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A WINTER WALKING TRAIL ALONG THE STRATFORD CANAL

The walkers, who now departed from platform two at the station near the famous Cadbury World chocolate factory, did not travel to Birmingham by train, but instead exited a convenient side gate and walked along the canal’s towpath to historic Stratford-upon-Avon!

But first, early on that cold and gray January morning, my walking companion and poet Peter Gibbs and I took a brisk twenty-minute walk along the Birmingham and Worcester Canal to its green Kings Norton junction with the Stratford Canal.

This waterway, with its fifty-six locks that lower the canal some three hundred feet on its twenty-five-mile passage to Stratford, was built between 1793 and 1816.

Its original purpose was to transport coal from the River Severn to Birmingham, but today it is a magnet for thousands of narrowboat enthusiasts who flock to Shakespeare’s Stratford.

A stroll through England’s amazing canal system is always full of surprises and today was no exception when we suddenly stumbled upon a guillotine lock, the first we had ever seen.

We were told their purpose was to keep the water level between the two waterways, but the truth, according to a casual passing local, was to stop the Birmingham and Worcester canal owners from pilfering water from their rivals who run the waterway from Stratford operated.

Now we were nearing the deep wooded cut that led to the 1,000-foot Brandwood Tunnel, wide enough for two narrow boats but with no towpath for walkers.

In the past, barges were pulled by hand over a rail embedded in the tunnel lining, while their horses were led over the top.

So we dove into the suburbs with Shank’s pony, devoid of any sign of that long-gone old-time horse trail, and even a local dog-walker had no idea which way to go!

But following roughly the line of the tunnel to a road junction, we crossed the road and then noticed a footpath leading down a slope beside a row of houses, and yes we had found the remains of that long-lost trail!

We couldn’t imagine why the municipal administration had never thought of providing the many thousands of hikers with a few simple signposts.

We gradually made our way into the open country, but not before getting an urban shock from what was known in Dickens Heath as a 21st-century village.

Not long after we left the canal at bridge 19 for lunch at the nearby Blue Bell Inn before passing under the busy M42 and later turning onto a track to walk to Hockley Heath where we were staying at the Premier Inn.

Early the next morning we walked back into the village center to get sandwiches from the co-op but then went around in circles trying to find our way back onto the towpath only to find it passed a pub- parking lot was .

About thirteen miles before our next overnight stop, and having already wasted precious time, we picked up the pace to flee the West Midlands for Warwickshire, and were soon approaching the Lapworth River from twenty-five locks, all within two miles.

Now and then we had spotted small metal posts marking the distance traveled from Kings Norton Junction, erected by the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal Society; Formed in 1953 to fully restore and reopen all shipping from Lapworth to Stratford.

The completion of this daunting task was celebrated in 1964 when HM the Queen Mother performed the reopening ceremony.

Here at the Lapworth flight we noticed that all the canal bridges had a slot down the middle which we were told was to accommodate the ropes needed in those days when horses provided all the pulling power of the barges.

Shortly thereafter we reached the Kingswood junction with a connecting arm of the mighty Grand Union Canal which we had followed 137 miles from London to Birmingham on a previous winter walking adventure.

As we continued through open country we happened to bump into Solihull Ramblers members Tracey Harvey, Pauline Elliker, Carole Owen and Lin Sheridan, who are all extremely keen hikers, so of course we stopped for a chat and an impromptu photo op.

Talking to the people we meet along the way is part of the fun of our cross-country treks.

Another unusual feature of this particular canal walk were the distinctive barrel-roofed cottages painted white, for which the canal builders had used the same timber frames as the small canal bridges.

At lock thirty-four, known as Bucket Lock, in memory of an elderly lady who once drew water there, we met current occupier Paul Higginbotham, who surprisingly now has a microbrewery on the site.

Now the hitherto rather limited views began to open up as the canal shook off the last remnants of the old growth Arden forest to empty into the Alne valley and rides some six miles short of the spectacular 158 yard iron Bearley Aqueduct in end of sight.

We stayed in the village of Wilmcote, which is now a destination for Stratford sightseeing buses because Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, had a farm here.

Unfortunately our hosts were not serving food at the time in the inn named after the famous lady, but they were more than happy for us to order take away and have our evening meal in the bar.

Just as it was getting light we made the last three miles to Stratford in time for breakfast… but not for the first time!

Because we had stayed in town before embarking on the 123-mile Shakespeare Way National Trail, which fittingly ends at the legendary Globe Theater next to the Thames.

Then, a few years ago, it was a stop on the 92-mile Shakespeare Avon Way, which meanders from Naseby, Northamptonshire, through Leicestershire and Warwickshire, ending in Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

But excuse this walk and get back to the current walk. We started by staying at the very conveniently located Old Farm Hotel which is just down the road from this train station.

Pearson’s channel companion to the South Midlands is a must for anyone wanting to follow in our footsteps.

Peter writes poems about our many hiking and travel adventures and his book Let the good rhymes roll is now available on Amazon.



A WINTER WALKING TRAIL ALONG THE STRATFORD CANAL

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