the Four Counties Ring
The Four Counties Ring Narrow Boat Holiday Hire
This historic, energetic, two week journey will take you through the ever changing scenery and beautiful architecture of Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Shropshire. The more time that you allow for this cruise, the more you will enjoy its rural beauty.
- From our marina, to Great Haywood, round the Four Counties Ring and back - 94 hours - 130 locks - 2 tunnels.
After leaving the canal basin and heading North along the Coventry Canal, you will pass Hawkesbury Junction (Oxford Canal) then Marston Junction (Ashby Canal), pass through Nuneaton and shortly find yourself at the first eleven of the many locks that you will encounter on your voyage. The lock side town of Atherstone is a good place to stop for your provisions or to enjoy a meal. The Coventry Canal then continues through several small towns and villages; eyes left for the imposing Pooley Hall and the simple beauty of the remains of a twelfth century priory. At the functional Fazeley Junction turn right to enjoy the Coventry Canal at its rural best. Pretty villages, including the lovely Hopwas with its twin canal side pubs, are intercepted by stunning woodland and the odd glimpse of the River Tame. A few short hours later you will find yourself at the historic Fradley Junction. This picture postcard location remains unspoiled and the Swan Inn pub still offers a traditional canal side welcome.
Turn left here onto the Trent and Mersey Canal and enjoy the farm and woodland scenery before you find yourself in the towns of Handsacre, Armitage and Rugeley. The local power station dominates the views here and colours the scenery with grey emissions but it is fascinating to see the varied ingenuity of the town’s canal side back gardens. Just after Armitage (of bathroom fittings fame) the canal narrows dramatically in what was formerly a tunnel. It’s wise to send someone up ahead to check for oncoming boats as there is no room to pass. The scenery once again gains its beauty as you enter the villages of Little and Great Haywood. South of the canal lies Cannock Chase, an area of dense woodland, and the beautiful Shugborough Hall and Country Museum, accessed from the canal over the River Trent via Essex Bridge. This historic working country estate offers a range of sights and activities that will keep you busy for a whole afternoon whilst some of the statues and follies in the spectacular Georgian gardens can be spotted by the keen eyed from the canal.
At Haywood Junction (see picture courtesy Up The Cut) you will need to decide in which direction you are to navigate the Four Counties Ring. This description is the clockwise version so we are to go left at the junction, under the arch of Bridge 109 and onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. Within minutes the canal opens out into lake like proportions. This is Tixall Wide, possibly built to serve the vanities of Tixall Hall (of which the gatehouse alone survives and can be seen north of the canal) or is perhaps a natural predecessor of the canal. Bridges, aqueducts and the very occasional lock adorn the canal as you share the River Sow’s tree-rich valley, the epitome of tranquility. Urban towns and the M6 begin to make their presence known and the locks increase as you head towards the summit level at Gailey. At Gailey Lock there is a fine example of one of the canal’s distinctive roundhouses, utilised as a canal shop. After Pendeford Rockin (where the canal narrows to a single boat’s width with passing places) it is a short distance to the ‘cut end’ of the Staffs and Worcs at Autherley Junction, a less attractive feature of the Ring. A very sharp right and a six inch stop lock will see you onto the Shropshire Union. There follows over 25 miles of pastoral landscape with deep cuttings that send you into shadow, high embankments with panoramic views, varied bridges, villages and woodland with the very occasional lock just to keep you in practice and your first tunnel, the 81 yard Cowley.
You will encounter five locks at Tyrley before passing through the interesting town of Market Drayton and another five locks at Adderley. These will warm you up nicely for the fifteen at the delightful Audlem. An aqueduct will take you over the beginnings of the River Weaver before two more locks find you in Nantwich, a pretty and prosperous town nestled on either side of the river. Hurleston and the following Barbridge Junctions are the gateways to a whole series of canal systems and their bent towards congestion in the high season reflects this status. It is at the second of these junctions that you will diverge from the main ‘Shroppie’ and turn right onto the Middlewich Branch, through pretty countryside and through Wardle Lock into Middlewich. Here boaters will need to turn right and lock workers will need to cross the busy road; somewhat of a culture shock after the serenity of the waterways. The town is well known to canal enthusiasts, being the junction between the Shropshire Union and the Trent and Mersey, and its waterways can be busy in summer. The town evolved as a result of the Romans discovering salt here and the industry continues today, as can be seen from the huge salt manufacturers by Rumps Lock as you cruise southwards out of the town.
If you relish physical exercise, the next nine hours are going to be exhilarating. Between Middlewich and the Harecastle Tunnel, the landscape slopes downwards for 250 feet over 12 miles by means of 31 locks. This stretch, long known to boaters as ‘Heartbreak Hill’, is full of interest with small villages and lovely countryside. (see photograph) Just after lock 43 walk up to the overhead ‘bridge’ to see that it is really an aqueduct transporting the newly emerged Macclesfield Canal off to the North. The water here takes on the orange tint typical of this area, caused by the leeching of ironstone rock particles, disturbed by mining of old. The Harecastle Tunnel itself is steeped in history and enjoys some notoriety for supernatural goings on. Navigating it is a truly unique experience. Single file only, the tunnel is manned at either end by a keeper who ensures that only one way traffic is ensconced inside. Shortly after the Southern door is closed and the air vents are employed. Tunnel light and interior lights do little to penetrate the darkness. Keep to the centre, for even here parts of the tunnel do not seem quite high enough to pass a narrow boat through! Some two and a quarter miles, and three quarters of an hour, later the door reopens and the circle of daylight grows until you emerge at the other end to look back and see the famous Southern entrance. (see photograph below)
You are now in the heart of The Potteries. Keep an eye out and you will see one of the last bottle kilns in existence as well as homes of Wedgwood, Clarice Cliff and Steelite, the later being the manufacturer of the ivory china provided on all of our boats! If nightfall is nearing it is wise to moor opposite the Festival Park Marina. The charming Etruria Junction, start of the Caldon Canal, boasts a statue of Brindley and an Industrial Museum with the nearby locks having an ‘exhibit’ feel about them. The busy towns and suburbs of Hanley, Stoke, Hem Heath, Baraston, and Stone are rife with evidence of their industrial heritage, Barlaston being home to the Wedgwood Potteries Museum. Beyond Stone the landscape takes on a rural grandeur, resplendent with great manor houses, ornate bridges, pretty villages and natural history. Road, railway, canal and the River Trent keep close but unobtrusive company from Stoke all the way to Haywood Junction and your cue to depart the Four Counties Ring and head straight on back to Fradley, Fazeley and the Coventry Canal back to its terminus in the canal basin.