A cruising circuit of contrasts takes us through the heart of Wolverhampton, past the Black Country’s remaining industries, and through lovely wooded countryside on the Staffs & Worcs Canal

There are several popular cruising rings involving the West Midlands’ waterways: the Stourport Ring; the Avon Ring; the new Worcestershire Ring created when the Droitwich Canals reopened. But we’re going to follow a less well-known circuit: a route up the Stourbridge and Dudley Canals, followed by part of the Birmingham Canal Navigations Main Line through Wolverhampton. Then finally we take the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal southwards from Aldersley Junction back to where we started at Stourton Junction.

Our route begins on the Stourbridge Canal, opened in 1779 and then extended by the Dudley Canal to join the Birmingham Canal via Dudley Tunnel. This was completed in 1792 and opened a short-cut from Birmingham to the River Severn via the Staffs & Worcs Canal. It also connected mines in the Dudley coalfield to the thriving glass industry around Stourbridge. The Stourbridge and Dudley canals were once known as ‘The Back of the Map’ by the working boatmen, and being one of the less well-used routes in the West Midlands the Stourbridge Canal eventually fell into disuse during the 1950s. However it was restored and reopened in May 1967 after an enthusiastic campaign led by the Staffs & Worcs Canal Society.

The journey begins at Stourton Junction where the Stourbridge and Staffs & Worcs canals meet in wooded surroundings near the settlement of Stewponey, the name of a former canalside pub.

After negotiating four beautifully situated locks at Stourton, the canal follows an easterly course for two miles in mostly wooded countryside. It is hard to believe you are on the doorstep of the Black Country with all its housing and industry.

Civilisation returns at Wordsley Junction where the main line connects with the mile long Stourbridge Town Arm. We continue along the main line climbing a flight of locks popularly known as the ‘Stourbridge Sixteen’. Alongside this flight is the Redhouse Cone preserved by the former Stuart Crystal glass-making factory and is now a glassworks museum (see inset). By Lock 12 you will see Dadford’s Shed, a former transhipment warehouse now used by a boatyard.

Refreshments can be obtained at The Dock which is an off-licence and shop adjacent to the canal.

Turn sharp right at the top of the locks to continue on the main line. The tempting waterway directly ahead is the short Fens Branch built as a navigable feeder that now leads to nature reserves and assorted ponds.

The Stourbridge Canal continues for two miles following a winding course through the built-up industrial areas of Brierley Hill before concluding its journey at the foot of Delph Locks.

But there’s no obvious junction: the Stourbridge Canal simply ends below the locks where it becomes the Dudley Canal. At first Delph Locks may seem confusing as they are traditionally known as the Nine Locks when a count reveals there are only eight. To add to the confusion the pub at the foot of the flight is called The Tenth Lock. In fact nine locks were built in 1778 when the canal was constructed, but these were reduced to eight in the 1850s when the flight was rebuilt on a slightly different line – and the old name stuck. Traces of the original flight can still be found in the adjacent undergrowth. The locks, once known in full as the Black Delph flight, were so called because of the many collieries in the area.

We are now on the Dudley No 1 Canal (there were two Dudley canals – see below) which amalgamated with the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) system in 1846. Above the locks, the canal passes through the Merry Hill shopping centre built on the former site of the Round Oak Steel Works. After Merry Hill the canal follows a lock-free section for another mile to Blower’s Green Lock, just before Park Head Junction. The lock is overlooked by a blue brick pumping station which in recent times has functioned as a base for the Dudley Canal Trust – and as reported in our news pages has lately been the subject of controversy regarding its proposed sale by the Canal & River Trust.

At the junction, the line leading ahead from the lock leads up to Dudley Tunnel via three Parkhead Locks. But few modern craft will fit through the tunnel (and those which do must be towed by the Dudley Canal Trust’s electric tug, as the tunnel is unventilated), so we will instead take a very sharp right-hand turn to follow what is now the Dudley Number 2 Canal to Windmill End.

The next section around Netherton Hill is green and very pleasant in contrast to the industry that once lined the canal’s banks along here. Windmill End has been the location for several boat rallies and festivals. It has a superb location below the Rowley Hills and is the junction of the Dudley No 2 Canal and the Netherton Tunnel Branch. The entrances to old canal arms (actually fragments of an earlier route before the canal was straightened) are marked by elegant black and white cast-iron roving bridges and the whole scene is overlooked by the remains of Cobbs Engine House. It was built in 1831 and pumped water from neighbouring mines for nearly a century. Proceed straight ahead into Netherton Tunnel which is 3027 yards long, built with twin towpaths and wide enough for boats to pass inside.

Leaving the tunnel at the other end you pass beneath the Tividale Aqueduct which carries the BCN Old Main Line. Shortly afterwards you reach a T-Junction where you turn left onto the BCN New Main Line.

Early canal engineer James Brindley’s winding Old Main Line completed in 1772 had become increasing congested with traffic by the early 19th Century, so Thomas Telford’s New Main Line opened in 1838 as a faster alternative route between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Telford’s straight line engineering reduced the distance between Birmingham and Wolverhampton by seven miles in the last part of a series of improvements which had already seen six locks replaced by the use of deep cuttings and embankments.

Turning left at Dudley Port Junction, the New Main Line follows a dead straight elevated course across Ryland Aqueduct to Tipton where it climbs the three Factory Locks to Tipton Green. Here at Factory Junction, you can take a diversion along the Old Main Line to the Black Country Living Museum (see inset).

After Tipton Green the Main Line canal continues for a mile to the 360 yard long Coseley Tunnel, passing through a pleasant green cutting on its southern approach. The city of Wolverhampton beckons at the other end, and soon you will pass Deepfields Junction, where the truncated former Wednesbury Oak Loop (part of Brindley’s original line) now leads to a dead-end by the Bradley canal workshops. This is a region where foundries and steelworks once lit up the night sky, but things are much more peaceful today as most of the heavy industry has long gone.

Next comes Horseley Fields Junction, where the Wyrley and Essington Canal heads off into the hinterland of the northern BCN.

At this point boaters may wish to sample the delights of Wolverhampton City Centre before tackling the 21 locks on the Wolverhampton flight. Moorings are available above the top lock at Broad Street Basin. The former Broad Street Bridge was dismantled when the ring road was constructed and was rebuilt as an exhibit at the Black Country Living Museum.

The surroundings of the upper locks of the long flight were once heavily industrialised with many large factories, a gas works and a brewery. Most of these have gone but there are still factories and housing alongside the waterway. The 21 locks were once so busy that unemployed men called ‘hobblers’ would help crews by operating the locks for a few pennies. As you descend the locks, the built-up environment including the soaring Oxley railway viaduct is gradually transformed to a more rural aspect with a racecourse close by the canal. The flight ends surrounded by greenery at Aldersley Junction where we turn left on to the Staffs and Worcs Canal, another early route opened in 1772 to link the Midlands to the Severn.
The adjacent racecourse keeps the surroundings pleasantly green as the canal approaches Tettenhall. Despite being so close to the Wolverhampton suburbs, the canal still retains its wooded rural feel. A waterside nature reserve helps to continue this appearance as the canal approaches Compton Lock which marks the end of a ten-mile long summit pound. There are banks, pubs and a supermarket near Compton Bridge as well as a boatyard.

Be sure to stop and visit Wightwick Manor which is a mansion with beautiful gardens now owned by the National Trust not far from Wightwick Lock (see inset).

The last vestiges of Wolverhampton are left behind as the canal heads out into the countryside towards Dimmingsdale, where there is often an interesting collection of old working boats on a short arm near Bridge 53. Open farming countryside accompanies the waterway to The Bratch Locks.

At first glance the three locks at The Bratch look like a staircase (where one lock opens straight into the next one). But look closely and you will see that there is a short pound between each two chambers, connected by a culvert to a ‘side pond’, meaning that they function as individual locks. A detailed notice board explains the complex operation but there is usually a lock-keeper on hand to help confused boaters through the locks. He is based inside the handsome octagonal toll office that overlooks the flight.

The canal becomes more built up as it passes through Wombourne which has two waterside pubs serving food. Then comes Botterham Locks, are a genuine pair of staircase locks with no confusion over operation after experiencing The Bratch.

Swindon used to be the site of extensive canalside ironworks owned by the Baldwin family. One member of that family was Stanley Baldwin who became Britain’s Prime Minister. Now the ironworks have gone and have been replaced by housing. There are shops in the village which is a good place to stop for provisions. Then carry on to Greensforge with its lockside pub. Next comes Ashwood Basin, an arm that was once a railway-connected coal wharf, and now forms a marina and extensive moorings for pleasure craft.

A really beautiful length follows as the canal passes through Rocky and Gothersley Locks both set below wooded red sandstone cliffs. It is hard to believe that this remote place once had a large ironworks marked by a roundhouse built in 1805. The roundhouse remains are now commemorated by a memorial at the Gothersley picnic site.

The final part of the journey continues for two miles through lovely wooded countryside passing Prestwood and eventually returning to Stourton Junction, where we began this circular cruise.

Image(s) provided by:

Derek Pratt