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The Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal runs for just 25 miles from the Birmingham suburbs to the River Avon in Stratford on Avon. There are 54 locks. Although the canal is fairly short it goes through some enchanting countryside in the very Heart of England, cutting through the Forest of Arden with its ancient oaks, and falling gently across quiet rolling countryside and watermeadows to the Avon and Stratford. The area has numerous Shakespearean links. Although the canal initially prospered it suffered badly from railway competition. The lower section from Lapworth to Stratford became almost disused early in this century and was almost closed in the 1950's. However there was a campaign to restore it for pleasure boating and it was taken over in 1960 by the National Trust. It was reopened after restoration work, much of it by volunteer labour, in 1964.
This success gave impetus to many other restoration schemes and greatly increased interest in the use of canals for pleasure cruising. Once it leaves the Birmingham suburbs the canal passes through nothing other than small villages until it reaches Stratford. The delightfully named neighbouring Warwickshire villages of Preston Baggot, Wootton Wawen and Wilmcote are all attractive with old houses, churches, inns and Halls or Manors. Lapworth is an interesting canal junction where a short spur connects to the Grand Union Canal which runs parallel close by. The final descent through the Stratford suburbs is uninspiring until you pass under a low bridge and come out amongst hordes of visitors in Stratford Basin, alongside the River Avon and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
The canal has one tunnel at Brandwood near King's Norton Junction where it leaves the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. It has three interesting aqueducts with cast iron troughs, the largest at Bearley (or Edstone) near Wootton Wawen. There are unusual barrel-roofed lock cottages along the canal. Stratford Basin is right in the visitor heart of Stratford Upon Avon.
The Trent and Mersey Canal begins, as you would expect, within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finishes in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire. It is just over ninety miles long. It is one of the earliest canals, built by James Brindley, with much of historical interest, passing through some pleasant countryside. It struggles from the Cheshire plains up thirty one locks, often called Heartbreak Hill, to cut beneath Harecastle Hill in a spooky and watery tunnel one and three quarter miles long. It passes through the industry of the Staffordshire Potteries out into rural Staffordshire and then Derbyshire.
Shardlow, near the River Trent, is one of England's best preserved canal towns. Josiah Wedgwood was involved in getting the canal built and the Wedgwood factory and museum are canalside just south of Stoke on Trent. The canal is known for its tunnels, at Harecastle, Barnton, Saltersford and Preston Brook. Saltersford has a kink because tunneling started at different points and didn't quite meet in the middle! Preston Brook has a large central chamber where a collapse was repaired, and cruising through the pitch dark confines of Harecastle tunnel is an experience nobody forgets! Anderton lift carried narrowboats down to the River Weaver near Northwich.
The Worcester and Birmingham canal links the two cities, built to connect the River Severn in Worcester to the Birmingham Canal System via a quicker route than the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. At first, because of opposition from other canals, there was no direct connection in Birmingham, the last few feet of canal in Birmingham were left uncompleted. These days the ring formed by the two canals and the river makes a popular two weeks holiday route. The canal travels through some very pleasant countryside, climbing from the Severn through rolling fields and wooded cuttings and slicing through a hilly ridge south of Birmingham.