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With more miles of canal than any other county, what better way to discover Staffordshire's countryside?
Minimum time 1h30
Distance 6.5 miles (10.5km)
Suggested map Explorer 243 Market Drayton, Loggerheads & Eccleshall
Start/finish Norbury Village Hall; grid ref: SJ 782235
Trails/tracks canal towpath (one short grass section) and quiet lanes
Landscape open countryside and woodland
Public toilets none on route
Tourist information Stafford, tel 01785 619619
Bike hire none locally
Recommended pub The Navigation Inn, Gnosall
Notes One main road crossing, two dark bridges, tow paths (can be muddy after rain)Write a review of this bike ride
© Automobile Association 2008. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
Norbury lies 8.5 miles (13.7km) west of Stafford. An unclassified road off the A519 3 miles (4.8km) north of Newport leads into the village.
1 Out of the car park go right and then left to pedal through the village, signed to Oulton and Norbury Junction. Keep with the main lane as it bends right past a track leading to the striking village church, a large building, dedicated to St Peter, of much weathered sandstone that nestles below a massive brick tower. Leaving the village, go left at a fork signed to Norbury Junction and Gnosall.
2 You will be passing through Norbury Junction on the way back, so for the time being, carry on over the canal bridge and continue along the lane behind the old canal offices and workshops. Beside the lane is a millennium boulder, similar to one beside the village hall, an erratic stranded as the vast ice sheets that covered this part of the country melted at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Beyond cottages, the lane falls towards a wood, there bending sharply right to pass under a bridge (beware of traffic).
3 At the junction beyond, go left towards Gnosall, the lane rising gently along the base of a high wooded embankment upon which the canal runs. After a mile (1.6km), it twists beneath the canal once more (again watch out for traffic) and climbs to a bend beyond. Keep going with the undulating lane, eventually passing beneath a bridge that once carried the Stafford Newport Railway to a T-junction with the main road at the end.
4 Turn right, crossing the canal to find The Navigation on the right. If going to the pub, there are steps to the canal towpath from the car park, but an easier way lies down a ramp on the left-hand side of the road. Double back under the bridge and cycle away past the pub beside the canal, shortly going beneath the railway again. The bridge here is very wide, the passage almost tunnel-like, not due to carrying several tracks, but because it is skewed across the canal. Such bridges were disproportionately expensive if built in brick or stone, and it was only the invention of the skew arch that allowed the bridge to be preserved within the width of the upper passage. Shortly emerging from a cutting, there are pleasing views across the open countryside. The way continues to Shelmore Wood, where there is a stop lock, a device inserted periodically along the canal for isolating individual sections so that they could be drained for maintenance. Carry on in trees for another 1.25 miles (2km) to Norbury Junction, there crossing a bridge over the abandoned Wappenshall Branch to reach The Junction pub.
5 Leave the canal for the lane, and retrace your outward route left back to the car park by the village hall in Norbury.
The Shropshire Canal was built between 1830 and 1835 under the direction of Thomas Telford, creating a more direct link than hitherto between the industrial towns of England's heartland and the seaports along the Dee and Mersey rivers. A branch from Norbury ran to Wappenshall Junction on the edge of Telford where, via the Shrewsbury Canal and the Hay Inclined Plane, boats could reach the ironworks and potteries of the Ironbridge Gorge. From the very beginning, canals proved their worth in moving heavy and bulky cargoes cheaply and quickly, and the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a period of spectacular industrial growth as the network spread across the country. All operated on a system of tolls to cover the cost of construction and maintenance and there was intense competition between rival routes to attract trade. Junctions like that here at Norbury would have been controlled with a toll bar, where charges were levied on the type of goods and weight carried. There would also have been a certain amount of reloading too, as cargoes were split or combined for the various destinations served by the separate branches. Alongside the canals, inns, stables and blacksmiths sprang up to provide sustenance for the bargees and the horses that pulled the boats. Workyards were also necessary to undertake repairs on the barges as well as to provide depots for the gangs maintaining the canal itself.
The branch to Wappenshall and Telford fell into disuse during the 1930s, the trade having been taken over by the railways. By the end of the war, it had been completely abandoned and much of it was filled in. You can still trace its ghostly course on the map, where odd short stretches are shown as pools. The main Shropshire Canal survived and is today busy with leisure boats. Set against the backdrop of buildings at Norbury Junction, it takes little imagination to envisage how the waterway might have looked during its heyday.
An easy uncomplicated ride along quiet and gently undulating country lanes to the village of Gnosall Heath, where there is a splendid canalside pub. The return is along the canal, often busy with colourful boats plying their way through the Heart of England.