With the West Coast Main Line blockaded for upgrading, I abandoned my usual entry/exit point of Crewe in favour of Stent’s magnificent station and square at Stoke-on-Trent, now beautifully restored by Railtrack & Virgin Trains. As a result, I have been able to "explore" the Trent & Mersey Canal from the comfortable seat of a "Pendolino". Ten years ago the towpath was a bumpy, muddy affair, not really conducive to a fast transit of the city. Today, the towpath has been transformed with a well rolled "chatter" surface at least as far as Barlaston and a recent walk home from Kidsgrove showed that the same treatment had been accorded to the towpath down as far as Lawton Church. – it was time to try again.

A recent sunny weekend seemed eminently suitable for the exploration; Rob was down with something pretty nasty but Pete & Stu were raring to go, motoring down to my house on the morning. Mugs of coffee later, we set out across the estate down to the primary school, turning up the claustrophobic footpath to emerge through the hedge onto the towpath a couple of locks up the Lawton Flight above Snape’s Aqueduct. The old towpath here is good, climbing past further locks to the church where the new construction starts. Ducking low, we passed under the A50 and onto the raised, open stretch up to Red Bull, enjoying the open views across Scholar Green to the pyramid of Mow Cop. Big, fluffy, white clouds in a bright blue sky and trees in full summer livery merely added to the promise of a good day ahead.

Another low stoop and we were under the A34, past the sewage works and passing under the canal "flyover" to the Macclesfield Canal – the junction with the T&M is a little to the north at Hall Green. Soon we were at Kidsgrove Station with its plethora of bridges and facing a huge brick retaining wall – the north portals of the Harecastle Tunnels.

To a transport engineer, the Harecastle ridge is a formidable obstacle, standing astride the natural route from the north into the Six Towns and stretching for considerable distances in both directions. Going round it is not much of an option, but it is (was, at any rate), full of exploitable coal seams. So the canal went through it.

The Six Towns of The Potteries, (Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Longton and Fenton), each sits on its own hill on one side or the other of Fowlea Brook and the valley of Fowlea Brook is the natural transport route southward once the Harecastle Ridge has been passed. Transport around the Six Towns and out of the area during the 18th Century was particularly difficult with steep hills over tracks made largely through clay subsoils – wheeled transport was almost impossible and the district was forced to rely on pack mules – a very unsatisfactory arrangement. It has been recorded that local potters, short of basic materials, would often remove the road outside their workshops to make up the difference!! And so, in about 1760 a most unlikely man stepped forward to try to resolve the problem.

Josiah Wedgwood is, of course, much admired for his blue-and-white china and for many other developments in the production of fine chinaware. For me however, his greatest work was the conception, funding and construction of the Trent & Mersey Canal, stretching from the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook to the Trent Navigation at Shardlow. Remember, that at that time, no all-weather roads had been built since the Romans retired back to the sunshine, no real railways had been constructed and the only artificial transport canal was the Bridgewater. And here was an artistic potter planning to build 93 miles of waterway with 75 locks from one coast to another across country not at all friendly to such notions. I reckon he were either bloody far-sighted or just plain daft, but what a legacy!

The only man available who had any experience of such works (on the Bridgewater) was a Leek mill-wright, James Brindley, a man who could neither draw nor even write. He took Clough Hall, sitting on the Harecastle Ridge, where he built a miniature lock in order to understand the principles by which it functioned (the original Bridgewater was a one-level waterway). Nevertheless, he set out to do the job and in doing so, to build the 2880-yard tunnel under his new home. His tunnel still exists (it’s the one on the right, with the grating over the entrance) but today it is no longer navigable because of distortions caused by ground movement. The left-hand tunnel was built by Thomas Telford, better known as a road engineer, in the 1820’s. Boats were once pulled through this bore by an electric tug taking its power from an overhead trolley-wire like a tram!

There has never been a towpath through either tunnel; horses were released at the portal and the boats "legged" through by their crews lying on their backs and "walking" upside down along the roof of the tunnel. And, like the horses, we had to rise up to the real world, cross the main road and follow the Boathorse Road over the ridge to the southern portal. In recent years, the northern part of this road has been made up, weather-proofed and graced with a nice little housing estate on one side. Further up, the road climbs steeply past The Rifleman to the top of the ridge, now in full countryside, where it turns sharp left down about 200 metres of earth track, reaching the seal again through the traveller’s campsite and falling rapidly down to the Tunstall road. A quick left and right down a hard but unsealed path brought us down to the southern portals where Pete’s charm failed miserably to extract a pot of tea from one of the waiting boats!

Taking to the towpath again, we found the new surface smooth and fast although there were a couple of places where more serious understructure works were still wanting – no problems this day but not ones to meet on a dark, wet winter’s night. This stretch, under the new Tunstall relief road, was once covered with railway sidings and appalling industrial tack, but no longer – it’s now a real haven for vegetation and its associated wildlife. The attractive Westport Lake appeared on the right – set in woodland and grassy banks and a home to hundreds of ducks, geese and swans, it is difficult to believe that less than twenty years ago this now popular park was one of the most poisonous stretches of water in Europe. It is said that even today, it is unwise to stir up the bottom for fear of what might be released.

The canal now meandered through Middleport, copious summer vegetation alternating with old and new industrial premises, mostly in a decent state of repair and certainly not unattractive, until we arrived at the home of "The Sentinel" and the Etruria Road just before noon. Frustration again, a pub about to open but hundreds waiting for the "off"!! We moved on.

On the other side of the Etruria Road, the towpath swarmed with "Potters" strolling down to the Etruria Bone & Flint Mill to join in "a bit of a do". It is here that one of Stoke-on-Trent’s other canals, the Caldon, turns off for Leek and Froghall (and once-upon-a-time, Uttoxeter) – but that’s another story. At the bottom of the junction lock, we remounted, rode past the huge Hanley Cemetery and up to the works involved in diverting the canal to accommodate the modifications currently being made to the A500. A quick trundle through the Station Square and we were soon back on the towpath and pedalling south again.

After the magnificent incinerator at Sideway and Stoke City’s football ground, the surroundings became thoroughly rural passing behind occasional small, neat housing estates. Under the Longton road and past Trentham, a footbridge across the canal advised that sandwiches were available a couple of miles distant. And so we came to the Plume of Feathers at Barlaston for a not-altogether-memorable lunch.

That over, we deserted the canal, zig-zagging across the A34 up the hill past Tittensor Common onto a very quiet A51, cutting the corner to Beech where a sealed road turns off and soon degenerates into a decent path through the woods to Swynnerton Old Park. Turning left, we freewheeled down the lovely lane to Stableford Bridge, turning right for Whitmore (café now sadly gone), up the long drag to Keele and a refreshing pint at the Sneyd Arms. Students’ taste in "music" hasn’t improved with the passing of the years.

Our route home took us over Alsager’s Bank, Stu heeding the warning to stay behind until we turned for Miles Green (or he could find his own way back!). Here we took to the cycleway over the "Knotty’s" Audley branch which tipped us into the real world at Butters Green. More small roads brought us back to Lawton again, more coffee and, for Pete and Stu, the drive back home.

A satisfying day. For all three of us there had been new roads, roads not used very often and roads not used for a long time. The towpath along the Trent & Mersey Canal can now be regarded as a real alternative for the crossing of the City (not the easiest place to get either through or round by bike), certainly for the summer and also for most of the Spring & Autumn. Riding along, it is difficult to believe that you are passing through an area that was once one of the most disfigured, filthy and polluted in Europe and still reviled (unjustly) by the media today. The City of Stoke-on-Trent and British Waterways have done a fine job.

[A British Waterways permit is required in order to cycle on the Trent & Mersey towpath. Details are given on the City’s cycleway map which can be obtained from George Longstaff’s shop and probably also at Brian Rourke’s and Roy Swynnerton’s – map and permit are both FREE]

David Cain