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The Ups and Downs of Tardebigge Flight

Visit Worcestershire's famous big wet steps, steeped in economic history.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 295ft (90m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Tow path, pastures, field paths and minor lanes, 21 stiles

Landscape Generally rolling rural scenery, and whole lot of locks

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 204 Worcester & Droitwich Spa

Start/finish SO 974682

Dog friendliness Off-lead on tow path, under control in fields, lots of stiles

Parking Limited space, so park tightly and considerately, on north and east side of road bridge

Public toilets None on route

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1 Cross bridge No 51 and turn left, taking the tow path on the south side. Follow this to a point about 15yds (14m) before the next bridge - No 52.

2 Turn right here, into some trees, then down a field. Cross a double-stiled footbridge among trees then keep straight ahead, over the driveway to Patchetts Farm. Skirt a copse to the left, then another stile and a two-plank bridge. Cross two more fields, keeping a hedge on your left. You will come to a gate on your left, close to a broken oak tree with a substantial girth.

3 Turn right. Within 110yds (100m) go through the gate ahead (no waymarker), ignoring one to the left. Go a quarter right (or skirt the crops) to find a stile. Retain this diagonal to cross a simple footbridge of three planks, then find a rickety, narrow stile in the next field's corner. Walk with the hedge on your left to reach a minor road junction. Turn right for about 55yds (50m). Turn left to walk across three more fields to a dilapidated metal gate. Now take the right-hand field edge to reach a minor road.

4 Turn right. Follow this for ½ mile (800m) to Lower Bentley Farm's driveway. Go 140yds (128m) further, to a fingerpost on the right. Cross pastures by gaps in hedgerows, later with a hedge on your left, but veer to a stile in the right-hand corner at the end. Cross this, then a double stile, go three-quarters left to a road.

5 Turn right, and in 75yds (69m) turn left. Here, beyond a very awkward ditch, is a new kissing gate with a latch. Cross pastures easily towards Orchard Farm, but then turn right, away from it. Over the corner stile go straight ahead. At a double stile (across a ditch) go half left, and at a gap in the hedge turn right. Now turn left without gaining height for 650yds (594m), aiming to the left of a black-and-white house, for a stile and gate. In 80yds (73m) reach a road.

6 Turn right. At the T-junction turn left. Join the canal tow path this side of the Stoke Pound Bridge. (The Queen's Head is on the other side.) Now you have over ¾ mile (1.2km) to return to your car at the road bridge, approximately mid-way up the Tardebigge Flight.

In some respects the British are a nation of slow learners: how often do we hear of a large construction project for which the final bill was vastly in excess of the original projected cost? The canal builders of the 19th century were often not much better. In 1791 an Act of Parliament gave the go-ahead to build the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, setting aside £180,000. It was only in 1815 - 24 years later - that the route to Worcester was available to commercial traffic, and the sum that had been spent was a whopping £610,000. It seems that cost projections were invariably optimistic, rather than realistic. Even at that price, the project had been scaled down, literally, for the plan to take the larger barges that plied the Severn was abandoned.

The Tardebigge Flight was just one of the challenges of constructing the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. The tally of locks along the 16-mile (25.7km) stretch between Tardebigge and Worcester is 56. Add to that five tunnels and several reservoirs, some of which the canal builders were obliged to provide for mill owners along rivers affected by the canal, and it is not only the locks that escalate!

The Worcester and Birmingham Canal benefited from the discovery of salt at Stoke Prior in 1825 - the salt works were built around the canal shortly after. The works are still clearly visible on the suggested map; note in particular the 'Reservoir (brine)' at grid ref SO 947664. This was the works that John Corbett purchased in 1845.

While he must take the credit for the subsequent pre-eminence of his factory there, he must have been assisted by the competition between canal and railway. The Birmingham and Gloucester Railway had opened in 1841, and in 1851 another line followed: the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway.

Back in 1771, long before the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was conceived, James Brindley had engineered the broad-beamed Droitwich Barge Canal, right into the town's salt production centre. It ran for 5¾ miles (9.2km) to the River Severn, taking salt down and bringing coal up. Perhaps as a response to the railway threat, this 'cul-de-sac' was opened up in 1853 by cutting a mere 1½ mile (2.4km) narrow-beamed channel from the centre of Droitwich to Hanbury Wharf, joining the Droitwich Barge Canal with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal - the so-called Droitwich Junction Canal. Transportation of salt by canal ceased in 1914.

Even if you are not a canal-boat lover, the Tardebigge Flight is a memorable spectacle - it just goes on and on, with a total of 30 locks within 2 miles (3.2km).

What to look for

Repeated wetting and drying takes its toll on the lock gates - they are being constantly replaced. Each has a metal plate showing when and where it was crafted. Which is the newest gate you can see? And how many different types of animal have you seen in one field? In the pasture leading down from Stoke Court to the canal I could see 100 or so sheep, five horses and two cameloids (llamas or alpacas? - too distant to determine).

Where to eat and drink

At Stoke Pound Bridge is the Queen's Head, where you can enjoy a canalside beer garden. It has a restaurant as well as a bar menu (baguettes and hot snacks). Children are welcome. On Walk 4 is Tyler's Lock on the Water. It was originally built as an engine house. In conjunction with the Tardebigge Reservoir, it controlled the lock system's water levels. Now a Banks's pub, you can eat in the bar, restaurant or garden. It also serves tea, coffee and cakes.

While you're there

Conceptually the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings is unique - a collection of historic structures dismantled and reassembled in one place. Perhaps a 'dry' topic, but lots of effort has been put in to making it a family-friendly trip. At Stoke Prior is St Michael's Church, much of it 800 years old. It was here that, in 1901, John Corbett was buried.

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