Derwent-Mouth to Fradley

(Northwards From Derwent Mouth)

The Trent & Mersey canal starts (or finishes) at Derwent Mouth Lock, where it is connected by a short channel to the navigable River Trent and the strictly non-navigable Derbyshire Derwent.

Derwent Mouth Lock, just like all of the 6 locks as far as Burton on Trent, was built as a wide lock to allow it to accept Trent barges. This lock is particularly capacious at well over 72 feet in length and is shaded by a large horse chestnut tree. This tree has been threatened with removal at various recent times due, apparently, to its roots undermining the lock structure. Thankfully it still remains and the lock shows no visible sign of damage.

As wide and often very deep locks, the first six locks of the canal do require particular care in operation. The gates can be very reluctant to move and the undertow strong when filling the lock. Obviously it’s much easier if there is another boat with you to share the work and limit the sideways movement of your boat. The best approach is just to be patient, ensure you have a back rope around a bollard when ascending and don’t open the gate paddles until the ground paddles have brought the water up to the level of the cill.

A short distance above the lock brings you past Chapel Farm Marina, through the flood gates that protect the village from the waters of the rivers, and into the historic canal port of Shardlow. So much has been written about Shardlow that it is hardly worth repeating it here, but it is well worth stopping to explore the elegant warehouses and basins that surround the canal and perhaps sample a beer or two in one of the many public houses that vie for your trade. If you want to find out more about the history of Shardlow a visit to the Heritage Centre, which is located in the old salt warehouse just below Shardlow Lock, is an excellent place to start.

Passage through the shallow lock at Shardlow leaves the village centre behind but do ensure you cast a glance at the large house on the towpath side adjacent to the lock. Although long since a private residence this used to be a public house called “The Canal Tavern” and much pleased Tom Rolt when he paid a visit in 1939, his account of the visit is well documented in his book “Narrowboat”.

Once through Aston Lock a further mile and a half brings you to the deep Weston Lock (another lock with a twin further up the canal). There is a handy water point just above the lock if you need a top up. There are excellent quiet rural moorings on offer above the lock. The A50 is now mercifully out of earshot and the views down to the Trent, with the wooded heights of Donnington Park on the far side of the river make for a delightful pastoral scene, although you may still be disturbed with aeroplanes taking off or landing at the nearby East Midlands Airport. If you fancy stretching your legs turn right at the lock and follow the path down to the Trent which will bring you to Kings Mills where the remains of the weir and flash lock can still be seen. The Trent was once navigable as far as Burton although the present day visitor will wonder how it was ever possible given the shallowness and speed of the river hereabouts; it must have been a challenging journey!

To my mind, the three miles between Weston Lock and the next lock at Swarkestone are one of the nicest stretches on the whole canal. The passage through Weston Cliffs is shaded by the many large trees that run along the edge of the cliff and the views on the towpath side and overlooking the river are delightful. There are opportunities for quiet undisturbed moorings all along this stretch, and moorings in the shade of Weston Cliffs are particularly valued in hot weather. The Trent & Mersey Canal Society has installed mooring rings on the stretch just before bridge 11 although you may need to search for them in the towpath vegetation!

On the approach to Swarkestone Lock the eagle eyed visitor will notice a strange twin cupola building in the fields a little way back from the towpath. This is the “Bowl Alley House” and is the last surviving substantial remnant of the long disappeared Swarkestone Hall. Fortunately it was restored in the mid 1980’s and is now let out as holiday accommodation by the Landmark Trust. Prior to its restoration it was prominently featured on the promotion material of the Rolling Stones 1968 “Beggars Banquet” album as well as a later compilation album called “Hot Rocks 1964-71″. The back cover of which show a very youthful looking Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and co reclining along its walls and doorways.

Immediately above Swarkestone Lock the Derby Canal goes off to the right. Long since abandoned, the first few yards are still in water. They are used as moorings by Swarkestone Boat Club, who have restored the old toll cottage as their headquarters. If you are feeling energetic a 25 minute walk along the towpath of the Derby Canal will bring you to the Derby suburb of Shelton Lock, although you should watch out for the cyclists who zip along the path at a fair rate of knots.

Perhaps a more enjoyable circular walk is to be had here by turning right at the lock, crossing the busy road, and walking down to the river via the church. This will bring the Swarkestone causeway into view as it stretches over the Trent flood plain towards Melbourne. A scheduled ancient monument built in the 13th and 14th centuries and totally unsuited for the volume of traffic it now carries, it is famous for being as far South as Bonnie Prince Charlie got during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. You can then re-cross the main road by the Crewe and Harpur pub, walk along Woodshop Lane, cross another busy road and walk down Lowes Lane to rejoin the canal towpath. When walking back along the towpath towards Swarkestone, look out for the spot where the towpath widens. This is where a long since lost short canal branch went off to join the Trent just upstream of Swarkestone Bridge. You can still make out the remains of the entrance lock to the Trent in the garden of the house that adjoins the garden of the Crewe and Harpur.

The next three miles to Stenson Lock, the last of the broad locks, are pleasant but unremarkable. It’s difficult to realise that the suburbs of Derby are just a short distance away to the right as the gently rising ground shields them from view. Immediately above Stenson Lock is the base of Midland Canal Centre with its small marina and workshop facility.

A mile or so further on the village of Findern is reached, although like most villages along this stretch it is well set back from the canal. The former Greyhound public house, hard by the bridge here, has fairly recently been converted into a high class Indian restaurant. The food is recommended but is rather pricey. On the towpath immediately opposite the restaurant is milepost 10. This is one of the Trent & Mersey Canal Society’s replacements and the plaque tells that it was unveiled by Edwina Currie, the then South Derbyshire MP who lived in the village at that time. Of course, they were the days before she achieved real notoriety for the salmonella in eggs scandal and a dalliance with a rather grey ex prime minister. Well, they do say opposites attract!

Shortly after leaving Findern the entrance to the 500+ berth Mercia Marina is on your right although the marina itself is well set back as it occupies the site of a former trout fishing lake on the other side of the Willington to Findern road. The canal then goes under the North Staffs Railway bridge and arrives at the very popular visitor moorings at Willington. It’s easy to see why it is such a popular mooring spot here with shops, pubs and a railway station all a short walk away. It is a noisy spot though with trains rattling along the adjacent Derby to Birmingham railway line every few minutes. If you’re feeling energetic a 20 minute walk from here over the Trent floodplain will bring you to the large village of Repton, ancient capital of Mercia with its elegant church, the spire of which has been visible for several miles from the canal. Repton’s famous public school was used in the original film and TV versions of “Goodbye Mr. Chips”. Former pupils include people as diverse as Roald Dahl, Jeremy Clarkson, Basil Rathbone and three future Archbishops of Canterbury.

On leaving Willington the busy A38 first of all makes itself heard and then seen; it will accompany the canal on and off for the next 10 miles or so, almost as far as Alrewas. The canal then leaves Derbyshire and enters Staffordshire at the Dove Aqueduct a couple of miles past Willington. The canal traveller can’t really appreciate the structure of the solidly built aqueduct that has, in its 200+ year life, successfully resisted some major floods from a river that rises in the Derbyshire Peak District. The adjacent old road bridge can be appreciated against the backdrop of its much more modern and utilitarian successor that carries the A38 over the river immediately behind it.

We are now in the suburbs of Burton on Trent, brewing capital of Britain. The canals passage through Burton is not unpleasant and much of the canalside industry has been demolished and replaced by desirable water-side housing. Horninglow Basin, just before the narrow Dallow Lane Lock marks the end of the line for wide beam craft which must turn here and head back towards the Trent. The basin was greatly truncated by the elevated section of the A38 in the late 1960’s and is difficult to reconcile with photographs showing how it looked prior to the road being built.

Almost immediately above Dallow Lane Lock are Shobnall Fields, the site of two recent IWA national rallies. It’s a pleasant green oasis in an otherwise strictly urban stretch of canal although, sadly, overnight mooring is not recommended unless you have some company.

Shortly after Shobnall Fields a typical hump back canal bridge set in the towpath signifies the entrance to the Bond End Canal which used to link with the Trent in Burton. The short length that remains in water forms Shobnall Marina, with its covered dry dock in what was the first lock on the canal. Continuing past Marston’s brewery the canal then starts to break out into open countryside again although recent industrial developments have made the return to the country a longer journey than it used to be. However, once under the A38 road bridge the vista does start to improve and the shallow Branston Lock sees the canal surrounded again by open fields. This takes the canal to another popular mooring area by Branston Water park. There is a pleasant and flat walk around the lake with abundant wildfowl on the water although the A38 becomes intrusive on the far side. Branston village, just a short walk away, also has a general store, post office, fish and chip shop and Chinese take away. The Bridge Inn by the canal-side does a nice line in Italian food and serves a good pint of Marston’s Pedigree. The fields on the non-towpath side by the bridge here have fairly recently, despite the society’s objections, been earmarked for the development of a sports complex for Burton Rugby Club so enjoy the unspoilt rural views towards Tatenhill whilst you still can.

Shortly after leaving Branston, Tatenhill Lock, with its attractive lock cottage is reached. The canal then passes through an area of gravel workings on one side and paving slab manufacture on the other, hardly the most attractive of surroundings but perhaps better than having the A38 for company which becomes the canal’s fate for a couple of miles between Barton and Wychnor. Just above Barton Lock is the site of Barton Marina with its waterfront development of restaurants and expensive boutique shops and galleries. It’s worth stopping on the visitor moorings by the entrance to have a look around. The art gallery has a good collection of Rolf Harris paintings and the butchers has a vast, if rather expensive, selection of top quality locally produced meat. I can thoroughly recommend the home made meat pies!

Back by the canal, the A38 really makes its presence felt for a couple of miles as HGV’s hurtle by almost alongside the towpath until it mercifully parts company with the canal at Wychnor. Above Wychnor Lock the canal joins forces with the Trent for a mile or so, the main river flow departing over a large but well protected weir at the tail of the lock at Alrewas. The A38 is out of sight, and just about out of earshot now, and this short stretch of river navigation is particularly tranquil. Other than after heavy rain the water is crystal clear and shoals of fish can be easily seen as you cruise by. It is important that boaters observe the clearly displayed signage at either side of the river section and do not attempt to navigate it if the signs tell you not to.

Once through Alrewas Lock the stretch up to Bagnall Lock is the popular mooring area for Alrewas village, so pick your way carefully through the many moored craft. Alrewas is very much a village of two halves; the section around the canal is idyllic with many thatched black and white cottages with immaculate gardens bordering the water. However, a walk along the long main street in the direction of the A38 sees a gradual return to more modern style housing and council housing. Do stop here though if you have the chance, the village has several good pubs and a range of shops and take-aways within walking distance. There is also a not to be missed opportunity to visit the National Memorial Arboretum which is no more than a 20 minute walk from the canal, although it does involve crossing the busy A38. A visit to the arboretum is highly recommended, and surprisingly uplifting as you walk around the many acres of lovingly landscaped tranquil parkland reclaimed from old gravel workings.

Once through Bagnall Lock Alrewas is left behind and CRT’s “honeypot” site of Fradley Junction is a mile or so ahead with just the isolated Common Lock to negotiate before you arrive at the foot of the Fradley flight of five locks. In summer Fradley can be a frenetic place with boats vying for a mooring space, queuing for the water-point or the locks and turning into, or out of, the Coventry Canal whose junction is immediately above the third lock of the flight of five. The ensuing confusion is generally relished by the many gongoozlers who frequent the flight of locks and spill out of “The Swan” hard by the junction to watch the fun.

Despite all of the confusion and chaos that boaters can unwittingly find themselves caught up in it’s still well worth trying to find a mooring spot to soak up the atmosphere of this formerly tranquil location, that is set back a mile or two from the village it takes its name from. The best chance of a mooring is between the second (Keepers) and third (Junction) locks, alongside the lane. Failing that you will have to go through the remaining locks and moor above the top lock (Shade House Lock). It’s much quieter here but the moorings aren’t as good unless you are lucky enough to find a spot on the piled section immediately above the lock. If you have the chance, visit outside of the main holiday season when things are quieter.

David Brewin