trust fenland and wetlands.
If you want a more challenging walk, continue north-west towards the town of Market Drayton. Lunch is recommended at the Wharf Tavern in Goldstone whose menu boasts a basic but expertly cooked selection of locally sourced treats. Particularly good is the steak, which is sourced from a farm close to the pub and can be washed down with one of the many, ever-changing local ales on tap. This is a family-friendly pub, with a large camp-site at the back and a fantastic beer garden that stretches all the way down to the waters edge. Superb for a summer lunch and great value for money. Once lunch is finished; it’s on to Market Drayton.
Market Drayton was originally a Saxon settlement and referred to in the Domesday Book as "Draitune". Henry III first granted Draitune its market charter in 1246 and there has been a street market there ever since. The town is affectionately known as the "home of gingerbread" which has been baked there for the past 200 years. The locals – or "Draytonians" – will tell you that they dunk their gingerbread in port as it provides remarkable health-giving properties.
Every Wednesday, Cheshire Street – the road through the centre of town – is closed off to enable local stallholders to sell their wares. The street becomes a shopper’s paradise with everything from clothing and linens to pet accessories and electrical goods on sale along with fresh produce from the local farms. At one time, Market Drayton was famed for its Damson Fairs. Textile makers from the north would travel great distances to buy damsons with which to dye their cloth and weaves. Nowadays, the damsons are put to good use in jams, cheeses, pies or gin and can be found at the Womens’ Institute market stall at the Wednesday market or at the Clive and Coffyne Inn on Shropshire Street.
The town is also home to some beautiful architecture. In the centre of the town stands the Buttercross; a stone porch built in 1824 to protect market stalls from the elements. The town fire bell still hangs from the Buttercross in memory of the fire that started in a bakers shop in 1651 and almost destroyed the town. A sandstone church dating back from the 14th century dominates the sky-line and the town centre is full of interesting half-timbered buildings giving the place a bit of a "mini-Chester" feel.
On the outskirts of the town sits Tyrley Locks – a bit of a local legend, and a perfect example of industrialism at its finest. It is fascinating to watch boats being navigated through this flight of five canal locks and children find it great fun to help out the canal boaters whilst they open and close the locks.
To complete the full walk, leave Norbury Junction at about 10am and aim to arrive at the Wharf in Goldstone for noon. Then, after lunch, the walk to Market Drayton should take approximately two hours, leaving a couple of hours to meander around the town before heading home.