Steering round the Stourport Ring

Mark Whitley, editor of Countryman Magazine recently reviewed his trip around the Stourport Ring, departing from our Stoke Prior base.

‘Britain’s canals were born in the Industrial Revolution and originally served the country’s economic needs, but nowadays serve as places for recreation and pleasure.

The Stourport Ring is one of a number of waterways leisure networks across the country. This 76-mile route visits some of the most beautiful and interesting places in Middle England, via the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, Birmingham Canal Navigation, Dudley and Stourbridge canals, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, and a stretch of the River Severn.

The 30-mile-long Worcester and Birmingham Canal was built between 1794 and 1815 as a faster, more direct and more economic route for the burgeoning West Midlands industries to transport their goods to the River Severn and onwards to the Bristol Channel ports.

One commodity transported by canal was salt, from the Stoke Prior saltworks, developed in the mid-19th century by ‘Salt King’ John Corbett and which at their peak produced more than 160,000 tons of salt per year.

The saltworks have gone, and nowadays Stoke Prior is home to the boatyard of (Drifters’ member) Black Prince Holidays, which offers narrowboats for hire.

“The Stourport Ring is one of the most popular routes for canalboat holiday-makers setting off from our Stoke Prior base,” explains Leighton Jones, managing director of Black Prince Holidays. “Travelling at just four miles per hour through mile upon mile of tranquil countryside, the Stourport Ring offers a wonderful mix of rural and urban landscapes.”

Setting off anti-clockwise on the Stourport Ring from Stoke Prior, one soon encounters one of the canal boaters’ rites of passage: the Tardebigge Flight. This series of 30 locks in quick succession raises the canal more than 200 feet in just four miles.

Thankfully, Tom Houston and Kevin Jones are on hand to help if needed. Tom and Kevin are Canal & River Trust volunteer lock keepers on the Tardebigge Flight. (Nationally, there are around 2,500 willing and dedicated Canal & River Trust volunteers.)

Tom is an experienced boater who wanted to keep in contact with the boating community after retirement; Kevin, also retired, “wanted to keep myself active,” as he explains, “and when I saw some Trust volunteers in action on the locks at Stourton, I thought ‘That looks good’.”

“As custodians of the waterways the Trust likes us to engage with the public,” Tom explains, “to show that everyone — boaters and bikers and walkers and fishermen — can all share and enjoy our waterways.”

“Volunteering benefits the Trust, it benefits me, and we are offering a useful service to people,” Kevin adds.

Having negotiated the Tardebigge Flight, we pass through Wast Hill Tunnel (the longest on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, at 2,726 yards) before continuing northwards along a stretch with several literary connections: St Nicholas Parish Church in Kings Norton is where Rev W Awdry (author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books) was curate during the Second World War; and Sarehole Mill Museum celebrates J R R Tolkein and his links to the area.

There is a particular pleasure in travelling right into the centre of a major city like Birmingham by boat. “You cannot help but think that of all the British cities to see virtue in revitalising their canals, Birmingham has made the best fist of it,” argues canal boating expert Michael Pearson.

The Stourport Ring now heads north-west the New Main Line, built in 1825-9 by Thomas Telford, before turning southwards through Netherton Tunnel. Opened in 1858, this was the last canal tunnel built in Britain, and at 3,027 yards is the fourth longest navigable canal tunnel in country.

The light at the end of the tunnel is the wonderfully named Bumble Hole — formerly dotted with coalmines but now a Local Nature Reserve — where the Stourport Ring now follows the Dudley and Stourbridge canals, then the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal, en route to the River Severn.

The Dudley and Stourbridge canals were built to serve the local industries such as ironworks, coalmines and glassmaking, and a reminder of the region’s industrial heyday is soon passed: Red House Glass Works, a distinctive cone-shaped, 100-feet high kiln dating from 1788-94 which is now the home to a glassmaking heritage centre.

These days the canals are peaceful wildlife havens for bird species including chiffchaffs and willow warblers, coot and moorhens; in summer the wildflower-lined canal banks are buzzing with insects; and at dusk, bats flit up and down the waterways.

Moored up at Merry Hill (site of the former Round Oak steelworks), are novice canal boaters Jude Crighton and Mick Leadbetter (and Border collie Bronwen) who are enjoying their first journey round the Stourport Ring.

“It’s been a great experience,” Jude says. “When I fell into the canal trying to retrieve Bronwen, I felt like I had become a true boatswoman!”
“And I no longer count sheep at night,” Mick jokes, “I count locks.”

As real ale aficionados they will be making a pilgrimage to the nearby Vine pub (better known as Bull and Bladder), the brewery tap of Bathams, family brewers for five generations.

The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, opened in 1772, was built by the pioneering canal engineer James Brindley as a ‘contour canal’; its sinuous course takes advantage of the local topography as we make our way southwards, through Kidderminster to Stourport on Severn.

Stourport Basins, linking the Staffs & Worcs with the River Severn, was part of Joseph Brindley’s ‘Grand Cross’ master plan to create Britain’s first national transport network, with canal networks linking the rivers Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames, and thence to seaports and the international markets. The five canal basins (built between 1771 and 1812) transformed Stourport into one of the busiest inland ports in the country.

The three- or four-hour journey down the River Severn is not to be hurried. All too soon the approach to Worcester is marked by a magnificent view of the cathedral. The city is famous for Worcester Porcelain (first made here in 1751) and Lea & Perrins sauce (its secret recipe dating from 1837); was the site of the first and last battle in the Civil War; and is home to the tomb of King John (in the cathedral) and the world’s oldest surviving newspaper (Berrow’s Worcester Journal, first published in 1690).

Diglis Basins link the River Severn and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, and the canal soon brings us back to Stoke Prior, and journey’s end.

Nick Worthington, Canal & River Trust waterway manager, says:
“The Stourport Ring is a wonderful example of a waterway that embraces beautiful countryside, vibrant cities and unique historic structures.”’

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.