A short walk taking in one of the last great engineering feats of the canal-building era.
Distance 2.7 miles (4.4km)
Minimum time 1hr
Ascent/gradient 75ft (23m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Roads, dirt tracks and canal tow paths
Landscape Farmland, woodland and canal
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 243 Market Drayton
Start/finish SJ 793229
Dog friendliness Keep on lead on road
Parking Limited road parking near start point
Public toilets None on route
1 From the car park at the Junction Inn, head over the canal and bear right, following the road towards Gnosall. At the point where the road heads sharp right under the canal, go straight on up the wide gravel track that's signed for the Shelmore Trout Fishery. When this track veers right into Shelmore Wood, keep going straight along the edge of the wood, shortly coming to a gap in a high, tree-dotted hedge.
2 Go through this gap on to a tree-lined dirt path with conifers on the left and deciduous woodland on your right. As the path becomes a concrete track opposite Norbury Park Farm, carry on along the edge of the wood as far as the Gnosall road. Head hard right down a short hill. At the bottom beware of cars as you walk through the tunnel (if you happen to be there when a car drives through, the noise is extraordinary).
3 Go left over a stile and up some steps to the canal. At the top turn left to get back to the start point.
The Shropshire Union Canal, or 'Shroppie' as it's affectionately known, runs from the edge of Wolverhampton to the Mersey at Ellesmere Port, north of Chester, a distance of about 60 miles (96km). The canal is named after the union responsible for it, which was an amalgamation of a number of local canal companies.
In fact, the canal almost never got built. The Shropshire Union was originally formed with the intention of constructing railways using canal foundations, as it was believed - quite rightly as it happened - that railways were a viable alternative to canals. In the event, however, resistance to railways in Wales meant a canal was built using railway foundations, or to be more precise, the foundations of railway engineering techniques. Instead of following a river, the canal took a more direct route across country, through cuttings and on embankments, ostensibly to shorten journey times. These were major undertakings, as it was considerably more difficult to raise a wide water-tight channel 60ft (18m) above the adjoining area than it was to lay a railway line in the same place.
One embankment on the Shroppie was so problematic that it nearly scuppered the entire scheme, and it wasn't even strictly necessary. Local landowner Lord Anson refused permission for the canal to pass through his estate because he wanted to keep it unmolested for pheasant shooting, so it had to be diverted. This involved building a vast embankment over a mile (1.6km) long and 60ft (18m) higher than the surrounds.
The man responsible for this embankment, and indeed the rest of the canal, was Thomas Telford. Today Telford is remembered more as a bridge engineer than a canal builder, counting the Menai Suspension Bridge (then the longest in the world) among his many achievements. But the Shelmore Embankment caused him more than its fair share of problems. As well as moving millions of tons of earth from the 100ft (30m) cutting at nearby Woodseaves to build it, he had to cope with collapse after collapse. In all it took six years to build the embankment alone and it was only made sound in 1835, a year after Telford's death.
The Shroppie was the last great canal to be built in Britain, but despite the increasing popularity of railways as a means of transporting raw materials and goods, it remained in use until World War One. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, a chocolate maker by the name of Cadbury used it to pick up milk from farms between Norbury Junction and his factory at Knighton. Farmers would leave churns at collecting points along the tow path which would then be collected and returned as empties at the end of the day.
The Junction Inn is a welcoming pub on the bank of the canal, serving bar snacks and main meals at very reasonable prices. The seats are a bit threadbare, but the walls are adorned with canal-related memorabilia and, tucked into an alcove on the left just as you go in, you may find a very odd painting indeed; no-one could explain it when I was there, but I suspect it has a story to tell?
Anglo-Welsh Waterways Holidays have a base at Norbury Junction, opposite the pub, and on summer Sundays and bank holidays they run twice daily boat trips along the canal. The Izaac Walton Cottage, 6 miles (9.7km) north east, is also worth a visit. Walton was the author of The Compleat Angler (1653), the popular, and enduring, fishing book. The 17th-century cottage is now a museum to his life and work. It includes a first edition of his book and is open from April to October, 11am-4:30pm.
Along the edge of Shelmore Wood you might spot what look like street lamp covers lining the path; these are in fact pheasant-feeders, designed to keep the seed dry. The pheasants are hand-reared, and in winter their grain is placed in woods, where the pheasants find protection from the elements, while in spring and summer you may find feed hoppers just at the edge of the woods where the cocks establish their territories to attract the hens.