My canal side walk to Century Wood

Henry David Thoreau famously borrowed an axe in 1845 and went to the woods to build himself a cabin. Well in the spring of 2024, I went to the woods to cut myself a walking stick, and began my journey from my home at the north edge of Cheshire, to Century Wood in Shropshire. A walk of over 78 miles over five days, mostly along the canal towpaths.

Normally the journey is 80 minutes in the car. Listening to a couple of podcast episodes maybe, or some music. But since about 2018 I started planning to walk there, because I only feel I really know where places are relative to each other by walking. For me, walking answers the question “But how far is it really?” Plus I realised I could use the canal towpaths for most of the distance and so it would be a lovely walk through the countryside from town to town, without miles of slogging through muddy fields or walking busy roads.

(I’ve also made the text and photos of this blog available as a video.)

I do walk quite a lot, especially when I’m away from home, and looking back through the stats on my phone, I realised that I’d already done consecutive weeks of over 40 miles back in February. So I wasn’t really worried about the distance itself. I bought a new pair of walking boots, did a couple of 16 mile practice walks to check tricky parts of the route, and planned it all out with the Ordnance Survey maps website. I got some A5 sandwich bags, and printed off the route in A4 segments, and put them folded over and waterproof in the bags.

Then I went and cut the walking stick. A “thumbstick”, almost shoulder height with a fork at the top that you can hook your thumb over if necessary. I cut it from a young maple stem, with this Fiskars pruning saw. Light enough to take with me in case I needed to cut another one, and safe in my rucksack because the blade retracts into the handle and locks. The walking stick was invaluable once I go on to muddy stretches of towpath.

Finally it was time to set off. The first day included a detour to the National Trust’s Dunham Massey estate. I had planned to go into the Gardens to see the castle mound but the weather was already deteriorating and so I pressed on rather than have my lunch there. I passed the water-powered sawmill that still operates in the summer season, and then through the fields to Little Bollington and then by lanes and roadside paths to Lostock Gralam on the edge of Northwich.

The weather got worse and worse, with driving rain in 40 mph winds for a couple of hours. At Lostock Gralam I was staying in the Travelodge and had a very welcome pub dinner in the dry.

The second day began dry but was forecast rain and wind again. I picked up the Trent and Mersey Canal at the Lambs Wharf and headed south through the sulphurous fumes of the adjacent Tata Chemicals works. I was straight into deep mud on the towpath and was relying on the walking stick to stop me sliding around: pushed through the ooze to the solid ground it gave me a fixed point as well as a “third leg”. The last thing I wanted to do was slip over and be covered in mud all day! The chemical works eventually gave way to houses and then finally fields, hedges, and woodland.

Eventually I came to Middlewich and my first lock of the walk, and the junction with the tiny Wardle Canal – all of 50m long. This was the canal equivalent of a ransom strip and allowed the Trent and Mersey to charge higher tolls for boats connecting with the rival Shropshire Union Canal. So almost immediately I was on the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union starting with a series of bridges and then more locks.

I had lunch in the rain sheltered under a hedge not far past Middlewich. Then began counting down the bridges. All the original bridges of the canals are numbered with cast iron plates, usually near the top of the arch. I started at Bridge 31 still in Middlewich, aiming for Bridge 8 due north of Nantwich, and then by road into the town.

That night I stayed at the Crown Hotel, which was rebuilt in 1585 after a fire and had been an inn for travellers for centuries before. This second day was just under 20 miles, including a lot of mud, and I appreciated the step up from a Travelodge and the restaurant downstairs without having to go out into the town as my muscles started to stiffen up for the night.

On the third day I set off with a rested body and muscles repaired overnight. The weather was good all day this time but the legacy of days of rain was still there in the towpath mud. As you can see in the second picture it was sometimes from the water to the bank. Now on the Shropshire Union Canal main line there was also some open flat countryside almost like walking on a wide lawn. Just off the canal but prominent on the map is the Hack Green “Secret Nuclear Bunker”, where I had my lunch on a picnic bench in the sun. Then up the flight of 15 locks at Audlem, and the disconcerting change of towpath from left to right bank at the turnover bridge! Finally into Market Drayton, and the comfortable Lansdown House B&B.

The fourth day was always going to be a challenge as the longest and that after three solid days of walking. The towpaths improved at bit more in the dry weather but were still tricky and the walking stick earned its keep again. When I rejoined the canal I was almost immediately greeted by the welcome smell of woodsmoke from a stove on a boat. However, I was soon off the canal again as a notoriously difficult stretch of towpath had become blocked by a landslide. So off at Bridge 60 and not back on until 55. However the upside was that out of the cutting and looking across a field of sheep, I had my first view of the Wrekin, Shropshire’s iconic hill. Back on the canal I was soon on an embankment with regular views across to the Wrekin, swans, and Cadbury Wharf overhanging the water beside the chocolate factory.

Next down into the Grub Street Cutting. For me this was the most beautiful stretch of the whole walk and ironically the first part of the route that I had ever visited, more than a decade ago. You can see a small canal-side settlement of huts and sheds, the famous High Bridge number 39 that I cross every time I drive to Century Wood, and then the lovely curving stretch just past the bridge before the long straight section that runs to Norbury Junction. This was all familiar territory, but never together as one place: only as isolated places I had come to by car.

The distances to Norbury Junction were given on some of the mileposts in previous photos, and it’s a place I’ve visited quite often, including the annual canal festival each May. A shop and a pub, and lots of services for boats. It stopped being a junction when the Shrewsbury and Newport canal closed, but efforts are underway by the S&N Canal Trust to reopen it. For now there’s just a view from the bridge to the first lock which is used as a dry dock for boats.

The Canal Hunter channel on YouTube has a very good recent series of videos about the Shrewsbury and Newport canal and other small canals in the area which I did also come across.

Norbury is where I left the Shropshire Union for the last time, took the tunnel through the huge embankment and passed the University of Birmingham’s forestry research institute (BIFOR), which studies the effect of increasing CO2 levels on trees. I walked the lanes and used public rights of way to cross fields until I got to the village of Forton when I rested on a bench in the churchyard. My walk crossed the route of the abandoned canal, where Thomas Telford’s surviving stone bridges wait for the water’s return. Finally into the edge of Newport, which has a partially preserved stretch of canal in water, but without working locks. From Newport I walked to Lilleshall Hall, now home to the National Sports Centre with training facilities for Olympic-level athletes. Lilleshall was the Shropshire seat of the Dukes of Sutherland at the time the 4th duke had Century Wood planted for the first time. I slept in a former guest room on the first floor of the main house, for the last night of the walk after 23 miles that day.

The final day started with breakfast at the Hall, and then a walk through the gardens, behind the bowling clubhouse, through a portico saved from Trentham Hall when the Duke sold it off, and then by lanes to Lilleshall Abbey. The abbey had owned the land on which Century Wood stands from soon after the Conquest to the Dissolution of the Monasteries when the Duke’s ancestors bought it. Next to the abbey was one last bit of canal: a derelict towpath and ditch that had been part of a disconnected industrial canal when the area was full of limepits. Then a detour across the fields, over stiles, to the Lilleshall Monument that commemorates the first Duke, and a magnificent view towards the Wrekin. Then retracing my steps to return to my route across more fields and along more lanes until I eventually came to Century Wood. I finished by placing a stone from a towpath on the Cairn.

At the wood I had time to open up the Log Cabin and think about how far I had come that day and that week. I had done a lot of thinking as I walked, about what I saw and plans for the future. But I did not have any great revelation or moment of self-discovery to write about in this final paragraph. What I had instead was an intense feeling of place, starting from the High Bridge and connecting together old friends into one unified location. I have scarcely before had such a strong understanding of exactly where I was.

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